The message remained consistent from Mystics Coach/General Manager Mike Thibault throughout the twists and turns of a WNBA season unlike any before. Washington headed to the league’s bubble in Bradenton, Fla., without four projected starters, and everyone knew this wasn’t the group Thibault had constructed during the offseason as injury and opt-outs decimated the roster.

No Elena Delle Donne. No Tina Charles. No Natasha Cloud. No LaToya Sanders.

So Thibault decided to use this 2020 experiment to prepare for 2021, when he will have a restored roster in the midst of a championship window that began with a trip to the 2018 Finals before winning it all in 2019. Something happened, however, during the course of the season — the Mystics played great out of the gate, then spiraled, then rebounded to make the playoffs. Expectations and aspirations changed along with those swings.

“It’s going to pay off in the long run,” Thibault said. “The experience our key players got this summer will carry over. You put that core group that we have that’s not with us back with this group, we’re going to be one of the favorites next year. I don’t think anybody considered us a playoff team, certainly not a couple weeks ago. But we showed toughness with the core group that was out there, and those guys will be a big part of what we do in the future.”

The Mystics jumped out to a 3-0 start with an offense that scored the third-most points in the first three games of a season in WNBA history. That first raised the prospect of 2020 not being a development-focused throwaway.

Thibault, though, stayed on message and warned against expecting too much. Washington promptly lost 12 of the next 13 games as a variety of issues arose. Aerial Powers, who was leading the team in scoring, suffered a hamstring injury and eventually left the bubble. Emma Meesseman missed time with a shoulder injury. There was a roster shuffle when veterans Essence Carson and Shey Peddy were released and rookies Sug Sutton and Stella Johnson were signed. The eye was on the future, and Thibault wanted to see how Sutton and Johnson would fit. Peddy and Thibault agreed that she would return after clearing waivers, but she changed her mind and signed with Phoenix. The decision would prove consequential; Peddy’s buzzer-beating three-pointer ended Washington’s season, 85-84, in the single-elimination first round of the playoffs Tuesday.

The Mystics wouldn’t have even been in the playoffs without winning their last four games of the regular season. Myisha Hines-Allen averaged 24.3 points in those four games, Leilani Mitchell became the aggressive point guard the team needed, and Ariel Atkins scored a season-high 26 points in the win-or-go-home regular season finale. The Mystics were suddenly the hottest team in the league that no one wanted to face in the playoffs. And if not for Peddy, Washington would still be playing.

“[Our championship experience] has always been in the back of my mind,” forward Tianna Hawkins said. “We were able to use that as a way to say, hey, even though we don’t have the same team, we know what it takes to get there. We kind of used that to build a little fire inside.”

Ultimately, the growth of the young players was the most important thing about 2019. Hines-Allen watched her averages increase from 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds in 7.8 minutes to 17.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in 30 minutes. She’s a favorite to win the league’s most Improved player award and became a three-point threat. Atkins saw her three-point shooting rise from 37.5 percent to 42.6 percent while becoming a vocal leader. Powers was averaging a career-high 16.3 points before her injury. Rookie Kiara Leslie grew defensively and began to knock down open threes.

Add all of that to a 2021 roster that includes Delle Donne, Cloud, Sanders and Mitchell, and it’s clear why Thibault was focused on the future.

There are a few roster questions that will have to be answered. Powers, Meesseman and Hawkins will be free agents. Charles also will be a free agent, though she has assured Thibault that she plans to re-sign.

The conclusion of the 2020 season was still heartbreaking despite knowing this was a placeholder season. Now it will be championship or bust in 2021.

“The biggest thing for us was just the whole process really,” Mitchell said. “I’m super proud, especially, of Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen. They have just taken their games to a whole other level.

“All these young players, we’re going to be better next year, and you add in all the talent we missed out on this year. It should be fun. It should be exciting.”

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