June 27, 2024 

Taking stock of the Washington Mystics’ mounting injuries

Three starters, you’re out

For the second straight season, the Washington Mystics lead the WNBA in a statistic no one wants to lead in: total injuries. Through Wednesday, they have sustained a league-high 12 injuries, according to The Next’s injury tracker. Those injuries have led to 43 games missed, which is third-highest in the WNBA and twice the leaguewide median of 21.

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The Mystics’ original starting lineup has played just 16 minutes together all season. And on Thursday, when they host the Connecticut Sun, they’ll be down three of those starters.

Point guard Brittney Sykes and wing Karlie Samuelson are both expected to be out until the Olympic break in mid-July, the Mystics announced on Wednesday in a press release. Additionally, center/forward Shakira Austin will miss at least Thursday’s game as she continues to recover from offseason hip surgery.

Let’s break down the Mystics’ injury situation this season and each player’s timeline to return.

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Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen and wing Karlie Samuelson each reach one hand out to help up point guard Brittney Sykes, who is facing them with her back to the camera.
Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen (2) and wing Karlie Samuelson (44) help up point guard Brittney Sykes (20) during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Brittney Sykes

In the first quarter of the Mystics’ second game of the season on May 17, Sykes sprained her left ankle while trying to defend in transition. The Mystics were cautious with Sykes as she recovered because the shifty guard’s game is predicated on quickness and cutting, and she ended up missing 10 games.

When she returned on June 11, she looked like her usual self. She poured in 18 points, four assists and three rebounds and was the on-court leader the Mystics anticipated she would be this season. But in the fourth quarter, she drove to the basket, landed awkwardly and sprained her left foot. In total, she has played only 50 minutes in three games this season.

“It’s gonna be kind of fluid and seeing how she feels,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on June 14, after the Mystics’ medical staff had evaluated Sykes. “Feet are tricky, especially when you’re as explosive as she is. And that’s kind of what did it: an explosive, powerful step.”

The Mystics planned to reevaluate Sykes in two weeks, which they did this week. “I think at this point, it makes the most sense just to take it to the [Olympic] break,” Thibault said on Wednesday about Sykes’ timeline. Sykes was wearing a tall walking boot on the sideline over the weekend and cheered on her teammates as they won two straight games against the Dallas Wings.

“Obviously, we miss her presence on the floor, but she still has a presence vocally on the bench and she’s … giving her input [on] what she sees,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough told The Next on June 14. “She’s just another coach now; that’s how I look at it.”

Washington Mystics wing Karlie Samuelson holds the ball with both hands as Dallas Wings forward Natasha Howard pressures her. Samuelson has a black wrap on her left ring finger.
Washington Mystics wing Karlie Samuelson (left) looks to navigate around Dallas Wings forward Natasha Howard (6) during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Karlie Samuelson

Samuelson has played in and started all 17 games this season, but that streak will end on Thursday because of a fractured finger on her left hand. She first injured it late in the Mystics’ game against the Chicago Sky on June 14, when the tip of her ring finger got hit by a ball. She played through that injury, protecting her finger with what Thibault described as a “splint/wrap combo.”

“It’s on her nonshooting hand, but a lot of times for a player, that’s the hand they kind of receive the ball and catch the ball with, so not a lot of fun,” he added on June 19. “But she’s kind of toughing through it.”

The wrap didn’t seem to affect Samuelson’s play: In three games after the injury, she shot 14-for-27 from the field (52%), including 8-for-15 on 3-pointers (53%).

However, Samuelson’s finger got hit again late in Sunday’s game against the Wings, and she immediately crumpled in pain. Thibault said on Wednesday that it’s a different injury to the same finger, in “kind of a worse spot” than the first hit. Samuelson is now wearing a sizeable brace on her hand and finger to keep the finger in a good position as it heals.

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Among players who have appeared in at least nine games, Samuelson is the Mystics’ second-leading scorer this season, averaging 9.9 points on 36.8% shooting from 3-point range. She is also contributing 2.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 0.9 steals per game. Her averages in points, assists and steals are all career highs, and she is often drawing tough defensive assignments, including Indiana Fever rookie star Caitlin Clark and high-scoring Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale

“I like that she got 12 shots up,” Thibault said on Saturday after Samuelson scored 17 points against Dallas. “I think that’s always the biggest thing is can we get her enough shots, because if we do, I think she’ll make them. I thought she had a pretty quick trigger today, which is great.

“And then she’s got the challenge primarily of Arike on the other end. That’s a tough assignment, and to come down the other end and … she set a screen and rolled one time and got a layup. So she was showing us the whole game tonight.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin holds the ball with two hands near her left hip. Her feet are spread wide and she looks ahead to her right. Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas has her arms out as she defends.
Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (0) holds the ball as Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) defends during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Shakira Austin

Austin had surgery in late 2023 to repair a torn labrum in her left hip. She returned in time for the season opener and shone, producing 13 points, five rebounds and five blocks in under 20 minutes. But she has only played in five games since then, and none since May 31, when she banged her hip in a game against the New York Liberty. Initially, she was only expected to miss a few games, but her recovery wasn’t as straightforward as the team had thought.

“We’re trying to find some consistency in how she feels physically, just kind of trying to stabilize that whole area,” Thibault said on June 13. “It’s been just kind of up and down. … You think you’re close, and then you’re not as close.”

More recently, Thibault has said Austin has strung some good days together, but there is no clear time frame for her return.

Austin was expected to have a breakout season in her third year as a professional, adding more offense and off-court leadership to go with her advanced defensive instincts. She has shown flashes of that in six games played, even as she has struggled somewhat with her shot. She is averaging a career-high 11.7 points on 39.4% shooting from the field, plus 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.0 blocks per game.

In addition, the Mystics’ defense allows nearly 13 points fewer per 100 possessions when she is on the court than when she’s off. With Austin in and out of the lineup, Thibault said on June 19, the team’s defense has been just like her hip: inconsistent.

On the Washington Mystics bench, point guard Julie Vanloo claps both hands, forward Emily Engstler flexes one arm up and forward Aaliyah Edwards flexes both arms down in celebration. Vanloo and Engstler are in uniform, but Edwards is in street clothes.
Washington Mystics point guard Julie Vanloo (left), forward Emily Engstler (center) and forward Aaliyah Edwards (right) celebrate on the bench during a game against the Dallas Wings at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Other injuries

Rookie forward Aaliyah Edwards, who has started nine games in Austin’s place, is questionable for Thursday’s game with a lower back injury. Her back tightened up after she took contact late in a game on June 19 against Indiana, and though she improved daily after that, the Mystics have been cautious. “[We] don’t want to mess around with a back,” Thibault said on Sunday.

Edwards has been one of the Mystics’ bright spots this season, averaging 8.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. She is a contender for WNBA Rookie of the Year and was among the top 30 players in the first round of fan voting for the All-Star Game.

“It’s not hard to love Aaliyah,” Thibault said on Saturday. “She plays so hard. She lays it on the line.”

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Another rookie, 31-year-old point guard Julie Vanloo, hasn’t missed any games but has played through a left thumb injury — like Samuelson, to her nonshooting hand. She suffered the injury on May 31 against New York, and she has been wearing a hard custom brace underneath black tape to protect it.

Like Edwards, forward Myisha Hines-Allen missed the end of the Indiana game on June 19, and Thibault later said that she had “felt a little pull” in her groin. She was listed on injury reports for the two weekend games but played in both of them after testing out her groin in warmups.

Help coming

In response to Sykes and Samuelson’s injuries, the Mystics expect to sign a player to a hardship contract soon, Thibault said on Wednesday. A hardship contract gives teams who have two players out an opportunity to add one more, as long as the two players are each out for at least three weeks. The second injured player — in this case, Samuelson — must miss two games before the team can add a hardship player, so the Mystics will be eligible after this Saturday’s game against Las Vegas.

The Mystics will likely add a guard, Thibault said, and The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland reported that it will be “a familiar face.” Guards who have been on the team within the past two seasons and are not on WNBA rosters include Kaylynne Truong, Jakia Brown-Turner, Honesty Scott-Grayson, Li Meng, Jazmine Jones, Jennie Simms, Abby Meyers, Linnae Harper and Elena Tsineke.

The Mystics could also be eligible to add an emergency hardship player immediately because they have just nine available players with Austin also out. Though Thibault spoke on Wednesday about adding a player under a regular hardship contract, Copeland later reported that the Mystics would likely add a player on Thursday, which would only be possible under an emergency hardship.

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Either way, if the Mystics add a player, it will be the sixth straight season they’ve had to add at least one player on a short-term contract.

“We’ve kind of powered through all the adversity so far of people being out,” Thibault said. “And I think our mindset is good. We’d rather not be in this situation, but we are, and I think the ones we have that are able to play are up for the challenge.”

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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