The 2021 Washington Mystics plan to party like it's 2019

Free agency will test Mike Thibault's ability to keep his group together, though

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Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault addresses the media on September 15, 2020, following a season-ending loss in the first round of the WNBA playoffs. Screenshot from the NBA Content Network.

After the Washington Mystics’ tumultuous 2020 season culminated in a first-round playoff loss, head coach and general manager Mike Thibault’s message to his players focused on the big picture. “I just told them how proud I am and that it will pay off in the future,” he said.

The Mystics entered the summer with four returning starters, new acquisition and former MVP Tina Charles, and high hopes of repeating their 2019 championship. But Charles, starting point guard Natasha Cloud, and starting center LaToya Sanders opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over COVID-19, and 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne also missed the season while recovering from a back injury sustained in last year’s Finals.

As a result, the lone returning starter, guard Ariel Atkins, took on a bigger leadership role both on and off the court. On the court, she was a WNBA All-Defensive Second Team selection and the team’s third-leading scorer, averaging 14.8 points per game on 41% shooting from 3-point range. Atkins also led the Mystics in their efforts to promote social justice and the Say Her Name campaign, including by speaking on national television about the team's decision not to play on August 26 after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake.

Other players got playing time that they likely would not have otherwise had. Forward Myisha Hines-Allen averaged 29.9 minutes per game and was the team’s leading scorer with 17.0 points per game, one year after averaging 7.8 minutes and 2.3 points per game. She finished as the runner-up for the WNBA Most Improved Player award and was named Second Team All-WNBA.

“Most of the players that played a lot this year had a totally different role, either on the bench or on the court,” forward Emma Meesseman said after the season. “And now they got the experience of a totally different style of playing. I'm taking Myisha as an example. So that's only going to make our team stronger.”

Another example is Stella Johnson, whom Phoenix selected with the 29th pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. She joined the Mystics midseason on an emergency contract and parlayed that into a chance at a roster spot in 2021.

“We told Stella Johnson she's our draft pick for [2021],” Thibault said last month. “… We'll bring her to training camp and she'll act as if we drafted her this year and she's got some experience now.” That experience included her first career start on August 19, in which she scored 25 points and made six 3-pointers, a Mystics rookie record.

Still other players got experience that will bolster the team’s depth and chemistry next season. Kiara Leslie, the Mystics’ first-round pick in 2019, made her WNBA debut after missing last season due to injury and was one of the team’s top perimeter defenders in 2020. Point guard Leilani Mitchell, a WNBA veteran who signed a two-year contract in February, learned Thibault’s offense and spent so much time with Atkins, Hines-Allen, and Meesseman off the court that the team called her the trio’s fourth roommate.

Despite their 9-13 record, “we got a lot done this summer,” Thibault said. “…It's gonna pay off in the long run. The experience that our key players got this summer will carry over.

“You put that core group that we have that's not with us back with this group, [and] we're gonna be one of the favorites next year.”

First, though, Thibault has some numbers to crunch and contracts to negotiate in free agency. The team currently has five players signed for 2021: Atkins (who will earn $70,040), Delle Donne ($221,450), Hines-Allen ($70,040), Leslie ($58,710), and Mitchell ($123,500). Those five players will earn nearly $544,000, leaving Thibault about $795,000 to spend on six or seven players.

Thibault will likely spend another $234,000 on Cloud and Sanders, as the Mystics have exclusive negotiating rights with each player and limited ability, according to WNBA rules, to deviate from the $117,000 that each was slated to earn in 2020 before opting out. That would leave about $561,000 for four or five players.

Ideally, Thibault said, the 2021 roster will largely resemble the original 2020 roster. However, committing too much money to free agents this offseason could hamper his ability to re-sign players such as Hines-Allen and Atkins, whose rookie contracts end after the 2021 season. “Every decision we make now affects what we can do a couple years down the road,” he said.

Here is how a pivotal offseason is shaping up for Thibault, player by player:

Washington Mystics guard/forward Aerial Powers shoots the ball against the Chicago Sky on August 1, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Guards

The Mystics’ top priority on the perimeter will be re-signing Aerial Powers, who has been with the team since the middle of the 2018 season. In 45 regular-season games in a Mystics uniform, she has averaged 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game while shooting 37% from behind the arc. She is also just 26 years old and has shown notable improvement each year, including averaging 16.3 points in six games this season before being sidelined with a hamstring injury.

Beyond re-signing Powers and Cloud, the backcourt for the Mystics is pretty set with Atkins, Mitchell, and Leslie. Thibault said that having Atkins, Mitchell, and Cloud would give the team “a three-headed monster in the backcourt,” with all three capable of initiating offense and scoring themselves.

Thibault sees Leslie as a player who can follow in Atkins’ footsteps, on and off the court. Both are quiet players by nature and strong defenders, and Thibault has challenged both players to expand their offensive repertoires and be more vocal. This offseason, Thibault wants Leslie to become more comfortable handling the ball and running pick-and-rolls, neither of which she did often in college. He also wants her to better understand how the options for a given play build off of one another and how to set goals for her workouts at the professional level.

Like Thibault, Meesseman is bullish on Leslie’s potential. “I'm really looking forward to see how she’s gonna improve this offseason toward next season and just continue and grow to be a beast on the court, because I think she really has that in her,” Meesseman said.

Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman shoots the ball against the Atlanta Dream on September 13, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Forwards

“We have a great wealth of post players if everybody's here,” Thibault said. “…We may be one of the bigger teams on the court next year if things work out.”

Indeed, the Mystics could carry six forwards on the 2021 roster, which would give them significantly more frontcourt size and depth than they had in 2020. Charles has told Thibault that she plans to re-sign in 2021, and he called her “a big part of our planning.”

Thibault also plans to re-sign Meesseman, though after the 2020 season ended, she said it was too soon to commit to playing in the WNBA in 2021. Meesseman plays for the Belgian national team, so much of her summer will be devoted to the 2021 Olympics, if the COVID-19 pandemic allows. However, Meesseman said that she is “hoping to be able to combine everything” and play for Belgium and the Mystics in 2021.

The Mystics also need to re-sign Sanders and potentially Tianna Hawkins, who battled injuries in 2020 but averaged a career-high 9.5 points and 4.2 rebounds off the bench in 2019. Hawkins has 3-point range, shooting better than 35% from behind the arc in 2018 and 2019, and can help the Mystics with floor spacing in bigger lineups.

However, Hines-Allen may have overtaken Hawkins on the depth chart, which could make it difficult for Thibault to find minutes for Hawkins if he re-signs her.

“Given what Myisha did [in 2020], yeah, that does change the pecking order a little bit,” Thibault said after the season. “I think it puts other players on notice that, ‘Hey, I want to be [in the rotation],’ and from her standpoint, she wants to be a part of the rotation. She wants to get meaningful minutes and … we have to figure out maybe how to use her more.”

One solution could be to play with three forwards, a strategy Thibault used late in the 2019 season to play Meesseman and Delle Donne together more. Heading into the 2020 season, Delle Donne had agreed to play more at the three position rather than her natural four to facilitate those lineups, and Thibault indicated that Hines-Allen could do the same in 2021.

Tough decisions ahead

“No team is able financially to keep their whole team together with a salary cap that there is,” Thibault said. “…We really have some serious planning to do. That's going to be probably our most difficult thing.”

He will have to balance not only the 2021 salaries under the cap, but also salaries in future years if he hopes to retain young players when their rookie contracts expire and they are due for a raise. That eye toward the future was evident last offseason, when Thibault offered veteran guard Kristi Toliver a two-year rather than three-year contract. (Toliver ultimately signed with Los Angeles, which offered her a three-year deal, but opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.)

If the Mystics do re-sign Powers, Charles, Meesseman, and Hawkins this offseason, they likely will not have money left over to sign a 12th player for 2021. An 11-player roster was also the plan in 2020 until players opted out and Thibault filled out the roster with players on less expensive contracts. Similarly, if the Mystics are unable to re-sign one of their free agents, it could open up two roster spots for players such as Johnson.

Other players who could be invited to training camp and contend for one of the final roster spots are point guard Sug Sutton (2.8 points per game in 12 games in 2020), guard Jacki Gemelos (3.2 points per game in 12 games), and guard Lee-Seul Kang, who signed a training camp contract with the Mystics in February but was waived before the season.

The Mystics do not have any 2021 draft picks, which somewhat alleviates the numbers crunch Thibault is facing. (All three picks, along with the Mystics’ first-round pick in 2020, were included in the trade for Tina Charles last April.) However, the team will operate this winter as if it does have picks, in case a trade materializes before the draft, and will also scout players who may go undrafted and could be invited to training camp.

What scouting looks like this winter is yet to be determined as colleges prepare for a delayed start to the season on November 25.

“We need to see what the college season actually looks like,” Thibault said. “…Are they gonna allow fans? Are they gonna allow scouts who are socially distanced? …Or [are we] going to be doing it all by video?”

Whatever form they take, Thibault will meticulously prepare for the draft, free agency, and the 2021 WNBA season. He admitted earlier this summer that he had had to scrap all of his offseason planning for how Charles and Mitchell would fit around players like Delle Donne and Cloud in 2020, but he may be able to resurrect that playbook for 2021. If so, it will present quite a challenge for the rest of the league.

“Our championship window is open, provided we have everybody,” Thibault said midseason. “And so next year when we have our whole group, I hope we're one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the league going into the season.”