Mystics Make Big Splash in Free Agency

Touted by officials as one of the biggest moves in franchise history, the Washington Mystics announced the signing of Katie Smith Tuesday.

“I’ve had relationships with a lot of these guys for a long time,” Smith said. “There’s always been that joke, ‘Hey, when are you going to come play for us?’ It’s a lot of fun to know I will be here and be a part of a great organization.”

Mystics coach Julie Plank has had an eye on Smith for nearly 20 years, starting when Plank, as an assistant at Stanford, recruited the Ohio native. Smith ended up going to Ohio State, which is where Plank played college basketball as well.

The two crossed paths again in 2000 as assistant coach and player on the Olympic team, and their relationship blossomed. Plank’s courtship of Smith has finally concluded as the seven-time All-Star has settled in Washington.

“She is tough, her mentality will be perfect in our system and I think she’ll blend right in with our other players,” Plank said. “I know I’m going to look forward to walking into the gym and seeing No. 30 in a Mystics jersey.”

Smith, a 6-foot combo player, will add versatility and depth to the Washington lineup. She can be deployed at four positions and gives Plank another proven option at point guard. That will ease the burden on Lindsey Harding, who played a league-high 35.1 minutes per game last season.

Perhaps more importantly, Smith will bring a veteran presence to the Mystics’ young locker room. Smith, 35, has won four professional titles — two with the defunct American Basketball League and two more with the Detroit (now Tulsa) Shock — and three Olympic gold medals.

That decorated resume will be a welcome addition to a locker room filled with players all seeking their first championship.

“I think I can just bring a different mindset,” Smith said. “It’s not like I have all these words of wisdom that’s going to put you over the hump, it’s maybe having the confidence and belief that we can get this done.”

“I think they’re hungry because they haven’t been there. When you haven’t been there, you want it. And when you have been there, you want to get back.”

The Mystics made marked improvements in 2009, sneaking into the playoffs on the regular season’s final weekend before losing to the eventual-Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever in the first round. But the one glaring problem that repeatedly surfaced last year was Washington’s inability to close out tight games. The Mystics lost six games by five or fewer points in 2009.

Enter Katie Smith.

“We went from 22-12 to 16-18 in 15 points,” Mystics chief operating officer Greg Bibb said. “Katie is a lot of things on the basketball court, but to me, first and foremost, she is clutch. I think she’s going to bring the difference for us in those games in 2010.”

Added Smith: “Going back to college, I’ve been schooled in mental toughness. We’re all skilled, we’re all great players with tons of talent, but it comes down to who wants it more and who’s going to do what you have to do at that point in the game to win.”

Smith’s signing is also another sign of Washington’s viability as a franchise. For years, Washington was a graveyard for free agents, and the Mystics’ inability to land an impact free agent has hindered numerous rebuilding efforts.

But the franchise-wide resuscitation spearheaded by Bibb, general manager Angela Taylor and Plank took a definitive step forward Tuesday.

“When we get that list in October and November, you start to highlight who we want. Katie was on top of that list,” Taylor said. “There wasn’t a team in the WNBA that didn’t reach out and ask her interest in playing with them. For her to sign with the Mystics speaks volumes about where this organization is at.”