September 26, 2012 was supposed to be the first day of a bright future for the Washington Mystics. After winning just five games earlier that summer, the Mystics had the best odds of getting the first pick in the loaded 2013 WNBA Draft, which featured Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins — the so-called “Three to See” — as the top prospects. And with a 93.8 percent chance of walking away with at least a top three pick, the Mystics seemed on track to obtain their first superstar since Chamique Holdsclaw left the team in 2004.
Then, live on SportsCenter, the dream immediately turned into a nightmare. As then-president Laurel J. Richie began calling out the results, the Mystics were the first team to hear their name; they would be picking fourth a few months later at the 2013 WNBA Draft. No Griner. No Delle Donne. No Diggins.
That is, until two weeks ago, when the Mystics swung one of the biggest trades in WNBA history, acquiring Delle Donne in exchange for Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper, and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft. “It’s taken four years to make it happen,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault told WNBA.com after the deal was made official. “When she came out of the draft, we were trying to make a deal with Chicago to get her then.” Finally, after a circuitous route, the Washington Mystics have their star.
As is often the case with nightmares, the 2013 WNBA Draft wasn’t quite as bad as the Mystics might have imagined. With the No. 4 overall pick, they took Tayler Hill, who had a breakout season last year, averaging over 15 points per game, and looks to be a key part of their core moving forward. They also stole Emma Meesseman late in the second round, and the Belgian forward is now one of the league’s best young bigs.
That duo, combined with Delle Donne, now gives Washington arguably the most talented young core — all of them are 27 years old or younger — in the league. With those three leading the way, the Mystics have officially embarked on the next phase of their organizational journey. “We think we’re on the right path to having an elite organization at some point,” Thibault said. “It’s taken a few years to build where we’re going, and this [adding Delle Donne] is one of the big missing pieces to it.”
In existence since 1998, the Washington Mystics have been stuck in the middle of the pack. In 19 seasons, they’ve been to the playoffs nine times, but have won just one series — back in 2002. No Mystic has ever made an All-WNBA First Team, and just three players have made an All-WNBA second team: the aforementioned Holdsclaw, who did it three times, Alana Beard and Crystal Langhorne. With a dearth of playoff success and no superstars over the past decade-plus, the Mystics have long been overlooked. But there is nothing mediocre about Delle Donne (nor building a new arena, set to open in 2018).
Adding a former MVP and perhaps the best player the franchise has ever had, however, brings a set of expectations that will be unlike anything the Mystics have ever managed.
“The hardest thing is fans’ expectations right away are that automatically things are gonna work right. It doesn’t work like that,” Thibault said. “It takes time for players to get used to each other. We’ll have some bumps along the way in all of this, but the biggest thing is they keep their eye on the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish. And the best way to do that is just get better every day — when you’re walking out of the gym, walking out better than when you walked in.”
The on-court cohesion should come sooner than later with the talented trio of Delle Donne, Meesseman and Hill joined by veteran guard Ivory Latta, newly acquired sharpshooter Kristi Toliver and returning center LaToya Sanders.
In Meesseman (1st), Delle Donne (3rd), and Toliver (4th), the Mystics now have three of the top four three-point shooters by percentage in the league last season. If you include Hill (17th) and Latta (30th), they have five of the top 30, giving Washington far and away the best outside shooting attack in the league.
But while the Mystics will be able to put five legitimate three-point threats on the floor, Thibault doesn’t want to become one-dimensional on offense, saying, “I don’t think we want to live or die with that [three-pointers].” With the versatility those players, have, that shouldn’t be too much of a worry. No matter the area of the floor, the Mystics are going to be a problem for opposing defenses.
“[Thibault] has said that we’re building a Golden State type of team, type of offense,” Toliver added. “And I wouldn’t want to play for any other style than that.”
Anchoring everything — the versatility on offense, the pressure and expectations, the new direction of the franchise — is Delle Donne, who is no stranger to those kind of things. For four years, she was the face of the Chicago Sky, helping the team to its first ever playoff apperance in her rookie season, then following that up by leading them on an improbable WNBA Finals run the next year. With Delle Donne powering the way forward — she had a usage percentage north of 25 percent in each of the last three years — the Sky went to the playoffs in all four of her seasons there.
But Thibault’s hope is the situation in Washington will be different. “They [Meesseman and company] will take some pressure off of her,” Thibault said. “A lot of times in Chicago, she was given the ball and they said, ‘Go make a play for us.’ She doesn’t have to do that every possession.”
Likewise, Delle Donne sees a bright future for her and her teammates once they get on the floor together.
“The basketball side of things is something I’m smiling the most about and am most excited about,” the 2015 MVP said. “Each time I listen to Coach Thibault speak about the team and what he thinks we can accomplish and do, it just gets me so excited to just get on court and start working with these awesome and talented teammates.”
With the arrival off Delle Donne, the Mystics have their long sought-after star, and the dynamic of the franchise has, at last, been transformed. Now, the Washington Mystics are part of the WNBA’s elite.