When the Washington Mystics gathered Sunday for the team dinner they hold every year on the eve of WNBA training camp, they started right where they left off: watching the Seattle Storm celebrate a league title.
The returning Mystics, together again after disparate offseasons spent playing overseas or working out in Washington’s new arena in Congress Heights or, in the case of Kristi Toliver, working on the Washington Wizards’ coaching staff, wanted to be centered as a team again. So they ran the tape back and relived what it felt like to be swept by the Storm this past September in the Mystics’ first trip to the WNBA Finals in franchise history.
“Our team watched a video last night of that moment, of Seattle celebrating,” star forward Elena Delle Donne said Monday at Mystics media day. “It was kind of good to get that feeling again, that pit in your stomach of not wanting that to ever happen again.”
Watching the video as a team wasn’t some twisted form of masochism. Starting where they left off — meaning playing WNBA Finals-caliber basketball — is Washington’s creed this year.
The Mystics are in excellent position to do so. The team lost Monique Currie, who retired and is working at Nike in Oregon; hometown staple Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, whom the Los Angeles Sparks signed as a free agent; and backup center Krystal Thomas during the offseason. But the rest of the team remains intact.
Washington returns its five core players from last season, with Delle Donne, Toliver, Ariel Atkins, LaToya Sanders and Natasha Cloud all reporting to work injury-free Monday. Primary bench players Tianna Hawkins and Myisha Hines-Allen were present and healthy as well. Kiara Leslie, the Mystics’ top draft pick out of North Carolina State, may miss time at the beginning of the season because of an undisclosed injury, but with six other WNBA rookies joining her on Washington’s training camp roster in addition to the returners, Leslie missing time wouldn’t hamper the team.
Especially not with 2015 all-star forward Emma Meesseman back on the roster after taking a year away from the WNBA to rest and recuperate. The Belgian touched down in Washington on Sunday and was back suited up in her Mystics uniform Monday afternoon.
“I’m very happy to be back after a year,” Meesseman said. “It feels like, not a new team, but it’s a new gym, there are new players. Normally coming back, I know everything immediately, and now I have to find my way again. I feel like, not a rookie, but everything apart from basketball is all new. But I’m happy to be back. I missed this feeling, being here.”
With the versatile forward back and the returning core healthy, the Mystics made it clear Monday that the team’s goal is a return trip to the Finals — at the very least.
“That’s the first goal, to get back to where we were and get better,” Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said.
The players came up with a snappier mantra: “Run it back.” It’s what the losing team in pickup basketball says when it wants a rematch, and another shot at the championship is exactly Washington’s aim.
“Elena came to us and said that Coach wanted a saying to be able to fall back on,” Cloud, the team’s starting point guard, said. “The season is crazy. Things get crazy when you’re traveling and you’ve got games every other day, so we needed something to fall back on to kind of center us. … ‘Run it back’ is just us saying, we’re coming back. It’s for this league to watch out, because that’s what we want. We’re going to bring the championship back here to D.C.”
Thibault’s task is to reintegrate Meesseman back into the lineup after a year of absence. The power forward, who was second on the team in scoring (14.1 points per game) and third in rebounds (5.7 per game) in 2017, naturally plays in the same spot as Delle Donne, who often shifted to play small forward when the two were on the court together.
But Thibault sees little conflict there as the Mystics move toward positionless basketball.
“We can play small, we can play big, we can play people on the perimeter. She and Elena together as post puts one kind of problem out there for opponents, then you can move Elena to the three and play Emma and LaToya or Tianna and cause different problems,” Thibault said. “[Meesseman] has a lot to offer.”
Washington loses Meesseman again for about a month when the Belgian national team leaves June 6 to play in the European Women’s Basketball Championships. Thibault may not start her at the beginning of the season so he doesn’t have to fiddle with the starting lineup so early in the year.
Even with the short absence, having Meesseman back gives the Mystics enviable depth. Meesseman is the rare player who could come off the bench to slide into Delle Donne’s spot without the team having to change much about its game plan.
That was one of the pieces Washington was missing last year during its Finals run. The Mystics took a significant blow when Delle Donne injured her left knee in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta — an injury that turned out to be so severe that Delle Donne only returned to full on-court action within the past two months, although she still lifted weights throughout the offseason.
“[Meesseman’s] just a whole special piece that we didn’t have last year,” Toliver said. “… We’re already 10 steps ahead of where we were last year, so that feels good heading into a season. But we know how tough it is to get to the Finals as a group now, and there’s work to be done.
“For us, ‘run it back,’ that’s what I was saying every single day this offseason when I was working out. I couldn’t let those three games go against Seattle. I still haven’t. I won’t. … We have unfinished business, and we’re very motivated to get back to where we were last year.”