With key players Delle Donne, Charles in limbo, Washington Mystics forge ahead

How Mike Thibault has adjusted since his offseason plans “went out the window”

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Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne looks pensive before a game against the Atlanta Dream on July 21, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

The Washington Mystics flew to Bradenton, Florida, on Monday to prepare for the upcoming WNBA season, but two star players, forward Elena Delle Donne and center Tina Charles, were not among the travel party.

Two days later, the Mystics released a statement indicating that both players are in the WNBA’s medical evaluation protocol to determine whether they qualify as high-risk and can sit out the 2020 season with pay. The protocol is being conducted by an independent panel of doctors, and the Associated Press’s Doug Feinberg reported that at least two other WNBA players—New York’s Asia Durr and Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage—are also awaiting the panel’s findings.

Charles has not disclosed why she believes she is at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, but Delle Donne tweeted on Wednesday night that she had entered the protocol because of her “ongoing battle with Lyme disease, and a compromised immune system.” She added, “Missing my teammates but health and safety are the priority.”

Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault had no timetable for the panel’s decisions as of Thursday morning, but whenever they are finalized, they could have huge ramifications for the Mystics’ season. If Delle Donne and Charles are medically excused, they will receive their full salaries, count against the team’s salary cap, and be credited for fulfilling a year of their contracts – what Thibault called a “triple whammy” for the team. The Mystics would be unable to sign replacements for those two players because of salary cap constraints and would have to play with a 10-player roster.

New York Liberty center Tina Charles grabs a rebound against Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones during a game on August 1, 2018. Photo credit: Chris Poss

If Delle Donne and Charles are not medically excused, they will have the choice of playing or sitting out without pay, just as point guard Natasha Cloud and forward LaToya Sanders decided to do last month. Notably, Thibault did not rule out the possibility of Delle Donne or Charles playing if they are not excused, and he clarified for fans via Twitter that both players are currently healthy.

However, if Delle Donne or Charles decide to sit out without pay, the team will be able to sign replacement(s), since that would open up salary cap room. Thibault revealed that the Mystics have discussed a few options for replacements, but with few “difference-makers” still available to sign and much still unknown, he is primarily focusing on the ten players who are in Bradenton.

Those ten players participated in individual workouts in Washington last weekend before the team left for Bradenton on Monday. Upon arrival at IMG Academy, everyone was required to quarantine: according to Thibault, they could order food delivery or step out for fresh air individually, but workouts were conducted over Zoom from their respective rooms. Everyone has also been tested daily, which will continue until the league determines, based on the results, that testing can be scaled back to every two to three days.

The Next previously reported that players had varying levels of satisfaction with their living conditions, but Thibault said that the Mystics players and staff have only had one issue—a shower that would not drain—and it was resolved right away. He expects that players will settle in when the quarantine period ends and they can explore the campus more. “We certainly don't have the same amenities that maybe the NBA does, but … we're in a nice place,” Thibault said.

The players were allowed to do individual workouts on Thursday, and teams can begin practicing together on Friday. Thibault expects practices throughout the season to be short, starting with no more than 75 minutes on the court and some conditioning on Friday. Unlike in their home cities, the teams will not have male practice players, so Thibault has been reviewing his old notes to find more drills with smaller numbers to allow players to sub. He is also hoping to practice with another team, potentially the Indiana Fever, in order to scrimmage and do larger drills with substitutes.

Thibault will use the practice time before games start to experiment and, in some ways, reinvent his team on the fly, assuming that Charles and Delle Donne do not arrive at some point. With up to four players missing the season, “a lot of the offseason planning went out the window,” Thibault said. “…I told our players to be prepared to do some experimenting. We led the league in 3-point shots last year; we might take even more this year.”

At the same time, Thibault still thinks he can play “big” lineups, similar to those that were so lethal in last year’s playoffs, with Myisha Hines-Allen, Emma Meesseman, and Tianna Hawkins in the frontcourt. Those lineups may also help on the defensive end, where the Mystics are likely to be undersized and lost their best shot-blocker from last season in Sanders.

“I think a lot of our early training camp will be defensive concepts and how we're going to make some adjustments,” Thibault said. “… It may be as simple as just trying to outscore everybody. … I don't like to throw out the idea of defense, but … [the player absences have] really caused a change in our thinking about how we have to do things because a lot of what we planned this offseason was around that post group.”

One thing Thibault doesn’t expect to change is the Mystics’ ability to share the load on offense. Meesseman, last year’s WNBA Finals MVP, could be considered the go-to player without Charles and Delle Donne, but Thibault said he doesn’t want any one player to have that burden.

“This is going to have to be a balanced offense, I think, to be successful,” he said. “… My preference is to have about four players averaging in double figures… If we do that, then we will have maintained the kind of team that we've had and not put too much pressure on one player.”

Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman shoots during Game 2 of the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun on October 1, 2019. Photo credit: Chris Poss

Meesseman, Hawkins, and guards Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers are likely the most obvious candidates to be double-digit scorers, and Thibault will also count on them to be leaders in the locker room. Newcomers Leilani Mitchell and Essence Carson, who played together in Phoenix last season, could also help on both counts.

Mitchell is a point guard for the Australian national team and a player who Thibault targeted in free agency even before he knew that he would lose guard Kristi Toliver to the Los Angeles Sparks.

“That's looking like a bigger and bigger signing every day right now,” he said of Mitchell’s deal. Mitchell played in ten games with the Mystics in 2016, so she has some familiarity with the coaching staff and roster, and Thibault indicated that she “is comfortable in her role” on the current team.

Meanwhile, Carson was just signed two weeks ago to help replace Cloud and Sanders, but Thibault has known the 33-year-old since she was a junior in college and a WNBA draft prospect. He loves her versatility—he said they recently chuckled about how she has played all five positions in the WNBA despite being only 6’—and believes she can fill different needs for the team as they arise. 

Thibault gave a quick rundown of what Carson can bring: “A, she has multiple skills; B, she's tough-minded; and C, she's a great veteran leader. She just has a great presence about her and … a great attitude about how you approach the game every day.”

There are also younger players in Hines-Allen and Kiara Leslie who will doubtless get more opportunities to contribute than in a normal season. Hines-Allen stepped up in the 2018 playoffs, averaging 11.8 minutes and 5.2 points per game, but in 2019 “her minutes kind of went away,” Thibault pointed out. “And so this is an opportunity for her to reestablish herself, not just on our team but within the league, too … for her future.”

Leslie missed all of last season with a knee injury, but she has been shooting for months and, by all indications, is ready to go. She will check into her first-ever WNBA game in a setting she couldn’t have anticipated when she was drafted, but she will get plenty of opportunities to show why she was a first-round pick in 2019.

Alaina Coates and Shey Peddy round out the current 10-player roster. Peddy played in 15 games for the Mystics last season, so it made sense to Thibault to re-sign her as someone who “knows what we’re doing [and] knows the system.” He admitted that Coates, who has averaged 3.1 points per game in her two seasons, was “a little bit more of an unknown” than the Mystics’ other free agent signings. But if the 6’4 center can take the next step in her career, that could instantly give the Mystics more size and rim protection on defense.

Led by Tianna Hawkins (left), Myisha Hines-Allen (third from left, wearing elbow sleeve), and Ariel Atkins (right), the Washington Mystics run off the court after defeating Dallas on June 9, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

Although it would be easy to focus on all the talent that is not in Florida, Thibault is looking forward to fitting the pieces he does have together and believes it will help the Mystics in the long term, regardless of how this year’s team performs. 

He explained, “Our team will be in a situation where we can make progress this year … but I also think it's a great opportunity to kind of set a little bit more of a standard for our team for the next several years because you're going to give some people an opportunity to prove whether they belong in the rotation going down the road. We have some free agency decisions to make at this at the end of this year and so it's a chance for players to make their case to be here long term.”

Few teams in the league have weathered as many personnel changes as the Mystics over the past few months, but the defending champions still return seven players from last year’s roster. “Running it back” for another championship will be a tall order, particularly if Delle Donne and Charles sit out, but 2020 has been full of events that few people saw coming.