The additions of Delle Donne and Toliver, who had been an unrestricted free agent, are the result of Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault’s admitted extreme dissatisfaction with missing the playoffs last year, sparking his intent to remake the roster.
The Mystics finished 13-21 for just the second losing season in Thibault’s 14 years in the WNBA. They were third-to-last in the league in scoring offense (80.7) without a bona fide No. 1 option and endured a seven-game losing streak, the longest in the career of the WNBA’s all-time leader in victories (257).
“Coach Thibault is such a good coach and such a good GM, you knew the struggles they had last year weren’t going to last very long,” said ESPN women’s basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo. “I think Mystics fans should have high, high hopes for what they can do this year.”
Since free agency opened on Jan. 15, the Mystics also have added the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft as well as re-signed guard-forward Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, considered among the league’s top on-ball defenders. Among Ruffin-Pratt’s most robust defensive showings this past season was limiting the Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore, the 2014 WNBA MVP and scoring leader, to five points.
Regarded leaguewide as one of the WNBA’s most innovative defensive minds, Thibault instead turned the majority of his attention to creating a potential super team modeled after the Golden State Warriors, according to sources requesting anonymity. Part of that process included trading away guards Bria Hartley and center Kia Vaughn to clear cap space.
“I’ve awakened in the middle of the night several times in the last week with offensive ideas in my head and how to fit pieces together,” Thibault said during a conference call on Thursday introducing Delle Donne. “We’ll work on the defensive part later.”
Heading into this season, Washington has three of the top four WNBA leaders in three-point shooting percentage from 2016. All-star forward Emma Meesseman led the league in that category (44.8), with Delle Donne third (42.6) and Toliver fourth (42.4).
Other three-point threats include guards Ivory Latta and Tayler Hill. Latta, a two-time all-star, had averaged 75 three-pointers made from 2012 through 2015 before an injury-plagued 2016 limited her to 32. Latta’s career three-point field goal percentage is 37.3.
Hill shot 60 for 171 (35 percent) from three-point range last season and averaged a career-high 15.4 points.
“They can take the pressure off of each other,” Thibault said of the Mystics’ many options from beyond the arc. “We’re certainly going to have a lot of different scoring capabilities on this team, and we can do it in different ways, so as a coach, this is kind of like a dream to come true to kind of put together a team that has this much diversity on it offensively.”
In Toliver, the Mystics get a veteran capable of handling either guard position. In 2013, one season after winning the WNBA most improved player award, Toliver played shooting guard for the Sparks and was named an all-star for the first time in her career.
Two years later, Toliver moved back to point guard and set the franchise single-game record with 43 points. Last season, she made seven three-pointers in a regular season game and helped Los Angeles outlast Minnesota in the WNBA Finals, three games to two.
It was the Sparks’ first championship since 2002 and third overall, with Toliver averaging 12.4 points, 3.7 assists, ranked sixth in the league, and 2.3 rebounds in 28 regular season games.
The native of Harrisonburg, Va., played college basketball at Maryland, where she started as freshman on the 2005-06 team that won the school’s first and only national championship. She famously made a three-pointer with 6.1 seconds left in the NCAA title game against Duke to force overtime during a 78-75 victory.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 WNBA draft is currently playing overseas with UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League and the EuroLeague. Among her teammates on the reigning EuroLeague champions is Meesseman.
The Mystics open the season on May 14 at home against the San Antonio Stars. Their next game is May 19 against the Sparks to open a three-game road trip that concludes with a showdown against Delle Donne’s former team.
“We’re all excited about what the future holds,” said Delle Donne, who came back from international competition in China two weeks ago with a recurrence of Lyme disease but indicated she’s expecting to make a full recovery. “I’m completely confident that I’ll be ready to play this upcoming WNBA season. Doing really well now.”