2020 Season Preview: Washington Mystics

Arial Atkins playing

The Washington Mystics are going to have one of the odder championship defenses in recent memory. While the Storm lost Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird last year, they had their other 3 starters from their championship team. The Mystics are returning 1 starter Ariel Atkins, and 1 bench player who played starter minutes, Emma Meesseman.

That said, this is a team that does still have talent and is the best run organization in the WNBA, apologies to the Storm and Lynx. Coach Mike Thibault has already talked about this team shooting Houston Rockets’ level of 3s, which I for one would love to see. Ariel Atkins may be ready to take on more responsibility. Emma Meesseman has the chance to show just how good she is with a high usage rate.

The playoffs is in reach for this team, but a win in the playoffs would be a testament to players stepping up and great coaching. Predicting how players who are effective in smaller roles respond to heavier usage is one of the hardest things in basketball to do, see free agency, and so the range of possible outcomes for the Mystics is particularly wide. 

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions: Leilani Mitchell

Notable losses: Tina Charles (medical exemption) Elene Delle Donne (injury/ sitting out) LaToya Sanders (opt out), Natasha Cloud (opt out), Kristi Toliver.

Guards: Leilani Mitchell, Kiara Leslie, Shay Peddy, Aerial Powers. 

Wings: Ariel Atkins, Emma Meesseman, Essence Carson

Bigs: Tianna Hawkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, Alaina Coates

Tina Charles and EDD bring the roster to 12, so these are the ten players the team will actually have to play with. If a player is injured, the team may be able to get an injury exception to add another player, but given the time needed to quarantine and enter the clean site, unclear how practical that will be. Let’s hope for limited injuries so we do not have to find out.

Kiara Leslie was the Mystics #1 draft pick in 2019, but was injured all of last year. She is a dark horse candidate for rookie of the year, since she never played last year. I do not think she will get sufficient usage to earn it, even if she plays well, but it will be nice to see her play finally.

Lineup Breakdown:

Ariel Atkins is the only returning starter, so needless to say she is an important piece of this team. She has in her first two years excelled as a prototypical 3 and D player in a small usage role. Now she will get the opportunity to ramp up her usage. She has had a positive, but not great, assist to turnover ratio, so it might work. Whether she can run pick and rolls as a ball handler, or create her own shot with any consistency, is something to watch.

Emma Meesseman would have started for any other team in the WNBA, she just plays the same position as EDD and so it made sense to use her as a super sub. Now, Meesseman will get to be the featured player, and we will get to see how close to the top 10 of the WNBA she really is as the go-to player. 

The gap between EDD and Meesseman is larger on defense than it is on offense, something that was noticeable in the finals when the Sun dominated inside when EDD could not play. Thibault will have his hands full crafting a good enough defense with Meesseman and without LaToya Sanders.

As great a passer as Meesseman is, this is the year for her to really embrace her shooting and scoring, as this Mystics team is not going to be the humming offensive machine of year’s past. Losing EDD, Toliver, and Cloud means the team has lost their 3 best shot creators all in one go. Meesseman should shoot every time she is even semi-open, like EDD does, which should unlock her passing even more.

Leilani Mitchell played well last year, but at 35 the Mystics are relying on her maintaining her level of play from last year. She should be able to keep up her passing and shooting, as those age well, but the Mystics will have to find their slashing from other players. She shot 44% at the rim last year, compared to 78% for Kristi Toliver and 62% for Natasha Cloud. 

Going from Phoenix, where Mitchell was their best shooter, to Washington where even this year they will be playing a lot more shooting than the Mercury may improve Mitchell’s numbers, but likely not to the level of Toliver and Cloud. 

The other guard spot is a mystery for this team. It may change by the game as Thibault figures out what he has. For now, I will pencil in Aerial Powers, as she was the first guard off the bench for this team last year that is still with the team. Powers was effective as a microwave scorer last year and is a decent on ball defender.

The biggest question with her as a starter is whether she can create at all for others. A negative assist to turnover ratio last year is not a good sign, but with more playing time and experience, hopefully she can bring down her turnover numbers and improve her playmaking. 

Center will be by committee. Tianna Hawkins should get the most important minutes, as she is the only center who can provide any spacing on this team. She was yet again another Mystics player who was effective in a bench role, who will now get to do more. An adequate defender as a backup, she might be overtaxed against frontline bigs, but should provide good effort. 

None of these players, with maybe the exception of Leilani Mitchell, are going to be playing in the roles that they have succeeded in to this point in the WNBA. My hunch is Meesseman plays well in a bigger role, while Atkins struggles a bit as she has to adjust as all the attention her teammates used to garner shifts to her. This is a team that should make the playoffs, but winning a game would be a victory.