Emma Meesseman’s out for the season because she wants to rest and prepare for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup this September. It is a blow for the Mystics this season, especially when they hope to rebuild from last year’s semifinals appearance with a clean bill of health. Last year’s team performed well given the circumstances, but it is tough to win consistently when Elena Delle Donne and Tayler Hill missed significant time last season.
So, here are some takeaways from today’s news.
Belgium national team play matters more to Meesseman right now
As an American, I find it a little bit difficult to sympathize with other countries’ national basketball teams when they make a FIBA World Cup or an Olympics. That’s because the American national team — men or women — have dominated the sport for a very long time. The men have won six of the last seven Olympic gold medals. The women have won every Olympic gold medal since 1996 and won four of the last five World Cups.
With the Wizards, many fans didn’t care or were happy to see Bradley Beal TURN DOWN an invitation to the men’s Olympic team in 2016. And this is AFTER several other guards turned down an invite! And with the women’s team, the select team of youngsters could probably win an Olympic Gold, let alone the actual senior team!
But in Belgium, a country where basketball isn’t so popular, things are different. Meesseman is much bigger for Belgian basketball than she will be in the USA. That’s kind of like how Marcin Gortat and Tomas Satoransky are for Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively.
That said, the current Belgian women’s team is made of a very strong young group of players in their mid-20’s. Since Belgium won the bronze in EuroBasket Women last year, they could advance to the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup quarterfinals this year, or maybe even the semis!
Basketball players in other countries not named the United States feel more of an obligation to play for their country than Americans, especially male players, tend to feel. The stakes are just higher when those teams have an opportunity to hit some first milestones like the Belgians did. The 2018 World Cup is their first ever. They don’t want to fizzle in that tournament after winning third place in EuroBasket Women.
And finally, Meesseman wants to be healthy for the World Cup. In our Q&A with FIBA’s Paul Nilsen, he disagreed with me that Belgium was close to a lock for the 2020 Olympics. That’s because an injury to her or Ann Wauters (who’s 38) could bring them back to Earth. Wauters had a meniscus tear in late December and had surgery to repair it, according to De Standaard, a Belgian Dutch language newspaper.
Ultimately, something was going to give. Unfortunately, that time happened to be now.
Meesseman will probably never play a full WNBA season for the foreseeable future
Thibault’s statement indicated that Meesseman will return in 2019. Though it’s possible Meesseman can come back in 2019, she’s probably missing the first third to half of the season because of another EuroBasket Women that will likely determine their Olympic hopes.
Belgium is playing EuroBasket Women 2019 qualifiers right now where they’re tied for first place with the Czech Republic, one of women’s basketball’s traditional powers. They actually play the Czechs on February 10 in Prague which could likely determine the winner of the group. Even though Wauters won’t play in that qualifier because of her aforementioned knee injury, Germany and Switzerland, the other teams in the group are weak European teams that provided no resistance to the Belgians or Czechs.
Barring an epic collapse, the Belgians are going to EuroBasket Women 2019. If they win the tournament next year, they’ll make the Olympics. But if they earn a high enough seed, Belgium will make an Olympic qualifying tournament that takes place in the spring of 2020, which happens during the WNBA season. So if I’m being really pessimistic, that means that Meesseman may only play a portion of the 2019 season while missing the 2018 and 2020 seasons should Belgium make the Olympics.
The Mystics’ championship window has very little room for error
The Mystics spent a lot of their young drafted talent to acquire Elena Delle Donne last year. The dream Emma Meesseman and Elena Delle Donne front court many were hoping to see? Well, it’s just not gonna happen and unfortunately, we have to blame the WNBA for that. I’m not one to blame international players for picking their country over the pros, though this post will inevitably sound that way at times.
At any rate, the Mystics’ medium-term championship hopes appeared to rest on how well a Meesseman and Delle Donne frontcourt could pan out. Now that that’s not happening, Delle Donne is going to need other players to support her. Fortunately, she may have that in Tayler Hill.
Tayler Hill is now free to be EDD’s “Robin” on the Mystics
I was originally going to write a piece about how the Mystics have to resolve the Meesseman/Delle Donne/Hill trio’s chemistry or lack of it. All three players had usage rates close to or above 25 percent each and all three started most (or all in Delle Donne’s case) of the games they played. It’s unrealistic to have a team with three starters with usage rates of 25 percent so someone has to “take a step back” or move to the bench as a sixth man.
For some perspective, the Wizards have two regular starters: John Wall and Bradley Beal who have usage rates above 28 percent according to Basketball Reference as of January 31, 2018. The other three regular starters: Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat don’t have usage rates above 19 percent.
Few will argue that Tayler Hill is a better player than Emma Meesseman today. But the reality is that it’s better to build around Hill as a core player instead of Meesseman because of availability. Before I get pushback on that, Hill has improved a lot since she entered the league. And she has something really positive in her favor. The Mystics played better with Hill than with Meesseman and Delle Donne in 2017. In fact, they were 10-5 at the end of June that season.
Hill also played her best basketball in June when Meesseman was out due to her EuroBasket absence. In June, Hill averaged 16 points a game and scored 12 or more points in all but one game that month. In addition, either Hill or Delle Donne led or tied for the lead for the Mystics in scoring in each June game.
Now that this happened, I hope that I see the Tayler Hill of June 2017, and with better shooting efficiency. But now, with Meesseman out for the season, it should effectively give Hill the “green light” to be the Mystics’ top option on offense after Delle Donne. It’s imperative that Hill take advantage of that.
WNBA teams can’t feasibly build around international players with the way things are
In recent years, we’ve seen fewer non-American players enter the WNBA. One reason is because they want to play for their countries in continental tournaments during odd-numbered years, and play for the World Cup/Olympics in even-numbered years.
Since the WNBA season doesn’t pause for most of these commitments, there’s little incentive for them to come to the USA when some players are earning a lot of money on EuroLeague Women superteams like Fenerbahçe or UMMC Ekaterinburg.
It’s also exacerbated when European stars play significantly diminished roles when they do play stateside. For example, French player Sandrine Gruda is considered to be one of Europe’s top stars, and she’s played in the WNBA a few seasons. However, she was never a regular starter for any WNBA team she was on.
Italian guard Cecilia Zandalasini was named to the EuroBasket Women 2017 All-Star Five with Meesseman and signed with the Lynx midseason. However, Zandalasini was nothing more than an end of the bench reserve. I don’t blame the Lynx for hardly playing her. It’s harder to integrate a player into a system than it looks. But again, it is what it is.
Meesseman bucked that trend for much of her WNBA career. She was a starter in the 2014 through 2017 seasons, and we were wondering if she could make the jump from All-Star level to superstar level play in the W.
I hoped to see Meesseman continue to play in the WNBA uninterrupted when possible. That’s because the NBA is embracing European players like never before. Sure, Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker are retiring sooner rather than later. But there are many young Europeans in the pipeline.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a legit NBA superstar from Greece for the Milwaukee Bucks. Latvian Kristaps Porzingis is another legit superstar in the making for the New York Knicks. Jazz center Rudy Gobert is the most notable young Frenchman, and one of the best centers in the NBA. And we already talked about how Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen is kinda like Meesseman himself, though he’s Finnish, not Belgian.
These guys however, don’t have to miss games for their national teams. In fact, the NBA won’t even allow any player to play in the 2019 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers. The American men’s basketball team in qualifiers is mostly made of G-League players.
However in the WNBA, it’s becoming clear that a championship team requires building around a core where the top stars are all Americans who don’t have to worry about commitments to other countries. Look at the Lynx. Their core is made of four Team USA players. The same goes for the Sparks. They don’t have four Team USA players, but their core players are all Americans as well.
The Mystics did what they could to build around Meesseman as a core piece, but they also benefited from the fact that Belgium wasn’t a EuroBasket caliber team early in her career. Now that Belgium is, Meesseman has the same inevitable conflicts as many other European WNBA players have. And unfortunately, it seems that the Mystics have to start thinking about their future playing without her because of those conflicts.
To be clear, I don’t blame Meesseman for skipping this season. The 2018 Mystics season is critical, but I can only imagine how much bigger next season is for the Belgians with their team going to the World Cup for the first time. I don’t think they’ll be a pushover for most teams either.
So to Emma, good luck in the World Cup and we can’t wait to see you again next year!
And for the WNBA, it’s time for them to work better with FIBA. If this league truly is “the best in the world,” its player representation needs to reflect that as well without policies that turn them away. Until then, we will see fewer and fewer non-American players — no matter how good they are — play in the WNBA.