New head coach Eric Thibault starts his first camp with familiar faces

Eric Thibault's new role is supported by familiar faces originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON -- It's a new year, a new team and a new head coach for the Washington Mystics. But as a new season begins, there's a lot of familiarity between the new boss Eric Thibault and his 2023 squad.

Not only is he taking over a team that he's been an assistant with for 10 seasons, but this version of the team is quite acquainted with the 35-year-old. Of the 17 players entering training camp - which includes new camp signee Emily Engstler - there are 10 who played a game last year in D.C.

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The two big off-season additions, Brittney Sykes and Kristi Toliver, already have a rapport with Thibault. Sykes back from when she was in college (Thibault was a graduate assistant at St. John's and she was recruited to play at Syracuse) and Toliver from her first stint with the Mystics (2017-19). That's 11 players, many of which will make up a majority of the opening-day roster, who'll ease the transition into Thibault's first season.

That familiarity has generated confidence up and down the roster to continue the standards that have become synonymous with the Mystics franchise. While many coaching changes come at pivotal times for teams, this coaching move was one to ensure stability and keep the Thibault name at the helm.

"Eric has been here for 10 years. So I know that people are a little fearful or can be doubtful in a lot of senses of the move or the change but he's been a part of every success that this team has had," Natasha Cloud said on media day. "Every single player that is in this locker room has been recruited by him and [general manager Mike Thibault]. So he has had his hands into everything that makes the Mystics what they are."

"The last two, three years, whether we've acknowledged it or not, you guys aren't gonna see it from the media, he runs our practices the last two, three years, he comes into the huddles, he draws up our plays. He's in control of our offense and what it looks like and how it is. So just because we don't speak on those things doesn't mean that those things weren't real. So now this transition is very seamless to us because we've seen it the last two, three years within our practices"


By no means is Eric the master architect of what made the Mystics great in their two-year run to the WNBA Finals and winning the team's first championship in 2019. But you'll be hard-pressed to find someone within the organization who would take that type of credit. Mike Thibault has positioned his former assistants for success in new roles. Eric's development over time has been a natural process and no different than assistants before him.

The locker room is already comfortable with Eric being in charge. And that's because in many ways he already stepped into some head coaching roles prior to this change.

But if you step away for a year or two or three like two-time WNBA champion Toliver did with her second tenure with the Los Angeles Sparks, there are differences you can notice.

"I haven't been here very long but I think the first thing, and I noticed this not even just with [Eric], but with my former teammates and now teammates again, everyone seems so much more mature," Toliver said. "They seem more poised, they seem more in control. Listening to [Eric], it's like he's got his big boy pants on if that makes sense. Like, he's speaking things with his chest, because he's the boss. He's our leader. And now he understands the responsibility and the task at hand."


That task is guiding a team back to the WNBA Finals, which Washington has not done in three seasons. And the pressure will be on him right away to step up. Whether fairly or not, there's a big shadow cast over the role that his father, Mike, held and how Eric holds up.

One, because Mike Thibault is the winningest coach in WNBA history, and the second reason being the criticism that may exist when the former coach's son gets one of 12 coveted coaching positions in the best women's basketball league in the world.

But while Eric tries to live up to the standard set forth (by his dad, the franchise's former head coach and now general manager), he's just going to get his nose dirty and let the work speak for itself.

"I'm going to let other people be the judge of [what I bring as a coach] a little bit," Eric Thibault said. "I'm going to be myself... But we changed things year to year as it was. So to say like I didn't have any hand in anything the past 10 years, I don't want to say that was all on [Mike] and now this is all on me. That's not how we work. So everybody had a voice previously. Everybody on staff will have a voice now and we'll see what what a team looks like. But it won't be an Eric Thibault team. It'll be a Mystics team."


All that's left for Eric is to go out and get the job done. He has the trust of the locker room, the credibility that comes with his career resume and the relationships he has with his players. Monday, he went through his first media day as the head coach. Friday will be his first game, without an interim or placeholder tag, when preseason action kicks off. And soon, he'll have to make his first roster cuts.

"I think he's gonna do a great job," Toliver said. "I think he has a room full of women that are excited and are ready to play for him and, make him look good and he wants to make us look good."