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Q&A with Paul Nilsen Part 3: How can the Mystics and WNBA benefit from the international game and its players?

Stewart W. Small

The WNBA has had some significant international stars throughout its history. Australian center Lauren Jackson is the first player to come to mind, where she won three WNBA MVP awards and won two championships with the Seattle Storm.

Other international stars who played a major part of the WNBA’s history include Penny Taylor and Mwadi Mabika. The late Margo Dydek, was the first international player to be drafted first overall back in 1998. Like Wizards center Marcin Gortat, Dydek was from Poland.

After Belgian center Ann Wauters was the second number one overall pick in the 2000 WNBA Draft and Jackson a year later, every number one overall pick has been American. In fact, it’s rare to see non-Americans make the first round of the draft anymore.

But there’s more to international talent than the player getting drafted number one overall. Non-American players are making less of an impact on the WNBA with each passing year. One possible reason why is because national teams have often trained during the summer when the WNBA season takes shape.

And during Olympic years, international players — including Jackson — would stay in their country until the Olympics is over. After the Olympics, some players do come stateside, but often have smaller roles than their national team.

That’s what makes Emma Meesseman special. She’s an anomaly who bucks this concerning trend of international players. Meesseman’s an All-Star, and has played a major role in the Mystics’ rebuild over the last five seasons.

However, it’s important to note that Meesseman had no international commitments during the summer during her early years as a Mystic. Her native Belgium didn’t make EuroBasket Women in 2013 or 2015, which is why she didn’t miss a single game of her career until last season.

As you may know right now, most of the Mystics’ top players who aren’t named Emma are still stateside. The most notable is Elena Delle Donne. On the one hand, it’s good to see that she’s not playing year round basketball. But on the other, Delle Donne is not playing at a competitive level for most of the calendar year.

I talked about these topics with Paul Nilsen of FIBA in the third part of our Q&A. If you haven’t read the other two parts of the Q&A, the links to them are below:

And now, the last part of our Q&A. It is lightly edited for clarity, with background information notes as well.

BF: Elena Delle Donne is one of the top stars in the WNBA, but she generally hasn't played during the winter in Europe or Asia. What developmental benefits could she get from spending some time on an overseas team?

Nilsen: I understand that Delle Donne has a complex family situation and I can only assume this is one reason she has not taken the plunge.

There were previously strong rumors she would be at Fenerbahçe and she was in China with Shanxi for a short period before the Chicago Sky traded her to the Mystics.

I think the beauty of any WNBA/American player taking their game overseas is that it is not just about the basketball. Good, bad or indifferent, or most likely a combination of all three elements, playing outside of your comfort zone is life-changing – on and off the court.

Europe and Asia have a multitude of languages, philosophies, culture and so forth. I think the biggest benefit would be for Elena in her personal life. Playing abroad will broaden her horizons like it has for many other WNBA players.

The basketball bonus would be to Team USA, of course. Any overseas experience Elena has will probably make her an even more rounded player who has a better understanding (especially defensively) for the big international tournaments when facing opposing nations.

BF: Are there any players on Belgium's WBB team who you could see on a WNBA team, not just the Mystics?

Ann Wauters has played in the WNBA for many years, but she’s in her twilight. Of Belgium’s remaining players, I'd say Kim Mestdagh is more than WNBA ready.

Nilsen: Mestdagh is probably a player who could step off the bench for any team in the women’s game at any level because she is such a capable shooter and especially from long-range. I have always loved her economy of movement too.

She is consistent, usually takes care of the ball and might make an impact. As usual, the question when it comes to European players in WNBA is whether she would be dismissed as not being athletic enough defensively. But she would be a nice Belgian hook up though for Mystics if it happened.

Mestdagh played briefly for Yakın Doğu Üniversitesi this season but just moved to Perfumerias in Spain. Perfumerias, like Yakın Doğu Üniversitesi is also in EuroLeague Women. Here’s a highlight reel:

Editor’s Note: Yes, Kim Mestdagh is Belgium HC Philip Mestdagh’s daughter. But she’s not there because of her last name. After all, we mentioned her from time to time, up to the point where Mestdagh (and Julie Vanloo) had their own highlight post without Meesseman involved.

Mestdagh played a long time in the USA herself, at Colorado State like the video insert above shows. Mestdagh played four seasons (2008-12) for the Rams and was one of their key players during her time there. Some famous basketball alumni from there include now-Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon and Wizards post Jason Smith.

If you’re wondering how good Mestdagh was last summer, she was the 10th leading scorer per game in EuroBasket Women 2017 and averaged nearly two made threes a game. Let’s just say she’s on a rampage in EuroBasket Women 2019 qualifiers — so she just seems to keep getting better.

Lastly, Mestdagh is 27 years old. She’s in her prime. If a WNBA team wants a shooter who isn’t going to have rookie “stage fright,” I think she’s a good fit as a shooter. But like Nilsen said, could her defense hold her back? When it comes to Mestdagh’s fit as a WNBA player, I’m not talking about her playing for the Mystics specifically, but any WNBA team.

Also, Belgian point guard Julie Allemand was a third round pick to the Indiana Fever in 2016. Given how Meesseman’s been in the USA, there could be more of them playing here before you know it.

BF: We've seen fewer international players in the WNBA recently. One reason why may be because continental tournaments happen during the summer. Should the WNBA have breaks during continental play (which includes EuroBasket, AmeriCup, AfroBasket, and the Asia Cup)?

Nilsen: Absolutely in my opinion. The WNBA is hamstrung by its inability to compete with the Olympics which it does break for and also the lack of competitive salaries which has had players thinking twice about playing in the USA. There is no doubt that the WNBA is the number one league when it comes to prestige. So it remains the dream of all players, for now.

But the FIBA Women’s World Cup, Olympics, continental tournaments, and growing professional markets in Europe and Asia all remain significant threats. The need to co-operate has never been more of necessity in the women’s game and for the WNBA, to turn perceived threats and competitors into opportunities and colleagues.

Editor’s Note: Wings rookie Evelyn Akhator left the team in August to play for Nigeria in the Women’s AfroBasket. That’s late in the season. Fortunately for Dallas, Akhator was a seldom used reserve, but if she were a starter, that could have significantly hurt the Wings’ chances at a higher playoff seed.

So, it’s worth stating again. The WNBA must be better at making itself more international friendly. I know that Lisa Borders, the WNBA President has verbally stated that the international game isn’t a problem. But actions like not pausing the season for EuroBasket Women speak louder than her words.

They’re shooting themselves in the foot by not pausing the season for continental tournaments. One day, the USA is going to play in FIBA AmeriCup again — and I guess that is when they’ll do something. That day is coming sooner rather than later.

BF: Emma Meesseman's WNBA experience helped her accelerate her development given her past reluctance to take an active role in the offense.

Unfortunately, there are fewer Europeans playing in the WNBA, in part due to national team commitments. It sounds strange to say this, but if Belgium made EuroBasket Women 2013 and/or 2015, Meesseman may not have developed to where she is today. Or, Meesseman may have never played in the WNBA altogether.

Should more Europeans go to the WNBA to develop?

Nilsen: Europeans will always go to the WNBA when they can, but as per the previous question, the international calendar puts them into a dilemma – and also the WNBA clubs too.

You will have some high level European players who must either turn down their country or demand a favourable individual schedule where they either arrive late in national team camp or miss a chunk of the WNBA season, possibly year after year. Obviously, WNBA clubs need to think about this too. I can appreciate why it is a pain for the GM’s and coaches.

When it comes to development, I think the sheer quality, physicality and athleticism of the WNBA, means all players who arrive Stateside from across The Pond have a unique chance to enhance and evolve as players – as Meesseman has.

Thanks again to Paul for taking the time to answer these questions for us! You can follow him on Twitter @basketmedia365 and his FIBA women’s basketball column here.