The Washington Mystics and not the Phoenix Mercury could have been the talk of the WNBA heading into this season.
Instead, the Mystics picked fourth in the draft, missing out on the “Three to See” altogether and forcing new head coach and general manager Mike Thibault to make the tough decision between keeping the team’s core together or rebuilding from scratch.
Thibault handled this challenge by getting rid of essentially every player from Washington’s 2012 roster, except four players who were arguably the four most important players on last year’s team.
So the core remains intact: Crystal Langhorne, Monique Currie, Matee Ajavon and Michelle Snow are all back. For Langhorne, Currie and Ajavon it will be their fifth year together in Mystics jerseys.
“We’re glad [Coach Thibault] kept the core,” Langhorne said during the WNBA start of season media conference call Monday afternoon. “It just shows that he has belief in our team and thought we just needed a few more pieces around us. I just think with the addition of people like Kia Vaughn and Ivory Latta it’s going to make a huge difference for us this year.”
But will the additions of Vaughn and Latta be enough? The Mystics were a WNBA-worst 5-29 last year, so, needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done.
So much work, that many people had been speculating that trading the team’s most valuable player in Langhorne was going to be the only way to get enough in return to make a difference. Instead, Thibault showed faith in Langhorne, stuck with Washington’s first round draft position and selected Ohio State guard Tayler Hill fourth overall.
And while Hill, for now, is known primarily as the answer to the trivia question of who was selected with the next pick after the “Big Three,” she is a very good player in her own right. She was 11th in the nation with 21.1 points per game as a senior and shot 41.8 percent from beyond the arc as a junior.
Hill had a great debut in the Mystics’ opening exhibition game against Brazil’s national team, as she and fellow rookie Emma Meesseman led the team with 12 points apiece. Hill was 2 for 3 from downtown and 4 for 6 from the field, while Meesseman, a 6-4, 20-year-old center, was 5 for 6 from the field.
Tayler and Emma are two of five rookies currently on the Mystics’ 2013 roster. Those young players will have to step up in order for the Mystics to be competitive, but let’s not forget that they will still have a very good WNBA player in Crystal Langhorne guiding them.
Crystal may not be a superstar, but she is a star (currently ranked No. 15 in WNBA.com’s “Race to the MVP”). She was the league’s most improved player in her second season (2009) and made the All-WNBA second team in 2010. With her and Monique Currie, the Mystics will have two veterans they know they can count on.
They also now have a very well respected coach in Thibault, who is probably the main reason people are giving them a chance to turn things around. On Monday’s conference call, ESPN’s Carolyn Peck mentioned that she believes Coach Thibault will make Washington competitive if not this year then in the years to come.
Thibault comes to the Mystics from Connecticut, where he led the Sun to eight playoff appearances, four first place finishes in the regular season and two WNBA Finals in ten years. He has also spent time as an assistant in the NBA and Langhorne said she can tell that experience has shaped the coach he has become.
“Coach Thibault is a very different pace,” Langhorne said. “He’s an NBA guy and our practices are NBA-like…It has been high intensity and I think it’s been great for us so far.”
In a league where eight out of the 12 teams make the playoffs, it is always possible for a team like the Mystics to sneak in. However, one thing working against them is the fact that one of the other weaker teams in the East last year, Chicago, now has Elena Delle Donne.
If Washington is to finish the regular season in fourth place or higher it will take trusting Thibault’s vision and getting the most out of their new pieces as well as the chemistry their core players have together.