During a practice in the first week of training camp, Elena Delle Donne asked Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault to suspend drills briefly so she could address her new teammates. The effort level had been lacking, and the 2015 WNBA MVP wanted to make it abundantly clear anything less than full engagement was unacceptable.
This past week, Kristi Toliver, another high-profile addition, arrived for her first practice after securing a Russian Premier League championship on the heels of a WNBA title as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. Her presence at Verizon Center produced an instant impact on the court and in the locker room, an intangible stemming from being a winner at every level.
As the Mystics prepare for Sunday’s season opener against the San Antonio Stars, both players also have spoken openly about embracing championship expectations, given that many analysts see a WNBA Finals-ready lineup.
“That’s definitely the attitude, and it’s what [Thibault] said in the first meeting that we ever had as a team,” Delle Donne said. “If you don’t have expectations, then what are you even going to work for? It’s exciting to have that, and it’s something to reach for.”
In an introductory news conference after joining the Mystics in a blockbuster trade, Delle Donne mentioned bringing a championship to the District as soon as possible.
The Mystics, who missed the playoffs entirely last season for the first time since Thibault took over in 2013, have not won a playoff series since 2002, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals under then-coach Marianne Stanley, who currently serves as an assistant on Thibault’s staff. Thibault took the Connecticut Sun to consecutive WNBA Finals in 2004 and ’05, losing both times.
Delle Donne, meanwhile, reached the WNBA Finals in 2014, when the Chicago Sky lost in a three-game sweep to the Phoenix Mercury.
“My whole deal is you should want that,” Thibault said. “If you’re walking in here thinking, ‘Eh, we’re just another team,’ it’s not that fun. I think it’s fun to chase after the dream of a championship. The only way you fully appreciate doing it and going after it is to understand that there is a target.
“I’d rather have this feeling of people thinking we’re supposed to win than the feeling at the start of the year that you’ve got no chance.”
Washington’s fortunes took a dramatic turn when Delle Donne, seeking to play closer to her Delaware home, threatened to sit out if a trade could not be completed. Armed with high draft picks and a youthful roster, Thibault engineered a deal in which he sent this year’s No. 2 overall selection, center Stefanie Dolson and guard Kahleah Copper to the Sky in exchange for Delle Donne.
Several days later, the Mystics announced the signing of Toliver, who had spent the previous seven seasons in Los Angeles, where she was named an all-star in 2013. Toliver’s decision to sign with the Mystics brings her back the area where she starred both in high school and college. As a freshman at Maryland, Toliver was the starting point guard on the 2006 national championship team.
“No tricks. It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” Toliver said. “It’s going to take time building the chemistry. I think we have certain pieces in place, but it’s going to take a lot of commitment.”
The combination of Delle Donne, Toliver and forward Emma Meesseman, a first-time all-star in 2015, provides Washington with a wealth of offensive punch, particularly from three-point range. All three players ranked among the WNBA’s top four in three-point shooting last season, allowing Thibault to install plays in training camp designed to create mismatches.
In Delle Donne and Toliver, in particular, Washington features two players capable of taking over games down the stretch. A lack of a go-to scorer had been among the Mystics’ deficiencies in previous incarnations, but these days, Thibault even has other options if opponents manage to take away Delle Donne and Toliver.
Starting off-guard Tayler Hill, for instance, led the Mystics in scoring last season, and reserve point guard Ivory Latta, entering her 11th year, is a two-time all-star who remains a dangerous three-point shooter.
“The past few years, we’ve just been missing that piece to finish our puzzle,” Mystics backup guard Natasha Cloud said. “We had young team. We had a versatile team, but we were really just missing those pieces, so I think Elena coming in, I think Kristi coming in is going to be huge for us. I already like what I see. We’re already clicking.”