Japanese star Rui Machida makes debut with Mystics

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There’s going to be some things to get used to when it comes to the Rui Machida experience — for everyone.

The Japanese star and Olympic silver medalist practiced with the Washington Mystics for the first time Tuesday and already was surprising teammates with sneaky passes from awkward angles that somehow found the target.

The coaching staff is implementing hand signals to help with the language barrier.

Even the officials are getting used to the 5-foot-4, lightning quick point guard. She was called for a questionable travel during a 78-66 preseason win over the Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday when she dribbled toward the paint and faked a pass to the post before whipping it back outside to the wing in an awkward yet effective motion.

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“I was really nervous the first time,” Machida said through her interpreter, Miki Takei. “But my teammates encouraged me to play like [myself]. I made a bunch of mistakes. I made a bunch of turnovers and stuff, but, you know, trying to keep getting better. I’m looking forward to playing next game.”

The thought of someone with such a vast global audience, especially in Japan, being nervous almost seems silly. Machida, 29, had 80 media members attend her introductory news conference, but the nerves weren’t completely from the basketball side of things. This was a new environment in her new hometown — which she hasn’t had time to get acclimated to.

“When I stepped on the court, [the nerves] just disappeared,” said Machida, who finished with two points, two assists, one rebound and three turnovers.

Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault has had his eyes on the Japanese sensation for years. Many around the world discovered her during the 2020 Olympics when she led Japan to the gold medal round against Team USA by putting up ridiculous assist numbers, including a single-game Olympic record of 18 against France in the semifinals. She averaged 7.2 points, 12.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds in those Games. But Thibault had seen her before and had help getting connected with her national team coach from former Wizards assistant Corey Gaines.

Years of interest came full circle in February when the Mystics were able to sign her to play in the WNBA for the first time. Days after arriving in the country, she was getting pregame work in with two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne. Takei, a former coach in Japan, is always nearby, and Machida gets information relayed from him during breaks in play. She checked in at the 5:45 mark of the first quarter Wednesday and her first points came off a speed dribble to the basket before the right-handed guard finished with a lefty layup. The travel, her second of the day, was an attention-grabbing moment, but a connection with Delle Donne prompted thoughts of what could be. Machida dribbled to the right around a Delle Donne screen and began to attack the paint, drawing the extra defender. Just as quickly, she wrapped a pass back around her left shoulder to a wide-open Delle Donne, who buried a three-pointer.

That’s the type of pressure Machida puts on defenses.

“I love her,” Delle Donne said. “She is so fast, so fun to watch. She’s going to create so much for us. Super impressive the way she’s fearless and attacking. But we kind of saw that in the Olympics. So had a feeling she was a killer.

“She’s fearless. She finds people. There’s moments I’m like, ‘How the heck did she see that?’ … She’s going to be a problem for teams.”

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Former Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes knew she was a problem as Team USA prepared for the gold medal game last summer. He was an assistant on the staff that had the unenviable job of figuring out how to slow Machida. The scouting report was to take away her drives to the basket and hope she settled for outside jump shots.

“You’re going to choose the lesser of evils with her,” Hughes said. “And what you don’t want her to do is to be able to create and deliver the ball to people who are readily ready to finish because she’s really good at that.

“She has the same things that the great passers that I’ve had, like [Sue] Bird and [Becky] Hammon and those people. They not only know you’re open, they know where to get you the ball. She’s got some of that in her game.”

Mystics guard Ariel Atkins added: “You hear that a lot about quarterbacks. . . . So to watch her do that in such a small field of play that we have is really impressive to me.”

The comparisons keep coming. Thibault said she reminds him of Ticha Penicheiro and Steve Nash — and has encouraged Machida to aggressively take perimeter shots. The biggest question mark lies with her ability to defend. Hughes noted that the defensive end is often the biggest challenge for those coming from overseas to the WNBA because of the athleticism and physicality of players and the style of the game. Add that to her diminutive frame, and there is legitimate concern. Thibault, however, believes she’s a sneaky good defender because she uses her quickness and knowledge of the game. Delle Donne, unprompted, mentioned her defense and the way she can get up into opponents.

The former MVP had a strong debut herself after she missed all but three games over the past two seasons because of a pair of back surgeries. She started and scored 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting while going 3 for 5 from behind the arc in 18 minutes. Tuesday’s practice was the first time Delle Donne played five-on-five with teammates in practice since the end of the 2019 championship season.

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Natasha Cloud posted 18 points on 5-for-9 shooting in the victory.

“After yesterday, first day of scrimmaging where everything felt so awkward, it was nice to come out and be able to get another look at it,” Delle Donne said, “and let the game slow down and come to me. It was a lot of fun to play in space, to play slow down and just to see how my body felt, and it felt really good and was able to get even probably more minutes than we kind of expected today.”

The day ended with Machida walking off the floor draped under the arm of a beaming Myisha Hines-Allen. The pregame nervousness was nowhere to be seen. She spoke with a contingent of Japanese media near the Mystics’ locker room and seemed much more at ease when American reporters showed up.

After 48 hours, Machida is already getting used to things.

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