Sitting at the front of the press conference room was Brittney Sykes, the star of the Washington Mystics season after her first year with the team. Beside her was now the six-year veteran Ariel Atkins who has only played with Washington as a professional in the WNBA.
Everything was normal and jovial for Sykes, as were most of her availabilities throughout the year. She was chipper, and as she answered questions a grin would turn it into a sly smile. Whenever she could, Sykes would try and insert a small joke, make light of a serious topic, or simply use different figures of speech to better share her perspective of a given situation.
Then she was asked to reflect on her growth this season, her first in Washington D.C. She accomplished so much, in what became a career year for her and arguably one of the best in franchise history. Old franchise records for points and steals in a single season were toppled and Sykes’s, aka ‘Slim’s,’ name is now etched at the top. And after using a metaphor for her finally breaking through the door, she couldn’t hold back any longer. Her face lost composure and tears started to come down her face as she said she promised she wouldn’t get emotional.
“I’m just really grateful for this year,” Sykes said. “I was just saying yesterday to my agent. It’s like, humbly surreal, because of course I knew like the stuff that I was doing, I was capable and I was doing it, but it was just so humbling that I’ve just been waiting for this year to finally happen.”
Coming into this season, Sykes had traversed around the league to get to D.C. It was her third team in just seven seasons, which is a rarity for a starter of her stature. But when she signed with the organization in free agency before the 2023 season she had high aspirations for herself.
Sykes felt that Washington was the team that would allow her to unlock her offensive game even further. Known as one of the best defensive players in the league, she was primarily used as a downhill, speed threat in a half-court offense. Changing that narrative was going to be key this year. The Mystics obviously felt this way as well, agreeing to a three-year contract and making her the second highest-paid player on the roster entering this offseason.
To everyone’s credit, it all came together. The system allowed Sykes to pour in career-highs. But in the perspective of growing her game, Sykes’s 0.7 threes made per game at 28.9% in her career rose to 1.4 threes made and 35.0% – exactly what she was targeting to do this season. She also was the only starter who played all 40 games and led the roster, which has three All-Stars, in win-shares with 3.9.
That’s all without mentioning that she finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year race after making a compelling case as a guard.
“I think she showed she should be among the elite two-way guards in this league,” head coach Eric Thibault said at the end of the season. “She took the challenge that we kind of issued when we were recruiting her and signed her about being willing to shoot the ball and that made a big difference to her game and our team’s kind of ceiling offensively. I think she’s coming into her prime now in terms of being able to work on the new nuances of her game and her craft.”
The analogy that Sykes used was her repeatedly nudging at a door, trying to open it up for herself in her first six seasons in the WNBA. The problem was, that someone was on the other side of the door, holding it shut, preventing her from getting through.
So when Washington is there to help her open that door that wasn’t budging, it was relieving. One single season with the Mystics has potentially opened up her game so that she no longer has to be forced to fit into a box. She always knew she could do these things, but needed the safe space to accomplish it.
And adding in little things like Atkins, sitting next to Sykes, telling her to “let it out” when she was getting emotional assures her she is supported.
“I have a lot of gratitude towards Washington and my teammates like- I joked with [general manager Mike Thibault], I was like thank you for coming to get me. Thank you for coming to get me,” Sykes said. “It doesn’t matter where it is. I’m just really appreciative of people who have like stuck their hand up when I felt like I was drowning. So that’s what it felt like. I’m just really appreciative that Washington gave me that opportunity. And like, I’m proud of myself that I stayed ready, and that Washington gave me that opportunity for me to do what I did this year and then some.”
“Her emotional, mental development as a guard with a lot of weight now on their shoulders as kind of a creative center of a team, which wasn’t on her shoulders before in other places, that’s a big next step for her,” Eric Thibault said. “I think she’s excited about that challenge based on the conversations we’ve had. And I mean, she’s 29 and so she should be hitting some prime years where that physical and mental development really overlap and skill development, all that stuff comes together. So I’m excited to see what she’s capable of the next couple years.”