Ivory Latta/Bria Hartley
Kara Lawson/Kalana Greene/(Tayler Hill)
Monique Currie/Tierra Ruffin-Pratt
Emma Meesseman/Tianna Hawkins/Jelena Milovanovic
Kia Vaughn/Stefanie Dolson
plus maybe the suspended Quanitra Hollingsworth at some point as an extra big, if she ever deigns to show up.
Significant additions: Lawson, Hawkins, Dolson, Hartley
Significant losses: Crystal Langhorne, Matee Ajavon, Michelle Snow, Hill for at least part of the season
After a couple of embarrassingly terrible years, Mike Thibault took over and made this franchise respectable again last season. He turned over half the roster, created a cohesive and deep team, and just flat-out got them playing again. They didn’t have the most talent in the league, but they were organised and they worked hard, and finished the season at exactly .500. That’s a big step up when you were 11-57 combined in the previous two years. Now there’s a new test – whether they can take the next step. A risky trade gave up a player they’ve built around for a long time, but there are some other new pieces on a young team that’s still hoping to improve from within. Sometimes becoming ‘decent’ is a relatively straightforward first step. Getting to ‘good’ can be much trickier.
The Crystal Langhorne trade on draft night means that Monique Currie is now the only remaining player from the pre-Thibault era. But continuing the roster turnover wasn’t a good enough reason to give up a still relatively young all-star calibre player, unless Tianna Hawkins or Bria Hartley turn out to be very, very good. Hartley joins a backcourt that’s now going to have to be the driving force for this team. Ivory Latta will team with Kara Lawson as the starters in a pairing that will be hard to guard, with both players capable of running the offense or scoring in bunches. Latta’s a quick, dynamic player who’s learned how to distribute a little more rather than always looking for her own shot. Lawson’s one of the best outside shooters in the women’s game, and will be delighted to reunite with Thibault after being unhappy that he was dismissed in Connecticut. Hartley can do a little of everything as the backup to both, and they recently added Kalana Greene – another former Sun player – to be an extra defensive option on the wing. Sometime during the season Tayler Hill may also return from her pregnancy to provide another option – although after a disappointing rookie season and the baby, it’s probably best not to expect much from that avenue until 2015.
At small forward they’ve got a strong, physical pair in Currie and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who impressed last season after being picked up as an unrestricted free agent. Neither is entirely reliable on a night-to-night basis, but between them they can cover the spot competently and break out at times. Ruffin-Pratt should be more comfortable in her second season, and might take another step forward. Greene could get some minutes at the 3 as well when necessary.
Down in the paint is where they’re going to have to work things out as they go along. Langhorne may not have produced in the last couple of years quite as well as she had beforehand, but she was reliable. Now the only big on the opening day roster with significant WNBA experience is center Kia Vaughn. She’s a solid pivot, a decent defender, and capable of providing some interior scoring and rebounding, but you can’t consistently run your offense through her. She’ll be backed up by rookie Stefanie Dolson, another graduate of the UConn production line, just like Hartley. Jayne Appel was the most common comparison for Dolson, but Dolson’s a little more aggressive in looking for her own offense. She’s also a good passer from the high and low post, and Thibault will make use of that.
At power forward, various options will have the opportunity to earn time. Belgian youngster Emma Meesseman showed flashes of her impressive talent last year as a rookie, and they’ll be hoping she’s ready to take on more responsibility. She’s got some range on her shot, and she isn’t afraid to mix it up inside either, but she still has to prove that she can bang with WNBA starters for extended minutes. Hawkins will also have the chance to help make people forget about the other former Maryland power forward that used to fill the spot, and should get more opportunities than she saw in Seattle last year. She’s got some range as well, so the Mystics are probably going to be stretching opposing defenses out this year. They also brought in Jelena Milovanovic, a Serbian post who can play either spot down low. She’s produced in Europe on good teams, and has some ability, but it remains to be seen how she’ll translate it to the WNBA. Quanitra Hollingsworth might arrive at some point as well, but no one’s holding their breath, or going to get too excited if it happens.
So there are some pieces here to work with, just like last season. Thibault managed to mould them into a solid team in 2013, and the addition of Lawson is a significant extra presence to add elite shooting and someone who can help run the team the way he wants. Giving up Langhorne leaves something of a hole down low unless one or more of the youngsters prove to be legitimately ready for prime time, so when the jump shots aren’t falling they could have trouble producing points. They’ll be competitive again, but they’re probably still be a year or two away from taking that next step.