The Washington Mystics currently find themselves vying to secure the eighth and final playoff spot. Sitting at 12-19 with just one game against the Lynx remaining, the Mystics face an uphill battle with many wondering if they have enough left in the tank for a postseason run. The question with this team has never been talent as, on paper, they have one of the most skilled and experienced rosters in the WNBA. The question has been if the Mystics have the right pieces available at the right time.
Washington has seen it all this season: big wins, big losses, games with only eight active players, and 12 different players rotating in and out of their starting lineup. That’s right. At some time or another this season, every player on the Mystics’ roster has recorded a start because they’ve been so short-handed. But through this difficult season, the Mystics have shown an indomitable spirit and—above all—a survivor’s mentality.
While a lot of conversation this season has surrounded the dominance of Tina Charles, whether Emma Meesseman would join the team after the Olympics, and if EDD’s return would help the Mystics cruise to the playoffs, all season long the Mystics have played with a next-woman-up mentality, showing that each player on the roster is capable of making an impact.
As we approach this do-or-die last game of the regular season, it’s time to shine a light on the core players that have been in the trenches fighting for the Mystics this year. And as the team prepares to play in what could be a playoffs-clinching game against the Lynx, there is no way I’d bet against the group of veteran Mystics players who have been stepping up this season.
After not playing in the WNBA during the 2020 season, 12-year veteran guard Shavonte Zellous has brought unmatched leadership and experience to the Mystics. The 2013 WNBA Most Improved Player, who won a championship with the Fever in 2012 and was an All-Star in 2013, has made five starts for the Mystics and has been a menace on both sides of the ball. In particular, she’s shown a tendency to go off against her former teams, scoring 17 and going 4-of-7 from three against the Storm on Sept. 7 and scoring 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting against the Liberty on May 21. However, one of her most memorable stretches came when playing against the Wings on Aug. 28. In a must-win game in which the Mystics were playing without EDD and Charles, Dallas maintained the lead as the fourth quarter approached. Zellous came off the bench in the fourth, hitting a clutch three to give the Mystics their first lead of the game and the momentum they needed to turn the game around. Zellous then stole the ball on the next defensive possession and tallied blocks on the following two defensive stanzas. Zellous finished with seven points, a rebound, two blocks and a steal in just seven minutes of play.
Ariel Atkins has been one of the most dominant Mystics players this season. The crafty guard has been DC’s top backcourt scoring option. She has tallied double-digit points in 25 of her 29 appearances, including a 32-point appearance against Atlanta on June 17. More than just a prolific scorer, Atkins is also responsible for locking down many of the league’s top guards, a role she has truly excelled at. Atkins’ defensive prowess has earned her WNBA All-Defensive Second Team honors in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (meaning she has earned the honor every year that she has played in the league). Atkins leads the Mystics in steals with 48 and is second on the team in points per game with 16.2.
Five-year pro Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is back with the team that drafted her, coming on as a late addition to the Mystics’ 2021 roster. After playing for the Mystics in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Maryland grad Walker-Kimbrough joined the Mercury in 2020. She then signed with the Dream for the 2021 season before being cut at training camp. After a brief stint as a hardship player in Connecticut, Walker-Kimbrough returned to the Mystics lineup and has started in 12 of her 15 appearances with DC. Walker-Kimbrough—a speedy, long defender who can also take it to the hoop and get to the line—enjoyed her highest scoring game of the season on Aug. 31 against the first-ranked Sun, leading the Mystics in scoring with 17. One of Walker-Kimbrough’s biggest contributions is her efficiency and productivity from the free-throw line. She has gone 30-of-35 from the line this season and free throws make up 26.7 percent of her overall points. Walker-Kimbrough’s contributions to the Mystics have only increased with time as she enjoyed her best game with the team in their battle with Chicago on Sept. 12, scoring 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting and recording a career-best six steals.
DC survived a five-game stretch without starting point guard Natasha Cloud, including a game in which Leilani Mitchell took over lead guard responsibilities and dropped 19 points on the then first-seed Storm. In Cloud’s absence, Mitchell—the only WNBA player to ever win Most Improved Player twice—played with poise and confidence, confirming her reputation as a lethal three-point shooter. She continues to tally valuable minutes for the Mystics (30:33 in their recent game against the Dream and 28:38 in their game against Chicago), showing a combination of skill and veteran leadership.
Without a doubt, Natasha Cloud is the backbone of the Mystics. After taking the 2020 WNBA season off to focus on social justice reform, 2019 WNBA champion Cloud returned to the league without missing a beat. The point guard does a bit of everything for her squad. She is first in assists (6.5 per game), third in steals (1.3 per game), fifth in scoring (8.2 points per game) and sixth in rebounding (3.7 per game). As the postseason hunt heats up, so has Cloud’s game as she has been a key factor in the Mystics’ four wins since the Olympic break. Though she went 0-of-3 from the floor against the Sparks on Aug. 24, she still nearly achieved a double-double, dishing out eight assists and collecting eight rebounds in the 78-68 win. She delivered another stellar performance in the Mystics’ win against Dallas on Aug. 28, scoring a team-high 21 points in a must-win battle without EDD and Charles. On Sept. 10, Cloud came up big once again against Atlanta, scoring 13 alongside six assists, five rebounds and four steals. In the Mystics’ battle against the Sky just two days later, she was unstoppable as she successfully drove to the hoop against much bigger defenders. She ended the day with 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds in 38 minutes of play. Cloud, a vocal floor general who makes contributions up and down the stats sheet, is committed to bringing the Mystics to the postseason and appears ready to do whatever it takes to get her team there.
Fifth-year WNBA guard Sydney Wiese had a very successful 2020 season with the Sparks, during which she had 15 starts as well as career bests in three-point percentage (47.2) and points per game (6.8). After joining the Mystics at the very end of the 2021 training camp, Wiese, who holds the PAC-12 record for most career three-pointers made during her career at Oregon State, has taken on more of a facilitating role in the Mystics’ offense, averaging 1.7 assists per game this season opposed to 1.2 assists per game in 2020. Wiese’s game as a ball handler and scoring threat has meshed well with the Mystics’ system, and she has been a valuable contributor, doing many of the small things that don’t show up on the score sheet.
After a standout season in the Wubble during which she was named to the 2020 All-WNBA Second Team, Myisha Hines-Allen has been excellent in spurts for the Mystics this season. Though she has only played in 17 games due to joining the team late because of overseas commitments and facing injury and illness during the season, Hines-Allen makes an impact when she is on the court. Starting in 16 of her 17 appearances, the versatile big from Louisville has scored in double digits in 12 games and has had her biggest games against the toughest competition. She led all players in scoring (32) and led the Mystics in rebounding (13) against the Aces on June 5 and tallied a game-high 17 rebounds against the Storm on Aug. 22. Hines-Allen is one of the most promising young talents in the league, and it will be interesting to see how her skills continue to develop in this Mystics system.
Joining the Mystics late in the season, Megan Gustafson has thrived in her role as a post off the bench. Gustafson, a player coach Thibault describes as always ready when her name is called, scored five points and corralled nine rebounds in just 14 minutes of play in a Mystics overtime win against Chicago on July 10. In just seven minutes of play on Aug. 28 against her former team, the Dallas Wings, Gustafson again flashed her productivity and tallied six clutch points, helping DC secure a much-needed victory. Her efficient seven points and seven rebounds—including an and-one basket immediately after entering the game—in only 12 minutes against the Lynx on Sept. 4 earned Gustafson a starting role in DC’s next game against the Storm, during which she scored a season-high 12 points. After a legendary college career with Iowa during which she won the 2019 Naismith Award, Gustafson struggled to find her footing during two seasons of limited play with Dallas. Brought in as additional post support while EDD, Myisha Hines-Allen and Erica McCall were injured, Gustafson has made the most of her time in DC and has shown the league that her game and range are expanding. In her 11 appearances with the Mystics, Gustafson has averaged career highs in rebounds per game (3.6), points per game (4.0) and field goal percentage (59.4). Gustafson’s successes, hustle and overall mentality have been refreshing for the Mystics as well as Hawkeye fans.
Initially drafted by the Fever in 2017, five-year veteran post Erica McCall played with Indiana for three seasons before being cut just ahead of the Wubble. She quickly bounced back and signed with the Atlanta Dream, representing Atlanta for one game before being waived. She was then immediately picked up by the Minnesota Lynx for the remainder of the season. McCall, a hardworking and reliable glass cleaner, has enjoyed her most successful season yet with DC. Traded to the Mystics from the Lynx in return for just a 2022 third-round draft pick, McCall has been a valuable pickup for DC, starting in six of her 22 appearances and averaging career bests in total rebounds (4.4 per game), offensive rebounds (1.5 per game), defensive rebounds (2.9 per game), points (4.1 per game) and minutes (15.5 per game). It’s hard to imagine any third-round pick putting up those numbers, making the McCall trade well worth it. McCall was particularly impressive in her first start of the season, collecting a game-high 13 rebounds—six of which were offensive—in the Mystics’ 101-72 win over the Liberty on May 21. Though she suffered an injury and missed several games just ahead of the Olympic Break, she’s returned full force and has been an important part of recent Mystics wins, chipping in seven points and eight rebounds against the Wings on Aug. 28 and eight points and eight rebounds against the Dream on Sept. 10.
Plaisance has been a pleasant surprise for the Mystics. After a difficult season in the Wubble in which she played for the Sun while recovering from a back injury, Plaisance returned to form this season with DC. Initially expected to be a rotation post coming off the bench, she has recorded starts in 11 of her 31 appearances. Plaisance’s most memorable performance came against Atlanta on June 17 when injuries and Charles’ absence left Plaisance as one of only two active forwards on the Mystics’ roster. Following a 101-78 loss to the Dream on June 13, there wasn’t much hope for the Mystics to pull out a win four days later with just eight active players. But Plaisance saved the day, playing 35 minutes and scoring a season-best 25 points and going 5-of-8 from three-point land in an exciting 96-93 Mystics win. As a versatile big who takes 3.7 three-point attempts per game, Plaisance’s presence outside the arc creates space for Charles and other posts to do work inside the paint. But more valuable than that, Plaisance has proved that she is able to roll with the punches, filling whichever role the Mystics need.
In a season filled with ups and downs, these Mystics players have stepped up in a variety of ways, always putting the team first. At the end of the regular season with their playoff hopes on the line, don’t be surprised if this team has a few tricks left up their sleeves, for their upcoming win-or-go-home battle against the Lynx. I trust this Mystics squad and their core unit of contributors to step up and bring Washington to the postseason.