April 12, 2024 

What the Washington Mystics were looking for in free agency after two stars departed

Mike Thibault: ‘We felt we needed to … reenergize ourselves’

During WNBA free agency this winter, Washington Mystics leadership flew to London to meet with guard Karlie Samuelson, who was playing for the London Lions. Samuelson went out to dinner with general manager Mike Thibault, head coach Eric Thibault and assistant general manager Maria Giovannetti, and the topic of her winding WNBA career came up.

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“I think I’ve been on more seven-day contracts than anybody in the history of the league,” she joked.

Indeed, Samuelson has been on 12 seven-day, hardship or rest-of-season contracts in her seven-year WNBA career, but she parlayed her most recent hardship contract in 2023 into a starting position. This offseason, the Mystics signed her to a two-year guaranteed contract, ending her roller coaster.

“Going through different teams and going through that and being ready every single time — it was one thing to get picked up and … be on a seven-day contract or whatever,” Mike Thibault told reporters during an introductory press conference for Samuelson and center Stefanie Dolson in March. “But she was ready.”

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That mindset from Samuelson is a key component of the vision the Mystics have for 2024 and how they sought to change their roster in free agency. They lost stars Natasha Cloud, who signed with the Phoenix Mercury, and Elena Delle Donne, who is taking a step back from basketball after the Mystics didn’t trade her this offseason. Those two were cornerstones of the 2019 championship team, but the Mystics had been inconsistent in the four seasons since then — and Thibault is using this moment to make changes.

“We’re not in the mode of blowing this all up,” he said. “But we do recognize that there were some changes that we felt we needed to make to reenergize ourselves a little bit. … 2019 is five years ago. We’ve been through a pandemic; we’ve been through roster changes, injuries, everything else. So we had to get away from people not only outside, but inside our own organization talking in those terms. And so you had to reimagine what could be.”

The complication in doing that, though, is that the league could very well have a new labor agreement entering the 2026 free agency period. The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) runs through the 2027 season, but the players association and the league both have the option to terminate it after the 2025 season.

In anticipation of that happening, most free agents have not signed contracts past 2025. That leaves general managers unable to plan three or four years out like they usually do; instead, Thibault has collected several first-round picks in the next few years who will be under team control for four seasons, and he has been planning out how to improve his roster for the next two seasons.

“We’d like to keep winning, but winning may look a little different in how we go about it,” he said. “We would like to keep the same kind of defensive intensity that we’ve had and pressure. But I think clearly there were nights at times last year that we struggled offensively. … So what we had to do was, okay, let’s keep improving our team … and yet at the same time, be prepared for two years from now.”

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This offseason, Thibault and his staff prioritized signing players who are versatile and who are hungry for an opportunity. “It’s fun to have players who feel like they have a lot to prove,” he said.

The Mystics also wanted the joy factor — players who enjoy practices, who will uplift their teammates during a long season, and who will inject energy into the Entertainment and Sports Arena every day.

Thibault sees those qualities in all the players he signed this offseason, headlined by Samuelson and Dolson.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Karlie Samuelson pumps both fists and yells in celebration as she runs down the court.
Then-Los Angeles Sparks guard Karlie Samuelson (44) celebrates during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Aug. 27, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The 6’ Samuelson went undrafted in 2017 but has carved out a spot in the WNBA through persistence and continued improvement. She is best known for her 3-point shooting, as she’s a career 39.5% shooter from beyond the arc. But she got to show more of her all-around game last season, averaging 7.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 26.1 minutes per game in her first season as a starter.

Getting a two-year guaranteed contract this offseason was a major breakthrough for Samuelson. “I don’t know if I ever expected it, to be honest with you,” she told reporters in March. “I just have been going with the flow and just, the WNBA just seemed to be that for me.”

She added, “It takes a lot of stress away of not trying to grab onto a roster spot, but it doesn’t make me complacent, either. I want to do even more and be even better.”

Samuelson spoke about how she fits offensively in the Mystics’ system and how she wants to help the defense remain high-level. But she also said she wants to lead with her positive attitude, her gratitude to be playing in the WNBA, and the fun she has on the court.

Dolson returns to the Mystics after the franchise drafted her in the first round in 2014. She played three seasons in Washington before being traded, and Thibault said in March that telling Dolson about the trade was “one of the toughest days I’ve had” in over a decade as the Mystics’ general manager.

Their warm relationship, and Dolson’s playful side, was evident during the introductory press conference. When the players were done taking questions and it was Thibault’s turn, Dolson asked whether she should sign off. Thibault told her it was up to her, and she joked, “I don’t want to hear you talk! Bye!”

Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson's eyes close as she laughs during warmups.
Then-Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson laughs during warmups before a game against the Washington Mystics at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

In 10 WNBA seasons, the 6’5 Dolson has averaged 8.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.9 blocks in 22.6 minutes per game. However, she averaged only 11.9 minutes per game for the New York Liberty last season, so she is ready to compete for more playing time.

Dolson can also help fill a leadership role with the departures of Cloud and Delle Donne. In the press conference, she started talking about how she could lead as the oldest player on the team. Then she interrupted herself for a fact check.

“I don’t know how old you are, Karlie. You’re not near me, right?” the 32-year-old Dolson asked.

“I’m 28,” Samuelson responded.

“Oh my god, no,” Dolson immediately replied. “So this’ll be the first time that I’m also the oldest. I’ve been on multiple teams where I’ve been kind of one of the vets, but this’ll be the first time where I am the vet. So I think it’ll give me a better opportunity to just be the loudest vet, I guess, and hopefully the most prominent and just a leader.”

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Beyond Samuelson and Dolson, the Mystics signed several other players who Thibault believes fit the team’s archetype in free agency of versatile, driven and joyful. Guard Julie Vanloo, guard/forward DiDi Richards, forward Emily Engstler and center Elissa Cunane all signed training camp contracts, which are not guaranteed, so they’ll have to battle to make the opening-day roster.

Consider Vanloo: She plays point guard and shooting guard for the Belgian national team, which is ranked sixth in the world and won EuroBasket in 2023. Yet the 31-year-old had never gotten a WNBA invitation until this year. “This is kind of her dream and opportunity to come in and prove something,” Thibault said. And she’ll have a clear path to make the roster: The point guard spot is undefined beyond veteran Brittney Sykes, who can also play off the ball.

Richards, meanwhile, was a second-round pick in 2021, but the Liberty cut her in preseason in 2023. She didn’t play last season and dealt with an injury, but she had a strong season in Australia this winter. Her ability to play four positions jumped out to Thibault, as did her attitude.

“You automatically inject enthusiasm and energy into your locker room the minute she walks in, and then she’s just … competitive every day,” he said.

Indiana Fever forward Emily Engstler puts her left arm straight up to contest a close-range shot by Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas.
Then-Indiana Fever forward Emily Engstler (21) defends Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. on May 20, 2022. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Engstler was a lottery pick in 2022, but like Richards, she dealt with being cut and getting injured last season. After the Indiana Fever cut her in early 2023, the Mystics brought her in for training camp, but she was one of their final cuts. She ended up playing for the Minnesota Lynx on two short-term contracts.

She played well this winter in Athletes Unlimited, which has a scoring system based on individual statistics and team performance. With her ability to stuff the stat sheet in all categories, she finished in seventh place overall and first among frontcourt players.

“We knew she was close last year,” Thibault said. “There’s things that she does that this team needs: rebounding, blocking shots, defending, willing to do kind of some of the dirty work.”

Cunane was drafted by the Lynx in 2022 but has only played 10 minutes across three career WNBA games. She has averaged a double-double playing in the Czech Republic this winter and now has another chance to prove herself in the WNBA.

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The Mystics’ vision is that these newcomers, along with the No. 6 overall pick in the upcoming draft, will blend with the team’s returning leaders, including Ariel Atkins, Shakira Austin, Sykes and Myisha Hines-Allen. There will be only three players who were on the 2019 team — the fewest the franchise has had over the past few years — and a fresh energy from several players who haven’t yet won a title or accomplished their goals in the league.

“We know it’s gonna look different,” Austin told reporters in April at Team USA training camp. “We know it’s gonna be a totally different program, but it’s what we need. It’s what we need. We need a culture shift. We need a restart.”

Related reading: Mystics’ Shakira Austin gives positive injury update

Washington won’t be a team that’s picked to win the title, but it might be one that can grind through the season together and win some games that way. And hopefully, it’ll be a healthier team, too, than the one that led the WNBA last season in total injuries.

“Although it’s new pieces, I think we can all kind of fit in it seamlessly because we all just have that competitive nature,” Dolson said. “… It’s gonna be fun for us to surprise everyone and just go out there and play hard and win some games.”

The Next’s Tee Baker 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.

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