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The Mystics’ future looks brighter thanks to an important new signing

The Mystics will (almost certainly) miss the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. But thanks to veteran point guard Leilani Mitchell, things are starting to look up in D.C.

Leilani Mitchell has sparked the Mystics, though it’s been too little, too late for this year.
Leilani Mitchell has sparked the Mystics, though it’s been too little, too late for this year.
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

The Washington Mystics have been an average team since coach Mike Thibault took over four years ago and weren’t expected to be much better in 2016. Barring an improbable finish, that’ll hold true. The Mystics need to win both of their remaining games and hope the Phoenix Mercury lose their final two contests to make the playoffs.

Yet despite the losing record, there’s significant optimism in D.C. Mystics fans should have every reason to believe that not only will their team’s playoff drought end in 2017, but they shouldn’t merely scrape for the bottom seeds they earned in previous seasons.

A bold post-Olympics signing brought Australian point guard and eight-year WNBA veteran Leilani Mitchell to D.C. In just a short time, her presence and intelligence has shined a light on a promising roster.

“We have a lot of young players on our team,” Thibault said recently. “I thought we needed a veteran guard who’s been through a lot of games with good teams — she’s played in New York and Phoenix — and understands what it takes.”

The Mystics limped to a 9-13 record before the Olympic break, so Thibault knew he had holes to fill. The return of forward LaToya Sanders, who left the team to train for the Turkish national team before the Olympics in Rio, was the first step. That didn’t bear fruit because she suffered a foot injury after just four games.

But Thibault’s other big acquisition has been far more successful. After guard Bria Hartley announced her pregnancy, Thibault put on his college recruiting hat until he landed Mitchell, the point guard with veteran leadership the team so desperately needed.

Washington is stocked with young talent. Every starter is 25 years or younger, a credit to Thibault’s rebuilding effort. Guard Tayler Hill and center Stefanie Dolson were top-6 picks, but the team’s most promising star, forward Emma Meesseman, and guard Natasha Cloud were second-round finds. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who has worked her way into the wing rotation, wasn’t even drafted.

None are considered superstars, though, so the group needed an experienced playmaker like Mitchell to amplify its strengths.

“The pitch was that she could help us and she’d fit in right away,” Thibault said. “The style we play, she likes to play up-and-down, there were minutes for her to come and get right away.”

She earned them quickly. The 31-year-old came off the bench to score 20 points in just her fifth game in a Washington uniform, a 118-81 win over the Chicago Sky. She connected on five of her team’s franchise-record 16 makes from deep and added four assists. Chicago star Elena Delle Donne played just eight minutes after injuring her thumb, but it’s remarkable that a team ranked in the bottom half of the league in points per possession made history with a franchise record in points. The Mystics had scored 100 or more points just one other time all season, and that took three overtimes.

“[Mitchell] is just a great player,” Delle Donne told SB Nation. “She’s a great shooter, seems to make all the right reads and gets everyone involved. When it’s her time to take her shot it seems like she always just knocks it down. Really solid pickup for them.”

Thanks to Mitchell, the Mystics have discovered how much their young core can do with a calm hand steering the ship.

“I don’t know if I expected [Mitchell] to get 20 every night, but I expected her to be able to space the floor as a three-point shooter,” Thibault said. “She’s clever with the ball. A veteran point guard in pick-and-roll situations. That was our attempt from the start of the Olympic break; to find a veteran like her.”

Mitchell has orchestrated the Mystics offense seamlessly despite being a stranger to the organization so recently. It’s been just weeks since she flew directly from Australia to meet the team for her first game against the Indiana Fever.

Since then, she’s hit 17 of 37 attempts from the floor, including 10 of 25 from range. In a five-game stretch, she averaged nine points and two assists. But those individual numbers underplay the spark she’s provided to the young talent that plays ahead of her.

Hill, the franchise’s highest draft pick since 2009, is averaging 19 points per game since the Olympic break. She’s hit 25 of 56 of her three-point attempts, compared to a 36 percent mark for the season as a whole. With more attention on Mitchell as a three-point threat, Hill has found more space playing off the ball.

Hill is now taking better shots. She can spot up on the wings and get the ball in rhythm to go straight up into her jump shot, rather than settling for pull-ups. Hill’s efficiency from the field had been her biggest flaw during a breakout fourth season, but Mitchell’s play has improved it.

Mitchell’s former teammate, Vaughn, is also playing her best ball of the year. Mitchell’s playmaking and shooting provides her opportunities in half-court situations, which Thibault’s fast-paced, run-and-gun offense hasn’t always allowed. After scoring double-digits in just four games all season, Vaughn did so three times in four games on a combined 21-of-27 shooting. Likewise, Dolson has more space to operate in the paint and from distance with the ball constantly moving.

Here’s how the team’s top players have fared since the Olympic break:

Mitchell could have signed elsewhere, but it’s tough to turn down the winningest coach in league history. That’s a recruiting pitch no other team can match, and Thibault can use it to find additional veterans to augment the young core and re-sign Mitchell when her contract expires at the end of the season.

“I was still in Rio kind of towards the end of the tournament and coach [Thibault] contacted me,” Mitchell said. “He asked if I’d be interested and we had a few chats about some things. He said he was really keen on me coming. He just always has a great team, he’s one of the winningest coaches. That alone gets you interested.”

Mitchell is the first veteran free agent Thibault has landed since the team’s rebuilding project began four years ago. She won’t be the last.

That’s because the league knows that the Mystics are headed in the right direction. Tamika Catchings, the soon-to-be-retired Indiana Fever legend, told SB Nation that she thinks the Mystics are “gonna be unbelievable one day.”

“You see the games where they played where just Bam, everything was on,” Catchings said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting a leader who can constantly and consistently play at that level. Then, being able to know they can do this every single night. Emma [Meesseman]’s gonna do her thing, Stef [Dolson]’s gonna do her thing, [Tayler] Hill’s been playing out of her mind. Now with Leilani, having another true point guard, the sky’s limit with them.”

The Mystics will finish the season with another losing record, but it wasn’t a disappointing season. The team’s recent draft picks are starting to find their way and Thibault will get another opportunity to add to his fountain of youth with a lottery pick in 2017’s draft.

More moves are needed to push the Mystics to the next level, which will test Thibault’s chops. Can he sign more veteran talent in February? Will he move some of his lesser-used young talent for more established help? No matter what path he chooses, the opportunities are abundant for a team that’s shown glimpses of something special with a pro like Mitchell nurturing them.

Soon, those glimpses will turn into something more.