Emma Meesseman is settling in to her newfound stardom in Washington. After all, that’s what she is — a star. The third-year forward from Belgium has continued to make strides in her development this year, playing her way into the All-Star conversation and helping lead a Washington team that’s been one of the top Eastern Conference squads early in the season.
But like so many of the best players who seemingly burst onto the scene, getting to this point took time. She wasn’t always the most willing scorer, often displaying more of a pass-first mentality. Head coach Mike Thibault, the Mystics coaching staff and a host of other circumstances have helped shape Meesseman into the player she’s become today.
“I think the first thing is just her self-confidence has changed things,” Thibault said. “She went from being a player who came over here not knowing anything about the WNBA, didn’t think she was good enough, to now becoming a go-to player on a pretty good team and having a chance to be an All-Star.”
“It is my third year in the WNBA now,” Meesseman said, “so I got used to it and I am feeling way more confident in this league. As I am three years older now, I also got physically and mentally stronger in my game. [Thibault] has given me a lot of confidence to take my shots and play my own game without being too nervous.”
Meesseman entered the league as a 19-year-old as the nineteenth overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft by Washington. But her journey to that moment was different than many who make it to the WNBA. She didn’t have the experience of a deep NCAA Tournament run. She didn’t grow up playing AAU ball.
Meesseman, the daughter of 1983 Belgian player of the year Sonja Tankrey, began her club career at age 16. She played for two different Belgian teams and was a member of the U-18 Belgian national team that won a European championship. She was voted the 2011 Young Women’s Player of the Year by FIBA Europe. Meesseman forayed that success into a one-year deal to play in France.
Those experiences helped shape her into the player the Mystics couldn’t pass up in 2013.
“She knows how to handle the ball, she’s a good passer,” Thibault said. “She can play facing up and has range to her shooting, but she also has a back-to-the-basket post game. I think a lot of that comes from not being labeled at a young age.
“Because of her size, people say she’s a post player, but she does so many more things than the old stereotypes of a post player. She’s becoming probably a good example of that positionless player that more teams are seeking that can do multiple things. So I think that’s helped her in many ways that she wasn’t pigeonholed at a young age.”
When Meesseman arrived in Washington the Mystics knew they were getting a young, versatile post player. But they were surprised at just how far along she was in her development. She played in every game during her rookie season, averaging 14 minutes per game and serving a vital role coming off the bench.
Her role expanded last season and she played a huge part in the Mystics run to the postseason. Meesseman averaged 10 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and shot 53 percent from the field.
“In my first year I was so surprised to even be a WNBA player and to get a fair amount of minutes,” Meesseman said. “Then going in my second year, I was a starter for the team. So in the first two years I made huge steps that kind of made me uncomfortable.”
After the 2014 season ended, Meesseman joined a young Spartak Moscow team alongside Mystics teammate Stefanie Dolson, an experience that allowed her to jell with her frontcourt mate. Meesseman, although young herself, was looked to as a leader of the team, which forced her to shoulder more of the scoring load than she had grown accustomed to in her first few professional seasons.
“She had to be a go-to player for once,” Thibault said, “so she was getting double teamed a little bit more. She had the expectations of the team to try to score, and I think that’s made her more aggressive as a scorer coming back here, because she had some success doing it as a scorer over there.”
The Emma Meesseman that took the floor in 2015 is showing off what she was able to learn while playing overseas. A newfound confidence has helped her average 14.3 points per game while pulling down 6.9 boards a contest.
“Playing in Europe helps a lot,” added Meesseman. “You learn new things and you work personally on your skills. And whatever you learn here you try to add it to your game in Europe and vice versa.”
Meeseeman’s effectiveness offensively wasn’t a secret before this season. She boasts a career shooting percentage over 50 percent. This season, though, she’s taken that efficiency to a new level, shooting 57 percent from the floor and posting an individual offensive rating (an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions) of 117.
“We have just been moving well with the team and getting players wide open shots,” Meeseeman said. “That’s also what gets me open in the game. Along with that, I am practicing my shots so it gets easier to shoot the ball well without hesitation.”
“I think once she changed her mindset it made it easier for her to be efficient,” Thibault said, “because she wasn’t second-guessing herself about whether she should pass or shoot. I think when you’re more decisive as a player your efficiency goes up.”
Her offensive contributions have been hard to ignore, but she’s also getting it done defensively. The 6-foot-4 forward is fifth in the league in blocks (18) and has posted an individual defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 94.
For all of her growth and improvement, Meesseman just recently celebrated her 22nd birthday. She’s still a young talent who, according to Thibault, is still a year or two away from fully developing her game as a post player. She’s working on adding the three-point shot to her game, and Thibault says it looks just as effortless as the shots she’s already comfortable taking.
“We’ve pushed her a lot to do it,” Thibault said. “She didn’t even want to think about doing that a year ago. She does it effortlessly, but she made a deal with me when she went to Europe. She didn’t have a coach that wanted her to shoot it in Russia, but she and [Stefanie] Dolson practiced it every day.”
Meesseman says she is also working to become more of a physical player, which will allow her to make an even larger impact in the paint. But those additions to her game are just natural progressions for a player who has already shown so much ability in her three years in the league.
For now, she’s focused on playing the best basketball that she can for the Mystics, showcasing everything she’s worked so hard on since she entered the league.
“This year, I know what to expect, what my role is,” Meesseman said, “and that it is just the same basketball I can play that I am used to.”