Like any parent suddenly saddled with free time, Washington Mystics guard Tayler Hill spent her vacation chasing around her toddler.
“I was a mom. I spent time with my family. Every day,” Hill said, explaining how she made it through the nearly five-week Olympic break that disrupted the WNBA season. “Nothing special, nothing crazy. I spent time with my son.”
As routine as Hill describes her time off, she has been anything but average since the break.
In the four games, Hill has averaged 21 points as a dual threat to get to the free throw line as well as a shoot from deep. With this surge, Hill has overtaken all-star Emma Meesseman as the Mystics’ leading scorer at 15.7 points per game.
“She spends the extra time in the gym,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said of Hill. “She gets her work in on shooting. She studies the game. She’s in terrific aerobic condition. She can run all day. And I think the other thing in what separates guards when they get to be veterans is if you can both score from the perimeter and get to the basket. It’s like, you got it then.”
When the Mystics selected Hill as the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, she was primarily a catch-and-shoot scorer. Or as Thibault plainly states, “kind of one-dimensional.”
However in her fourth season — and evidenced by her play since the Mystics returned to action Aug. 27 — Hill has elevated her skill set. On Aug. 28 against the San Antonio Stars, the second night of a back-to-back, Hill produced season-highs in points (26) and three-point baskets (five)
Then Sept. 4 as the Mystics held off the Dallas Wings, 88-83, to stay in the playoff picture, Hill attempted seven shots from the arc but also remained aggressive by putting the ball on the floor. Hill made 9 of 10 free throws, including seven within the final 2 minutes 9 seconds of the game. This season, Hill ranks third in the WNBA with 163 free throw attempts. She is averaging career highs in points, minutes (29.4), rebounds (2.7), assists (2.8) and steals (1.2).
“I think she’s rejuvenated,” teammate Tierra Ruffin-Pratt said. “She sat out a few games before the break started, so she was hungry to get back on the court and get back to playing.”
Hill dealt with left foot soreness and missed the final two games before the break. So, by the time the stateside Mystics reconvened for practices, Hill had not played for more than two weeks.
However, she had time to shake off the rust during scrimmages against male competitors as Thibault encouraged the physicality and freedom from the playbook.
Those “first few days were a shock because we changed almost our whole philosophy in playing,” Hill said. “Basically in practice for two weeks, we ran no plays. We pushed the ball up and every time we didn’t push the ball up, we’re stopping and running. Or [Thibault] would stop us and make us start over. So, for the first few days, when you’ve been on break for 16 days, and you come back it is a little bit of a shock.”
Now with her left foot healed and her rhythm restored, Hill is playing like a candidate for the league’s most improved player award. However the team objective — advancing to the postseason — remains the focus. On Tuesday, the Mystics prepped for the Chicago Sky (15-13) and even more so, facing the dominant Elena Delle Donne. At one point near the end of practice as players worked through pick-and-roll defensive sets, a Mystics teammate failed to secure a defensive rebound and Hill responded by bouncing the ball with force and snapping: “Let’s go!” Later, when another teammate did not communicate a switch, Hill issued a sharp-tongued rebuke.
“Now that we’re in the end of the season, we shouldn’t be talking about the same stuff,” Hill said, explaining her actions. “When somebody is just refusing not to do it, sometimes you do need to say something to her. Not in a ‘can you please do this’ [manner] but in a ‘Do it! type of way.
“Right now everything is a playoff game,” Hill continued, “and we’ve got to come out with a sense of urgency from the beginning.”