May 13, 2022
How Katie Benzan went from afterthought to ‘Young Mighty’ for the Washington Mystics
'I had no idea' she'd be this good, head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said this week
WASHINGTON – On her first day of training camp with the Washington Mystics last month, Katie Benzan wasted no time making a good impression. Word spread quickly among her teammates that Benzan had led the NCAA in 3-point shooting percentage in 2020-21, and she put on a show with her pre-practice shooting routine.
“Yeah, I know,” Hawkins said. “I’ve been watching.”
By the end of practice, head coach and general manager Mike Thibault was impressed, too. “She is smart and picks up everything very quickly,” he told reporters on May 3. “She knew all of our stuff by the end of the first day that she was here.”
The fact that Benzan, a 5’6 point guard who played at Harvard and Maryland, even made it to training camp was remarkable, and she has seized her opportunity and contributed on the court beyond what anyone had expected. And despite the stress and pressure of potentially being cut at any time, she is having fun and cherishing moments such as playing alongside Elena Delle Donne, whom she grew up watching on television, and juking out a defender to punctuate a Mystics win.
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Benzan has always been a shooter: She scored over 2,000 points in high school, and at Harvard, she set a program record for career 3-pointers made in February of her junior year, finishing with an Ivy League-record 287 in three seasons.
But the three-time First Team All-Ivy selection decided to sit out her senior season at Harvard in 2019-20, preserving a year of eligibility to use as a graduate transfer. She eventually chose Maryland, where head coach Brenda Frese recruited her for her shooting, ability to play both point guard and shooting guard, basketball IQ, and intangibles.
Benzan ended up playing two seasons at Maryland, taking advantage of the NCAA’s decision not to count the 2020-21 season against players’ eligibility. While Frese told The Next that Benzan improved and diversified her 2-point shooting with the Terrapins, she was still singularly prolific from behind the arc, making another 166 3-pointers on a program-record 47.4% shooting. She also ranked in the top ten nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio and was named AP All-America Honorable Mention in both of her seasons in College Park.
“She makes the right play. She doesn’t have to just score,” Frese said. “… She’s the ultimate point guard, and she could show everybody else where they need to go. I don’t ever remember [her] not knowing the play, and she knew it from every single position.”
However, Benzan didn’t hear her name called in the WNBA Draft on April 11. It wasn’t a huge surprise: SB Nation‘s mock draft had Benzan as the final pick, and ESPN and Bleacher Report did not have her in their mock drafts. She didn’t get invited to any WNBA training camps that week, either, and she had started applying for a few summer jobs and internships as graduation neared.
About a week later, her luck turned when Navy’s Jennifer Coleman, a Mystics training camp invitee, did not get permission to leave school to compete in camp. Thibault needed another point guard and turned to the one just 15 miles north in College Park.
“I did have to pack for like three weeks in about 30 minutes,” Benzan told The Next this week.
Benzan signed a training camp contract with the Mystics on April 20, the team’s third day of practice. That contract was non-guaranteed and could be cut at any time, and her stay was expected to be short. “She knows coming in what the odds [of making the roster] are,” Thibault said on April 22, “but it’s a great experience for her to come and see what pro basketball is like.”
Benzan learned the Mystics’ plays by watching the starters run them, taking some reps herself, and studying the playbook outside of practice. She also watched film of the 2021 Mystics, hoping to pick up small details that would help her get acclimated. “I got here [on] late notice,” she said. “… I didn’t want to be dragging them down and slowing the entire practice, so I knew I had to catch up really fast.”
Benzan did all that while also finishing up her Maryland coursework, and not only did she catch up to the other players battling for a roster spot, but she beat many of them out. At guard, MeMe Jackson was waived on April 25; South Korea Olympian Lee-Seul Kang was cut on April 28; and Linnae Harper, who has WNBA experience with the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx, was cut on May 3. Several forwards with WNBA experience were cut, too, in Erica McCall, Stephanie Mavunga and Megan Gustafson. On May 5, it was official: Benzan had made the 11-player roster for opening night.
“She’s always been told she’s too small, not fast enough, can’t do enough things and continues to prove people wrong,” Frese said. “And even when Mike Thibault called, I mean, he told me … she wasn’t going to make the team. She would just get to see what training camp was like. And she just continues to go in and show — and like she did here [at Maryland], at Harvard and down there [with the Mystics] — just, you want a Katie Benzan on your team. I mean, all the traits and the qualities: the toughness, the discipline, arrives early, stays late. Does all the right things. You see what a winner she is. And I think that’s what the Mystics have seen in such a short amount of time.”
Beyond her 3-point shooting and ability to pick up concepts, the Mystics have valued Benzan’s versatility and basketball IQ, much like Frese did. “You can’t put a price on intelligence,” Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault told The Next, pointing out her ability to run the offense as well as the savvy she displays defensively to avoid getting switched on to bigger players.
But the underdog story screeched to a halt around 5 p.m. local time on May 6, two hours before the season opener. Barely 24 hours after Benzan had made the “final” roster, the Mystics claimed wing Kennedy Burke, who had been waived by Seattle, to fill a position that they needed more than Benzan’s. Benzan found out she was off the roster just a few hours before the game — yet she still had a flight to catch the next day.
Because several players on the Mystics’ roster have been unavailable due to injuries and overseas obligations, the Mystics are eligible for hardship exceptions to temporarily fortify their roster. Burke is one of those overseas players, and the Mystics were granted an exception to replace her until she arrives. The player they wanted to fill that role? Benzan.
The Mystics couldn’t re-sign Benzan until 48 hours had passed since she was cut, but she flew with the team to Minnesota and re-signed on May 8 at 5 p.m., three hours before the game. (While she waited, she won the team’s halfcourt shooting contest at shootaround.) Benzan played just 2:05 against Minnesota, but she was an engaged teammate all night, yelling and clapping on the sidelines, and registered her first career assist on a pass to starting point guard Natasha Cloud. When Benzan was in the game and center Shakira Austin deflected a pass, Benzan was the player who initiated a round of high-fives for the team’s defensive effort.
On May 10, even with Cloud sidelined with COVID-19, Thibault was coy about how much Benzan would play against the Las Vegas Aces. “We’ll see how the game goes,” he said. “She’ll play. More than the two minutes, probably.”
That turned out to be a dramatic understatement, as Benzan played 15:12 and scored 12 points — two more than 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson had for Las Vegas. Still wearing her Maryland-issued Under Armour basketball shoes, Benzan made three of her four 3-point attempts, hit three free throws, and added two rebounds and a blocked shot.
“It felt really good. It was a lot of fun to get out there,” she said postgame. “… I’m here to just make the most of my opportunity, and I think today the shots fell and I had a good game. But tomorrow might be something different, so just every day I’m here to improve.”
Although Thibault has seen Benzan hit plenty of threes in practice and on film, he was as surprised as anyone about her scoring outburst. Asked postgame whether he had known she was capable of that performance when he signed her on April 20, he said, “I had no idea. … We were just trying to have enough healthy bodies in camp to be competitive every day. And she has fought her butt off.”
“Katie just has, obviously, some skills, but some courage to just do what you’re supposed to do,” he added. “And she’s smart. She’s figured stuff out, how to play … being small.”
When Benzan was out of the game, she was equally engaged. She and forward Alysha Clark often looked like mirror images of each other as they stood up, leaned forward, and clapped intensely for their teammates. Early in the third quarter, she jumped up and down and pantomimed rocking a baby after Hines-Allen spun past a defender and finished at the rim.
Benzan also had her own highlight-reel move in the final moments of the 89-76 win, dribbling between her legs to shed Aces rookie Aisha Sheppard. It elicited heavy cheers from the Mystics crowd and an enthusiastic high-five and hug from Hines-Allen after the buzzer sounded.
“When she’s shooting the threes, we already know that’s in her bag, because that’s all she does at practice, makes ‘em. Bottom of the net. So that’s nothing new. What threw me off today was the boop boop,” Hines-Allen said afterward, referring to the crossover dribble. “So I had to tell her about it. So you’re going to keep hearing me talk about the boop boop …
“Katie was tough. That’s what we needed today from her.”
“[She] took [the game] over. Took it over,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough told The Next. “Young Mighty right there, that’s Young Mighty. Super fearless … It was definitely the energy we needed off the bench.”
A few days later, Clark coined the term “Benzanity” to describe the buzz around Benzan, playing off of “Linsanity,” a term for the excitement over former Harvard star Jeremy Lin’s performance in the NBA in 2012. But, despite her strong start, Benzan’s position on the roster is still precarious, which can be extremely challenging for players emotionally and mentally. Walker-Kimbrough, who played on multiple short-term contracts last season, called the uncertainty “definitely nerve wracking,” and Clark said how happy she was to see Benzan seizing her opportunity after it took Clark three tries to make a WNBA roster.
Before the game against Las Vegas, Benzan acknowledged those challenges but said she has tried to frame them differently. “It’s definitely not been easy,” she said, “… [but] I just came in here feeling lucky to be here and out there to compete and work hard and just control the controllables … If it goes my way, great. If it doesn’t, then I learned some great things, and we’ll move on to the next opportunity.”
For her, the uncertainty of being on training camp and hardship contracts is actually easier to manage than the limbo she was in while sitting out her senior season at Harvard. She was confident that the recruiting process would work out, but she suddenly lacked teammates around her as she prepared for her next opportunity. “I had to find different outlets for that camaraderie,” she said, which included playing pickup against male friends and getting buckets in intramural basketball.
In contrast, with the Mystics, Benzan has teammates to lean on while her future is up in the air. “I still have that team aspect, that camaraderie, that friendship, so that really helps no matter what the future holds,” she said.
By league rule, Benzan’s hardship contract will end when Burke joins the team, which is expected to happen early next week. That means that Friday’s home game against the Dallas Wings could be Benzan’s final game in a Mystics uniform, or in the WNBA altogether.
“I absolutely wish we had a bigger roster because she would be on our roster long-term if we could,” Thibault said on May 12.
After Benzan’s hardship ends, she could sign another short-term contract with any team in the league, if one has room for her, or step away from basketball and into a job or internship. Between practices last week, Benzan drove back to her apartment in College Park and packed the rest of her belongings into several large suitcases, but it’s not clear where those suitcases are headed. For now, she is simply soaking up what could be her final days on the basketball court — and so are her teammates.
“You love to see successful things happen to great people,” Clark said. “… Like I said, Benzanity. Let’s keep it rolling.”
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.