The team’s newly hired coach and general manager, Mike Thibault, had slightly higher expectations. Although it wasn’t the norm to look to Europe for players at the time, Thibault had been tracking Meesseman since she was named FIBA Europe young player of the year in 2011. He liked her skills and received good enough reports about her work ethic and personality that he drafted her 19th overall.
Meesseman, now a staple in Washington, ended the 2019 regular season as the Mystics’ second-leading scorer, averaging 13.1 points while shooting 55.2 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from three-point range.
“We might have screwed up,” Thibault said. “We had two second-round picks, and we took her with the second one — we probably should’ve taken her with the first. We knew she would be good, but we had no idea how good. That was a little luck. But this all started with that draft.”
Many observers mark the beginning of this WNBA era in Washington with the 2017 acquisitions of Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver. But peek under the Mystics’ hood, and it’s far more complex than that — this team, which is seeded No. 1 in the playoffs and begins a best-of-five semifinal series against No. 4 Las Vegas on Tuesday, is the culmination of a process that began in 2013. It’s the product of Thibault’s long-term vision, an organizational emphasis on character as much as talent and, as was the case with Meesseman, a little luck.
The Mystics begin the playoffs as the most dominant team: They enter Tuesday’s game at Entertainment and Sports Arena riding a 10-game home winning streak after posting a league-record 13 wins by 20 or more points this season and averaging a league-leading 89.3 points.
They did so with a roster that’s something of an anomaly compared with other teams that have been dominant in the WNBA — not just this year, but this decade.
Only three of this year’s major contributors were drafted by Washington, and all three were either a surprise or a lower-round pick that turned out as well as it possibly could have: Meesseman was taken at No. 19 in 2013, starting point guard Natasha Cloud went No. 15 in 2015 and starting shooting guard Ariel Atkins unexpectedly went No. 7 in 2018. Every other core player arrived in other ways.
In contrast, every title-winning team this decade aside from the 2010 Seattle Storm and the 2012 Indiana Fever has featured at least two players who were drafted No. 1 overall by the team with which they won the championship. Those teams’ cores have largely been homegrown.
Thibault, 68, who got his start in basketball as a scout and learned how to evaluate personalities, not just players, has employed a different method.
“[Thibault] is able to seek out talent and fit pieces together in the right ways,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. “I usually call Mike before the draft, because there’s not going to be a player that’s on the board, or not on the board, that he hasn’t seen or scouted. … Mike Thibault was the first one to say to me, ‘Emma Meesseman is going to be a star.’ Or LaToya Sanders, she’s not someone who was going to jump out at you, necessarily, as any team’s starting center. And there’s a long-term plan for players like Ariel Atkins, who went seventh and wasn’t even at the draft and is arguably — to me, they don’t make the Finals last year without her.
“Again, it’s Mike Thibault doing his work in the offseason, seeing what players can do but also forecasting what they can be.”
Since 2013, Thibault’s vision for the team has been to play up-tempo with players who are multidimensional. He has taken players such as Cloud, a ballhandling guard who was also the Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year as a junior, and Maryland product Tianna Hawkins, who can play with her back to the basket but is also a shooter. She arrived via trade in 2014.
Those he drafted for their fundamental skills, he developed. He coaxed Meesseman into shooting threes; after she attempted only four in her first two years in the league, she went 19 for 45 from deep this season.
Just as paramount to skill set is character. When Thibault was with the Connecticut Sun and keen on drafting Tina Charles out of the University of Connecticut, he made a point to attend a Huskies game against Holy Cross. He knew the game would be a 40-point blowout but wanted to watch Charles on the bench in the second half.
“Did she cheer for her teammates? Did she coach her backup, stay involved mentally?” Thibault recalled seeking.
When he finds a player with the right skills who’s also a good teammate, Thibault has shown he is willing to wait. Sanders, the starting center, didn’t play in the league for three seasons from 2012 to 2014 while she dealt with the death of her father and tended to overseas obligations.
Thibault liked her defense and knew from former Mystics player Ivory Latta, who played with Sanders at North Carolina, that her personality was the right fit. Thibault convinced Sanders to come back in 2015.
Seeking out such players has made a difference: All season, the Mystics have attributed their league-crushing offense to chemistry.
“I’m a person who — Belgium is my only home, forever,” Meesseman said. “But this year is like the first year where I’m really comfortable. We all genuinely care for each other, and that matters.”
Said Robinson: “That’s been the key to their success — they are so unbothered as a team. They’re so together, it’s very hard to shake them mentally in terms of their focus.”
With players including Sanders, Meesseman and Hawkins in place laying a foundation, Thibault achieved the crowning moment in his long-term plan when he sent Chicago the Mystics’ No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft along with Stefanie Dolson and Kahleah Copper for Delle Donne, who was demanding a trade from the Sky at the time and wished to be closer to home, then signed Toliver a few weeks later.
All that was left was to mold the team further around Delle Donne’s and Toliver’s vast talents. Thibault added a lethal young shooter in Atkins and picked up a dynamic shooter and defender in Aerial Powers. Cloud transformed her game and became a more reliable shooter and confident point guard. And Thibault did away with a traditional center: At 6-foot-2, shorter than Delle Donne and Meesseman, Sanders is the smallest center in the league.
“Up-tempo, pick and pop, we’re a team that doesn’t really have a true center that posts up, 6-6 and above,” Sanders said. “We don’t have that. I even asked him because after last year I was like, ‘Coach T, you’re going to get me a center, right?’ ”
Thibault knew he didn’t need one. This Mystics roster went 26-8 in the regular season and glided toward the No. 1 seed with little trouble. Now, they’re on the verge of fulfilling the vision Thibault had when he plucked an underestimated player from Belgium in 2013.
“It’s very interesting,” Toliver said. “With the timing of everything and everyone, we all just balance each other out … and the things that we all have in common are unselfishness, willing to sacrifice and just being good teammates. But we also have really, really good basketball players. Mike was able to put together a good little misfit group, I guess.”