Vets, rookies give Mystics new life
When she's playing basketball overseas in the winter months, Michelle Snow also stays occupied with other tasks. Specifically, running her business interests from afar. At 33, she's a veteran at this balancing act between the WNBA, foreign leagues and preparing for life after hoops.
Tayler Hill, 22, is just starting out in the WNBA and getting a feel for what a professional's life is like. She hasn't gone through the adjustment of living away from the United States. Or how to begin planning -- it's never too early -- for being financially prepared at the end of her playing career.
Snow and Hill are teammates now for the Washington Mystics (3-1), a franchise that finished last in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons but seems to have new life in 2013 under relocated coach Mike Thibault.
Snow, an 11-year veteran, and Hill, the No. 4 draft pick in April, represent the extremes in experience for the Mystics.
On one hand, you have the 6-foot-5 center who has seen it all in the pro game and been able to steadily keep a job. On the other hand, you have a 5-10 guard who's learning more every day about what it takes to earn minutes in this league.
"When you're young," says Mystics point guard Ivory Latta, "you need that veteran who will get in your grill and say: 'Hey, you are at the next level. Everybody is faster, quicker, they jump higher, they get in the passing lanes. You have to adjust.'
"Tayler -- she's going to be great. She just has to get into the rhythm of how the WNBA is played, and it takes some time."
Latta is a six-year veteran. She had her best WNBA season last year with Tulsa, and is off to an even better start now with Washington. Latta is averaging 20.5 points and 4.5 assists for the Mystics, and she leads a trio of former ACC stars who form the core of the team's offensive attack. Crystal Langhorne is averaging 12.3 points and Monique Currie 12.0.
When he took over in Washington after being let go by Connecticut, Thibault felt the Mystics had no reliable identity. That would have to be built quickly, and a fair amount of what was in place during a dreadful 5-29 season last year would need to be scrapped.
Snow, though, stayed put, along with Langhorne, Currie and Matee Ajavon.
"The last two years not making the playoffs bothers me," Snow said of her time with Washington and Chicago. "When you have that winning mentality, it gets a little frustrating. But at the same time, I understand that you have to lose with the same grace as you win with.
"I definitely learned that you can give everything you've got, and sometimes it doesn't make a difference. Some seasons, you've got to accept that. And I've learned patience; it's something I never used to have."
I definitely learned that you can give everything you've got, and sometimes it doesn't make a difference. Some seasons, you've got to accept that. And I've learned patience; it's something I never used to have.” -- Michelle Snow on the Mystics' 5-29 season in 2012
Snow was drafted out of Tennessee by Houston in 2002 and played for the Comets until the franchise was dissolved following the 2008 season. Snow was then an itinerant player for a while, playing with Atlanta, San Antonio, Chicago and Washington in four years.
This year, though, she's back for a second season with the Mystics and said she was glad to see Thibault take the helm. What has he brought to the franchise?
"Accountability, period, 1 through 11," Snow said. "We have a philosophy, and every person needs to buy into that. And everyone has.
"We've got one of the best coaches in the league. You can tell he's been around a lot of different players over the years, because he knows how to work with each one. There's no one style that's the same for everyone, but he's going to demand the best."
Snow appreciates that Thibault came into training camp not dictating the specifics of his system. Instead, he wanted to watch the players just play for a while and see what each of them was more naturally adept at doing. Then he could design his offense around those things.
"He has a very good system," Snow said, "but he also doesn't restrict you from playing your game."
Snow can compare Thibault with a lot of coaches -- going all the way back to Pat Summitt at Tennessee. He was able to connect quickly with Snow. But he did the same with Hill, someone who had very little in the way of preconceived notions about what WNBA coaching would be like.
"Coach Thibault and I had a great relationship before he picked me, and I'm happy to be here," Hill said, noting that they talked a lot during the pre-draft process. "As a rookie, if you have a coach who is able to teach you things but can make it simpler for you, it really helps."
Snow came to the WNBA back in 2002, off a Final Four appearance with Tennessee. This past season, Hill's Ohio State squad didn't make the NCAA tournament.
"It was a rough season just because we lost games we should have won," Hill said. "In a sense, it built character in me.
"You're not going to go straight from college and average 20 points, but I'm going to work to get there."
Hill and her fellow Mystics rookies Nadirah McKenith, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Emma Meesseman -- she's the youngest, having turned 20 in May -- can look to the older players for advice and constructive criticism.
Snow, who is preparing for life after basketball with her own real estate company, could give them all tips on how to be a survivor in a league where there is so much competition for roster spots.
"Being versatile helped me; that's one of the reasons I'm still here," Snow said. "And you learn to deal with different personalities and players coming from different programs. You get to see the different mentalities and figure out how to bring everybody aboard. But also make sure you don't slip yourself."