Racing Out of the Gates

Don't look now, but the Mystics are off to a 3-1 start.

Sometimes, a year can make all the difference.

Adding a two-time WNBA Coach of the Year, three accomplished veterans, and four rookies certainly helps too.

Thibault and his hard-working players have, so far, righted the ship and turned the Washington Mystics franchise into a respectable Eastern Conference team. The Mystics are currently 3-1.

When did the Mystics notch their third win last season? July 1st, in a 90-77 victory against Phoenix. Their record improved that day to 3-10.

In fact, the team is already more than halfway to the win total they amassed last year and sit only a half game back from Eastern Conference leaders Chicago and Atlanta. True, the WNBA season is not yet three weeks old, but optimism is necessary and encouraged for the Mystics. Fans have every right to be excited.

“Oh man, the fans have been amazing,” Ivory Latta said. “They’ve been up, they’ve been rowdy, we can hear them, they’ve been cheering. Great fans. But we want more here in the arena. As long as we continue to win, and continue to play well, I know they will come.”

This past Monday, the WNBA named Ivory Latta the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, a distinction not held by a Mystics player since Crystal Langhorne was selected on June 28th, 2010.

“It’s definitely an honor,” said Latta. “I just practice a lot, come in early, leave late, practice all my shots, practice a lot of things. Me and [Assistant Coach Eric Thibault], he’s been working with me, and I’ve been playing well. It’s a real cool honor.”

Latta has been a difference maker for the team so far, offering 20.5 points per game, trailing only Minnesota’s Maya Moore, and adding as 3.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. The scoring she creates for herself and her teammates is just the push the Mystics need.

She also has a knack for making shots at the end of games. It seems as though Latta plays with nerves of steel night in and night out, making free throws, runners, and three pointers exactly when her team needs it. The 3-1 record could easily be 1-3 if not for Latta’s clutch performances down the stretch.

Most importantly, however, she is the leader.

“She demands a lot of herself,” Head Coach Mike Thibault said. “I think her teammates see that, that she’s as hard on herself as she is anybody else. The second part of it is that she recovers quickly from a bad play. Some people let it affect them the next possession, but her mind is back right away. I think that’s a special kind of leadership that the teammates understand, too. And just the upbeat-ness that she brings every day, it’s just high energy, and I think everybody feeds off of that.”

Of course, basketball is a team sport. And Latta is important, but she’s one of many cogs in the gears that make the Mystics go.

Returning veterans Crystal Langhorne and Monique Currie have made a big impact on the team so far, both on the court and off. Langhorne has averaged 12.3 points with 6.0 rebounds per game, while Currie has put up 12.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.

With 13 seasons worth of play for the Mystics between them, they know the organization inside and out and provide a bevy of wisdom and leadership for the team. The new players are important to the team’s success, but Langhorne and Currie are the glue that holds them together.

“I think we have a really good mix of young and a good group of veterans,” Langhorne said. “Just with our mix working together, for my role, I’m one of the older people now. I kind of have to help the young players out and also get our older core together, too.”

The rookies have yet to break out in any game, though this should not be a surprise only four games into their careers. They have played significant minutes and are earning their keep, one play at a time.

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who went undrafted out of North Carolina, has made the most of her playing time, averaging 6.0 points while on the court only 15.3 minutes per game. She attributes her success to the guidance of Latta and Currie.

“All of the veterans, they help a lot,” Ruffin-Pratt explained. “Especially Mo, because we play the same position, so she’s able to tell me what to do and what not to do. But Ivory talks to me about everything, on and off the court. She’s helping me get used to the league and this plan.”

If the Mystics are to add to their hot start, they will need their first-year players to become more aggressive and contribute in a big way. The next four games on the schedule come versus Indiana, the defending WNBA Champions, followed up with a three game west coast trip against Seattle, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The Mystics will need everyone on the roster, including the rookies, to play a large role during this stretch in order to keep their momentum going,

The Washington Mystics have all the right tools to become a playoff team. They need to continue to work hard and grow as a team, for as good as they have been, they are still only four games in.

“I don’t know if we’re special yet, but we have the potential to be,” Thibault said. “I think that part of that is that they like each other, too. So, they don’t want to let each other down with how they play. I think that’s probably when teams become special, when they have got each other’s back all the time. We’re on track for that, I don’t think we’re all the way there.”

The next two weeks will be a test, a grind, and just plain hard for the Mystics. As each player and coach knows, road wins are never a given. The team will need to be on their game and working well together to keep collecting victories. The first four games were a good starting point, but the next four could reveal whether this developing team will sink or swim.