The Washington Mystics sit atop the WNBA standings at 9-3 ahead of Friday’s clash with the 8-5 Las Vegas Aces. Sixth-year reserve forward Tianna Hawkins, shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and 16-of-33 from deep, has been a key, flexible cog for one of the league’s most potent offenses.
Washington’s success is propelled by the shooting and fluidity of their frontcourt. Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman and Hawkins are consistent 3-point threats. (LaToya Sanders doesn’t, but shot 57.3 percent on 96 midrange attempts last season. Slacker.) Spotting up along the perimeter opens up driving lanes for everybody—another area in which Hawkins has become even more of a threat.
She dropped about 20 pounds last year and spent the offseason training in D.C. rather than playing overseas. She re-signed with Washington after the 2017 season on a two-year deal as a restricted free agent.
Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault has his team regularly hoist 3-pointers from NBA range. Hawkins became a more complete threat by transforming her body. Her comfort level and extra burst attacking off the bounce have been noticeable:
June 29: Washington Mystics 102, Atlanta Dream 59 — June 23: Washington Mystics 89, Atlanta Dream 73
Knocking down open triples—and seeking out more attempts—has helped, too. Hawkins’ 25 makes in 2018 was a career-high, doubling 2017’s 12-of-46 total. She did not even attempt that many during her first three WNBA seasons.
Now, she’s on track for another career high in both makes and attempts after shooting 25-of-70 (35.7 percent) last season.
Hawkins also moves better defensively, and every half-step matters for Washington. They’re a very solid unit and can really wear opponents down, especially in the postseason, with their versatile personnel switching a team’s top pick-and-roll combinations.
But they don’t have overwhelming size around the basket.
The most intimidating rim protector, Sanders is rail-thin and listed at just 6’3”. Delle Donne is their biggest and sturdiest body on the interior while Meesseman is a bit more limited athletically.
Instead of looking like an undersized power forward, Hawkins seems more like a really big, versatile wing. Arriving on time and keeping people in front is at a premium. At its best, this Mystics defense will stall out primary actions.
The obvious advantage in doing so? Forcing contested off-the-bounce 2-point attempts.
Washington’s starting group is their only five-player lineup (181 minutes) to log more than 23 minutes together through 12 games per WNBA.com. Hawkins has been a part of the next six most-used groups. Five have outscored opponents handily while the other has been about even.
The Mystics needed Hawkins contributing at a high level this year, and she has delivered.
Last season’s starting lineup logged 293 minutes together. The next three most-used lineups tallied 68, 61 and 51 minutes. Hawkins was not a part of any of them. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Krystal Thomas and Mo Currie—each no longer with the team—were.
The shooting and overall team frontcourt versatility almost makes Hawkins as vital as Washington’s stars.
She can slide into any lineup with Delle Donne, Meesseman or Sanders. How many teams have that much freedom with the top-four bigs in their rotation without cramping their spacing and/or lowering their defensive ceiling?
Hawkins has steadily averaged about 16 minutes per game since 2017. That’s about all a team needs off the bench in maintaining a three-big rotation. The catch for the Mystics: They have four really good ones that deserve rotation minutes.
Thibault will face an interesting juggling act re-integrating Meesseman, (who missed all of last season preparing for the World Cup), upon her return from EuroBasket. The team has been very successful with Sanders as Delle Donne’s starting frontcourt partner.
So, does he mix things up now?
And don’t forget about second-year big Myisha Hines-Allen, a fascinating Hawkins understudy. The two have logged 48 minutes together this season and played opponents even per Positive Residual. Even if Thibault had to roll out two reserve bigs together every night, the team has a chance to hold the fort.
They are very different players. Hines-Allen, also known as The Ox, has more brute strength and can bang a little bit more with true center-types. The face-up game is still raw, but that’s where Hawkins comes in as such a glowing example worth following.
She will be an unrestricted free agent after the season per the High Post Hoops salary database. Because of her versatility and tremendous improvement, other teams have every reason to pursue her in full force.
Delle Donne, Meesseman and All-Star guard Kristi Toliver will be unrestricted free agents as well. Now, this group did make the Finals last season without Meesseman at all and look like the 2019 title favorites thus far.
The group gets along extremely well by all accounts. And while looking elsewhere may not be a very fruitful endeavor, and every individual is different, perhaps Hawkins could be pried away with the promise of a bigger role.
She’s a “Moreyball” template, attempting nearly 84 percent of her shot attempts this season either from the restricted area or beyond the 3-point line per WNBA.com.
Her story is also one the WNBPA should hammer in the upcoming CBA negotiations.
Seeing how much she improved after spending the offseason prior to the 2018 season in D.C. training with the Mystics’ staff versus heading overseas, imagine what would happen league-wide—both for the on-court product and in the community from a marketing standpoint—if more players were finally incentivized to do the same?
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.