Last year through the first five games of the season the Washington Mystics were just 2-3. The season signaled a rebuild as the team struggled to put together a respectable offense or defense with many key players out of the lineup for extended periods.
Just a year later, the Mystics are now 4-1 and tied for the best record in the league. While many of the core pieces from the 2019 championship team remain, the surrounding players are much different from a year ago. So what changed in just one year?
Well for starters, the Mystics drafted Ole Miss center Shakira Austin with the third overall pick in the 2022 WNBA draft. Austin had very solid offensive production at Ole Miss, but it was her defense that made her the special talent that she is. At 6-foot-5, Austin is capable of switching onto smaller guards, and defending low-post bigs, something that head coach Mike Thibault saw in her early on.
Her impact on the defensive end so far this season has been tremendous. In the 97 minutes Austin has been off the floor, opponents have posted a 109.6 offensive rating, which would be second worst in the league. In the 103 minutes she has played so far this season, the Mystics have held opponents to an 84.9 offensive rating, which would be very easily the best ranking in the league.
Granted, the number of games we are working with is extremely small, meaning a tiny sample size of five games is going to exaggerate impact metrics, especially for players playing a few minutes. However, it is an indication that Austin’s presence on the defensive makes the entire team around her resilient, and for a team that ranked 10th in defensive rating and had a -4.9 net rating last year, I’d say that’s pretty good.
In just her second career game she was thrown into the fire against 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles. Not only did Austin hold Fowles to 13 points on below 50 percent true shooting, but she also scored 13 points of her own on much more efficient 77 percent true shooting. Simply put, in her second game in the league she outplayed one of the league’s best players.
Another underrated part of Austin’s game that has been key to the Mystics’ early success this season has been her offensive rebounding.
While she hasn’t generated a lot of scoring off her own shot creation like fellow draft class players NaLyssa Smith and Rhyne Howard, generating offense from offensive rebounds has been a very effective form of offense so far. Austin and fellow teammate Myisha Hines-Allen both rank at the top of the league in offensive rebound percentage, meaning they give the offense a better chance to be dynamic when they get multiple opportunities to score.
In Tuesday’s win against the Dallas Wings, Austin recorded a game-high 20 points and was a jaw-dropping plus-27 in the game. By gaining inside position for offensive rebounds and through dynamic pick-and-roll play with Natasha Cloud, the Mystics rolled to an 84-68 win.
Since before the season started, Natasha Cloud has been putting the league on notice of her improved 3-point shooting ability. If the league hasn’t been paying attention by now, then they are in trouble because so far this season, Cloud has posted career highs in efficiency across the board.
During the 2019 championship season, she struggled with her perimeter shot, which ultimately put a cap on the Mystics’ offensive potential. In fact, impact metrics suggested the offense improved in the minutes she was off the floor.
Two years later and those same impact metrics have done a complete 180, as Cloud has now become one of the best offensive weapons in the league.
Cloud is shooting an astounding 47 percent from three on five attempts per game and 87 percent from the free throw line, also a career best. She is among the league’s best in true shooting percentage at 61 percent, which is absolutely insane for a guard. This incredible efficiency from Cloud has made the offense incredibly more potent when she’s on the floor.
In the 87 minutes she’s played this season, the Mystics have posted a 114.5 offensive rating, which would rank first in the league. In the 113 minutes she’s been off the floor, the Mystics have posted a 105.9 offensive rating, which would rank fifth.
Overall, the Mystics offensive is still good, but with Cloud on the floor they become deadly.
In the Mystics’ matchup with the Lynx earlier in the season, Cloud caught fire from three in the first half, going 4-of-6 from downtown for 19 points. The Mystics went on a 23-4 run in the second quarter to put the game out of reach.
Cloud is averaging 15.3 points per game this season, which is second-best on the team and is a huge improvement from 8.7 last season. With this drastic improvement, she absolutely deserves some Most Improved Player and All-Star consideration.
It’s easy to see how dangerous the Mystic offense is when Cloud is hitting her shots and how potent the defense is when Austin is locked in and present. These two hold the early keys to the Mystics’ success.