In the world of analytics, numbers are everything—they can tell a story by indicating past trends and forecasting future potential. In basketball analytics, this is no different. Advanced analytics, like effective field goal percentage, player efficiency rating, and points per 100 possessions, are all the craze these days. At the same time, there is a qualifier—the numbers analytics create are all descriptive, not predictive. This means that they tell the story of what has been, not necessarily what will be. Basically, take these numbers with a grain of salt as they will likely fluctuate over the course of the full season (and don’t use them for future betting purposes).
But that’s not why you called. Let’s take a closer look at some of the analytics that help explain the Mystics’ season so far.
One of those all-important numbers is win shares. The win shares stat reveals how many wins a player adds to their team based on their offense, defense, and playing time. The higher the number, the more wins they are adding as an individual. Ariel Atkins, for example, is fourth in the league with 1.9 win shares so far this season. That’s a pretty impressive feat considering that do-it-all former MVP Elena Delle Donne is back (no pun intended), not to mention Atkins is playing alongside a stacked veteran group of players. This win shares mark speaks to the kind of player Atkins has the capacity to be, and it will be interesting to see how much higher that number climbs.
As discussed previously, the Mystics added depth to their bench, and it’s shown so far. The Mystics bench averages 20.5 PPG, which is up significantly from the 16.0 PPG they averaged all of last year. This is also being achieved during a season when there are a lot of player-availability and roster changes from game to game. As Atkins put it, “Whoever puts on a jersey that night we have to rock with [them].” The Mystics have only played one game where every member of their 11-person squad was healthy and active. A big reason for this scoring improvement is the quality of players coming off the bench. Recently, Myisha Hines-Allen, a starter for most of the past two years, has come off the bench while she finds her offensive rhythm because others (looking your way, Shakira Austin) have stepped up their games. Add in Kennedy Burke, a quality pick up from the Seattle Storm who is averaging nearly 9.0 PPG while splitting time between starting and coming off the bench, and Washington has a number of places to find its offense when others are having off nights.
Another aspect to look at is the team’s improved shooting overall this season compared to last year. The Mystics’ field goal percentage this year has gone from a dreadfully dead-last 41.0 percent last year to a more acceptable 44.2 percent, good enough for fifth in the league in 2022. Additionally, the Mystics’ effective field goal percentage, which adds greater value to the three-point shot, has improved from 47.5 percent last year (ninth best in the league) to 49.7 percent this year (fourth in the standings). This better shooting surely speaks to having Delle Donne and Alysha Clark back in addition to better quality players off the bench. It also speaks to the continued development of Atkins because even with Natasha Cloud’s and Hines-Allen’s shooting percentages dipping a bit early on so far this season, Atkins’ overall field goal percentage has jumped from 40.7 percent last year to 46.6 percent so far this year.
The Mystics’ turnover game has also greatly improved. To ensure we have a strong enough sample size, I looked at players who average 25.0 minutes or more a night for their respective teams. Even with a player as good as Delle Donne, you’d expect her to have some rust after being out for so long, but she actually has the lowest turnover ratio (the percentage of the plays that end in a turnover) in the league at 4.9 percent. This is not super surprising, as Delle Donne is usually in the mid-single digits, but the fact that she’s missed basically two seasons and is still taking care of the ball at an elite level is telling. Applying the same minutes parameter, Cloud should not be overlooked either as she has the third-best assist/turnover ratio in the league at 2.46 (this means she averages nearly two and a half assists for every one turnover she commits). These two players are big reasons why the Mystics as a team are third in the league in turnovers, averaging only 13.8 turnovers per game. The team also scores 1.22 points per possession off opponents’ live-ball turnovers, which are turnovers that don’t result in a clock stoppage. This stat is good for sixth in the league and is critical for the Mystics’ offensive attack on nights when their half-court game becomes too predictable or inconsistent.
As just mentioned, not everything this team does offensively inspires a sense of mysticism (okay, this time sorry not sorry for the pun). I’ll do a deeper dive into the Mystics’ offensive flow and play in an upcoming article, but for now, suffice it to say the name of the game for the ‘Stics is the same for cooking a brisket—slow. This team has the slowest pace in the league this year, averaging just a shade over 94.0 possessions per game. This hurts their offensive flow, and because they are a team that at times is better suited to run, opponents can work to shut down the Mystics’ fast-break chances knowing they won’t do much in the half court. For a team that has as much star power as this one does, that’s really shocking. The team’s half-court game isn’t helped by the fact that they take 15.5 seconds per possession, most in the league*. While this team does score 1.01 points per possession (a four-way tie for third in the league), it doesn’t really help matters when your starting point guard and facilitator of the offense, Cloud, has the slowest pace among players playing at least 25.0 minutes a night at 92.78 possessions per game. This results in the offense growing stagnant with a lot of players standing around watching and forces a lot of isolation plays with players ending up taking bad shots late in the shot clock.
While the Mystics’ offense has had its struggles at times, the defense has been as advertised. Washington’s defense has held opponents to a paltry 73.4 PPG so far this year, best in the WNBA (according to HerHoopStats). This is a striking improvement from last season’s 83.6 points allowed per game, which was only good for ninth in the league. Additionally, the team is giving up only 92.2 points per 100 possessions, fourth in the league. Last year, in contrast, they were at a pretty miserable 102.9 opponent points per 100 possessions, good for 10th.
A lot of the Mystics’ defensive improvement is likely due to the return of Clark, who is known for her incredible defensive capabilities, but the team’s defensive prowess is also the result of the awesome play of third overall pick Shakira Austin. While Austin’s play has dipped just a bit to 13th in the league with a 85.1 defensive rating (which accounts for how many points a player allows per 100 possession), Austin was fourth in the league as recently as earlier this week with a 79.3 defensive rating. After a 2021 season with the defensively-challenged Tina Charles and no one else to pick up the slack, Austin’s frontcourt presence has been a breath of fresh air for a team that simply could not compete last year. Austin’s chemistry with Delle Donne has been impressive to watch as the two have made life miserable for WNBA bigs all season long. Not to be forgotten either is defensive stalwart Atkins, who—among players averaging at least 25.0 minutes a night—is 11th in the league with a 93.2 defensive rating.
However, the work has not been Austin’s or Atkins’ alone. Cloud has been her usual defensive menace this season. Among players averaging 25.0 minutes a night, Cloud has the seventh-best defensive rating at 90.7. That is some fine yeoman’s work being done by Cloud night in and night out, and with her and Atkins pestering the backcourt opponents, it makes things much easier defensively for the rest of the team.
Beyond Clark, Austin, and Cloud, the Mystics squad as a whole have worked together to put up strong defensive performances. The Mystics have sharpened their three-point defense too. They only allow 33.3 percent from deep, seventh in the league, besting last year’s number—which landed them in dead last in this metric—by over 4.0 percent. The team as a whole has the fourth-best defensive rating in the league at 94.4, echoing the team-first defense this team plays. While their offensive game can look disjointed at times, the cohesion and ability to gel together quickly on the other end of the floor have allowed this team to be a nightly force.
The team theme this year has been “everybody eats,” and it’s clear that has been the foundation for the Mystics’ solid 7-4 start to the season. Different players are stepping up at different times to help this team do what it must to win, and this is proving successful for a team with arguably the strongest chemistry in the WNBA.
Of course, the year is still young, and there is a lot of basketball left to be played. The hope is to make this a semi-regular “check-in” throughout the season to help us better understand what we’re seeing on the court. There will be more to demystify about the Mystics. Stay tuned.
All numbers are through June 5th. Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of WNBA.com.
*Stats as of 5/29