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2019 Season Preview: Washington Mystics

The 2019 WNBA season tips off on May 24. WNBA.com will be previewing every team in the league. See below for a breakdown of the Washington Mystics.

2018 Recap

Record: 22-12, 3rd in league standings; Lost to Seattle in WNBA Finals (3 games)

Leaders (with league ranking in Top 10): Points: Elena Delle Donne (20.7, 5th), Rebounds: Delle Donne (7.2, 10th), Assists: Natasha Cloud (4.6, 9th), Steals: T- Ariel Atkins and LaToya Sanders (1.3, 9th), Blocks: Delle Donne (1.4, 8th), 3-Point Pct: Delle Donne (40.5%, 9th)

Team Stats (with league ranking): Offensive Rating: 107.3 (3rd), Defensive Rating: 103.1 (6th), Net Rating: 4.2 (3rd), Rebound Percentage: 48.8 (8th), True Shooting Percentage: 55.8 (3rd), Pace: 78.9 (10th)

Offseason Moves

Free Agency: Re-signed Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders; Signed Aerial Powers to a contract extension

Draft: Selected Kiara Leslie (No. 10, out 3-4 months following knee surgery on May 10) and Sam Fuehring (No. 34, waived during training camp) in the 2019 WNBA Draft

Return: Emma Meesseman returned to the Mystics after taking the 2018 season off to fulfill national team commitments

Players To Watch

Elena Delle Donne

The 2018 season ended with Elena Delle Donne playing through a bone bruise in her left knee during the WNBA Finals. The 2019 season will tip off with Delle Donne dealing with pain in that same knee after jamming it during the preseason. She may be forced to miss Washington’s opening game on Saturday in Connecticut.

Having Delle Donne available and healthy is paramount for Washington to get back to the Finals and challenge for their first WNBA title. In her first two seasons in DC, Delle Donne played in 25 and 29 games, respectively, during the regular season and missed two playoff games last year before fighting through the pain to play the rest of the way through the Finals.

Kristi Toliver

The veteran guard is coming off a season that saw her post her highest scoring average (13.9) in six seasons, her highest assist average (4.4) in seven seasons, and her 72 3-pointers ranked fourth in all of the WNBA. The Mystics were 25 points per 100 possessions better with Toliver on the court (9.1 net rating in 1087 minutes) than when she was off the court (-15.9 net rating in 233 minutes) – that is the highest mark of any player in the league that played at least 500 minutes.

Emma Meesseman

Meesseman missed Washington’s run to the Finals in 2018 as she remained in Belgium to fulfill her national team commitments in preparation for the 2018 World Cup (her team finished fourth, and she was named to the all-tournament team). While Meesseman is back with the Mystics to open the 2019 season, she will miss a month in the middle of the season as she returns to Belgium to participate in Women’s EuroBasket. Coach Mike Thibault plans to bring Meesseman off the bench before she departs in order to maintain continuity of a starting lineup once she is gone.

Ariel Atkins

Last year’s first round pick had an outstanding rookie campaign, as she was a unanimous pick for the All-Rookie team (along with A’ja Wilson and Diamond DeShields). Atkins made an impact on both ends of the court for the Mystics, finishing fourth among rookies in scoring (11.3 points per game) and was the only rookie (and only player with under five years experience) to be named to the WNBA All-Defensive Teams, taking home Second Team honors. What will Atkins do for a follow up in season two?

Natasha Cloud

Keeping Natasha Cloud was one of Washington’s top priorities in free agency, so when the restricted free agent inked an offer sheet with New York, the Mystics were quick to match and make sure Cloud remains in DC. Cloud made a huge leap in 2018 – finishing second in Most Improved Player voting – posting career highs in nearly every major statistical category. She led the Mystics in assists (4.6 per game) as she pushed the pace for the Mystics offense and she played outstanding perimeter defense on the other end of the court.

LaToya Sanders

Another player that had a career season in 2018 was LaToya Sanders. She not only posted career bests in points (10.2) and rebounds (6.4), but also finished second in the WNBA in field goal percentage (60.7%). In addition to her contributions on offense, Sanders ranked second to Atkins on the Mystics in defensive efficiency. Opposing teams scored just 100.7 points per 100 possessions with Sanders on the court. While Sanders’ 24.5 minutes per game were a career high, her playing time may fluctuate a bit with the return of Emma Meesseman to the frontcourt. But with another Meesseman absence looming, having a player like Sanders ready to step up is reassuring for the Mystics.

Three Questions

How will the return and another departure by Emma Meesseman affect the team?

After making it all the way to the WNBA Finals with Meesseman off the court last year, the common logic would say that adding another All-Star back into the mix should push the Mystics over the top this season. However, that may be oversimplifying things.

Coach Thibault and the Mystics have a challenge on their hands as they reincorporate Meesseman back into the lineup to open the season, then adjust to not having her for a month in the middle of the season as she plays for Belgium in EuroBasket, then adjusting again to getting her back near the end of the season and postseason.

The jockeying of minutes and lineups will be a challenge the team and coaching staff will have to solve in order to make these multiple transitions go smoothly and not disrupt the flow of the team. Having Meesseman in the mix come playoff time does raise the ceiling for this Mystics team, so figuring out that balancing act should pay off when the games matter most.

Are the Mystics ready to take the final step?

Washington has gone from missing the playoffs in 2016, to advancing to the semifinals before being eliminated in 2017 (their longest playoff run at that point), to advancing to their first WNBA Finals in 2018 (where they fell in three games to Seattle). Is 2019 the year that everything comes together for the team in their pursuit of the first championship in the team’s 22-year history?

Considering the only team that finished ahead of them last year is dealing with multiple key players being out of the lineup for a majority or all of the 2019 season, the championship window appears to be wide open for the Mystics.

Can Elena Delle Donne stay healthy?

Delle Donne’s knee injury during last year’s playoff run made Washington’s pursuit of the championship all that more difficult as the former MVP did not have the same strength and mobility in her leg during the most important games of her WNBA career. Now she is dealing with a knee issue to open the season that could keep her out of the team’s first game.

WNBA General Managers picked Delle Donne as the favorite to win league MVP with 42% of the vote and voted the Mystics as the third most likely team to win the WNBA title with 17% of the vote (tied with Los Angeles and behind Las Vegas and Phoenix). For either of those outcomes to take place, Delle Donne must remain healthy and on the court for Washington. She last played in at least 30 games during the 2015 season with the Chicago Sky; the same season she won MVP honors.