With young tal­ent in fold, Mys­tics be­lieve win­dow still open for ti­tle

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY ADAM ZIELONKA

If this were the NBA, the Wash­ing­ton Mys­tics’ front of­fice might be mak­ing calls to play­ers of Paul Ge­orge’s or Kawhi Leonard’s cal­iber right now. That’s what you’re sup­posed to do when your bas­ket­ball team falls short of win­ning a ti­tle — try to cre­ate a more su­per su­per team.

The WNBA isn’t so dif­fer­ent, in the sense that hav­ing a col­lec­tion of top-level play­ers like the Seat­tle Storm’s Bre­anna Ste­wart, Natasha Howard and Sue Bird is the best route to a cham­pi­onship. But Wash­ing­ton is not about to make a ros­ter move out of panic to com­pete with them.

The Mys­tics know they have room to im­prove. They said so time and again af­ter los­ing Game 3 of the WNBA Fi­nals Wed­nes­day and fall­ing to Seat­tle in a 3-0 sweep. But those re­marks were not a bru­tally hon­est as­sess­ment of short­com­ings — they were an op­ti­mistic view of what they still can ac­com­plish.

“We don’t feel like we peaked and this is it for us,” Elena Delle Donne said. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of young, great tal­ent.”

“We’d like to have taken that one last step, but the win­dow for us is open right now,” coach Mike Thibault said. “We have a rel­a­tively young team. We have only played to­gether with this core group ba­si­cally for two years, and we have some re­in­force­ments com­ing next year. We’re poised to get bet­ter.”

They know the road back to the Fi­nals is tough, and the WNBA gets bet­ter ev­ery year, but the Mys­tics are in a po­si­tion to stay atop the league now that the fran­chise’s most suc­cess­ful sea­son to date is in the books.

The main “re­in­force­ment” Thibault was re­fer­ring to is cen­ter Emma Meesse­man, who took the WNBA sea­son off to pre­pare for the FIBA Women’s World Cup with the Bel­gian na­tional team.

She is ex­pected to re­turn to the Mys­tics in 2019. A re­li­able scorer and re­bounder to pair down low with Delle Donne, Meesse­man was an All-Star in 2015 at just 22 years old.

Like Seat­tle’s group of Ste­wart (24 years old), Natasha Howard (27) and Jewell Loyd (24), some of the Mys­tics’ best play­ers are young or just en­ter­ing their prime. Delle Donne just turned 29, Natasha Cloud is 26 and Meesse­man is 25.

Then there is Ariel Atkins (22), who just com­pleted a solid rookie cam­paign many did not see com­ing. Atkins ce­mented her­self as the Mys­tics’ start­ing three with her speed and de­fen­sive ef­fort, and it didn’t hurt that she av­er­aged 20.1 points per 40 min­utes in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“We spent a lot of our time this year re­ly­ing on a rookie player to be our third scorer. What she did this year was ahead of sched­ule, for us,” Thibault said of the sev­enth over­all pick.

Ac­cord­ing to the WNBA salary data­base com­piled by High Post Hoops, the con­tracts of five Mys­tics play­ers are up af­ter 2018, in­clud­ing starters Cloud and LaToya San­ders. If San­ders re­turns to Wash­ing­ton, it may be in a backup role be­hind the younger and taller Meesse­man, but Thibault would have to be happy hav­ing her de­fen­sive prow­ess come off the bench.

Kristi To­liver, Cloud, Atkins, Delle Donne and Meesse­man would com­prise a fair (if too early) pre­dic­tion of the Mys­tics’ start­ing five when they chris­ten their new home court in 2019, the St. El­iz­a­beths East En­ter­tain­ment and Sports Arena.

Af­ter play­ing post­sea­son games at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Ge­orge Ma­son, it will be a wel­come change for the team to have a con­stant home. Delle Donne re­called “it was a lit­tle quiet” when she and To­liver played their first game for the Mys­tics in 2017.

“Ob­vi­ously, win­ning helps. But we can re­ally cre­ate some­thing here and I think we’ve re­ally grown this fan­base,” Delle Donne said. “They’re be­hind us, they’re proud of us and they know we’re not sat­is­fied, we want to do more. I think it will be huge hav­ing our own home. Our fans will have a con­sis­tent place to watch us play ev­ery night.”

Be­sides Seat­tle, who else is in the Mys­tics’ way of a ti­tle? The At­lanta Dream, whom Wash­ing­ton beat in five games in the league semis, will only be stronger when star An­gel McCoughtry re­turns from an ACL tear. League pow­ers Min­nesota and Los An­ge­les will want to re-es­tab­lish them­selves af­ter down years, and the Diana Taurasi- and Brit­tney Griner-led Phoenix Mer­cury are built to win now.

Af­ter be­ing re­vamped two sea­sons ago, the Mys­tics can now com­pete with those clubs in the chem­istry depart­ment. Delle Donne and To­liver had a funny ex­change in their post-game press con­fer­ence dis­cussing how well they get along off the court.

“Last year we were brand new. I mean, I didn’t even know (To­liver’s) fa­vorite beer,” Delle Donne said. “That’s a pretty im­por­tant thing to know for a team­mate. Now I can go to the bar, or­der her ev­ery­thing she needs.”

“I’m gonna need a lot tonight,” To­liver cut in with a smile.

It was an­other mo­ment that didn’t feel anal­o­gous to an NBA team that just lost the Fi­nals. LeBron James wasn’t pre­par­ing his de­par­ture. No side eyes at J.R. Smith. Just team­mates ac­cept­ing what hap­pened, and think­ing about mak­ing it back next year.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mys­tics play­ers walk off the court as Storm for­ward Bre­anna Ste­wart and guard Sue Bird cel­e­brate win­ning the WNBA ti­tle on Wed­nes­day.

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