The Washington Mystics open the 2016 season Saturday at Verizon Center against the New York Liberty, the first of 34 regular season games. Some of those games will come following a month-long break for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Essentially all of those games will be played by those who helped the Mystics reach the playoffs for a third straight season under coach and general manager Mike Thibault. Getting to the next level is the goal for 2016.
What happened - The youthful Mystics started 2015 strong, winning 15 of their opening 24 games, before finishing the regular season 18-16. Looking to avoid a third straight first round playoff exit, Washington downed New York in Game 1 of the best-of-3 series with a double overtime road victory, but rebounding woes doomed the Mystics in back-to-back losses, including 79-74 in the series-clinching defeat. "We lost the New York series because we amde a couple of mistakes at the end of [Game 3] that we can attribute some to youth, the understanding of how hard it is to advance," Thibault told CSNmidatlantic.com. "The collective feeling [after the season] was we now know what it takes to get through one of those series."
Who's back - Just about everyone including 2015 All-Stars Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson, who was a finalist for the U.S. Olympic team. The 6-foot-4 Meesseman, a shooting threat from all angles, finished second in scoring (11.6) while leading Washington in field goal percentage (56.0) and grabbing a team-high 6.3 rebounds. Dolson entered the season with the greater agility and turned into a savvy low-post force. Leading scorer Ivory Latta (13.4 ppg) will miss the early part of the season while recovering from surgery in late April for a lateral meniscus tear in her right knee. At the time she was expected to miss 4-6 weeks.
Overall 10 of the top 11 scorers from last season are back for 2016. Of the 13 players on the roster, 10 have three years of experience or less. Along with guards Natasha Cloud, Tayler Hill and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, the Mystics projected starting lineup will likely be the league's youngest.
Who's new - The Mystics selected Kahleah Copper from Rutgers in the first round of the 2016 WNBA Draft. While adding needed depth on the wing, the 6-foot-1 Cooper provides Thibault with a stout defender and possible scoring threat (17.7 ppg during senior season). Veteran forward Tianna Hawkins isn't new to the Mystics, but the power forward sat out 2015 due to the birth of her child. Rookie forward Zoi Dimitrakou also made the final roster.
Who's gone: The Mystics are moving on without guard Kara Lawson, who is pondering retirement from her playing career while her broadcasting career takes off. Lawson ranked fourth in scoring last season with 9.6 points. Guard Armintie Herrington did retire following the 2015 season. Center LaToya Sanders will miss 10 games or so at the start of the season in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics as a member of the Turkish national team. That allows Washington to keep an extra player on the active roster until she returns.
Breakout player - There is room for growth throughout the young roster, but Tayler Hill looks like the one to watch. The fourth selection of the 2013 Draft behind headliners Brittney Griner, Elena Della Donne and Skylar Diggins, Hill struggled as a rookie and missed all but five games in 2014 due to the birth of her first child. She had a solid 2015 campaign (7.5 ppg) and now he 25-year-old perimeter threat appears ready for the spotlight. "I think Tayler Hill is going to have a breakout year," Thibault said. "I think she'll be in the group of most improved. That's exciting."
East - Even with all the potential, making the playoffs again won't be easy. Indiana and Chicago are arguably the conference favorites with defending East champion New York in the mix along with Atlanta. How much the kids have improved will determine whether Washington keeps its playoff streak alive.
Depth Chart (projected Game 1 starters in italics)
Forwards: Emma Meesseman, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Ally Mallot, Kahleah Copper, Zoi Dimitrakou, Tianna Hawkins`
Centers: Stefanie Dolson, Kia Vaughn, LaToya Sanders*
Guards: Tayler Hill, Natasha Cloud, Ivory Latta, Bria Hartley