- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2019

Emma Meesseman was modest in her first press conference upon returning to the Washington Mystics. While taking a year off in Europe, the forward watched each one of Washington’s 2018 WNBA Finals games and rooted for her teammates — but she said there weren’t moments she found herself wishing she could jump off the bench and help them.

That was not coach Mike Thibault’s view of it.

“She was saying, ‘Oh, you guys did great without me.’ I said, ‘Emma, we didn’t win it,’” Thibault recalled. “That’s a big thing.”

Indeed, the Mystics went down to the Seattle Storm in a three-game sweep last September. Getting Meesseman back is Washington’s greatest addition this season, and the tall Belgian could prove to be the X-factor the Mystics need to not only return to the Finals this seasn but also to cross the finish line.

Meesseman, who turns 26 Monday, took the 2018 WNBA season off to focus on training with her national team for last year’s FIBA Women’s World Cup. It was Belgium’s debut in the global tournament, and Meesseman is one of their top threats.

Belgium won its group and made it to the semifinals before the U.S. eliminated them. Meesseman reiterated that she was “100 % behind the decision to miss last year,” but she’s equally happy to return to the WNBA.

So are her teammates, franchise player Elena Delle Donne chief among them.

“It’s great that we have our core from last season, and then to be able to add a superstar like Emma to that mix is pretty crazy to think about and super exciting,” Delle Donne said. “Especially the way that we started playing last season, when we were really spreading the floor, playing positionless basketball. There’s nothing that fits our system more than Emma’s style of play.”

Meesseman is no ordinary player for the Mystics to bring back to their roster. She was the team’s second-leading scorer in 2015, 2016 and 2017. She also plays overseas for UMMC Ekaterinburg and won the EuroLeague Final Four MVP award in April 2018.

Meesseman felt the time she spent in Europe helped her grow as a player.

“In Belgium I had to take some more responsibility, as I’m the one with the most experience, together with some veteran players,” Meesseman said. “I was never really used to that position, and now I am.”

Even on a team with Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud, there’s never such a thing as too much leadership.

Thibault pointed out that his team missed Meesseman — at 6-foot-4, the second-tallest player on the team — during the postseason, when Delle Donne missed one game with a knee injury and wasn’t 100% when she came back.

“We got spoiled by having the two of them together,” he said. “That in and of itself pointed out how valuable she is. It allows to play different kinds of lineups. We can play small, we can play big, we can play people on the perimeter. She and Elena together as post put one kid of problem out there for opponents, and then you can move Elena to the three and play Emma and LaToya (Sanders) or Tianna (Hawkins), and you cause different problems.”

Mystics fans can expect to see that variety of looks utilized again this season, which starts May 25 at Connecticut. But Thibault said he may not put Meesseman into his starting five right away; the forward will miss a month of league action during June to play in the European Women’s Basketball Championships for Belgium.

Her commitments to her national team don’t bother the Mystics’ coaching staff and front office; they know how valuable Meesseman is to them. And for her part, Meesseman shows no hint of apathy toward her Mystics family.

“A year is a long time to miss from this team,” Meesseman said. “I’m just saying, ‘Can we practice? Can we start?’”

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