Meesseman back with the Mystics, better and wiser

Emma Meesseman battles Brionna Jones for ball possession. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Emma Meesseman battles Brionna Jones for ball possession. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

Emma Meesseman has returned to the Washington Mystics. Again.

And this time, she is not only a better player, but a wiser one.

Drafted six years ago, Meesseman evolved into a court presence for Washington before opting to miss last season to focus on the FIBA World Cup. Her decision wasn’t an easy one, but one she stands by. She said she needed time to recover after playing year-round since 2013, without a break.

“I never thought about it then and I won’t ever think about the ‘what if,'” Meesseman said. “Sitting out last season was 200 percent the right choice for me personally.”

She and her Belgian teammates finished fourth in last September’s tournament – their highest placing ever. Meesseman said her experiences overseas, in particular, forced her to mature on the court.

“I grew a lot as a player the past two years,” she said. “In Belgium, I have to take more responsibility because I am the one with the most experience, together with some veteran players. I was never really used to that position, and now I am, so I have a role as a player. I have to take more responsibility.”

While it was hard for her to watch the Mystics falter in last year’s Finals, she pointed to the result as evidence of how deep they are. Coach Mike Thibault, however, saw it differently.

“She said to me this offseason, ‘well you made it to the Finals without me,” Thibault said. “And I said, ‘well we didn’t win a championship without you.’”

Meesseman’s 6-foot-4-inch frame makes her effective down low, as she has averaged 5.4 rebounds a game in her career. She averaged 15.2 and 14.1 points per game in her last two seasons, yet statistics don’t tell the whole story. She was one of the main reasons for Washington’s success before they acquired All-Star forward Elena Delle Donne in a trade prior to the 2017 season.

“Before we had Elena, (Emma) was the only player we had that could move all around on the court, and she could score at almost any spot on the floor,” Thibault said. “She could play with her back to the basket, she could post up, she could go mid-range, she could step and shoot the three, she could pass it, she could do all those things. Offensively, she was our most complete player until Elena came.”

Meesseman’s talent has been evident for years, but she exploded onto the scene in 2011. That year, she was the FIBA Europe U18 Championship MVP, Belgian National League championship MVP and FIBA Europe Young Women’s Player of the Year. It all led to the Mystics drafting her in the second round, with the 19th pick. While her basketball skills were evident, Thibault was unsure how she would adapt to the WNBA.

“She was the most unknown to me of someone I had drafted, who I had sense had great talent but had never really seen her play a lot other than on film,” Thibault said. “She was a second round pick from Europe, she was 19 at the time, and you don’t know how someone is going to improve, get stronger, do all those things, but we just saw great basketball talent and we saw an intellect about the game. You could tell she made smart plays.”

“We just took a stab and to be honest with you, we didn’t know what we were getting for sure.”

And despite her success in Europe, Meesseman didn’t feel confident playing professional basketball in the U.S.

“The funny part is when she came to training camp her first year, she brought enough clothes for about 10 days because she thought she was going to get cut and get sent back to Europe,” Thibault said. “We told her she had to have her parents send her a summer’s worth of clothes.”

Meesseman took some time to get going, starting as a back-up center for Washington her rookie season, before taking over the starting role her second year.

“I was only 19 when I was drafted so I needed to learn and evolve,” Meesseman said. “We added the three point, (which) took us some time, but it’s there now.”

Moved to power forward in her third year, Meesseman utilized her new three-point shot and became a stretch-four, ultimately fitting better into coach Thibault’s idea of “position-less basketball.” She made her first All-Star game in 2015 after averaging 11.6 points and 6.3 rebounds, while finishing fifth in the league in blocks per game.

Meesseman signed a three-year extension with the Mystics the following year, and immediately had her best season, pouring in 15.2 points per game and leading the league in three-point field goal percentage.

Thibault was sold on her value. When discussing the trade for Delle Donne with the Chicago Sky, that franchise wanted Meesseman as part of the return package. But he refused to include her.

“Well I think it was two-fold,” Thibault said of his stance. “I think number one, I would have been unfair to the Sky in a sense, because I’m not sure Emma would have shown up.”

“I’m not speaking for her, but I do know she loved the situation she was in in D.C. She liked the teammates; she’s not getting the same kind of money here that she makes overseas. She’s one of those players that doesn’t really need the WNBA, what they need the WNBA for is to play the best competition. I don’t know if she would say that, but that’s the sense I get. I told Chicago, I was just being honest, I didn’t think she would come.

“And truthfully,” he said with a laugh, “I didn’t want to give her up.”

Emma Meesseman drives with the ball. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Emma Meesseman drives with the ball. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

Meesseman missed 11 games that season due to commitments to the Belgian team. She helped them qualify for their first ever FIBA World Cup, then returned to the court for Washington in late June. The addition of Delle Donne helped offset Meesseman’s absence, and the two combined to lead the Mystics to the WNBA semifinals for the first time in franchise history.

While the idea of a full year of playing with Delle Donne was tantalizing, Meesseman knew she needed time off. She announced in late January, about three months before the start of the 2018 WNBA season, that she would miss the entire year. Her teammates were supportive.

The time away showed Meesseman’s potential. In addition to leading Belgium to unprecedented heights, she was arguably the best player in the tournament, averaging the most rebounds at 10.7, and the second-most points, with 18.5. She was elected to the Tournament All-Star team, along with WNBA superstars Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and Liz Cambage.

Meesseman missed about a month again this season for the Eurobasket tournament, and she returned July 11. She played well in the three games for the Mystics before leaving, averaging 13.3 points per outing. She had come off the bench in those three games, but this week started for Delle Donne, who has been out for a week with a broken nose. She put up 15 points.

Thibault made it clear Meesseman’s absence is felt when she is gone, but said the team wasn’t worried about any effects her departure and subsequent reentry could have on chemistry.

“I don’t think it will be that hard to bring her back in, because she will have played with them and gone through training camp and know all the basic things we do,” he said. “If she had not been here the last three or four weeks, I think it would be much more difficult in July for her to come in then without any training camp…But now that she has been here, knows what to expect, her teammates know her, all those things, I don’t think it will be as difficult.”

Thibault said Meesseman’s time overseas has been good for her perspective.

“I think one of the biggest improvements for her is how much her national team is reliant on her to be the star,” he said. “She finally learned what it was like to be the star player. She was a reluctant star before that.”

So has it been worth losing her for parts of the season?

“No,” Thibault said immediately, before laughing. “She would probably tell you it has helped her professionally in her game development and her team skills. I don’t know.”

“The good parts of her missing is she’s had an appreciation for how we do things; she has walked into a situation here where she is kind of thrilled by all the stuff around her. Her teammates, the new building, all of it. She missed some of that part of the camaraderie. There is that sense of her being gone. But I still don’t really know if it outweighs having – I would have like to have had her here all year last year.”

Meesseman returns at a critical time for Washington, who was in first place until Delle Donne’s injury almost two weeks ago, after which they lost three consecutive games.

The Mystics are in Indianapolis today to take on the Fever at 7 p.m. ET.