For the first time since 2013, Mike Thibault will not be patrolling the sidelines for the Washington Mystics. Coach T made way for Eric Thibault to take over the head coach spot as he took on the General Manager job full-time. While ahead coaching change is nothing to scoff at, the Mystics are relying on continuity and internal growth to compete for a championship.
Seven of the team’s projected top eight players have played for the Mystics and the roster could feature as many as six players from the 2019 championship roster. Washington brought in Brittney Sykes to take over the departed Alysha Clark’s spot. Elizabeth Williams and Rui Machida also departed from the team. Yet, the Mystics roster will likely return over 70% of their minutes and 80% of their points.
Training camp begins this weekend and seems like a straightforward exercise in terms of who will make the roster. There will still be plenty of intrigue and important information to gather. Let’s take a look at who I’m projecting will make the roster and what we should look for from each player as we start the year.
PG: Natasha Cloud
The conductor of the Mystics’ offense. Cloud led the WNBA with 239 assists in 2022. She’s the 2nd player to ever dish 200 assists in a season (Courtney Vandersloot) and the 4th to average 7 or more assists per game (Vandersloot, Ticha Penichero, and Sue Bird). In addition to her passing, she’s one of DC’s best slashers, a smart pick-and-roll ballhandler, and the best foul drawer on the team. Oh, and she made All-Defense first team last season. Cloud shooting the deep ball better would be a big boost to the offense and could help Brittney Sykes make a bigger impact. But she’ll always help the team win with her skill set and leadership.
SG: Ariel Atkins
Atkins is a bonafide All-Star as she enters her 6th year. She took yet another step forward as a perimeter defender in 2022, earning All-Defense first-team honors alongside Cloud. Her scoring declined slightly, but she was a more efficient scorer. With Cloud, Sykes, and Kristi Toliver providing more ball-handling than last year’s group, Atkins could be in better positions to score. According to Synergy Sports, in 2022, she had more spot-up possessions than pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions for the first time since the 2019 championship season. The expectation for Atkins should be making the All-Star and/or All-Defense teams. But the hope is that she’ll shine in a slightly different role and make All-WNBA for the first time.
SF: Brittney Sykes
I broke down what Sykes brings to the table when the Mystics signed her. She makes the team more dynamic, disruptive on defense, and dangerous in transition. But she takes away some shooting compared to Alysha Clark. Fitting Sykes and Cloud together will be a challenge for Eric Thibault. They will both have to handle the ball to be successful and make sure that Washington’s best scoring threats have space to work. Hopefully, one (or both) of them has a hot shooting season to make the team gel easier. Regardless, Sykes should have a positive impact on the offense with her live-ball turnover creation.
PF: Elena Delle-Donne
EDD put to rest many rumors of her demise last season. She wasn’t quite her 2019 dominating self, but she looked close at times. As great as she was all offensively, her defense and athleticism stood out last season as compared to years past. She often talked about mastering her new body and missed nine games in large part due to her injury management. It seems that she plans to play all 40 games in 2023 and, for the first off-season since 2019, there’s a good reason to believe that will happen. That’s great news for the Mystics, because they always have a chance to win when EDD plays.
C: Shakira Austin
Outside of Elena Delle Donne’s health, Austin‘s growth might be the biggest determining factor in how good the mystics are. She broke out in her rookie season and made Washington look smart after trading away the #1 overall pick. The Mystics kept pointing out that Austin is nowhere close to her ceiling yet. She may getting a little closer after playing for Team USA in the World Cup and dominating with Israeli side Elitzur Landco Ramla. In a competitive Eurocup league, she put up 20 points and 12.7 rebounds per game, which put her in the top 5 in both categories. If she takes a big leap, the Mystics may have three All-Stars on this roster.
PF/C: Myisha Hines-Allen
Hines-Allen has struggled to find her place in the Mystics’ offense since thriving in a large role in the Wubble. Her points and minutes declined for the second consecutive season. But her shooting stroke came back a bit as she shot 36.7% on 79 threes. Hopefully, her shots continue to fall and she can find a consistent role as Washington’s sixth woman.
PG/SG: Kristi Toliver
SHE’S BACK! Toliver just officially signed with the Mystics after her winter job with the Dallas Mavericks came to an end. She returns to Washington three seasons after winning the 2019 championship. At 37 years old, it’s hard to know what to expect from Toliver, especially after the worst statistical year of her career in Los Angeles. Taking over Rui Machida’s spot, she will bring more shooting, vocal leadership and another basketball mind intimately familiar with this group.
SG/SF: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough
Walker-Kimbrough has played with the Mystics for most of her career and we know what to expect from her. Solid three-point shooting, an on- and off-ball transition threat, and dependable defense. How the minutes shake out between Walker-Kimbrough and Toliver will be interesting. Toliver brings more shooting and play-making, but Walker-Kimbrough makes the defense and transition game stronger. The Mystics have leaned toward the latter skill set in years past, but defense has come to define the current iteration of the team.
PF/C: Amanda Zahui B
The Mystics traded two second-round picks for the right to sign Zahui B this offseason. She did not play last year after the Sparks suspended her contract. In theory, she’s a stretch big who can hit threes, drive off closeouts, and keep the ball moving. In reality, she has a good feel for the game and an impressive skill set for her size. But she makes threes at a subpar 31% rate over her career and lacks the athleticism to create rim pressure. She’s also not a plus defender. Zahui B has an opportunity to improve on those areas and carve out a place for herself in the rotation.
PF/C: Tianna Hawkins
The Mystics will have to carry 11 players this season due to their salary cap situation. That leaves them with two spots up for grabs. Realistically, Hawkins may already have one of those spots locked up. She’s been with the team for almost 9 years and is a favorite of the coaching staff. She has lost a step over the past couple of seasons, but she understands this offense and how to play defense. Assuming one of these spots goes to a frontcourt player and the other to a backcourt player, Hawkins’ competition is Stephanie Jones and Alisia Jenkins. Neither of them are young enough as a prospect and Hawkins should help the team more.
SG/SF: Evina Westbrook
The backcourt spot will come down to Westbrook, Elena Tsineke, Li Meng, Jazmine Jones, and (possibly) Christyn Williams. Westbrook (32 minutes) and Jones (3) finished the season with Mystics last season. Having some knowledge of how the team works will certainly give them a leg up. Williams spent the year rehabbing in Washington despite being waived after her injury. But she has yet to sign with the team and it does not appear that she will be in camp. Meng is a wildcard here. She’s an accomplished player in China and lead the Chinese team to its first silver medal in the World Cup since 1994. Elena Tsineke was the 20th pick in the 2023 WNBA draft and brings a nice skill set from the University of South Florida.
Unfortunately, Tsineke’s rookie scale contract costs the Mystics $3,005 more than the minimum contracts that the other players are on. Washington cannot keep Tsineke without cutting Hawkins (or another veteran). She’d have to really shine in training camp to overcome the salary cap situation. I’d take Westbrook here since I like her positional size and know more about her than the other players. But Jaz Jones has more point guard skills and Meng came all the way from China to try out so she must like her chances.