Beard's Injury Doesn't Damper Playoff Hopes

In most circumstances, losing a franchise player for the season is a devastating blow, and certainly would not leave a team thinking playoffs in the aftermath of the news.

But in the wide open WNBA, that’s exactly the position the Washington Mystics are in. Despite season-ending ankle surgery to star guard Alana Beard, the Mystics are confident they have the talent and depth to build on last year’s playoff campaign.

“Our team is ready to accept the challenge,” coach Julie Plank said. “I really think our team took a big step last year. We were the youngest team in the playoffs. With the experience we gained last year and the improvement of our returning players, I think you can expect some big things.”

The addition of perennial All-Star Katie Smith has become even timelier in the wake of Beard’s injury. An 11-year WNBA veteran, Smith can help fill the scoring void in Beard’s absence and also provide needed leadership.

The Mystics had the talent to compete with every team in the league last year, but were the victims of numerous late-game foibles. They snuck into the playoffs on the last weekend of the regular season, but eventually their inexperience caught up to them in the form of a first-round sweep at the hands of the Indiana Fever.

But with Smith’s dynamic veteran presence in tow, the Mystics are looking to be the aggressors at the end of games in 2010.

“I’m comfortable in that situation and I have confidence in the players that are here to find you when you are open,” Smith said. “I’m very confident in what we can do — whether it’s defensive getting stops or offensively setting picks — and that it’s going to get done. I just think I’ll help the younger players understand what it takes to grind out games and do those little things. If I can be a decoy, I’ll be a decoy. If I need to take the last shot, I’ll take it.”

With Beard out, one of Plank’s top priorities for training camp and the pre-season is experimenting with backcourt combinations. Between Smith and returning players Lindsey Harding, Matee Ajavon, Marissa Coleman and Monique Currie, Plank has plenty of options. And the second-year coach already has a head start in that process because she had to tinker with her lineup late last season and in the playoffs while Beard was hobbled with a sprained ankle.

In addition to Beard’s absence, Plank’s desire to cut down on Harding’s minutes from a league-high 35.1 should open up more playing time. Ajavon and Coleman figure to get the first opportunity at extended minutes because of their pure scoring ability, although Plank would prefer to keep Ajavon out of the starting lineup because she proved valuable as a spark off the bench last year.

While the Mystics staff is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ajavon — who is currently playing in the Turkish league finals for Fenerbahce Istanbul — Coleman has been impressing. The second-year player out of Maryland spent two months prior to training camp working with Beard and the results are already apparent. Coleman, whose play suffered in the wake of a sprained ankle last year, has been the best player in camp so far, gliding around the court and knocking down shots with ease.

“Coleman looks great,” Plank said. “I think she’s coming back where she started last year, but an even better player. She looks leaner and lighter, very confident shooting the ball.”

The Mystics’ primary offseason need was finding help in the post Crystal Langhorne, and they are optimistic about the impact rookie Jacinta Monroe will have in 2010. Monroe is 6-foot-5 and athletic enough to run the floor in keeping with Plank’s uptempo style. Monroe has shown the ability to play both high post and low post and her shot-blocking will be a welcome addition, since the Mystics were tied for last in the WNBA last season with just 3.0 blocks a game.

“One of the biggest things we knew we needed going into the offseason was post help,” general manager Angela Taylor said. “I think Jacinta will fit in well. The best thing for her is that she trained with USA Basketball the week before training camp began. It gave her a better idea of the difference in speed and physicality of the pro game.”

The WNBA figures to be as competitive as ever this year. With Sacramento gone, the remaining teams are deeper and more talented. Add to that the revamped rosters of the Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty, and the Eastern Conference will be difficult to navigate.

But with the addition of Smith to an improving young roster, the Mystics are prepared to carry on without their leader.

“We have to understand that we’re all going to be counted on every night for different things,” Smith said. “Life would be a lot easier with Alana here, but I think all of us understand there’s a lot for us to carry. All of us are game. Alana will be there cheering us on, and we’ll go out there and do what we need to do.”