- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2018

If this were the NBA, the Washington Mystics’ front office might be making calls to players of Paul George’s or Kawhi Leonard’s caliber right now. That’s what you’re supposed to do when your basketball team falls short of winning a title — try to create a more super super-team.

The WNBA isn’t so different, in the sense that having a collection of top-level players like the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart, Natasha Howard and Sue Bird is the best route to a championship. But Washington is not about to make a roster move out of panic to compete with them.

The Mystics know they have room to improve. They said so time and again after losing Game 3 of the WNBA Finals Wednesday and falling to Seattle in a 3-0 sweep. But those remarks were not a brutally honest assessment of shortcomings — they were an optimistic view of what they still can accomplish.

“We don’t feel like we peaked and this is it for us,” Elena Delle Donne said. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of young, great talent.”

“We’d like to have taken that one last step, but the window for us is open right now,” coach Mike Thibault said. “We have a relatively young team. We have only played together with this core group basically for two years, and we have some reinforcements coming next year. We’re poised to get better.”

They know the road back to the Finals is tough, and the WNBA gets better every year, but the Mystics are in a position to stay atop the league now that the franchise’s most successful season to date is in the books.

The main “reinforcement” Thibault was referring to is center Emma Meesseman, who took the WNBA season off to prepare for the FIBA Women’s World Cup with the Belgian national team. She is expected to return to the Mystics in 2019. A reliable scorer and rebounder to pair down low with Delle Donne, Meesseman was an All-Star in 2015 at just 22 years old.

Like Seattle’s group of Stewart (24 years old), Natasha Howard (27) and Jewell Loyd (24), some of the Mystics’ best players are young or just entering their prime. Delle Donne just turned 29, Natasha Cloud is 26 and Meesseman is 25.

Then there is Ariel Atkins (22), who just completed a solid rookie campaign many did not see coming. Atkins cemented herself as the Mystics’ starting three with her speed and defensive effort, and it didn’t hurt that she averaged 20.1 points per 40 minutes in the regular season.

“We spent a lot of our time this year relying on a rookie player to be our third scorer. What she did this year was ahead of schedule, for us,” Thibault said of the seventh overall pick.

According to the WNBA salary database compiled by High Post Hoops, the contracts of five Mystics players are up after 2018, including starters Cloud and LaToya Sanders. If Sanders returns to Washington, it may be in a backup role behind the younger and taller Meesseman, but Thibault would have to be happy having her defensive prowess come off the bench.

Kristi Toliver, Cloud, Atkins, Delle Donne and Meesseman would comprise a fair (if too early) prediction of the Mystics’ starting five when they christen their new home court in 2019, the St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena.

After playing postseason games at George Washington and George Mason, it will be a welcome change for the team to have a constant home. Delle Donne recalled “it was a little quiet” when she and Toliver played their first game for the Mystics in 2017.

“Obviously, winning helps. But we can really create something here and I think we’ve really grown this fanbase,” Delle Donne said. “They’re behind us, they’re proud of us and they know we’re not satisfied, we want to do more. I think it will be huge having our own home. Our fans will have a consistent place to watch us play every night.”

Besides Seattle, who else is in the Mystics’ way of a title? The Atlanta Dream, whom Washington beat in five games in the league semis, will only be stronger when star Angel McCoughtry returns from an ACL tear. League powers Minnesota and Los Angeles will want to re-establish themselves after down years, and the Diana Taurasi- and Brittney Griner-led Phoenix Mercury are built to win now.

After being revamped two seasons ago, the Mystics can now compete with those clubs in the chemistry department. Delle Donne and Toliver had a funny exchange in their post-game press conference discussing how well they get along off the court.

“Last year we were brand new. I mean, I didn’t even know (Toliver’s) favorite beer,” Delle Donne said. “That’s a pretty important thing to know for a teammate. Now I can go to the bar, order her everything she needs.”

“I’m gonna need a lot tonight,” Toliver cut in with a smile.

It was another moment that didn’t feel analogous to an NBA team that just lost the Finals. LeBron James wasn’t preparing his departure. No side eyes at J.R. Smith. Just teammates accepting what happened, and thinking about making it back next year.

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

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