How Are The Washington Mystics Still This Good?

The WNBA community spent so much time worrying about who was not playing for the Washington Mystics that we overlooked a very interesting group that is. That group has come out guns blazing and rolled to a 3-1 start with wins against preseason favorites Connecticut and Seattle. Just like they did in 2019, Washington currently leads the league in offensive rating (110.1 points per 100 possessions) and net rating (13.1) by wide margins. Their defense has actually improved from last year (97.0 defensive rating).

Yet, it has not been all perfect for DC. The Mystics dropped a winnable game against Chicago, another title contender, on Saturday. After that game, Head Coach Mike Thibault said that we “saw the good and bad of our team tonight.” Coach T had a point, so I’m going to point out three things that are going right for the Mystics and one that’s not (because they are 3-1? sure!).

Keeping What They Can From Last Year

As I mentioned in the preseason, the Mystics are missing players that accounted for 55% of their offensive possessions last year. One would expect that missing all of that production would cause Washington’s offense to change substantially. Somehow, that has not happened. Coach T said before the Chicago game that 50% to 70% of the offense is the same as last year. 

The continuity in the offensive scheme comes from, well, continuity in the roster. Yes, the team is missing some of their most important players. But the engines of the offense—Emma Meesseman, Ariel Atkins, Aerial Powers, and Myisha Hines-Allen—have all played in the DC system for multiple years. They know where to be and they know what the offense is supposed to look and feel like. The continuity allows the team to keep their free-flowing, player-friendly system. 

Leilani Mitchell has also fit in really well. While her numbers aren’t gaudy, she is scoring efficiently and the team plays much better when she is on the court. Mitchell just knows where to be and can hit open threes at a high clip. Tianna Hawkins, the team’s sixth woman, has been injured for all but 2 minutes so far. It’s fairly reasonable to expect that the first four games are not the high point for DC’s offense, but close to what they can do all season. 

The Big 3 Building Blocks is Now the Big 4

Like I mentioned, the Mystics offense is taking off because of the four young vets that returned to the squad. Before the season, most fans and analysts would have pointed to Meeseeman, Powers, and Atkins as the reason for hope. Myisha Hines-Allen has simply powered her way into the Mystics core. 

Her averages over the first four games are just staggering: 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2 steals. Last year, Myisha Hines-Allen (“MHA”) averaged 2.3 points a game. That’s a 660% increase in scoring per game. LOL. 

It’s not just the stats, though. Myisha is impacting the bottomline for DC. They score at an all-time best rate when MHA is on the court (120.8 ORtg) and an all-time worst rate when she isn’t (71.3 ORtg). Of players with at least 75 minutes played, Hines-Allen currently leads the league in difference of net rating when she is on and off the court (52.7). 

Going forward, those fun numbers will normalize. But the Mystics believe that Hines-Allen is a big part of the future. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. She can grab a rebound and initiate a fast break on her own. Her passing instincts are sharp, even if the passes are not crisp every time yet. Hines-Allen provides heavy machinery against bigger centers on defense while also pulling them out of the paint on offense with her shooting. 

Basically, she brings the one thing the Mystics lacked last year: a big bully. Aerial Powers bullies, but her size limits how she can do it. At 6-1 and 200 pounds, Hines-Allen can bully whoever she pleases and does. 

Defensive Versatility

The Mystics don’t pretend to hang their hat on defense like most teams do. They understand that good defense is the bedrock of a good team. But Coach T and his group don’t continuously tell the media that defense is their identity because it’s not. Great offense will always be how a Mike Thibault-coached Mystics team will win. However, assistant coaches Asjha Jones and Eric Thibault deserve a ton of credit for Washington’s defense looking solid so far.
The Mystics are 4th in defensive rating, which will likely decline a bit. But last year’s championship squad finished 6th in that category, proving they can win with a middle-of-the-pack defense. The Mystics held Breanna Stewart to 15 points on 35% shooting and forced Candice Dupree into an inefficient 5-of-14 shooting night. 

Washington does have good defensive personnel in Ariel Atkins, Aerial Powers, and Myisha Hines-Allen. All three of those players can switch up or down with relative ease. Atkins is on her way toward being one of the best defenders in the league, in my opinion. Powers can seemingly make anyone uncomfortable when covering them, as you can see from this DeWanna Bonner post-up. (It’s the second tweet below)

Another thing that the Mystics are doing well is trusting their guards on switches. The most common directive is for guards to front post-ups when forced onto bigs after switching. In this video, you can see Shey Peddy holding her own against Cheyenne Parker long enough for Myisha Hines-Allen to pressure the ball. 

Washington can’t do this on every pick-and-roll, but successfully fronting this post-up shows a high level of defensive communication. Whereas other teams are struggling to get in sync on defense, the Mystics at least have a good idea of what their teammates will do and how to react on that end. 

Emma Not Optimal, Yet

Not everything has been great for Washington. In their loss to Chicago and late in the Connecticut win, the team lost focus on both ends as the offense stalled out. Some of this is due to fatigue, some of it is just regression. But some of it is that the Mystics have not quite figured out their late-game plan yet. 

Last season, Elena Delle Donne and/or Kristi Toliver could seemingly create a bucket out of thin air for the Mystics. Ideally, Emma Meesseman would take over the role of crunch time scorer. She has been good in bursts this year, but not to the level expected of a Finals MVP: 11.3 points per game on 44.7% shooting. We could expect her efficiency to go down as she is now the first option with more pressure and her teammates are doing the heavy lifting right now. But Coach T knows that she needs to get going.

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“Over the course of time, we would like to see [Emma] score a bit more. I think we will need her to,” said Thibault before the Mystics’ win against Seattle. “But she has seen a lot of attention from defenses and her teammates have stepped up. I think she’s capable of averaging 16-17 points per game. As long as we have balanced scoring, I’m not going to try to force it. I want it to come naturally.”

The scoring will come naturally as Meesseman gets comfortable working with Myisha Hines-Allen and the extra pressure coming from defenses. But she can also do a better job of taking care of the ball and making shots from close range. 

Meesseman has been a great distributor this year. She is putting up 5.3 assists per game and keeping the Mystics offense moving. But, Emma may also be putting too much pressure on herself to be the distributor, which has led to some bad turnovers. 

She is averaging three turnovers a game, which is by far the highest of her career. She was a big part of DC’s legendarily careful offense last year. But she has already matched or surpassed her 2019 high for turnovers in a game three times. Granted, she has the ball more and is getting pressured more. She just needs to avoid the live ball ones that come from her trying to do too much. 

The shooting from close range seems to be mainly from Emma rushing shots. Last season, Emma shot 51.4% (37/72) from 5 to 14 feet. So far in 2020, she is shooting just 31.8% (7/22) on shots from that range. She’s a great player, but Emma hasn’t faced this type of pressure in the WNBA (or at least in a long time). I’m sure Mike Thibault is not hand waving this stuff. But I’m also pretty sure we all believe that Emma will be just fine and fix at least these smaller issues. 

The Road Ahead

As for the Mystics, they have a massive test against the Las Vegas Aces on Wednesday and then a much easier test against the Sabrina-less New York Liberty. They will need to bounce back from a tough loss against Chicago where the team looked gassed and out of sync at times. Yet, Aerial Powers certainly feels that the Mystics aren’t letting that Chicago loss stop their momentum.

“We are going to bring the energy in the next game. *A seemingly celebratory yell burst through in the background of the zoom press conference* We’ve heard Chicago celebrating and I think that’s what we needed: a slap in the face. They should be celebrating beating us, we’re a really good team and we beat ourselves tonight. So the energy will be there for the next game,” said Powers. 

The team has to regroup and find energy for a brutal 6 games in 10 days stretch. That’s scary for Washington. But it’s scarier for the rest of the league that they may just be getting started. 

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