April 12, 2022
Inside the Washington Mystics’ draft party
Delight and surprise from fans as DC drafts Austin, Williams
WASHINGTON – A full hour before the 2022 WNBA Draft, fans streamed into the upper level of Caesars Sportsbook in downtown Washington, DC, for the Washington Mystics’ draft party.
“As soon as they opened the doors, you could hear people coming up the steps, and I was like, ‘Wow,’” Mystics broadcaster Christy Winters Scott told The Next. “… I thought they would trickle in, but it was just like, [whoosh].”
Many of the 533 fans who RSVPed to attend had surely registered before the Mystics traded away the No. 1 overall pick last Wednesday for the Nos. 3 and 14 picks in 2022 and a potential pick swap in 2023. But that didn’t seem to dampen the mood.
Many fans wore orange WNBA hoodies and red jerseys and t-shirts with the names of Mystics players past and present, including Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Emma Meesseman and LaToya Sanders. They ordered so many chicken wings and nachos that servers’ trays seemed to magically refill with every lap around the Sportsbook. The televisions were almost as plentiful, with at least 30 screens of varying sizes all tuned to the WNBA Draft.
“Emma!” some of them cheered when ESPN’s coverage featured Meesseman as one of several free agents who changed teams this offseason.
Several fans told The Next that they attended the party because they were eager to socialize in person again. Before the picks were announced, they said that they had faith that Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault knew exactly what he was doing.
“He has a reason for [the trade],” one fan who has followed the Mystics since 2020 told The Next, “because, you know, I’d rather have two [picks] than one.”
“He is so good at spotting talent,” said Sandra Robinson, one of the team’s “Founding Fans,” or season ticket-holders since the team’s inaugural season in 1998. “And I remember when he was first hired, he had a lunch with some fans, and he told us that we were not going to be happy with all his decisions … but to trust him and he had a plan. And so 2019 we had a championship, so that was the plan. So now it’s like, whatever he says.”
Winters Scott and Kyle L. Jones, aka KyleOnTheMic, served as the night’s emcees, raffling off autographed T-shirts, rallying the crowd and analyzing the picks. “Who’s nervous?” Winters Scott asked as they counted down the minutes to the draft’s 7 p.m. start, encouraging anxious fans to take a sip of water.
Pax the Panda, the Mystics’ mascot, took a break from dancing, mingling and taking photos with fans when the WNBA announced that the Atlanta Dream were on the clock to select the No. 1 overall pick. He walked to the center of the room where Winters Scott and KyleOnTheMic were holding court, knelt facing the biggest television screen and drummed his fingers on the table in front of him as he waited.
“How are people feeling about the draft?” KyleOnTheMic asked after Atlanta selected Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard.
“Ask us after the second pick!” one fan replied.
The crowd cheered for both Howard and NaLyssa Smith, the second overall pick, as it basked in the joy of the evening and the anticipation of what was to come. But those cheers paled in comparison to the decibel level when ESPN showed a graphic of the Mystics’ returners from the 2019 championship team and offered a live look-in at the Mystics’ decision-makers. “Yo!!” one fan clad in a mélange of Mystics and Washington Wizards gear yelled. “There’s the crew!”
Mystics bring Austin home
And when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert revealed the Mystics’ first pick of the evening, Fredericksburg, Virginia native and current Mississippi center Shakira Austin, Caesars Sportsbook erupted. One fan stood and threw her arms in the air, and the crowd hung on every word of Austin’s subsequent interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
Another fan who has followed the Mystics since 2020 told The Next that it seemed like much of the crowd expected Thibault to pick Austin, which contributed to a great draft-night environment at the sportsbook. “It seems like everybody’s very plugged in online [to] the conversation,” she said. “So yeah, the vibes are really good because I think people are really paying attention.” That included the earlier fan who wanted two picks instead of one: She had written down Austin’s name on a slip of paper, not wanting to forget the name of the player she predicted Thibault would choose.
Austin was an honorable mention All-American at Mississippi and recorded over 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career, per the Mystics’ press release. This past season, the 6’5 senior averaged 15.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game and shot 46.3% from the field. As Austin pointed out in her post-draft press conference, she fits the mold of several long and versatile WNBA All-Stars, from Delle Donne and Meesseman to Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones and Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, especially if she can hone her 3-point shot.
Asked whether Austin’s shot-blocking, rebounding or defense most impressed him, Thibault said, “Can I mark all of the above?”
“When you have an opportunity to draft a [6’5] post player who’s athletic, can play both [frontcourt] positions, can run all day, I think it’s a rare thing,” he added. “And … when you have a young player at that position who buys into all the things at the defensive end, that’s a good way to make your mark with a team right away. You have somebody that talks on defense, communicates—you can see her pointing and getting people through screens and all those things—and then can block shots and rebound and start the break. That in and of itself would be a great job description, but the fact that she’s growing as an offensive player … I think we’re seeing a player in front of us that’s only going to get better, that in the long run for this franchise gives us a solid piece for a lot of years to come.”
“I think she has a tremendous upside,” Winters Scott said. “I think her motor on the glass is going to help the Mystics inside in terms of depth. … She has the ability also to stretch the floor, but I also think she’s ready to work. … I think she has the X factor that Mike Thibault’s looking for.”
Austin, who attended Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland and played her first two college seasons at Maryland, told reporters that her father was hoping she would end up in Washington, while her mother was pulling for Atlanta. “I think my dad’s prayer worked a little bit more,” she said, and she seemed excited about how it turned out.
“I feel like I got lucky. To be in a position to learn from vets and people who you just look up to as role players, it’s just an amazing feeling,” she said. “I feel like this opportunity is going to bring the best out of me, and I’m ready to just start a career in DC, back home.”
Since she was a college freshman, Austin has had “an it factor,” according to Thibault. The fans at the party clearly sensed it on Monday night as they celebrated the pick.
A mixed reaction for Williams
That contrasted with the mood around the No. 14 overall pick, UConn guard Christyn Williams, from everyone except Thibault.
The 5’11 Williams finished her Huskies career as the Ann Meyers Drysdale National Shooting Guard of the Year and one win away from a national championship. She averaged 14.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game this season while shooting 45.4% from the field and 33.8% from 3-point range.
Yet fans appeared shocked and disappointed when the pick was announced. Some clapped, but others stayed quiet or muttered to themselves. “That’s a reach,” one said. And when Winters Scott asked the room what the vibes were, several held out their hands and gave a “thumbs down” signal.
Unlike Austin, Williams didn’t have enough star power to be invited to the draft in New York, which she told reporters was the environment she’d dreamed of as a kid. Instead, she celebrated at a venue in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, with about 60 family and friends. (“Good move,” Thibault said upon hearing she wasn’t celebrating in Storrs, Connecticut.)
Williams said she thoroughly enjoyed her alternative celebration but wouldn’t forget her lack of invitation—or the teams that passed on drafting her.
“I will play with a chip on my shoulder … It’s all about motivation, me not getting invited and all the teams [that passed me] up,” she said. “… I believe Washington is a great fit for me. So I’m just grateful for the opportunity that Coach has given me, and I’m ready to get to work.”
Thibault wants Williams to keep that chip on her shoulder, but he expressed excitement about all that Williams can bring to Washington.
“The reason we made the trade the other day was to have an opportunity to draft somebody like Christyn,” he told reporters. “… The first thing I think of when I think of her is a winner. She’s won at every level, whether it be UConn, high school, USA Basketball, 3×3, all of those. And so we just felt like we were drafting somebody who can play at both ends of the court. She’s able to create shots for herself [and] for others, and she also knows how to play off the basketball. And then she’s going to get tested right away guarding all three perimeter spots …
“She fits the kind of player we want: a winner, unselfish, knows how to score but knows kind of when to score, too. But I think we’ll probably be yelling at her to shoot a little bit more.”
By the end of the night, Thibault was beaming—both from his draft results and from the news earlier in the day that his daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, was named head coach at Fairfield. “No question we got what we wanted” from trading the top pick, he said. “… We felt we got a player who was capable of being the first pick and then got an added bonus and got another player. … We feel like we got as good a draft as we could get out of all of this.”
Thibault believes that both Austin and Williams can help the Mystics defensively, something he wasn’t specifically prioritizing in the draft but had focused on in free agency. They will also add depth, which was the Mystics’ Achilles heel last season amid an unprecedented number of injuries.
But he’s not expecting either player to be an immediate game-changer. He joked that he hopes they can “clap really well on the bench and cheer” because they will probably be at the bottom of the depth chart to start the season. “It’s on them to earn those minutes, to take some minutes from the starters and be prepared when their turn comes,” he said.
Most of all, Thibault was smiling after Monday night because he sees a team taking shape. After the 2021 season ended one game shy of the playoffs, he told reporters that the team needed to reset its culture. On Monday, after a strong showing in free agency and a flurry of activity in the draft, he declared that reset mode was over:
“We’re in a ‘compete for a championship’ mode.”
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 and FanSided.