May 28, 2022
Six things we’ve learned about the Washington Mystics after six wins
Mystics head coach Mike Thibault gives his group a B+ or A- to date — but some players deserve A's
In the Washington Mystics’ eighth game of the season on May 24, they finally had all 11 players available — the franchise’s first such game since at least 2019. The result: Washington had five players score at least nine points and held the Atlanta Dream to just 35.7% shooting in a comprehensive 70-50 win.
The Mystics’ record is now 6-2, despite the fact that only five players have appeared in all eight games and only one, guard Ariel Atkins, has started all eight. They are halfway to last season’s win total in one-fourth as many games and sit in second place in the WNBA standings, one game behind the Las Vegas Aces.
Much of the improvement can be attributed to the return of two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, who played in just three games last season and none in 2020 due to a back injury. But there are also the additions of wing Alysha Clark, center Elizabeth Williams and rookies Shakira Austin and Rui Machida, who collectively give the team more depth, size and defense than it has had in the past two seasons. As a result, all 11 players are averaging at least 14 minutes per game, and the Mystics are scoring 10.0 more points per 100 possessions than they allow, the third-best net rating in the league.
“I’m happy with most of where we are,” head coach and general manager Mike Thibault told reporters on May 26. He gave his team a B+ or A- grade so far this season and cited versatility and defense as two of the team’s strengths. The offense, he said, is still establishing a rhythm, “but I think it’s coming.”
Six wins into the season, here are six things we’ve learned about the Mystics as they look to re-establish themselves as title contenders after injury-plagued seasons in 2020 and 2021.
As expected, tough defense
When Clark signed with the Mystics in February 2021, there was immediate speculation about how good the Mystics’ defense could be, especially in the backcourt. She, Atkins and point guard Natasha Cloud had combined for six All-Defensive Team selections to that point, and Atkins would earn another in 2021. But Clark suffered a foot injury overseas in March that cost her the entire 2021 season.
This past offseason, the buzz only grew when the Mystics signed Elizabeth Williams, a 2020 All-Defensive Team selection who ranks eighth in WNBA history in career block percentage. “The pressure’s on” Delle Donne and Myisha Hines-Allen, Thibault said, to become All-Defensive players like their teammates.
“To have the versatility that we have on the defensive end — I mean, you’re talking about being able to switch one through four, one through five at times — that’s scary,” Cloud said on May 5, the day before the season opener. “… As a defensive-minded player, I’m extremely excited.”
So far, that vision has been a reality. The Mystics lead the league in defensive rating, allowing just 92.3 points per 100 possessions. Opponents are shooting just 42.2% from the field and 31.4% from 3-point range. That’s largely because they’re not getting easy points: The Mystics rank in the top three in opponent points off of turnovers, fast break points, second chance points and paint points.
“It’s really exciting to see — especially this early in the season — to see players just step up and to really grit it out on defense and know at some point the offense is going to come,” Delle Donne said after a win over the Dallas Wings on May 17. “That’s something we can really keep getting used to, keep doing, and know that’s what this team is about.”
The Mystics haven’t finished better than sixth in the WNBA in defensive rating since 2015, but there are reasons to think that this team will keep improving defensively and remain near the top of the league. Cloud said through six games that the team’s communication was steadily improving but still needed to be better. And Clark, arguably the team’s best defender, got a late start to her season due to the foot injury and has played in only four of eight games.
Shoot for the Clouds
“I’m a shooter,” Cloud declared throughout the preseason, putting the WNBA on notice not to disrespect her by going under ball screens and giving her space to shoot.
“You’re not going to go under on me,” she said on April 18. “I can score, I can get to the basket, I’m working on my post moves, I can pull up, and I can shoot threes. Okay? So I’m feeling really confident.”
It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to back it up. But Cloud has more than backed up her talk by averaging a career-high 11.7 points per game, third-most on the team behind Delle Donne and Atkins. She started the season red-hot, scoring 36 points in her first two games on 50.0% shooting, and has cooled off some after a bout with COVID-19. But she is still taking a career-high 9.7 shots per game, including 4.5 3-point attempts, this season and shooting 37.0% from behind the arc.
“Tash has worked on her game … Teams are going to find out she can shoot,” Thibault said on May 8. “The scouting report before was let her shoot threes, and [now] she’s making them.”
Perhaps most impressively, Cloud has been more aggressive with her shot without sacrificing her ability to find her teammates. She is averaging a career-high 6.8 assists per game and has registered at least five assists in a franchise-record 10 straight games dating back to last season. Her turnover rate is also her lowest since 2017, which only adds to her effectiveness as a playmaker and scorer.
The Mystics can win without Delle Donne
Delle Donne joined the Mystics via trade ahead of the 2017 season, and ever since, the Mystics’ success has hinged on her availability. From 2017 to 2021, the Mystics won 69% of the regular-season games she played but just 38% of the games she missed, according to Basketball-Reference’s Stathead tool.
Put another way, the Mystics were 81% more likely to win games if they had Delle Donne in the lineup. But this year, they are 2-0 without Delle Donne. (Those were scheduled rest days for Delle Donne, and she will have more throughout the season to avoid overtaxing her back.) It’s a small sample size, but it’s notable given that, even in the Mystics’ championship season in 2019, they went 0-3 without Delle Donne in the regular season.
What’s behind the Mystics’ early success without their star? Let’s turn to…
Austin is the real deal, and so is the bench
The Mystics traded away the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft and selected Austin, a 6’5 defensive-minded center, at No. 3. Thibault told reporters that he would’ve considered taking Austin first overall had the Mystics kept that pick, and her size, shot blocking, rebounding and energy have been exactly what the Mystics needed.
Starting in place of Delle Donne in just her second WNBA game, Austin had 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting and 10 rebounds against the Minnesota Lynx and Hall of Fame center Sylvia Fowles. Fowles finished with 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and Thibault was thrilled that Austin could often defend Fowles one-on-one, rather than other players having to help and recover.
“She just played her butt off. I’m really proud of her,” he said postgame.
“This is why we drafted Shakira,” Cloud added. “We knew that she could come in and have [an] immediate impact on our organization. … To have a moment like this, a double-double on her second game ever in the W, we’re excited for the ceiling that she has, and she’s going to continue to grow and continue to lead us. Without her tonight, we don’t win the game.”
Three games later, in a win at Dallas, Austin had a career-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting off the bench to spark a comeback from an early 13-point deficit. “To see her carry us like that is, you know, chills,” Delle Donne said afterward. “So proud of her.”
The only quibble Thibault could find with Austin’s performance that night was that she blocked two shots out of bounds instead of to a teammate to create fast break opportunities. She has since started the past three games, and she is averaging 9.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 assists in just 21.8 minutes per game this season while shooting 62.3% from the field.
“She’s a very confident player,” Thibault said on May 26. “I mean, we liked that when we were going through the process about drafting her. We felt we were drafting a young player who believed in herself, believed in what she could be. And she’s lived up to that.”
Austin, whom Thibault initially thought might have to wait her turn in an experienced Mystics frontcourt, is the most obvious example of someone stepping up when the team needs her. But it has happened up and down the roster, to the point that the Mystics led the league in bench points per game as recently as May 21. Just look game-by-game at how the Mystics’ depth has paid off:
- May 6 vs. Indiana: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, starting for the injured Clark, contributed 10 points, three assists and three steals.
- May 8 at Minnesota: Austin stepped into the starting lineup and was plus-18 on the night, in addition to her double-double.
- May 10 vs. Las Vegas: Katie Benzan had 12 points off the bench, including three 3-pointers; Machida started in place of Cloud, who was out with COVID-19, and had nine points and four assists.
- May 13 vs. Dallas: Machida, again replacing Cloud, had eight points and seven rebounds; four reserves scored at least six points apiece.
- May 17 at Dallas: Three reserves scored in double figures, led by Austin’s 20 points and eight rebounds.
- May 20 at Atlanta: Tianna Hawkins had 11 points off the bench.
- May 22 vs. Chicago: Williams scored nine points in just 12:28 off the bench.
- May 24 vs. Atlanta: Kennedy Burke scored 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting off the bench.
The starters have publicly credited the bench for at least two of the wins, at Dallas and at Atlanta. After the latter, Cloud told reporters, “Our bench has been phenomenal, [with] the depth and the versatility that we have coming in. There’s no lulls, there’s no drop-offs.”
That depth has been critical with the Mystics’ revolving door of available players, and it could be the difference between a good team and an elite team by season’s end. In 2019, when the Mystics won the championship, their bench averaged a league-leading 30.5 points per game. They are currently averaging “just” 21.4, but their defense has been better than that 2019 team, which can make up for some of the difference.
Or, as Cloud so bluntly put it on May 8: “We’re a good-ass team regardless of who we have on the floor.”
The curious case of the missing 3-pointers
The Mystics currently rank fifth in the league in offensive rating, but the offense has been inconsistent as players come in and out of the lineup. On May 20 at Atlanta, the Mystics shot 59.5% on 2-pointers and 16.7% on 3-pointers, but two days later against Chicago, those percentages were 35.3% and 42.9%, respectively. After the Chicago game, Thibault said, “Our offense is just not smooth at all right now,” and Delle Donne lamented that the team played too much one-on-one and didn’t move the ball well.
One clear trend is that the Mystics are attempting just 21.0 3-pointers per game, their fewest since 2016 and the fifth-fewest in the WNBA this season. It’s the first time since 2013 that the Mystics have ranked outside the top four in the league in 3-pointers attempted, and they led the league twice in that span. They are shooting it well as a team at 35.7%, but they are still getting a lower share of their points from behind the arc than they have for several seasons.
That’s especially surprising given that Cloud has elevated her offensive game and that Atkins, the team’s second-leading scorer, has been lights out from behind the arc, shooting 46.2% on nearly five attempts per game.
“I would like to get [the number of attempts] up, but not at the risk of just taking bad shots,” Thibault said on May 22. “We’ve had a little bit better inside game than maybe we anticipated … and [we] also have games where Elena hasn’t played or Alysha hasn’t played; two of [our] better 3-point shooters have missed games. So I think as we get our team whole, we’ll do a better job in that area.”
One way the Mystics can increase their 3-point attempts is to trade mid-range twos, which are generally inefficient shots, for threes. They are tied for second in the league with 5.3 mid-range shots made per game and are shooting 35.6% on those shots, which is virtually identical to their 3-point shooting percentage but brings less value on the scoreboard.
The Mystics aren’t close to their ceiling
Cleaning up their offense, continuing to refine their defense, and getting players healthy and in rhythm with one another — those are all on the Mystics’ to-do list for the next stretch of the season. Other items on the list might include:
- Picking up the pace. The Mystics are the slowest team in the WNBA and get the second-fewest fast break points per game (6.9), even though Cloud and Machida are both lightning-quick point guards who love to run in transition. Thibault has said throughout the season that it’s important that the point guards keep the pace high to help the Mystics be more dangerous offensively.
- Cashing in on steals. Related to the issue of pace, Thibault said on May 26 that he wanted his team to turn its 8.1 steals per game, and 16.6 forced turnovers overall, into more points on the other end. The Mystics rank fifth in the league with 17.3 points per game off of turnovers, but that number is closer to that of the last-place team (12.7) than the first-place team (24.9).
- Getting some scorers in a groove. It’s remarkable that the Mystics’ offensive rating is as good as it is given the roster flux that the team has endured and the fact that several players have struggled with their shot. Walker-Kimbrough, a career 34.5% 3-point shooter entering the season, is just 3-for-17 (17.6%); Clark, a career 39.8% shooter, is 1-for-8; and Hawkins, a career 31.8% shooter, is 1-for-11. In addition to those struggles from deep, Walker-Kimbrough is shooting just 31.3% from the field, and Hines-Allen, a 2020 Second Team All-WNBA selection, is averaging 6.0 points per game on 36.0% shooting.
The Mystics could potentially solve several problems simultaneously by forcing turnovers and finding struggling players for easy transition opportunities that help get them in rhythm offensively. The chemistry will come in time, too, as players get used to each other and to the frequent substitutions Thibault has made as he tests various lineup combinations.
“I think the good part is that our ceiling’s really high. We’re not close to it,” Thibault said on May 26. “So sometimes … you look at your team early in the year and you go, ‘Geez, I don’t know how much better we can get.’ That’s a depressing feeling. It’s uplifting to me to know that we can get a lot better.”
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 and FanSided.