The Washington Mystics will have to keep waiting for their championship parade. Because most of the 2019 championship team had to bolt overseas quickly after their title run last fall, the Mystics were supposed to celebrate down the streets of the nation’s capital in May. The world had other plans, however, and of course it was not just the Mystics’ parade that was impacted when everything shutdown.
Yet the Mystics more than maybe any other team in the WNBA will have to treat 2020 like a bit of a ghost season. They will be without arguably the league’s best player and 2019 MVP in Elena Delle Donne, who will sit out the season due to chronic Lyme disease posing a threat should she contract COVID-19 at the WNBA clean site in Bradenton, Fla. Also absent is Natasha Cloud, the breakout combo guard whose two-way ability was key for Washington in 2019, starting center LaToya Sanders, as well as Tina Charles, a former MVP and longtime New York Liberty star who the Mystics acquired late in the offseason. It leaves Washington’s roster pretty barren and their hopes of defending the title rather slim.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Emma Meesseman: There may not be a better value bet for WNBA MVP than Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP who was Washington’s ultimate matchup buster throughout a dominant season. When the Mystics put Meesseman, Delle Donne and Sanders on the floor together, their offensive versatility and floor spacing were too much for opposing teams to handle. Meesseman can score from anywhere on the court and is a genius without the ball. After years of stops and starts, it appears she and head coach Mike Thibault have a rapport that could spell a career season for the Belgian star as she takes on a leading role.
Essence Carson: After a calf injury took away most of Carson’s 2019, no team signed her during the league’s free agency period. It took until July, after the WNBA season schedule and format had already been announced, for the Mystics to add her to their depleted roster. At age 33, Carson is in the back nine of her career, but she is exactly the type of big wing player Thibault loves to deploy. Just two years ago, Carson shot 36 percent on over three three-point attempts per game, and if she can rediscover that form, she can help Washington. A useful veteran stopgap could keep Washington in the playoff mix and help them at least maintain the defensive versatility and floor-spacing that are integral to their identity.
Making the playoffs would be a win. Washington is similar to the San Antonio Spurs or the New England Patriots in terms of the way institutional knowledge, elite culture, and coaching will always lift them past the sum of the parts of their roster. And the Mystics certainly look better-suited for a playoff run than young squads like New York or Dallas. The Dream are depleted and rebuilding and Las Vegas is without two of its best players, so the pathway is there. Even without three starters from 2019 and a former MVP, the Mystics surprisingly are still a strong possibility to take one of the top eight spots in the league and return to the playoffs.
Kiara Leslie: An ACL tear prior to the 2019 WNBA Draft meant Leslie sat out all of 2019, failing to break in on a team that would eventually hoist a trophy. But like Carson (or better yet, Cloud and Atkins), Leslie looks like a prototypical Thibault wing. At 6-0 and 175 lbs., Leslie should have the size and strength to switch on defense and attack mismatches on the other end. Her scoring game will likely be a work in progress after she shot just 41 percent from the field as a junior at NC State, but translatable defense is exactly why Thibault made her a surprise first-round pick a year ago. One thing Mystics fans ought to be optimistic about is the developmental experience Leslie will have in Florida.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Who is the backup point guard? With Cloud out and veteran scorer Kristi Toliver off the team, the Mystics are in need of play-making. Mitchell is steady but at 35, tough to count on staying healthy and effective all year. I believe in Powers as a primary ball-handler more than Thibault seems to, but it’s a fact that she was better once she got to Washington and got to play off of Cloud and Toliver. The only other option is Peddy, an unproven second-year player who appeared for just 71 minutes total as a rookie. The only saving grace is that Peddy is 31, meaning she’s more experienced than most “sophomores.” Thibault’s offense will either see someone step up and take the reins or run through Meesseman in the post even more than usual.