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Three big questions for the Mystics this season

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The Mystics enter this season with plenty of intrigue, so what will make the difference between a championship and disappointment?

Elena Delle Donne poses after her teammates made a three during the 2019 WNBA Finals between the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun.
Elena Delle Donne’s health will be an on-going story for
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Mystics are gearing up for the 25th season of WNBA basketball (so you know, this is Washington’s 24th as a franchise). The 2019 champions are looking to regain their elite status after an injury-riddled 2020 season that ended in heartbreaking fashion. Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud and (finally) Tina Charles will don Mystics jerseys together for the first time.

The stars will join a group of players who grew in the Wubble (that’s the WNBA’s endearing nickname for their bubble last season), including Myisha Hines-Allen and Leilani Mitchell. Unlike other EDD-led Mystics teams, this year’s group is full of intrigue and question marks. Let’s talk about a few of the questions that will define D.C.’s season.

How healthy is Elena Delle Donne?

During the Mystics’ Media Day last week, General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault revealed that Elena Delle Donne may not be able to play in the season opener on May 15th and would be on a minutes restriction to begin the season due to the three herniated discs she suffered in the 2019 Finals. He felt “reasonably sure” that the two-time WNBA MVP was making progress towards full participation this year.

Delle Donne discussed learning how to sit and walk differently in physical therapy to alleviate strain on her back. The tone of these discussions was concerning, especially considering that 18 months have passed since she suffered the injury.

However, Delle Donne’s situation is less alarming in context. She was just beginning her rehab when the coronavirus pandemic intervened and she could not proceed fully for months. Her YouTube series, Beyond The Game, provided a deeper look last year when she had surgery and quarantined along the way.

Herniated discs are one of the most painful injuries and one of the hardest to rehab from. Most athletes do bounce back from the injury, though. Mystics fans can be optimistic that Delle Donne’s rehab is merely behind schedule rather than indicative of further injury. EDD is one of the toughest players in the league, but the team will have to be cautious with her health this season.

Compounding the issue, Emma Meesseman’s situation remains up in the air. The 2019 Finals MVP is one of the best EDD replacements on the planet but has not yet re-signed with DC. She is unlikely to join the team until the Olympics are over, if at all in 2021. Meesseman’s presence would relieve a lot of pressure on Delle Donne if she was available. But for now, other players will have to pick up the slack.

How does Tina Charles change in Mike Thibault’s system?

Despite the limited availability of Delle Donne and Meesseman, the Mystics’ frontcourt seems like a strength due to Tina Charles. The 7-time All-Star is finally joining Washington after getting traded to DC last offseason and opting out of the Wubble. Charles provides something that the team has lacked for a couple of seasons: a true star center.

The question is how a true star center changes the way that the Mystics play. Mike Thibault has professed his desire to always have five shooters on the floor for years. During the 2019 championship run, Thibault was able to do that often and produced one of the most efficient offenses in basketball history. But, Charles has not been a three-point shooter (a career average of 29.4 percent) throughout her legendary career.

Both Thibault and Charles will have to adapt their styles to one another. Thibault said that he doesn’t think Charles will need to change her game for the Mystics, but also talked about how she has worked on her three-point shooting over the last three years.

Thibault explained that he wants Charles to maintain her post-up game and continue to shoot from mid-range while mixing in her growing skills on the perimeter. As Thibault sees it, the biggest challenge for Charles will be learning her teammates and how to maximize her game around them.

Charles had her best years under Thibault in Connecticut from 2010-12, so the duo knows how to work together. The dynamic between Charles and DC’s system will not only be fascinating but also crucial to the team’s success.

Is Myisha Hines-Allen a franchise cornerstone?

The Mystics’ future core clearly includes Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Elena Delle Donne, who all signed long-term deals over the past two seasons. The only young piece that the team has yet to lock up is Myisha Hines-Allen.

Hines-Allen showed her potential in the Wubble by putting up 17 points a game and shooting 42.6 percent from three. She made the most of the opportunity created by the opt-outs and injuries to the rest of the frontcourt. The team has always been high on Hines-Allen, so her performance confirmed their belief in her rather than opened their eyes to it.

This season, Hines-Allen will have to fit around Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne. She will need to continue shooting threes at a high clip like she did last season and in France. Defensive versatility will be another crucial area for Hines-Allen. Alysha Clark’s injury and Aerial Powers’s departure have created a hole at the three. She could fill that gap if she can improve her perimeter defense.

Hines-Allen made the most of her chance in 2020. If she does the same in 2021, she will likely earn a lucrative long-term deal with the Mystics and help the Mystics contend for a championship for years to come.