By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010; D01
On the Verizon Center practice court, after a play resulted in a basket against her group, the Washington Mystics' newest veteran turned to talk to the young players next to her. Between possessions of a scrimmage against the Polish national team, she diagrammed a play on the bench. During preseason games she occasionally tapped a teammate's shoulder after regaining possession to make sure nothing was left to chance when the clock started again.
Katie Smith jokes that she talks too much sometimes, but her new teammates on the Washington Mystics are perfectly content to soak up everything the all-star guard observes and notes, because if there's one person who knows the road to the top it's Smith.
"I like to understand, I like to know that we're all together on the same page. We all have to be accountable," Smith said after practice last week. "I just hope they have a confidence in me and a belief in me that they know Katie's got hers just like everyone else has theirs. We have to have that trust, so that while we'll all occasionally make mistakes we know we're in this together."
So far Smith's transition appears seamless. She's jelled with the new group, serving whatever role Coach Julie Plank's lineup combinations require. But the real test for Smith and the Mystics begins when they open the 2010 season at 7 p.m. Saturday on the road against the reigning Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever, the team that knocked Washington out of the postseason last September.
In the weeks since Washington announced Smith's signing, the team was struck with what many outsiders considered a devastating blow when it lost franchise player Alana Beard for the season after she underwent surgery on her left ankle. While it may put more pressure on others to perform consistently, Smith doesn't believe it wreaks havoc with the Mystics potential.
"The margin for error for us might be smaller and everyone will have to be locked in but I really have a lot of faith in these players," Smith said. "In Detroit we always had a chip on our shoulders because we felt like no one wanted us to win. For [Washington] maybe not being picked and people writing us off could keep feeding that hunger and that little chip on our shoulders that says: 'We're coming to get you.' "
That hunger, Smith said, was one of the first things she noticed upon her introduction to the Mystics. During her run with the Detroit Shock, which included two titles, she saw sporadic lulls in motivation -- a problem she doesn't think will arise with this Washington team.
"Now that there's a framework in place everyone wants to win so badly," Smith said. "It's all about finding ways to be consistent every day. The younger players still teach me things, so hopefully I can do the same for them."
Smith chose Washington because she believed the Mystics were eager to win. With the first opportunity to pick her team after 11 seasons and 5,446 points, two WNBA titles and three Olympic gold medals, Smith wanted a coaching staff she felt comfortable discussing the game with.
She already shared a mutual respect with Plank, and it hasn't taken long for her veteran savvy and high expectations to set an example for teammates, who after some admitted initial disbelief, are enjoying playing alongside someone who often tormented the Mystics as an opponent.
"I'm glad she's on my team because it was hell trying to set screens on her the past couple years," Nakia Sanford said with a laugh. "There was some initial, 'Wow she's really here,' at first. Then, you see her work ethic, you understand how she's been able to sustain her impact for so long. Her defense alone is already really rubbing off on all of us."
Entering her 12th WNBA season at age 35, Smith's durability could be a question mark. She missed seven games in 2009 with a herniated disc that numbed and weakened her left leg, but Smith insists she's healthy.
The wear and tear over the course of a career could shrink Smith's scoring but it will likely have little effect on a calm on-court demeanor that should help the Mystics in close games.
She can play point guard or small forward, and even power forward depending on the specific matchups. She can aid in half-court scenarios and also lessen the pressure on members of the backcourt, but her poise in key situations is crucial.
"Her leadership definitely shows, from day one it has, even though she was new here," Monique Currie said. "She's been around the league for a long time; she knows what it takes to win. For her to be on our side, to help make us all better is something I welcome."