When a team that's expected to be the worst team in the Eastern Conference this season starts out on the right foot and is 3-1, there is something right going on besides just wins and losses. Let's examine some of the things that I've liked seeing this year:
1. Ivory Latta is appearing to be a new core piece for the Washington Mystics.
This week, Latta has earned WNBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors, and for good reason. She's leading the team in scoring and assists with 20.5 points a game and 4.5 assists per game. She's even averaging close to 4 rebounds a game and over 90% from the free throw line (23-24 attempts) and from three (9-17). While four games is a small sample size, it still is very promising to see that she is putting up very strong numbers and may be a key Mystics player for the next several seasons.
One thing the Mystics desperately needed coming into this year is a new core group, and so far, signing Latta here has been a very good thing.
2. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Emma Meesseman have made consistent contributions for the 2nd unit as rookies and aren't looking like "rookies" more often than not.
I am very pleased with the contributions of two of the rookies: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Emma Meesseman. Ruffin-Pratt came as an undrafted rookie and has played with a chip on her shoulder, and has been the best performer so far in the rookie class averaging 6 points with 43% shooting and 2.5 boards a game. She also has been playing often with the first unit players as well and deservedly so.
Meesseman has shown a good mid range jumpshot, is not afraid to go at the boards (2.8 rebounds a game in 11.7 minutes) and has the ability to make plays in the post with her passing. She definitely has given me flashes of why Mike Thibault wanted to draft her if she was available in the 2nd round. UnkleWheez may concur with me on this comparison, and if Meesseman can gain some strength while continuing to develop her passing skills, she could be the Mystics' version of Wizards post Nene who is a skilled post playmaker himself.
The most important goal I have for the Mystics this season is to have the young players be key cogs to the team's success. Both Ruffin-Pratt and Meesseman have been showing good signs of what they can do for this team not only in the future, but they also can and are making good plays right now.
3. The team as a whole has improved considerably on both offense and defense.
I'll start with defense. The Mystics in their first four games are 2nd in the league in field goal percentage defense with opponents only making 39.1% of their shots overall, while they are making 43.1% of their shots at least as of yesterday. Should this hold throughout the rest of this season, the Mystics could win more games than they lose for the regular season.
One of Coach Thibault's main goals this season was to get this team to play at a faster pace, and the team is 6th in the league in scoring average which isn't ideal, but last year, DC was last place there. So his system is making an impact right away.
4. The Washington Mystics are competing hard every night and have shown that they need to be taken seriously.
From the first time I met and heard him speak at a season ticket holder event, Coach Thibault mentioned that he expects his teams to outwork the opposition, win or lose. That philosophy has rubbed onto his players. While Ivory Latta is going to get the accolades for Eastern Conference Player of the Week, really, the entire team has played with a better focus than last year. That mentality is why the Mystics were able to win on the road against the Shock, go on a strong defensive performance late vs. Connecticut, and not get rattled when the Minnesota Lynx made a big run on them last Saturday. I don't expect the Mystics to win every game, and that goes for any team in the league, but I don't think this team will be rattled or lose focus even on games that they lose and I didn't see that in the loss against the Dream.
There are still negatives with the Mystics despite a strong start in the wins and losses column. As Zack mentioned in his piece regarding Latta's player of the week honors, without her play, this team is probably 0-4 right now barring another player making her level of impact on the court. One negative in particular is of grave concern that makes me question what's going on this season and also whether this team is even building for its long term future.
1. The Mystics are last in assist differential and give up more assisted field goals than any other team. They're also in the bottom third in total assists per game.
The Mystics dish a total of 15.25 assists a game (fourth worst) while they give up 20.75 assists per game (the worst), and that's a differential of 5.5 assists against their favor. The second worst team in the assist differential category is the Seattle Storm, and that's a team that doesn't figure to do much this season, not unlike how most people have labeled the Mystics, myself included since I predicted that they'll be last.
Assisted baskets are generally easier than non assisted baskets, and the Mystics gave up at least 20 dimes a game in every game except their win vs. Connecticut. Sure they're going to give up more assists generally due to a faster style of play, but if they're giving up 20 assists while only dishing 15 themselves every game, that's not good.
2. The Mystics are second worst in the league in rebound differential.
The Mystics average 34 rebounds a game and allow their opponents to get 39.25 a game. The 5.25 rebound differential against their favor is not good and this must improve if the Mystics want to continue winning games at a consistent rate.
3. Crystal Langhorne is not putting up Crystal Langhorne numbers.
I know it's early, but so far, Crystal Langhorne's field goal percentage is at a career low, her offensive rebounding is at a career low, and her free throw shooting is at a career low though it's only 5 out of 12 attempts as of today.
Part of Langhorne's lower production numbers, especially scoring, may come from the fact that Ivory Latta is playing at a very high level and appears to have the green light to shoot the rock when she wants to. But even then in a faster tempo offense, Langhorne should be getting more rebounds in theory, but that's not happening either for whatever reason. Again, four games isn't a good enough sample to make any clear determinations, but we do know that she's going to be the top post on the team this year regardless, so hopefully her production does go up and we also hope that she can fit in well with the uptempo game Mike Thibault brings to DC.
4. Tayler Hill may be unleashed technically, but she's not really unleashed. In plain English, Tayler Hill is not being developed properly at all from what I'm seeing.
I have stated pretty boldly that Tayler Hill is the most important player for the Mystics' future, regardless of wins this season. I still stand by that today. Hill must develop and show clear promise that she is a core player for this team this season and for the long term future. Anything else is unacceptable and that will make this season a failure regardless of what happens in the standings, even if this team makes the playoffs. Right now I don't see that and that is making me push the panic button four games into the season.
This franchise has failed to develop more first round draft picks than they should have, and perhaps the worst franchise at doing so. On this Mystics team, we have to go back to 2008 and Crystal Langhorne to get to a player who has become a long term piece. Since then, Marissa Coleman, Jacinta Monroe, and Coach Thibault's predecessor's first round picks have all failed to become long term fits here. Some may think that I'm too panicky right now simply because of the 3-1 record, but when it comes to a player who many of us believe can be a legitimate franchise cornerstone, at least among the non-Mystics fans here, I think it's justified because we're not seeing anything much out of Hill right now.
Bottom line: TAYLER HILL MUST BE MORE INVOLVED ON OFFENSE WITH THE FIRST UNIT which is where Coach Thibault has put her for now. The accountability for Hill's play goes both ways. First, Hill needs to actively try to get the ball on offense and be aggressive when she has the ball to make plays for herself or for others. Also, Coach Thibault, Ivory Latta, Monique Currie, Crystal Langhorne, and Kia Vaughn also need to be actively looking for her on offense, not just "look for theirs." It seems like I'm seeing the latter most of the time, but then again, I'm a basketball fan who is heavily biased for younger players to get involved right away.
Glory Johnson, last year's 4th pick in the Draft definitely played like a Top 3 pick for the Tulsa Shock and is having an even better year now because Coach Klop put her in a position where she can be successful on both ends on the floor along with sufficient playing time. Tayler Hill MUST get that same opportunity because I don't think she's getting a chance to get involved on offense at all right now and IT MUST CHANGE. We cannot see yet ANOTHER first round draft pick go to waste or simply underachieve.
While I'm happy that Ivory Latta has taken her game up another level, it is still not as important as seeing Tayler Hill play like a top rookie which would give more fans and me long term hope that there's someone who can be here five to eight years from now.
Lastly, this 3-1 record has been largely achieved by the veteran players as opposed to Tayler Hill and the other rookies, so that also is another concern. Is Mike Thibault just trying to win now even if that comes at the expense of Tayler Hill's development? Many fans are going to call me a hater for questioning Coach Thibault and think that this is a year to just make noise by making the playoffs and possibly more, especially when you consider that Connecticut, Indiana and New York have underperformed so far, largely due to injury.
While I don't have a problem with this team making the playoffs if it happens, the more important goal is to develop the youth along with the hard-working culture and to build a long term contender, not just make the playoffs this year and get on the treadmill of mediocrity which may make this team a perennial playoff team, but it certainly won't be a championship team. When the top draft pick is a deer in the headlights on offense and it appears to be by design at times, that's a grave concern.
The Washington Mystics have begun their first four games with three wins, two of them back to back, against the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences last year which have made the league take notice of it. In addition to that, we have seen Ivory Latta take her game up to the highest level it has ever been since she entered this league, and appears to be a cornerstone for the immediate future. We are seeing members of the rookie quartet, most notably Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Emma Meesseman show good flashes of what they can do to help the Mystics win games even today. Lastly, the team has already bought into many of Coach T's philosophies such as an expectation to be hard workers, and their defense has improved significantly.
However, as Coach Thibault has indicated a number of times himself, this 2013 Mystics team is a work in progress. There are still some things, from not particularly promising statistical trends such as how many assists the team gives up and that they're getting out-rebounded, to how players are fitting in with his system, including Crystal Langhorne, the star power forward. But what's most concerning is that first round draft pick Tayler Hill has not played anywhere near expectations and the system has to change in order to ensure that she fits in better, especially on offense, though her defense has been good from what I've seen.
Even with these concerns, and especially with my concern regarding Tayler Hill, the Washington Mystics have clearly moved into another era with a proven leader and winner like Mike Thibault. The morale of and around the team has improved considerably, and the fans who are at games also feel more optimistic about this season and the future.
I definitely look forward to seeing how this team continues to develop as we head toward the midpoint of the 2013 season where I'll provide another more detailed post like this on where I think the team is at that point.