Washington Mystics, Ivory Latta ready for a fresh start

Mike Thibault quickly figured out his first task as the Washington Mystics’ coach and general manager would be to find a new point guard. He also knew exactly whom he wanted and decided not to call anyone else until he heard an answer from her.

Given those circumstances, though, Thibault had a funny way of introducing himself to Ivory Latta when the WNBA’s free agency period opened this past winter.

“I was honest with her,” said Thibault, who was hired in December. “I told her when she came out of college, I didn’t like her.”

Latta, 28, has since become the face of Thibault’s rebuilding efforts after she signed a two-year contract with the Mystics in February. She’ll get a reminder of just how far her career has come Monday night when Washington opens the 2013 WNBA regular season with a road game against her former team, the Tulsa Shock.

But Latta appears to have found a kindred spirit in Thibault. When she first heard her new coach’s critique over the phone in Israel, where she was playing, Latta admitted to breaking out in an “ear-to-ear smile.” It didn’t hurt that Thibault promised her a spot in the starting lineup, a guarantee Latta didn’t have a year ago when she averaged career highs in points per game (14.3), field goal percentage and rebounds but came off the bench for 16 games.

By the time their conversation ended and Thibault had made it clear he would keep calling until Latta made a decision, she quickly got in touch with her agent. The search was over.

“He was straight up with me about the situation,” Latta recalled this week. “What he told me, that separated him from all the other coaches.”

Latta’s professional transformation had piqued Thibault’s interest. A 5-foot-6 dynamo during her college career at North Carolina, Latta was a playmaker in the mold of Allen Iverson. She had the speed, three-point range and infectious persona to offset any size disadvantage.

She led the Tar Heels to the first of two consecutive Final Fours in 2006, joining future Mystics teammates Crystal Langhorne (Maryland) and Monique Currie (Duke). But in a loss to the Terrapins in the national semifinals, Latta injured her knee. Combined with her diminutive stature and gunslinger mentality, that dropped her to No. 11 in the 2007 WNBA draft.

After her rookie season she was traded from Detroit to Atlanta, then released before the start of the 2009 season. She was re-signed in July only to be released again in March 2010. The setbacks forced Latta to adjust. She changed her eating habits, trained harder and “got smarter” with her shot selection and decision-making.

“She was one of those players people loved to hate in the ACC, but I just felt she needed to grow up as a player,” Thibault said. “Instead of being stubborn about it, she changed and her game got better.

“I felt over the past two seasons she was more the type of point guard that could succeed . . . like some of those NBA point guards capable of one night being the team’s leading scorer and the next night getting 10 assists and understanding the team doesn’t need her to score every night. I think that’s where she’s grown up and matured.”

Though playing in Tulsa revitalized her career, Latta has relished the move to a major city such as Washington. Her effervescent personality already has jolted a locker room that grew melancholy as Washington endured the worst two-year stretch in franchise history. In the offseason, she started an inspirational clothing line and helped launch a shoe designed for female basketball players.

But Latta’s value to Thibault is on the court, where the Mystics have lacked a competent point guard since they traded Lindsay Harding following the 2010 season. Thibault believes Latta is the ideal player to take advantage of rule changes that have pushed the WNBA’s three-point line back from 20 feet 6.25 inches to the international standard of 22-1.75 and instituted defensive three seconds and anti-flopping measures.

The Mystics were the WNBA’s lowest-scoring team in 2012, and Latta should be a boon for Langhorne, Currie and Matee Ajavon after all three suffered through disappointing campaigns.

Latta “can revitalize them,” Thibault said

That, he explained, was the other part of the recruiting pitch. Thibault talked of the “imprint” she could leave considering the Mystics were starting fresh with a new coach, and that reminded Latta that her resurgence in Tulsa came with a team that won just 18 games the past three years.

“It’s definitely a new start for a lot of us,” Latta said. “I want to make sure I lead us in the right direction.”

Mystics at Shock

When: 3 p.m.

Where: BOK Center, Tulsa. TV: ESPN2.

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