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May 13, 2024 5:00 pm

Liberty take continuity into season opener at new-look Mystics

sabrina ionescu

The 2024 WNBA season will begin in Washington on Tuesday night when the rebuilding Mystics host a New York Liberty team that aims to contend for the league championship again.

After finishing 19-21 last season, the Mystics look different this year. Gone are longtime leaders Natasha Cloud and Elena Delle Donne, who spent a combined 15 seasons with the franchise and helped Washington win the WNBA title in 2019. Cloud signed with the Phoenix Mercury in the offseason, while Delle Donne — a 34-year-old, two-time league MVP — is sitting the season out after a contract stalemate with the Mystics where she elected to not sign the team’s qualifying offer.

“Now that we don’t have some focal points in the same way as we did a year ago, either with the ball in their hands or who we ran stuff for, it’s going to look different,” second-year Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. “So, I think different is exciting at the same time.”

Even without Cloud and Delle Donne, the Mystics still return three players who averaged double digits in scoring last season in Brittney Sykes (15.9), Ariel Atkins (11.5) and Shakira Austin (10.0).

Austin is also the team’s top rebounder, and Atkins has made the WNBA All-Defensive first or second team in five of the last six seasons. But both dealt with injuries last season that forced each to miss double-digit games. The Mystics hope both key players can stay healthy.

“I’m really just excited to put it all together,” Austin said. “I know I can be a dominant offensive player, but for me, I really want to make everybody else around me better, and I’m a player that can do that.”

Newcomers to the roster include free agent additions DiDi Richards, Stefanie Dolson and Emily Engstler. No. 6 overall draft pick Aaliyah Edwards was a two-time All-American at UConn.

The Liberty return the same core of players — reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot, Betnijah Laney-Hamilton and Sabrina Ionescu — that went 32-8 in the regular season last year and lost to the Las Vegas Aces 3-1 in the WNBA Finals. In that decisive Game 4 on the Liberty’s home floor, Stewart shot an abysmal 3 of 17 from the floor as New York lost by a single point.

A year ago, those five players hadn’t shared a court together. This time around, they get to build on previously established familiarity.

“You can feel that energy and that chemistry continuing to build and it’s just really fun to see,” Ionescu said. “I mean, we had such an intense training camp day one, because we’re able to pick up where we left off.”

New York, coached by Sandy Brondello, will also carry three rookies on its roster: guards Jaylyn Sherrod and Marquesha Davis and forward Esmery Martinez.

–Field Level Media

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