Mys­tics eye ti­tle run with mix of veter­ans and rook­ies.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ADAM ZIELONKA

The Wash­ing­ton Mys­tics were one round away from mak­ing the WNBA Fi­nals last sea­son. Af­ter a re­cent prac­tice, coach Mike Thibault con­tem­plated the les­sons the team took from that semi­fi­nals loss.

“At­ten­tion to de­tail is part of it,” Thibault started to say, but his eyes were on the court. “Moe, you stepped out of bounds three times. Just as you’re start­ing to catch the ball.”

Monique Cur­rie was run­ning a drill on the near side­line of the prac­tice court at Cap­i­tal One Arena. The vet­eran took the ad­vice, ran it again and stayed in bounds the whole way.

Thibault, the WNBA’s all-time win­ningest coach, said later he views the role of teacher as his “pri­mary job.”

“It’s like be­ing in a class­room,” Thibault said. “You get to see the prod­uct of what you do when the games come, but the most fun part, or the work part — both — is when you’re in here teach­ing.”

The Mys­tics have their teacher on the side­line. On the court, they have su­per­star Elena Delle Donne lead­ing the charge. And to the ros­ter they’ve added a promis­ing mix of veter­ans and rook­ies.

As they kick off their 2018 campaign this week­end, it’s a mix­ture the Mys­tics hope will lead to the fran­chise’s first WNBA ti­tle.

“We’re in the third week of camp now and we’re night and day from where we were in the first week,” Cur­rie said. “If we con­tinue to get bet­ter ev­ery day, get bet­ter ev­ery week, we’ll def­i­nitely be a team that’s look­ing to com­pete for a cham­pi­onship this year.”

Cur­rie rep­re­sents the only ma­jor change to the Mys­tics’ start­ing lineup. She re­turns to her home­town of Wash­ing­ton af­ter her first stint with the team from 2007 to 2014, and said “it feels good to be home.”

Be­cause Bel­gian for­ward Emma Meesse­man is tak­ing this sea­son off, Delle Donne has shifted from the three to the four, her more nat­u­ral po­si­tion. Cur­rie, 35, stepped in as the new three.

It has been fun for Cur­rie to play with Delle Donne for the first time, she said.

“It helps other play­ers around her when you play with some­body with such a high level of tal­ent that it frees you up a lot,” Cur­rie said. “It works great for me. She gets a lot of at­ten­tion from the de­fend­ers. She’s be­come a much bet­ter passer, look­ing to get peo­ple open be­cause teams are dou­ble-team­ing her.”

Delle Donne re­turned the com­pli­ments.

“(Cur­rie) is so great on both sides of the floor,” Delle Donne said. “She in­flu­ences so much. It’s been amaz­ing hav­ing her around. And she’s also a vet. Just the per­son­al­ity she brings is huge.”

The vets also have been im­pressed with the team’s rook­ies, es­pe­cially their top two picks from April’s WNBA Draft. The Mys­tics chose Texas shoot­ing guard Ariel Atkins sev­enth over­all and Louisville for­ward My­isha Hines-Allen in the sec­ond round. Cur­rie said those play­ers have caught on quickly.

“Ariel Atkins is a great ath­lete. She has hus­tle, she plays re­ally hard, she’s a great de­fender,” Cur­rie said. “And then My­isha Hines, I think she’s sur­prised a lot of peo­ple. She’s so strong, she’s ag­gres­sive, she’s a great re­bounder.”

Beyond them, the core group hasn’t changed as much as it did last year, which should work in the Mys­tics’ fa­vor.

“We’re def­i­nitely at a com­pletely dif­fer­ent start­ing po­si­tion than we were last year,” Delle Donne said. “There were just so many new peo­ple, so a lot of us were on the court con­fused, just un­com­fort­able, a lot of peo­ple out of their com­fort zone. This year it’s op­po­site.”

This train­ing camp was the best the Mys­tics have had in Thibault’s five-year ten­ure in Wash­ing­ton, the coach said.

“You’re start­ing from where you left off in the play­offs in­stead of start­ing over,” Thibault said. “The teach­ing part of it goes quicker. Even if you put in some­thing new, there’s just this feel­ing of, ‘We’ve got this. We’ve got it fig­ured out.’ ”

The WNBA’s two best teams, the Los Angeles Sparks and Min­nesota Lynx, fig­ure to be the big­gest road­blocks to a cham­pi­onship, and the New York Lib­erty are Wash­ing­ton’s main com­pe­ti­tion in the East­ern Con­fer­ence. But pro­vided they stay healthy, the Mys­tics will be in the mix.

Delle Donne only played 25 games last year due to in­juries, but her 19.7 points per game was the fourth-best in the WNBA. The Mys­tics also still have Krys­tal Thomas, who ranked third in the league with 9.6 re­bounds per game, and Kristi To­liver, who ranked third with 76 3-point­ers.

The Mys­tics open their reg­u­lar sea­son against the In­di­ana Fever on Sun­day at 1 p.m. at Cap­i­tal One Arena.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Wash­ing­ton Mys­tics’ Monique Cur­rie re­turns to her home­town af­ter her first stint with the team from 2007 to 2014, and said “it feels good to be home.”

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