- The Washington Times
Thursday, July 23, 2020

This surely isn’t what the Washington Mystics had planned for their WNBA title defense.

No Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, who opted out of the 2020 season that will begin this weekend in a “bubble” environment in Bradenton, Florida. For the foreseeable future, no Elena Delle Donne, the reigning league MVP whose rehab after back surgery was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and put her behind schedule.

The Mystics traded for veteran center Tina Charles in April — and she won’t play in 2020, either, after receiving a medical exemption for extrinsic asthma that could put her at higher risk for the coronavirus.

With all of those players out of the picture, as well as former starting guard Kristi Toliver, who left in free agency, Washington will hardly resemble the same team that won its first championship and franchise history last October.

The Mystics will need to look to their bench for players to take on expanded roles. Good thing their bench is so strong.

Players ranging from Emma Meesseman and Ariel Atkins to newcomers like Leilani Mitchell and Essence Carson will be counted on to lead the Mystics this season, which begins Saturday at 5 p.m. when they face off against the Indiana Fever.

Coach Mike Thibault said those players and more will have opportunities for bigger jobs out of necessity.

“I just think this is one of those ‘experiment and find out’ kind of situations,” Thibault said.

The coach said at last Sunday’s virtual media day that he had yet to finalize a starting lineup because the staff was “toying with” the idea of keeping one of their top players in an off-the-bench-scorer role. But Washington’s starting lineup figures to feature a combination of Meesseman, Atkins, guard Aerial Powers and forward Tianna Hawkins at its core.

In the 2019 regular season, Meesseman played a sixth woman role and only made six starts in her 23 appearances, but she went on to have an explosive postseason and earned WNBA Finals MVP honors.

Though she’s probably the Mystics’ best remaining player for 2020, Meesseman doesn’t feel pressured to carry the entire load.

“I don’t feel like I have to be the only focal point or something,” she said. “I will have to take my responsibility of this team this year, and I will try to do that, but I think that’s what (opposing) defenses are gonna try to stop, too. So we’re gonna have to use everybody on the team and have different options.”

Hawkins, who’s played for Washington since 2014, has found herself getting more comfortable in a vocal leadership role. But besides that, the 29-year-old doesn’t want to approach the season any differently than she usually does.

“I think the biggest thing for me personally, I’m just gonna play my game (how) I’ve played,” Hawkins said. “Each year I want to come back better than I was the year before. I understand that more opportunities are here for me this year, but I’m not gonna try to do anything out of the ordinary.”

Thibault said he’s expecting more offensively from Atkins, the team’s 2018 first-round pick and the usual starter at the three last year, and Powers, who had a nice postseason in 2019 with four double-digit performances off the bench.

Two of Washington’s newest players, Mitchell and Carson, are WNBA vets who figure to have increased expectations than what they may have originally signed up for. Mitchell was named the league’s most improved player in 2019 while playing for the Phoenix Mercury. Carson, who’s been in the league since 2008, will also have a vocal role on the court.

Powers said that when she played collegiately at Michigan State, women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant had a mantra: “Player-coached” teams were better than “coach-coached” teams.

“If you have girls that feed off each other, that learn from each other, that can communicate to each other and you have someone like Essence (Carson) that comes along and can talk to us and (we’re) all listening, I mean, the chemistry is gonna come along,” Powers said.

“We just need a little bit more time,” she added with a laugh.

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