July 4, 2024 

How Stefanie Dolson has impacted the Mystics behind — and beyond — the 3-point line

‘She’s very, very good at what she does’

WASHINGTON — Late in the fourth quarter of the Washington Mystics’ overtime loss to the Connecticut Sun on June 27, center Stefanie Dolson found herself with the ball on a broken play. Forward Myisha Hines-Allen had driven into the paint, but she kicked the ball out to Dolson with four seconds left on the shot clock. Dolson faked a 3-pointer, took a dribble, and figured she’d have to force up a shot.

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That is, until she saw a teammate in a red uniform — she wasn’t even sure who — running toward the rim.

“I thought she was gonna shoot it, so I was going to rebound,” guard Ariel Atkins told The Next two days later. “And then she threw it.”

Dolson hit Atkins with a pinpoint pass with one second on the shot clock, and Atkins converted an alley-oop that gave the Mystics a five-point lead. Connecticut called timeout, and Dolson clapped and grinned as she waited to high-five Atkins.

“It was just a Hail Mary, honestly,” Dolson told reporters postgame. “… [I] was just thankful that she moved.”

Atkins’ assumption that Dolson would shoot was perfectly logical, even without considering the dwindling shot clock. Dolson leads the WNBA in 3-point percentage at 50.6%, and her 45 made threes are a team high. But Dolson also ranks third on the team in assists, and the alley-oop was a prime example of her vision and unselfishness.

This season, the 6’5 Dolson is averaging 10.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 26.4 minutes per game. She has been crucial for the Mystics on and off the court, stretching defenses with her 3-point shooting and helping keep the team united during an 0-12 start.

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Dolson played the first three seasons of her career in Washington, and even then, it was clear she could be dangerous from 3-point range. She shot 34.7% over her last two seasons at UConn and 35.2% in her first stint in Washington, but she never attempted more than 0.9 threes per game in any of those five seasons.

She and then-Mystics forward Emma Meesseman worked on their 3-pointers together in Washington and overseas, challenging each other to get better. It worked for both players, Meesseman in Washington and Dolson after she got traded to Chicago before the 2017 season. In 2017, Dolson hit 31 of 71 attempts (43.7%), which remained her career high in makes until this season.

This offseason, the Mystics brought Dolson back to help boost the offense and lead the locker room. They liked her playmaking ability in the frontcourt, her shooting, her versatility and the joy she brings each day. And she was ready to take on a bigger role on the court and as a leader after averaging just 11.9 minutes per game for the New York Liberty in 2023.

After Dolson re-signed with the team, Mystics head coach Eric Thibault and his staff told her they wanted her to shoot every time she was open rather than passing as much. The result so far has been one of the best individual 3-point shooting seasons in WNBA history.

“I’d love to say we had some big, grand plan,” Thibault told reporters before a game on June 23. “Just tell her to shoot the ball.”

Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson shoots a 3-pointer as Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa reaches her left hand up to contest it.
Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson (31) shoots over Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa (10) during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Dolson is taking 4.5 3-pointers per game, blowing away her previous high of 2.4 in 2019. She has also more than doubled the number she makes per game, from her previous high of 0.9 to 2.3 this season. For the first time in her career, a majority of her shot attempts are threes.

“I’ve been on other teams where there was a little bit more, probably, other post players that also shoot, but … [on] this team, I’m primarily the shooting big,” Dolson told The Next on June 22. “So it just puts me in that position a little bit more.”

As a starter this season, Dolson knows she won’t get benched for one bad shot and will get enough minutes to find her rhythm. And she knows she needs to shoot early and often, both because of her high percentage and because the threat of her shooting pulls opposing centers out of the paint and creates space for her teammates.

“Her being … able to space the floor definitely makes it difficult for me as a shot blocker who likes to be around the rim,” Dolson’s former UConn teammate and current Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes told The Next before a game against the Mystics on Saturday. “… But props to her. Her shot has always been good, but I feel like she’s been a lot more confident this season, or at least she’s showing it lately.”

“We know exactly what Dolson brings,” Chicago Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon told reporters pregame on June 14. “She’s a veteran. She knows what her game is and she’s very, very good at what she does. … So when she pops, we want to be there; we want to make sure that we’re close and contest every shot.”

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Even as teams have recognized Dolson’s hot shooting and played her tighter, though, she has continued to drain 3-pointers. She shot 45.2% from three in May and upped that to 52.6% in June. And she has scored in double figures in six straight games, including a season-high 23 points on 5-for-6 3-point shooting on Saturday against Las Vegas.

Her shooting has been so elite that, earlier in the season, her teammates would shout out her percentage in practices. “Every time she’s about to shoot the ball, we’d be like, ‘Fifty percent! Fifty percent!’” forward Emily Engstler told The Next on June 22.

Dolson told her teammates to stop after a rare rough shooting night, according to multiple players. But Atkins said they still might do it occasionally.

“Stef’s the kind of person [who] just wants to do what she’s got to do and get out of there,” Atkins said. “And we’re not the type of team that just [lets] people skirt by. … We want people to know when they’re doing a good job, when they’re really good at what they do.”

One reason Dolson’s hot shooting has not only continued, but improved as the season has gone on is because she and her teammates have a better sense of each other’s tendencies.

For example, Dolson loves to pop out to the 3-point line instead of roll to the rim in pick-and-roll action, and it took rookie point guard Julie Vanloo time to adjust. But now, Vanloo takes one more dribble to give Dolson time to set up when she pops. The result is moments like Saturday’s opening possession, when Dolson screened for Vanloo and Vanloo curled a pass around a defender’s back to Dolson for a 3-pointer.

In addition, Dolson has been mixing in other movements lately, such as rolling to the rim or finding space at the elbow. That way, when she does go behind the 3-point line, it’s less predictable. In May, 75.6% of her shot attempts were 3-pointers, but that decreased to 57.0% in June. Meanwhile, her scoring increased from 7.6 points per game in May to 12.7 in June.

“She’s playing like a big,” wing DiDi Richards told The Next on June 22. “[At] first, she was playing like a small. … What’s impressed me now is she’s able to see the mismatch, sniff out a mismatch and kind of roll down and [hit] floaters around the rim.”

Dolson will always have some of that “small” in her, though, in the way she reads the court and wants to pass. Her assists also increased in June, from 1.6 to 3.0 per game, even as she took more shots.

“It’s like you have another point guard on the court,” Vanloo told reporters on Saturday. “She’s very smart. … She always makes the right decisions, and it helps me as a point guard to have somebody next to me that can help me. … She’ll tell me like, ‘Oh, that’s not open. Look at the other side.’”

“Stef in her own way is pretty convicted about the way she wants to play basketball,” Thibault said on June 14. “She’s … always been a passing post player and has a little bit of a stubbornness about that in a good way. Like, ‘No, I’m gonna make the right play,’ despite us wanting her to shoot more.”

Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson holds the ball with both hands near her right hip. Her eyes are up as she looks for her next move. Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes is in the frame but not pressuring her super tightly.
Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson (31) looks to pass during a game against the Las Vegas Aces at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Early in the season, Dolson’s teammates didn’t always expect her backdoor passes, but now they’ve mostly learned to anticipate them. “I tell them all the time: If they’re open, I’m throwing it,” Dolson said.

Dolson’s most frequent target has been Atkins, who she’s found for 17 baskets this season. But she’s mixed it up, finding wing Karlie Samuelson for nine makes, guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough for seven and forward Aaliyah Edwards for six. In mid-June, the rookie Edwards cheerfully told reporters about how she and Dolson had finally connected on a few high-low passes and how their chemistry was growing.

What sets Dolson apart as a passer, Atkins said, is her ability to recognize and adjust to how teams are playing the Mystics throughout the game. Thibault added that Dolson always seems to understand what the next simple play is to keep the ball moving. “She’s just such a calming presence for us,” he said after a win over the Dallas Wings on June 22. “She just kept finding the right spots.”

That weekend, the Mystics played two games against the Wings, which meant Dolson had to guard 6’7 Teaira McCowan and 6’7 Kalani Brown. She not only outplayed McCowan and Brown, but also forced Wings head coach Latricia Trammell to bench them because they couldn’t guard Dolson on the perimeter.

“She’s taken the challenge, man,” Thibault said after the second game on June 23. “… We’ve asked a lot of her. We’ve asked [for] a lot of minutes against a lot of physical players, and then also to have legs to make shots at the other end is not easy. I think she’s showed some real leadership these last couple of weeks of just digging in and doing what it takes against players like that.”

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Dolson plays just as important of a role for the Mystics in the locker room as she does on the court. Living up to her nickname of “Big Mama Stef,” Dolson “takes care of everybody,” Vanloo said. She’s a veteran who knows how to relate to and approach each teammate individually, and she injects them with confidence.

“She’s very approachable,” said Engstler, who is still establishing herself in the WNBA at age 24. “So I feel like that helps me be patient and approachable. So that’s definitely something I’ve taken from her, just listening to what everyone has to say and being able to help each player in a different way. … I think she’s really versatile in that aspect. So I’m learning to try to be the same leader one day as she is.”

Dolson’s experience makes her a natural person for her teammates to look to during tough moments: She won two NCAA championships at UConn and a WNBA title with Chicago in 2021. But she has also been on WNBA teams that missed the playoffs and everything in between.

“She’s like our sound board, for real, as far as just a veteran leadership,” Walker-Kimbrough told The Next on June 14. “She’s been on every type of team, been in so many different types of roles.”

Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson talks with forward Aaliyah Edwards. The two are shown in profile, standing close together and facing one another. Dolson holds her right hand about hip high as she talks.
Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson (left) talks with forward Aaliyah Edwards during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

When Dolson re-signed with Washington, she spoke in her introductory press conference about how she wanted to be a vocal leader but not overdo it. In mid-June, she rejected the idea that she’d “taken Edwards under her wing,” saying instead that she tries to offer advice but also give Edwards space to figure things out herself.

According to Thibault, Dolson has struck that balance of speaking up without being overbearing. He sees it in practice, when she’ll occasionally stop play to point out something tactical. It was also evident during a timeout in the Connecticut game on June 27. Veteran guard Brittney Sykes spoke first, her head bobbing with energy, and then Atkins briefly chimed in. After they finished, Dolson stood and addressed the group, pantomiming a shot.

“I appreciate Stef because she’s so matter-of-fact, which is the perfect personality for me,” Atkins said. “… She understands the game, and she’s also not condescending about it. She’s just like, ‘Hey, this is what I see. This is what I think we can do. Let’s do it.’”

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On Tuesday against the Los Angeles Sparks, Dolson again helped the Mystics get things done with the shot clock winding down. This time, she did it as the finisher, not as the passer she was on the alley-oop against Connecticut.

With less than 90 seconds left in a tie game, Dolson handed the ball off to Walker-Kimbrough on the perimeter and dove toward the rim. Walker-Kimbrough lobbed the ball over Dolson’s defender, and Dolson made a layup through contact with three seconds on the shot clock. It would be the Mystics’ last field goal in an eventual two-point win.

As her teammates swarmed her, Dolson smiled and exhaled. She had taken only one 3-pointer on the night, her first game with fewer than five attempts in weeks. But she’d figured out how to make an impact for the Mystics all the same.

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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