Washington Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault struck a bargain with all-star forward Emma Meesseman years ago. If the Belgian national ever got a technical foul, Thibault promised he would pay the fine.
It was more of a half-earnest bribe than anything, but all these years later, Thibault hasn’t surrendered a dime. Meesseman, a 6-foot-4 big so naturally unflappable that she can’t remember the last time she felt anger during a game, hasn’t received a technical in her six seasons in the WNBA.
“I think he wanted me to get mad at the refs more,” Meesseman said with a laugh. “I’m calm. For me, it doesn’t help if I get nervous or mad. I’m just kind of an introvert, go with the flow.”
Meesseman’s laid-back nature is suiting the Mystics just fine for now — as evidenced by the 19 points she scored off the bench in Washington’s 91-78 win over the Indiana Fever on Thursday at Entertainment and Sports Arena.
Since Meesseman returned in mid-July from a month-long stint with the Belgian national team in the European Basketball Championship, Thibault has been peppered with questions about Meesseman’s role. The coach didn’t want to disrupt the highest-scoring lineup in the league, which coalesced while Meesseman was abroad, but keeping a 52 percent career shooter on the bench seemed like a waste.
He decided to keep Meesseman on the bench. And there, the 2015 all-star has found her footing in Washington after two disrupted seasons, averaging 16.7 points in the Mystics’ past three full games, including Thursday’s. (Before her time away this year for EuroBasket, Meesseman sat out the 2018 WNBA season both to give herself a breather from year-round basketball and to be closer to her family in Europe.)
“I like to play,” Meesseman said. “I understand that everybody here has a role, and I understand that we’re going for a championship. I know every single player here, no matter how many minutes they play, that they are still important to the team. So I feel like I’m still a part of this team. I just want to win, you know, and I do believe this team is the best opportunity for me.”
Not every former all-star and franchise cornerstone would accept Meesseman’s role as Swiss Army knife with the same amount of grace.
On Thursday, Thibault plugged the forward into lineups with the Mystics’ usual starters, a lineup in which she anchored the bench unit alongside Tiana Hawkins, and a supersized lineup featuring 6-5 Elena Delle Donne (22 points) and 6-4 LaToya Sanders (16 points). Meesseman jelled with every group.
“That’s Emma. She’s like, ‘Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it,’ ” Delle Donne said. “That’s a really hard position to be put in at times, and she just handles it like a pro.”
Said Thibault: “She fits with everybody. She’s just a smart player, and because she’s one of our better passers, we can put her with almost any lineup. The fact that she moves the ball, she likes passing — to her detriment sometimes.”
Meesseman’s passive tendency is the downside to her easygoing personality because the forward unquestionably plays her best when she is aggressive.
“Aggressive” is a word Meesseman has heard from Thibault almost daily since Washington picked her 19th overall in the second round of the 2013 draft. Getting the Belgian to take an open shot rather than pass to her teammates has been Thibault’s greatest challenge with his otherwise uber-efficient forward.
“[I heard it] from Day 1, Year 1,” Meesseman said. “I was just taught to keep it simple. My first coach — which was, by the way, my mom’s coach, too — just said to keep it simple, give and go, all the basics. So I think that’s just the main thing in my head, those three big words. So if I see somebody open, it’s just natural. Sometimes I just don’t think about it, which I should do.”
When Meesseman does look for her shot, she tends to have nights such as Thursday against the Fever (8-16), when she made 8 of 10 from the field while frequently going up against muscular, 6-7 Teaira McCowan.
But the on-court aggression is a playing style she has to actively force herself into every time out. Off the court, Meesseman is gentle; she draws and paints and is interested in photography and languages. She speaks four fluently — English, French, Flemish and German.
Meesseman is also the type of player Washington (16-7) was missing in the WNBA Finals last year: a potent shooter who can space the floor and spread defenses thin.
She hopes to return to the Finals with this team. Watching the Mystics get there last year was an emotional experience in which Meesseman was both elated for her teammates and a little forlorn they were able to make the run without her. Now she is more than happy to be back and winning, even if it is off the bench.
“Of course!” Meesseman said. “I love every single one of these players. I feel so comfortable in this team as a person — off court — just everybody gets along with each other. With team sports, especially with women, it’s hard to have a team where everybody gets along and plays well. Every single piece fits.”