The Awkward Fit of DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas

At first glance, the Connecticut Sun look like a team with two players, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, playing well, and the rest of the team letting them down. Bonner in particular has been playing well this year, averaging 28 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and shooting a career high from 3. Alyssa Thomas is averaging 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2.5 steals per game.

The other players for the Sun have not been playing well. Jasmine Thomas has been inexplicably unwilling to shoot when teams go far under every pick. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will shoot better than 19% from 3. The team is missing Briann January, a career 38% 3 point shooter. She will hopefully be back soon.

However, part of the Sun’s struggle on offense can be laid at the feet of the awkward fit of Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner. Each player individually is a great player who would be an asset to many teams, but they overlap too much on the court, with their specific weaknesses magnified when they share the court together, and their strengths minimized. This is especially true for Alyssa Thomas, who has struggled this year with her efficiency on offense.

Both Bonner and AT are at their best with the ball in their hand, and neither have been effective shooters from distance throughout their careers. So far this year Bonner is shooting a career high 37% from 3, and it still has not been enough. Should she regress to her career 3 pt average of 30%, the Sun are going to struggle even more. Alyssa Thomas has not attempted a three since 2014.

Modern basketball makes it very difficult for teams to be successful with more than 1 non-shooter on the court. The Mystics and Storm have managed to play significant minutes with 5 shooters, and the results show, but last year’s Sun are an example of how a team with 1 non-shooter  can still be very effective. 

Alyssa Thomas was able to excel last year because she was the only player who was not a threat from 3. This allowed the Sun to involve her in ball screens, or play through her in the midpost, and station four shooters around her. Look at the spacing in this game against the Sparks in last year’s semifinals, compared to the following picture, a play involving Bonner being screened for by Brionna Jones from this year against the Sparks.

good spacing against Sparks in 2019

all Sparks players in paint or near ball handler.

The poor fit has only been magnified by Jonquel Jones’ decision to opt out, as she is a 6’6′ center who has shot 38% from 3 for her career. Even in a down shooting year at 31% from 3 in 2019, Jones still demands at least some attention at the three point line, compared to Brionna Jones who has yet to take a 3 in her WNBA career. This can be seen above as Nneka Ogwumike has to at least stay somewhat attached to Jones on the wing.

The next picture shows a play from the 2nd time the Sun played the Lynx this year, that ended in a turnover with an errant Bonner pass to AT. Even if the pass had connected, the Sun would have been left with AT attacking 3 Lynx players. I marked where Jonquel Jones would likely have been standing on this play, either drawing Fowles out or forcing the Lynx to rotate to Jones when she got the pass. I tend to put Jonquel Jones higher in comparison to other elite centers in the W than other commentators, and this is one main reason why.

4 Lynx players in paint

Curt Miller knows the fit is an issue, which is why so many plays for the Sun begin with Bonner running a pick and roll with Alyssa Thomas screening. AT is an effective screener in the pick and roll, as she can roll hard to the basket and make the next pass or finish depending on how the other team defends it. The next pass out of a short roll is hard for many bigs, but AT is as good at it as they come, when provided proper spacing.

However, this is not nearly as effective when the Sun are playing only one player, Jasmine Thomas, who teams feel the need to guard from 3. And even Jasmine Thomas is merely an ok 3 point shooter, at 32% for her career. Look at where the Sparks players are standing on this play from their game this season in the next picture. Bonner has just slipped the pass to AT out of a pick and roll, but now AT is staring down 2 defenders in the paint, with 2 others in or near the paint. Yes, AT has missed some makeable shots recently, but this kind of play where she is trying to score over 2 defenders has also contributed to her shooting 2 for 17 in her last 2 games.

4 Sparks players in paint

  

The Sun will not be one of the 2 worst teams in the league this season, as the standing indicates now. They have played a difficult schedule with their 4 losses coming against 3 of the top 5 teams in my preseason predictions. Their defense has been good, keeping them in these games even with the offense scuffling, and against weaker opponents their defense should lead to transition opportunities and easier scoring. Both Bonner and AT can grab and go off of rebounds and turnovers, making this team dangerous in transition.

However, the start has shown why even before Jonquel Jones opting out I thought the Sun were not as good as last year’s team. With Briann January and Jonquel Jones they likely would not be 0-4, but a finals run still seemed unlikely given the loss of shooting and playmaking from their 2019 team. Shekinna Stricklen is not as good as Bonner in nearly every area of basketball, except for shooting. Shooting just happens to be the most important skill to put next to Alyssa Thomas. Moving on from Stricklen and signing Bonner is understandable, but Stricklen’s shooting is hard to replace, as the Sun are finding.

More inexplicably, the Sun let Courtney Williams walk. While she does have a frustrating shot profile, as Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down podcast pointed out, a trend that has continued this year, she is still really good.

Remember when Courtney Williams started off being very effective taking threes and getting to the rim then went back to chucking 17 footers and shot poorly the rest of the series.

She would be an upgrade at guard over who the Sun have, and at 26, is still entering her prime, which is why I was down on the decision to not pay her, as compared to a 33 year old Briann January and even a 32 year old DeWanna Bonner.

Curt Miller has few options to try to turn things around for the Sun. One option to explore is more Jackie Gemelos in place of Bria Holmes. Holmes is not as good a defender as her size and athleticism would seem to indicate, given a tendency to make curious decisions as a help defender, such as helping off of the strong side shooter and giving up open corner 3s. Gemelos has shown she can shoot and might help space the floor, instead of Holmes, who teams ignore.

Another alternative is to let Jasmine Thomas and other guards run more pick and rolls with Alyssa Thomas. This might work, especially if Bonner stops hanging out under the basket while the Sun run a pick and roll. Her willingness to fire from 3, especially this year when they are actually going in, is not helpful when she is under the basket. As shown here, Bonner hung out just outside the paint throughout the Lynx game, whenever she was not involved in the play directly. AT can score on Erica McCall after receiving the pass out of the pick and roll from Natisha Hideman, but it is much tougher with Mikiah Herbert Harrigan waiting next to Bonner under the basket.

This season was never going to be one the Sun were competing for a championship once their best player, Jonquel Jones, opted out. Now the task falls to Curt Miller and co. to figure out how to maximize their talented but flawed stars in Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, while not running them into the ground. The goal should be maximizing this team in 2021.

Next year’s team will be better with Jonquel Jones returned, but Bonner will be 33 (turning 34 during the season). The Sun have to hope one of their younger guards steps up and Bonner’s play does not slip, as Jones is entering her prime and now is the time to capitalize on such a force. If not, it will be interesting to see if Jones wants to stay with the team, or see whether she can find another home.

The Impact of the Chicago Sky’s Other Wings.

On Tuesday I briefly discussed the Chicago Sky’s all-star wing, Diamond DeShields, and what to look for from her this year. Matt Ellentuck had a great piece on her in his newsletter as well. DeShields has the talent to be a top 10 player in the WNBA, but so far this year she has been battling a knee issue which has somewhat limited her.

With DeShields not at 100%, both Gabby Williams and Kahleah Copper have shown the impact they can have for the Sky, and the struggles the Sky will have if neither play well.  Copper is 6’1” and has excellent straight line speed and the burst to get to the rim even against opponents playing her to drive. Gabby Williams is 6’ and more of a fluid athlete who has enough of a burst to put pressure on the rim and use her passing to set up her teammates. Both players have been limited in the WNBA by their lack of an outside shot, to varying degrees.

Both show the peril and promise of drafting wings who can not shoot 3s. At the college and high school level, wings with the size and athleticism of Copper and Williams are able to have success and dominate without being able to shoot. They are just so much bigger and more athletic than their competition, that someone like Gabby Williams can go her final 3 years at Uconn, take only 1 three pointer the entire time, and still be effective.

In the WNBA, that does not work nearly as well. The WNBA is the first time in these player’s careers that they have had to consistently play against women who are as big and as athletic as they are. The good news for the Sky is that both players have clearly worked to expand their range.  The bad news is that working hard at shooting does not always translate into sustained success.

However, a wing who can shoot 3s, like Ariel Atkins, is a force multiplier for her team. They can defend 3 or 4 positions, and cause fits to the other team trying to matchup with their size and strength. So it makes sense teams continue to draft them high, see almost every Liberty draft pick after Sabrina Ionescue.

Copper is only at 20% so far this year from 3, but she has shown in the past more shooting ability. For someone with the speed of Copper, willingness to shoot is almost as important as the actual results. She can sometimes beat an opponent to the rim who is sagging off. Making them take a step or two closer is only going to help. So far in this young season she is up from 2.8 attempts from 3 per 36 minutes to 4.9 attempts. Keeping that willingness to fire will only help her game, though of course seeing a few more go in would be nice.

Williams opened the season 4 for 7 from 3 through 2 games, but then threw up an 0 for 6 stinker last night and is now shooting 30% from 3. If she can settle into the low to mid 30s, that would be a huge step for her game, as she shot 17% from 3 in 2019. With a functional three point shot, she becomes an excellent second side shot creator, with the ability to attack a closeout and make the next pass. To play with the Sky starters Williams needs to be a threat off ball, cause both DeShields and Vandersloot deserve to have the ball in their hands. So far a marked improvement over prior seasons.

Both players ability to shoot becomes even more important in the playoffs. In the playoffs, spot up shooters are easier to scout as teams prepare for a specific opponent and they dial into the shooters. People rightly focused on the shooting of the Mystics, but the other aspect of their success was in the finals they were putting 4 players out there who could all attack a closeout, and either finish at the rim or make the next pass. Cloud, Toliver, Meesseman and Delle Donne were all more than just shooters. For all the value of a Shekinna Stricklen type shooter, her inability to punish a hard closeout does limit her impact in those moments.

Looking beyond 2020, The Sky will have big decisions to make after the 2021 season. Copper already got paid, a deal I am so far happy I did not criticize, though it looked like a lot of money for a backup wing at the time. However, Williams and DeShields are on their rookie contracts through the 2021 season. A wing like Gabby Williams who can shoot, if the shooting is truly improved, is a player teams are going to covet. She would be a great fit next to any superstar in the league. While a max contract for someone who may not have the upside to be a primary shot creator on a playoff team is a lot to swallow, she very well may get one. How the Sky juggle their pieces will be something to watch.

WNBA Championship runs through Breanna Stewart

The Seattle Storm are heavy favorites to win the championship this year and Breanna Stewart returning is the main reason. Stewart is the best player in the WNBA, assuming good health. She can play anywhere from the small forward to center, but fundamentally she is a big wing.  

A big wing is a player who is 6’+, who can shoot 3s, dribble and pass. They are the most valuable player type in modern basketball and drive winning more than any other position. Big wing to me is more accurate than power forward because the separator for these players is the ability to handle the ball and play make for their teammates from both the perimeter and in the post.

Look at who won MVP and finals MVP the last two years. Breanna Stewart is 6’4” with a wingspan that lets her play even bigger. Elena Delle Donne is 6’5”. Emma Meesseman is 6’4”. Meesseman’s lack of length and strength makes her the least impactful defensive player of the three, but she is the best passer of the bunch. EDD is the best shooter, Stewart the best defender. Candace Parker is of course the prototype in the WNBA for this type of player, and the Sparks will go as far as she can take them.

What made Maya Moore great was at only 6’0” she had the athleticism and wingspan to be able to play bigger than her size. To me, she was the key member of those Lynx teams, even more than 1st ballot Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles, as Moore was their lone 3 point shooter and was the team’s best defender on opposing big wings like Candace Parker. 

The Washington Mystics were able to dominate in 2019 because they had both Elene Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman. In the finals, the Sun could have handled one of EDD or Meesseman, but having to guard both at once proved too much. Alyssa Thomas could slow whichever she was guarding, but that then left the other to be guarded by someone too slow or too small. Hence Meesseman winning finals MVP, as the big wing who was healthy and not being guarded by AT she did a ton of damage.

The value of big wings showed up for the Mystics this past Sunday, when the presence of Emma Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen caused Indiana Fever coach Marianne Stanley to bring 6’7” Teaira McCowan off the bench. It didn’t work. Both Meesseman and Hines-Allen hit 3s, posted up anytime a smaller player guarded them, and simply dominated whichever players the Fever threw at them. If Hines-Allen can continue to be a credible 3 point shooter, this Mystics team is going to be feisty and may justify my season prediction of them finishing 4th.

As  good as Hines-Allen and Meesseman looked, there is a reason I and many others have picked the Seattle Storm to win the championship. This team in 2020 might be even better than the 2018 team that won the championship. Breanna Stewart should still be improving, as she is entering her prime this year as she is only 26. She showed few signs of rust in her first game back with the Storm against the New York Liberty, an encouraging sign.

The big difference for this team though is Natasha Howard. Howard had to do her best big wing impersonation last year with Stewart injured and was fairly effective at it, shooting 31% on 3 attempts per game from 3 and posting by far her highest assist percentage of her career at 14%. While neither number is what one wants from an elite big wing, as the second big who is also the reigning defensive player of the year, her improved skill is a luxury any other team in the WNBA would love to have. 

No other team in the league has two players who can credibly guard both Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard both 25 feet from the basket and in the post. Add in the fact that the Storm have good contributors everywhere else and the best backup point guard in Jordin Canada in the WNBA, and they are heavy favorites for a reason.

Some other big wings to watch as the season goes forward are Diamond DeShields, Napheesa Collier, and Satou Sabally. DeShields did not look herself physically, which is concerning for the Chicago Sky’s chances of making the finals. Hopefully she is able to recover. And start hitting 3s. She is good at everything else, but shooting is still her swing skill between being a good player and a great player.

Collier for the Minnesota Lynx had a good fourth quarter, but I was a bit disappointed to not see more improvement in her ball handling. She is still a player who needs to be assisted on nearly every basket, it seems. The team really took off when Crystal Dangerfield, the team’s only point guard at the moment, started playing well. However, Collier was still able to use her size and quickness to make an impact against the Sun, and her shooting continues to be impressive for someone who shot so little in college.

Sabally looked the part for the Dallas Wings. There is a reason some draft experts like Ben Dull put her over Sabrina Ionescue in their draft rankings. At 6’4”, she was able to use her quickness and size to score against the Dream. The most promising part of her game for me was her passing, as she had a couple of plays where she made fairly advanced kickout passes to waiting shooters and hit them on target and on time.

6 2020 Season Predictions

1. MVP: Breanna Stewart. When the reigning MVP, Elena Delle Donne is most likely missing the season, and the MVP who won the year before that is back, and only 25, it makes sense to pick Breanna Stewart as MVP. Fun dark horse pick would be Emma Meesseman, as the finals MVP goes from the bench to the best player on her team.

2. Rookie of the year: Sabrina Ionescue. While there are other rookies who will likely get serious playing time and put up numbers, notably Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter, it makes sense to favor Sabrina. Carter will split playmaking with Courtney Williams and Sabally is playing with Arike Ogunbuwale. Ionescue is going to be leading the team in usage from the very start.

3. Champion: Seattle Storm. This is the year for the Storm to get to defend their championship, with a hopefully healthy Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. Add in a much improved Jordan Canada, an improved Natasha Howard, and this team is deeper and more talented than any other team. 

4. Projected Standings:

  1. Seattle Storm
  2. Los Angeles Sparks
  3. Chicago Sky
  4. Washington Mystics
  5. Minnesota Lynx
  6. Las Vegas Aces
  7. Atlanta Dream
  8. Phoenix Mercury
  9. Connecticut Sun
  10. Indiana Fever
  11. Dallas Wings
  12. New York Liberty

5. DPOY: The boring answer is to say Natasha Howard, who won it last year. But I also think it is a good answer, as she is squarely in her prime and there is no reason for her to drop off. The only thing standing in her way is with Breanna Stewart back will they split the credit and the vote. Another player with a good chance worth highlighting is Napheesa Collier. Wing players are less likely to get this award, as bigs are more integral to defense, but Collier excelled last year with high steal and block rates for a wing. In year 2, she should be even better.

6. Mystics make semifinals. This is definitely my most ambitious prediction, but I believe in the Washington Mystics organization and in Emma Meesseman’s ability to be the most valuable type of player in modern basketball, the big wing. This team is lacking in other areas to get farther, but the semifinals is possible. 

2020 Season Preview: Washington Mystics

The Washington Mystics are going to have one of the odder championship defenses in recent memory. While the Storm lost Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird last year, they had their other 3 starters from their championship team. The Mystics are returning 1 starter Ariel Atkins, and 1 bench player who played starter minutes, Emma Meesseman.

That said, this is a team that does still have talent and is the best run organization in the WNBA, apologies to the Storm and Lynx. Coach Mike Thibault has already talked about this team shooting Houston Rockets’ level of 3s, which I for one would love to see. Ariel Atkins may be ready to take on more responsibility. Emma Meesseman has the chance to show just how good she is with a high usage rate.

The playoffs is in reach for this team, but a win in the playoffs would be a testament to players stepping up and great coaching. Predicting how players who are effective in smaller roles respond to heavier usage is one of the hardest things in basketball to do, see free agency, and so the range of possible outcomes for the Mystics is particularly wide. 

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions: Leilani Mitchell

Notable losses: Tina Charles (medical exemption) Elene Delle Donne (injury/ sitting out) LaToya Sanders (opt out), Natasha Cloud (opt out), Kristi Toliver.

Guards: Leilani Mitchell, Kiara Leslie, Shay Peddy, Aerial Powers. 

Wings: Ariel Atkins, Emma Meesseman, Essence Carson

Bigs: Tianna Hawkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, Alaina Coates

Tina Charles and EDD bring the roster to 12, so these are the ten players the team will actually have to play with. If a player is injured, the team may be able to get an injury exception to add another player, but given the time needed to quarantine and enter the clean site, unclear how practical that will be. Let’s hope for limited injuries so we do not have to find out.

Kiara Leslie was the Mystics #1 draft pick in 2019, but was injured all of last year. She is a dark horse candidate for rookie of the year, since she never played last year. I do not think she will get sufficient usage to earn it, even if she plays well, but it will be nice to see her play finally.

Lineup Breakdown:

Ariel Atkins is the only returning starter, so needless to say she is an important piece of this team. She has in her first two years excelled as a prototypical 3 and D player in a small usage role. Now she will get the opportunity to ramp up her usage. She has had a positive, but not great, assist to turnover ratio, so it might work. Whether she can run pick and rolls as a ball handler, or create her own shot with any consistency, is something to watch.

Emma Meesseman would have started for any other team in the WNBA, she just plays the same position as EDD and so it made sense to use her as a super sub. Now, Meesseman will get to be the featured player, and we will get to see how close to the top 10 of the WNBA she really is as the go-to player. 

The gap between EDD and Meesseman is larger on defense than it is on offense, something that was noticeable in the finals when the Sun dominated inside when EDD could not play. Thibault will have his hands full crafting a good enough defense with Meesseman and without LaToya Sanders.

As great a passer as Meesseman is, this is the year for her to really embrace her shooting and scoring, as this Mystics team is not going to be the humming offensive machine of year’s past. Losing EDD, Toliver, and Cloud means the team has lost their 3 best shot creators all in one go. Meesseman should shoot every time she is even semi-open, like EDD does, which should unlock her passing even more.

Leilani Mitchell played well last year, but at 35 the Mystics are relying on her maintaining her level of play from last year. She should be able to keep up her passing and shooting, as those age well, but the Mystics will have to find their slashing from other players. She shot 44% at the rim last year, compared to 78% for Kristi Toliver and 62% for Natasha Cloud. 

Going from Phoenix, where Mitchell was their best shooter, to Washington where even this year they will be playing a lot more shooting than the Mercury may improve Mitchell’s numbers, but likely not to the level of Toliver and Cloud. 

The other guard spot is a mystery for this team. It may change by the game as Thibault figures out what he has. For now, I will pencil in Aerial Powers, as she was the first guard off the bench for this team last year that is still with the team. Powers was effective as a microwave scorer last year and is a decent on ball defender.

The biggest question with her as a starter is whether she can create at all for others. A negative assist to turnover ratio last year is not a good sign, but with more playing time and experience, hopefully she can bring down her turnover numbers and improve her playmaking. 

Center will be by committee. Tianna Hawkins should get the most important minutes, as she is the only center who can provide any spacing on this team. She was yet again another Mystics player who was effective in a bench role, who will now get to do more. An adequate defender as a backup, she might be overtaxed against frontline bigs, but should provide good effort. 

None of these players, with maybe the exception of Leilani Mitchell, are going to be playing in the roles that they have succeeded in to this point in the WNBA. My hunch is Meesseman plays well in a bigger role, while Atkins struggles a bit as she has to adjust as all the attention her teammates used to garner shifts to her. This is a team that should make the playoffs, but winning a game would be a victory. 

2020 Season Preview: Connecticut Sun

The Connecticut Sun were a bit lucky to make it to game 5 in the WNBA finals last year. If Elena Delle Donne is healthy for the entire series, it is probably over in 3 or at most 4 games. However, the Sun did play well and did have success with a roster that fit well together.

Their decision to move on from a key younger player, and sign and trade for an older player, is one that I question. Courtney Williams is 26. Dewanna Bonner is 32. Bonner may have been better last year, but that is a big bet on Bonner keeping her value into her 30s, and Williams not continuing to improve.

However, the biggest impact on the Sun for the 2020 season is nothing to do with Bonner or Williams, but rather Jonquel Jones opting out. Not only is that big for the Sun because Jones was the second best player in the WNBA last year, but the drop off to her backup is more dramatic than it would be for quite a few other teams.

Even with a full team I was not picking this team to return to the finals, but now, I would not pick them to make the semifinals. Defensively they should be good, but I think their offense may slip too much given who they have lost.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: Dewanna Bonner, Briann January.

Notable Losses: Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen

Draft: 2nd round Kaila Charles

Guards: Briann January, Jasmine Thomas, Jacki Gemelos, Natasha Hiedeman

Wings: Bria Holmes, Dewanna Bonner, Kalena Mosqueda-Lewis, Kaila Charles

Bigs: Alyssa Thomas, Beatrice Mompromier, Brionna Jones, Theresa Plaisance

I like the signing of Beatrice Mompromier. This is a good year to sign a younger player and see what they have to offer. There were more consistent bigs available, but none with the potential upside of Mompromier.

Playing time Breakdown:

Alyssa Thomas is the best player on the team as their 4 and one of the most interesting players in the league. While she is unable to shoot outside of about 5 feet from the basket, she does everything else one would want out of a 4 and she does them very well. Passing, defending, setting screens and more. While she would be undersized, Thomas is strong enough and smart enough defensively to even play some center, which I hope to see.

Even before Jones opted out I was lower on this team than last year’s team, however, because A. Thomas’ inability to shoot is going to be even more of an issue next to Dewanna Bonner. Going from Shekinna Stricklen to Dewanna Bonner is an upgrade in every area except for shooting. But shooting next to a complete non-shooter like Alyssa Thomas is so important, I wonder about the fit.

Dewanna Bonner has typically played most of her minutes at the 3. I do hope Curt Miller experiments more with playing smaller with Dewanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas in the front court, as Bonner has the size and strength, though you may not see it looking at her, to play against most 4s in the league. Playing at the 4 also allows her to use her speed, and makes her poor shooting less damaging.

Briann January in place of Courtney Williams is a downgrade at the 2. While January is a good defender, she has slipped the season or two, and Williams is a good defender. The bigger issue is on the other end, where in the playoffs Williams became a much better player by taking more 3s, particularly off the dribble. Williams love of long 2s is and was frustrating, but when she cleaned up her shots, her dynamism as a shot creating guard really improved the Sun.

The Sun now do not have a player who is a danger to shoot out of the pick and 3, and attack the rim, which limits their ability to puncture the defense. This combined with non-shooting at the 3, 4 and 5 when Theresa Plaisance is not playing, make me skeptical of this team’s offense. 

    Brionna Jones has a lot to prove if she is the starting 5. She has not been particularly effective in her limited minutes in past seasons, with a propensity to foul, below average finishing at the rim at only 51%, and trouble defending in space. She’s undersized for the 5, and is not particularly imposing as a rim protector. She can surprise, as Mercedes Lewis did last year for Seattle, but I am not optimistic.

    Jasmine Thomas is a great example of why the point guard is the hardest position to learn on the court for young players. She was maybe the second most effective point guard in the WNBA last year, something that would have been unexpected prior to the last couple of years. She figured out her shooting the last three years and is an excellent defender. Keeping her in mind when evaluating other young guards like Kelsey Plum and Kelsey Mitchell is worthwhile.

    This team still has the talent to make the playoffs, and even the semifinals. I don’t see them being able to generate enough offense to get much further, but the defense will stay good. Their games may not be the most fun to watch aesthetically speaking, but they will be effective.

2020 Season Preview: LA Sparks

We are days away from the WNBA season kicking off at IMG in Florida. Let us hope the process works, because while the news out of the WNBA campus has not been bad, the broader context in Florida is still among the worst outbreaks in the world. The drawbacks to a governor with no interest in actually governing is in this case having a direct impact on sports and the community.

The LA Sparks underperformed expectations a bit last year in losing so decisively to the Connecticut Sun. Losing in the semifinals was a fine outcome, but how poor they looked was a surprise. After a competitive game 1, the Sun were too athletic and too connected on defense and overwhelmed the Sparks.

Three big questions arose out of the series. Chelsea Gray played ok in the series, but not up to the standard she is capable of. She is 27 and square in her prime, so will likely bounce back, but something to watch. 

More seriously, Candace Parker at 34 has begun slipping a bit at age 34. How much can Parker hold on, and how should Fisher use her as she ages, is something to keep an eye on. Parker is tall, a good passer, and ok shooter, so she has so far aged well, but she did struggle against the Sun. She did deal with injuries, so hopefully she can have a healthy season in 2020.

However, the biggest question with the Sparks is their coach. Derek Fisher was not an effective NBA coach in his time with the Knicks. While in the regular season he seemed to do ok with the Sparks, some questionable decision making in the playoffs brought home the questions about his fit as coach.

For all that Parker is no longer a top 3 player in the league, Fisher’s decision to  bench her for such an extended stretch in a pivotal playoff game has not been adequately explained. The Sparks could not score and yet Fisher benched the Sparks second best passer and key fulcrum of their offense. Citing a lack of energy makes little sense, when you replace a more effective player with a less effective one. Energy only matters to the extent it is coming from a player who is actually good.

Two key members of the 2020 Sparks have opted out of the season, Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike. Toliver in particular is a loss for the Sparks, as her shooting and shot creation next to Gray was going to really help the team. Losing Chiney Ogwumike chips at the Sparks depth, but is more replaceable.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: Seimone Augustus

Notable Losses: Kristi Toliver (opt out), Chiney Ogwumike (opt out)

Guards: Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams, Te’a Cooper, 

Wings: Sydney Wiese, Seimone Augustus, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Brittney Sykes

Bigs: Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Kristine Anigwe, Reshanda Gray, Marie Gülich

The wings and guards on this team are fairly interchangeable, with only a few of the players only able to play at one position. For instance, Wiese and Augustus have often operated as guards on offense, but both are 6’ and can guard wings in theory, though it will be interesting to see how much Augustus has left. Chelsea Gray is the lead ball handler, but is often guarded by the other teams wings and guards them on defense. 

Playing time Breakdown:

Nneka Ogwumike is this team’s best player at this point. She is squarely in her prime, and her ability to shift between the 4 and the 5 is one reason this team is able to carry so many bigs and still have success. I would have gone with a guard or wing in Reshanda Gray’s place, particularly a young one such as Kamiah Smalls, but with the versatility of Ogwumike and Candace Parker, the team should be able to make it work.

Ogwumike was the best player for the Sparks in the series against the Sun. Her ability to guard bigger true posts and move her feet defending in space sets her apart from the other centers she is often compared to. She has even developed her three point shot to the point where she provides some spacing, though she is definitely not a true stretch big.

Candace Parker is still a good player. Hopefully she will be healthy this year. Parker would be helped mightily by her 3 point shot coming back, as for a couple of years in 2017 and 2018 she shot over 4 attempts per game at 35%, but both numbers were down last year.

The three is the main hole on this team, and has been since Alana Beard was no longer a full time starter caliber player. Chelsea Gray would be an interesting option here, if the team were to play Gray with two guards. Brittney Sykes looks the part and is likely why the Sparks traded for her, but she has not yet put it together. She shot 26% from 3 last year and 51% at the rim, and worse on the pull up 2s she loves. 

Riquna Williams had an effective year for the Sparks at the 2. Last year’s shooting might have been an outlier, as it was the highest of her 7 year career, but she has shown the ability to shoot. She is basically only a 3 point shooter, as she struggles to finish at the rim, only shooting 44%. However, her shooting is valuable and she is a decent defender. At 5’7” she is limited to the 2, as she does not have the size to guard bigger wings nor the passing or dribbling to shift on ball.

Chelsea Gray has functioned as the team’s main ball handler, and excelled at it. She can function as the main offensive ball handler, but still guard opposing wings, as she is 5’11”. The loss of Toliver hurts here, as she is one of the best players in the league at generating threes of the dribble, a valuable and difficult skill, while guarding opposing point guards. Playing another guard with Williams and Gray, such as Wiese or the rookie Te’a Cooper, to get more shooting in the floor, would be a good look to go for stretches and see how it works.

With a full squad, this is a team that had the talent to challenge for the finals. But the loss of Kristi Toliver really hurts this team and makes it hard to see how they are going to generate enough offense to reach those heights. Simply making it back to the semifinals would be a strong result for this team in this weird, truncated, 2020 season. This is also a big year to see how Derek Fisher does coaching, to see if he should be kept for the long term.

2020 Season Preview: Las Vegas Aces

The Las Vegas Aces came in fourth last season, however they had the second best net rating of 3.4, a bit ahead of the Connecticut Sun at 2.9. However, I had picked this team to once again top out in the semifinals with a full team. I was skeptical of this team due to the lack of shooting. Losing two key players in Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum hurt the teams chances.

Liz Cambage is one of the players who is likely missing this season because they are high risk. She will still get her full salary, and count against the Ace salary cap. We are still waiting on official word for her, so this may need to be updated as the WNBA slowly and fitfully actually informs us. 

Without Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum, out with an achilles injury, this team will be relying on A’ja Wilson to provide a lot of the shot creation without much space to operate. This team has the talent to make the playoffs, but to make it back to the semifinals is now a long shot.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Losses: Kelsey Plum (injury) Tamera Young, Liz Cambage (medically excused, probably)

Notable Additions: Angel McCoughtry, Danielle Robinson, Lindsay Allen

Guards: Danielle Robinson, Kayla McBride, Sugar Rodgers, Alex Bentley

Wings: Jackie Young, Angel McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby

Bigs: A’Ja Wilson, Liz Cambage, Carolyn Swords, Avery Warley-Talbert

Veterans make sense when a team is going for a championship, though it helps if they are actually effective. Clearly the Aces feel differently about their full team than I do, since I would have used one of the open spots on a young player instead of Alex Bentley. Te’a Cooper for instance was available. 

Angel McCoughtry at full strength is likely still effective, but at the price the Aces paid, and her odd fit with the existing roster, made her signing curious. Though funnily enough she may be more valuable on this current roster than she would have been on the team the Aces anticipated having. 

Playing Time Breakdown:

Dearica Hamby is one of the best backup bigs in the league and she will be able to slot in next to A’ja Wilson in a lot of lineups. She should start with A’ja Wilson. Hamby is undersized against many fives, but she is tough and can guard a lot of them, and use her quickness on the other end to her advantage. Any continued improvement in her shooting would be beneficial, as this is a team, as I have said, starved for shooting. /She shot 32% on 2 attempts per game in 2019. She should be looking to double her attempts this year, and hopefully increase the accuracy, but spacing is based more on attempts than accuracy so Hamby firing away would be beneficial.

One of the most interesting aspects of this team from a purely basketball standpoint is how much can A’ja Wilson hang as a center. While she’d be slightly undersized there, long term it may be her best position in closing lineups, unless she adds a three point shot, something she has not shown yet. On offense, she would be devastating with four shooters around her, and it is easier to get her those if she plays center, though finding a center who can shoot 3s, a la Amanda Zahui B, would be an interesting idea for a post-Cambage Aces team.

How much Angel McCoughtry has left after a year off playing is the question for the team at the three. In 2018 I was hoping to see McCoughtry at the 4 for the Atlanta dream. Injuries derailed that idea, but we may see it again with the Aces. She has the size against most teams to play it, and it would help her as losing a step at the 4 is not as killer as at the 3. A career 29% 3 point shooter on less than 1 attempt per game, she will not provide much spacing, but that would be slightly less damaging at the 4, when either Hamby or Wilson are not playing.

Kayla McBride is going to be shooting. She always does, but on this team, she will be extra needed to shoot. How much gravity can one player provide? Not enough to craft an above average offense is my guess, but we shall see. McBride is a good player, someone who is above average at all aspects of the game from a shooting guard, though not quite elite in any area. Closest is her three point shooting, at 37% on 5 attempts per 36 minutes. That should be higher, no reason she can not be at 7 like Allie Quigley.  Too many long 2s for such a shooter.

Point guard is an open question. The Jackie Young experiment at point guard did not go particularly well last year, and was pretty quickly mothballed in the playoffs, but might be the best option this year. A year two improvement is to be expected, but it will be tough for her to improve her offense enough to be as impactful as a number 1 pick is hoped to be.

Danielle Robinson was signed to be the backup point guard so might get the call. Even as a backup I wonder why the Aces signed a point guard who can’t shoot or finish at the rim. She can ill afford to lose much of her speed, given she is a total non shooter and an adequate passer, not exceptional. She is going to be 31 and speedy point guards that can’t shoot don’t tend to age well, but hopefully she can still produce.

This team should still be fairly effective on defense, but the offense is likely to be a slog. They have the players to get out and run in transition once again, which should help their offense, but half court will be a struggle. Laimbeer has typically proved to be reluctant to go small, but this might be the year for him to experiment more, especially given how thin the team is in their front court after their starters. Making the semifinals again would be a good outcome for this team.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Chicago Sky

While no player is guaranteed to be playing this year until the season actually tips off in Bradenton, Florida, we are getting a sense of what the rosters will look like.  Renee Montgomery, Jonquel Jones, Kristi Toliver, Chiney Ogwumike, and Natasha Cloud are prominent players who have announced they will not be playing this year.

Jones in particular will have a big impact on the actual season, as she was the second best player in the W last year and was an integral part of how the Connecticut Sun played. But that is for the Sun preview piece, coming in a couple of weeks.

The Chicago Sky for now have 10 players, with the news of Jantel Lavender’s surgery on her foot. I will be updating my season preview pieces as we go to reflect changes, though I will clearly mark where updates happened based on new info. 

The Sky were unlucky to not move on and play in the semifinals against the Washington Mystics. The Aces were good, but that was a 50/50 game. In hindsight some seem to view the Aces as the clearcut second best team in the WNBA last year, but I can’t get there, given they scraped by the Sky. The WNBA should revisit their playoff structure, since this would have been a wonderful matchup to have a best of 5, or at least best of 3, series.

The Sky going into a normal season would have needed some luck to make the semifinals. But given the rosters as they stand, they have a chance at making the finals. Even with the news that Jantel Lavender is missing the season with a foot injury, they have more continuity than any other team, while they have a young player in Diamond DeShields who has the opportunity to be a top 5 player in the WNBA.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions: Azurá Stevens

Notable losses: Astou Ndou, Jantel Lavender (injury)

1st round draft pick: Ruthy Hebard

Guards: Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stella Johnson, 

Wings: Diamond DeShields, Gabby Williams, Kahleah Copper

Bigs: Stefanie Dolson, Azurá Stevens, Ruthy Hebard, Cheyenne Parker.

Stella Johnson is a player I am excited to see this year. A silver lining of this year’s playing situation is getting to see so many young players make rosters. Hopefully Ruthy Hebard gets some playing time, to see how she does finishing against WNBA length and holds up on the defensive end.

Playing Time breakdown:

Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley are the starting back court. They need to keep up their offensive output, and for Quigley ensure that they are not too liable on defense, to make this team work. But they are the steady, consistent part of the team. Watching two players who are married to each other play at such a high level is one reason the WNBA is an amazing league to watch.

Diamond DeShields is the biggest swing player for this team. At her peak, she has top 5 in the WNBA level talent. She, like many athletic wings, including both of her teammates Gabby Williams and Kahleah Copper, have to figure out how to maximize their games when their opponents are nearly as athletic.

For Diamond, she already has a functional 3 point shot, is the most devastating transition player in the W, and has a decent handle. Year 3 is time for her to tighten her handle, improve her playmaking for others, and take the next step. 

Gabby Williams as backup point guard will probably not be tried again, but the Sky getting something out of her would be great for their eventual championship aspirations. Williams was drafted fourth behind DeShields, and has not lived up to her draft spot yet. Her issue is mainly her shot has not developed. 

She plays a position of need in modern basketball, as an athletic 5’11” wing, but is not dynamic enough to function as the one non-shooting player on the floor. This is a big year, since if she does not show improvement, the Sky will have a tough decision to make as to what kind of contract to offer her. 

Stefanie Dolson is a fine option at center. While she is definitely a tier below the upper tier of WNBA centers, she is good enough to play on a team that nearly beat Liz Cambage and the Aces. While cutting down on her foul rate would help, she is a stretch 5 who provides decent rim protection, better than her block numbers would indicate.

The four is the most open position on this team. A healthy Azurá Stevens would be my choice, as her shooting would help create acres of space for DeShields and Vandersloot to attack the basket with Dolson also spacing the floor. She can also provide more rim protection than the other options, though she may be a bit overtaxed chasing some fours. 

Diamond Deshields should get some time as a small ball 4 next to Kahleah Copper. Plenty of matchups should present themselves where she has more than enough size and athleticism to hold her own on defense, and good luck to a more traditional four forced to defend Copper or DeShields.

Cheyenne Parker has made some strides to expand her game out to the three point line, but I am not convinced she will be effective enough against starters, though James Wade starting her would not be a surprise. Parker showing improving passing would help, as she can get tunnel vision when she catches the ball, and teams might take advantage by trapping Vandersloot in the pick and roll and forcing Parker to make plays 4 on 3 at the three point line.

The Sky should be aiming for the finals, as things stand. Semifinals are a realistic goal, anything less than a top 4 finish would be a bit of a disappointment. Four of their starters are set and this will be the third year they have played together, something that should help in such a compressed season. 

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Seattle Storm

There are more important things than basketball, and being anti-racist and pushing anti-racist policies is one of them. Defunding the police is a serious conversation worth having. At a minimum we need to push for bad cops to be fired and not allowed to simply be rehired two towns over. We need reparations and fully integrated schools and neighborhoods, to redress centuries of racist policies that stole wealth from Black people to help white people amass wealth. These are issues I will continue to work on in my city, state, and country.

In less important news, but what this site is for me to talk about, it looks like basketball will be starting up at some point. I have mixed feelings on the wisdom of playing, given how rates of coronavirus appear to be going in the wrong direction in some states, particularly Florida, but the momentum is in favor of both WNBA and NBA playing towards the end of July in Florida. July 24th is the date the WNBA has announced they are aiming for.

There is some chatter about players opting to sit out the season. I will update my preview pieces as we find out which players are not going to play this year.

The Seattle Storm are my pick to win the championship, should a season happen. Seattle never got the chance to defend their championship, and but this is the core of a team that has already shown it can win at the highest levels. It is dependent on Breanna Stewart’s health and ability to return to the player she was in 2018, or something close to it. While Seattle was a bit lucky to win their one playoff game last year against the Minnesota Lynx, their success did augur well for them going forward.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions:

Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird (back from injuries) Morgan Tuck. Ezi Magbegor, Epiphanny Prince

Notable Losses: Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Shavonte Zellous.

Draft Picks:

1st round: Kitija Laksa (staying overseas)

Guards: Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, Jordin Canada, Sami Whitcomb, Epiphanny Prince, 

Wings: Alysha Clark, Breanna Stewart.

Bigs: Natasha Howard, Morgan Tuck, Ezi Magbegor, Mercedes Lewis, Crystal Langhorne

The brilliance of the pairing of Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart is that both can function as wings and bigs, depending on team needs and the situation. I listed Howard as a big and Stewart as a wing to show how they often play, but either can play inside or outside.

Laksa is a player I was very high on in the draft, really hope to see her next season and see how she plays. Good size and a quick release makes me think she can have success in the WNBA.

Playing Time Breakdown:

Sue Bird is the point guard, assuming she is healthy. Her shooting and passing are still elite. The team has good defenders at all four other positions, so her lack of foot speed on that end at this point is not as big a deal. However, should she be unable to play up to her lofty standards, the Storm have the best backup point guard in the league in Jordin Canada.

Canada and Seattle are a great match. This team is built to accentuate her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. Her major weakness is a lack of shooting, which on most other teams would hurt. But this is a team that can play four shooters around her, and with Canada’s speed, she should be devastating attacking an empty paint as Howard and Stewart space the floor. Her finishing at the rim and floater should improve with more experience. She will reduce their ceiling on offense compared to Bird, but Canada is also a disruptive defender who can rack up steals without gambling too much.

Jewell Loyd is an excellent defender and a good offensive player, though she has room to go as a consistent offensive player. She has a tendency to disappear at times in games. Her ability to attack the rim comes and goes, but part of gaining experience is becoming more consistent. Going into her 26 year old season, right on the cusp of her prime, she is only going to get better. Especially as she gets to be a second or even third option again, a more natural fit for her.

Alysha Clark is an excellent fit for this team. A prototypical 3 and d wing, she is very good at her role on this team. As long as the Storm never ask her to create her own shot or a shot for someone else, she is a good contributor. She has even improved her passing, so long as she is attacking a closeout and not starting from scratch. Defensively she competes against anyone and is a key part of the Storm’s success.

Breanna Stewart is the best player in the WNBA when fully healthy. Elene Delle Donne is excellent, but I give the slight edge to Stewart. The beauty of Stewart’s game is that she gives you the offensive skillset of a 6’4” small forward with the rim protection of a center. While she is not the shooter that EDD is, she is a good shooter, and she is a better passer and defender. EDD has improved both aspects of her game, but I would still take Stewart. Stewart is also five years younger, and still improving.

Natasha Howard was overmatched as a primary offensive creator on last year’s team at times, but it was impressive that she was as effective as she was. Now she will be able to take a step back from having to create so much of her own offense, while still having that experience to draw on. She will have to defend opposing centers again, rather than Mercedes Lewis, but that will give her a speed edge on the other end. The reigning defensive player of the year, I can’t wait to watch her and Stewart fly around on defense once again.

Howard is a good example of why teams give chances to athletes who need their skill level to catch up. She has improved her shooting and ball handling, and you can’t teach the things Howard can do athletically. Of course, sometimes the shot never comes around, which is why scouting is hard.

If we get top 3 WNBA player Breanna Stewart, Seattle is my choice to win another championship. Other than Bird, their best players are entering or are in their prime, whereas other teams are relying on older players to hang on. This season, should it be able to be played and with most of the best players, should be an exciting one with two teams acting as defending champions. If not this year, here’s hoping we get a healthy Mystics-Storm playoff series at some point.