- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

With Chamique Holdsclaw, the Washington Mystics are arguably the top team in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference. Without Holdsclaw, the Mystics are average.

It’s that simple for the Mystics, who open their sixth WNBA season tonight at the Charlotte Sting.

Last season, Holdsclaw led the league in scoring (19.9) and rebounding (11.6) despite playing in just 20 of 32 games because of severe ankle sprains and personal reasons. The Mystics reached the Eastern Conference finals and finished the franchise’s most successful season 20-17, including the playoffs, with their top player less than 100 percent.

Washington went 6-6 in games last season without its star. If the Mystics are to finally dethrone the New York Liberty as the East’s champion this season, Holdsclaw will have to stay healthy.

“If you can tell me the answer to that question, I think I can make a lot of money,” Mystics coach Marianne Stanley said when asked how she plans to keep Holdsclaw healthy for the entire season. “The facts are it’s a grueling schedule and so you’ve got to take care of your body and have some luck. You also have to be versatile and resilient enough to absorb injuries, to absorb foul trouble, to absorb whatever is thrown at you and still compete and win.”

Since the Mystics drafted her with the first overall pick in 1999, Holdsclaw has played an entire season just once, when she started all 32 games of the 2000 season.

Until last season, the 6-foot-2 Holdsclaw had missed a handful of games — one in her rookie year and three in 2001 — but the Mystics struggled anyway, going 12-20 in 1999 and 10-22 in 2001.

Now Holdsclaw has help, and she becomes the ultimate difference whether the Mystics are one of the league’s top teams — which most prognosticators believe — or are in the middle of the pack.

“I can only control the things that are within my grasp, I can’t control injuries,” Holdsclaw said. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Rebounding help is one way to keep Holdsclaw, a three-time WNBA All-Star, injury free. She was injured last June 28 at the defunct Portland Fire when she got entwined with Fire forward DeMya Walker on a scramble for a loose ball underneath the basket.

With center Vicky Bullett’s retirement just before training camp, rebounding will be a key for the Mystics this season. Bullett was second on the team in rebounding, averaging 5.8 boards per game. Somebody must replace Bullett’s production on the glass.

The Mystics’ two preseason games did not produce good omens. They were outrebounded in both games, including 41-30 by a shorthanded Cleveland Rockers squad that was missing four of its starters.

Asjha Jones, the Mystics’ 6-2 second-year forward, appears to be the most logical candidate to pick up the rebounding and inside scoring slack. Jones averaged 6.5 points and 2.8 rebounds last season but only played 19.1 minutes a game. With Jones’ rookie season out of the way, the former first-round draft pick (fourth overall in the 2002 WNBA Draft) is ready to assume a leadership role now that Bullett is gone.

“Vicky taught me more by example,” Jones said. “Vicky has real long arms. I think she got away with a lot of things more than I will be able to. We’re going to be undersized against every team we play so we’re going to have to make more of an effort of boxing out and have our guards come in and clean up the boards.”

With Nakia Sanford (6-4) their only player with any appreciable size, the Mystics are going to battle teams with a flotilla of 6-2 forwards. Holdsclaw, Jones, Murriel Page and first-round draft pick Aiysha Smith are all listed at that height.

However, the upside of not having a lumbering center is that the Mystics can run and gun, though that again puts the onus on defensive rebounding.

Shooters are one thing the Mystics have. Guards Coco Miller, Stacey Dales-Schuman, Helen Luz and Tonya Washington all shot better than 33 percent on 3-pointers. Dales-Schuman and Luz nearly shot 40 percent from behind the arc.

“If you look at all the best NBA teams right now like the Dallas Mavericks, there’s a leading scorer every different game — that’s what we need,” Dales-Schuman said. “When we were successful last year, we had balance. Chamique will score her points and get her rebounds and we need her to do that, but we need to share the basketball, help one another and play together and that’s what is going to give us victory.”

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