The Indiana Fever, Atlanta Dream, Mystics and Dallas Wings had a shot at the top pick. Despite having just a 17.8 percent chance to win, the Mystics moved up from the No. 3 selection. They will be followed by the Fever, Dream and Wings.
“This is a perfect way for us to kick off our 25th season,” Thibault said. “After the last two years with the bubble and the absences and the injuries and the illnesses and the same thing this past year, what we went through, it felt like we needed a break to kind of jump-start us. This kind of has a little bit of a karma feeling to it. It’s a great opportunity because it gives us so many options going through the next four months.”
The Mystics finished ninth in the WNBA this season at 12-20, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and just the second time under Thibault. Their .375 winning percentage was their worst since 2012, when they went 5-29 (.147) and then hired Thibault that December.
There isn’t a clear-cut No. 1 pick in April’s draft, but Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith are considered the top prospects. The 6-foot-2 Howard is an offensive threat on every level and is averaging 18.3 points. She is a two-time first-team All-American and a two-time SEC player of the year.
Smith was an all-American and the consensus Big 12 player of the year last season. This year, the 6-4 forward leads the nation at 13.2 rebounds per game and ranks 17th in scoring at 20.4 points. She is an energetic player whose physicality and versatility is expected to translate well to the WNBA.
Michigan forward Naz Hillmon, Mississippi forward Shakira Austin, North Carolina State center Elissa Cunane, South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson, Iowa State guard Ashley Joens and Connecticut guard Evina Westbrook are in the mix to be high first-round picks.
Thibault said he won’t let position or need dictate the selection, with his focus on getting a great player who can make contributions for eight to 10 years. Also the general manager, Thibault isn’t afraid to move draft picks; he used the Mystics’ most recent lottery slot to swing a trade for Elena Delle Donne in 2017. Balancing a roster that has some high-end contracts and some players on rookie deals also will factor in the decision-making process.
“We have a window right now that’s been opened up again a little bit,” Thibault said. “We know we’re getting healthier. And so you try to decide, ‘Okay, do we trade this for a veteran player that extends our window for the next couple of years?’ I want to win now. I’m not going to be coaching for the next 10 years. I want to win a championship. Every team, if they have an opportunity to win a championship, wants to make the most of it.
“And so the draft pick plus whatever we do in free agency, does that solve it? Does it mean that you go get a veteran player to go with this group? I don’t know that, but it’s exciting as a staff to be able to kind of figure that out.”
Free agency is ahead, and the Mystics are expected to be in the market for another post player and point guard. Starting center Tina Charles, the league’s top scorer, will entertain other options, and backup point guard Leilani Mitchell isn’t expected to be back. There’s also doubt that 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman will return after she sat out 2021 and again will have obligations with the Belgian national team.
Delle Donne continues to rehab her surgically repaired back, and Alysha Clark (foot), the team’s top free agent signing in 2021, is going through individual workouts four times per week after missing all of last season. Thibault expects Clark to progress to full-court workouts in February and be ready for training camp in April.
“We have our core,” said guard Natasha Cloud, who represented the Mystics at the lottery. “We have a really good squad back in DC, but we need some puzzle pieces added to it. So this number one pick is going to make all the difference in making another championship run for DC”
Whoever the No. 1 pick is would be unlikely to crack a talented starting lineup. Thibault said the Mystics don’t need a “savior”; instead, the hope is to bring in someone who can add depth, youth and energy. Still, the goal is to pick someone who can develop into a star. And this is a better draft talent-wise than the past two in Thibault’s eyes.
“If you’re going to have a year where you go through this, this makes some of the suffering a little bit more tolerable,” he said, “knowing that we have a piece for our future that’s significant.
“It’s kind of funny because I was sitting there with covid the last week [of the season] and watching from a distance and we were struggling in every way possible, as everybody knows. … The coaching part of me wants to win every single day, [but] the general manager part of me, that last week, was going, ‘You know, maybe being in the lottery isn’t the worst thing that could happen to us.’ And here we are.”