The Washington Mystics opened training camp Monday morning with an energetic practice and a retooled roster following an active offseason in which they added, among others, Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP who has teammates entertaining thoughts of delivering the franchise its first championship.
Delle Donne was among 15 players who attended the first of two practices at Verizon Center after reporting to camp Sunday afternoon. The Mystics also were scheduled to practice Monday night and expected to spend the majority of that time in five-on-five scrimmages.
During the later stages of Monday’s first practice, Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault discussed pick-and-roll defense, emphasizing communication, particularly with younger players. Washington has four rookies in camp, including guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, the sixth overall pick out of Maryland.
“We’re going to harp on constantly,” Thibault said. “That’s going to probably be the thing that determines how good we ultimately are. Can we be a good defensive team, not an average defensive team, and if we are a good defensive team, we’re going to score a good amount of points probably. I’m happy for the first day.”
On a broader scale, Thibault reinforced the importance of taking a winning attitude into the season, which commences May 14 at home against the San Antonio Stars.
The Mystics are coming off a 13-21 record last year, missing the playoffs for the first time since Thibault took over in December 2012.
“It was all about culture, which is why I was so drawn to this team,” Delle Donne said with regard to Thibault’s message. “It’s just about building that culture with one another, the communication, the trust and giving everything we have.
“I also like that he said, ‘Expectations mean you have a chance.’ When there are no expectations on a team, it means you have no chance. I really liked that, and I took that away.”
During her introductory news conference in February, Delle Donne mentioned bringing a WNBA title to the District as soon as possible. That sentiment continued to resonate throughout the locker room at the start of this training camp, with both veterans and newcomers indicating the parts are in place to make a championship run.
In addition to Delle Donne, the Mystics added point guard Kristi Toliver, a free agent signing who helped the Los Angeles Sparks win the WNBA Finals last season. The former Maryland standout is not in camp because of overseas obligations and, according to the team, is expected to join the Mystics early next month.
So too is power forward Emma Meesseman, a first-time all-star two years ago and the league leader in three-point field goal percentage last season. Meesseman also has basketball obligations internationally with the same Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League team as Toliver.
Meesseman’s absence along with the offseason trades of centers Stefanie Dolson and Kia Vaughn has Krystal Thomas, entering her first season with Washington, on track to get significant work during training camp. Thomas, a 6-foot-5 center, signed with the Mystics as a free agent after spending last season with the Seattle Storm.
The Mystics also are without forward-center LaToya Sanders, a top post defender who is out indefinitely because of a foot injury.
“For me, I’m just trying to do whatever the team needs,” Thomas said. “Wherever Coach T tells me to go, that’s where I’m going to go. I’m here to serve. I’m here to be part of the team and help this team do big things in the playoffs and eventually lead to a championship. I just want to work hard, be a vocal leader, bring my experience from playing in the league.”
Thomas is the only player on the active training camp roster other than Toliver and point guard Ivory Latta with at least five years in the league. Among the Mystics’ projected starters, only Toliver has more than four years of WNBA experience.
Even with Toliver overseas, the Mystics still have plenty of depth at point guard. Natasha Cloud was the starter for most of the last two seasons, and Latta started 67 of 68 games during 2013 and ’14, her first two years with Washington.
Tayler Hill also has served spot duty at point guard. The No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft is the projected starter at shooting guard after re-signing with Washington this past offseason.
“You’ve just got to live up to the expectations,” said Latta, a two-time all-star participating in the 10th training camp of her professional career. “We’ve got great players. We’ve got great additions to the team. The sky’s the limit. I just can’t wait until we all come together. Emma’s not here, Toliver’s not here. Whenever we all come together, it could be something very special.”