She has been in a dance-off against late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, goes by the Twitter handle of @bigmamastef and most recently hammed it up with WWE’s “The PrimeTime Players” as part of “Monday Night Raw” at Verizon Center. So it’s not as if Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson lacks chutzpah.
Still, as a rookie last season, there were more than a few moments of uncertainty after winning consecutive national championships at Connecticut, where she contributed to a record 90-game unbeaten streak. Things didn’t come nearly as easy at the next level.
At the start of this season, Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault began demanding even more from the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 WNBA draft because of a training camp injury to veteran center Kia Vaughn. Dolson became the starter on a youthful team with eight players having two years or fewer of WNBA experience.
Dolson appears in little danger of relinquishing the starting job anytime soon, averaging 11.6 points — nearly double from last year — 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 blocks over the first nine games. Her dramatic development has Thibault mentioning Dolson as an all-star candidate and the Mystics (6-3), who play at Indiana (4-6) on Thursday night, one game out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
“When you have that pressure of the team depending on you, there’s no room for a lack of confidence because we need you to play every game,” Mystics guard Kara Lawson said. “I think that’s been a blessing in disguise because she knows she has to play well every game. Stef, just from a personality standpoint, she plays better and does better when people are counting on her.”
In a season-opening 73-68 victory over the Connecticut Sun, Dolson collected a career-high 12 rebounds to go along with 18 points, at the time also her single-game best. In Sunday’s 86-71 win against the Chicago Sky, she had 19 points, 10 rebounds and a season-high five assists.
Included in Dolson’s 7-for-13 shooting performance five days ago were several acrobatic layups, including an up-and-under in the second half that was part of an 11-2 surge. This season Dolson has expanded her low-post and face-up arsenal and extended her shooting range, all the result of not just practice in the gym but also playing professionally in Turkey during the WNBA offseason.
Dolson even shot three-pointers overseas and at 6 feet 5 has been a matchup conundrum for WNBA opponents the farther away she moves from the basket. Paired with skilled power forward Emma Meesseman, Dolson provides the Mystics with one of the more potent front-court combinations in the league.
“She knows that her team needs her, and so I think while that’s some pressure, there’s also a sense of diligence about it too,” Thibault said. “She’s been willing to put in the extra work. She’s coming in early and staying late to work on stuff. I think the biggest thing from strictly a basketball standpoint is she’s slowed herself down both mentally and physically.”
That has been the case lately particularly regarding her decision-making with the ball. Over the past three games, Dolson has 10 assists and five turnovers. In her previous three games, she had six assists with 10 turnovers.
Having been able to lean heavily on Dolson means there’s no pressing concern to rush Vaughn back into the lineup. Vaughn has missed the past six games while nursing concussion symptoms and did not practice Wednesday afternoon before the team departed for Indianapolis.
“It obviously [is tough] that Kia is out, but the season goes on, and we needed someone to step in and be that inside presence that we need to win games because a lot of teams have a lot of good bigs,” Dolson said. “It’s only my second year, so I’m still learning a lot, but I’m just trying to do as much as Coach asks of me.”