On Saturday night, NBA free agent forward Paul Pierce agreed to a sign a two-year contract with the Washington Wizards. Pierce is now 36 years old and is past the prime of his career, but should still provide a lot on the table immediately. Even if you're a Mystics fan who doesn't care much for the Wizards, here's one tweet to think about. It basically spurred my thoughts for this piece:
Paul Pierce last year on #wizards: "They’re coming into their own. They’re growing up right before our eyes." Wants to play with Wall & Beal— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) July 13, 2014
No, it's not a WNBA tweet. In fact, it came from a longer quote that Pierce gave to the New York Post last March on the Wizards:
They’re good. They’re coming into their own. They’re growing up right before our eyes.
You’ve seen their struggles over the years, and John Wall has matured as a player, obviously, becoming an All-Star this year and taking on more responsibilities and becoming a leader for this ball club. That’s what the Washington Wizards have been waiting on, and you’re seeing it.
The Wizards, not unlike the Mystics, went through a foundational rebuild from the middle of the 2009-10 through the 2013-2014 seasons when they made the NBA Playoffs. It was very painful, which featured a lot of losing, and ridicule from the national media. But they did get a chance to draft three Top-3 picks in four seasons: John Wall was the first pick in 2010, while Bradley Beal and Otto Porter were the third picks in the 2012 and 2013 Drafts respectively.
Bottom line: If the Wizards didn't draft and develop Wall and Beal (Porter is a project) to be the foundational stars of the 2013-14 team, they probably wouldn't have been able to convince Pierce, or other notable veteran free agents to think about coming to D.C., let alone sign there. And without their top draft picks, the Wizards won't be in any conversation on being in the NBA's Eastern Conference championship picture.
The Mystics have also gone through their share of losing in recent years, and are in the middle of a foundational rebuild of their own. They are in the second year under the leadership of General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault, who has turned over 10 of the 11 players from the 2012 team that was 5-29.
But unlike the Wizards, none of the Mystics' recent draft picks have become bonafide foundational players, at least not yet. And on the 2014 team, no one player really sticks out above the rest. While some may be positive about this and say that "anyone could be the star of the night," the thing is that a team without a clear foundational star is going to have a hard time attracting free agents, and ultimately contend for championships.
Players who could be the Mystics' top stars in the future
With all that said, I'll take an optimistic approach to the Mystics' future. I'll say that they will be a legitimate contender with Mike Thibault as their head coach. And I also believe that at least some of their younger players figure to be part of the picture. But I don't know if the number one player on a contending team is on this roster, or not.
So which current players have a shot, even a remote one to be the Mystics' foundational star when they are contending? Here are some I believe could fit the bill:
1. Tayler Hill
More On the other 2013 Lottery picks
MORE On the other 2013 Lottery picks
Hill is the highest overall draft pick among the team's group of younger players, since she was the 4th pick in the 2013 Draft. She is also the only reward for the Trudi Lacey regime, as the Mystics' 2012 Draft pick was traded to the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for a player who is no longer in the league.
While her shooting stroke was off for much of the early parts of the season, Hill eventually turned things around and scored at an All-Rookie level over the last third of the regular season. This season, she has yet to play a game due to having a baby, but Thibault said she may still be able to play some games, and he's been pretty high on her.
Despite the marketing around the Top-3 picks in the draft, there have been many people who really considered the class to be more of a Big Two of Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne. So if you don't think there's that much of a difference talent-wise between Hill and Skylar Diggins, then you would think that Hill should be capable of making a quantum leap in her performance in 2015 when she should be back at 100% playing shape.
With that in mind, I expect Hill to play like a Top-3 Draft pick next year. That means that I expect her to play like an All-Star level player.
After all, she is the Mystics' Big Three pick and there won't be much competition in the backcourt. Matee Ajavon's now gone. Then some combination of Monique Currie, Kara Lawson, and Ivory Latta will probably be on other teams next season. Given these things, it would be an epic disappointment if Hill isn't starting alongside Bria Hartley in 2015. She MUST work out in D.C. if the Mystics want to contend sooner rather than later.
2. Bria Hartley
More on Hartley
More on Hartley
Hartley has been averaging 10 points a game while shooting 40% from the field, which is often better than most rookie guards. This is even taking her streakiness and occasional scoreless games into account.
At this point in her career vs. Hill's, Hartley is playing better and it's not even close. Unlike Hill who caved while playing in veteran lineups, Hartley seems to thrive in it. Furthermore, she worked her way into the starting lineup, while Hill was relegated to the bench after playing on a veteran starting five for a few games.
Hartley is still a work-in-progress, and is still a bit turnover-prone. But if she does become the best guard in the 2014 Draft Class, like Pat Friday mentioned in his rookie rankings, she's going to be special. More special than Sims has been for the Shock. And definitely more special than Kayla McBride has been for the Stars with her game-winning ways.
I don't think Hartley is a Mystics version of John Wall, in large part because she is not a #1 overall pick. She wasn't even the best player on her college team when they won the 2013 and 2014 NCAA championships. But at this point, I'm convinced that she is a long term solution at the guard position, and could be an All-Star sooner than some may think.
3. Emma Meesseman
Among the players on the 2014 team, Meesseman has been the Mystics' best all-purpose player. The Belgian forward has finally become more assertive about scoring the basketball and now averages 10 points a game. But she's also a post playmaker who takes good care of the ball, block shots, and grab many offensive boards, which was something that now-Seattle Storm post Crystal Langhorne was known for.
I don't want to keep revisiting the Hartley draft-day trade, but Meesseman clearly had as much to do with this transaction as Hartley. After the trade, Meesseman has more than shown that she is a more skilled player than Lang was, is, and ever will be. Even I didn't know just how good she is. Meesseman may never be a 20 point a game scorer, but she finds ways to make the right play at the right time, whether it is on offense or defense.
Meesseman is showing the league that she is the steal of the 2013 WNBA Draft given the number of ways she can make an impact on a game. Thibault is also a GM who has a better eye on international talent than most in the W.
And here's the scariest part. Meesseman is only 21 years old, which is the same age as most seniors in college basketball. So she's had a two-year head start on the 2015 rookie class, and isn't in her prime yet. Maybe, just maybe Meesseman could be that foundational player.
4. The first or second overall pick of a future WNBA Draft
More on the Mystics
More on the Mystics
Historically, the WNBA is a league where the superstars are almost always #1 or #2 overall picks in the Draft. Occasionally a #3 pick, like a Skylar Diggins can get into the mix. But it's really rare that anyone outside of the Top 2 or 3 will become a long term foundational player. Just to show you some perspective, all but two players on the 2012 USA Olympic basketball team were #1 or #2 overall picks in the WNBA Draft, and nearly all of these players were foundational pieces on their teams.
I can go on and on about the overall lack of talent on the Mystics' roster. But if they miss the playoffs this season and/or next season, they will have the opportunity to add some more major pieces to the team while keeping the young group they have.
Could you imagine a future where Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and/or Breanna Stewart are wearing Mystics jerseys? It isn't that hard to see it and see D.C. become a perennial power after that. But it also involves managing the paradox of having this young Mystics team playing well as a group, but not well enough to make the playoffs.
So who do you think could be the Mystics' number one player when they are contending for championships? Is that player on the roster? Or will they have to be bad for more seasons, and get lucky enough to get a foundational star in the Draft?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.