Preseason Ponderings – What we’ve learned this offseason, and what we still need to know

If there’s one takeaway from the Washington Mystics’ offseason, it’s excitement—the level of excitement this team exudes, from its established stars down to its rookies, is palpable. Now only a few days away from opening night, after an offseason mixed with old and new faces, and one that left many with more questions than answers, it’s time to take a look at what we’ve learned about the Mystics, and what we still need to know.

 

What We’ve Learned

The “new” team identity? Defense.

Is it really a new identity? Depends on who you ask. Point guard Natasha Cloud said, “It’s exciting for me; you know, I’m a defensive-minded player.” Ask Coach Thibault, and he’ll talk about the four all-defensive players on the team, not to mention third overall pick Shakira Austin and her defensive mindset on the floor. So, is it really a new identity? Probably not. Thibault and his players discussed the defensive side of the ball, so it appears that’s where the team’s focus is right now, which wouldn’t be the worst idea. Last season, the Mystics were third-worst in the league in defensive rating at 102.9, giving up 83.6 points per game, good for fourth-worst.

 

There isn’t a whole lot of concern for the offense… right now.

When asked about losing Tina Charles in the offseason to the Phoenix Mercury, Thibault confidently countered with, “We didn’t have Tina Charles in 2019 when we won the championship.” Well said—nothing more to unpack, right? Thibault seems confident now, as well he should. The Mystics’ 98.1 offensive rating last year was good for fourth in the league, so it will be something to keep an eye on as the season gets underway. Thibault admitted that the team did become “a little bit one-dimensional at times” last season, but have they added enough dimensions this offseason? If the team can be a “terror on both sides of the floor,” as Ariel Atkins put it, then this team should be in good shape moving forward.

 

What We’ve Learned and What We Still Need to Know

The Leadership Question.

This team is not bereft of experienced players, as their team is behind only the Phoenix Mercury (28.7) for average age at 27.8, but are there too many cooks in this kitchen? Who will be the vocal leaders on this team? Self-proclaimed “peanut butter and jelly,” the Alysha Clark / Elena Delle Donne duo is sure to have a much larger presence in the locker room this season. (Clark said she’s the peanut butter, because she loves it).

“Last year, Elena and Alysha didn’t travel with us,” Thibault said. “So, two strong personalities, two good players, are not with you to weather some rough spots [and]be a calming influence for some of the younger players.” Thibault already knows and expects these two to be prominent voices. Atkins agreed, complimenting Clark’s upfront leadership style as “something that we need.” Cloud discussed having Delle Donne’s “presence” back in the locker room, but who else is going to step up? Can Cloud? Atkins? Myisha Hines-Allen? Will they need other voices? This will be an important development to watch.

 

What We Still Need to Know

Is this team really as deep as it claims to be?

Every player who spoke boasted about the depth of this season’s roster. Many comments lamented the injuries last season; can this team withstand another injury bug hit? Did this team’s offseason additions bring the depth it needs to be a championship contender? If the Mystics are to win this season, they will need to be sure they not only survive the inevitable slew of injuries, but can withstand and thrive despite them. 

 

Can Cloud be enough of an offensive threat?

We know about her defensive chops, and we know she can facilitate (she finished second in the league with 6.4 assists per game), but can Natasha Cloud score and be a true offensive force? She finished 47th overall in scoring last season, and when filtering that to just guards, she was a surprisingly poor 40th overall. Amongst guards, she was third-worst in effective field goal percentage, which accounts for three-pointers, and fourth-worst in true shooting percentage, which factors in free throws. Overall, her offensive rating was a more respectable 34th, but it’s clear Cloud has room to grow when it comes to her offensive game. In the presser, even Cloud noted her passive ways, saying, “I enjoy putting my teammates in successful situations more than myself.”

Can she take that next step, helping to offset the scoring load Atkins, EDD, and Hines-Allen are likely to carry? 

 

See Also

Who is the backup point guard/guard?

This team has a ton of options for who will back up Cloud, and the battle in training camp will be fun to watch. Players like Linnae Harper,  familiar face Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Japanese import Rui Machida, and Maryland alum Katie Benzan will all be fighting for that backup 1 or 2 position. Thibault says that in his bench players, he wants players who understand what they can bring to the court. It will be interesting to see which player(s) can make the team, especially now with newly-drafted Christyn Williams waived due to her season-ending knee injury.

 

Can they improve offensively? 

While their numbers last year weren’t as bad as the defensive ones (sixth-best in pace, second in threes made), the Mystics still need to make improvements, especially in the consistency department, to ensure they can stay competitive with the top offenses in the league. As mentioned, whoever steps up—especially from the bench—will be key to their long-term offensive success this season.

 

What will Shelley Patterson bring to the team?

Long-time assistant in the league Shelley Patterson (who Thibault acknowledged has been in the league longer than he has) joins this team after a few seasons with the Liberty and nearly a decade with the Lynx. What will her player approach? What can she add to this team? Thibault says she’ll bring a “perspective” and a “balance” that will help this team and coaching staff grow, and he loves her ability to present a “reality check” for players. Her experience and championship pedigree (she’s been on five championship coaching staffs) should help this team take it to the next level.

 

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of WNBA.com and HerHoopStats.com. All quotes come from Washington Mystics’ April 18, 2022 media day. 

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