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2022 WNBA season preview: With Elena Delle Donne healthy, Washington Mystics hope to return to contention

The Washington Mystics have quickly gone from a championship-winning team to one that has struggled to consistently field high-end talent. Will 2022 be the year in which their luck takes a turn for the better?

Minnesota Lynx v Washington Mystics
All eyes will be on Elena Delle Donne (center) as she returns from a series of major setbacks.
Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

Ever since winning a WNBA championship in 2019, the Washington Mystics have run into bad luck at seemingly every turn. Their bid to repeat in 2020 was quickly ruined by the COVID-19 pandemic; reigning league MVP Elena Delle Donne and the newly-acquired Tina Charles both chose to sit out the season, and a patchwork Washington roster backed into the playoffs with little success. The following season, the Mystics missed the postseason entirely, with an incredible individual effort from Charles not enough to overcome the absences of Delle Donne (back injury) and free agency signee Alysha Clark (foot injury).

The Mystics now hope to put those two lost seasons (21-33 combined record in 2020 and 2021) behind them and return to the playoffs. A healthy Delle Donne should be a significant part of that; the 6-foot-5 forward scored 21 points in 18 minutes of play in Washington’s preseason victory over the Minnesota Lynx, and though The Next reports that she’ll likely miss a handful of games in 2022 to maintain her health, her mere presence on the court raises the Mystics’ ceiling to that of a team expected to compete for a title.

While Delle Donne’s return will probably get more attention than any other Mystics storyline this season, Washington made a few key moves in free agency and in the days leading up to the 2022 WNBA Draft that will have both immediate and long-term implications on the franchise’s trajectory. Charles, longtime Mystic Emma Meesseman and 2020 Most Improved candidate Myisha Hines-Allen all entered the calendar year as free agents, and with Charles and Meesseman opting to sign elsewhere (Phoenix and Chicago, respectively), Washington invested heavily in Hines-Allen, who, at 25 years old, figures to play a large role in the Mystics’ frontcourt for years to come. The Mystics also signed center Elizabeth Williams, who head coach and general manager Mike Thibault praised for her defensive abilities, and forward Tianna Hawkins, who played for the franchise from 2014 to 2020, to one-year deals.

Washington’s frontcourt retooling was completed on draft day when the team selected Ole Miss center Shakira Austin at No. 3 overall. The Mystics, who had won the 2022 draft lottery, had actually traded down for Austin, sending the No. 1 overall pick to Atlanta just days before the draft; it’s a clear indication of how highly Thibault regards Austin’s potential, even if it takes a season or two for her to develop into the kind of player who will reward that faith.

Washington Mystics v Atlanta Dream
Shakira Austin may not have the biggest role as a rookie, but she’ll be a big factor for the Mystics in future seasons.
Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

Entering the 2022 season, the rest of Washington’s pieces fit together logically. The ever-steady Ariel Atkins, who is a perennial candidate for WNBA All-Defense teams and is one of the league’s best spot-up shooters, can maximize the effectiveness of just about any lineup she’s a part of, while point guard Natasha Cloud remains one of the most highly-regarded vocal leaders in the business — a reputation that is well-earned. If all goes well and Clark can make her Mystics debut, that will further increase the team’s lineup versatility and give it another player who, while relatively unassuming, is a star in her respective role.

It’s a formula that, on paper, makes plenty of sense: load up on defense and shooting on the perimeter and take the pressure off of Delle Donne on the inside by pairing her with centers who excel at doing the dirty work. If the Mystics stay healthy, they project to be a team that can control games on both ends of the floor and should be in the mix of those competing for the WNBA championship.

The issue, however, is just that: They’ll be relying a lot on the health of players who have missed significant time in recent seasons and may not be able to handle the grind of a full 36-game schedule. If Delle Donne is once again forced to the bench for long stretches, the Mystics’ offense — which, for all its theoretical strengths, lacks the multitude of shot creation enjoyed by most of the WNBA’s other top teams — could end up scuffling. If Clark still isn’t ready to return, the Mystics’ switch-heavy perimeter defense will lack a key cog, inviting opponents to simply keep the ball away from Cloud and Atkins and target whoever else is on the floor instead.

For now, though, Washington is in a much better place than it was prior to its previous two seasons. While pertinent questions can and should be asked about the 2022 Mystics, they won’t be starting the season in a hole too deep to climb out of; a bar that, while low, is imperative to clear if the team is to reach its potential. And if that potential is reached, the results will be worthy of major celebration.