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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Building A Contender in D.C.

Is there anyone who didn’t think the fortunes of the Washington Mystics would change for the better when Elena Delle Donne signed in the offseason? Is there anyone who doubted that coach Mike Thibault was building a team to contend for a title when he also signed veteran guard Kristi Tolliver, fresh off the 2016 WNBA title she won with Los Angeles last fall?

So what’s happening in Washington can’t be considered a surprise, right?

Delle Donne has immediately propelled the Mystics to reside among the elite teams in the WNBA in the early part of the 2017.

The Mystics are sitting in the No. 2 spot in the overall league standings behind Minnesota with a 6-2 record and a five-game winning streak. Their only two losses came in the season’s first two weeks against last year’s Finals entrants Minnesota and Los Angeles. Washington will match up again with the undefeated Lynx on Friday night in D.C.

What looks about right on paper is much harder in practice considering the many moving parts that the Washington Mystics’ roster has become since the season began.

Washington added not only Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP and Tolliver, but five other new players. They have had key talents such as Tayler Hill, miss games with injury.

Now Emma Meesseman, the team’s frontcourt complement to Delle Donne, is gone for a month preparing to compete for her native Belgium in the EuroBasket tournament. Tolliver is settling in after missing the entirety of training camp and reserves Natasha Cloud and Asia Taylor have been battling injuries, shortening Washington’s bench.

Then there is the small matter of developing team chemistry and offensive flow, Washington, adjusting to Thibault’s “non-position” offense, ranks among the bottom of the WNBA in field-goal percentage (8th – 41.4%)

On Sunday, following the Mystics’ win over Atlanta, Thibault called his team’s progress “slow.”

Yet the Mystics are winning anyway and looking to put themselves in position to contend for the franchise’s first WNBA title. The Mystics missed the playoffs a year ago with a 13-21 record, and despite eight playoff appearances since 2002, have never advanced further than the conference semifinals in the last 14 seasons.

“It’s really exciting to see us grinding out games early in the season,” Delle Donne said. “We are so new to one another. It takes a lot of effort on defense and rebounding.”

Delle Donne, who ranks fourth in the league in scoring at 20.6 points a game, acknowledge that Washington isn’t nearly hitting an offensive stride.

“Our shots are not really falling. And we’ve had to grind through that,” Delle Donne said. “Those shots are going to come and we just have to stay with things.”

Delle Donne said the move to Washington from Chicago, closer to her Delaware home and family, has put her in a “really good place” both geographically and emotionally.

“I’m thrilled about the chemistry and the culture that’s being built here,” Delle Donne said, crediting Thibault for creating a “very family-oriented environment.”

“I’ve always been about that, so I’m very excited to have that in addition to the basketball.”

Hill missed a game last weekend with a neck strain, but is off to the best start of her career. Hill, who was re-signed in the offseason, said she was thrilled by the Mystics’ makeover heading into the season and she is even more so now that Washington is competing consistently at the top of the league.

“When you bring in All-Stars and great players like Elena and Kristi, that takes a lot of pressure off of any player,” Hill said. “They bring so much, and so much attention. It makes the game a lot easier for everybody.”

But Hill knows all this new comes with a transition that the Mystics, despite their wins, are working their way through as a team.

“We have seven new players, including the rookies. We are all learning from each other and our chemistry is not going to be where we want it to be right away. We are finding out how we are and how much we can rely on each other,” Hill said. “Hopefully, when Emma is back and some of the injuries have cleared up, we will be ready for anything.”

Thibault is installing a free-flowing, “non-position” offense that is going to take some time to bear fruit. Washington broke 100 points for the first time this season in a Tuesday win over Dallas.

“We still have some learning to do,” Hill said. “It’s a transition. The Golden State Warriors didn’t get there overnight. We need more practice and more games. But from what we’ve seen so far – even with having injuries and people in and out of the lineup – it shows a lot of potential.”

Delle Donne concurs.

“You don’t learn position-less basketball in a day. It takes time and fortunately we’ve been able to grind it out when we’ve needed to. We are still getting comfortable. But I think we all trust the process and we are learning.”

Delle Donne is happy to be sitting in a great spot in the standings in the early part of the season, currently occupying one of the top two seeds.

“Of course that’s the priority of every team, but there are many games to be played and I’m just excited about where we are right now and what needs to be done.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season.

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