- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2020

Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault said he does not have a timetable for when the WNBA’s independent panel of doctors will make a decision about the statuses of reigning league MVP Elena Delle Donne and center Tina Charles.

Both players have preexisting conditions that could put them at a higher risk for COVID-19, and there’s a chance both could be granted medical exemptions to opt out of the 2020 season played in a “bubble” environment at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

If given the medical exemption, Delle Donne and Charles would receive their full salary for the season, count against Washington’s cap and earn a year of service on their contracts — “so we get the triple whammy,” Thibault said Thursday.

The Mystics are up against the cap as it is, so they wouldn’t be able to sign replacement players for Delle Donne and Charles under this scenario and they’d enter the 2020 season with just 10 players on the roster.

If the panel does not grant the players medical exemptions, they could still choose to opt out — the key difference being that they would forego their salaries and would not count against the Mystics’ cap.

Delle Donne has a history of Lyme disease, and late Wednesday, she wrote a message on social media confirming that was what the medical review was focused on.

“Many of you know about my ongoing battle with Lyme Disease, and a compromised immune system,” Delle Donne tweeted. “For now I’m following protocol and waiting for a risk assessment from the league medical panel. Missing my teammates but health and safety are the priority.”

Washington already had guard Natasha Cloud and center LaToya Sanders opt out of playing in 2020. Cloud wants to focus on social justice initiatives and the Black Lives Matter movement, while Sanders cited her health as her primary reason.

A Mystics team without Delle Donne, Charles, Cloud and Sanders would look drastically different than the team that was expected to take the court and defend the franchise’s 2019 WNBA title. Charles was acquired in a trade with New York in April to bolster an already-powerful team. The Mystics also lost guard Kristi Toliver in free agency.

Several other WNBA stars won’t play this year, either because they opted out or because they will be covered medically. Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces is among those also waiting final word from the WNBA medical review panel; her agent said last week that Cambage was expected to sit out.

But Thibault isn’t worried about a dearth of star power in the 2020 season, set to begin later this month.

“Nobody at the end of last year was writing a ton of articles about Breanna Stewart being gone. She was the MVP the year before,” Thibault said. “Because another story takes place. … Now Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird are back in Seattle. Diana Taurasi is supposedly healthy with Phoenix and you have her being joined by Skylar Diggins and (Brittney) Griner.

“We’ll be part of the story because we don’t have something,” he added, “but maybe we make our own new story. ‘Hey, this team can still win, and they’re doing it differently.’”

Players expected to suit up for the Mystics include WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, Tianna Hawkins, Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers, all of whom played important minutes on the 2019 championship squad. Thibault felt Atkins and Powers in particular would need to assert themselves offensively on this current version of the roster.

“Luckily we have players like Emma and Tianna and the two Ariels from last year’s team who have totally embraced the challenge that’s in front of them,” Thibault said. “I think Emma looks at everything as a big adventure in life, and so I think that kind of rubs off on teammates sometimes. That’s good for us.”

They’ll also rely on two key newcomers, Leilani Mitchell and Essence Carson. Carson, signed last month as a replacement player, is a 12-year WNBA veteran soon to turn 34 who has spent time playing almost every position. Thibault said Carson’s role might change from day to day.

“I think A, she has multiple skills, B, she’s tough-minded and C, she’s a great veteran leader,” Thibault said. “She just has a great presence about her and I think that will help make up for some of the lost leadership in our locker room from the past.”

The players arrived at the bubble this week, where they’ll have to get creative for practices. Not only do they only have 10 players in Florida at the moment, they will be without their practice squad this season.

Thibault said his assistant coaches, Asjha Jones and Eric Thibault, should get ready to spend time practicing on the court with the players so they could help with 5-on-5 drills. He also mentioned arranging scrimmages with the Indiana Fever, now coached by Marianne Stanley, a longtime Thibault assistant.

The WNBA plans to hold a 22-game season with the Finals played in October. The schedule has not been announced.

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

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