Mystics have pieces for a suffocating defense

Mystics have pieces for a suffocating defense

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The last time Elena Delle Donne suited up for a full season alongside Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud and the rest of the core players who helped make up the Washington Mystics’ 2019 championship roster, they conquered the WNBA with tidal waves of offense.

That Mystics team, which featured six players who have either stayed on or returned to this year’s roster, led the league in field goal percentage (46.9), attempted three-pointers (25.4), assists per game (21.9) and points per game ( 89.3) during the regular season. Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and Kristi Toliver, one of the top clutch shooters in the league, helped cement Washington’s long-standing reputation as a club whose best defense was often a barrage of three-pointers.

This year, the Mystics have the ingredients to flip that reputation upside-down.

They will open the season May 6 with the most defensive talent Coach/General Manager Mike Thibault has had during his decade in Washington. Toliver is coaching with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA playoffs and Meesseman is with the Chicago Sky, but Washington adds forward Alysha Clark, who sat out last year with a foot injury, as well as center Elizabeth Williams, who will join the team after fulfilling her commitment to an overseas club.

Elena Delle Donne is back, and the Mystics are championship-minded

In Clark, Williams, Atkins and Cloud, the roster features four players who have been named to the league’s all-defensive team. Atkins takes the honor a step further: The 25-year-old guard is the only player in WNBA history to make an all-defensive team in each of her first four seasons.

“There’s going to be a lot of intensity, both offensively and defensively,” Clark said. “…I think you’re going to see a different defensive team, a different defensive presence out there on the floor, which I’m super excited about.”

Washington’s defensive progress extends well beyond the backcourt.

In the draft, Thibault added 6-foot-5 Virginia native Shakira Austin, who made a name for herself as a fierce shot blocker first at Maryland and then at Mississippi. She announced her arrival during the team’s first pickup game last weekend in a way befitting of her flame-orange hair and the confidence she has carried since she was a freshman in college.

“The first play down, Shakira feels the shot,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen said. “Not my shot, now, not my shot. But I was just like: ‘Yes! This is it.’ ”

Austin will have the benefit of studying behind a diverse and experienced group of frontcourt players.

Williams’s 1.7 blocks per game rank third in WNBA history among active players; ninth-year vet Tianna Hawkins has done much to expand her game out to the perimeter in recent years. Delle Donne is the rare player as tall as Austin — although she insists the rookie has an inch or two on her.

“We got real shot blockers in the paint, so that allows us as guards to get into people a little more,” Atkins said. “I played with [Atlanta center] Imani McGee-Stafford at Texas … and that’s a completely different atmosphere when you have somebody of that caliber being able to protect the rim.”

Atkins did well enough with the team’s existing atmosphere—she was fourth in the league last year with 48 steals.

Mystics counting on Alysha Clark to get back in championship form

Washington’s newfound depth gives it flexibility, not just might, on the defensive end. Thibault isn’t enamored with switching on principle — he wants his players to have more of a sense of individual responsibility on defense — but the Mystics should be able to switch assignments at all positions at will, if need be. Experimenting with rotations was a focus of the first week of training camp.

“I don’t know [my rotations] yet until we experiment with it a little bit, but I do know that it makes some of our schemes a little bit easier to envision,” Thibault said. “… It gives us an ability, with the fact that Natasha and Ariel are all about the same size — you can do some things that in the past we weren’t able to do.”

Flexibility and depth could be a huge benefit for the Mystics: Clark and Delle Donne are coming off injuries, and Delle Donne is expected to rest for certain games after a pair of back surgeries to repair herniated disks.

Although they’re not sure exactly what the defensive pairings will look like, Atkins believes the Mystics have the potential to be more dynamic than ever.

“That’s what a lot of people see right now, our ability to shut people out or lock people down, and we can do it,” Atkins said. “I think that’s something that we have to hold ourselves to. … It’s going to be exciting to be able to tear on both ends of the floor.”

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