June 17, 2023
Playing with ‘supreme confidence,’ Li Meng finds her groove with Washington Mystics
Li’s shooting has been a difference-maker for a struggling Mystics offense
“We’re like, ‘Meng? You’re just gonna leave and not say anything?’” Delle Donne told reporters on Friday with a laugh. “… I knew. So I told her. I told her she was leaving.”
Li will depart after Sunday’s game against the Chicago Sky for the tournament, which will take place in Australia from June 26 to July 2. She is expected to miss five games, though if China does not make the final, she could potentially return in time for a game at Dallas on July 2.
Li, a 6’ shooting guard, is expected to play a big role for China after averaging 16.0 points per game in last year’s World Cup. And though she was originally a question mark to make the Mystics’ roster, the 28-year-old WNBA rookie is starting to make an impact for the Mystics, too.
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After coming to Washington on a training camp contract and surviving preseason roster cuts, Li started the regular season slowly, playing just 51 seconds in the season opener and not seeing the court two days later. But ever since, Li’s minutes have increased in every game.
She scored her first points on a 3-pointer in her third game, at Chicago on May 26. A few weeks later, on June 9, she cracked double-digit minutes and hit two field goals in a game for the first time, finishing with five points on 2-for-2 shooting and three rebounds in 12 minutes. Her production off the bench was crucial as the Mystics beat the Seattle Storm by just seven points. Outside of Li, the team shot just 36.4% from the field and 23.8% from 3-point range, continuing an early-season stretch of inconsistent offense.
“Meng comes in and she plays her role really well,” guard Brittney Sykes told reporters postgame. “She comes in [and] she shoots the ball with supreme confidence. She plays defense, she plays hard, and that’s what you want.”
“That ball hit her hand in the corner … and that [shot] was up quick,” head coach Eric Thibault said of Li’s 3-pointer that night. “And if we’re gonna see double teams and switching and rotations, we need that, especially on the back side.”
“I gotta probably find a way to play her a little bit more,” he added, “because she’s earning her minutes.”
Thibault has often played Li alongside most of the starters because he likes the chemistry that group has developed and the ability to have another 3-point shooter on the floor. Putting Li with that group also helps Thibault give Sykes or Natasha Cloud — both starters and the team’s primary point guards — a break and stagger their minutes.
But on Friday, with Cloud out due to ankle stiffness, Li got her first career start in an 88-69 home win over the Phoenix Mercury. She responded with a career-high 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-9 from 3-point range, and two rebounds in 27 minutes. That helped the Mystics to their highest point total and best shooting night of the season.
“To see her get the start and then to play that way is awesome,” Delle Donne said postgame. “But Meng’s, [from] what I hear, like the LeBron [James] in China, so that’s what she does. That’s light work for Meng.”
Li was introduced second in the Mystics’ starting lineup, getting a hearty pat on the back from reserve guard Kristi Toliver at the end of the team’s high-five tunnel. The crowd cheered loudly for her, just as it would when she hit her first 3-pointer 90 seconds into the game off a pass from Delle Donne. Li pumped her fist as she ran back on defense, and her teammates hollered their approval from the bench.
“Yeah, I felt it,” Li told reporters postgame about the crowd through her translator Boki Wang. “… It’s a new environment for me. So it means a lot to me and I’m so honored to have our home crowd behind me and support me [and] show me a lot of love.”
After her first basket, though, Li picked up two first-quarter fouls and had to sit for much of the half. Those fouls left her “a little distracted,” she admitted, but her teammates and coaches told her to believe in herself and keep shooting. She refocused and adjusted to the officiating, picking up just one more foul the rest of the game, and her shots started falling again in the third quarter.
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Li got herself going early in the third quarter with her lone 2-pointer of the game. After catching the ball at the top of the key with six seconds on the shot clock, she took two dribbles and made a contested left-handed layup. Later in the quarter, she hit a 3-pointer from the left corner after the Mystics reversed the ball all the way around the arc.
“I thought she let it fly,” Thibault said postgame. “I think we also saw some other parts of her game where she can attack a close-out and put it on the floor. But her teammates are starting to realize [if] they get it to her in rhythm, she gets it up quick. So it helps our spacing … We’ll take those three points.”
Li added two more 3-pointers in the fourth quarter — one from each corner — off assists from guard Ariel Atkins. The Mystics’ bench had dwindled by then due to injuries to Sykes and center Shakira Austin that sent them to the locker room, but the remaining substitutes made up for their lack of numbers with sheer enthusiasm, throwing their hands in the air and yelling Li’s name. Forward Myisha Hines-Allen responded to one Li basket by making a 3-pointer symbol with one hand and pretending to shoot a bow and arrow.
“Meng can shoot the ball,” Atkins told The Next. “… And that’s one thing you’ll never have to ask her to do is shoot the ball. So that’s something I can appreciate.”
“She’s a pretty fantastic shooter,” Phoenix head coach Vanessa Nygaard told reporters postgame. “[We] left her open a little bit too much in the corner. But she’s got a nice quick release and clearly a WNBA-caliber player, and … [she] proved that she should probably get some more minutes, maybe.”
As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the buzzer sounded, Li and Delle Donne spread their arms wide and bumped chests — one of several chest bumps Li had gotten on the night. This one felt like a punctuation mark on the game after the pair combined for 31 points and five 3-pointers.
The victory meant that the Mystics would award a Dawg of the Night, a new tradition for the team this season that honors a player “who’s going to work, who’s clocking in,” as Cloud explained on opening night. The Dawg of the Night from the previous victory chooses the new winner, handing them a plastic hard hat that is passed from Dawg to Dawg all season.
On Friday, it was Cloud’s turn to pass along the hard hat. “I think this person has been doing a really good job when she’s been coming in every game, but especially tonight,” Cloud said in the locker room.
“I’ve seen you put in the hours of work,” Cloud continued, turning to Li, who was seated in the locker to her right. Li put her hands to her face in surprise, then stood up for Cloud to put the hat on her head. Her teammates cheered and barked, and Li curtsied to them before taking a lap around the locker room to hug her teammates one by one.
“I was truly, truly happy,” Li said postgame about that moment, “and I’m really grateful for my teammates.”
After her breakout game on Friday, Li is averaging 4.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in 10.4 minutes per game — but nearly double those numbers in her last four outings. Over 75% of her shot attempts this season are 3-pointers, and her 43.5% shooting percentage from that distance ranks tenth in the WNBA among qualified players. Thibault has been pleased with her basketball IQ, her readiness to shoot when she catches the ball, and her decision-making when she drives into the lane. “She’s made a good adjustment to the speed of the game,” he said.
“You can just tell that each game that she plays and gets the opportunity, she’s building off of it,” forward Tianna Hawkins told The Next.
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As she’s done that, Li has made herself into a player the Mystics can rely on — and one they’ll sorely miss while she is at the Asia Cup. Her recent offensive surge has been vital for a team that ranks 11th in the WNBA in offensive rating, 10th in effective field goal percentage and 11th in 3-point shooting percentage through Friday’s games. When she is on the court, the Mystics are outscoring opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions, whereas they play opponents virtually evenly (-0.2 points per 100 possessions) with her on the bench.
“Meng has played more and more minutes for us and she’s a crucial piece,” Delle Donne said. “Her IQ is really high. She plays basketball the right way. She makes cuts that [give] herself up to find the next person. So it’s going to be tough not having her. She’s a massive piece for us.”
As Li prepares to leave the Mystics for a few weeks, she brought gifts on Friday that were specific to each teammate. Delle Donne, for example, got a toy for her beloved Great Dane, Rue. But Li’s performance so far, and especially on Friday, has been a gift all on its own for a Mystics team still looking to hit its stride offensively.
The Next‘s Em Adler contributed video 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 and Power Plays.