In merely the second-biggest trade of 2014’s draft night, an All-Star power forward was traded for two youngsters with no WNBA pedigree whatsoever. Described like that, you have to wonder why Washington’s Mike Thibault – generally considered one of the smarter guys working in the WNBA – would be willing to give up Crystal Langhorne for two unknown quantities on the pro level in Tianna Hawkins and Bria Hartley. Certainly from the perspective of his counterpart in Seattle, Brian Agler, the move seemed like a no-brainer.
When Langhorne came into the league in 2008, taken by the Mystics with the sixth overall pick, many people had their doubts about her. She had limited success in her first year, due to defensive issues and a complete lack of range offensively. But even then there were signs of something pretty impressive, and by her second season she was already starting to look like an all-star talent. She worked on her shot, developing reliable range out to at least 15 feet, and while she’s never going to be a shut-down defender, she’s become solid enough on that end of the floor. She’s always been an impressive finisher around the rim and a decent rebounder, and with Lauren Jackson missing yet another season in Seattle that was something the Storm sorely needed. When you consider Agler’s well-known preference for veterans over youngsters, upgrading to Langhorne in the post for the cost of just Hawkins and the 7th pick in the 2014 draft made a lot of sense for Seattle.
There are a couple of factors that you can point to as to why Thibault might’ve been willing to let Langhorne go. While she’s missed very few games (just six in total over six years in the WNBA), she’s been troubled by various minor injuries in recent year. That includes back problems, which can be a persistent nightmare for posts that have to battle away in the paint. Maybe he felt she was starting to break down, and was willing to give her up a year too early in order to avoid moving her a year too late, when her value might’ve fallen more significantly. She’s also become less of a focal point of Washington’s offense in the last couple of years, and her numbers have dropped off a little as a result. Thibault got the Mystics playing as more of a collective last year, improving their results but somewhat minimising Langhorne’s role. They didn’t need, or want, to just dump the ball to her in the post every time down the floor. But she’s only 27, and Seattle will be hoping for several good years from her yet. Meanwhile Washington’s front-line suddenly has a much more questionable look about it.
Tianna Hawkins showed some flashes of talent last year after being taken sixth overall in the 2013 draft – the same spot as Langhorne, after attending the same college (Maryland), and playing the same position. But she didn’t play much, and when she did it was often in garbage time. She’s got a little more range on her shot than Langhorne, but is yet to show anything like the same proficiency in the paint. After a solid debut season in Europe, she’ll need to transfer some of that to her second year in the WNBA. With Emma Meesseman developing and rookie center Stefanie Dolson joining the squad, the Mystics don’t need Hawkins to replace Langhorne on her own. But they do need to see more from her than Seattle saw last season.
Bria Hartley’s the sweetener that encouraged Thibault to accept the downgrade from Langhorne to Hawkins. A combo-guard from the University of Connecticut, she divides opinion somewhat on how good she’ll be at the pro level. Surrounded by so much talent at UConn, she was either overshadowed by the stars around her and willing to play a role to help her team win, or carried along and made to look better by those other players, depending on your perspective. She can do a little bit of everything, in terms of shooting, driving, distributing and defending – it’s just a case of how well she’ll be able to translate her game to the pros. She’ll join a guard corps that already has Ivory Latta and Kara Lawson in place as the starters, but there are minutes there for her as the backup to either, especially with last year’s draft pick Tayler Hill missing the start of the season due to pregnancy.
Ultimately, this move’s more of a risk for Thibault and the Mystics than it is for Agler and the Storm. Giving up an all-star talent who’s at an age when most players are still in their prime, for two players who are more potential than anything else is clearly a dangerous swap. Langhorne was the bedrock for the Mystics through some awful years, didn’t bitch and moan when things went bad for the franchise due to nonsense that was nothing to do with her, and now they’ve sent her packing anyway. For Seattle, who basically had ‘Camille Little and hope’ featuring in their frontcourt in 2014 prior to this move, Langhorne is a major acquisition. It’s not quite the same as seeing a healthy Lauren Jackson walk through the door, but Lang can be an awful lot of help for the squad that remains.
Grade for Seattle: A- – a move they had to make, even if it once again sacrifices the chance to add real youth to the roster. Langhorne’s young enough, and a proven talent.
Grade for Washington: C – understandable only if you truly love Hawkins and/or Hartley as prospects, or if Thibault knows more about Langhorne’s health than any of us do.
Grade for Langhorne: B – a change of scenery might be what she needs, after a couple of years where her stats dropped and not seeming a great fit for Thibault’s system. But going from East to West makes winning games significantly tougher.
Grade for Hawkins: A – going from a coach who’s always reluctant to trust youth to one who constantly gives kids a chance, plus back to her home town, and just down the road from her former college. Can’t ask much more than that.
Grade for Hartley: A – again, will get the chance to play under a coach who let’s rookies play, and finds herself immediately reunited with UConn teammate Dolson. Just about perfect for her as well.