As players on the Washington Mystics’ training camp roster assembled on the practice court Wednesday morning, forward Emma Meesseman was hitting the court in Russia, adding another championship to her resume with her other professional team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Meesseman was one of three Mystics players who didn’t attend media day at Capital One Arena. Center Krystal Thomas and guard Kristi Toliver also had international commitments,Toliver’s with UMMC Ekaterinburg, which won the Euroleague championship a few weeks ago and the Russian Premier League championship Wednesday.
But while Washington will welcome back Thomas and Toliver shortly, the team has spent a large part of the offseason planning for Meesseman’s extended absence. The 2015 all-star is sitting out this WNBA season to rest after spending the past five-plus years of her life playing basketball year-round.
“I get it,” forward Elena Delle Donne said. “I went through burnout when I was younger, so I completely understand that she needs to just take a rest. She probably wants to be with her family a little — but obviously, it sucks for us, I’m not going to lie. She’s an incredible player; she’s an all-star . . . Luckily, we’ve been together for a little while; we’ve been able to work on some things.”
The Mystics acknowledged Wednesday that Meesseman’s absence will be felt: She averaged 14.1 points last season as the team’s second-leading scorer and had 5.7 rebounds per game. Beyond that, she has been a mainstay in Washington since she was drafted in 2013, never missing a WNBA game until last year, when she spent a little more than a month playing with the Belgian national team.
But Washington’s players and Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault are confident in the talent they have here. Thibault signed Washington native Monique Currie as a free agent in the offseason to play the three, which is the position Delle Donne shifted to play last year so she and Meesseman, who played the four, could be on the court together.
Now, Delle Donne will go back to playing power forward, the position she knows best. Currie, a 35-year-old who averaged 10.8 points last season, will make up for some of Meesseman’s scoring.
“She’s played so long as the four, especially when you’re what we call a stretch four and you can step out behind the three-point line or post up, you see that the diversity in her game gets better used,” Thibault said of Delle Donne, who finished fourth in the WNBA with 19.7 points per game last year. “I think last year in playing the three it got our best players on the floor, but I think that we didn’t get her enough shots last year in spots that she’s better at with the ball. We didn’t post her up as much last year . . . and the other part of it is on the defensive end. Chasing smaller players around screens all day is different than what she was used to on the defensive end.”
“I love playing the four,” Delle Donne said. “Last season I had to get comfortable in that three position, so this year I’m going back to my comfort zone a little bit and playing that spot. I think it’ll be a good move.”
Although the WNBA isn’t paying Meesseman while she sits out a year — the team technically suspended her in order to free up a roster spot and prevent her salary from counting against the cap — the Belgian’s contract still counts as one of the Mystics’ six players with a protected contract. Meesseman will have one guaranteed year left on her contract in Washington when she returns.
Thibault is familiar with this kind of maneuvering. Though it’s not common, it’s not unheard of to lose a player for long stretches of time in the WNBA for reasons other than injury. Both Tayler Hill and Tianna Hawkins missed time for maternity leave while with the Mystics.
It helps that the team has had time to plan for Meesseman’s absence, with the news announced at the end of January. Thibault is confident the team will be flexible.
“It’s a unique situation in our league when you’re dealing with pregnancies, international play, all of those things,” Thibault said. “It’s just something you deal with, and you figure it out as you go. I had a little more experience dealing with this when I coached in what now is the G League, back then was the CBA, and you were getting players called up to the NBA. I remember getting four players called up in a 10-day period and my roster looked 40 percent different all of a sudden within those 10 days.
“You just learn to roll with it, you have no other alternative than to do your job every day and say ‘Hey, now it’s your turn to go to work.’ The players look at it that way, too.”