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Meet The Washington Mystics’ Not-So-Secret Weapon

As Elena Delle Donne played through the searing pain of a herniated disk on Sunday, she clearly wasn’t her usual, multi-dimensional star self for the Washington Mystics. In Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, she took just six shots all afternoon, making a single, labored drive to the basket.

But by the time that one dribble penetration came, the Mystics already led by 10 points, largely because of the work of Emma Meesseman. In a league where Delle Donne is considered sui generis, it is a remarkable bit of roster construction that Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault has held on to Meesseman, turning her into the Delle Donne understudy who would likely be a centerpiece performer on any other team.

“Emma’s been our missing piece,” said Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud after Sunday’s game. “Everyone knows that she’s the missing piece of a championship team.”

After missing the 2018 season to play overseas — and missing the Mystics’ WNBA Finals loss to the Seattle Storm — Meesseman has served primarily as “the Delle Donne” in Washington’s sets when the MVP isn’t on the floor. Meesseman’s integration into the lineup has been so smooth that prior to Game 3, when Thibault still didn’t know whether Delle Donne could even play, he wasn’t worried.

“The game plan is working much the same, as far as how we’re going to play,” Thibault said while watching Delle Donne take her first shots on the court about 90 minutes before Game 3. “[We] just plugged in some people into the spots. Other than that, it’s just, we run the same plays for Emma that we do for Elena.”

It’s hard to overstate how much of a luxury that is. The 6-foot-4 Meesseman pushes Delle Donne in practice and is a true inside-outside performer capable of emulating the 2019 MVP and approximating her per-40-minute scoring production — as well as anyone can, anyway.

The luxury was on full display Sunday afternoon. Delle Donne played 26 minutes, and Meesseman played 25 minutes, but it was Meesseman who could move without the ball unfettered by a back injury, getting the shots Delle Donne customarily does in the flow of the offense. She not only scored a game-high 21 points, but she also hit her shots at critical times, including a trio of 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter that helped put the game out of reach.

“Emma was a monster,” Delle Donne said admiringly of her teammate. “She was on the attack. So confident. Emma is such a good player, and we need her to just continue to attack because no one can guard her one-on-one. She requires double-teams, triple-teams to be guarded.”

Sounds a lot like Delle Donne, right?

So does the production this season. Delle Donne was rightly feted by the basketball world for her 50-40-90 season, the first in WNBA history. You know who else finished at 50-40-90, though? With 55.2 percent from the field, 42.2 percent from three and 90.5 percent from the free throw line, that would be Meesseman. (Though without meeting the minimum attempts necessary in each category to qualify for the season leaderboard.)

Sun coach Curt Miller acknowledged that he’ll need to find an answer to both Mystics in Game 4 if the Sun are going to extend their season. “We’ll take a look at different schemes,” Miller said. “We’ll take a look at different matchups. But, again, they’re both 50-40-90 kids. This is not something that they’re not capable of doing. They’re shot makers. And they’re doing things that the league’s never seen.”

The Mystics are just 40 minutes from a WNBA championship, a validation of Delle Donne’s career in a new way. But for Delle Donne’s part, she hopes it sheds new light on the greatness of her offensive doppelgänger, too.

“I say it all the time: Emma is one of the greatest in the world,” Delle Donne said. “Her play overseas, what she does for her national team, she’s ready for this moment. And you can tell she’s relishing this moment.”

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of High Post Hoops, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.

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