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.

2020 WNBA Preview: Minnesota Lynx

WNBA teams have cut down their teams to their official roster, should a new season happen. From now forward we at least will have some clarity on who teams are going to be carrying into a season.

Minnesota played well last year, given the talent they lost from their championship winning team. Lindsey Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson retired. Seimone Augustus played much less because of injury. Augustus has now signed with the Los Angeles Sparks, which will take some getting used to.

Maya Moore also sat out, and will sit out this year as well, as she focuses on fighting mass incarceration and successfully freeing Jonathan Irons. While I would love to see Moore play basketball again, as one of my favorite players of all time, her advocacy off court has been impressive, on an issue very important to me. Particularly in a pandemic, bringing attention to unjust prison sentences is more important than basketball.

Back to this year’s Lynx, this is a team that has question marks at the guard spot to be answered, though their front court is among the strongest in the league. Napheesa Collier had one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent history, Sylvia Fowles is still very effective.

The defense should once again be good, as the team had the second best defensive rating in the league last year and returns the key components of the defense. The offense was ok, but was a bit hit or miss, given the lack of shooting from guard, with Danielle Robinson starting at point guard much of the year.

This is a team that was hurt by the league’s use of single elimination games in the playoffs. They had a better net rating than a Seattle Storm team that had a great game to knock them out, and would have had a chance to win a series. Single elimination games are a terrible way to run a playoffs in the WNBA. They should at least be given a best of 3, if not a best of 5.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions:

Rachel Banham, Shenise Johnson

Notable Losses:

Seimone Augustus, Stephanie Talbot, Jessica Shepherd (suspended for season, still rehabbing a knee injury)

Draft Picks:

1st round: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan

2nd round: Crystal Dangerfield

Guards: Odyssey Sims*, Crystal Dangerfield, Lexi Brown, Rachel Banham

Wings: Napheesa Collier, Cecilia Zandalasini, Bridget Carleton, Karima Christmas-Kelly, Shenise Johnson

Bigs: Sylvia Fowles, Damiras Dantas, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Kayla Alexander.

*Odyssey Sims is returning from pregnancy, and starts the season on the inactive list.

Playing Time Breakdown:

Sylvia Fowles is still one of the most effective centers in the league, so center is taken care of.. While she was down a bit from her incredible peak a few seasons ago, she is still very effective, scoring .995 per post up per which was in the 74th percentile on a healthy number of attempts per Synergy .

I am curious to see is whether the team incorporates more pick and rolls using Fowles as screener, given that a play in which Fowles finished in the pick and roll was worth 1.093 points per possession, though on a smaller number of attempts. They may lack guards who are particularly adept at running them, for as long as Sims sits out, but it still may be a better option than asking Fowles to do the shot creation herself.

Napheesa Collier had one of the more impressive rookie years one will see. Especially given that she was moving from the 4 in college to the 3 for Minnesot. Her shooting, 38% from 3, and ball handling, were better than I expected moving out on the perimeter. That she would eventually get there was believable, but not right from the first game. Those shooting numbers may not hold up this year, which would reduce her effectiveness, but even without it, she still has the chance to be the best player from the 2019 draft, an incredible get for the Lynx with the sixth pick. 

I would like to see more of Collier at the 4 more this year, to see if the Lynx can improve their offense. But Damiras Danta played well at the 4 last year, and does provide spacing from there. She just is much less of a threat off the dribble than Collier, and is not much of an upgrade on defense. Another interesting wrinkle would be Dantas at the 5 and Collier at the 4, and go five out, when Sylvia Fowles has to sit. Dantas is big enough to defend most backup 5s, and would be a tough cover at the other end. Could stagger Dantas and Fowles, to make up for the lack of a backup center that is particularly effective.

Guard is the big question mark for this team. Odyssey Sims had a decent 2019 season, though she had the bad luck of her worst game of the year coming in their playoff game against Seattle. Sims was very good in transition. The Lynx hope she can be more efficient in the half court. She is now out, and it is unclear if she will be back this year. 

Lexie Brown played back up point last year, but seems like she might be overmatched in that role as a starter. Rookie point guard is a tough position to play, and Crystal Dangerfield will need to overcome doubts about her size on defense at only 5’5”, but she has shown the ability to be a quality point guard in her time at UCONN. Dangerfield in particular can play off ball and shoot off screens, a wrinkle the Lynx did no really have last year, except sometimes with Lexi Brown.

Rachel Banham was also brought in, but she is more of a theoretical shooter at this point, compared to Brown. Brown has shot better for her career, at 37% compared to 32% for Banham, and Brown was at 40% last year, her first where she played real minutes. Neither player got to the basket much nor shot particularly well there, with Brown at 39% on shots in the half court at the rim, and Banham at 40%, but Brown did get there nearly 4 times as often. 

Shooting guard should go to Cecilia Zandalasini. At 6’2” she would be the tallest shooting guard in the league. Defensively she might struggle with the quickness of opponents in the wrong matchup, but given her shooting combined with her size, would be a tough cover at the other end. She, after Collier, is the player with the upside to help this team over perform expectations.

Minnesota is going to live and die by their guard play this year. My prediction is for an 8th place finish and to squeak into the playoffs, but Cheryl Reeve is a Hall of Fame coach and may be able to maximize this roster. Also, it is possible that Collier is able to shoot as well or better than last year, and takes a step forward as many second year players do, in which case she could drive this team to win even more games, as a big wing with her skill is the biggest driver of winning.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Indiana Fever

The Indiana Fever had a better year in 2019 than 2018, going from 12th to 9th, and just missing the playoffs. The next step, making the playoffs, will likely need to wait another year or two. While the Fever have some good pieces, it is unclear if this is a team with a player who can be a top 10 player in the W, much less top 5. That will define how this rebuild goes, and I am not hopeful.

While Pokey Chatman knew basketball well, Marianne Stanley will hopefully bring the style of the Washington Mystics with her. More 3s and better spacing on offense. Indiana does not have Elene Delle Donne, so the results won’t be as good, but the style should be playable.

Though the offense should be more dynamic, it was league average at 7th in 2019. The defense, at 11th, was even more of a struggle. In time, Lauren Cox will be able to help with this, but asking a rookie big to make a big difference on defense is a tall order. Year 2 Teaira McCowan should be better, as well, especially near the basket.

The Fever have lots of cap space, according to Richard Cohen, and so should a disgruntled star want out they could be a destination. The difficult part is convincing said player to want to go to Indianapolis. Indianapolis is an underrated city, and is the WNBA city I live closest too, but needless to say it is no LA or Las Vegas. 

Speaking of the difficulty of getting a star, this is why I would have taken Chennedy Carter over Lauren Cox. Lauren Cox’s floor is higher than Carter’s, as a solid big she should have a good WNBA career, but her upside is not nearly as high. For a small market team like Indiana, drafting is the only way to build a championship contending team, and sometimes risks need to be taken.

Unless Cox starts shooting threes at a high volume and increases her shot creation, which is possible, if not likely, it is hard to envision her becoming the kind of star a team can build around. Even a number 2 on a championship team seems like a stretch. Carter may not figure out her shooting to reach her potential, but if she does, watch out. 

The team seems to be in about the same position as last year. Major growth from Teaira McCown and Kelsey Mitchell are the best hope for a better than expected year, but this team is likely to finish in the same spot as last year, if not lower.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: 

Julie Allemand

Notable Losses: 

none

Draft Picks: 

First round: Lauren Cox 

Second Round: Kathleen Doyle

Third round: Kamiah Smalls (already cut)

Projected Depth Chart:

Guards: Erica Wheeler, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Kathleen Doyle, Julie Allemand

Wings: Victoria Vivians, Bitnajah Laney, Kennedy Burke

Bigs: Teaira McCowan, Candice Dupree, Natalie Achonwa, Stephanie Mavunga. 

Julie Allemand is a 23 yr old point guard with high level experience in Europe. Given the Fever’s options at point are unsettled, she is worth a look. Kathleen Doyle and Stephanie Mavunga are the players I am least confident about making the team. 

Playing time breakdown:

Teaira McCowan is the one player guaranteed to be starting. She was an effective center last year who generated fouls at a higher rate than comparable centers like Sylvia Fowles and Liz Cambage. She shot only 57% in the restricted area, so a main goal should be to get that up into the mid 60s, where comparable top centers finish. 

She is so big at 6’ 7” that she is a deterrent at the rim, but will continue to need to work on defending in space, and the rest of the roster will need to play a style that minimizes her lack of mobility. But she is a key piece of the Fever’s future.

The swing spot for this team in terms of style of play is going to be the 4. Will Candice Dupree finally take two steps back and shoot 3s? Can Lauren Cox up the number of attempts she takes from 3 to make teams honor her out there? Either way, finding a way to add more shooting to the lineup will maximize Teaira McCowan’s effectiveness rolling to the rim and should be a priority long term for the Fever. 

My vote is for more playing time for Cox. Dupree is a smart player who has had a wonderful career, but she can be an effective backup and mentor for Cox, while Cox learns to play with McCowan. Cox will make more mistakes on defense, but also provide more rim protection.

Some analysts ($) have Candice Dupree playing the 3, but at this point in her career, her lack of foot speed and the lack of 3 point shooting makes that unworkable. A healthy Victoria Vivians would be ideal for this spot. At 6’1” Vivians was a phenomenal shooter in 2018, shooting 40% on 5 attempts per game as a rookie, before missing all of last year with an ACL injury. When healthy, she has the athleticism and size to guard the top wing scorers in the W, which would be big for a Fever team that was limited in two way players at wing in 2019.

Kelsey Mitchell will almost certainly start. The question that the Fever should be trying to answer this year is whether long term she is their point guard or shooting guard. Her assist % was low for a point guard at 19%, compared to her teammate Erica Wheeler at 35%. Her shooting and shot creation are valuable skills that are hard to find. Should she improve her pick and roll decision making, she has the outlines of a dynamic modern point guard who can shoot 3s off the dribble in the pick and roll. The hope for the Fever is in year 3 she is set for a breakout, a la Kelsey Plum last year.

Erica Wheeler is a solid point guard, especially if she shoots like she did last year, at 37% on a decent number of attempts per game. At 29 she is the second oldest player on the team, and as an undersized guard who relies on athleticism might not age well. But for this year, she and Kelsey Mitchell will likely play a lot of minutes together.

Tiffany Mitchell quietly received, after Bria Hartley, the most curious deal in the most recent free agency at $140,000 over 3 years, per High Post Hoops. She is the highest paid player on the Fever, and will likely not start this year. As previously discussed, they have the cap space to add a new player, and pay their players on rookie deals, so it might not cost them other opportunities, but I’m not sure her leaving for Atlanta would have been the end of the world. It seemed like Atlanta made out better when their offer was matched by the Fever. She would be, what, the fifth guard on the Dream?

Mitchell has more offensive ability than Laney or Burke, so she might be able to play backup minutes at the 3 as well as the 2, against certain matchups, but she lacks the size for that to be a long term option, at only 5’9”. She attacks the basket fairly well, but has shot under 30% her 3 years in the league who tends to get tunnel vision on drives.

Year 2 of Teaira McCowan and year 3 of Kelsey Mitchell give Fever fans something to look forward to. I am lower on the long term outlook of this team than some comparable teams. One of their players popping and showing unexpected growth would solve their lack of a star player. Until then, this is a team with a lower ceiling than is ideal. The rebuild continues. 

2020 WNBA Season Preview: New York Liberty

New York Liberty is the next team up in my preview of the 2020 WNBA season, assuming it happens in some fashion. No team in the WNBA has gone through as radical a reshaping (link trade grades for Tina Charles) of their roster as the New York Liberty. With multiple draft picks in the 2020 first round and the first half of the second round, this is going to be the team to watch for the next few years as they play out their vision of the changing dynamics of the WNBA. Lots of wings, few bigs.

Last year’s Liberty team struggled on both defense and offense, but especially defense, ranking last in defensive efficiency per wnba.com. This year’s team may not be much better on defense, but they will hopefully not rank third from the bottom in offensive efficiency. Sabrina Ionescue + a bunch of shooters are promising, even given their youth.

Roster Breakdown

Notable additions:

Layshia Clarendon

Key losses:

Tina Charles, Brittany Boyd, Bria Hartley, Tanisha Wright. 

Draft picks:

1st round: Sabrina Ionescue, Megan Walker, Jazmine Jones, Jocelyn Willoughby (via trade)

2nd round: Kylee Shook, Leonna Odom. 

Projected depth chart: 

Guards: Sabrina Ionescue, Layshia Clarendon, Aysia Durr, Marine Johannes.

Wings: Kia Nurse, Megan Walker, Jazmine Jones, Rebecca Allen, Jocelyn Willoughby.

Bigs: Amanda Zahui B, Kylee Shook, Han Xu, Kiah Stokes

There are 13 players listed here. The max a team can have in the WNBA is 12, so something will have to give. If a 2020 season happens, it is likely that at least some of the international players on the roster will not come. So as long as one of Zahui B, Johannes, Han Xu, Allen does not play this year, that makes things easier. Though it will be interesting to see where the team goes next year. Kiah Stokes has a nonguaranteed contract, so could an option to be cut.

As Gabe Ibrahim points out, second round picks are going to struggle to make rosters this year, nevermind third round picks, so Odom will have to really impress or hope quite a few international players don’t make it over.

Playing time breakdown:

This team has their point guard and center down. Sabrina Ionescue should start from day one. Rookie point guard is the hardest position to learn in the WNBA, so Ionescue may struggle at the start, but she is the long term bet and will get all the playing time she could want. 

While it is unclear to me why Clarendon still plays with Team USA given other options, she is a solid backup who was hurt by an ankle injury last year and likely would have played more without them. I am excited to see if the Liberty use Ionescue off ball at all, given her shooting. Her running off screens and bending defenses will add variety to her excellent on ball skills. I’m as excited to watch Ionescue as I have ever been for a basketball player. 

For center, Amanda Zahui B was the second best player on the team last year after Kia Nurse. While the Liberty should be careful to not overpay Zahui B after this year and hamstring their flexibility going forward, she is a good player, especially given her ability to shoot from deep. Backup center is going to be interesting. If the team keeps Kiah Stokes, she is the most reliable. Kylee Shook provides a stretch factor, but may struggle against bigger opponents, and defense as a big is hard for most rookies.

Han Xu will hopefully get more playing time at center. She showed flashes last year in limited minutes. At only 20 years old, she is a 6’9” center who has a pretty looking shot from 3. Should continue to get stronger and improve her mobility on defense. It will be interesting to see what kind of appetite the Liberty have for a long term project. But given the importance of growing the Chinese market to the WNBA and the Liberty, and Hu’s own real basketball skills, bet on her staying on the team.

Kia Nurse is a guaranteed starter. What will be interesting is whether she plays the three, as she did much of last year, or if she is slid down to the 2 to make way for one of the many wings the Liberty drafted. If Nurse stays at the 3, Marine Johannes would make sense based on production for the 2, but Asia Durr for the future, as the Liberty’s #2 pick from last year. Might see some combo Clarendon + Ionescue lineups as well.

The Liberty appear to be all in on switchable wings for the three and the four. Kia Nurse may play the 3, but if not her, then pick 2 of the Megan Walker, Rebecca Allen, Jocelyn Willoughby, and Jazmine Jones grouping to play the 3 and 4. Allen and Walker together provides a ton of shooting, but will they be able to handle playing defense against bigger players. Who of this group is the least overmatched against A’Ja Wilson will be a key task for Johnathan Kolb to figure out.

Kylee Shook has the size and possibly the shooting. I’m less familiar with her game, good piece on her here by Ben Dull. She would be an interesting option at the four.

Takeaway:

Offense, offense, offense. Offense will be the reason to watch this team. . It is hard to play so many young players and have a competent defense, so the playoffs are unlikely. But the offense should be fun. This will be my #1 League Pass team should the season come to pass.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Atlanta Dream

The 2020 season is hopefully still going to happen in some fashion this year. Here begins my preview of each team. This is not going to be an exhaustive preview, but more a look at the key questions facing each team. I will not mention most third round picks, since it is unclear why the WNBA has a third round at all given how few make the team that drafted them. I am going in reverse order of the 2020 standings. Players are grouped as guards, wings and bigs to denote where they mostly play. Within that, 1 = point guard, 2 = shooting guard, 3 = small forward, 4= power forward, and 5 = center. Positions mostly by who a player guards, not where they play on offense. Stats per stats.wnba.com.

The Atlanta Dream struggled last year, finishing last in the league at 8-26. This was a surprise after losing in the semi finals the prior year. The defense had carried them in 2018 but for 2019 it slipped, going from 1st in defensive efficiency to 8th. Pair that with some of the ugliest offense one will see in the WNBA and you get why they ended up in last place. Their 89.8 offensive rating was the second worst in the past 5 years. Playing 1 consistent three point shooter in Renee Montgomery was not a successful strategy. Coach Nikki Collins thankfully will be coaching a reshaped roster that brought in shooting and consistent playmaking, so the offense should be better. Still somewhat limited in true two way players, particularly in the frontcourt, but the Dream should be much more fun to watch. 

Roster breakdown

Notable additions:

Courtney Williams. Shekinna Stricklen. Glory Johnson

Notable losses:

Angel McCaughtry. Brittney Sykes. Jessica Breland. Alex Bentley 

Draft picks: 

1st round: Chennedy Carter

2nd round: Brittany Brewer

Projected depth chart:

Guards: Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams, Renee Montgomery. 

Wings: Tiffany Hayes, Shekinna Stricklen

Bigs: Glory Johnson, Monique Billings, Elizabeth Williams, Kalani Brown

These nine players are favored to make the team and play the bulk of the minutes this year. This is a team that at least one of the remaining 3 spots could go to a third round pick. I’m particularly interested to see how Mikayla Pivec, a guard out of Oregon State pans out. 

One more center will likely make the team, either Alaina Coates or Brittany Brewer. Edge to Brewer, as this year’s 2nd round draft pick with the potential to maybe stretch the floor, though 67% free throw shooting leaves me less optimistic than some. They have the cap space to carry 12 players, so maybe Maite Cazorla, a guard who was their 2019 second round pick, gets more time to develop. 

Playing time breakdown:

The biggest unknown is going to be who plays the 3 and 4. For both 3 and 4, most of the options come with sharp trade offs between offense and defense. Shekinna Stricklen has the longest history of playing the 3 and the best combination of size (6’2”) and shooting (38% on 6 attempts per game), but lacks footspeed on defense to keep up with more athletic wings. 

Glory Johnson is 6’3” and has the speed to guard smaller players, but is only a 32% career 3 point shooter. She did shoot 34% last year, close to average. If she can keep that up, maybe the Dream can use some bigger lineups with Johnson at the 3, which would make them huge on defense. 

My preference is they try to go the other direction, with Tiffany Hayes guarding bigger players, in order to maximize the shooting and playmaking on the court.  Hayes at 30% is a worse shooter than Johnson but is a much more decisive slasher and playmaker. Outside of super big Washington lineups, I’d take the trade off of a team trying to post up Hayes, to give her a speed advantage on the other end.

This would also allow them to play Johnson at the 4, to ease some spacing concerns that come with their other players. Chennedy Carter was the best player in the draft at Atlanta’s spot, but the main position holding this team back is the four and the five. Glory is the only big on the team who can and will shoot 3s. While better shooting from the guards should help, it is still hard to see this team being a top 6 offensive team as currently constructed. An interesting experiment would be to see if Shekinna Stricklen can hold up at the 4. 

For center, size and potential vs production. Playing professional defense is hard for young players, but I hope the Dream give Brown time to see what they have. Brown running pick and rolls with Carter could be fun, as Brown uses her size (6’7”) to rim run, assuming there is sufficient space to roll into. 

Elizabeth Williams is a consummate professional, but outside of rim protection is not offering much more than average production as a center. Part of the team’s 2018 success was driven by unsustainable shooting by Williams from the 2, and she fell back to earth last year. 

Glory Johnson is the same height as Elizabeth Williams, both 6’3″, but typically has not provided the same rim protection. She would allow for a defense more able to switch pick and rolls, and play 5 out on offense, so would at least be interesting for small stretches.

Courtney Williams is the one guaranteed starter on the roster at the 2, as the team’s main free agency signing.  A driving factor in the Sun making the 2019 finals was Williams turning some of her long 2s into 3s. She went from the regular season attempting 1 three a game, to 3.6 a game in the playoffs, while not losing efficiency, shooting an excellent 41% in the playoffs. If Nicki Collens can get Williams to shoot even more 3s in the regular season, Williams might be the signing of the off season. Williams competes on defense and typically does not get taken advantage of, even given her size, 5’8″.

For the 1, Chennedy Carter starting with Renee Montgomery backing up both guard spots would be the most fun to watch. Starting Carter from the beginning, similar to how Dallas handled Arike Ogunbowale last year, is my hope. 

Montgomery slipped from 3 last year, and is entering her 12th season, but given she will no longer be the only consistent three point shooter on the floor for most of her minutes, should still be effective. Though the end can come quickly for shorter players, shooting and passing both age well, and she should be able to provide solid back up guard minutes.  

This team has the talent to be a better team than in 2019, but it is hard to see them getting back to the playoffs. For that to happen, Chennedy Carter would likely need to step in as a positive force right from the beginning. Possible, but rookie guards usually struggle. Or maybe a big on the team makes strides. What can Kalani Brown do when not buried behind future Hall of Famers and #1 draft picks as she was on the Sparks?  Courtney Williams will bring it, but she has never had to carry a team by herself. However, even if the Dream do not win that many more games, thankfully for Dream fans this will be a more fun year after last year’s ugliness.