- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2015

Just two years ago, the Washington Mystics weren’t a particularly impressive team, finished with a league-worst 5-29 record and winning a combined 11 games in two seasons under coach Trudi Lacey. A change was needed.

The Mystics fired Lacey at season’s end and went out and hired a reliable coach in Mike Thibault. He had been coaching in the WNBA since 2003, receiving coach of the year honors three different times and making two WNBA Finals appearances.

Thibault’s plan was simple: Expand the talent on the roster, and change the mindset of the organization.

“There were a couple of things that needed change,” Thibault said. “First, how they went about their work every day. Second, there were three or four players that would be considered a third best player on a good team. We had to turn it into a situation where the team had some good players, but not enough of them, and that had to change.”

Entering Thursday’s game at Indiana, things have changed. The Mystics, at 6-3, are among the better teams in Eastern Conference in the early portion of the season. Thibault, after only two-plus years, became the most successful coach in franchise history when the Mystics defeated the Chicago Sky on Sunday for his 39th victory.

Thibault made an immediate turnaround with the organization upon his arrival, trading the seventh overall pick in 2013 WNBA Draft to New York for center Kia Vaughn. In addition, Washington received the No. 19 overall pick in the draft after trading Jasmine Thomas to Atlanta. The Mystics had gathered the Nos. 4, 17, and 19 picks in the 2013 draft, in which they drafted Tayler Hill, Nadirah McKenith, and Emma Meesseman.

As a former NBA scout, Thibault has the upper-hand when it comes to scouting players, whether it be the draft or free agency. Meesseman was Washington’s No. 19 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and has emerged as one of its best players.

“I think she’s one of the best 10 players in the league right now,” Thibault said. “She’s been way more aggressive this year offensively.”

Thibault does more than simply look at the physical structure and ability of players. There’s a formula to his evaluation of players.

“The one question is, ‘How well do they learn?’” Thibault said. “I spend a lot of time going to practices just as much as games. I think you learn a lot about players in practices. How quickly do they pick things up? Can they make adjustments to coaching and are they coachable in general? That was a big part of it.”

After a 17-17 season in 2013 — including a loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals — the following year’s draft proved to be even more exhilarating for Washington. Using the No. 6 pick, the Mystics selected UConn standout center Stefanie Dolson. Thibault saw a coachable and reliable rebounder in Dolson. In return, the newly-drafted Dolson saw an opportunity to play a part in the Mystics’ turnaround.

“Last year when I talked to Coach,” Dolson said, “he talked about building this program up. Not from the ground up, but adding new pieces to it. From last year to this year, we’ve made a big jump. It’s just our competitive nature as a team.”

As Dolson played her part, she became surrounded by experienced players. In 2013, the Mystics signed point guard Ivory Latta. This past offseason, Washington traded for 34-year-old Kara Lawson. These two acquisitions brought leadership to a young core, although Thibault also sought out their offensive abilities.

“We needed 3-point shooting, so we traded for Kara,” Thibault said. “In [2013] free agency, we went out and got Ivory because she brought energy and three point shooting.”

Once the 3-point threats were added, Thibault had already corralled a young and talented frontcourt. With that being said, Lawson believes there’s more to the team than just the roster.

“We have balance and depth, and our skills complement one another,” Lawson said. “But the number one thing that Mike does is he picks people with good character. People that are about the team. If you look around, we don’t have a star on our team. We try to instantiate the positives of each other on the court so we know each other’s strengths.”

Lawson played for Thibault on the Connecticut Sun from 2010 to 2012. She understood his methodology coming into Washington. Lawson knows her role is more than just 3-point shooting for Thibault.

“Communication is what I try to bring to the team,” Lawson said. “No matter how old you are, communication is very important to the game.”

With Lawson’s leadership, the Mystics finished 16-18 in 2014, with another early exit from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference semifinals. With their current start to the 2015 season, things are different.

“This team has found its confidence,” Dolson said repeatedly.

Now, it’s only a matter of whether or not that confidence can get Washington the WNBA championship it has long desired.

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