Stars at Mys­tics

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY GENE WANG gene.wang@wash­post.com

To­day, 3 p.m., WNBA League Pass

Think­ing big: Off­sea­son ad­di­tions have Mys­tics think­ing ti­tle as new WNBA sea­son opens.

Dur­ing a prac­tice in the first week of train­ing camp, Elena Delle Donne asked Wash­ing­ton Mys­tics Coach Mike Thibault to sus­pend drills briefly so she could ad­dress her new team­mates. The ef­fort level had been lack­ing, and the 2015 WNBA MVP wanted to make it abun­dantly clear any­thing less than full en­gage­ment was un­ac­cept­able.

This past week, Kristi To­liver, another high-pro­file ad­di­tion, ar­rived for her first prac­tice af­ter se­cur­ing a Rus­sian Pre­mier League cham­pi­onship on the heels of a WNBA ti­tle as a mem­ber of the Los An­ge­les Sparks. Her pres­ence at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter pro­duced an in­stant im­pact on the court and in the locker room, an in­tan­gi­ble stem­ming from be­ing a win­ner at ev­ery level.

As the Mys­tics pre­pare for Sun­day’s sea­son opener against the San An­to­nio Stars, both play­ers also have spo­ken openly about em­brac­ing cham­pi­onship ex­pec­ta­tions, given that many an­a­lysts see a WNBA Fi­nals-ready lineup.

“That’s def­i­nitely the at­ti­tude, and it’s what [Thibault] said in the first meet­ing that we ever had as a team,” Delle Donne said. “If you don’t have ex­pec­ta­tions, then what are you even go­ing to work for? It’s ex­cit­ing to have that, and it’s some­thing to reach for.”

In an in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence af­ter join­ing the Mys­tics in a block­buster trade, Delle Donne men­tioned bring­ing a cham­pi­onship to the District as soon as pos­si­ble.

The Mys­tics, who missed the play­offs en­tirely last sea­son for the first time since Thibault took over in 2013, have not won a play­off se­ries since 2002, when they ad­vanced to the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals un­der then-coach Mar­i­anne Stan­ley, who cur­rently serves as an as­sis­tant on Thibault’s staff. Thibault took the Con­necti­cut Sun to con­sec­u­tive WNBA Fi­nals in 2004 and ’05, los­ing both times.

Delle Donne, mean­while, reached the WNBA Fi­nals in 2014, when the Chicago Sky lost in a three-game sweep to the Phoenix Mer­cury.

“My whole deal is you should want that,” Thibault said. “If you’re walk­ing in here think­ing, ‘Eh, we’re just another team,’ it’s not that fun. I think it’s fun to chase af­ter the dream of a cham­pi­onship. The only way you fully ap­pre­ci­ate do­ing it and go­ing af­ter it is to un­der­stand that there is a tar­get.

“I’d rather have this feel­ing of peo­ple think­ing we’re sup­posed to win than the feel­ing at the start of the year that you’ve got no chance.”

Wash­ing­ton’s for­tunes took a dra­matic turn when Delle Donne, seek­ing to play closer to her Delaware home, threat­ened to sit out if a trade could not be com­pleted. Armed with high draft picks and a youth­ful ros­ter, Thibault en­gi­neered a deal in which he sent this year’s No. 2 over­all se­lec­tion, cen­ter Stefanie Dol­son and guard Kahleah Cop­per to the Sky in ex­change for Delle Donne.

Sev­eral days later, the Mys­tics an­nounced the sign­ing of To­liver, who had spent the pre­vi­ous seven sea­sons in Los An­ge­les, where she was named an all-star in 2013. To­liver’s de­ci­sion to sign with the Mys­tics brings her back to the area where she starred both in high school and col­lege. As a fresh­man at Mary­land, To­liver was the start­ing point guard on the 2006 na­tional cham­pi­onship team.

“No tricks. It’s go­ing to take a lot of hard work,” To­liver said. “It’s go­ing to take time build­ing the chem­istry. I think we have cer­tain pieces in place, but it’s go­ing to take a lot of com­mit­ment.”

The com­bi­na­tion of Delle Donne, To­liver and for­ward Emma Meesse­man, a first-time all-star in 2015, pro­vides Wash­ing­ton with a wealth of of­fen­sive punch, par­tic­u­larly from three­p­oint range. All three play­ers ranked among the WNBA’s top four in three-point shoot­ing last sea­son, al­low­ing Thibault to in­stall plays in train­ing camp de­signed to cre­ate mis­matches.

In Delle Donne and To­liver, in par­tic­u­lar, Wash­ing­ton fea­tures two play­ers ca­pa­ble of tak­ing over games down the stretch. A lack of a go-to scorer had been among the Mys­tics’ de­fi­cien­cies in pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions, but these days, Thibault even has other op­tions if op­po­nents man­age to take away Delle Donne and To­liver.

Start­ing off-guard Tayler Hill, for in­stance, led the Mys­tics in scor­ing last sea­son, and re­serve point guard Ivory Latta, en­ter­ing her 11th year, is a two-time all-star who re­mains a dan­ger­ous three­p­oint shooter.

“The past few years, we’ve just been miss­ing that piece to fin­ish our puzzle,” Mys­tics backup guard Natasha Cloud said. “We had a young team. We had a ver­sa­tile team, but we were re­ally just miss­ing those pieces, so I think Elena com­ing in, I think Kristi com­ing in is go­ing to be huge for us. I al­ready like what I see. We’re al­ready click­ing.”

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