June 11, 2024 

21-year-old Jade Melbourne is a quick study for Washington Mystics

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough: 'I forget how young she is because of her composure'

In the second quarter of a 93-88 loss to the New York Liberty on Sunday, Washington Mystics point guard Julie Vanloo flipped a behind-the-back pass to forward Myisha Hines-Allen for a layup. In response, teammate Jade Melbourne rose from the bench and put her right hand over her mouth in dramatic astonishment.

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When Melbourne got in the game, she made a lot of plays that wowed onlookers, too. She is the youngest player in the WNBA, still more than two months shy of her 22nd birthday. But the Australian point guard put up a career-high 21 points on Sunday on 8-for-12 shooting, including 3-for-6 from behind the arc.

“I think she was trying to impress the coach [to] try to make the Olympic team,” Liberty and Australia head coach Sandy Brondello joked postgame. “She did that, two games in a row.”

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Melbourne’s breakout game came exactly four weeks after she arrived in Washington. She’d played her rookie season in 2023 with the Seattle Storm, but the Mystics traded for her on May 11, taking advantage of a roster crunch in Seattle to add depth at point guard.

“It was tough. Jade is … young and she’s family, and we wanted to have some time with her,” Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn told reporters on May 19. “But we also know that she’s in a great situation. … I love that she has an opportunity. I love that she’s still in this league and she will continue to grow and learn and find her spots to be really successful.”

Melbourne heard about the trade around midday on May 11, then was on a 7:30 a.m. flight across the country the next day.

“It was the most hectic 48 hours of my life,” she later told reporters. Luckily, she’d packed only two bags when she flew from Australia to Seattle this spring, so she didn’t have too much to move on short notice.

Her flight to Washington landed too late on May 12 to practice with the Mystics, but the coaching staff returned to the arena to help her get acclimated. She met her teammates and got one full practice in on May 13, and the regular season began on May 14.

A week after Melbourne’s arrival, she told The Next she knew about 75% of the Mystics’ playbook. She made her Mystics debut that day against her former team, going scoreless in 86 seconds on the court. And when she faced Seattle again on May 25, this time on the road, she set a then-career high with 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting. (She insisted afterward that she didn’t hold a grudge against Seattle for trading her and wasn’t out for revenge.)

Mystics head coach Eric Thibault credited Melbourne that night not just for her scoring, but for her ball pressure defensively. She was one of the few players who created energy that night, in the final game of a long West Coast trip.

“I feel like the scoring’s been a bonus,” Thibault told reporters a few days later, “to kind of the energy and toughness she’s played with.”

Melbourne earned her teammates’ trust quickly, impressing them with her positive attitude, fearlessness and ability to absorb information. In just the fifth game of the season on May 23, longtime Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough asked Melbourne to make sure Walker-Kimbrough was in the right spots defensively.

“I forget how young she is because of her composure, because of how she’s talking,” Walker-Kimbrough told reporters postgame. “… I told her to talk to me and tell me I need to be in help side. … She’s probably one of the youngest players in the league, and I feel comfortable and confident to go to her to tell her to hold me accountable.”

Washington Mystics point guard Jade Melbourne attempts a right-handed layup as Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa extends her left arm straight up to contest it.
Washington Mystics point guard Jade Melbourne (5) shoots as Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa (10) defends during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 4, 2024. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Melbourne also played well on the road against New York on May 31 — the first of the two straight games Brondello referenced. She had 11 points and four assists on 5-for-8 shooting in another hard-fought loss.

On Thursday against the Chicago Sky, Melbourne showed more of the game-changing energy the Mystics have come to rely on her for, even as the stat sheet showed a relatively muted six points and two rebounds. With 3.8 seconds left in the first quarter, Melbourne made a 13-foot floater through contact. She missed her ensuing free throw but chased down the rebound and hit a fadeaway baseline jumper with 0.2 seconds left.

When the buzzer sounded, Melbourne ran to her bench at the opposite end of the court, shouting with joy. She high fived her teammates and got two chest bumps from forward Aaliyah Edwards. Her four-point play pushed the Mystics’ lead to six, and they would extend it in the second quarter before a second-half comeback gave Chicago the win.

On Sunday, though, Melbourne reached another level. It wasn’t surprising that her 21 points came on the road: Each of the three other times she’s scored in double figures in her career have been road games, and she mentioned postgame that she hasn’t made a shot in two games this season at the Mystics’ Entertainment and Sports Arena. (The Chicago game was moved to Capital One Arena in Washington to accommodate a larger crowd.)

“The thing I take pride in the most is being the spark off the bench,” Melbourne said postgame. “So on the road, when you know the crowd’s against you, that’s something that I continue to carry. … Hopefully, yeah, I can get some shots off at the [Entertainment and Sports Arena] and make some baskets there.”

What was surprising, however, was Melbourne’s 3-point shooting. Entering Sunday, Melbourne had shot 1-for-9 from behind the arc this season and 4-for-29 in her WNBA career. She hadn’t made a 3-pointer since the Seattle game — a span of six games. But she drained one only 13 seconds after checking in for the first time on Sunday, off an assist from Hines-Allen.

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She had a similar impact when she subbed in for the first time in the second half, immediately driving for a layup and then hitting a 3-pointer on the next possession. That quick burst tied the game at 67 — one of 11 ties on the night.

“People see it when the game starts, but she’s ready all the time,” Thibault said postgame. “Whether it’s extra work after practice or shootaround in the morning, she’s ready to go. … Check in the game, be ready to go. I love it.”

Brondello added, “Jade did a great job of going downhill, and it’s good — OK, now since we won it’s good — but she made some threes, too. And that was the next evolution of her game.”

In addition to the 3-pointers, Melbourne did what she does best: drive to the rim and finish. The Liberty often pressured Washington’s guards on the perimeter, and she countered that with her speed, getting around defenders and into the gaps.

Hines-Allen assisted on three of Melbourne’s eight field goals en route to her own banner night, finishing with 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

“[Jade is] just super aggressive when she comes in,” Hines-Allen told reporters postgame, “and it’s easy to play with someone that attacks downhill and also just [is] a shooter. … You just [hand] the ball off to her, she’s gonna handle it.”

Melbourne’s scoring in the fourth quarter nearly buoyed the Mystics to their first win of the season. She scored the team’s first seven points of the period, which gave the Mystics a three-point lead. She subbed out about halfway through the quarter, but she returned with 32.4 seconds left and got back on the attack. Racing past Liberty forward Jonquel Jones, she hit a layup that cut New York’s lead to one with 19.7 seconds left.

The Liberty scored again to go back up three, and Thibault would’ve liked to call a timeout ahead of the Mystics’ next possession. But he’d used his final one when players cramped up earlier in the game, so he had to call a play everyone was sure to know. It ended with the ball in Melbourne’s hands, and she shed Jones but missed a stepback 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left.

“She turned the corner hard,” Thibault said. “I mean, she got a pretty clean look. Couple that she had made like that before. … When [the Liberty] switch out, it’s tough, and she got herself a window.”

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Melbourne said postgame that she is playing more confidently than she ever has in the WNBA.

“My teammates give me belief every day,” she said. “Even [on my] misses, they’re continuing to tell me, ‘That’s a good shot. That’s a good drive.’ So it’s really good to be around people like that that continue to encourage you, and when you’re around people like that, you want to continue to get better for them as well.”

Washington Mystics point guard Jade Melbourne dribbles the ball with her left hand, not facing defensive pressure, and scans the court for options.
Washington Mystics point guard Jade Melbourne (5) handles the ball during a game against the Chicago Sky at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Overall, Melbourne is averaging 6.7 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 11.9 minutes per game. She has made mistakes due to inexperience, including getting a layup emphatically rejected by the 6’6 Jones on Sunday and committing more turnovers than assists this season. But on a struggling Mystics team, she has been allowed to play through those mistakes, which is an invaluable learning opportunity for her.

About a minute after the Jones block, for instance, Melbourne ran hard in transition and caught a pass from guard Ariel Atkins for a layup.

“She’s gonna have young moments, but I think more than anything, she still plays beyond her years,” Atkins told The Next on Friday. “She’s good. … I think she’s only gonna get better.”

The Mystics are already reaping the rewards of Melbourne’s development. She has given them more depth at point guard than they anticipated early in the season and added to their firepower off the bench. Between Melbourne, Hines-Allen and Walker-Kimbrough, the Mystics got 46 bench points on Sunday, the second-highest total for any team in a game this season.

Melbourne’s driving ability has also helped compensate for the absence of starting point guard Brittney Sykes, who has missed 10 straight games with an ankle injury and is the team’s best slasher. Melbourne has made a case for continued minutes even when Sykes returns.

“She can beat everybody with her speed and her drive,” Vanloo told The Next on Friday. “She’s a great finisher, and that’s what we want from Jade, those little points where you just, when you need them, like last second. She just always [has] a fight and [is] always going 100%. And that’s the beauty about Jade.”

Washington Mystics point guard Jade Melbourne charges through the lane and gathers the ball in her right hand as Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark attempts to cut her off.
Washington Mystics point guard Jade Melbourne (5) drives against Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (right) during a game at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Beyond her precocious talent, Melbourne’s joyful personality has helped the Mystics weather an 0-12 start. On May 13, the day of Melbourne’s first practice in Washington, Vanloo told reporters that the 21-year-old was “a ray of sunshine” in the locker room. “I’m telling you, she’s a shiny person — you will see,” Vanloo said.

Thibault echoed that before Sunday’s game, citing how Melbourne is excited to be doing anything with the team, from playing a game to boarding the team bus to getting in an extra workout. She shows that enthusiasm on the bench, too, whether she’s reacting to Vanloo’s flashy pass or dancing with wing DiDi Richards to celebrate a big fourth-quarter basket on Friday against the Indiana Fever.  

“She’s got that wonderful, youthful exuberance every day,” Thibault said. “… She’s got a love for the game that’s pretty infectious. And we had an inkling of that before we got her, but until you have somebody around every day, you just don’t know. And so she’s been a pleasure to have around.”

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Asked about Thibault’s comments, Melbourne said, “I just like playing basketball. I love being surrounded by like-minded people. I love being surrounded by this team, this staff. … We’re still looking for that first win, continuing to pick the little things out that we can still celebrate and then eventually things are going to add up. … We’re progressing every day, so it’s fun.”

Melbourne, too, is progressing every day, and it’s led to moments like Sunday, when the youngest player in the WNBA showed she can compete with the league’s best. It might even lead her all the way to Paris, playing for Brondello under the Olympic spotlight.

The Next’s Em Adler 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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