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2023 WNBA season preview: Washington hopes to make deep playoff run

With some familiar faces returning to the team this year, the hope is that Washington makes drastic improvements offensively. Here’s how it might happen.

2023 Washington Mystics Media Day Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s next for the Washington Mystics?

After making the playoffs for the first time in three seasons last year, the Mystics hope to make the most of what many think could be the last year with their 2019 championship core together.

Defense has been the identity of this team. Last year the Mystics anchored the league’s best defense; however, they were only around average on offense last season. The question is, can this team make a big leap this season despite very little roster overturn?

A healthy Elena Delle Donne is key

At training camp, Mystics superstar Elena Delle Donne announced that she plans to play the entire season, not sitting out games for rest and recovery like she did last season. The Mystics played almost 800 minutes without Delle Donne last season and the offense struggled mightily, posting just under a 97 offensive rating. The league average offensive rating was just under 104 so that really puts into perspective how big the struggles were.

In the playoffs against Seattle, Delle Donne was spectacular, but it wasn’t enough because the Mystics struggled to generate any offense in the minutes she didn’t play. The encouraging part about all of this is that when Delle Donne was on the floor, the Mystics had a 108 offense, which would rank second last year. The potential of this team’s offense is certainly there, but it starts with a healthy Delle Donne.

In training camp she remarked that this was the first summer in a while she was training instead of rehabbing an injury.

“The offseason went great. It was my first offseason in a really long time where I wasn’t rehabbing and I was actually able to train… I’m by far the strongest I’ve ever been, even weight-wise when I’m lifting in the weight room. I didn’t even think that would happen. I feel like I’ve been able to really improve on some things and continue on the path that I was on.”

A healthy Delle Donne will pose serious problems for the rest of the league as she is what makes the Mystics so dangerous.

Offseason acquisitions will be crucial

The Mystics didn’t do too much this offseason; however, they picked up three players that will be crucial to improving the team’s overall ceiling.

The Mystics picked up 6-foot-4 forward Amanda Zahui B. from the Los Angeles Sparks. Based on how the Mystics performed towards the end of the season, it became abundantly clear that besides Shakira Austin, they didn’t have a backup center that they trusted playing big minutes. Zahui B. has veteran experience and provides a level of floor spacing that Washington has not had at the center position. Zahui B. isn’t a great shooter, but she is capable of making shots, which will certainly space the floor and give Ariel Atkins and Delle Donne more room to operate in the halfcourt.

Just two seasons ago Zahui B. shot 34 percent from three on five attempts per game. If she can replicate similar shooting splits on respectable volume, she will be a tremendous difference maker for this Washington team.

At the beginning of the offseason, the Mystics brought back Kristi Toliver, who was an integral part of their 2019 championship. She provides lethal shooting, something that has been lacking on this team since their championship run. Toliver might be the best movement shooter in the league, and although she hasn’t been healthy since she left Washington, she is back and healthy now, and in her own words feels “at peace” returning to DC to possibly finish out her career.

Toliver during her time in Washington served as the primary point guard and distributor for the team. While that role is filled now, her ability to also play off the ball means she can serve as a Swiss army knife player for this Mystics team that desperately needs shooting and could use another point guard that can also create for others.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this year’s Mystics team and last year’s will be the pace. The Mystics ranked dead last in the league in pace and possessions per 40 minutes. Toliver loves to play fast, and her familiarity with Zahui B. and many of the players on this Mystics team should make acclimating pretty easy.

Of course we can’t forget about the defensive side of the ball. After all, that is the identity of this team. With the acquisition of Brittney Sykes from Los Angeles, the Mystics once again establish a potent defensive player at the guard position. The Mystics have the best defensive backcourt in the WNBA. With Natasha Cloud and Atkins both making the All-Defensive First Team last season, they now have added one of last year’s Second Team All-Defensive award recipients to the team, making for an even more stifling backcourt.

Year two development

Shakira Austin had a very impressive rookie season. She demonstrated her ability to be an impactful defender from her first game in the WNBA. Being the sole rim protector on the league’s best defense is not an easy feat and Austin was able to do it as a rookie. As impressive as she was, there is still plenty of room to grow, specifically offensively. Finishing at the rim was a serious struggle for her, which is concerning for a non-shooting center. Despite almost 45 percent of her field goal attempts from last season being from between three to 10 feet, she shot below league average from that range.

Part of the struggles are due to her size. Despite her long wingspan, she is undersized at the center position, which is expected as a rookie, but certainly isn’t something that should remain an issue for the rest of her career. With time, Austin can develop into a better finisher at the rim, which will improve not only her game, but the efficiency of the entire team, especially in the pick-and-roll.

The WNBA’s best teams are certainly star-studded. There are so many talented teams that deserve championship consideration and Washington is one of them. The defense will be elite. With the acquisitions the team has made on offense and with first time head coach Eric Thibault calling the shots, Washington once again should enter this season with championship aspirations.