The overhauled Washington Mystics spent just one regular season game together before embarking on a trip that will feature significant on-court challenges and, for their two biggest offseason acquisitions, reunions with their professional past.
There’s a showdown on Friday against the Los Angeles Sparks, not only the reigning WNBA champions but the home team for Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver for the previous seven seasons.
Two days later Washington will face an aspiring contender in the Seattle Storm, which features one of the top young players in the world in Breanna Stewart, last year’s No. 1 overall pick and a 2016 Olympian.
The final leg matches the Mystics against the Chicago Sky, with whom prized offseason acquisition Elena Delle Donne played for the first four years of her career.
Despite the rugged schedule, the Mystics are embracing extended time away from the District to foster greater camaraderie without the distractions of home. That’s particularly valuable for this year’s iteration of the club given its roster with just two starters back from last season.
“I think it’s a really good thing,” said Delle Donne, who has had little down time since arriving in the nation’s capital amid much fanfare. “When we’re here, there’s so much going on. I think it’ll be nice to get on the road and just kind of be alone with the team and be able to just focus on basketball.”
Delle Donne is among six newcomers this year following an active offseason in which Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault sought to build a team with championship-level talent. The first step was trading for Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP.
Several days later, Thibault signed Toliver as a free agent. She is set to receive her championship ring during a pregame ceremony with her former teammates before tip-off at Staples Center.
The Sparks are expected to have back Candace Parker, the WNBA Finals MVP, in addition to Jantel Lavender and Essence Carson, for that game. All three had been overseas playing in the Turkish league and missed the Sparks’ 78-68 season-opening win Saturday against visiting Seattle.
“It’ll be an emotional night,” Toliver said, “just being back for the first time and seeing everybody and back in the building I’ve been in for seven years. I’m just going to try to be present in the moment and just kind of take in whatever happens. The opening ceremony will be great, but as soon as the game starts, obviously that has to be the number one focus.”
Toliver’s move brought her back to her roots, a major consideration in her decision to leave the team with which she won her first WNBA title. Toliver attended high school in Harrisonburg, Va., and played collegiately at Maryland, where she started in the backcourt for the 2006 national championship team.
Being close to home, meanwhile, was the primary reason Delle Donne wanted out of Chicago, which had made her the No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 draft. The much closer proximity to her native Wilmington, Del., allows Delle Donne many more opportunities to be with her family, particularly older sister Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and autism and was born blind and deaf.
Delle Donne had led the Sky to the playoffs each season she was there, including the WNBA Finals in 2014. Chicago lost in a three-game sweep to the Phoenix Mercury.
“I think it’s going to be emotional both of those games for each of them going back,” said Thibault, who signed a four-year contract extension Wednesday before the Mystics left town.
When Washington does come back to Verizon Center to play the Sky again May 26, starting forward Emma Meesseman will not be with the team. The 2015 all-star is due to head back to Belgium following Wednesday’s game against Chicago so she can participate in world championship qualifying with her country’s national team.
Meesseman is expected to miss approximately one month of the WNBA season after having been overseas during most of training camp while playing in the Russian Premier League.
“Every year I’ve been here, it’s game by game, step by step,” Meesseman said. “It’s no different for me now. I’m not thinking at all about the Belgian team. I’m fully focused with my mind here in D.C. and L.A. I don’t think anyone is thinking about me leaving because we first have three games that we really need.”