Washington Mystics refocus on social justice but need to do “some soul-searching” on the court

Emma Meesseman could be the answer Washington needs for its last seven games

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Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman handles the ball against the Atlanta Dream on August 19, 2020. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via GettyImages

After the Washington Mystics lost their fourth straight game on Sunday, forward Myisha Hines-Allen looked into the camera and painted an honest picture of the Mystics’ mental and physical state in the WNBA bubble. Asked how exhausted she and her teammates are after their social justice efforts crescendoed with a postponed game earlier this week, she replied, “Really exhausted.”

She quickly added, “I think it's every team, though, too; it's not just our team. But we just gotta play through it.”

Sunday’s attempt to play through it was not up to head coach and general manager Mike Thibault’s standard, and in the locker room after the game, he demanded changes from his players for the final two weeks of the season.

“I said to them, ‘We basically have some soul-searching to do about how we're going to play out the next two weeks,’” Thibault revealed. “‘[Are we] going to give in to all this or [are] we going to play?’”

The only option is the latter, forward Emma Meesseman said postgame. “We can't just decide to stop the season here … so we gotta fight through. And we want to win and we want to play the basketball that we know we can play. So it's been a struggle on and off the court with everything that's been going on [with] social justice, but we’re gonna fight through it.”

Hines-Allen indicated that the Mystics need to refocus and “basically, know basketball. Certain things that we do, we have to know why we're doing [them].” Thibault was particularly displeased with his team’s pick-and-roll defense, even though they reviewed their pick-and-roll coverage and other basic defensive principles a few weeks ago. They also struggled offensively, shooting just 32% from the floor and scoring 15 points or fewer in each of the first three quarters.

The Mystics’ next game is not until Wednesday when they play first-place Seattle, but that will begin a stretch of seven games in 12 days. This is the Mystics’ last two-day break of the season, and they need to make the most of it. Their 11 losses in 15 games are the same number they had in all of 2019—across 34 regular-season and nine postseason games.

Despite his team’s win-loss record this season, Thibault won’t change his approach and will continue to push players to meet his high standards. “What I'm going to do is do my job every day, and I'm going to come in with the coaching that we've done for eight years in DC,” he said. “… I'm going to coach that way and I expect them to play that way, with focus and energy. … We'll do all the things you have to do to try to be a better basketball team. Hopefully, we'll find some bright spots over the next two weeks.”

One of those bright spots could be Meesseman, whose 14-point performance on Sunday was both a positive sign and an indicator of where the Mystics need to improve. Despite a sprained right shoulder that caused her to miss two games last week, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP shot 80% from the field and added 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal. However, her production came on just five shots from the floor, which Thibault called “nice and efficient, but … not good enough” for a player of her caliber.

If Meesseman takes just five shots, it effectively bails out the opponent, as few defenders in the league can deal with her diverse skillset. “Emma is one of the best in the world,” Connecticut head coach Curt Miller said after the game. “… She's really hard to guard one-on-one. She hasn't shot a high volume of threes, but you respect her ability to stretch the floor … She's just a really, really talented player.”

Part of the reason Meesseman managed so few shots was that Connecticut frequently double-teamed her, and she made good and unselfish plays to find her teammates. But Thibault also said that he needs to call more plays for Meesseman, she needs to be more assertive, and her teammates need to find her. He’d like Meesseman to take around 12 shots per game, which is near her season average of 11.7 but a number she hasn’t reached in her past four games.

Neither player nor coach pointed to Meesseman’s injury as the reason for her lack of shots, and all indications are that she is progressing well in her rehab. Thibault suggested that Meesseman is experiencing continued tightness but not pain, and she confirmed postgame that her shoulder “[is] feeling better every day.” The lingering discomfort, she suggested, is just the reality of being a professional athlete.

While Meesseman’s scoring and shooting percentages have decreased from last season, her other statistics have increased. She is averaging 6.5 rebounds (up 2.3 from 2019), 4.2 assists (+1.0), and 1.2 steals (+0.3) per game in 7.5 more minutes on the court. The wins haven’t come yet, but Meesseman’s continued development in these areas—and her ability to produce despite playing through the fatigue of a shortened season—bodes well for the Mystics’ future.

Amid the mounting losses, the Mystics still appear united as a team and are working toward their goals on and off the court. While it is clear that they hate losing, they speak with determination and conviction about what needs to change and frame their responses in terms of “we” and “us” rather than pointing fingers.

They light up when asked about a teammate’s strong performance and credit their own to their teammates. And they are always reminding themselves and the media of the bigger purpose for which they are playing: social justice.

The Mystics decided as a team not to play on Wednesday night, and Thibault said that the pause was “much needed” because it allowed the players to “refocus themselves on the bigger mission at hand.” Now that games have resumed, they have committed to using the television broadcasts to amplify their social justice message rather than relying only on postgame interviews.

Starting with Friday’s loss to Phoenix and continuing for the rest of the season, the Mystics will coordinate with their opponent to take a 24-second shot clock violation to start every quarter—two by the Mystics and two by their opponent. The intent is to have the broadcasters use that time to discuss the importance of voting and filling out the census.

Thibault also pledged to comment on the team’s social justice goals before he takes questions at his media availabilities going forward. “We are going to do our best over the course of the rest of this season to make an imprint upon people,” he said on Friday. “… Our team has made sure that everybody is registered to vote and has done the census, and we're going to get that out to our fans. … Our team feels very strongly about that.”

Barring an unlikely playoff berth, the Mystics have seven games left in the 2020 season. That means seven more television broadcasts to amplify the team’s and the league’s social justice efforts and push for a better future. It also means seven more opportunities to get things right on the basketball court and reach their potential as athletes, right as they are hitting their stride as activists.