Missing against the Indiana Fever will be reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, point guard Natasha Cloud, forward-center LaToya Sanders and recently added center Tina Charles. Former starter Kristi Toliver and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are no longer with the team. Not all are casualties of coronavirus concerns, but the Mystics may be the biggest example in the league of how 2020 has turned things upside down.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has been adamant throughout the pandemic that times of crisis and turmoil provide chances to grow that may not have been there previously.
“This is a huge opportunity for us and the league and these players to show everyone the elite athletes that they are,” Engelbert said.
Cloud opted out to focus on social justice causes, Sanders (anemia) and Charles (asthma) opted out for health concerns, and Delle Donne is recovering from back surgery after the league’s medical panel denied her a medical exemption for Lyme disease.
Enter Alaina Coates.
The No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft, Coates played for three teams in her first three seasons. She had the look of a bust and was worried she would never get a real chance to earn her draft pedigree. Then Mystics Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault called, and by the time she signed June 29, the day after the team held a private ring ceremony at a Virginia spa, she was the only center expected to be on the roster.
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Coates has the most size on the active roster and has a chance to fill a gaping hole in the lineup.
“That feeling when I got that phone call, I could take a big sigh of relief,” Coates said. “It just made me feel really good about myself because he saw something in my game that he felt like would benefit his team.
“I never gave up hope, but I just wasn’t entirely confident that somebody was going to actually give me an actual chance.”
The first three years of Coates’s career were filled with fits and starts. After she was drafted by the Chicago Sky, ankle surgery eliminated her entire rookie campaign. She struggled in 2018 after her father died of a heart attack, averaging just 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 rebounds. The Sky traded her to the Minnesota Lynx three days before the 2019 season began, and she never quite got comfortable, averaging 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds. The Lynx released her after 14 games, and the Atlanta Dream picked her up four days later. The highlight of her nine-game stint with the Dream was collecting 10 rebounds in just six minutes in her final game.
The Mystics may represent a best-chance, last-chance scenario. Coates has had a full training camp with a team that has a glaring hole at her position. It’s a veteran team with a three-time coach of the year. She has a chance to rewrite the narrative of her career.
“When she came here, we knew that was important to her,” Thibault said. “I kind of challenged her: ‘Here’s your opportunity. It’s been a rough start for you for various reasons, on and off the court. Here’s an opportunity. You know you’re going to play. If you do the right things and work, then you can revive your career and add to your game.’ ”
All signs have been positive in this truncated training camp. Coates came out of South Carolina as a traditional, back-to-the basket center, but Thibault said she has been working on expanding her game. The team needs her shot-blocking presence, and Thibault has been impressed with her help defense. She’s a physical presence who can also get out and run.
“Her hands are great,” forward Aerial Powers said. “I feel like before they weren’t as amazing as they are now. She’s catching almost everything we throw down there. She had a few blocks in the scrimmage. Her length is going to help us.”
Being locked in the bubble has been a positive for Coates. Players have raved about the team bonding that has taken place with few other options to pass the time. That’s a much-needed bonus for Coates, who admits she can get wrapped up in her own thoughts and frustrations.
The environment seems ideal for self-evaluation and reflection. Coates acknowledged that she didn’t always put herself in the best position to succeed, whether it was poor conditioning or poor attitude. Issues off the court would carry over onto the court.
She made a decision to make changes this season even before she signed with the Mystics. Conditioning and attitude would no longer be excuses.
“That whole [third] year, it shot my confidence really bad,” Coates said. “I knew going into this year I have keep my head on straight. I have to be in shape. I have to focus when it comes to learning plays and knowing defensive schemes and everything. People said I can’t shoot outside. People said I’ve been a liability on defense. People say I’ve looked scatterbrained on offense.
“Those are things I took to the chin, and I made the decision to work on them. Because at the end of the day, I want to be in the ranks with the greats, and I know that I can’t just hear criticism and get upset about it. I have to go do something about it.”
Coates wants to get back to being the player she was at South Carolina, where she became the first player in school history to record 50 career double-doubles. She played well in Turkey this WNBA offseason, averaging 10.0 points and 6.2 rebounds for Hatay BSB. Training camp was the second step. Now game action in Bradenton will be her proving ground.
A successful 2020 could make things interesting for Thibault. Charles is a free agent in 2021. Coates will be as well, and she has 22 games to prove that, at 25, she might be a better long-term prospect than the 31-year-old former MVP.
“No matter what happens this year, you’re not going to get down on yourself,” Coates said about her mind-set. “I knew that if I was going to remain in this league, I had to put the work in. I definitely took it upon myself to come back and work the hardest I ever had. I knew that if I didn’t, we could potentially have another year like last year or worse, I would just be cut and that was it.
“I definitely just decided when I was in Turkey, this momentum that you’re on right now, we’re going to continue to work on it … and then when you touch that floor, we’re going to show out.”