Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Washington Mystics – WNBA.com

Three years away from a championship and 25 years into their WNBA history, the Washington Mystics are literally piecing their pieces together, with plans to make another run in 2022.

Washington is 6-3 after Saturday’s loss to Connecticut, their first road loss of the season in four games, and head coach Mike Thibault was pulled to the sunny side of the street after a loss to talk about his team of 2022.

“I like our tenacity, our solidarity, our chemistry,” said Thibault. “They accept the way we want to play, but it doesn’t feel smooth right now.”

The Mystics, who finished eighth in the 2020 ‘Wubble’ season and missed the playoffs in 2021 for only the second time since 2012, are learning a lot about themselves these early days with playing time from Elena Delle Donne limited on its return after two seasons, the injury and illness issues that sidelined veteran Alysha Clark, and a group of newcomers trying to figure out how they fit into a core group that played and won a title together.

Let’s take a look at the five things that spurred the Mystics’ promising start.

The return of Elena Delle Donne.

This one is a no-brainer, the benefits of getting one of the best players on the planet back, finally healthy after missing almost all of the past two seasons with both back issues and health issues plaguing him. prevented from participating in the Wubble 2020 season. The Mystics manage Delle Donne’s workload in the early days of the season, giving her days off like they did on Saturday against Connecticut to keep her healthy during the entire duration of the regular season and what they hope will be a long playoff series. She will be back on the court for two games this week. And when she’s down, she shows them what they missed. Delle Donne is averaging 17.7 points per game while shooting nearly 48% from the field and 38% from beyond the 3-point line.

The emergence of Ariel Atkins.

Atkins, the 25-year-old who was the 7th pick in the 2018 draft, is quietly turning into a superstar, which sounds like an oxymoron. 2021 has been a great year for her, becoming a WNBA All-Star for the first time and an Olympic gold medalist as part of Team USA in Tokyo. She already has a WNBA championship on her resume with Washington in 2019 and has established herself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, with her defense boosting the Mystics’ offense. Atkins, who ranks second on the team in scoring behind Delle Donne with 15.1 points per game, is improving his game in almost every way so far this season, with field goal percentage (44.8 ) and 3-point percentage (41.3) while averaging career bests in rebounds (3.2) and assists (2.7). She is the only player to start all nine games so far and has scored in double figures in eight of those games.

The impressive debut of Shakira Austin.

The 6-foot-5 rookie postman has started five of nine games so far and is getting significant minutes. Austin is averaging 9.6 points and 5.9 rebounds in just over 21 minutes per game. She had a 20-point, eight-rebound performance on May 17 in a win over Dallas, and she ranks 12th in the WNBA in blocks.

Thibault said Austin plays without fear.

“When we interviewed her, that was one of the things we asked her to get to the bottom of her psyche. One night it’s going to be Jonquel (Jones), and the next day it’s going to be Sylvia Fowles and then Tina Charles coming… and the impression we got was that she was not afraid of anyone and that she wants to go play.”

“Sometimes it’s naivety, and sometimes it’s your approach to the game, and she has a great approach, and I think we’ve all seen that.”

Defense.

The Mystics, who ranked No. 3 in the league in defensive rating (94.1), are allowing 72.4 points per game and rank as the best defense in the league so far. In addition to Atkins, Clark and Williams and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are among the league’s top defensemen. Mystics coach Mike Thibault said he is watching his team’s defensive matchups closely at the start of the season as he is forced into different formations with Delle Donne and Clark on and off the field.

“We want to make sure we have the on-court matchups we want,” Thibault said.

Versatility and depth.

The Mystics have already been shorthanded this season with Delle Donne’s limited time and Alysha Clark’s early injury/COVID protocol issues. But on the court, it’s an experienced group – led by Atkins, Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen who have been playing together for a long time. Washington has a solid bench that includes Elizabeth Williams (just back from overseas), Myisha Hines-Allen and Kennedy Burke, who claimed waivers on the first day of the season. Burke and Williams played well against the Sun on Saturday, as did Rui Machida, and Tianna Hawkins came out of a shooting slump to hit a pair of big 3-pointers.

Hawkins said the team has gotten used to filling gaps.

“The good thing is we get a lot of reps together, and so if we’re playing a game and we’re missing someone, the next person stays ready,” Hawkins said. “Everyone can have a good night…we have coins everywhere. Our goal for the bench is not to have any disappointments; our goal is always to be aggressive and pick up where the stars left off.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the WNBA or its clubs.

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