July 11, 2023
As Mystics’ injuries mount, Tianna Hawkins leads frontcourt players who have stepped up
Hines-Allen and Egbo also delivered big plays on Sunday
Before the Washington Mystics’ 92-84 road loss to the Connecticut Sun on Sunday afternoon, head coach Eric Thibault was excited to have four healthy post players. He had had only three for Friday’s game against the Indiana Fever; usual starters Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin were out with a sprained ankle and strained hip, respectively.
Delle Donne had hurt her ankle in the waning seconds against the Atlanta Dream on June 30. She returned on Sunday, only to experience a haunting déjà vu. In the final minutes of the first half, she landed on Sun forward/guard DeWanna Bonner’s foot and re-aggravated her ankle.
The two-time WNBA MVP limped back to the locker room and did not return to the game, going scoreless in 13 minutes. The team announced on Monday that she will miss the next two weeks and then be re-evaluated.
Meanwhile, Austin had been carried off the court on June 25 and has been out ever since. She was still moving gingerly on the sideline when the Mystics played at home on Friday, and she is slated to be re-evaluated after the All-Star break.
Austin and Delle Donne are All-Star-caliber players who were combining to average 30.9 points and 14.1 rebounds per game before their injuries. According to data from The Next’s Lucas Seehafer, the Mystics have lost the most win shares due to injuries of any WNBA team this season, and frontcourt injuries have been responsible for 68% of their lost win shares.
The result is that, midway through the season, the Mystics have had to redistribute their frontcourt minutes nearly entirely. Austin and Delle Donne played the majority of those minutes in May and June, but in the three games since Delle Donne’s initial injury, Tianna Hawkins and Myisha Hines-Allen have seen huge increases in the share of minutes they play.
|Share of Frontcourt Minutes, May and June
|Share of Frontcourt Minutes, July
|Elena Delle Donne
|Amanda Zahui B.*
Asked on June 28 about reconfiguring his lineups without Austin, head coach Eric Thibault said, “I’m excited to see if some of our other [frontcourt players] can take the challenge the next few weeks. So we brought every one of them here for a reason … Those guys are going to start playing well. And so I’m excited to watch that happen now as they get some more opportunity.”
Thibault has largely been proven right, even though depth was a concern for the Mystics early in the season. Through the first month of the season, before most of the injuries, the Mystics’ bench ranked only ninth in the WNBA in net rating, getting outscored by three points per 100 possessions. Since then, though, the reserves — especially in the frontcourt — have stepped up as they’ve gotten more minutes and, sometimes, starts.
That showed on Sunday, when the Mystics were down to a “big three” — three healthy frontcourt players — after halftime. All three stood out:
- Hawkins tied her career high with 24 points on 10-for-12 shooting from the field and added four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
- Hines-Allen neared her season high with 14 points on 4-for-8 shooting and had three rebounds.
- And Egbo, in only her second game since the Mystics traded for her on July 4, had eight points and seven rebounds and was a team-best plus-10.
It’s hard to fathom now, but Hawkins was no lock to make this Mystics roster in training camp. But the 10th-year pro arrived in perhaps the best shape she’s ever been in, according to Thibault, and excelled throughout the preseason. She has started six games, including the past five, and is averaging 6.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while shooting 48.0% from the field.
“Tianna’s been our steadiest person probably start to finish this year,” Thibault told ESPN’s Pam Ward and Andraya Carter during Sunday’s game. “She gives us such a pop.”
Over the last three games, with Delle Donne and Austin out, Hawkins’ minutes have more than doubled, from 16.5 to 33.7 per game. She responded with a season-high 11 rebounds against an imposing Dallas Wings frontcourt, then a season-high five assists as the Mystics’ guards caught fire against the Indiana Fever, and then her career high in points against Connecticut.
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On Sunday, Hawkins made nine 2-pointers, all within four feet of the rim. That helped the Mystics outscore the Sun — the league leader in paint points per game — 46 to 24 in the paint.
Eight of her points came in the first quarter as the Mystics clawed back from an early deficit after missing six of their first seven shots. Four of those points came in transition, fitting for a player who has long made an impact by sprinting the court.
Hawkins then took over in the third quarter, scoring 14 of the Mystics’ 25 points. She caught passes in the lane in traffic and made smart cuts off screens to find openings. “They exploded our pick-and-roll defense a little bit,” Bonner said postgame, referring in part to Hawkins’ activity.
For example, late in the third quarter, Hawkins cut from the high post to the middle of the lane and received a pass from guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough on the wing. She took one dribble to her right, pump-faked Bonner, and stepped around her for a left-handed layup plus the foul. The move came less than 30 seconds after Hawkins had drained a corner 3-pointer, showing off an element of her game that she has struggled with all season.
Hawkins capped her night midway through the fourth quarter by setting a perimeter screen for Walker-Kimbrough and rolling hard into the lane. Walker-Kimbrough fed the hot hand, and Hawkins calmly converted a contested right-handed layup.
“I [was] just doing what I do,” Hawkins told reporters postgame about her career performance. “Running the floor and just making sure I was getting [in] the paint on balance and at the right time. And just making sure I finished my layups.”
Thibault said postgame that, rather than him running plays for Hawkins, she is the player who often rescues stagnant offensive possessions by cutting or setting screens to get the ball moving. Sometimes, she ends up scoring on those broken plays; other times, she gets offensive rebounds and putbacks.
Another reason why Hawkins is so valuable for the Mystics, especially right now, is because she can seamlessly switch between small forward, power forward and center. At a slight 6’3, she is sometimes undersized at center, but she uses her quickness to make it work.
“Tianna is never afraid of a challenge, and I’ll say that in a lot of ways,” Thibault said postgame. “She’s probably one on our team, if you ask the group a question and maybe something wasn’t an obvious answer, she’d be the one that wouldn’t be afraid to try to answer. … She’s somebody that will take it as it is. So okay, I need to play five tonight, or we’re going big and I’m going to play three. … She’s just willing to take the challenge. She’s not afraid to look bad; she’s not afraid of making mistakes.”
“Whatever’s thrown my way,” Hawkins added, “I’m not going to run from it.”
Hines-Allen remains on a minutes restriction following offseason knee surgery, and she has struggled to find a consistent rhythm. But she and her teammates can look at Hawkins’ consistency as an example.
“One thing that I admire about her and just watching her from my rookie year to her now, I mean, just her role has, not changed every single season, but she’s able to adapt every single season,” said Hines-Allen, who is in her sixth WNBA season. “And it doesn’t matter who’s playing, TT’s going to be TT every single game and that’s why we are who we are. …
“TT does the stuff that does not show up on the stat sheet and that people will not notice or know … She just gets her job done.”
Hines-Allen’s season debut was delayed until June 3 as she recovered, and she shot just 22.2% from the field in her first eight games before scoring a season-high 16 points on 54.5% shooting on June 28. She had another strong performance on Sunday, starting with an assist to Hawkins and a defensive rebound within a minute of checking in in the first quarter.
“When she defends with a purpose, when she plays with focus, good stuff seems to happen,” Thibault said on June 28. “So … a lot of times, the shooting sometimes follows a good play at the other end.”
The shooting indeed followed on Sunday, as Hines-Allen got her first basket in the second quarter on a fadeaway jumper that had just the right touch. The 6’1 Hines-Allen caught the ball outside the paint, took a few dribbles against 6’5 Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa, faked a spin, and floated a 6’ jump shot from the middle of the paint that swished through the net.
Early in the third quarter, Hines-Allen drained consecutive 3-pointers to trim the Mystics’ deficit to one point, and she hit another with 8:22 left in the game that gave the Mystics their final lead.
“This is a Washington team that’s beat up, that’s dealing with some injury issues, but [has] terrific pieces who still are some of the best players in the world,” Sun head coach Stephanie White said postgame. “… And they had players that stepped up.”
Egbo, a 6’4 second-year center, rounded out the Mystics’ frontcourt contributions despite not having a full practice with the team yet. She had struggled to get minutes for Indiana behind WNBA Rookie of the Year frontrunner Aliyah Boston, but the Mystics acquired her to help shore up their rebounding in particular.
She told reporters on Friday that the coaching staff had been “very clear and open” with her about her role and that her assignment is to “defend, rebound, and just do what I do best.”
Through her first two games for the Mystics, Egbo has played just over 30 total minutes. Thibault indicated that the main reason she didn’t play more on Sunday was simply that she didn’t know enough of the playbook yet.
Her seven rebounds in 15:36 minutes played were the most on the team, and several came in traffic or out of her area. On her final rebound with less than a minute to play, she beat three Sun players and a Mystics teammate for the ball and put it back up for a left-handed layup. It was her third layup of the game.
“She can defend; she can rebound,” Thibault said pregame. “She’s a threat rolling to the rim and on the block … I was actually impressed [on Friday] that, with a little bit of direction from our guards, she kind of figured out where to go. She’s got pretty good instincts, not unlike Shakira.”
To be sure, things were far from perfect on Sunday, including for the Mystics’ “big three.” They committed five turnovers and a defensive three-second violation between them, and Bonner and forward Alyssa Thomas totaled 50 points for the Sun. Thibault criticized his entire team for a lack of execution defensively.
But the shorthanded Mystics frontcourt almost helped upset the Sun anyway, and their performances suggest that there’s more post depth than was apparent earlier in the season. That could bode well for when Delle Donne and Austin return, potentially even allowing Thibault to roll out little-used three-big lineups.
The biggest reason for optimism might be the leadership by example that Hawkins provides, the consistency that Hines-Allen said often flies under the radar but that the world took notice of on Sunday.
“It’s what you love to see from somebody that’s been with us a long time,” Thibault said. “… It looks like she’s kind of in full realization of her game.”
The Next‘s Jacqueline LeBlanc 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.