Guru's WNBA Report: Washington Looks To Build On Landmark Season
By Mel Greenberg
WASHINGTON – If being in the red necessitated front office changes in the WNBA Washington Mystics over the winter involving the departure of former general manager Angela Taylor and former coach Julie Plank after the franchise’s best season in history, the color transformed into a positive approach Wednesday afternoon as players spouted new uniforms with a new scheme during the media day activities at the Verizon Center.
In a way to get closer to black ink in the ledger, the Mystics last month became the fifth WNBA team to have a sponsor’s name on its jersey, expanding the previously existing partnership with Inova Health System with the focus of the two organizations aimed at fighting childhood obesity and also highlight women’s health care services.
In a contentious teleconference last winter Mystics top executive Sheila Johnson, who heads the WNBA unit under the umbrella of Ted Leonsis that includes the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals, discussed the economics consideration in announcing the promotion of assistant Trudi Lacey, a former North Carolina State star, to fill both coaching and general manager positions.
Though the moves did not sit well with the fan base at the time when it seemed that the Washington revolving door over the years might have finally found stability, Wednesday was about a roster, which also included key changes, ready to move forward and build on last season’s success when the Mystics tied the New York Liberty for first place in the East and earned the No. 1 seed.
“Everything is wonderful,” Johnson said when asked about the recent hire of marketing expert Laurel Richie to become the WNBA’s third president.
Richie officially went on the payroll Monday.
And actually, in terms of the roster, there is much reason for optimism.
Though Katie Smith and Lindsey Harding have moved on to other teams and Monique Currie won’t see action this time around due to an offseason knee injury, the color Blue is subtly entrenched as in Blue Devils, the nickname for Duke University, one of the traditional women’s collegiate basketball powerhouses.
If it’s Currie’s turn to sit out, another former Duke star – Alana Beard – is ready to go following her year on the sidelines.
“You want to be out there and be part of it but they did an amazing job,” Beard said of the way the Mystics were able to perform despite her absence.
“You know sometimes it takes situations like that for everyone else to blossom. Of course, you want to be out there but you understand you can’t.”
Though it seemed surprising that some of the local media referenced the Mystics’ current notoriety as “flying under the radar,” considering their 22-12 run across the regular season after years of mostly sub-.500 ball, Beard could buy into the perception.
“There’s so much parity in this league – we’re a target, we’re the defending champs and we’re a target – but everybody’s gunning for that same position.
“We had a lot of changes so maybe we are flying under the radar and people aren’t expecting us to do as good as last year but every night in this league is a war.”
Other newcomers from the Duke family are Jasmine Thomas, who came in a trade involving Smith a few weeks after being picked by Seattle in April’s draft, and rookie Karima Christmas, picked in the second round by Washington.
It’s an extra homecoming for Thomas, who lives in nearby Fairfax, Va., and was an intern with Washington last summer.
And how does this Duke accent sit with former nearby Maryland star Crystal Langhorne of Willingboro, N.J., outside Philadelphia, who rose to all-star status and helped beat Duke for the NCAA title in 2006 with Mystics and former Terrapins teammate Marissa Coleman?
“That’s all history,” Langhorne smiled. “We’re actually an ACC team overall,” she referenced others in the organization with backgrounds from schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Lacey played at North Carolina State as did veteran Chasity Melvin, who was a rookie with the Philadelphia Rage in the former American Basketball League before moving to the WNBA and appearing with several organizations.
Melvin talked about the numerous coaching changes over the years in Washington, jokingly saying that accusations of inconsistency in her performance might have had to do with the difference systems in the Mystics game plans.
Kelly Miller, who helped destroy Washington in the first round of the playoffs with Atlanta, has now been dealt to the team her twin sister Coco once dwelled. Both are Georgia grads as is second-year pro Ashley Houts and rookie Angel Robinson.
Victoria Dunlap, a defensive ace from Kentucky, was Washington’s first round pick to fortify the frontcourt. Her brother King Dunlap is an offensive lineman with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL.
Former Xavier star Ta’Shia Phillips was picked by Atlanta in the draft and then dealt to the Mystics.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Phillips said of the hectic activities on draft day at ESPN’s headquarters at Bristol, Conn.
“I was actually sitting at dinner with my family and got a text message from a friend: `Congrats, you’re going to Washington.’ I said, `I’m going to Atlanta.’ He said `You just got traded.’
“I’m telling my whole family and they’re like, `Wow, really.’
Nicky Anosike, a former Tennessee star, came to Washington in a trade just before draft day after playing last season with the Minnesota Lynx.
Former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon, who was a defensive force in the backcourt last season, loves the energy this team brings.
She is also one of the many around the league thrilled with the situation this year that has enabled more players to get to training camp earlier from playing overseas.
“The rookies are learning quick. Towards the end of the season, it was more of a `We belong’ type thing and now we want to get further in the playoffs then last year,” Ajavon said. “It starts here in practice with the little things and everything else will work out.
“It’s a great thing (earlier arrivals), it allows us to mesh more and quicker. I was one of the ones who came late from Turkey last year so it was pretty tough just getting into things and figuring things out but this year everyone is in camp and everyone’s working hard.”
Ajavon will play even closer to home at times this year beginning with next week’s preseason game with the New York Liberty, who will play the next three summers at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., while Madison Square Garden undergoes renovations.
Though Taylor is gone, the attempt to remain fan friendly continues. Front office executive Greg Bibb said the Mystics are making a concerted effort to provide daily training camp coverage via the team’s website.