May 18, 2024 

Brimming with confidence and ‘European flash,’ Mystics’ Julie Vanloo introduces herself to the WNBA

How the 31-year-old Belgian rookie finally realized her WNBA dream

WASHINGTON — Belgian guard Julie Vanloo had heard from her agent this winter that the Washington Mystics were interested in signing her. But she’d had WNBA interest before that never quite turned into a contract, so she was hesitant to get her hopes too high.

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Then her teammate on the Turkish team Galatasaray, longtime Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen, told her, “No, Julie, it’s for real. You can start thinking about it. You’re coming with me to D.C.”

“She started crying, and I did a little tear, too,” Hines-Allen told reporters at the Mystics’ preseason media day. “… It was definitely a soft moment. And I think it was right before a game, too, so it got awkward. But we got right back to it, and we won that game.”

At age 31, Vanloo is in her first WNBA season, fulfilling a longtime dream of hers. The United States is the 10th country she has played in at the club level since 2012. She has also played for the Belgian senior national team since 2009, appearing in the 2020 Olympics and the 2022 World Cup and helping the Cats win their first-ever EuroBasket championship in 2023.

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A 5’8 guard, Vanloo can play the point or slide to shooting guard. She shot 38.1% from 3-point range in 31 games in Turkey this winter, but she particularly loves passing the ball. Fellow Mystics point guard Brittney Sykes describes her as “European flash,” comparing her to former No. 2 overall NBA draft pick Jay Williams and four-time Spanish Olympian Laia Palau.

Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who played against Vanloo with Galatasaray and also several years ago in Hungary, told The Next she’d long been familiar with Vanloo’s game. “It’s hard to play in Europe and not hear the name Julie Vanloo,” Walker-Kimbrough said, “especially with the Belgian national team. … They’re superstars in Europe. They run things over there.”

Hines-Allen, too, knew of Vanloo before they became teammates in Turkey. Over the years, Vanloo happened to join a few European teams that Hines-Allen had previously played for. So when Hines-Allen checked on her former clubs — or her former Mystics teammate, Belgian superstar Emma Meesseman — she saw Vanloo, often throwing one-handed passes.

“[I] knew her passes were crazy. She plays with a lot of swag,” Hines-Allen told The Next. “She’s just a phenomenal point guard.”

Washington Mystics guard Julie Vanloo has her eyes up as she dribbles the ball on the perimeter with her right hand.
Washington Mystics guard Julie Vanloo (35) dribbles the ball on the perimeter during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Despite Vanloo’s talent, her path to the WNBA was far from obvious. She dreamed about it, but it didn’t seem close enough to be a goal, especially as those around her — including her agents — told her she wasn’t good enough.

“I … put it in a box, you know?” Vanloo told The Next. “And I just kept on dreaming about it, but I didn’t really say it out loud.”

Eventually she changed agents, and her new representation at The FAM Agency told her that the WNBA could and should be a goal of hers. Emboldened, she started to talk about making the WNBA, and she worked even harder to improve. Most of all, she gradually got more consistent in her performances, which only bolstered her confidence.

A turning point came when she joined the French team Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomeration (BLMA) for the 2022-23 season. She clicked with head coach Valery Demory, who also coached the Belgian Cats for a few years, and developed as a point guard and a leader.

“It was a transformation from being a talent to really a consistent, good player,” Vanloo said. “And … I found myself. And I felt so appreciated and I felt so loved, and they are a big reason why I’m here [in Washington].”

Around that time, Vanloo also started to play more for Belgium. In the 2020 Olympics, she averaged 12.9 minutes per game for then-head coach Philip Mestdagh. That jumped to 24.0 at the 2022 World Cup for Demory and 28.5 at EuroBasket 2023 for current coach Rachid Meziane.

As the head coach of Australia, Sandy Brondello faced Vanloo and Belgium in both the Olympics and the World Cup. “Julie’s a player that’s just gotten better and better every year. … She’s got better handles. She’s confident,” Brondello told reporters on May 14. “So I think that’s one of her biggest strengths is that she’s confident and she’s tough. … She backs herself a little bit.”

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While Vanloo often plays shooting guard for Belgium alongside point guard Julie Allemand, she showed she could play point guard full-time for Galatasaray, which only cemented the Mystics’ interest.

“We’ve seen Julie play a long time,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on May 2. “… She had a bunch of good years in France. Obviously, the Belgian team has been on our radar for a long time. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t have guessed maybe five or six years ago that she was going to turn out to be this level of player. She really kept getting better, which is something that’s hugely appealing to us.”

At Galatasaray, Vanloo and Hines-Allen developed a special connection, starting from their first dinner together. That night, Vanloo told Hines-Allen about her WNBA dream, and Hines-Allen said she believed in her to make it happen.

On the court, they made each other better. In Turkish League play, Vanloo averaged 13.1 points and 8.6 assists per game, while Hines-Allen put up 15.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. They were so connected that, when games weren’t going well, they often just looked at each other and decided to run a pick-and-roll.

“They were the cheat code,” said Walker-Kimbrough, who often watched their games when she wasn’t playing against them.

Facing them, Walker-Kimbrough added, was “a headache, because it’s like, what do you take away? … It was a nightmare. But afterwards, I’m like, oh, thank God I get to play with them in a couple months.”

Galatasaray guard Julie Vanloo dribbles the ball with her right hand between two defenders. She looks in the general direction of teammate Myisha Hines-Allen, who is moving toward the basket.
Galatasaray guard Julie Vanloo (35) looks for forward Myisha Hines-Allen (2) on a pick-and-roll during the EuroCup Women quarterfinals against Spar Girona on Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo credit:

At Galatasaray, Hines-Allen helped Vanloo be prepared for a WNBA training camp by pushing her to another level. She insisted that Vanloo own her position as a point guard and demand the ball in clutch moments.

“I’m forever thankful,” Vanloo told reporters at media day, “because Myisha is definitely a big reason why the Mystics saw potential in me.” (Hines-Allen disputes this, saying that all the credit for Vanloo’s rise should go to Vanloo.) 

Shortly after the Mystics offered Vanloo a training-camp contract, Thibault, general manager Mike Thibault and assistant general manager Maria Giovannetti flew to Turkey. They attended a Galatasaray practice and had dinner with her and Hines-Allen at an Italian restaurant, where they gave her a care package of Mystics gear.

“You’re ready now,” they told her.

Before flying to the United States for training camp, Vanloo practiced briefly with BLMA to evoke the confidence she’d found there. She also consulted with Meesseman about what to expect. Meesseman told Vanloo that Washington was perfect for her with its family environment and the kind of raucous fan base that fuels her to play her best.

“Washington has a very special place in her heart, if not her whole heart,” Vanloo said of Meesseman. “So … she was very excited for me.”

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During training camp and early this season, Vanloo has had to adjust to some aspects of the WNBA. She wasn’t used to having male practice players, and she quickly learned that her passes had to be higher and more precise to get around them. She got a taste of the WNBA’s physicality in the Mystics’ two preseason games, and she’s working on reducing her turnovers. She is also enjoying the challenge of learning more detailed scouting reports than she got in Europe.

But the Mystics are already thrilled with how Vanloo, as a pass-first point guard, complements Sykes, a natural off-ball guard and aggressive scorer who is starting at the point this season. The coaches don’t look at Vanloo as a rookie, assistant coach Ashlee McGee told The Next in training camp, and they have discussed her as a player they potentially want on the court alongside Sykes for last-second plays.

“She’s almost a veteran almost, with her experience and her miles that she has in her history,” McGee said. “So you can put her in those high stressful situations … and you can trust that she’s going to make the right play. She’s a dynamic passer and she can get her three off really quickly. So she’s not like a typical rookie at all.”

Speaking with The Next during training camp, Vanloo was still pinching herself about being in Washington.

“I have been having a lot of moments where I just try and sit down and take it all in,” she said. “… I always wanted to play with so many players on this team that I said, ‘Damn, how would it be to play with this and this player?’ And it’s happening.

“So … I’m just smiling all the time. I’m just really liking it. I’m just trying to be the best version of myself, be a good teammate and go with the flow. … I’m really in my prime time right now, and I know I can give something to this team.”

Washington Mystics guard Julie Vanloo looks at teammate Aaliyah Edwards and says something to her. Edwards reaches her arm out for a high five.
Washington Mystics guard Julie Vanloo (35) talks to forward Aaliyah Edwards during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Vanloo’s new reality gradually sunk in during training camp, helped along when she officially made the roster and her phone blew up with texts from people in Belgium. She was confident from Day 1, saying on media day, “I think that my way of playing, my style of playing can be great for this team and for the league. … I’m not afraid. I don’t play with fear; I play with confidence. I know what I can do.”

The nerves hit her on Tuesday, the day of her WNBA debut. She was too nervous even to imagine how the game would go, and she dreamed in her pregame nap that she was late for the game.

Hours later, Vanloo checked in at the first-quarter media timeout, becoming the second-oldest player ever to debut for the Mystics, behind Valerie Still in 1999. She finished with three points, four assists, a rebound and a steal against only two turnovers in nearly 13 minutes. She also guarded All-Stars Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot, often picking them up full court.

Fittingly, Vanloo got her offense started with an assist to Hines-Allen late in the first quarter. She received a pass on the perimeter from Walker-Kimbrough, then kicked it to Hines-Allen for a 3-pointer at the top of the key.

In the second quarter, Vanloo nearly opened her scoring when she stole the ball from Liberty wing Kennedy Burke in the backcourt, then spotted up for a 3-pointer that missed. It was notable because the Mystics are encouraging her to shoot more, and she didn’t hesitate, firing her shot before her teammates came streaking downcourt in transition.

The second half started much like the first for Vanloo, as she found guard Ariel Atkins for two quick 3-pointers. Then, with 5.1 seconds left in the third quarter, the Liberty turned the ball over, and Vanloo got the inbound.

She considered finding Atkins, who by then had a game-high 18 points. But when a fan shouted for her to shoot it, she thought to herself, You know what, why not?

She dribbled behind her back to set herself up going left and launched a one-legged, 36-foot 3-pointer. It was a shot she regularly works on after practice with director of player development Sefu Bernard, and it rattled in just before the buzzer sounded, putting the Mystics up by eight.

“You never know [in the] last minute of games [when] you will need one on one leg,” Vanloo said afterward. “So … it’s a lucky shot, but it’s not. It’s been worked on.”

“We always knew Julie was tough,” teammate DiDi Richards told The Next postgame. “So … it’s just putting D.C. on notice.”

After Vanloo’s shot fell, she stared into the crowd for a moment before her teammates swarmed her. She got a joyous shove and chest-bump from Hines-Allen and numerous high-fives. “Not a bad first career make,” Thibault said postgame in a clear understatement.

Three nights later against the Connecticut Sun, Vanloo was crucial for the Mystics after Sykes left the game in the first quarter with a sprained ankle. Vanloo played 29:15, including the entire fourth quarter, and put up 12 points, eight assists and four rebounds. She made five of nine shots and committed only two turnovers — and said afterward that she was less nervous this time around.

“She stepped up. She’s ready,” Thibault said postgame. “You saw the competitive fire coming out of her, and she’s not afraid of a big game.”

Vanloo was aggressive offensively and scored in different ways. Early in the second quarter, for example, she received a screen from center/forward Shakira Austin, split two defenders and blew past a third to get a wide-open layup. She used a screen from Hines-Allen differently in the third quarter, curling off it for a floater from the elbow.

“I’m new to the league, but I carry a bag with a lot of experience. … I’ve been watching this league for a long time,” Vanloo said postgame. She added, “I think that I showed … today that I can also score and get my feet into the paint and not just pass and shoot threes.”

Early in the fourth quarter, Vanloo got the transition 3-pointer she’d sought in the season opener, cashing in on a 3-on-2 fast break. Then she started to feed Austin, connecting with her for three layups in the quarter. The last came when Vanloo caught the ball on a backdoor cut just outside the lane, then looked toward the perimeter as she shoveled the ball to Austin on the opposite block.

“Vanloo’s just got a different kind of motor,” Sun head coach Stephanie White told reporters after the game. “… She gets after it and you can’t relax. … She put a lot of pressure on our guards with the way that she moved without the ball, the way that she got them into offense, [and] the way that she attacked and drew multiple defenders and found the right play.”

Washington Mystics guard Julie Vanloo throws a one-handed, no-look pass over her head.
Washington Mystics guard Julie Vanloo (35) passes the ball during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Going forward, Vanloo will likely play plenty of minutes with Hines-Allen as the coaches look to capitalize on their built-in chemistry. Hines-Allen has had a few up-and-down seasons due to a knee injury that required surgery in fall 2022, but she is now healthy and in rhythm, and she knows Vanloo will find her in the right spots exactly when she’s expecting the ball.

“It’s a connection you have. It’s [going] both ways,” Vanloo said. “I know she’s gonna give me my assists. … She knows like, I’m gonna score for you. It motivates each other.”

As a bonus, McGee said, the offenses the Mystics and Galatasaray run are similar, with plenty of screening action and Hines-Allen often passing from the high post. McGee doesn’t want the pair calling quite as many impromptu pick-and-rolls as they did in Turkey, but otherwise, the adjustments are minimal.

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On Monday, the day before the season opener, Vanloo correctly predicted that she would find Hines-Allen for her first career assist. She joked about how a high share of her passes in practice that day had gone to her pick-and-roll partner.

“I was like, Oh my god. This needs to stop because people [are] going to start to know this!” she told reporters. “… They [are] going to be scouting us!”

The cat is probably already out of the bag on that one. But the 31-year-old Belgian Cat is just getting started in the WNBA, with an ever-expanding bag of tricks.

The Next’s Natalie Heavren contributed reporting for this story.

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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