The Washington Mystics open their 2018 WNBA season with high expectations and will put those to the test against the Indiana Fever on Sunday afternoon at the Capital One Center in Washington, D.C., for the first of three regular-season games.
The Fever opened Saturday, losing 82-64 at home to the Chicago Sky.
Washington compiled an 18-16 record in 2017 and advanced to the league semifinals before losing to the Minnesota Lynx. The Mystics retained the nucleus from that squad, including Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, and brought in a handful of other talented players to help propel them to the top of the league.
The Mystics are still waiting on Tayler Hill, LaToya Sanders and Ruffin-Pratt (who should be active for the season opener) to return to full health.
Rookie additions Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen have impressed in training camp, and 2017 first-round pick Shatori Walker-Kimbrough continues to improve.
Washington will focus on playing with pace and getting valuable shots, which for the Mystics translates to 3-point looks and shots close to the basket. It's a tight-knit group, and the players think their closeness will transfer to the court.
"Last year, it was like a first date, no one wants to step on each other's toes, just getting to know each other," Delle Donne said. "This year, it's just family. Such a different vibe, we can feel it on the court. We're not afraid to make mistakes, there's a lot of energy, and much better communication."
The Mystics will have to adapt to playing without Emma Meesseman, who decided to skip this season because of Belgian national team commitments and a bit of burnout. She has arguably been the best player on the team for much of her five years with the franchise, and she and Delle Donne were a dynamite and dangerous frontcourt duo.
To make up for Meesseman's absence, Washington signed former Mystics player Monique Currie and hope to slide her into the shooting forward spot.
Washington coach Mike Thibault said he's going to rely heavily on Currie to score at least 10 points a night and to provide key veteran leadership.
"There's things Mo's learned at other places that are a little bit different that she can bring to us and help younger teammates with," Thibault said. "She can step back from the process a little bit. That's where her voice will be important on and off the court."
Indiana (0-1) will have to regroup and do so quickly after its season-opening loss on Saturday.
The Fever gets right back on the court Sunday for their first road game and continues a brutal beginning stretch of the season that includes four more games in the next seven days.
Candice Dupree led the Fever with 14 points and eight rebounds in the loss at home to Chicago, Erica Wheeler added 13 points and Tiffany Mitchell hit for 11.
The Fever shot just 37 percent in the loss, hit just 3 of 15 3-point attempts, and were outrebounded 44-32. Indiana had just five turnovers in the game -- and only two of those came from their starters.
Pokey Chatman's second season as Indiana's coach could not be much worse than her first, which ended with a 9-25 mark and snapped the Fever's record 12-year streak of playoff appearances.
"I think buy-in is the biggest thing," Dupree said before Saturday's season opener. "We didn't necessarily have that from the entire team last season. It's tough to win games if people aren't going to do what the coach asks them to do or what coach wants. This year, they're eager to learn to play."
Eight of the 12 players on Indiana's roster are 25 years old or younger.
"They're just hungry, and they're excited to learn," Chatman said. "They give life to me when I come to the gym."