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Analysis: The Mystics pulled out many stops to advance to their first-ever WNBA Finals

Here’s how the Washington Mystics put together a record-breaking 2018 WNBA season and made their first Finals appearance in franchise history.

WNBA Finals - Game Two
Ariel Atkins’ breakout rookie season was one of the many successes of the Mystics’ 2018 season.
Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

The Washington Mystics made their first WNBA Finals in franchise history in 2018. After a long history of setting the league’s mark for futility and embarrassment, the Mystics are now set for a sustained period of consistently good basketball under the direction of General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault. Here’s how they got it done in 2018.

Most Mystics players stayed stateside and trained during the winter

Most WNBA players go overseas during the winter because of higher paychecks for teams in countries like Russia, Turkey and China. The Mystics, on the other hand, were quite successful at keeping most of their team in the United States during the winter and early spring.

Since being drafted in 2013, Mystics’ star Elena Delle Donne has never truly played overseas, though she was in China for a very short stint in 2017 before getting traded to the Mystics. But numerous other players, like Natasha Cloud, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Tianna Hawkins, also skipped overseas play to focus on their games here in the USA.

It’s safe to say that the players’ collective efforts to focus their efforts on a true offseason — and being focused on one team as opposed to two or more — helped the Mystics play together as one unit heading into the postseason.

The Mystics made adjustments when the status quo wasn’t working

The Mystics initially started the 2018 season with the same starting lineup as the 2017 season, with Kristi Toliver and Ruffin-Pratt in the backcourt, Delle Donne at forward and Krystal Thomas at center. With Emma Meesseman out for the summer, Monique Currie took the small forward position which brought Delle Donne to her more natural position. This lineup didn’t produce as well as expected, however.

There were some roster adjustments made, as rookie Ariel Atkins took the starting small forward position and Cloud became the team’s starting shooting guard thanks to her career-high shooting percentage. At the center position, LaToya Sanders took over and shored up the low post very well.

Though Ruffin-Pratt remained in the rotation (albeit as a reserve), Currie and Thomas gradually fell out of favor and were hardly playing at all by the time the postseason started.

Of the players who declined or didn’t improve much, Currie’s situation was expected; she is 35-years-old and in the twilight of her career.

However, Thomas’ decline in 2018 was a surprise. Her shooting percentage and rebounding rates fell dramatically which hurt her worth on the court after a breakout 2017 season. Furthermore, Thomas had a very strong season for Mersin in the Turkish KBSL during the winter where she led the team to the EuroCup Women quarterfinals, with New York Liberty guard Bria Hartley. Regardless, Thomas’ decline for the Mystics was quite surprising.

The rise of Ariel Atkins

Any championship contender has to make good use out of its young talent. In the 2018 season, the Mystics were very successful in their use of Ariel Atkins.

Atkins was the seventh pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft last April, with many, if not most, considering her to be a reach. After all, Atkins did not play for an NCAA contender like Connecticut or Notre Dame. She played for Texas. And Atkins’ overall statistical production trailed the stats of some other players in the same draft class, including some who were drafted after her.

Ultimately, the pro game is a different beast than the college game. According to Mystics General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault, Atkins was ranked in the top five percent for many statistical categories within the rookie class. In addition, assistant coaches Tina Thompson and Jamie Carey gave Thibault very high recommendations on what Atkins could provide as a professional player. (Both Thompson and Carey played for Thibault with the USA Basketball Women’s National Team and the Connecticut Sun in previous stints.)

Atkins of course had to put in the work herself. But she did not disappoint as she quickly emerged as the Mystics’ third star behind Delle Donne and Toliver. In the playoffs, Atkins averaged 15.2 points per game en route to Washington’s first run in the Finals. Because she held a significant role in the postseason, Atkins also scored the most points of any rookie WNBA player in league history.

Finally, Atkins finished as a selection to the WNBA All-Rookie Team and to the All-Defensive Second Team. Since she averaged 11.3 points per game in the regular season, Atkins’ All-Rookie Team honor should come as little surprise. However, it is rare to see rookies win an All-Defensive Team mention, and Atkins did just that.

Is Atkins on track to be the Mystics’ version of Tamika Catchings? Catchings, coincidentally, went to the same high school as Atkins and is Atkins’ favorite player. Given that they both play (or played) at the wing, the comparisons between the two are also quite easy to make.