As any good coach knows, watching film is where your bread is buttered. It’s where you can break down the plays that worked well and how to replicate them while also showing your staff and your players what needs to be done differently. Put simply, it’s the backbone of any successful basketball program, but that doesn’t mean us casual fans can’t also learn a thing or two about a team from watching film. I rewatched each game to find some important themes in the Washington Mystics’ offensive X’s and O’s so far this season to help understand what has been working well and what is still a work in progress.
The pick-and-roll is a staple of any basketball system, and the Mystics’ system is no different. The team routinely uses the pick-and-roll to open looks for their bigs or—if the defense doesn’t communicate well—find an open jumper for the ball handler.
Here we have Myisha Hines-Allen orchestrating a pick-and-roll with Rui Machida, and it exemplifies a small wrinkle that we see often: Myisha Hines-Allen gets a bad angle on her defender, so she switches to the other side to redo her screen. Machida takes that screen, and both defenders follow her, leaving Hines-Allen for a wide-open floater and a bucket.
Hitting the roller for an open bucket tends to work really well when the screener’s defender hedges or the defender jumps out high to help guard the ball handler while the ball handler’s original defender recovers off the screen, usually leading to wide-open rolls to the basket.
This pick-and-roll action above was obviously part of the game plan in this matchup. As Natasha Cloud curls off the screen, her defender goes above Shakira Austin’s screen (meaning she stays tight on Cloud to not let her get free), but Austin’s defender hedges to try and trap Cloud. Cloud sees the open Austin rolling strongly to the hoop for the easy score. The Mystics have been inconsistent this year with capitalizing on these types of opportunities. At times, Cloud and even Machida have been slow to see the open roller, passing a second or two too late and creating bad turnovers.
One important variation of the pick-and-roll is the Spain pick-and-roll. This begins with a normal pick-and-roll, but a third player comes in to screen the roller’s defender to help open up additional space. While a basic pick-and-roll usually leaves the defense to defend against a 2-on-1, a Spain pick-and-roll leaves the defense to defend against a 3-on-2.
While the play above doesn’t come to full fruition (poor offensive chemistry is something that has plagued the Mystics this season), you can see Hines-Allen handing the ball off to Ariel Atkins before setting the screen for her. At the same time, Alysha Clark’s job is to come up from the post to screen Hines-Allen’s defender to give Atkins multiple options to go with the ball, but Atkins smartly splits the defenders and gets a good look at the basket.
A fun variation on the pick-and-roll is the pick-and-pop, which is often utilized when you have bigs capable of shooting long distance. Luckily, Elena Delle Donne and Tianna Hawkins fit that bill, so the Mystics can make good use of the pick-and-pop.
Here Delle Donne sets herself as if she is going to screen Cloud’s defender, Kahleah Copper. Copper sees this and goes under the screen (behind the screener to avoid being screened), but Delle Donne isn’t actually screening. She is faking the screen to flare out for an open three.
This is where Cloud’s impressive basketball IQ really shines. Give credit to the Mystics’ scouting department here to recognize that the Chicago Sky often hedge their screens, leaving both defenders on the ball handler. Knowing this, Cloud waves off Austin, who—despite her incredible rookie season so far—has only attempted one three-pointer. Cloud then cues Hawkins (a career 31.0 percent three-point shooter) to set the screen, force the defenders to follow Cloud, and pop out for the open look.
Just like other offenses, the Washington Mystics use many different kinds of screens other than a simple screen in a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop.
A down screen is when a player sets a screen toward the baseline to free up a player who will usually move closer to the top of the key to get an open look. This is done to get your best shooters as many open looks as possible.
A down screen, or “pin down,” was attempted here by Shatori Walker-Kimbrough on Atkins’ defender over in the far corner. This screen did not work, leaving Atkins scrambling to get open and leading Hines-Allen to take the somewhat contested three. The Mystics’ lack of screen efficiency has hurt them at times when getting into their offensive sets. When you don’t screen well, your sets become unusable, leading to resetting the set over again or going into a new one. Since the Mystics have such a slow pace already, they don’t give themselves a lot of time to operate, leaving basically one shot to get it right. When they don’t, broken sets/plays like this occur.
But when the down screen is done right, however, it’s nearly as money as Atkins is from deep.
The Mystics also use cross and back screens to help open up looks for their shooters. A cross screen is a screen set by a player cutting to the other side of the floor.
Note here how Hines-Allen sets the screen for Atkins as she cuts along the baseline to the opposite corner for an open three-pointer. When done well, cross screens have worked wonders to open up looks for Atkins and Cloud so far this year.
A staggered screen is when two offensive players set a screen for another player. It is staggered because they are standing in a staggered position to make it more challenging for the defender to get around them.
On the weak side in the video (the side opposite the ball handler), we can see both Machida and Hines-Allen attempt to set a staggered screen for Walker-Kimbrough. When these screens work, they open up clear cutting lanes for at-the-rim scorers to score quickly and efficiently.
The wrinkle to a lot of these off-ball screens is the ram screen, which involves a player receiving an off-ball screen prior to them setting an on-ball screen. This helps eliminate or hinder a hedging defender because the defender who would be hedging the ball handler will be caught in the initial screen and have to fight through it to get to their position to hedge.
Here Hawkins receives the off-ball screen from Cloud, which slows down Hawkins’ defender, Emma Meesseman, and allows Hawkins to get a clean and sharp angle on her screen for Machida. Note the separation this ram screen action creates, and if the Mystics didn’t play at a snail’s pace, that separation could allow Hawkins to pop or roll without much difficulty.
The drive-and-kick is another option the Mystics like to orchestrate, as it helps condense the defense and give open looks on the perimeter. The drive-and-kick is simple—the ball handler drives into the lane, hoping to get to the rim and get an easy bucket or foul. Since the defense tends to collapse to prevent the open look, this action leaves perimeter players wide open for great looks at the basket. The driving ball handler then kicks the ball out to an open player for a look.
Note how Atkins’ defender rotates over from the weak side to stop Clark’s dribble penetration, but Clark sees that and kicks it out to Atkins for a wide-open three-pointer.
A variation on this is the drive-and-kick hammer action. A hammer screen involves a flare screen (a screen that allows a shooter on the wing to move freely to the corner on the same side as the screener) on the weak side. While the play below doesn’t totally represent it, you can see how once Cloud uses the Austin screen, she drives and then kicks it out with a cross-court pass to EDD. This works because Hines-Allen comes across from the corner to set a hammer screen on EDD, allowing her the space to shoot the three.
One of the biggest weaknesses of this team has been their ball movement, especially lately. Too frequently, this team stands still while one player provides all the dribbling for any one possession. This stagnant offensive approach has had the exact result you’d expect—a lack of scoring that has hurt the Mystics in most games, including the ones they’ve won. But when they move the ball well, especially when they can reverse the ball in the half court from one side to the other and force the defense to shift and open up lanes, it allows the entire offense to flow more effectively.
There are two strong points of ball movement here. The first is Atkins smartly seeing the open Walker-Kimbrough in the corner and faking a pass to the post before dishing out to Walker-Kimbrough to get an open look. The second is Walker-Kimbrough following her shot (heads to the paint to retrieve the rebound) in order to allow Hines-Allen to box out (sort of) and get the offensive rebound, which leads to another great pass to the cutting Walker-Kimbrough for an easy layup.
Another important aspect of ball movement is having the personnel to actually do it and do it well. It is especially valuable when you have bigs who can make good passes for easy looks at the rim.
Here Machida makes a good pass to an open Hawkins, but instead of Hawkins shooting it herself, she threads the needle with a great over-the-top pass to find Austin where she can get the ball for the easy two points.
One of the areas where the Mystics have struggled the most is in ball reversal, which is something they’ve discussed a few times in postgame availability so far this year. Ball reversal is the ability to move the ball from one end of the court to the other, shifting the defense in the process and opening lanes and looks at the basket. When done efficiently, the ball is moved quickly, which makes the defense scramble a bit to cover the open players. If the opposing team is playing good team defense, the close-outs are sharp and don’t leave much time for the offense to get a good look.
Sometimes even with decent close-out prowess, like the Sky demonstrate here, the ball reversal is too crisp and the flow is strong enough for the players to still score. This is something the Mystics must do more, especially since their pace is so slow. If you aren’t going to run-and-gun fast break to prevent the defense from getting back in transition and setting up shop, you have to be able to move the ball effectively in the half court to ensure you get high-quality shooting chances. Too often, the Mystics play a form of “hero ball,” where they have one person dribbling with everyone else standing still. They inevitably wait too long and force up a low-quality, tough shot and waste the possession.
What the Mystics’ Offense Can Ideally Look Like
When the Mystics’ offense does manage to come together, however, it can be a thing of beauty.
In this example, we have a combination of both Chicago and Miami action. In Chicago action, there’s a screen followed by a dribble handoff (DHO), and in Miami action, it’s the reverse. In this instance, we have a screen, a DHO, and then a screen-and-roll, so I’m calling it a hybrid.
We first see Hines-Allen setting the off-ball screen for Atkins, who then takes the pass from Cloud. Cloud immediately cuts in Atkins’ direction for the handoff, and Hines-Allen follows with a screen for Cloud and a roll to the basket. The defense got caught up in the screening action, forcing a switch where forward Emma Meesseman was left guarding Cloud on the perimeter. Big mistake. Cloud sees her advantage with the step-back open look and drains it.
One of the most complete offensive possessions I’ve seen from the Mystics this year came on their opening possession against the Chicago Sky on June 5.
While Chicago’s defense is actually really good on this play, the Mystics’ ability to go into their second and third options on the set makes this a win for the Mystics. While the play isn’t technically broken, it doesn’t look super in sync. But what’s working for them is that everyone is moving and—better yet—everyone seems to know where they are supposed to be, which can’t be said for a lot of their possessions this season.
The play starts with an exit screen (a screen designed to get a shooter to the corner) for Hines-Allen. The screen isn’t fully set, but she gets to the spot anyway. This is followed up with that same Chicago/Miami-hybrid action. Again, the Sky hedge this, and Meesseman is able to front Austin and not let her get a good look as she rolls to the bucket. This pushes the Mystics to try another screen action, and they get lucky when Kahleah Copper tries to jump the pass. Hines-Allen fakes it and instead dishes to Clark, opening a clear cutting lane to the basket for the bucket.
Again, this was not a clean-cut offensive possession, and maybe it wasn’t executed entirely how head coach Mike Thibault drew it up. However, this play speaks to the ability the Mystics have to move without the ball and set up multiple layers of action to get a good look.
The Washington Mystics have the capacity to be one of the better offensive teams in the league this season. Their biggest issue has been that they inconsistently run plays like the ones run here against Chicago. If they can move on from their stagnant, isolated basketball ways, they can continue to evolve and make themselves an even more potent basketball team.
I’ll do a breakdown of the Mystics’ defensive structures a bit later in the season. Stay tuned!