Washington center Stefanie Dolson came to training camp in May looking a little nervous. It wasn't that she hadn't prepared well for her second season in the WNBA, because she definitely had. It wasn't that she didn't have confidence in herself, because that's steadily been building since her days at UConn.
Dolson simply wanted to show she was ready to be an integral part of the Mystics, but she was almost getting in her own way in her early practices.
"She put a lot of pressure on herself," Mystic coach Mike Thibault said. "It took her a while to kind of just slow herself down. It's typical of young players when they're working a bunch of stuff to improve on, they want it all to happen at once. She was doing everything at 100 mph. Once she slowed herself down, things started to fall in place a little bit."
Dolson was an All-Star in July and has made herself a candidate for the league's most improved player, an award that often goes to someone in her second season. That's when a player has had time to absorb and adjust to the higher level of competition in the WNBA, plus has typically gone overseas for more experience.
"There is an added comfort level, whereas coming into your rookie year, you really don't know what to expect," Dolson said. "You hear all these stories about how the game is played differently in this league, but you don't really know it until you've been through it.
"I knew what Coach T expected of me, so I worked on that. My one-on-one and face-up skills are better than last year. In college, I was one of the biggest players, but in the WNBA and overseas, you have to get better with one-on-one."
As a starter this season, Dolson is averaging 12.5 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Mystics, who got one of their biggest victories of the season Sunday over Western Conference-leading Minnesota.
Dolson, with 12 points and eight rebounds, was one of five Mystics players who scored in double figures in the 77-69 win over the visiting Lynx. It's the first of two games in a row between the teams, with the rematch Wednesday at Minnesota. The Mystics also have two games remaining against Phoenix, the second-place team in the West, plus a trip to Los Angeles.
We're heading into the stretch run in the WNBA, and the Mystics, at 14-9, are tied with Indiana for second place in the Eastern Conference behind 16-7 New York. Washington certainly has a good enough squad to finish first. Yet at the same time, the standings are so bunched up in the East -- stop me if you've heard that one before -- that if things go poorly, Washington also could find itself out of the playoffs.
So there's little margin for error for the Mystics, which may bring out their best. In fact, on an individual level, that's partly what happened with Dolson this season when Kia Vaughn went out June 12 with a concussion.
Vaughn had started at center all last year for the Mystics while Dolson came off the bench. But with Vaughn out, Dolson had to produce.
"Because Stef was thrown into a 'must-perform' situation, I think it's accelerated her growth," Thibault said. "She knew that the team relied on her, and to her credit, she stepped up to it.
"It was an interesting dynamic, because I think she'd gotten a little bit comfortable last year in sharing the pressure. But then a lot of it was dumped on her, and I think it was good for her. It put her in a situation where she knew we needed her to score. Her rebounding numbers and blocked shots started to go up, and consequently, her confidence did, too."
"To be where I am now, I'm proud of myself for how hard I've worked, and what I've been through to get here." Mystics center Stefanie Dolson
Dolson, who won NCAA championships her junior and senior seasons at UConn, was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft. As a rookie, she averaged 6.0 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing about 18 minutes a game. The Mystics finished third in the East and lost 2-0 to Indiana in the conference semifinals.
During the winter, Dolson played for Spartak in Russia, alongside Mystics teammate Emma Meesseman. Dolson worked on her face-up game and bonded even more with Meesseman, her fellow center.
The 6-foot-5 Dolson is 23, while the 6-4 Meeseman, who's from Belgium, is 22. Thibault has coached several effective post duos in his long career, but what makes this one a little different is how young both players are. They are growing together -- both were on the East's All-Star squad -- and in some ways, their on-court dynamic is similar to what Dolson had with 6-4 Breanna Stewart at UConn.
"I think it gives me more range," Dolson said. "Whether it's Stewie and me or Emma and me, we can swap positions on defense or offense. We both have the outside shot, both can set screens and roll, both can post up and make moves. It just gives us more versatility and freedom, so we're not stuck on the block. We just read each other."
Meanwhile, Vaughn returned to action on July 29; that and the pick-up of LaToya Sanders in early July has helped the Mystics' interior depth. Washington has had various other injury issues, including a back problem that kept guard Kara Lawson out for four games. She returned Tuesday.
Dolson, though, has been able to stay healthy, and she's ready for a strong finish. Watching Dolson this season has been a case study in player development. She had to learn to slow down to speed up her improvement, and when the Mystics really needed her to embrace a big role, she did.
Thibault -- like UConn's Geno Auriemma, an exacting critic -- would like to see Dolson become a more prolific rebounder. He thinks her passing, which always was one of her strongest assets in college, has translated well to the pro game. And he's also pleased with her progress on defense, especially in staying out of foul trouble.
"To be where I am now, I'm proud of myself for how hard I've worked, and what I've been through to get here," Dolson said. "But I have a lot of time left, hopefully, in the league, and I just want to keep getting better."