WNBA Draft Continued the Mystics Renewed Focus on the Defensive End

Draft added to Mystics focus on the defensive end originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Remember the dominant Mystics offense that carried the franchise to a championship? Well if they want to have any hope of replicating their title run in 2019, it will be because of their focus on the opposite end of the floor. 

The past two years saw Washington make a commitment to boosting their defensive efforts. Two of the best defensive players in the league - Alysha Clark and Elizabeth Williams - were the team's free-agent targets in both offseasons. The Mystics were successful in landing both. 

And with their first first-round pick since 2019, Washington once again made a selection that will continue their improvement on the defensive side by selecting Shakira Austin.

"[Defense] wasn't a focus to start out, we just felt we were fortunate that we found some players that that could do that," Thibault said of the team's draft strategy. "I think that all three (prospects) drafted at the top were capable defensive players. I think, to us, Shakira stood out partly because of her size and shot-blocking. We weren't a team in the last year and a half that could control the paint defensively necessarily."

Related: Shakira Austin excited to return home

Building up their defensive identity wasn't something that happened overnight. When the season starts, four players on the roster will have made an All-Defensive Team in the past three years (Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud, Clark and Williams). The first two pieces were drafted and developed within the Mystics system. 

In Atkins' case, she's been recognized for her defensive prowess every year in the WNBA. She became the first player in league history to make an All-Defensive Team each of her first four years. 

Her defense is how she became a starter as a rookie, later growing into her offensive game. 

Austin is looking to follow in a similar manner. Rim protection and post defense will have her earning minutes in Washington - even as a player seventh or eighth on the depth chart. The hope is her offense will accompany those skills down the line.

"My defensive side probably has the biggest value to my game right now," Austin told NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller in an exclusive interview. "I feel like my defense transitions easily, more than the offense at first, and I just feel like I'll be that rim protector. I'll be that as solid person in the back who just is able to control a little bit the way I was able to at Ole Miss with communicating and talking my teammates through stuff I feel like that's just some things I can come and translate over to this to the scene."

Even during their championship run, post-defense wasn't a priority. LaToya Sanders was a versatile defender who stymied some of the best post players in the league. Behind her, there was no backup. It often left either Elena Delle Donne or Emma Meesseman having to defend the paint. Factoring in Delle Donne's injury and Meesseman now playing for the Chicago Sky, the depth behind Williams at center had to be addressed somehow.

Their second-round pick Christyn Williams also is known for her two-way skills as well. There's an uphill challenge for her to make the likely 11-person roster. But if she can make an impact defensively, she will be fitting the mold of what Washington is building.

If everyone is healthy, the defense, ideally, will help carry the team forward. Lulls in the offense - that were seen regularly in 2021 - can be counteracted with an elite defense. The addition of Delle Donne should automatically solve some of the shooting and scoring woes. From there, the defense just needs to hold.

Once a roster where everyone had a part in the elite offense, now is a roster where everyone has a hand in what could be a great defense. 

"Now we have a ton of great defensive players, particularly on the perimeter. You add Elizabeth Williams and her shot-blocking ability, Elena's defensive length and shot-blocking ability is a huge thing," Thibault said. "We're known as a really good offensive team, or were when we won the championship, and I think we'd like to think we can get back to that part of it. But I think defensive teams can get you through the rough patches when you're not particularly shooting well, but you still give yourself an opportunity with the kind of players. We didn't start out in this draft to necessarily do that. But it fits the mold of what we've been doing."

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