- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Washington Mystics were one round away from making the WNBA Finals last season. After a recent practice, coach Mike Thibault contemplated what lessons the team took from that semifinals loss.

“Attention to detail is part of it,” Thibault started to say, but his eyes were on the court. “Moe, you stepped out of bounds three times. Just as you’re starting to catch the ball.”

Monique Currie was running a drill on the near sideline of the practice court at Capital One Arena. The veteran took the advice, ran it again and stayed in bounds the whole way.

Thibault, the WNBA’s all-time winningest coach, said later that he views the role of teacher as his “primary job.”

“It’s like being in a classroom,” Thibault said. “You get to see the product of what you do when the games come, but the most fun part, or the work part — both — is when you’re in here teaching.”

The Mystics have their teacher on the sideline. On the court, they have superstar Elena Delle Donne leading the charge. And on the roster, they’ve added a promising mix of veterans and rookies. As they kick off their 2018 campaign this weekend, it’s a mixture the Mystics’ hope will lead to the franchise’s first WNBA title.

“We’re in the third week of camp now and we’re night and day from where we were in the first week,” Currie said. “If we continue to get better every day, get better every week, we’ll definitely be a team that’s looking to compete for a championship this year.”

Currie represents the only major change to the Mystics’ starting lineup. She returns to her hometown of Washington after her first stint with the team from 2007 to 2014, and said “it feels good to be home.”

Because Belgian forward Emma Meesseman is taking this season off, Delle Donne has shifted from the three to the four, her more natural position. Currie, 35, stepped in as the new three.

It has been fun for Currie to play with Delle Donne for the first time, she said.

“It helps other players around her when you play with somebody with such a high level of talent that it frees you up a lot,” Currie said. “It works great for me. She gets a lot of attention from the defenders. She’s become a much better passer, looking to get people open because teams are double-teaming her.”

Delle Donne returned the compliments.

“(Currie) is so great on both sides of the floor,” Delle Donne said. “She influences so much. It’s been amazing having her around. And she’s also a vet. Just the personality she brings is huge.”

The vets also have been impressed with the team’s rookies, especially their top two picks from April’s WNBA Draft. The Mystics chose Texas shooting guard Ariel Atkins seventh overall and Louisville forward Myisha Hines-Allen in the second round. Currie said those players have caught on quickly.

“Ariel Atkins is a great athlete. She has hustle, she plays really hard, she’s a great defender,” Currie said. “And then Myisha Hines, I think she’s surprised a lot of people. She’s so strong, she’s aggressive, she’s a great rebounder.”

Beyond them, the core group hasn’t changed as much as it did last year, which should work in the Mystics’ favor.

“We’re definitely at a completely different starting position than we were last year,” Delle Donne said. “There were just so many new people, so a lot of us were on the court confused, just uncomfortable, a lot of people out of their comfort zone. This year it’s opposite.”

This training camp was the best the Mystics have had in Thibault’s five-year tenure in Washington, the coach said.

“You’re starting from where you left off in the playoffs instead of starting over,” Thibault said. “The teaching part of it goes quicker. Even if you put in something new, there’s just this feeling of, ‘We’ve got this. We’ve got it figured out.’”

The WNBA’s two best teams, the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx, figure to be the biggest roadblocks to a championship, and the New York Liberty are Washington’s main competition in the Eastern Conference. But provided they stay healthy, the Mystics will be in the mix.

Delle Donne only played 25 games last year due to injuries, but her 19.7 points per game was fourth-best in the WNBA. The Mystics also still have Krystal Thomas, who ranked third in the league with 9.6 rebounds per game, and Kristi Toliver, who ranked third with 76 3-pointers.

The Mystics will open their regular season Sunday against the Indiana Fever, 1 p.m. at Capital One Arena. They won both their preseason games, including a 96-51 thrashing of the Fever on May 12 at the University of Delaware.

Guard Tayler Hill, recovering from a torn ACL, is expected to be back in June, and forward LaToya Sanders will miss some time with an undisclosed illness.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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