In the days immediately after orchestrating a blockbuster trade for Elena Delle Donne in early February, Washington Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault revealed how his plans for a peaceful night’s rest would be interrupted with thoughts of creating mismatches for the 2015 WNBA MVP.
Thibault gets his first opportunity to install those sets when the Mystics, at least most of them, report to training camp Sunday night and practice for the first time Monday at Verizon Center. The majority of the team, including Delle Donne, had been working out informally over the past week, with two notable exceptions.
Kristi Toliver and Emma Meesseman, both all-stars, were overseas with their Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, which was participating in the EuroLeague championship. Toliver and Meesseman aren’t expected to join the Mystics until May 10.
Still, Thibault’s unbridled enthusiasm for this training camp stems from having a rebooted roster comprising entirely his imprint since arriving in December 2012 to rebuild the franchise.
“My first [training camp] in Washington was kind of all new,” he said. “New team, new everything, and we’ve spent four years kind of trying to shape this in our own design. Now you get to walk into the gym, and you see that every player here is the product of the last four years of work, whether it’s through trades or drafts or free agency or whatever.”
The deal for Delle Donne, a 6-foot-5 guard-forward, immediately altered the balance of power in the league, according to analysts who consider the Mystics a championship contender. Washington went 13-21 last season to finish 10th out of 12 teams, missing the playoffs for the first time under Thibault.
Moves to upgrade came swiftly, with Thibault acquiring Delle Donne from the Chicago Sky for the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, center Stefanie Dolson and guard Kahleah Copper. Helping to facilitate the trade was Delle Donne, citing a desire to play closer to her Delaware home, indicating she would be willing to sit out if a deal could not be completed.
Only days after announcing the Delle Donne deal, Thibault signed Toliver, an unrestricted free agent formerly with the WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks. Toliver is the projected starter at point guard for the Mystics, who open the season May 14 at Verizon Center against the San Antonio Stars.
“I was in touch with her before she even committed to the Mystics,” Delle Donne said of Toliver, who helped Maryland win the 2006 national championship and grew up in Harrisonburg, Va. “I was really hoping she would come and we could do something special together. Excited to meet and talk with her in person, not just when we had to play the Sparks.”
In the meantime, Delle Donne has been getting acquainted with teammates before training camp through pickup games over the past week. Among the players in the regular rotation who participated in the first round of games Wednesday afternoon were Tayler Hill, Natasha Cloud and Tianna Hawkins.
Also attending was Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft from Maryland. The Terrapins’ No. 4 all-time scorer led major college basketball in three-point shooting as junior, making 54.5 percent .
Walker-Kimbrough adds another long-range threat to a club with three of the league’s top four three-point shooters from last year. Meesseman led the WNBA in three-point field goal percentage (44.8), with Delle Donne third (42.6) and Toliver (42.4) fourth.
Washington’s other draft picks this year were Old Dominion guard Jennie Simms, the second-leading scorer in Division I this past season behind Washington’s Kelsey Plum, and Wisconsin Green Bay guard Mehryn Kraker.
The Mystics have 18 players on their training camp roster, although forward-center LaToya Sanders is out for the year, according to Thibault, because of foot surgery. Sanders has been one of the Mystics’ most dependable post defenders, and her absence means potentially more playing time for 6-5 center Krystal Thomas, another free agent signing.
Other than Sanders and guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who is recovering from back spasms, the Mystics enter training camp mostly healthy, a scenario vastly different from last season when injuries plagued them from the outset.
“I’m excited going into training camp,” said Cloud, last year’s starting point guard. “We kind of saw how it was going to be last year when we got back from the Olympic break. We were healthy, so we were able to have the kind of training camp that we wanted as opposed to the beginning of the year. I already like what’s going on in the gym.”