Mystics pick up Alysha Clark as training camp nears

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Alysha Clark is alone on the training grounds inside the Entertainment and Sports Arena at 9 a.m. sharp, and that particular Tuesday is considered a late start for the two-time WNBA champion. Sporting Mystics head-to-toe gear — blue shirt, red shorts, blue league logo socks pulled up to the calf — Clark goes through stretches as others arrive in the building. She has already completed 30 minutes of preparation before an hour on the pitch and a weight training session with a physiotherapist.

It’s been the process for six months and ever since Clark entered the final stretch of her recovery from surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury to her right foot last spring. She missed all of 2021 with the first season-ending injury of her career, but now the defensive ace is ready to restart as the Mystics begin training camp on Monday with the season slated to begin May 6. .

“I can feel that competitive fire coming back to life,” Clark said, “which is exciting because I’m a competitive person. So yeah, it’s been exciting to feel that feeling again.

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Excited is a welcome feeling after losing an entire year of basketball. Clark signed a free agent deal with the Mystics in January 2021, but hasn’t played a single second in a Washington jersey. She got injured while playing overseas and spent all of her time with the organization in rehab mode. That, in itself, was strange. Clark was on the team throughout the tumultuous 2021 season that ended with the club missing the playoffs for only the second time under coach Mike Thibault. She could be seen before games in street clothes, hanging out along the baseline with Elena Delle Donne – rehabilitating a back injury herself. Clark said it was weird trying to figure out how to be a leader and not being able to lead by example. And that was the best of times.

At some point, frustration set in. Clark had plenty of time to learn his new surroundings after spending nine seasons in Seattle, but the city was also lonely at times. With the rest of the team gone in the offseason and a lot of rehab to do, there was a certain isolation to his job. The process was tedious and it kept Clark focused, but it also led to tears.

“If I felt frustrated or whatever, I allowed myself to feel it instead of trying to suppress it and act like it wasn’t there,” Clark said. “There were a lot of days where I cried in frustration. There were a lot of days where I just didn’t have it. I didn’t want to do anything, so I didn’t.

“But then you just have to go through that and come back to the point of saying, okay, we have to go back and lock down. These moments are important. These are the days that will help you in May. And I had to remind myself because it’s hard.

The Mystics are counting on Clark to be herself as Thibault’s “reset” roster takes the floor. Gone are Tina Charles and Emma Meesseman, but Thibault didn’t need to rebuild. Delle Donne is a two-time MVP. Ariel Atkins is an all-star and an Olympic gold medalist. Natasha Cloud is one of the best defenders and leaders in the league. Myisha Hines-Allen has an all-WNBA second-team selection on her resume. Elizabeth Williams was a star. Tianna Hawkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are veterans with championship rings. It’s a core that should make the playoffs, at a minimum.

“We are competing for a championship mode,” said Thibault. “I thought we lost a bit of the edge we had in 2019 over the last year and a half. Partly because the people weren’t there. Partly because we just had a different set of personalities.

Here is your chance to reset who you are. Name your own identity as a team. Look around the room and see the different weapons we have at both ends of the field. And let’s make sure we use them all correctly.

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The Mystics are set to field a deep roster including the aforementioned eight, backup point guard Rui Machida making his WNBA debut, No. 3 overall pick Shakira Austin and No. 14 overall pick Christyn Williams. It’s probably 11 from the list of 12 people. The coaching staff will be diligent with the pace of camp as Clark and Delle Donne aim to be ready for the start of the season, and Thibault doesn’t want to push too hard.

Austin is a bit of a wildcard at the start of the season. The veteran-led deep roster doesn’t need them to be a big factor this season, but they could have opportunities as Elizabeth Williams and Hines-Allen could miss games due to their overseas contracts. Williams is the only other true center on the roster and the 6-foot-5 Austin can provide much-needed size up front.

“This year was the first time I covered Shakira in person and called it a game, and only one game,” ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo said, “but in this game, there’s had several times where [we] looked at each other and just said, “That was a pro shot, that was a pro shot.” More than anyone really, any other senior we’ve covered this year.

“She just has this amazing edge where you think, down the road, could this kid be an eternal star.”

Health remains the biggest success factor in 2022 after the roster was ravaged in 2021. It starts with Clark and Delle Donne.

So Clark goes through drills over the next hour in Tuesday’s practice. Stationary jumpers. Pull-on sweaters. Dribbling shots. Free throws. Floats. Action two against two. Pick and roll. Full court transition. Clark berates himself a bit after too many misfires.

There is a particular emphasis on starting and stopping with attention paid to that right foot. The explosion is there, sometimes. Some days this is not the case.

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It’s all part of the sometimes infuriating and winding road to the ground. Clark finally feels like a basketball player again after spending her early years in DC living like a tourist — going to other pro games, learning about the food scene, networking with the new community.

Now the Mystics need her to regain championship form.

“That part is probably going to be the hardest part for me in terms of patience,” Clark said. “Because I’m going to want to get out, I’m going to want to do things, I’m going to want to push and go more.

“I want to show myself, yes, I’ve improved, I’ve improved. I’m going to come back better. There’s still a lot left in the tank. All the untapped potential that I haven’t even reached yet, that’s a exciting feeling for me to know that I am in this space now where I can finally see this.

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