February 2, 2024
Washington Mystics fill holes but don’t land a superstar on Day 1 of free agency
Samuelson, Richards, Vanloo and Engstler can’t replace Mystics legend Cloud
The Washington Mystics got younger and deeper on Thursday, signing four free agents to complement the team’s returning nucleus.
Former Los Angeles Sparks guard Karlie Samuelson signed a two-year guaranteed contract worth $115,000 in 2024 and $118,450 in 2025. Former New York Liberty guard/forward DiDi Richards, Belgian national team guard Julie Vanloo and former Mystics forward Emily Engstler all signed training camp contracts. Those training camp deals are for one year at the rookie minimum of $64,154 and non-guaranteed, so unlike Samuelson, those players are not locks to make the final roster.
None of the four are expected to play starring roles, so they don’t directly replace point guard Natasha Cloud, who signed with the Phoenix Mercury, or forward Elena Delle Donne, who is expected to be traded during free agency. But the new signings provide a mix of offensive and defensive upside, and their average age is just over 27 years. That’s helpful for a franchise that had the second-oldest roster in the WNBA last season, with an average age on July 1 of just over 29 years.
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The 6’ Samuelson went undrafted out of Stanford in 2017 and has had an up-and-down professional career since then. She was waived in the month of May in four straight years from 2017 to 2020, and she has played parts of five seasons on hardship or seven-day contracts, which are both short-term. In total, she has played for the Sparks, the Mercury, the Seattle Storm and the Dallas Wings.
But Samuelson had the best season of her career in Los Angeles in 2023. The 28-year-old started 23 games and averaged 7.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 26.1 minutes per game. She also shot 42.6% from 3-point range — sixth-best in the WNBA — on 3.4 attempts per game.
Now, she gets the stability that was elusive earlier in her career.
“Karlie brings an exciting dimension to our team as a great shooting, big wing player who can stretch the floor for us,” Mystics general manager Mike Thibault said in a press release. “… She has greatly expanded all facets of her game over the last several years and we are thrilled she chose to come to D.C.”
Related content from 2023: Locked On Women’s Basketball: Karlie Samuelson never stopped believing in her WNBA dreams
Samuelson is playing for the London Lions this offseason in the Women’s British Basketball League alongside former Mystics Megan Gustafson and Abby Meyers. In 10 EuroCup games, she is averaging 13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 steals. She is also shooting 49.5% from the field and 39.3% from 3-point range.
“I am very excited to join the Mystics and have admired the way the team plays on both ends of the floor since their 2019 championship,” Samuelson said in the release. “I am excited to be a part of that competitiveness.”
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Like Samuelson, the 5’8 Vanloo is known as a 3-point shooter, and the 30-year-old has played for teams all over Europe. She is currently playing for Galatasaray in the Turkish KBSL and is averaging 13.6 points, 8.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds in league play. Nearly 70% of her shots have come from behind the 3-point line, where she is shooting 41.1%. Vanloo has paired well with Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen, who is averaging a near-double-double for Galatasaray in league games.
Vanloo is also a staple on the Belgian national team. She and former Mystics star Emma Meesseman led the Cats to their first EuroBasket championship in 2023. Meesseman led the tournament in scoring, while Vanloo ranked fifth with 16.3 points per game on 43.6% 3-point shooting.
“We have been following Julie’s international career for some time and the timing is right to bring her to the Mystics,” Thibault said in a separate press release. “A terrific shooter who can play both guard spots, she has been a key player for the Belgian National Team during their rise to the top tier of international teams.”
The Mystics have often prioritized 3-point shooting under Thibault, who was the team’s head coach from 2013 to 2022, and current head coach Eric Thibault. Last season, they ranked fifth in the league in 3-pointers made per game (7.8), fourth in attempts (23.1) and seventh in 3-point shooting percentage (33.6%). But all of those numbers were below where they were in 2018 and 2019, when the Mystics made the WNBA Finals twice and won a title in 2019.
Samuelson and Vanloo should help improve the Mystics’ 3-point shooting in 2024, which could bolster the offense overall. Last season, the Mystics ranked just seventh in points scored per 100 possessions, in part due to injuries. And Samuelson and Vanloo should get open looks playing with returning guards Brittney Sykes (35.0% 3-point shooting last season), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (39.0%) and Ariel Atkins (36.3% in her career).
Vanloo also gives the Mystics much-needed depth at point guard. With Cloud gone and Kristi Toliver retired, the only point guard on the roster entering Thursday was Sykes. Now, Vanloo and Sykes can play together or separately and share point guard duties, like Cloud, Sykes and Toliver did last season.
While Samuelson and Vanloo shore up the offensive end, Richards is expected to help the Mystics primarily on defense. In two WNBA seasons to date, she established a reputation as a tough perimeter defender and should fit in well alongside Sykes, Atkins, Walker-Kimbrough and center/forward Shakira Austin, who all excel on that end. The Mystics ranked fifth in the WNBA last season in points allowed per 100 possessions and will look to better that this season.
The 6’2 Richards was the 17th overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft and an All-Rookie Team selection that season. Despite battling hamstring injuries, she played in 45 games for the Liberty in 2021 and 2022. She averaged 2.3 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 11.1 minutes per game off the bench. As a rookie, she also showed flashes of 3-point shooting, making 10 of 22 attempts (45.5%) after taking only one in her entire college career at Baylor.
Related reading from 2021: DiDi Richards has found her footing in a New York Minute
However, the Liberty waived Richards during training camp in 2023 amid stiff competition for roster spots. This offseason, the 24-year-old is averaging 12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals in 28.7 minutes per game for the Sydney Flames in the WNBL. She has four double-doubles and is shooting 50.9% from the field and 35.0% from 3-point range.
On Jan. 25, The Next’s Jackie Powell reported that Richards had received interest from the Mystics and the Liberty. Powell added that both staffs had traveled to Australia to watch Richards play this offseason.
Richards revealed on Thursday that she was signing with the Mystics on her podcast, “3 on 3.” She said she chose the Mystics for what felt like “selfish reasons,” but she knew it was the best move for her career.
“I’m in a point where I’m playing well, I’m feeling confident. So I kind of want to just ride the momentum into the W season,” she said. “And I feel like D.C. had the best opportunity for me to do that.”
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It’s not certain how much Richards’ offense will translate for the Mystics in 2024. She’s been effective in the WNBL this season, but in the WNBA, she shot only 30.6% from the field in 2022 and regressed in her 3-point shooting from her rookie year. But she could try to emulate the path of Sykes, who flourished offensively in her first season with the Mystics in 2023.
Sykes could be a great mentor for Richards because her strengths and weaknesses early in her career line up well with Richards’. The 29-year-old Sykes is a four-time All-Defensive Team selection, and she established herself as a 3-point shooter last season after struggling from there in previous seasons.
“Mike Thibault said something on [my] phone call [with him]. He was like, ‘I think this is a “Prove that I’m DiDi Richards” year,’ and I was like, ‘I know that’s right!’” Richards said. “So … I hope that this will be my year that I can stay consistent, stay injury-free and … set this as a foundation year for me and for the rest of my career in the W.”
Unlike Samuelson, Vanloo and Richards, Engstler has previous experience with the Mystics after being one of their final cuts in training camp last season. The versatile 6’1 forward could have a clearer path to make the roster this time around: Delle Donne is unlikely to return, forward Tianna Hawkins is an unsigned free agent, and Austin is recovering from offseason hip surgery.
The Indiana Fever selected Engstler fourth overall in the 2022 WNBA Draft, and she averaged 5.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 18.2 minutes per game as a rookie. But Indiana waived her in April 2023, allowing the Mystics to sign her to a training camp contract.
After the Mystics cut her, she played in 12 games for the Minnesota Lynx on hardship and seven-day contracts. She will compete in Athletes Unlimited, a domestic offseason league, for the first time starting later this month.
“We see potential. We see things that maybe won’t show up this year, but maybe two, three years down the line with Emily,” Mystics associate head coach LaToya Sanders told The Next last season in training camp. “… She has a great touch. She has a 3-point shot. She’s a good finisher around the rim using left or right hands. She just has instincts that sometimes you can’t teach.”
Thibault suggested in a press release that he’ll look to the 23-year-old Engstler to help improve the team’s rebounding. Last season, the Mystics finished last in the league in total rebound rate, including eighth in defensive rebound rate and 11th in offensive rebound rate. In 2022, Engstler ranked sixth in the WNBA in offensive rebounds (72) and offensive rebound rate (12.4%).
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Overall, the Mystics ended Thursday with more depth and some roster holes filled. But the deals they struck were not enough to overcome the loss of Cloud, who had been a Mystic since 2015 and holds the franchise records for single-game, single-season and career assists.
So the front office has more work to do in the days ahead — including adding a superstar to fill out a roster led by Sykes, Atkins, Austin, Hines-Allen and Walker-Kimbrough. The wrinkle is that the Mystics don’t have superstar money to offer at the moment because of Delle Donne’s core qualifying offer.
The Mystics cored Delle Donne in January, which means that they offered her a one-year contract at the supermaximum salary of $241,984, and she could no longer sign a contract directly with another team. Delle Donne is expected to move to another team, not play for the Mystics, but that will require a sign-and-trade.
Until Delle Donne is moved, her supermaximum contract offer counts against the Mystics’ salary cap. So for now, the maximum the Mystics can offer other free agents is $154,517, according to data provided by Her Hoop Stats and Jacob Mox.
The Next’s Howard Megdal and Jackie Powell contributed reporting 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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.