August 4, 2023
How Washington Mystics’ hardship players have seized an ‘opportunity of a lifetime’
Hard knock life? More like hardships life for the Mystics lately
With how many injuries the Washington Mystics have had this season, guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough isn’t taking any chances. She’s not a fan of taping her ankles, but lately, she’s doing it anyway. And although she “never went to the training room, ever,” in the past, now she’s going regularly to keep her body feeling good.
The Mystics have had 16 different injuries this season, costing players a total of 52 games, according to The Next’s WNBA injury tracker. Just three players have appeared in all 25 games, and the team has lost an estimated 5.4 win shares due to injury, which leads the WNBA.
Those injuries include three that have sidelined starters for several weeks: a hip injury to center/forward Shakira Austin on June 25; a sprained ankle for forward Elena Delle Donne, first on June 30 and again on July 9; and a sprained ankle for guard Ariel Atkins on July 11. Reserve guard Kristi Toliver has also been out since June 20 with plantar fasciitis in her foot.
As a result, the Mystics currently have three players on hardship contracts: guards Linnae Harper and Abby Meyers and forward Cyesha Goree. That is the most replacement players Washington has had at once since at least 2019, according to Across the Timeline. What’s more, they’ve all stayed a while: They’ve been on the roster together since July 21 and played in at least six games each.
That longevity means they’ve been able to settle in more, and make a more sustained impact, than most players on short-term contracts. Though the Mystics have lost five of their last six games, the hardship players are helping them stay in games, weather the storm of injuries and improve as a team.
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Meyers, a 6’ guard and 2023 first-round draft pick out of Maryland, was the first to sign a hardship contract back on June 20. Her initial stint with the team lasted until July 4, and she signed another hardship contract on July 21. Across nine total appearances, Meyers is averaging 1.4 points in 4.0 minutes per game.
“My role is just to stay ready [and] do, obviously, whatever the team needs from me, and right now, that’s just to be a great communicator and an energy giver,” Meyers told reporters on July 30. “… If I’m on the bench, I’m gonna be clapping, I’m gonna be cheering you on, I’m gonna make sure to repeat play calls from the coach and just do whatever I need to do for the team.”
Meyers admitted to being nervous when she made her WNBA debut in June. “You hear your name called, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s happening! It’s happening!’” she said. But she’s been with the team long enough now that playing for her hometown Mystics has started to feel normal.
She’s also started to find her rhythm with travel, as seven of the 10 games she’s been on the roster for have been on the road. She uses the travel time to get to know her teammates better, then explores the city solo. On July 29 in Atlanta, she caught a showing of “Barbie” to take her mind off basketball for a few hours.
Whereas Meyers is facing the instability of hardship contracts as a rookie, Harper has some WNBA experience to draw on. The 5’7 guard out of Ohio State played 24 games with the Chicago Sky as a rookie in 2018, spending part of the season on seven-day contracts. She then participated in several training camps over the years, including Washington’s in 2022, but hasn’t found a permanent foothold in the WNBA.
Harper joined the Mystics on June 30 straight from playing 3×3 with Team USA, was cut on July 4 for procedural reasons, and was re-signed on July 5. She has played in 11 games — three more than Toliver and only two fewer than Austin — and is averaging 1.8 points in 6.1 minutes per game.
The Mystics are using Harper primarily as a defensive guard, and she is soaking up wisdom from All-WNBA defenders Atkins, Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes. But she has also hit four of her nine 3-point attempts, including two on July 19 against the Indiana Fever for a season-high six points.
“It felt really good,” Harper said on July 21 about making those two shots. “I think the biggest thing is just getting at the right place at the right time and spacing and then just shoot with confidence. So that’s something that I’ve been just keeping on the forefront of my mind.”
Goree went undrafted out of Michigan in 2015 but played in two preseason games with Indiana in 2016. Her Indiana teammate and WNBA legend Tamika Catchings told her to keep playing and stay ready because an opportunity would come one day.
“I’m just glad to say, years later, I got another opportunity,” Goree told reporters on July 18. “So I’m just gonna make sure I make the most out of it, just enjoy and be ready.”
That chance came after general manager Mike Thibault saw the 6’2 forward play for Hungary in EuroBasket in June. The Mystics front office thought her versatility would be a good fit for the team’s frontcourt.
When Goree’s agent called her in early July to tell her about the Mystics’ interest, it took her by surprise. She was at home with her wife in Atlanta, preparing to spend time with her nephew and plan a party for her 30th birthday on Aug. 4. But she was on a flight to Washington in less than 24 hours, after a near-sleepless night spent thinking about the opportunity coming her way.
Goree’s regular-season debut happened to be the Mystics’ annual Camp Day game, when thousands of children from local summer camps pack the stands. The Mystics drew over 14,400 fans that day, the highest single-game attendance in the WNBA this season.
“It was so loud. The energy there, I felt it … go through my body,” she said on July 30.
When she checked into the game late in the first quarter, she was immediately aggressive on the offensive end, posting up without the ball and driving when she got it. “I want to help the team as much as I can, so I didn’t want to just have the ball and look to pass,” she said on July 21. Her first points came within a minute of checking in, as she recognized that she had a smaller defender on her, posted up, and dropped in a right-handed hook shot.
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Goree has continued to be aggressive and impactful since then, even though she, too, briefly landed on the Mystics’ injury list on July 23. A teammate’s errant elbow as they battled for a rebound forced her to get three stitches — “a scar for life,” she said.
In six games this season, Goree is averaging 3.7 points and 1.2 rebounds in 11.8 minutes per game. She scored a career-high nine points on 4-for-5 shooting against the Minnesota Lynx on July 26 and had eight points in a career-high 23 minutes against the Dallas Wings two days later.
“I think we’re seeing that she’s a pretty smart player and that she can fit into what we’re trying to do and understand what we’re trying to do,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on July 23. “… When somebody’s on a hardship contract, them being able to adjust quickly and fitting quickly is very important.”
“[She’s] kind of that spark off the bench that the team needs on a consistent basis,” Meyers added on July 30. “And she’s working hard. She’s one of the biggest energy givers on the team.”
At times this season, Goree, Harper and Meyers have discussed the challenges of being hardship players. They’re joining a team late, after everyone else has picked up the offensive and defensive schemes, and trying to make the most of scraps of opportunities.
In this case, though, they have others in the same situation to lean on. “We kind of naturally cling to each other,” Harper said.
That’s true even though they all played for different Big Ten universities. There are no hard feelings there, they say, just the occasional Michigan-Ohio State jab between Goree and Harper.
“We all rock the same colors now,” Goree said.
The Mystics’ veterans have helped the hardship players get up to speed, too. Delle Donne and forward Tianna Hawkins have mentored Goree, while Harper has gotten defensive tips from Atkins.
“Delle Donne has done a really good job of just kind of being in my ear,” Goree said. “Just when I’m unsure of things or kind of where she sees that I’m a little lost, she’ll just kind of come up to me and say a few things to get me to feel like I’m not so far off.”
“I just try to tell [the hardship players to] keep it simple,” Hawkins told reporters on July 23. “And if you have any questions, to ask, and follow the person that’s in front of you.”
Down to six healthy players who started the season with the Mystics, the coaching staff has also simplified the playbook. That helps both the hardship players and forward/center Queen Egbo, whom the team traded for on July 4. Early in their tenures, there were times during games when veteran players had to explain plays in huddles or gesture mid-play to where a newcomer should go.
“Each day, a little bit, [we’re] trying to get them more comfortable,” Thibault said on July 21. “But … we’re kind of used to rolling with it now. So it’s not the full playbook, but it’s a good enough chunk that we can get by.”
The hardship players have had a noticeable impact on the court, from Goree scoring in the post to Harper and Meyers giving the Mystics’ guards a much-needed breather.
“They’re coming in and I think they’re doing a great job,” Cloud said on July 19, before Meyers re-signed. “We’re throwing a lot at them. They’ve picked it up really quickly. … I think that speaks a lot to [their] professionalism.”
“We all need them,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen said on Aug. 3, “and they definitely came in clutch for us a couple times.”
In addition, the hardship players have played an important role psychologically as the team has scuffled. They’ve continued to cheer from the bench and dish out high fives with abandon. After the 28-point loss to Dallas on July 28, Goree said, Harper and Meyers urged the rest of the team to stay positive. “We’re right here with you,” they said.
They’ve also used their relatively long stints in Washington to form deep relationships with teammates. “When you just talk to them, there’s a joy about them,” said Hines-Allen, who bonded with Goree on the team’s most recent road trip. “And it’s like, you could talk to them about anything.”
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Though being a hardship player means that their contracts could end at any time, the experience Goree, Harper and Meyers are getting could pay bigger dividends in the future. Having WNBA experience could help them get better overseas offers, and their film this season could convince another WNBA team to give them a chance.
“We never know who’s watching,” Goree said.
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Harper added. “I know it’s not too many athletes that get this opportunity. So I think it’s a great platform for myself and other athletes to get looks elsewhere and just continue to build on.”
Having the hardship players for this long — and battling through injuries — could pay off for the Mystics, too. Thibault has encouraged his players to “act like the team we want to be at the end of the year,” including with their body language and camaraderie, and he has largely been pleased with that, even when wins haven’t followed. Players throughout the rotation have stepped up, and the resilience they’ve shown could help them in high-stakes moments later in the season.
“If we can get through this, we can get through anything,” Walker-Kimbrough said on July 28, “because we’re facing our adversity — a lot of adversity, it seems like.”
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.