February 2, 2023
How the Washington Mystics reshaped their backcourt in free agency
In Washington, what’s old is new again with Toliver, Walker-Kimbrough returning; Sykes also signs
On the first day of WNBA free agency, the Washington Mystics blended old and new in a bid to upgrade their backcourt. The result wound up looking a lot like the 2022 roster, which finished fifth in the regular season — but also like 2019, when the Mystics won the first and only championship in franchise history.
According to The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland, the Mystics had tried to land superstars including forwards Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones and guard Allisha Gray to pair with two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne. But they went 0-for-3 and pivoted toward players who are familiar with or fit well within the Mystics’ system as role players.
Their first move on Wednesday made official what The Next’s Howard Megdal had reported on Sunday, as 28-year-old guard Brittney Sykes signed a three-year contract with the Mystics after spending the past three seasons in Los Angeles.
A few hours later, veteran guard Kristi Toliver, who played the last two seasons with Sykes in Los Angeles, announced on Instagram that she plans to return to the Mystics. She spent three seasons in Washington from 2017-19 and was a key component of the 2019 championship team.
The Mystics rounded out a busy day by re-signing guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who has spent parts of five of her six WNBA seasons in Washington, and relinquishing the rights to Japanese point guard Rui Machida.
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For Sykes, a Newark, New Jersey native, signing with the Mystics brought her back to the East Coast for the first time since 2019, when she played for the Atlanta Dream. “It’s Official,” she tweeted on Wednesday with several emojis. “Momma I’m coming back to the EAST.”
Mystics general manager Mike Thibault targeted Sykes because he believes that her game “perfectly complements our other perimeter players,” as he said in the team’s announcement. Last season, the 5’9 guard averaged 12.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.7 blocks in 28.8 minutes per game for Los Angeles.
Sykes can play point guard, shooting guard and small forward depending on the Mystics’ lineups. That versatility could allow starting point guard Natasha Cloud to play off the ball at times, much like she last season alongside the smaller Machida. Sykes, along with Walker-Kimbrough and Cloud, will also help the Mystics offensively by driving to the rim and forcing defenses to shift, and her speed in transition will be valuable for a Mystics team that ranked last in the WNBA last season in pace.
The questions about Sykes offensively begin with her 3-point shooting. She shot 26.9% from 3-point range last season and has only cracked 30% twice in her six-year career. As a result, defenses may sag off of her and Cloud, who shot 30.0% from 3-point range over the past two seasons, and make it more difficult for the Mystics to drive into or get clean touches in the paint.
Defensively, Sykes will help mitigate the loss of two-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selection Alysha Clark in free agency, which is a must if the Mystics are going to remain one of the WNBA’s best defensive teams. Sykes has earned three straight All-Defensive Team selections, and she will combine with Cloud (two career selections) and guard Ariel Atkins (five) to set the tone defensively and lock down opposing backcourts. Like Clark, Sykes can guard multiple positions defensively, and her athleticism has resulted in several eye-popping blocks over the years.
Sykes signed a three-year guaranteed contract that will pay her $190,000 in 2023 and 2024 and $195,000 in 2025, as The Next’s Howard Megdal first reported. Her salary this season is just shy of the regular maximum of $202,154 and tied for the second-highest on the team behind Delle Donne. Sykes is also the only Mystics player who currently has a guaranteed contract through 2025.
Mystics players including Cloud, Atkins, Delle Donne and forward Myisha Hines-Allen cheered the signing on social media. Hines-Allen, a native of Montclair, New Jersey, about 10 miles from Newark, wrote in an Instagram story, “From playing against each other in high school to now being teammates!! Can’t wait!!”
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While Sykes will bolster the Mystics’ defense in particular, Toliver is expected to inject more offense into a team that ranked only seventh last season in offensive rating and — shockingly for a Thibault-led team — 10th in 3-point shooting percentage. She first posted an Instagram story on Wednesday thanking the city of Los Angeles, where she played from 2010-16 and 2021-22 and won a championship in 2016.
Toliver followed that up with a post containing a photo of her in the red No. 20 Mystics jersey she wore for three seasons. A native of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and a graduate of the University of Maryland, Toliver wrote that she was happy to head home for the second time in her WNBA career.
“Excited to announce that I’ll be returning to the outstanding organization and team, the Washington Mystics,” she wrote. “DC is my home, these teammates are my family and I look forward to the opportunity to bring another banner to The District.”
This will be Toliver’s 14th season in the WNBA, and she has career averages of 12.0 points, 3.5 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 0.9 steals in 369 games. Last season, though, she appeared in only 11 games for Los Angeles due to injuries and competing commitments as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, and she averaged a career-low 5.9 points per game.
Toliver is again expected to finish her coaching duties with the Mavericks before joining the Mystics, according to Copeland. Due to the NBA schedule and language in the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement that fines players signed to contracts if they miss training camp, Toliver will likely not sign with the Mystics until the Mavericks’ season is over or until the WNBA season begins, according to our Jacob Mox.
Whenever Toliver reports to the Mystics, she will bring an exceptional basketball IQ and strong 3-point shooting, both of which are strengths of Clark’s and things that the Mystics wanted in free agency. Although Toliver turned 36 years old last month, she shot 36.1% from 3-point range last season and hasn’t shot below 33.5% in any season of her career. She also takes a lot of 3-pointers — 4.5 per game in her career and 5.8 per game with Washington — and that floor spacing will help keep defenders honest and give her teammates more room to operate.
“Got our Panda back! It’s only right!!” Delle Donne wrote in an Instagram story, using Toliver’s nickname in Washington. The pair joined the Mystics in 2017 and helped the franchise take the last steps in its seven-year progression under Thibault from cellar-dwellers to champions.
Hines-Allen, who played with Toliver in 2018 and 2019, also reacted to the news in an Instagram story with happy crying emojis. And Sykes commented on Toliver’s post, “oh we back at it again huh” with the sunglasses emoji.
Along with Toliver, Walker-Kimbrough will give the Mystics six players returning from the 2019 championship team after she signed a two-year contract on Wednesday. Walker-Kimbrough was drafted by the Mystics in 2017 and spent three seasons in Washington before being traded in early 2020. In 2021, she bounced in and out of the WNBA, but the Mystics re-signed her midseason and she has stayed ever since.
The new contract gives Walker-Kimbrough more stability than she has had in the WNBA lately: In 2021, she was on a series of short-term contracts, and last season, she was on an unprotected one-year deal. In 2023, her contract is guaranteed at $95,000, a nearly $23,000 raise from 2022, and in 2024, it is unprotected at $97,850.
“Shatori has been an integral part of the Mystics’ success and was a major priority for us during free agency,” Thibault said in the team’s announcement. “Her ability and energy at both ends of the court has a great impact on how we play. Her offensive game continues to expand, and she has become an excellent defender on all the perimeter positions. We see her as a mainstay on our roster.”
Last season, Walker-Kimbrough averaged 6.9 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 steals in 20.1 minutes per game for the Mystics off the bench. She brings speed and spaces the floor as a career 34.5% 3-point shooter, and she had career bests in defensive rating and defensive win shares per 40 minutes last season after asking Clark to help her improve defensively. She and Toliver will likely anchor the Mystics’ second unit, a role Walker-Kimbrough has filled increasingly well during her years in Washington.
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With the trio of Walker-Kimbrough, Toliver and Sykes planning to join Cloud and Atkins on the Mystics’ perimeter, though, Machida became the odd player out. Cloud, Sykes and Toliver can all run the point, so the Mystics didn’t need another point guard. Machida also struggled last season with her shot and, at 5’4, she often didn’t play much against teams with more perimeter size.
On Wednesday, the Mystics announced that they had relinquished Machida’s rights “by mutual agreement,” making her an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any WNBA team.
“We really enjoyed having Rui as part of our organization last season,” Thibault said in the announcement. “However, with the new changes in our roster, there isn’t the same opportunity here for her this coming season. This will give her the chance to see if there is a better fit for her elsewhere. We wish her the best of luck.”
The signings of Sykes and Walker-Kimbrough increase the Mystics’ 2023 payroll to $1,207,339 for eight players, which includes the salary for their first-round draft pick in April. (Guards Jazmine Jones and Evina Westbrook are also signed to training camp contracts, but those are unprotected and not included in these calculations.) The Mystics now have $213,161 left under the salary cap to sign Toliver and two other players. At least one of those additional players will likely be a post player, as the Mystics have only three post players — and just two players 6’2 or taller — under contract currently.
For all of the Mystics’ moves on Wednesday, Day 1 of free agency ended with the Mystics in a rather similar place as they have been in their recent past. Half the roster is slated to be veterans from the 2019 championship team, and overall, the team projects to have similar strengths and weaknesses to the 2022 team, with Sykes and Toliver making up for Clark’s strengths on defense and offense. Toliver and Cloud might even evoke memories of the 2019 season by resurrecting their pregame routine, in which Toliver would throw a baseball pass downcourt to Cloud.
In a few months’ time, we’ll find out whether Thibault’s moves are a wild pitch or a perfect strike.
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.
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