WNBA Tiers: Tier 2

Tier 2 players are all good enough to lead a team to a championship. The reason these players are tier 2 and not tier 1 is that the necessary parts around them need to be a bit better to win a championship, and need to be tailor made to fit them a bit more. The differences at this level are the smallest yet, but those small differences matter when competing for a championship. Within tiers, as before, players are listed in alphabetical order.

Since there’s only four players, I can go through each one individually and walk through why I put them here.

Napheesa Collier

This is a bet on continued growth by one of the most exciting young players in the WNBA. Growth is not always linear for young players, but given the improvements Collier made from year 1 to 2, I am comfortable betting on continued growth into year 3. Collier has shown she can be one of the best players in the WNBA at either the 3 or the 4, going toe to toe with Breanna Stewart in the semifinals and holding her own.

If I had to bet on who would be a tier 1 player in the next 5 years, Collier and her fellow tier 2a player A’ja Wilson would be top of the list. There are other players with a chance, Satou Sabally is someone I am particularly high on. The future of the WNBA is bright.

Collier can simply do it all. A 4 who rarely shot from 3 in college, her ability to shoot the three has probably been the most pleasant surprise of her time in the WNBA so far, as she is currently shooting 38% from 3 and over 40 in her most recent season. Her volume is still relatively low, so there’s room for growth for her to shoot more from 3, but a key skill for a modern wing is there. 

Collier is a premier defender already who can guard perimeter players running off screens while also providing excellent rim protection with her 6’ 6” wingspan. Basketball is a game that rewards length more than height and Collier is a prime example of that, as she plays bigger than her listed 6’2″ height. 

The next step for Collier in reaching new heights is to work on her handle and her ability to create on ball. While a decent passer, her turnover rate is high, which is understandable for a post player moving onto the wing, but something for her to improve.  How much of her relatively low usage rate was coaching or Collier’s limitations is unclear, but she should not be behind Damiris Dantas in usage rate. Part of why I was so high on Crystal Dangerfield in the 2020 draft is she can thrive off ball with her shooting, and Collier should be able to take more responsibility running pick and rolls and being the Lynx’s main driver of offense.

A’ja Wilson

Does A’ja Wilson need a three pointer? No. As 2020 showed, Wilson in her third year was already good enough to win MVP and bring her team to the finals. The Aces could absolutely win a championship if Wilson never shoots 3s.

However, her lack of shooting does put a limit on how versatile she can be on offense, and the type of team that can be built around her. One of the most intriguing questions heading into the 2021 season is whether the Aces resign Liz Cambage and run back the double center lineup that they used in 2019.

While Wilson has the foot speed on defense to guard the 4, 2020 made it clear her best position is at the 5. If Dearica Hamby had not been injured, she would have been playing the key moments in the playoffs next to Wilson, allowing her to thrive inside. At 6’4” Wilson has the size and athleticism to play the five, and it is the position that maximizes her combination of strength and speed on offense, while in theory at least, allowing for more shooting to be played around her.

If she were to add a three point shot, it would make the fit between her and Liz Cambage much cleaner. Wilson is a career 78% free throw shooter who also shot 40% from long 2. She has a smooth stroke and good touch. All evidence we have points to her some day being able to add a 3 point shot.  Both of the players in tier 1 above Wilson would be much cleaner fits with a center like Cambage, while also bringing many of the same positive attributes Wilson brings.

Writing about Wilson’s 3 point shooting might seem nit picking, but it matters at this level. Wilson is already good at basically everything else. She is a dominant post up player, particularly against mismatches. She moves her feet as well as any center on defense, allowing the Aces to play any style of pick and roll defense. Wilson has room to improve as a passer, but then again, the Aces have never surrounded her with pristine spacing or shooting. She is a willing passer, certainly. Her ability to create her own shot is also hampered by her lack of spacing. It is much easier to double and triple team someone who has to catch teh ball closer to the rim to be effective.

Jonquel Jones

The main separator between Jonquel Jones and the players over her relative lack of shot creation for herself and her teammates. In the playoffs for the Sun in the biggest moments, the Connecticut Sun were not running plays for her. Everything else Jonquel Jones can do and do well, and is likely only going to improve on as she enters her age 27 season. 

Jonquel Jones is a 6’6” center who can protect the rim and move her feet reasonably well on defense. She may not be quite as airtight yet on defense as Sylvia Fowles in her prime, but she is not that far off, and bigs often improve into their early 30s, so her best years on defense are likely ahead. 

Jones is a career 38% shooter from 3, allowing her to pair with a variety of front court partners. She is the perfect complement to Alyssa Thomas, as she is able to help space the floor on offense while still providing good rim protection on the other end. While she is not as adept as some of her peers at mashing in the post on a mismatch, she makes up for it by hitting the offensive glass if she is being boxed out by a smaller player. 

To reach the next level, Jones will need to improve on both her ability to score facing up an improve on her passing. A negative assist to turnover ratio in 2019 is not a great sign that she will be able to take on more usage. Thankfully, the Sun are set up with other players who can take on that burden, and Jones can do everything else.

Courtney Vandersloot

Courtney Vandersloot is the best point guard in the WNBA. She combines passing and scoring more effectively that any other player. Her advanced stats are hurt by the Sky’s defensive limitations on their roster, but that is not Vandersloot’s responsibility.

Vandersloot’s assists get attention, and that is clearly necessary for a top guard, but it is her shooting and ability to attack the rim that sets her apart from her peers like Chelsea Gray. If anything, the one quibble with Vandersloot’s game is that she is sometimes too unselfish. While not the shooter that her wife, Allie Quigley, is, she is still a good 3 point shooter. As a comparison to another all time point guard, Sue Bird averaged 7 3PA per 36 minutes in 2020, while Vandersloot averaged 4. Vandersloot could likely stand to shoot a few more times per game.

While shot location stats can be a bit wonky, it is still notable that per stats.wnba.com Vandersloot this past year shot 74% on shot within the restricted area. That might be a bit of an outlier given that she shot 60% in 2019 and 67% in 2018, but those are all strong numbers. Vandersloot can do it all on the offensive end and entering her age 32 season should be able to maintain it for another couple of years. 

Vandersloot is mostly kept from the top tier by the lack of impact a point guard can have on defense. Vandersloot is a fine defender, who at times is asked to guard the better shooting guards in the league, when she shares the court with Allie Quigley, as she has decent size and good athleticism for a point guard. There is simply a ceiling on how impactful she can be as a defender. If she were able and willing to shoot from 3 like Diana Taurasi, maybe one could argue for her inclusion in a higher subtier or even tier 1, but as it is, this is where she is.