Tianna Hawkins is the Mystics ‘sleeper,' who could be a difference-maker in the playoffs

Tianna Hawkins is the Mystics ‘sleeper,' who could be a difference-maker in the playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON – As an offensive rebound bounced into the arms of the Chicago Sky’s Marina Mabrey, Washington Mystics’ forward Tianna Hawkins stepped up and quickly guarded the next closest attacker. Mabrey set a quick screen, forcing Hawkins to switch and pick her up in coverage.

Mabrey immediately tried to cross over the veteran, lowered her shoulder for a drive and then extended her left arm to shoot a fadeaway over Hawkins. The shot would miss and as Mabrey was trying to find where her original matchup was at midcourt in transition, Myisha Hines-Allen had found a wide-open Hawkins streaking to the opposite bucket.

Chicago’s Elizabeth Williams took a second in the middle of the court to look over both shoulders, trying to figure out what just happened.

Those 15 seconds alone highlight Hawkins’s game in her 10th season playing in the WNBA. She provides an additional spark to a talented Mystics roster, giving them an unexpected edge from their depth. Making a push to (and ideally through) the WNBA playoffs, that boost could be just the difference for Washington that isn't seen from other depth pieces in the league.

“She's a sleeper,” Brittney Sykes said of Hawkins this week. “Tianna has these moments where she goes seven, nine, 10 points by herself and it's off of simple stuff. Like we're not calling a play for her. She's literally just cutting down the defense or she's popping back and just hitting the open shot or she's running the floor.”

If you ask Hawkins, she’ll just tell you with a soft smile that she just focuses on doing what the coaches and the team need from her. Sometimes that’s as simple as staying in front of her matchup defensively, running the floor in transition opportunities, working hard on the boards and being in the right spots on offense.

Few plays, if any, are run for the 32-year-old. Most of her offensive production comes from the deadly outlet pass Natasha Cloud or Sykes make to her in a full-sprint transition chance, from putback attempts or open corner threes.

It’s a role that isn’t scouted by the opposition nor even one you can necessarily gameplan for. That became evident when Hawkins stepped in as a starter with Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin missing from the rotation.

She thrived in that spot. And in a stretch of starting 17 games in a row, she put up 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 54% shooting. By all accounts, Hawkins was the third-most productive player behind Cloud and Sykes. She posted two 20-point games and three double-doubles.

It was one of the best stretches of games in her career.

“I think just my goal coming into the season was – I wasn't really sure what my opportunity was going to be like – but my goal has always been to optimize and maximize my opportunity when it came,” Hawkins told NBC Sports Washington. “I didn't think that I would be starting so many games. But no, that's just been a goal for me. And I think that's something that I'm proud of because that is something that I've reached.”

At the start of the season, Hawkins was presumed to be the final roster cut. The Maryland product had an excellent training camp according to both the coaches and general manager Mike Thibault. She was picked over a young, promising Emily Engstler who had many of the same traits that Hawkins has. That camp performance came after one of her worst seasons in the league and, personally, one of her toughest off the court with the loss of her grandfather.

When three starters went down with injury by mid-July it was her turn to step up. She did and after earning that opportunity to get in a better rhythm, head coach Eric Thibault is not concerned about how she’ll adapt to going back to the bench.

“[I’m] not worried about too much to be honest with you because her role has already changed a couple of times this season,” he said. “She was coming off the bench to start the year. She's played (the) four, she's played (the) five. I think she's well suited to handle the changing ground underneath their feet so to speak, but it's my job to figure out as we have minutes limits and everything like who she plays with and what the groups are.”

All Thibault does on a game-to-game basis is tell Hawkins how he plans to use her. From there, she knows what to do.

“I think the approach is the same,” Hawkins said. “I'm just approaching the game as if I'm going to play all 40 minutes. And just when we get the scouts and when we're facing different teams, just taking on the scout of the post players and some threes depending on what team we're playing. And just knowing that hey, anything can happen. We might get in foul trouble, someone might go down and just knowing that hey, if he calls me, alright, I gotta lock in if I'm playing the three, the four or the five.”

How Hawkins is utilized in the playoffs and their run to it may just be the difference between an early exit or a prolonged run. Teams will scout for Delle Donne, Austin, Sykes, Cloud and Ariel Atkins in a variety of ways. That leaves less time to focus on Hawkins and opens up the door to continue being that spark and lynchpin from the starting group to the bench.

Through 35 games, she is second on the team in win-shares (2.6), trailing only Sykes, and has the second-best offensive rating (109). Both mean that when she is on the floor, good things happen. The Mystics play winning basketball and they score more points.

“The things that she [does] are effort plays and you need that, especially coming off the bench,” Sykes said. “Somebody who is capable of scoring 12-15, 17 (points), it doesn't matter because she could shoot the three, she rebounds, she's a workhorse, she can play basketball. And that's amazing for us, especially when she keeps it up and she's on this consistent tirade of just straight offensive mayhem and she's always playing defense.”