June 8, 2022
As an athlete and activist, Kennedy Burke is blossoming with the Washington Mystics
Building on a strong overseas season, the quiet fourth-year wing is elevating her game and raising her voice in the WNBA
WASHINGTON – On May 8, Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault spoke proudly about his team’s resolve after beating Minnesota on the road with just eight active players. “Five key players aren’t here,” he pointed out. “I mean, no Elena [Delle Donne]. No Tianna [Hawkins]. No Alysha Clark. No Elizabeth Williams. No Kennedy Burke.”
The last name on Thibault’s list stood out: While Delle Donne is a two-time WNBA MVP, Hawkins had been a key reserve on the Mystics’ 2019 championship team, and Clark and Williams had been key free agent signings, Burke had been claimed off of waivers just two days prior and had not even arrived in DC yet.
But ever since Burke debuted for the Mystics on May 17 at Dallas, she has showed that she belongs in that group of key players. In her fourth WNBA season, the 25-year-old wing is averaging 8.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 19.9 minutes per game — all career highs. She has started four of her eight games, and she is seemingly growing before the Mystics’ eyes both on and off the court.
“Kennedy made an immediate impact,” Thibault said on May 22, two games into Burke’s season. “First impressions, I’m obviously happy.”
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Burke had been on Thibault’s radar long before he found himself needing depth and size on the wing this season. He had scouted her in college at UCLA, where she was a three-time Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 selection, but she was ultimately drafted by the Dallas Wings in 2019. (Coincidentally, that draft pick had originally belonged to the Mystics, but Thibault traded it as part of the package for guard/forward Aerial Powers.) Burke was then cut by Dallas and picked up by the Indiana Fever, and she played two seasons there before being traded to the Seattle Storm ahead of the 2021 season.
Although Burke averaged just 7.7 minutes per game with Seattle, she had a strong season overseas this winter. She was the go-to player for Spar Girona, a Spanish team in the EuroLeague, and developed both her skills and her confidence.
“[I worked on] being more aggressive and being the player that that my teammates could rely on,” Burke told The Next. “Not in a sense where [I’m] being a more selfish player, but being the player that my teammates go to more often so that I could make the difference in the game. So I feel like I’ve really asserted myself overseas.”
“She was probably one of the top players in Europe,” New York Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere, Burke’s teammate at UCLA and this offseason in Spain, told The Next. “… She’s expanded her 3-point percentage, she’s been really good at her decision-making and [she] kind of has been just such a force. And I’m really excited for her.”
Burke averaged 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game in the EuroLeague, shooting 38.4% from 3-point range compared to 33.0% in her previous three WNBA seasons. She was also “really, really easy to play with,” Onyenwere said, because of her competitiveness, basketball IQ and ability to get steals and generate extra possessions for her team.
Based in part on that performance, Thibault had considered trading for Burke this offseason, but Seattle waived her on May 4, allowing Thibault to acquire her without giving up any assets. The transition happened fast: Thibault gave Burke four days off when she got back to the United States in early May, but then she flew to Washington for her physical exam and to Dallas for her Mystics debut in a roughly 24-hour span.
In part because of that quick transition, Burke’s confidence and rhythm has carried over from Spar Girona to the Mystics, with Thibault saying on May 28 that she “has a positive vibe about how she’s playing.” She has capably backed up and filled in for Clark, the starting wing who has been in and out of the lineup due to a foot injury and health and safety protocols. Like Clark, Burke is a versatile player who can play small or power forward on offense and defend every position except center.
Despite the jet lag, travel and lack of time to prepare or develop chemistry with the Mystics, Burke impressed against Dallas with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting, three steals and three rebounds in nearly 13 minutes.
“She was great,” Thibault said postgame. “I mean, it’s why we wanted her … Defensively she just made some big plays — gets a steal, gets a rebound in traffic — and she’s already a pretty good shooter. So I was thrilled with how she played.”
Two games later, on May 22, Burke made her first start for the Mystics against Chicago and recorded nine points and six rebounds in nearly 29 minutes. She followed that up with 13 points in consecutive games against Atlanta and Connecticut in which she shot a combined 55.6% from the field.
“We knew she was capable,” then-Connecticut Sun acting head coach Chris Koclanes said after beating the Mystics on May 28. “… We talked about how she’s much improved from the arc. She’d been in this league a little bit. [When] she first got in, wasn’t great. And she’s played overseas, she’s just improved her game and now … she can really shoot them.”
“From the first time she played with us … she was very aggressive,” Hawkins added. “She just got in and fit in where she could, and she hasn’t backed down. She’s a competitor and she’s going to give her all every night and she has a lot of confidence. I love that.”
Burke is just the Mystics’ fourth-leading scorer, but she has been quietly efficient all season, taking advantage of defenses paying more attention to Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins. According to Her Hoop Stats, she ranks eighth in the WNBA in effective field goal percentage (58.2%) and 15th in player efficiency rating (20.5).
Even in games where Burke has struggled offensively, she has found ways to be impactful. She has been a steady ballhandler, not committing a turnover until her seventh game of the season. She ranks third in the WNBA in steal percentage and ninth in steals per game, despite playing relatively few minutes. And in her second game at Atlanta on May 20, she took just one shot and finished with four points, but Thibault put her in the game late to help preserve a slim lead.
“I feel like I just do a good job with trusting my instincts,” Burke said of her defense. “… Some players, they really kind of think about, ‘What should I do next?’ But I feel like I just go for it. So I feel like that helps a lot as far as on the defensive end. And that’s been something that I’ve been proud of — like, if I’m not doing well on the offensive end, I always rely on my defense.”
“She’s been great,” Clark said on June 7. “… [She’s] a big wing that can defend multiple positions, shoots the ball, [and] can go off the dribble. And I think it just gives us a little — it gives us versatility, and I think we don’t drop off with me coming out, which is a huge boost. … It just gives us more confidence to be able to move her in and out …
“I played against her, obviously, in the [WNBA], and I know what she’s capable of. And I can kind of see her starting to get a little bit more comfortable.”
As Burke has settled in on the court, she has also stretched herself and opened up off the court. She is quiet, she says, to the point that she doesn’t even like to ask teammates questions about basketball, preferring to learn by watching. But, like several of her teammates, she devoted two of her media availabilities in late May to discuss the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the wrongful detention of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner in Russia.
“To be quite honest, y’all, speaking in front of all of you [media members], it gives me some type of anxiety,” Burke said on May 26. “… I feel like at times, I don’t even know what to say. And when I do say some things, I feel like it doesn’t make sense, but the fact that I’m doing it now, I feel like it should help others to still do it.”
Burke showed raw emotion in that media availability, crying at the podium before she was able to discuss Uvalde and social justice. “I can’t even speak,” she said. “… It’s just tough, just having these conversations about the same shit that happens over and over again.” But she did speak, powerfully, about the responsibility she feels as an African American woman to be vocal and the frustration of not being able to do more to effect change.
Two nights later, after the loss to the Sun, Burke and Williams read a lengthy prepared statement and took questions regarding Griner’s detention. Burke let Williams, the secretary of the players’ union and someone with extensive experience advocating for social justice, answer most of the questions, but it was notable that Burke represented her new team to urge people to tell Griner’s story and help bring her home.
“When I was in college with [Burke], she was kind of a little more soft-spoken. She didn’t really speak up too much,” Onyenwere said. “… I’m proud that she wants to be able to speak up about things like whatever’s going on in the world, racial stuff or things in society or gun violence, whatever it may be, because I think as athletes we do have a platform, and so I’m really excited and proud that she is stepping up.”
Burke fits right into the Mystics organization with her activism and social conscience, and she also has a casual goofiness that has endeared her to teammates throughout her career. That sense of humor was evident in a short video she filmed with Clark on June 3 in which they talked to teammates using British accents. (It’s all in the vowels, they both agreed.)
Burke has made such an impact on and off the court that it’s easy to forget how new she still is: Her debut in Dallas was barely three weeks ago, and the five-player lineup she’s been in most often has only played 38 total minutes together. She still has a lot of room to grow, even as she’s setting career highs.
Much of her future growth this season may come on offense, which could help buoy a Mystics attack that still hasn’t found its rhythm. Over 90% of Burke’s shot attempts this season have come from within 10 feet of the rim or from behind the arc, but she wants to bring more midrange scoring when defenses are stopping her at the rim or on the perimeter. In addition, her favorite thing to work on has been refining her 3-point shot with assistant coach Shelley Patterson, and she is eager to improve her career-low 54.5% free throw shooting this season.
Those improvements, coupled with the strides she made in Spain this winter, have Burke poised to be a breakout player all season long. And she understands how impactful she can be, right alongside the veterans Thibault grouped her with before she had even landed in DC.
“For me, I just feel like whenever, no matter what the situation is, when I come in the game, just be a spark, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s playing defense,” Burke told reporters on June 7. “… If I just stick to … being a spark, I feel like I could be a huge part of this team.”
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.