June 24, 2024 

After instability in her WNBA career, Mystics’ Emily Engstler finds her ‘magic’ in a weekend back-to-back

Engstler’s career performances came at exactly the right time for shorthanded Mystics

WASHINGTON — Entering two weekend games against the Dallas Wings, Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson was shooting 45% from 3-point range on more than four attempts per game. It’s become a stat to track for her teammates, who know her percentage and often comment on it in practices.

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“I said to her the other day, I was like, ‘Give me some of the magic!’” third-year forward Emily Engstler told The Next before Saturday’s game. “Like, ‘I want to make some threes, man! What’s your secret?’”

Whatever Dolson’s magic was, the 6’1 Engstler bottled it up and unleashed it over the weekend. She had previously made only one of seven 3-point attempts this season and was averaging just 2.4 points per game, but she hit three of four on Saturday en route to a career-high 23 points. She followed that up on Sunday with 13 points on 3-for-3 shooting from behind the arc.

Engstler’s offense was huge for a Mystics team that was missing two post players against one of the tallest teams in the WNBA, yet swept Dallas by a total of 36 points. Her emergence gives the Mystics another versatile scoring threat — and shows how their player development can pay off, even as the team has just a 4-13 record.

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Engstler has had a winding WNBA career despite being the No. 4 overall pick in 2022. She played 18.2 minutes per game for the Indiana Fever as a rookie, averaging 5.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, but was waived in April 2023 as the Fever faced a roster crunch. The Mystics signed her, but she was their last cut in training camp. She later played 12 games for the Minnesota Lynx that season on short-term contracts.

In February, the Mystics signed her to another training camp contract. This time, she made the roster, but the instability had affected her.

“The WNBA is tricky. I don’t know what’s gonna happen next year. I don’t know what’s gonna happen the year after that,” Engstler told reporters on June 6. “So I’m never really ready to put my roots into anywhere. … You just kind of never know what’s gonna happen. But I’m grateful for where I am, and I’m glad that they’ve given me the chance to be comfortable and stable right now.”

It took Engstler some time to get comfortable on a new team and with being back in the WNBA for a full season. She was initially buried on the Mystics’ bench, only appearing in two of the first eight games. After she impressed the coaching staff with her rebounding at a shootaround on June 6, though, her minutes slowly climbed. Lately, by her own admission, she’s played harder and better in practices, and it’s built her confidence.  

“She was getting more offensive boards. … Once I [was] sort of seeing her do that in shootarounds and practices and optional shoots, I was like, OK, she’s getting a little bit more comfortable,” wing DiDi Richards told The Next after Saturday’s game. “And she does a lot of things, like her little head fake and drive right. She started doing that in practice, [and] I was like, Oh, she’s feeling comfortable.

“So I think it’s just about getting comfortable within your organization and then it kind of translates.”

To Richards’ point, Engstler’s scoring has started to emerge recently, including with seven points against the Fever on Wednesday. But she took it to another level this weekend: Saturday’s 23 points came on 7-for-11 shooting in just over 25 minutes, and her 13 points on Sunday were similarly efficient, on 5-for-7 shooting in 21:32.

“She’s made hustle plays and stuff for us, but there’s more to her game than that,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters after Saturday’s game. “… So it was just kind of a matter of time before she made some shots, and we wanted to take advantage of that, too. So I love that she came in the game aggressive and ready to let it fly.”

Washington Mystics forward Emily Engstler shoots a right-handed jump shot. She is shown in profile, and no defenders are visible in the frame.
Washington Mystics forward Emily Engstler shoots during a game against the Dallas Wings at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

On Saturday, Engstler entered the game with 7:23 left in the first quarter and promptly went to work. She hit a 3-pointer just 15 seconds into her night and soon added two free throws and a transition layup. The latter prompted Dallas head coach Latricia Trammell to call timeout.

But the stoppage didn’t slow Engstler, as she drained her second 3-pointer less than a minute later. Her 10 points in the first quarter were already the fifth-highest single-game total of her career to that point.

In the second quarter, she hit another 3-pointer and a driving layup in under 30 seconds, giving her 15 points at halftime. That was only three points shy of her previous career high from her rookie season.

Richards had urged Engstler before the game to look for her shot and not hesitate, so when Engstler scorched the nets in the first half, Richards was particularly excited. After the first half ended, before the teams went back to their locker rooms, Richards chest bumped Engstler and pointed her index finger into Engstler’s chest.

“That’s what I’m mother-effing talking about!” Richards said she told Engstler, censoring the curse words she used. “You are that mother-effing one!”

(“I don’t really curse like that,” Richards added. “But I had to.”)

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Engstler eclipsed her career high in the final seconds of the third quarter. Guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough missed a 3-pointer, but Engstler got the offensive rebound and made a layup with 1.2 seconds left.

She finished with nine rebounds, to the chagrin of teammates who wanted her to get a double-double. Three of those rebounds came on the offensive end, where she is known for being tough to box out because of her strength, anticipation and relentlessness.

“She’s always going for it,” Wings center Kalani Brown, who played with Engstler in Athletes Unlimited during the offseason, told The Next before Sunday’s game. “… If someone’s hounding you every single time to go to the offensive boards, that tires you out. … She has a nose for the ball. Her hands are always on the ball some way, somehow.”

Engstler has also worked to become a better defensive rebounder. She said before Saturday’s game that she “never really boxed out properly” in college, instead relying on her length and height. But “these last seven or eight games, I’ve caught myself really putting a body on people.”

She finished with four rebounds on Sunday, three of them defensive. Across the two games, she added five assists and four steals, and the Mystics outscored the Wings by a combined 26 points when she was on the court.

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Defensively, Engstler also played a big role in neutralizing Dallas’ size. With starting center/forward Shakira Austin and rookie forward Aaliyah Edwards injured, the Mystics had just three true forwards available over the weekend: Engstler, the 6’5 Dolson and 6’1 Myisha Hines-Allen. They also played the 6’2 Richards at power forward at times.

In contrast, Dallas had three available players who are 6’6 or taller in Brown, Teaira McCowan and Stephanie Soares, plus three others who are at least 6’2. Entering Saturday, the Wings ranked second in the WNBA in paint points at 41.3 per game — a number that jumped to 52.7 per game in their three wins this season.

“One of the things that we always establish, and we establish it early, is our inside game,” Trammell told reporters before Saturday’s game. “We’ve always done that, especially having … two 6’7 players. … Establishing our inside game is always a must.”

But the Mystics improbably outscored the Wings in the paint in both games by a total of 14 points. The Mystics staff emphasized the need to match the Wings’ physicality, have everyone rebound, and help in the paint, and the players did those things over and over again. They got away from the plan in the first half on Sunday and trailed by 10, but when they recommitted to it, they made a comeback.

“They’re not just taller, they’re strong,” Engstler said about the Wings frontcourt before Saturday’s game. “So … if you sit behind a really strong, tall player, it leads you to be getting pushed underneath the basket for a layup. If you stay on top of them, it’s a lob over on top. So I feel like they have an advantage in every aspect, and the only real way to [counter] that advantage is to help each other, whether that’s a trap or a double or a fake and poke.”

The Mystics’ bigs pushed the Wings up the floor and prevented them from establishing deep post position. Several of Engstler’s steals across the two games came on entry passes to the Dallas bigs at the elbow, and the Mystics guards were also ready to strip the ball or simply fluster the Wings inside.

The Mystics also put extra pressure on Dallas’ bigs on the other end by having the forwards bring the ball up and initiate the offense. The ensuing ball movement often led to threes for Engstler and Dolson, who combined for 12 across the two games.

With Dallas’ size not having the offensive advantage Trammell had hoped for and with Engstler and Dolson raining 3-pointers, Trammell benched her tallest players on Sunday in favor of smaller ones who could defend better on the perimeter. On Sunday, McCowan and Brown combined for less than 17 minutes, while 6’4 Monique Billings and 6’2 Natasha Howard got about 60.

That helped the Wings keep Sunday’s game closer than Saturday’s — but ultimately, Engstler was a difference-maker on both nights.

Dallas Wings forward Natasha Howard is a half-step in front of Washington Mystics forward Emily Engstler and reaches her right arm out to box out Engstler. Both players look up, watching the flight of the ball.
Washington Mystics forward Emily Engstler (left) battles for position with Dallas Wings forward Natasha Howard (6) during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“It feels good,” Engstler said about her shooting after Sunday’s game. “There’s gonna be days where it doesn’t fall the same way. But you just got to shoot when you’re open, and when you’re not, make the right read, and right now it’s going in, so that’s good. I’m happy.”

Her teammates were happy, too, to see her shine after her hard work in practices and other workouts. Immediately after Saturday’s game, Samuelson wrapped an arm around Engstler.

“I think I said, ‘You dog!’” Samuelson later told reporters with a laugh. “… You’ve seen it in back-to-back-to-back games leading up to this game, the spark that she’s brought in whatever minutes she got. … And she literally did it the whole game. So: ‘You dog!’”

None of the players expressed surprise at Engstler’s breakout performances. Instead, they echoed Hines-Allen, who told The Next before Sunday’s game, “I’ve seen it before. We all seen it before, and it was just a matter of time. She got her opportunity. She was ready for it. And she played her game.”

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Late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, with Engstler’s breakout on full display, the Mystics even played her highlights on the videoboard alongside a message encouraging fans to vote for her as a WNBA All-Star.

She’s not quite there yet, but the Mystics see these two games as just the beginning for Engstler, who is still only 24 years old. When Thibault was asked on Sunday what he wants her to carry forward from her strong performances, he said, “Just confidence. … Confidence in her shooting. …

“She’s a player that’s in a part of her career that this should be a major growth portion of her career. So she just [has] to stay on that mindset.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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