Can the Mystics Turn Things Around?
Can Coleman help Mystics turn things around?
Can Coleman help Mystics turn things around?
Posted Jun 9, 2009

There will be a lot of fresh faces on the 2009 Washington Mystics, both in the front office and on the floor. But will the changes be enough to overhaul an underperforming franchise that averaged a league-low 69.7 points and finished 10-24 last season? The answer just might be, "Yes."

New GM, New Coach, New Attitude

Gone is General Manager Linda Hargrove, who had held the position since 2005, replaced by Angela Taylor. Taylor, who becomes the third GM in Mystics history, made an immediate splash by hiring Julie Plank to replace interim head coach Jessie Kenlaw. Plank was an assistant coach at Stanford when Taylor was a player, and the two later worked together at Stanford and with the Minnesota Lynx.

The move is significant for two reasons. The general consensus seems to be that Plank has brought a new attitude to the Mystics, which included preseason two-a-days for the first time in at least four years.

Perhaps as important than the work ethic Plank brings to this Mystics team is her style of coaching. Plank preaches defense and runs a much more uptempo system than her predecessors, which is a good fit with the wealth of talented perimeter players on the Mystics roster.

Returning forward Monique Currie described the regime change and its effect on the team's work ethic as "a complete 180-degree difference from last year to this year," in a recent interview with the Washington Post. "From the way things are run and operated but just the demands this staff has for us every day. To step on every line, finish every drill, we can't get away with shortcuts. We're not a [league champion like] Detroit, we can't half do things sometimes because we don't feel like it. We can't get away with that and survive, whereas Detroit might be able to."

Young, But Talent-Laden, Roster

A commitment to working hard is all the more important when you have a roster filled with as much youth as the Mystics have. As a three-year veteran and returning starter (expected to start again this year), Currie seems like a veritable voice of experience on this team full of youngsters. Just two players, former WNBA all-star Chasity Melvin (a ten-year veteran) and starting center Nakia Sanford (her sixth season in the league), have more than five years of professional experience.

Alana Beard, a three-time WNBA All Star and all-defensive team member who led the Mystics in scoring in 2008, now has five years in the pros under her belt. Guard Nikki Blue, like Currie, has three years in the league, all of them with the Mystics, but only one (2008), as a regular in Washington's starting line-up.

Alana Beard leads the Mystics with an average of 17 points per game thus far.
Despite the abundance of talented newcomers, Alana Beard is still the heart and soul of the Washington Mystics, and she's determined to avoid another embarrassing season. Beard leads the team with 17 points per game thus far this season. Here, Beard, right, reaches for the ball held by Connecticut Sun's Kristi Cirone during the second half of the Mystics' season opener in Uncasville, Conn., on Saturday, June 6, 2009.

But what the Mystics lack in experience, they make up for with young and talented players. Matee Ajavon (5th), Crystal Langhorne (6th), and Tasha Humphrey (11th) were all first-round picks in the last year's WNBA draft.

Langhorne, a 6-2 forward/center out of Maryland, and Humphrey, a 6-3 forward/center from Georgia, will both be familiar faces to Washington fans. Langhorne had modest results in her rookie season with the Mystics, starting in six games but coming off the bench in the rest to average a bit over 15 minutes per game. She was good for 4.8 points and 4 rebounds per game last season. Humphrey was picked up late in the season in the deal (sweetheart for Detroit) that sent Taj McWilliams-Franklin to the Shock. Humphrey, a role player in Detroit, started seven of her eight games in a Mystics uniform last season, averaging 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for Washington. She is well off that pace this season, averaging barely half the points (6.0 ppg, 3.0 rbg) but is currently coming off the bench (for 11 minutes of playing time per game this season, as opposed to more than 26 minutes per game last year for the Mystics).

Though not a rookie, Ajavon is a new face on the Mystics roster, having been acquired by Washington during the off-season with the second pick in the dispersal draft after the Houston Comets organization folded. Ajavon is a speedy guard that plays off the ball, but is also a pest on the defensive end. In the Mystics final preseason game, she scored 17 points and notched four steals.

She has already won over teammates with her hustle and hard work. Langhorne, a fellow New Jersey native who came up in the same high school basketball circle as Ajavon, has praised her speed as a vital asset in the Mystics' new defensive game plan, and Plank called Ajavon one of the Mystics most explosive players.

The hit parade of top draft picks on the Mystics' roster by no means ends with the class of 2008. Lindsey Harding, a quick point guard who was the top pick out of Duke in 2007, was a favorite for WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2007 before tearing her ACL. The Mystics acquired her from the Lynx during the off-season for two future draft picks. Harding has battled her knee problems for the past two seasons, but appears to be in much better form this season, averaging just six points per game, but dishing out an average of seven assists (to just two turnovers) per game and snatching two steals per game in the early going. Even Currie, who has been with the Mystics since 2007 after stints in Charlotte and Chicago, was the third overall pick in the 2006 draft.

Lindsey Harding appears much improved from the ACL tear in her rookie season.
Point guard Lindsey Harding may prove to be a key element to the Mystics' success, appearing much improved since she injured her ACL in her rookie season. Here, Harding, picked up by the Mystics from the Lynx during the off-season, drives to the basket around Connecticut Sun's Lindsay Whalen of their Saturday, June 6, 2009, game in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Number Two Draft Pick Coleman Sticks (and then Some!)

This group of talented young athletes is joined by Marissa Coleman, the Number Two overall pick in this year's draft. As a senior at Marland, Coleman averaged 18.6 ppg and 8.6 rpg in a do-everything role for the Terps. Her most noteworthy performance came in the NCAA tournament, when she went for 42 points and 15 rebounds to lead Maryland back from an 18 point deficit in a 78-74 win over Vanderbilt in the Sweet Sixteen of the Raleigh regional.

The 6-1 wing out of University of Maryland, whom Taylor has compared to Scottie Pippen, is already off to a great start, coming off the bench to notch 16 points (along with five boards, an assist and a steal) in her rookie debut, an 82-70 road win against Connecticut on Saturday, June 6. Coleman was deadly from long-distance in the season opener, going four-for-four from downtown. She had cooled off a bit, but still turned in a respectable showing, when Washington fans got their first look at the Mystics' home opener against Atlanta the following day. Coleman, again in reserve, put up nine points and dished out one assist in support of Washington's 77-71 win, but shot only two-for-six from the field (with both her makes again coming from beyond the arc); she also coughed up four turnovers, which couldn't have pleased Plank. Still, not bad for a rookie. (Coleman averaged 9.5 ppg and 6.5 rbg in Washington's two preseason games.)

Though Coleman's primary assignment should be to back up Currie at small forward, she can also play the two-guard. She's already getting plenty of playing time off the bench, but expect her to vie for a starting position in the not too distant future.

Third-Round Pick Makes Roster Too (But for How Long?)

Washington's lesser known rookie, 6-3 center Josephine Owino of Mombassa, Kenya, was drafted by the Mystics with their fourth pick, 28th overall, in the third round of this year's WNBA draft. The Lady Bulldog from Union University, was shocked by her selection: "Never in a million years did I think this would happen to me," she said in a statement released by the University at the time. "This is so unbelievable."

So one can imagine how surprised Owino must have been when she actually stuck! Still, while not the household name that Coleman is to fans of NCAA women's basketball, Owino, the first player ever to be drafted from Union, boasts an impressive resume: two-time NAIA National player of the year; 19.3 points, and 8.5 boards, per game in her senior season, in which she led the Bulldogs to their fourth NAIA National Title (and third in the last five seasons); 2009 NAIA Tournament Most Valuable Player, and a member of the All-National Tournament Team in each of her four years.

Owino hasn't seen a minute of playing time in either of the preseason games, or the early season games this weekend. But Taylor and her staff were reportedly impressed by Owino's seven-foot wing-span and her performance on the low block during training camp. They must have been, since the unheralded rookie survived cuts that winnowed the roster from 17 to 11. (Among those cut was the Mystics second draft pick, USC point guard Camille LeNoir; veteran center Kelly Schumacher, last of Detroit, who had been acquired as a free agent in early May; veteran guard Coco Miller, who was later signed by Atlanta; well-traveled off-guard Kiesha Brown, a seven-year vet who was subsequently picked up by the Connecticut Sun); Crystal Smith, yet another veteran guard; and reserve forwards Kristen Mann, who had been picked up off waivers from Indiana, and Bernice Mosby, a two-year veteran of the Mystics, who was the last to be cut.) The common wisdom is that post players take longer than guards to make the transition to the pros. The Mystics and deep at power forward and center with Langhorne with Melvin and Sanford currently holding down the starting spots, and talented yearlings Langhorne and Humphrey getting significant minutes off the bench. Still, if the Mystics are willing to invest the time in developing Owino's considerable talents, her strong work ethic may prove her to be one of the steals of the 2009 WNBA draft.

Is a Piece of the Puzzle Still in Europe?

On the other hand, Owino could just be marking time until the arrival of Jelena Milovanic, drafted by the Mystics with their third pick (24th overall) in the second round. The 6-4 power forward/center plays in Sopron, Hungary for MKB Euroleasing,and led her team to the Final Four of the Euroleague Women this season, while averaging 15 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Milovanic is still in Latvia, playing in the Eurobasket for Women Championships for the Serbian National Team (in which neither Serbia, which has lost both its preliminary round games to date--against Greece and host Latvia, nor Molovanic, who is averaging just six points and three boards per game, has been faring well, thus far).

Molovanic is considered the future of the Serbian National Team, however. She led the Serbs, unbeaten, to the gold in the 2007 European 18-and Under Championships, where she was named the tournament MVP after posting 19.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game and putting up and overpowering 32 points against Russia.

At just 20 years of age, Milovanic is another young player with a huge upside. Her stat line in the Euroleague this season nearly doubled her 2008 performance, and if she continues to develop at anywhere close to that rate, look for her to become a future WNBA All Star.

But for Milovanic to take a spot on the roster, someone will have to go. For now, based on playing time and productivity, the two with the weakest foothold on the team would be Owino and guard Nikki Blue, who has seen just two minutes per game of playing time and (unsurprisingly) has been able to do nothing with it. Still, with the Mystics so much deeper in the front than the back court (they have only five guards on the roster, including Blue, and two of them, including Beard and Coleman, are guard/forwards), it is apt to be Owino who finds herself packing her bags if Millovanic gets the nod.

"Time to Turn It Around"

With a 10-24 campaign in 2008, it will be easier for Washington to get better than to get worse. In terms of raw talent, the pieces seem to be there -- but that's a familiar refrain for the Mystics.

Still, at least in the early returns, the new pieces appear to be fitting well with Plank's new system, and there is a feeling of determination surrounding this franchise.

Alana Beard says it best: "This organization has been a losing organization for so long, I don't want another embarrassing season. It's time to turn it around."

The season, like the team, is young, but Beard is on her way, as the Mystics now have a 2-0 record and an average of 79.5 points per game.

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