At least two, potentially three, roster spots are officially up for grabs during this year's training camp for the Washington Mystics. During their championship window, that many available has been unheard of.
In recent years, there haven't been that many undecided spots for Washington. The roster is uber talented and bench spots are hard to come by. Even last year, with nearly half the roster missing the 2020 season, the team did not initially sign any of its draftees to the roster.
Things are obviously different this year. With so many spots available -- mainly because of Emma Meesseman being unsigned and Alysha Clark's season-ending injury -- the Mystics brought in 10 players on training camp contracts.
They brought in a mix of players to compete. Five of the 10 would be true rookies in the WNBA if they made the roster. Two played in the Mystics system last year in the 'wubble.' Two others are seasoned veterans. Primarily, Washington will be looking for individuals that can fill in Meesseman and Clark's open roles. But it's also simple, the best will make the team.
"I'm just looking for a good basketball player that fits our team. I'm not really concerned at this point whether they're a veteran or a young person," head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on Wednesday. "We're in a situation now where we want to keep winning now and whoever can best help us do that, then we'll play them."
So far camp has slowly gotten the team as a whole up to speed. Friday (the sixth day since camp started) was the first time that the coaches had players go up and down the floor. While the entire roster is not in D.C. yet due to overseas obligations, all of those on a training camp contract have been in for a couple of days now.
Right now, the needs of the team is finding someone off the bench to score on the second unit. It's the role that Meesseman thrived in during the team's championship season when she could have easily been starting. Alongside that individual will likely be some combination of Leilani Mitchell and Myisha Hines-Allen with the second group.
Stella Johnson and Sug Sutton both should have a leg up here. Each played with the Mystics for a portion of 2020 and are familiar with the team's system. Johnson, in particular, showed outstanding promise after her 25-point coming-out party against the Dream. It was so impressive that Thibault deemed her the team's honorary draft pick for 2021 (since Washington didn't have any) at the end of the season.
"We're clearly going to need a young player of some sort on our bench to step up and say 'hey I'm going to contribute by making shots and being a good, solid defender,'" Thibault said. "We're going to need somebody to knock down 3-point shots from our bench and so we have a couple candidates and somebody is going to have to stand out and be that person."
Johnson's brief season last year had her 9-for-14 from three with six steals and two blocks in nine games.
But there are others. Maine alum Blanca Millan had a great career on the defensive end in college, averaging nearly three steals a contest. Aislinn 'Ace' Koning shot 40.7% from three her junior season at N.C. State, just three seasons ago, and could be a huge spark off the bench.
Another area to factor in, there are no male practice players this year due to COVID-19 protocols. Most teams usually have a group of male players to practice against during the season with condensed rosters and the lack of a practice squad. Much like the 'wubble' season, players need to be ready to contribute.
Shavonte Zellous (11 seasons) and Theresa Plaisance (seven seasons) are those veterans of the group.
"I probably, if I had my druthers, I'd like to have a little bit of a balance," Thibault said. "You'd like to have some young players that you develop for the future as our team gets a little bit older. So if we can have a couple of those that's great, but we also probably, especially after Alysha's injury, need a veteran of some sort to step up and do that."
Not all roster spots are created equal. The pandemic emphasizes depth even further in the WNBA. It leads to more opportunities and potentially a bigger contract down the road. There are several examples of players earning a roster spot from a training camp contract or an undrafted player who made it. Thibault knows that all too well.
The competition isn't amongst the 18 players for a roster spot this year. You just have to be better than the others also fighting for a spot as well.
"My first year [in D.C.] I mean Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is probably a great example of that," Thibault said. "She came in on a training camp contract, undrafted and made an impression right away because she was so good defensively and she basically was one of those people back then that figured out, 'alright those are the three over there that I got to beat out. I'm gonna kick their butt every day.'"