Elena Tsineke's fearlessness has guided her career and now is impressing Mystics
A 'fearless' Elena Tsineke is impressing at Mystics camp originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
WASHINGTON -- Just around a decade ago Elena Tsineke, then 13 years old, and her twin sister Katerina began their daily ritual of playing on an outdoor court in the port city of Thessaloniki, Greece. Off in the distance, the two Tsineke sisters could see their house and their mother occasionally popping out on a balcony to check on them or tell them to come in for the day.
It was there in Thessaloniki that Elena and Katerina began their passion for basketball. A path was blazed to lead Elena to be drafted by the Washington Mystics and fight for a roster spot at this year's training camp. Her journey to get here is "simple" as Elena told NBC Sports Washington, but it's one that highlights her fearlessness and drive to play in the WNBA.
Fresh off her All-American Honorable Mention senior season at the University of South Florida, Tsineke went back to Greece to spend time with her family. She had no idea that she was an option for Washington, much less a prospect who would go in the second round at 20th overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft. It was, as she called it "a big win" and something to use as "motivation to go even farther."
But on draft night, her setup was like her path: simple. It was just her and her family, at home and sharing the accomplishment on a small scale.
"I was never the type of person who just loved the hype," the soft-spoken Tsineke told NBC Sports Washington. "So I kept the excitement for myself and my family. Of course, we shared it and that's enough. Now it's time for work. This is what I've always been praying and preparing for. So the excitement part now has to be gone and just really focused on working and in the place and in an organization that I can actually fit in."
Her arrival at Mystics training camp was met with intrigue by her teammates and coaches. Everyone knew she was a scorer with the Bulls, averaging 17.9 points per game with a 38.3% 3-point shooting mark her senior year. Everyone is also aware of the big challenge that was ahead of her to make one of the 11 exclusive roster spots.
Still, she impressed the veterans and coaches early on. And it wasn't just a result of the welcoming and familial atmosphere that Washington is known for. On media day, she was highlighted by one of the team's stars.
"[Tsineke] has come out and, I know that she was a scorer at USF, but to see [her] implemented into the professional game already. Like she's ready and that's exciting to see," Natasha Cloud said unprompted. "She's just a dog like she's gonna yell at everyone, she's gonna be up guarding at halfcourt waiting for you. Those are all exciting things, especially as a point guard too right? I appreciate it. The things that don't necessarily show up in the box score always get seen, I appreciate from afar. So I think [Tsineke's] been doing a great job."
Part of Tsineke's success at camp has come from her fearlessness. It's an attribute she uses to describe herself and that sentiment has been shared by a player she looks up to, Ariel Atkins.
But her fortitude could be seen at a young age. After being noticed by local, Greek coaches it was not long before Tsineke was playing on the club circuit in her country. Many of her opponents were fully-grown adults and became her competition while she was still a teenager and after only five years of knowing the sport.
She was unphased, which kindled her push to be better.
"When I started playing in the club team in Greece, of course, it was girls that were like 30 and 40 years old, and I was the youngest, I was 18, 17 and I was just hooping against those girls like I wasn't really scared of them," Tsineke said. "And I was like you know what, if they are 40 and 30 and I can be better than them, then imagine how can I be when I even develop my game even more so I was like, I can look like, I can really make this my job and something that I'm really passionate about."
By 2018 - and at just 18 years old - Tsineke received her first invite to practice with the senior Greek National Team. She brought with her years of experience playing at the junior level with the Greek U18 and U20 teams, quickly rising to some of the top levels in Europe.
From there it was four years at South Florida where she capped her collegiate career by being named the American Athletic Conference Co-Player of the Year in 2023.
Every challenge she's faced, it has not taken her long to excel at it. Basketball at the local park, playing against club stars 10 years older than her, participating on the senior national team within five years of picking up the sport, traveling across the Atlantic to play college ball, she's always impressed.
"When she came in here she was really fearless and that's what I appreciate about her," Atkins told NBC Sports Washington. "She's willing to learn and she's not afraid to ask questions. That's what you want in a rookie, somebody who's not only willing to learn but also knows how to apply as well. So she came in ready to go, she was locked in from day one and being fearless on the court. I love her game."
Already, she knows more of the playbook than has been taught at camp. According to head coach Eric Thibault, she's calling plays that they haven't even gone over as a group. Watching film is one of her favorite off-court basketball activities and she is constantly absorbing information from her teammates when playing five-on-five.
It's necessary for Tsineke, given the talent at the point guard position ahead of her on the depth chart. Cloud, Kristi Toliver and free-agent addition Brittney Sykes all run the point. But if you ask them, they'll approve of what they've seen from the 23-year-old this camp.
"Oh man, she's just fun. Like she's willing to learn and she wants to do good. You can see that," Sykes told NBC Sports Washington." And even with her being a newbie and trying to get that transition from college to pros, and especially the point guard position, that's a lot. That's a lot to handle and she's done a really, really good job of just staying poised and if somebody's telling her something, she's correcting it or she's willing to listen, even if she might make a mistake again, having that open-mindedness on how to just get through mistakes and just learn the game. She's doing a tremendous job, like shout out to her, like I'm proud of her. I'm very proud of her. She's done a really good job."
So far, Tsineke survived her first round of roster cuts. She's even earned the nickname 'El' to not get confused with Elena Delle Donne.
The Mystics are down to 15 players on what is expected to be an 11-person final roster. Already it is presumed that the team has essentially five of those 11 positions occupied by guards which should be enough depth for a season. But no one is counting Tsineke out despite those odds and even if she does not make the roster, she knows she will learn from this experience.
"God has given me all the confidence I need and that's enough. I don't need to get any confidence or any external motivation from nobody else. As long as I've got this internal motivation and it's all from God. So it's all within me. So this is all I need to just in every room I walk in, I know I'm carried by God," Tsineke said.