This weekend could have ended in turmoil for the Washington Mystics. First, Breanna Stewart eliminated DC from her list of possible destinations in WNBA free agency. Then, Alysha Clark reportedly signed with the growing superteam in Las Vegas. But the Thibault brain trust of General Manager Mike Thibault and Head Coach Eric Thibault rebounded nicely by reportedly signing Brittney Sykes from the Los Angeles Sparks.
Sykes joins the Mystics after cementing herself as an elite defender. She made an All-Defensive team in each of three seasons with the Sparks (first in 2021, second in 2020 and 2022). Prior to her time in LA, she spent three seasons with Atlanta and was a key bench piece for a team that went to the Semifinals in 2018. Sykes is not seen as an efficient offensive player, but she’s very dynamic in everything she does. The only contract detail reported right now is that she signed a three-year deal, so we don’t yet know the full implications of this move. But we can talk about some of the things that Sykes brings to Washington.
Defense: Havoc and chaos
While Alysha Clark did struggle offensively last season, she played a huge role in the Mystics’ defense, a unit that led the league in defensive rating last season. Clark rightfully earned a reputation as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and there aren’t many players on par with Clark defensively.
Sykes is one of them and may even be better. She has one more All-Defensive team appearance than Clark, despite being seven years younger. (Although, I’d argue that Clark deserved a lot more credit in her younger days). Sykes led the league in steals for the last two seasons. She also made a habit of swooping out of nowhere to make highlight blocks.
Sykes is a more frantic and daring defender than Clark, or really anyone for that matter. Where Clark used her knowledge, positioning, and strength to force her assignment out of a play, Sykes hopes her assignment gets in the play so she can get the ball. She’ll roam off her assignment as a help defender in the half court, hunting for blocks or trapping opportunities. While the Mystics ranked 3rd in opponent turnover rate, many of those turnovers were not steals that could be turned into easy buckets. Steals accounted for 49.7% of the turnovers Washington caused, the 8th-best mark in the WNBA last year. Sykes will ratchet up the chaos that DC creates defensively, which could benefit them on both ends of the floor.
She is still a fundamentally sound defender. More importantly, she’s fast enough to get away with her chances. But, she will occasionally leave messes for her teammates to clean up. Luckily, the Mystics are well-equipped to clean up messes. Shakira Austin should only get better as a paint presence in year two. Elena Delle Donne protected the rim impressively last season, as well. Those two will only matter if players evade wing help from Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins. Bottom line is that the league’s best defense just got another one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. It’s going to be tough sledding for teams against Washington.
Offense: Speeding and Slashing
Sykes’s defense flows into her most important offensive quality for Washington: transition scoring. The Mystics ranked 11th in time spent in transition offensively, according to Synergy Sports. The lack of fast break opportunities contributed to Washington’s mediocre offensive output in 2022. Sykes’s steals and run-outs should immediately change the dynamic. Her 3.5 transition possessions per game ranked 5th in the WNBA last year. No Mystic sniffed that number last season. Her contribution in transition could be huge for the Mystics because the best teams score on the fast break. The three teams that led the league in transition points made it to the WNBA semifinals last year (Las Vegas, Connecticut, and Seattle).
Sykes should also help Washington get the rim more often. The Mystics took the 4th fewest shots in the restricted area last season (even though they ranked 2nd in FG%). Sykes ranked 6th amongst guards in shots at the rim and 1st in FG% in the restricted area. She can explode to the rim off of pick-and-rolls as either a primary or secondary ball handler. She’s also an apt cutter, which will come in handy with Washington’s strong post players.
The most obvious critique of Sykes is her shooting. She has shot 28.9% on threes in her career with the high water mark of her career being 33.6% in her rookie year. Pairing her with Natasha Cloud would put two spotty shooters on the floor at the same time. The Mystics finished 10th in three-point percentage last season and Sykes probably won’t help that with her own shooting.
But let’s consider a few things. Sykes slots Atkins back into more of a three-and-d role, where she will hopefully get more open looks. Maybe Cloud’s shooting improves with another offseason of work and another driver on the team. More importantly, the Mystics are heading in a different direction from their 2019 championship days. Shakira Austin’s arrival, Atkins’s growth into a star, and Eric Thibault’s head coaching tenure have pushed Washington toward elite defenses rather than record-breaking offenses. Sykes fits perfectly into that vision of this franchise’s future.