There is palpable chemistry on the court this season for the Washington Mystics. Fans, media and players alike have noticed the unselfish style characterizing the Mystics’ play and the general camaraderie amongst the team. The harmony throughout the team has developed out of the relationship of two of its most consistent and outstanding players, Stefanie Dolson and Emma Meesseman. Perhaps an unlikely friendship to an outsider, the two young players have formed a bond over the sport they both love.
Their basketball stories could not begin in more different ways. Dolson, the elder by over a year, grew up in Port Jervis, New York where she first picked up basketball at age seven. Coached by her father, the future superstar played with her sisters for the local Lions Club team.
“Probably eighth grade was when I knew basketball was going to be where I wanted to go,” Dolson said. “I didn’t think I’d go this far honestly, but I enjoyed it more than I did [other sports].”
The center would go on to lead her Minisink Valley High School to four straight New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship games. A McDonald’s High School All-American, Dolson racked up the accolades: named to the ESPN Rise All-America first team and the 2010 U18 National team, with which she would earn a gold medal. Athletic pursuits were not the only category in which the three-sport athlete excelled; she also was inducted into the National Honor Society. Rated as the second best center out of high school, Dolson averaged 22.8 points, 17.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 5.2 blocks in her senior season.
But she didn’t stop there. Dolson went on to become a Connecticut Husky, joining one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. At the University of Connecticut, she was named to the WBCA All-America team twice and the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in her senior season. The center became one of only four Huskies to reach both the 1,000-point and 1,000-rebound milestones and was rewarded in her role in the team’s campaigns to two National Championships by earning a spot on the NCAA Tournament and All-Regional teams. Her dominance in a winning program stood out to WNBA coaches, including Mystics’ head coach Mike Thibault.
“[Stef’s] a post player than can play inside, can shoot on the perimeter and can pass. It’s a pretty good skill in the modern pro game, it makes you offer a lot of things to a team,” Thibault said. “She came from a winning program and understood what it takes to work hard to be a winning team…. Her expectations of herself were to be good.”
Dolson was selected sixth overall by Thibault’s Washington Mystics in the 2014 WNBA Draft, joining a team that had selected Emma Meesseman the previous season.
While Dolson was playing for the Lions Club, her future teammate was growing up thousands of miles away in Ypres, Belgium. Meesseman’s introduction to basketball was quite different than that of Dolson. The Belgian’s mother, Sonja Tankrey, had her own professional basketball career in their native country. According to her daughter, Tankrey was the premier Belgian women’s player of her time and was named the Belgian Women’s Player of the Year in 1983. The forward followed in her mother’s footsteps, beginning a European basketball career of her own.
As a 17-year old, the forward averaged 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds with the senior national team at the EuroBasket Women Division A Games. At the European club level, Meesseman was a member of the Lotto Young Cats, a team composed of the best young Belgian talent. With the Young Cats, Meesseman averaged 17.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
Representing her country in the U18 European Championship, Meesseman was the top scorer and rebounder in the tournament, with 16.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Due to her impressive performance she was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, which set the stage for her honor as the FIBA Europe Young Women’s Player of the Year.
“People asked me like what I wanted to become or what’s my dream?” Messeeman remembered. “Of course I said the WNBA because it’s the highest. I said it but I didn’t really believe it [was possible].”
Just 19-years old when she entered the WNBA Draft, Meesseman was picked 19th overall in 2013 by Washington. Although starting just one game in her rookie season, Meeseeman averaged 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds in 14.7 minutes per game.
The Mystics traded forward Crystal Langhorne after Meesseman’s rookie season to increase the Belgian’s playing time and allow her to develop. The trade paid off. Meesseman had a breakout year as a sophomore en route to becoming the only Mystic to start all 34 games and was considered for Most Improved Player of the Year. The forward finished her sophomore season second on the team and fourth among all second-year players in scoring. Additionally, Meeseman led Washington and was second among all sophomores on the boards.
“She understood we were serious about her being a go-to player. I think the fact her teammates encourage her to shoot the ball more and be more aggressive helped,” Thibault said. “She just got older, stronger, more comfortable knowing the league.”
Throughout Meesseman’s sophomore season, Dolson’s rookie year, the duo balanced each other well. Meesseman guided the rookie Dolson through her first season in the league, while the outgoing Dolson brought the quiet Belgian out of her shell. At the conclusion of the WNBA season, the two both signed contracts to play overseas for Spartak in Moscow, Russia. The only two English-speaking athletes on their team, the teammates bonded extensively. Coach Thibault challenged Dolson to make Meesseman into a three-point shooter during the offseason and the duo shot competitively together every day.
“We were really dependent on each other. That’s good for our game,” Meesseman said. “Even though we knew each other already, we got to know each other more because we were really focused on each other. I got to know what she’s really good in, what she’s less good in, how should I pass to her, what’s her mind in the game.”
Already on track for another career season in her third year in the league, Meesseman averaged a remarkable 15.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 61% shooting in the month of June. Now the target of many teams’ defensive efforts and deprived of open looks as the team struggled offensively through three losses in a row, Meesseman’s numbers have dropped slightly in July. But the forward continued to make an impact on the court, averaging 7.5 rebounds, 2.75 assists and 1.13 steals in July.
Building off each other’s career seasons, you can also find Dolson and Meesseman’s names next to one another on the stat sheet. The duo lead the Mystics in average scoring and rebounding with 13.2 and 12.3 points and 7.3 and 7.1 boards respectively. The powerful frontcourt also boasts the team’s highest field goal percentages: Stefanie shooting 53.8% and Emma 52.7% on the season.
Their journey together and as Mystics took on new meaning as the two were selected to play in the Boost Mobile All-Star Game in Ucasville, Connecticut on July 25th. Just 45 minutes from where Stef played at the University of Connecticut, the All-Star game was a sort of homecoming for the center.
“Most of the Connecticut Sun fan base is UConn fan base also. I knew going into it there’d be a lot of UConn [support], plus the fact that there was four of us there from UConn at the All-Stars,” Dolson said. “They were great, heard a lot of cheers for all of us. It was nice to be able to play in front of them again.”
The All-Star accolades are an ode to the development of Dolson and Meesseman under the Mystics’ coaching staff. Both were selected in the draft under Coach Thibault’s tutelage and have been developed under his leadership. In just their second and third seasons in the WNBA, an All-Star nod so early in their careers demonstrates the sky is the limit for the duo. Washington has not had two All-Stars since 2007 when the game was held at Verizon Center.
The duo did not disappoint in their All-Star debuts. Meesseman added 10 points, seven rebounds, one assist, a steal and a block off the bench for the Eastern Conference team. Dolson posted four points, three boards, one assist and a steal. Their chemistry was on full display in the second quarter when Dolson set her teammate up for a smooth layup.
“She came in the league one year before me, but I feel like we’ve had a similar road together. So it was cool to be voted for All-Star together,” Dolson said. “It was a cool, cool experience for sure.”
“I was very glad to share it with her,” Meesseman added.
All-Stars so early in their careers, their coach believes they have barely scratched the surface of their potential.
“I told Emma today that I think she’s still got a 25% improvement in her. And on top of that, she’ll get a little bit stronger too,” Thibault said. “I told them they have a chance to be All-Stars together for 10-12 years. That’s kind of a nice thing to look forward to.”
And look forward to it we will.
Watch: Dolson & G-Wiz Dance-Off