The Washington Mystics are arguably the WNBA team with the most expectations on them to begin the season.
The acquisitions of former league MVP Elena Delle Donne and three-point specialist Kristi Toliver over the winter has made the team instant contenders in the minds of many, despite the failure of the franchise to post a record over .500 in five of the last six years.
But though the increase in more star power – and more talent overall – greatly ups Washington’s potential, coach Mike Thibault says success will take time.
“It feels like we have a good blend to our team, but we will be a work in progress,” he said. “It will be a bumpy road, and we probably won’t be where we want to be until about mid-year. We need to develop a rhythm.”
The team gives “revamped roster” a whole new meaning.
Delle Donne averaged 21.5 points and seven rebounds per game for the Chicago Sky last year. Her demand for a trade in the offseason sent Washington center Stefanie Dolson and guard Kahleah Copper to Chicago. The Mystics also dealt away Bria Hartley and Kia Vaughn to the New York Liberty.
First-round draft pick Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and second-rounder Jennie Simms have wasted no time impressing Thibault, who said their learning curve has been more of a blip.
“They both been doing well, and they’re both very poised,” he said. “The (increased) pace and physicality got them a bit the first two days, but they got their feet under them because they’re both smart and pick things up quickly. They don’t have to be told things a second time.”
Two other newcomers Thibault is excited about are center Krystal Thomas and forward Asia Taylor, for whom he had high praise.
“They are underrated players,” he said. ‘They’re both tough and smart, and they’re a good fit for us.”
Returning to Washington after sitting out last season injured is forward Tianna Hawkins, whom Thibault is happy to have again. Players coming back from last year include leading scorer Tayler Hill, starters Ivory Latta and Emma Meesseman, Natasha Cloud, Ally Mallot, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and LaToya Sanders.
But even in that core of stability, there will be moving pieces.
Latta, the team’s longtime emotional leader, is still recovering from a torn meniscus that cut her season short last year, and her return to the court is uncertain. Meesseman will be gone for about a month, beginning in late May, when she will play for the Belgian National Team. Toliver, who helped propel the Los Angeles Sparks to a Championship last season, is still playing overseas and won’t arrive at training camp for at least another week.
One emphasis for in the first week has been defense, which has been a weak point for the offensive-minded Mystics, who have four of the league’s top 19 scorers. Stepping up on the other end of the court is heavy on the minds of athletes.
“We don’t want to just be known for our offense,” Hawkins said. “Every game is going to be important for us, and we have to make sure we’re winning games on the defensive end. We’re all playing hard.”
Latta sees the potential.
“The communication level is definitely there on the defensive end,” she said. “We have to put both sides of the court together to be successful this year (and) so far, so good.”
As Thibault puts it all together, he is drawing from a deeper reserve than he has in the recent past.
“We have a lot of vets who are good at what they do, and at each position, we have more places to go to get points,” he said. “It feels like we have all the parts to our team.”
Washington kicks off preseason play Tuesday as they travel to Indiana to face the Fever.
Sue Favor contributed to this report