During halftime of Friday night’s prime-time matchup between 5th-ranked Louisville and 20th-ranked DePaul’s women’s basketball teams, the WNBA televised the 2021 Draft Lottery; the New York Liberty will select first, followed by the Dallas Wings, the Atlanta Dream and the Indiana Fever.
With the order set, front offices can begin planning for April, the tentative date for the 2021 Draft. Look over the draft order and you’ll see an abundance of picks for teams such as New York and Dallas. One franchise absent from the list: the Washington Mystics
On April 15, 2020, Mystics Coach/General Manager Mike Thibault made a blockbuster trade for Tina Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, seven-time All-Star and five-time All-WNBA First Teamer. To bring Charles to the nation’s capital, Thibault traded away Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, gave up Washington’s first-round pick (12th overall) in the 2020 Draft, as well all three selections in 2021.
Barring any trades to reacquire draft picks, April’s event will be a mostly bland and forgettable time for Mystics fans. While a lack of picks may be a frustrating prospect for the organization, the lack of draft capital, while important to acknowledge, isn’t necessarily disastrous.
The four franchises that had a chance of getting the first pick were there for a reason; they were the four teams with the worst records in the league. The combined record of New York, Dallas, Atlanta and Indiana was 23–65, which is good for a 26-percent win rate. A lack of draft picks reflects a team’s standing as one of the elite squads in the league — a team in win-now mode.
For 2021, Ariel Atkins, Elena Delle Donne, Myisha Hines-Allen, Kiara Leslie and Leilani Mitchell are under contract, with Washington holding the rights to Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, both of whom opted out of this past season. Should Cloud and Sanders return, Thibault would need to find deals for Tina Charles, who has indicated her intention to re-sign with the Mystics, Emma Meesseman, Tianna Hawkins and Aerial Powers.
While free agency can be a precarious time, the Mystics will return a formidable group to the court next season. For a team packed with two former MVPs, championship experience and a band of young stars, there is no guarantee that, even if the Mystics were to draft a player in April, a rookie would make the final roster.
Then there’s the fact that Thibault has proven to be a shrewd decision maker when attempting to improve his team. In the 2020 Draft, the Mystics selected Jaylyn Agnew with the 24th-overall pick out of Creighton, followed by Sug Sutton with the 36th pick out of Texas; neither player made the team’s final roster.
When the Mystics lost Powers to a hamstring injury after only six games, Thibault signed Sutton and brought in Stella Johnson, the 29th-overall pick in the 2020 Draft. With only 144 roster spots in the WNBA, many rookie players, such as Sutton and Johnson were waived before the season.
Of the 12 players who were selected in the third round of the 2020 Draft, not one was on her respective team’s opening day roster. In fact, of the 36 players selected in the draft, 20 were waived before the season started — 56-percent of the class.
With rookie players consistently the casualties of an unforgiving roster finalization day, not having a draft pick does not mean a team can’t improve its roster. With Sutton and Johnson, the Mystics found two players who logged significant minutes for the team, when healthy.
Sutton played 12 games for the Mystics, averaged 2.8 points per game, 1.0 assists and shot 36-percent from the field. Johnson, meanwhile, played in only five games for the Mystics due to injury but made an instant impact. In her third game with the team, Johnson put up a career- and game-high 25 points, draining six threes. Finding players who were waived often can be a viable alternative for teams without draft picks.
For Thibault, who is aware of the team’s predicament, Sutton and Johnson can be players to help offset draft picks that have been traded away.
“We don’t have any draft picks next year,” Thibault said in a Zoom interview this summer. “We traded those to get Tina, and Tina has indicated that she will be back, but if somebody like Stella Johnson can be that draft pick for next year, then that’s a pretty good summer. We will come out ahead. Here’s her opportunity to prove that she belongs and if she does, then she will be better than probably any draft pick we would have had anyway. So that’s a win-win for us.”
For young players, it’s about integration into the roster and learning a new system. “The fact that we were able to bring in a couple young players who will have a chance to fit our team going forward, that’s a big plus during this time period,” Thibault said. “With Sug and Stella getting a chance to look at them in game situations and learning in practice bodes well for our future.”
While the future of the Mystics might not look particularly fruitful with regards to 2021 Draft picks, there’s really nothing to be worried about when they take the court next season.