- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2021

Mike Thibault looked around the court Monday and saw a fraction of the players he wished — and who normally are — available for practice. The Washington Mystics received an unusual weeklong break between games just two weeks into the season, a respite that may have come at just the right time for a team attempting to get healthy and mesh newcomers together.

The situation has been less than ideal to open the WNBA campaign. During Monday’s practice, for instance, the coach had just seven players available. He couldn’t run a traditional training session, so Thibault broke his offensive and defensive drills into segments, running 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 situations, practicing spacing and screening while stressing the team’s priorities on offense.

With a 2-4 record to begin the year, those facets have needed work. The players haven’t had much of a chance to delve into them, though, with some returning late from Europe and others missing out due to injury. But with this week off, the Mystics have a chance to focus on the good and the bad from the team’s opening six games before focusing on Saturday’s contest with the Las Vegas Aces.

“This is a good week to correct a lot of the little things you don’t get to do when you’re just preparing for games,” Thibault said. “So it’s going to be a lot more detailed on that kind of stuff this week.”

Thibault knew there would be growing pains to begin the season. That could only be expected when key contributors are missing and several others were late or missing training camp entirely due to overseas competitions.

The most notable absence is Elena Delle Donne, who’s still recovering from an offseason back operation. Thibault said the 2019 MVP hasn’t begun team drills yet, and he doesn’t expect her to “in the near future.”

Emma Meesseman, who won the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP award, will be gone through at least August — when the Olympic break ends. Alysha Clark, the team’s marquee free-agent acquisition this offseason, is out for the year with a foot injury. Add in the late arrivals of Erica McCall, Myisha Hines-Allen, Kiara Leslie and Sydney Wiese and there was little time for the squad to gel before the season tipped off.

And throughout the week, certain players have missed practice time. Wiese could miss a few games with a sprained ankle she suffered last week against the Connecticut Suns. Tina Charles, Ariel Atkins and Leslie were held out Monday with “nagging injuries,” but those players were worked into the mix as the week developed.

“We’re a little banged up, but that don’t stop the grind,” guard Shavonte Zellous said. “One man down is another person’s opportunity. We’re just really taking it slow, focusing on the things that we need to focus on.”

Much of that focus has revolved around the team’s spacing in search of an offensive rhythm. Through six games, Washington has averaged 78.3 points per game — the fifth fewest in the league. The Mystics are also averaging the third fewest made field goals each contest.

Without several stars from the 2019 championship run available, Charles has shouldered a larger offensive load, averaging a team-high 26.7 points.

“We would be in real trouble without Tina,” Thibault said. “With all the injuries we’ve had and people missing, particularly Elena’s situation and Emma not being here, she has carried us offensively for great stretches of the game, and she’s playing at a really, really high level.”

It’s still early in the season, and Washington knows improvement will come as the team learns more about its newcomers and more key contributors rejoin the fold.

But this week of uninterrupted practice time — even with players still out through injury — could go a long way in helping the Mystics achieve a more evenly distributed offense and better defensive communication. They’ll see if that time off paid dividends Saturday against Las Vegas.

“It’s always a good time to regather,” Zellous said. “I feel like when you have games every other day, or every two days, factor in the travel, when we get into cities or when we’re leaving our city, it can be a toll on the body. So just having this week to prepare and actually rest some of the banged-up ones is pretty good for us.”

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