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So far, the 2021 WNBA season belongs to Tina Charles

Don’t doubt Tina Charles! Since she sat out last season and joined a new team, it was hard to know what to expect from Charles this season. Whatever the expectations were, she has far exceeded them, turning in a historic season for the Washington Mystics.

Indiana Fever v Washington Mystics
Tina Charles should be hyped; she is turning in one of the best seasons in WNBA history.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Prior to the 2021 season, our Zack Ward ranked the top 30 players in the WNBA. Before publishing his list, he asked the rest of the Swish Appeal staff for general feedback on his list. He originally had Charles ranked at No. 7, a status I suggested was a bit too high. In the final ranking, Charles came in at No. 10.

Turns out, No. 7, and certainly No. 10, was too low for Charles. Apologies to Zack and, especially, apologies to Tina.

In my defense, it would not have been surprising if Charles’ best years were behind her. Not only was she entering her age 32 season after sitting out last season, but she also was joining a new team. While she would again be playing under Mike Thibault, the head coach who oversaw her 2012 MVP season with Connecticut Sun, Charles’ fit with the Washington Mystics’ offensive system was not clear. All the more, Charles’ numbers notably dipped in her final season with the New York Liberty in 2019, suggesting she was beginning to undergo the steady decline that often comes when players approach age 30.

Well, Charles has entirely defied this logic, not simply turning back the clock but also displaying an expanded offensive game that has her at the forefront of the MVP conversation, as well as in conversation with some of the best individual seasons in WNBA history.

TC is taking on WNBA history

Entering the Mystics’ Tuesday night game against the Connecticut Sun, Charles is averaging 25.4 points per game.

If she maintains this average for the full season, it would be the highest single-season points per game average in league history, surpassing Diana Taurasi’s 25.3 points per game in 2006.

That Charles is doing this at age 32 after averaging 16.9 points per game for the New York Liberty in 2019 makes the potential achievement more remarkable. Taurasi was a 24-year-old whippersnapper when she scored more than 25 points per game. Overall, the top 25 most prolific scoring seasons in WNBA history are dominated by players in their mid-to-late 20s. Only Cynthia Cooper was over the age of 30 when she notched high scoring seasons in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

More context for Charles’ historic season

It is not surprising that Charles’ historic scoring pace is coming on the highest usage (32.1 percent) of her career. However, it is surprising that she is having the most efficient scoring season of her career, with an effective field goal percentage of 51 percent and a true shooting percentage of 55.7 percent. Her current player efficiency rating (PER) of 27.7 would also be the best of her career.

These marks are a testament to her expanded game. For her entire career, Charles was a 2-point scoring maestro, with never less than 82 percent of her field goal attempts coming from 2-point range. In 2014, 100 percent of her field goal attempts were inside the arc. Yet, in her 11th WNBA season, she has ventured beyond the 3-point line. Only 74.2 percent of her field goal attempts have been 2-pointers while a career-high 25.8 percent have been 3-pointers. And, importantly, she is a genuine threat from deep, converting a respectable 36.5 percent of her career-high 5.3 threes per game.

In short, Charles is not just scoring more points than ever before but she is doing so with an expanded, more efficient offensive repertoire.

TC lets her game do the talking

Her late-career leap is credit to “the grind that goes unnoticed.”

Charles is not one to pepper her social media feeds with workout videos or #riseandgrind content. In a league with loud personalities, Charles trends toward the quiet. These characteristics, in combination with her absence last season, can lead to Charles being overlooked in a media landscape that increasingly tilts toward the performative and the provocative.

However, Charles has made it impossible to ignore her. Her game speaks loudly.

The loudest of her performances was the 34-point, 16-rebound and five-assist masterpiece that helped Washington upset the league-leading Seattle Storm. It was the first time a WNBA player had tallied at least 30 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and five made 3-pointers in a game.

Asked after the Mystics’ May 25th win over the Indiana Fever, one of her six games with 30 or more points, if she was playing with a chip on her shoulder, Charles insisted she was not, asserting:

I have nothing to prove. I have things I want to accomplish. I think everyone knows my game. I see it in the players’ faces across from me when they have to guard me and that says enough for me, I know the respect is there. You guys, the media, are gonna write about who you want to write about and highlight who you want to. I’m just gonna keep doing me and keep playing my game. I’d like to think that the grind goes unnoticed, but the results don’t. And I’m a person who reflects that. I’m always working on my game and the results are gonna show. Just trying to collect some wins.

Nevertheless, it seems impossible to deny that Charles has not taken the court with some extra motivation, not only “trying to collect some wins” but also her first WNBA title.

Will Charles’ historic season end with MVP and championship hardware?

If there is one blemish on Charles’s 2021 resume, it is the Mystics’ overall record. As they approach the halfway point of their season, Washington is 7-8 and in ninth place, just sneaking into the playoff picture.

Of course, the team’s standing requires context.

It was expected that the Mystics would not be their full selves to start the 2021 WNBA season. While Alysha Clark, Washington’s most prominent offseason addition, was lost for the year, the Mystics also knew they would be without 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne for the first half of the season, as Meesseman has been with the Belgian National Team and Delle Donne is recovering from back surgery. On top of these expected absences, Washington has experienced a rash of injuries. During their most recent three-game road trip, Washington was to down to eight players, with injuries to Natasha Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen, in particular, forcing the Mystics to improvise and adapt.

Without Charles, it is safe to assume that the perpetually depleted Mystics would not be sniffing .500. Instead, with a second half surge, Washington could be in contention to claim a first-round bye.

In order to be situated for such a surge, the Mystics need to finish the first half of the season strong. They have three tough, but winnable, games before the season pauses, hosting the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday before visiting the New York Liberty on July 3 and the Chicago Sky on July 10.

If the Mystics manage to creep back over .500 and climb up the standings ahead of the Olympic break, it likely will be because Charles continues to carry the them, putting up performances that further burnish her MVP and all-time great credentials.