Mike Thibault high fives his players during the 2019 WNBA playoffs Credit: Kelyn Soong

The 2020 WNBA Draft on Friday night was full of firsts.

It opened up with commissioner Cathy Engelbert naming Gigi Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester—the three young basketball teammates who died in the tragic helicopter crash in January along with Kobe Bryant—honorary draft picks. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the entire draft was held virtually, which offered up a unique and poignant mixture of intimate family celebrations, awkward but emotional time-lagged interviews, and understandable technical difficulties. 

But Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault experienced a first of his own. While his competitors were busy stressing over their draft boards and making deals to bring in franchise-altering talents to their cities, he was just relaxing at home.

“We had a really nice dinner during the first round, something I’ve never been able to do” Thibault told reporters on Friday night via a Zoom conference call. 

Thibault did all his first-round work earlier in the week, when he sent the Mystics’ 12th overall pick in this draft; first, second, and third round picks in the 2021 draft; plus reserve guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, to the New York Liberty in exchange for 2012 WNBA MVP and seven-time WNBA All-Star Tina Charles. (Walker-Kimbrough was traded to the Phoenix Mercury on draft night, in exchange for the 10th overall pick.)

So, as the first-round unfolded—the top four picks went pretty much as predicted, with Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon) going to the New York Liberty, Satou Sabally (Oregon) going to the Dallas Wings, Lauren Cox (Baylor) going to the Indiana Fever, and Chennedy Carter (Texas A&M) going to Atlanta; after that, slight chaos ensued—Thibault enjoyed a healthy serving of chips, guacamole, and tacos. 

The Mystics are, of course, defending WNBA champions, so they didn’t have many holes to fill anyway. In the offseason, the team lost All-Star point guard Kristi Toliver in free agency, but were able to sign Leilani Mitchell, an 11-year veteran point guard who averaged 12.8 points, 4.0 assists, and 3.0 rebounds per game last season for the Phoenix Mercury, while shooting 43% from three. She was fourth in the league in 3-pointers made, with 74, and third in 3-point percentage, tied with the Mystics’ reigning league MVP Elena Delle Donne. She doesn’t completely fill the void left behind by Toliver, but she’ll come pretty close.

“I feel like we came out ahead,” Thibault said.

The Mystics will also have two rookies in the mix. On Friday, the team selected Jaylyn Agnew from Creighton, the school’s first ever WNBA draft pick, with the 24th overall selection in the second round, and Sug Sutton from Texas with the 36th overall pick in the third.

Watching the draft broadcast on ESPN, one might have missed these announcements, considering ESPN spent about 10 combined minutes announcing everything after the 16th overall pick, in exchange for its second Kobe Bryant tribute of the night and an interview with Engelbert. But, while the final 20 picks might not have gotten their official moment of recognition on television, they were still thrilled to have their dreams come true.

“I’m super grateful and excited for the opportunity,” Agnew said on a Zoom call with reporters. “I think the first thing I said to one of my assistant coaches was, I’m going to be in training camp with Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles!”

Agnew is a pretty prototypical Thibault draft picka 5-foot-11 wing player with a 6-foot-3 wingspan who is a 38% 3-point shooter coming off a senior season where she was named the Big East Player of the Year.

Because of salary cap issues, the Mystics are likely to only be able to have 11 players on the roster this year. But Agnew has an outside chance to make it onto the team. In training camp, she would likely need to beat out the Mystics’ 2019 first-round pick, Kiara Leslie, who is finally recovered from the knee surgery that kept her on the bench her rookie season, or 2018 second-round pick Myisha Hines-Allen, a talented post player who was already buried deep in a post rotation even before Charles was signed.

“[Thibault] said just to come in and do what I know I can do,” Agnew said. “He said to try to take someone’s job. You know, that’s ultimately what I will have to do you know to be on the roster.”

Sutton, meanwhile, is a speedy point guard who is a longshot to make the team, given the talents of Natasha Cloud and Mitchell. It will be useful to have another point guard in training camp, and to have another point guard who knows the system in case injuries pile up, similar to the way the Mystics used Shey Peddy last season.

But, while Thibault is as good as anyone in the league at evaluating talent, be it through the draft or free agency, and turning perceived role players like Cloud, Ariel Atkins, LaToya Sanders, and Emma Meesseman into elite starters on a championship team, this Mystics season won’t live or die by what happens in the bottom margin of the roster. 

Thibault knows that, especially in the playoffs, there is no substitute for star power. In 2017, when the Mystics were swept in the WNBA semifinals by the Minnesota Lynx, and in 2018, when they were swept in the WNBA Finals by the Seattle Storm, they were out-matched by teams that had a more talented core and championship experience.

During the offseason, multiple teams around the league were able to turn into a “super team” through free agency.

DeWanna Bonner went from the Phoenix Mercury to the Connecticut Sun to team up with MVP-candidate Jonquel Jones and All-Stars Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas. Skylar Diggins-Smith joined the Phoenix Mercury, to create a legitimate Big Three with Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi. Toliver joined the Los Angeles Sparks, where she reunited with Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, and Chelsea Gray. Angel McCoughtry went to the Las Vegas Aces to pair with Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson. The Seattle Storm will have Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart back after both missed last season due to injury, meaning the core that won the 2018 WNBA championship will be back in action. 

So, while the Mystics managed to mitigate the loss of Toliver with Mitchell and keep the rest of its core intact, there was legitimate reason to worry that it simply wouldn’t be enough considering the improvements made elsewhere in the league. But the addition of Charles changes that equation entirely.

Washington has now upgraded, too.

“We have a window, and I felt like by bringing Tina in, we were kicking our window wide open to give us an opportunity over the next several years to compete for a championship,” Thibault said before the draft. “We’d like to put ourselves in that kind of a position—it doesn’t guarantee a championship, but it puts us in a position to be an elite team for a long period of time while our best players are in their prime or going into their prime.”

It didn’t matter that the Mystics didn’t have a first-round draft pick; on Friday night, they showed once again why they’re the defending champions.

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