What do the Aces do now?

Bill Laimbeer has won championships as a coach. But is has been 13 years since the Detroit Shock won their last championship. The Aces have not performed as well in the playoffs as their regular season record and net rating would indicate recently. Laimbeer has his work cut out for him. As a coach with a particular style who does not always make adjustments quickly, I have my doubts about his ability to lead the Aces back from down 2-1.

Basically nothing went well in game 3. Liz Cambage was the only player to be even somewhat efficient on offense and her one on one defense was ok Unfortunately for the Aces Cambage was outplayed by Griner and she is coming back from Covid-19 and can’t play heavy minutes. The rest of the team was a mess.

Going forward, the main question Laimbeer has to answer is what is the Aces are doing at the 3 and the 4. I mentioned Cambage playing ok at center. At guard, Riquna Williams, Chelsea Gray, and Kelsey Plum combined to go 7 for 26 overall, including 1 for 10 from 3. Not good. However, the Aces can hope on better shooting from those 3 without dramatic adjustments. What is happening with their small forwards and power forwards is another question.

The first thing to note is that the Aces really only have one player who fits the bill in what a modern 4 is expected to be able to do and that is Dearica Hamby. A’ja Wilson is one of the best players in the league, but she is a center on offense at this point in her career. She does not shoot 3s, nor is she a Griner level shooter from the midrange. Wilson has the skill and smarts to succeed against most teams at the 4, but here we are seeing the limits of that approach.

At the three, the team has gone with Jackie Young this year since Angel McCoughtry got hurt. Young had a good regular season, but this is looking like it will be the second straight post season where her inability and unwillingness to shoot from 3 might force Laimbeer to cut her minutes. She has had moments in transition, but in the half court the Aces need more than the occasional low percentage midrange 2. Especially if the Mercury are going to hide Diana Tauriasi on her.

Playing A’ja and Liz together is necessary given the construction of the Aces. So those minutes at the 4 are spoken for. And while Cambage is by no means a stretch 5, she is willing to spend some time on the perimeter and she requires attention so the fit can be managed between Wilson and Cambage. Well, at least for this series. The Aces have some decisions to make going forward. But that is for another day. The question becomes what happens with all other minutes at both the 3 and the 4. I am going to take them each separately.

At the 3:

Chelsea Gray should be the Aces starting small forward with Kelsey Plum moved into the starting lineup. While Gray isn’t likely to light up the Mercury from 3, she is at least somewhat respected out there. She is also more capable as a passer and can keep plays moving when the ball is swung to her. 

Gray struggled in Game 3 and has really only played well in Game 1, the third playoffs in a row she has underwhelmed. Still, she is a better option than Jackie Young. And with Plum able to take the primary play making and offensive creation, Gray should be better off as a secondary creator.

The other benefit to this move is that Kelsey Plum is the one Aces guard who can puncture the Mercury defense. Finishing at the rim against Griner is not going to be easy, but if other adjustments can bring Griner a few steps out onto the floor, Plum has the speed to get by Griner. Plum is also a good 3 point shooter and will be guarded off ball. With Riqna Williams and Plum playing, the Aces will approach actual spacing on the court.

Playing Williams, Gray and Plum also gives Diana Taurasi nowhere comfortable to hide out on defense. Whichever player she is guarding should be attacking her. Running off of screens if it is Williams, pick and roll or one on one attack if it is Plum or Gray.

If Gray is moved to the three, the Aces will have to work with her and Williams to clean up their off ball help. If you are going to double Griner with Brianna Turner’s defender, whoever is guarding Kia Nurse has to be ready to crash down. Nurse might beat you with 3s, as she shot 35% from 3 this year, but you have to give something up to the Mercury. Better Nurse 3s than Turner layups.

This play below shows how the Aces were likely trying to guard the Mercury. Too often when it was Brianna Turner in the game she found space for open layups. Jackie Young is abandoning a decent in 3 point shooter in Sophie Cunningham, but that is better than giving up a Kia Vaughn or Brianna Turner layup. Gray may not be quite as big nor as athletic as Young, but she can still play this role.

At the 4:

A’ja Wilson should be spending as much time at the 5 as possible. Kiah Stokes offers so little on offense and if the Aces plan on doubling Griner every possession anyways, what purpose is there for Stokes to be playing at the 5 over Wilson? Have A’ja guard Griner and Hamby next to her run to double. Laimbeer went the opposite with Hamby on Griner, but as hard as Hamby works that is quite the ask. This would also mean less time for Hamby at the 3. The three bigs lineup is too creaky with shooting to work against the Mercury.

Hamby is a good help defender and she can figure out where to be next as the Aces rotate better than the other options for the Aces. The limiting factor here is Hamby’s health. But if she is good to play 30+ minutes, she should at the 4. This was maybe the best defensive play of the game for the Aces with Hamby smartly timing her double on Griner and Chelsea Gray crashing down on Turner.

Wilson guarding Griner might lead to Wilson foul trouble, but that is a risk that is worth taking. Better than losing by 20. And then on offense, when Hamby is in the game, she should be spotting up at the 3 point line as much as she can if she is not actively involved in a play. Like this serves nothing. Why is she there? Also note how far away the Mercury defenders are from Young. Cunningham is hiding behind A’ja Wilson and forces Young into a tough long 2.

Anything the Aces can do to get Griner away from the paint they should be trying. Griner is willing to move her feet on the perimeter. She is nimble for a 6’9” player, but obviously she is less effective out there than she is camped in the paint using her wingspan to erase shots. This positioning from Stokes is not going to get it done.

Bill Laimbeer has had success in the regular season swimming against the 3 point shooting trend of modern basketball. But in the playoffs when the margins are thinner and teams scout better, adjustments must be made. Time to see what the Aces can do to stave off elimination.

Game 3 Adjustments for the Chicago Sky

A tied series entering game 3 is often the best game in a best of 5 series. Game 5s are great, but winning game 3 is such an advantage for the winning team. This is the first game that both teams have a real chance to adjust as well and pick at what they do well and other team struggles to do.

Going into game 3, the Sky are the team who will have to show they can beat the Sun. The Sky won game 1 in a double OT game, which can be chalked up to luck as either team could have won that game. Game 2 on the other hand was a more convincing win by the #1 seed Sun as they ran away with the game in the fourth quarter to win by 11. And it was a 15 point lead when garbage time began. 

Before getting into the adjustments the Sky can control, the main adjustment for the Sky to make will be to get some better shooting luck. In a make or miss sport like basketball, shooting luck decides quite a bit. In game 1 the Sky shot 36% from 3, a tick above their regular season mark of 34%. In Game 2, however, the Sky fell to 27% from 3. Allie Quigley went 1 for 5 and Courtney Vandersloot missed both her 3 point attempts. Pair this with the Sun hitting an unsustainable number of long 2s and the Sky faced an uphill battle.  Should either of those, and possibly both, of those factors normalize, the Sky should be in better shape. But here are two other ideas.

Tighten Rotations:

The Sky should consider relying less on their bench and tightening the rotation. James Wade has already begun the process, as Ruthy Hebard has only seen the court in garbage time. Next step will be to decide if Astou Ndour is really offering enough to play her over extending Stefanie Dolson and Azurá Stevens. While Ndour had good moments in game 1, I would like to see Wade rely on his best players over the course of the season instead of trying to guess which non-Candace Parker big has it going in the moment. 

Dana Evans may have reached the limits of her ability to contribute. I am still bullish on her future as a W player, but playing a rookie pg against Jasmine Thomas and Briann January in the playoffs is asking a lot. Wade should consider if he can stagger his minutes to play Lexie Brown with Candace Parker and have Parker initiate the offense. Lexie Brown is not a point guard but she can shoot off ball, at least in theory, though the results have not been there this season in a small number of attempts. She is definitely a much better defender than Evans.

Curt Miller has no trouble cutting his rotation as much as he can which Wade will need to match. Alyssa Thomas may not be able to play a full 40 minutes, and because of the rise of Brionna Jones she would not have to even if she could, but it is unlikely we see more than token minutes for Sun bench players except for Natisha Hiedeman and AT.

Pick and Roll coverage: More Drop Coverage

It is possible that the Sky can execute their coverage better that they have used most of the season, rather than changing it entirely. Just because something is not working does not mean a coach needs to change it. Better execution is possible. But in this case, I don’t think the coverage makes sense given the Sun’s strengths and weaknesses on offense.

The Sky were doing two things when defending the Sun in pick and roll defense worth reconsidering. They were fighting over the top of picks and bringing the big up to the ball handler and doubling the ball. Neither makes much sense to me given who the Sun have as ball handlers.

Fighting over picks when the other team has good 3 point shooters, particularly off the dribble, is necessary. The Aces are not going to start going under on Diana Taurasi pick and rolls, as they and anyone who has ever watched the Mercury know how poorly that can go. Even with going over on picks and sending the big to help, DT can still drop 37 on 13 shots. The Sun, on the other hand, do not have that kind of dangerous 3 point shooting, particularly off the bounce. 

DeWanna Bonner is unafraid to let it fly off the dribble, but she has shot below 30% from 3 for her career and worse on off the dribble 3s. Jasmine Thomas is a fine shooter with her feet set, but off the dribble she is not going to hurt you. Briann January is the best 3 point shooter of the bunch at 38% for her career, but on low volume. If the Sky go under on her January might hit a couple of 3s, but that is a trade off worth making to keep the Sun guards in front of the Sky defenders.

The other aspect is how the Sky can keep out of rotations against the Sun bigs. Alyssa Thomas in particular is at her best in the half court when she has a 4 on 3 advantage and can attack in space. This play is a good example. Candace actually stays further back than the Sky did for most of the game, but still ends up doubling January and eventually gives up a layup to Jonquel Jones.

Alyssa Thomas was effective at mixing up when she set a screen and when she slipped them. Slipping a screen is when the screen setter cuts to the basket without actually screening anyone. This pass after AT slipped the screen leads to a turnover, but if the pass connects, Alyssa Thoma has a wide open lane to the basket and multiple options to pass as the Sky rotate.

The Sky should consider at least mixing in some drop defense in the pick and roll. Here is an example of the kind of drop defense I mean. Even against Allie Quigley, the Aces have Kiah Stokes stay in the paint. Enjoy the quick yellow line showing just how far off Stokes is.

To be fair to James Wade, there are reasons he does not use drop defense like this. The Sky have bigs who can defend, but none are exactly the traditional rim protector who blocks shots like a Kiah Stokes. Parker is good at using verticality and her size at the rim, but it is possible she prefers this more active style of defense as well.

Drop defense like this is also not ideal against the best guards. It can give a dangerous attacking point guard a runway to beat even good rim protectors like Stokes at the basket. Skylar Diggins-Smith is particularly adept at this. The other is even with the defender fighting over the screen, it can allow for far too much space for good shooters. The Aces do not play this way against Diana Taurasi, needless to say.

However, the Sun do not really have a guard who is particularly adept at either attacking size at the rim or shooting 3s off the dribble. Certainly not to the degree they do bigs who thrive playing against rotations. Keeping the Sky bigs nearer to the paint and doing their best to defend pick and rolls with only 2 defenders will help. The Sky will have to watch for Jonquel Jones popping out to the three point line but that is not a concern with any of the other Sun bigs. 

At best the Sky should probably mix up their pick and roll defenses. The Sun found a comfort against the Sky’s defense that paired with the Sun’s defense is going to be hard for the Sky to overcome. Sky have work to do. This is when series are at their best in basketball. Adjustments come and the stakes only go up.

2021 WNBA Season Awards

The end of the 2021 season is upon us and that means awards for the 2021 season. I did not do every award possible, just a selection I thought worth noting. MVP, DPOY, ROY, MIP, and the All-WNBA teams. 

MVP:

Jonquel Jones

One of two easy choices along with rookie of the year. Jonquel Jones started the year on fire from 3 and made her case as MVP front runner early. Her 3 point shooting did not stay at 50% but 37% on healthy volume from your 6’6” big is still incredible. Jonquel is also the best defender among the MVP candidates. Jonquel replaced an All-Star and top 15 player in Alyssa Thomas and helped drive the Sun to new heights and favorites for the championship. There is basically nothing at the 4 or the 5 that Jonquel can’t do.  One incredible stat to sum up her year is that from 2019 to 2021 her usage jumped from 22% to 27% and yet she set a career high in TS% this season.

Defensive Player of the Year

Jonquel Jones

Since bigs tend to have a larger impact on team defense I tend to think this award should go to a big over a wing. So apologies to Brittney Sykes who had a great year, but this came down to Sylvia Fowles, Jonquel Jones, or A’ja Wilson. Fowles was great near the basket and remained among the best centers at defending the pick and roll. Jones gets the edge for her versatility. Her ability to shift between functioning as the 4 or the 5 in different lineups was elite, though Wilson could also do that.

What set Jones apart from Wilson was just how great the Sun were as a defensive team. The gap in defensive rating between the Sun and the 2nd place Aces was the same as the gap between the Aces and the Mercury in 7th. Of course Jones was surrounded by strong defenders, but this Sun team had the same good defenders last season just with Alyssa Thomas and not Jones. The Sun in 2020 had a defensive rating of 99.5 and in 2021 91.7. I’m not saying Jones is that much better a defender than Thomas, confounding factors like most of a year of Briann January this year contributed, but Jones is deserving of the DPOY.

Rookie of the Year

Michaela Onyenwere

Onyenwere averaged the most minutes per game at 22.5 of any rookie. On a per minute basis her numbers were not that much better than Aari McDonald, but Onyenwere’s ability to be an ok starter as a rookie sets her apart. She came off the bench at the end of the season, but still contributed. Her main statistical advantage over McDonald was her true shooting, where she was at 54% and McDonald was at 50%. McDonald did have a higher usage rate, which tends to hurt efficiency, but Onyenwere still gets the edge for me.

Most Improved Player

Jonquel Jones

So if I had an actual vote I’d strongly consider Kelsey Plum. Plum was not nearly this good last we saw her play in 2019 and managed to play this well after coming off a serious injury. Marina Mabrey and Brionna Jones are hurt by the vagaries of this award, as in my view both of them were quite good in 2020. Jonquel Jones, on the other and, made a real leap. Differences at the highest heights of basketball are magnified as they are often the difference between a good team and a favorite for a championship. In 2019 Jones was one all-star among a strong squad that pushed the Mystics to 5 games. This year, on another good team, Jones was the undisputed star of the team. Her ability to generate more offense for herself. As stated in her MVP case, her usage jumped from 22% to 27% and yet she set a career high in TS%.

6th Women of the Year

Natisha Hiedeman

Kelsey Plum would likely be my choice if I had an actual vote, but I resent this award going to Bill Laimbeer players because he refuses to start his best players for no apparent reason. Laimbeer is a good coach, but this tendency irrationally irks me. 

I also get to highlight how good Natisha Hiedeman was. She was the best offensive guard for the Sun and a key part of them surviving when either Briann January or Jasmine Thomas were out. Hiedeman shot 40% from 3 on 7.2 attempts per 36 minutes. 40% from 2 was not great, but good enough. She showed she could run the Sun offense with a more than 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. As we move towards the playoffs it will be interesting to see if Curt Miller will turn to more Hiedeman instead of January if the Sun struggle to score. Hiedeman has been good enough to make it worth at least considering.

Brittney Griner

First team All-WNBA

Jonquel Jones

Breanna Stewart

Jewell Loyd

Skylar Diggins-Smith

Second team All-WNBA

Sylvia Fowles

Tina Charles

A’ja Wilson

Kayla McBride

Courtney Vandersloot

Quick thoughts on All-WNBA teams:

Sylvia Fowles vs. Brittney Griner was a coin flip for me. I think Griner was just a bit more responsible for her team’s success and as the best offensive center in basketball she did enough to earn the spot. Fowles requires her teammates to get her the ball closer to the basket and is a bit more dependent on the team around her than Griner. Then again, even in a year where Griner looked better defensively, Fowles is better. Tough choices. If I had an actual vote and the positions rules were strict I might have had trouble since sneaking Wilson in as a small forward is definitely cheating, but whatever. She was clearly deserving of a spot.

The hardest choice was for the non-Courtney Vandersloot guard spot on second team. I considered players who spent a lot of time at the 3 like Kaleah Copper. If Copper had been closer to the 35% from 3 of 2020 she likely would have gotten it, but 30% was not good enough. Originally I had Arike Ogunbowale, but her lack of defense and relatively poor efficiency, 51% true shooting, made me reconsider. Jasmine Thomas was as great on defense as normal, but other than hitting the spot up 3s did not do enough on offense. Ariel Atkins defended and shot well and showed some growth as an on ball shot creator, but did not get to the rim much and had an even assist to turnover ratio as she did not make plays for others at the rate of others contending for this spot.

In the end, the efficiency of Kayla McBride paired with her decent defense got the spot for me. McBride did benefit from having the lowest usage rate of the players considered, but even then she had a pretty good assist rate. The ability to be as effective off ball as she was is a skill in its own right as she played next to Layshia Clarendon and Aerial Powers, two guards better with the ball in their hands. 

Checking in on the 2021 WNBA Draft Class

This year’s rookie class has not made much of an impression yet on the WNBA. This was expected before the draft and has so far proven out. This is no grand statement on the overall state of young talent in basketball, just a quirk of birthdays. The best players in the class of 2021 could and did leave as juniors, Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter. The best players in the class of 2022, NaLyssa Smith and Rhyne Howard, were not old enough to leave early. While the W should lower the age for players to join the W, there would still be drafts of differing quality.

Still there will be some players from this class who contribute in the W. Below I look at the players who have actually played and thus have given us a read on their games. I tend to think without strong evidence otherwise a player who has not earned playing time is simply not good enough to do so. More often than not as an outside observer trusting coaches whose livelihood is on the line makes sense. Questioning judgements on the margins is where the fun is but a player who never plays is generally not playing for good reasons.

Players can and do develop while not getting playing time, of course. Myisha Hines-Allen is a good example of a player who developed on the bench and overseas and turned out to be quite good, so there is hope for the rookies who have not played yet. More for the ones who are stuck behind good players as MHA was, than those like Kysre Gondrezick who can’t crack a rotation on a team going nowhere. To be fair maybe Gondrezick would have played had she not disappeared from the Fever after the Olympic break, but who knows.

Then some accountability at the end on a couple of players I was too high on in my draft board to see what can be learned for future drafts. All stats per Basketball Reference.

Michaela Onyenwere

The 6th pick and favorite for rookie of the year, she is the only rookie to get significant playing time throughout the entire season, even as she did not start the Liberty’s most recent game. My concerns going into the season were she was stuck between the 3 and 4, without the size to be a 4 nor the shooting or passing to play the 3. After a hot start from 3, her percentages have fallen, but she has been able to remain fairly productive on offense.

She is at 32% from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game, so not terrible and definitely promising given she hardly shot at all in college. Getting it up to 35% is definitely a possibility. Rounding out the rest of per perimeter skills is the next step. For example, she has nearly twice as many turnovers as assists

Defense has been a struggle at the 4 and even with the inevitable defensive improvements that young players make it is unlikely she will be a plus on that end at the 4, given her lack of height and length. Even with her explosive athleticism, she gets relatively few steals and blocks. But she is not a disaster either on defense. If she can improve her perimeter skills to play some 3 that would help her on defense as well. All in all, a promising rookie year and if we were to do a redraft she undoubtedly would go higher than 6, maybe as high as 2 or 3. 

Aari McDonald:

McDonald has had a solid rookie year at point guard, the hardest position on offense to learn in the pros. Her defense has been as advertised as a point guard defender. Something to watch will be if she can use her strength and speed to guard bigger guards. Her ability to guard point guards is valuable, but if she is only a one position defender, the impact will be somewhat limited. Being able to guard shooting guards will be especially helpful if she is next to Chennedy Carter, who has the tools to be a decent defender but has not been particularly good at that end yet.

On offense the story has been a lot more uneven for McDonald. 33% from 3 on 3 attempts per game is fine, if not the kind of shooting we saw in the NCAA tournament. Concerns that she was drafted high off a small stretch of hot shooting were not unwarranted, but so far her shooting from 3 has been good enough, if not to the level it was in that tournament run.  An assist turnover ratio of nearly 2 to 1 is good as well.

Where McDonald has lots of work to do is her ability to finish inside the arc. Having a 2 point percentage, 32%, that is lower than your 3 point percentage is not good. Her lack of touch on floaters and runners coming out of Arizona concerned me and has been an issue. To be a starter in the W, she will need to be able to figure out how to finish against W size and length. Kelsey Plum should be the role model. Plum was a more accomplished scorer coming into the W, but she also had to work to improve her finishes and McDonald can absolutely do the same.

The folks who had Aari McDonald as the better prospect than Dana Evans, like the Dream, are looking good. A lot of the Dream season has not gone to plan, but McDonald as the third pick has looked perfectly reasonable. Evans has been ok and I will get to her later, but McDonald has been better.

Charli Collier

Nothing that we have seen from Collier has convinced me that I was wrong to be skeptical of her as the number 1 pick in this draft. She can still be a solid W player in time. I had her fifth on my board so it is not like I expected her to be out of the league quickly. While I mentioned that rookies getting playing time correlates to their quality often, Collier is the exception. She seemed to get a lot of playing time as the #1 pick, even if the team was better with Bella Alarie, Izzy Harrison, and even Awak Kuier instead.

Her shooting on offense was always more theoretical than actual and so far has remained so. She has yet to take a 3 in the W and her ability to occasionally hit a midrange 2 is not going to make up for her middling finishing in the paint. She still has time to adjust to the size in the W, but Sylvia Fowles she likely is not in the paint. More likely to be Elizabeth Williams level around the rim.

However, unlike Elizabeth Williams, Collier has not been able to make much of an impact defensively. Defense, particularly defending in space, is the hardest thing for young bigs to learn and Collier will improve. But she is so out of position as a help defender and lacks the lateral speed to make up for it that the odds of her anchoring a top 4 defense seem long.

To get back to offense, passing for a center is not the most important skill, however for a number one pick with hopes of stardom, it does matter. Her lack of passing in college has improved minutely in the pros, but is still a concern. She has 6 assists on the season for a rate of .6 per 36 minutes. That is similar to the assist rates for both Williams and Fowles as rookies. Both of them made a real leap in their second year, so Collier’s passing will be something to watch in year 2.

Awak Kuier

Nothing I have seen has dissuaded me from the view from before the season that Awak’s ceiling is the highest of any of the players in this draft. Taken second by the Wings after her teammate Collier, Awak has earned more playing time than Collier as the season has gone on. While she is more flashes of potential than actual production at the moment, there are have been sufficient flashes to dream big going forward.

To compare her to her teammate Collier, Awak has more assists in half as many minutes. She has twice as many blocks and the same number of steals. She has struggled to score compared to Collier.

Her scoring has been an adventure, with atrocious shooting percentages from everywhere except the free throw line. The optimistic take is that her 3 point shot looks confident and finishing inside should come with added strength and experience. She has decent touch. She just needs to not be able to be knocked over by a strong breeze.

The biggest thing going for Awak is that she is still very young. She turned 20 a month ago. For perspective, she is 2 months older than Paige Bueckers and 3 months younger than Haley Jones. To already be able to play in the W with some success is a great sign for her going forward.

Revisiting my 2021 Draft Board:

Three players, Natasha Mack, Dana Evans, and Arella Guirantes, who I was high on went in the second round of the draft, so it is worth looking at how they have fared and what to takeaway from teams differing in their evaluations from me. I am basing this on what limited playing time these players have received and so understandably my perspective is inherently limited. But I still think it worth walking through.

Natasha Mack I had as the best center prospect in college. She went 16th to the Sky and is now out of the W after getting some looks from the Sky and the Lynx. She seems to have been hurt by one factor I discounted too much, her lack of offensive polish, and one factor I did not consider before the draft, the increased difficulty of non-star centers making teams. I wrote about the challenges of non-star centers earlier this season. I still think Mack has a chance to make it back into the league as she figures out how to turn her length and speed into consistent defensive impact, but she will also need some luck as her lack of offensive feel will make her fit tricky.

Dana Evans I had top 5 and she went 12th to the Wings. She was then traded to the Sky. While I was likely a bit too high on her, as stated before McDonald has shown herself to be the better prospect so far in the W, I was closer with her than either Mack or Guirantes. In many ways her rookie year has looked like McDonald’s, but with more extremes. Her 3 point shooting has been better than McDonald’s and a legitimate asset for the Sky at 41% on the season. She can actually dribble and pass in the W, no guarantee given some of the other choices the Sky have used as backup point guard. On the other hand she has struggled even more than McDonald inside the arc with a ghastly 23% from 2. Her shooting may cool off a bit from 3, but she has enough craft I think she can get that 2 point percentage to at least respectable for a backup.

Arella Guirantes’ draft position differed the most between my board and the draft itself as I had her as a top 5 pick and she ended up going to the Sparks with the 22nd pick. On the one hand she has not done that much with her time on the Sparks but the fact that as 22nd pick she is still on the Sparks and receiving playing time means she is doing something right. Stephanie Watts was selected 10th by the Sparks, then was cut by the Sky after a trade, and has not been heard from since. The issue for Guirantes in the W is her lack of athleticism. She struggles to create separation on offense and is vulnerable to being blown by on defense. I thought she had the skill, strength, and length to overcome that. Defensively she has not been a disaster, but offensively it has not worked so far. Shooting 27% from the field is not going to get it done. In particular looking to shoot 3s quicker and not stop the ball and let the defense recover would be one adjustment for her as she adapts from college star to W role player.

The Center Squeeze

For a few years when looking at the NBA and the WNBA, the impact and value of centers appeared to be an area of difference. Centers maintained their impact in the W, with Sylvia Fowles, Britney Griner, and Nneka Ogwumike all impacting winning and championships over the same period of time that the Warriors were rising in the NBA to challenge the value of centers, with undersized Draymond Green thriving in the lineup of death. 

However, recently, the WNBA and NBA seem to be converging in how best to approach the center position. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid went 1 and 2 in MVP voting. Deandre Ayton is playing well and holding his own in the Western Conference finals. So in the NBA, star centers still have value. However, smarter NBA teams are better off not overly focusing on center outside of the very best. Wing depth matters more and decent contributors at center can be found later in the draft or even undrafted. Centers who can lead an offense have value, but those are relatively rare. 

This is basically how this WNBA season is also going. Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, and Liz Cambage are all important parts of their team’s success this year. Jonquel Jones and A’ja Wilson could be on this list for different teams, as both can excel as centers, but they have the versatility to make it work next to more traditional centers. 

However, after the top tier centers, the W has become a tougher place. A look at recent drafts gives us a snapshot of the struggles of non-star centers. The 2018 draft had two traditional centers in Maria Vadeeva, who may have a place in the league, but has not been over from Russia lately, and Mercedes Russell, a late second round pick. The only true center left in the league from the 2019 draft on a regular contract is Teaira McCowan, and her struggles have kept her coming off the bench for a 1 win team and her future in the league as more than a situational offensive player up in the air. 

The 2020 draft had more centers taken in the first round. Returns have been decidedly mixed. Lauren Cox was taken at 3 and was shockingly waived this past weekend. The Sparks have already signed her, but still, not great. Bella Alarie was taken at 5. She has been good defensively this season with the Wings, but may struggle to stick if her offense does not come around, and then none until Beatrice Mompromier in the middle of the second round. Ruthy Hebard plays the 4 for the Sky, but is more of a 5 on offense given her lack of range, and may end up squeezed for a role if she can not either prove she can defend like a 5 or shoot like a 4.

The 2021 continued the trend of a bifurcation for centers, with Charli Collier drafted #1 on the hope of star potential, and no other centers who planned on playing in the W this year drafted until 16 with Natasha Mack. Mack is out of the league at the moment, after a few hardship contracts with the Sky. 

Similar trend holds this year with teams and how they have used their centers. The Sparks have been able to claw their way close to .500 playing one big at a time in either Amanda Zahui B. or Kristine Anigwe next to a wing in either Nia Coffey or even smaller with Karlie Samuelson. Clearly the Sparks would be better with Nneka Ogwumike back, but having wing depth has been key. 

The aforementioned Bella Alarie and Charli Collier have been sharing the center position with the Wings recognizing that they are at their best with Kayla Thornton and Satou Sabally at the 4, players who played the 3 in recent seasons. Long term, it might make sense for the Wings to try Satou Sabally at the center as their best lineups to go small in key moments and stretch opposing defenses. 

Tina Charles has answered questions about her fit with the Mystics by embracing a move to center full time and playing next to a more mobile 4 who can shoot 3s. Gone are the days of playing Tina Charles at power forward and living with her taking 15 footers next to a traditional center like Kiah Stokes. Speaking of Stokes, she was waived by the Liberty though she was on a protected contract and will now be deep on the Aces bench. Howard is a good example of a player who might have been a 4 in years past, but is now best suited for the 5.

Looking forward, the next couple of W drafts have a mix of both high end center talent with NaLyssa Smith in 2022 and Aliyah Boston in 2023, as well as good but not great center prospects, like Elissa Cunane and Shakira Austin in 2022. Smith and Boston are almost certainly going to be the first or second picks in their respective drafts. Smith has the athleticism to play at the 4 at least some of the time, especially if her shooting continues to improve, and Boston has the skill to face up from the perimeter while also posting up, and joining the group of star centers. 

Where Cunane and Austin go in the draft will be something to watch. Both, but more Cunane, can space the floor, but whether teams view them as more mid-first round picks, or if they slip into the second round, will be telling on how teams view centers. The smarter teams will likely focus on trying to find the best talent at the wing and guard in the draft, as decent center prospects have been able to be found later. 

Same questions will arise in free agency. While paying top dollar for the best centers will continue to make sense, contracts like those that Indiana gave to Jantel Lavender, 3 years protected at 175,000 and Minnesota gave to Natalie Achonwa, 3 years protected descending from 164,000 in the first year, should likely be stayed away from. Lavender is functionally a center at this point, as the Fever struggle to score as they rotate through a collection of centers and shoehorn them into the power forward position.

While there is value in having a solid backup big on the bench like Achonwa, Bridget Carleton at 58,000 is at a more important position and it will be interesting to see if Minnesota can retain Carleton going forward while also paying Napheesa Collier in two years. Centers will still be drafted and signed in the hopes of finding the next Sylvia Fowles, but not like they were in the past.

2021 Season Preview: Dallas, Indiana, and Las Vegas

Here are three more team previews in preparation for the upcoming season. The team that for the past few years has been the most confusingly run, the Dallas Wings, the current team that is the most confusingly run, the Indiana Fever, and my tentative pick to win the title this year, the Las Vegas Aces.

Dallas Wings

Arike Ogunbowale: An all-WNBA player a year ago, now comes seeing just how high her ceiling is. I’ll be looking for more consistent defense, improving her 3 point shooting, particularly off ball, and continuing to improve her true shooting %, which accounts for the value of 3s and free throws. Her TS% was 10 points lower than Diana Taurasi, 53% to 63%, in 2020. Ogunbowale can close that gap, but by how much will be the test.

Marina Mabrey: Showing that she can shoot from 3 and pass is a good first step. Now, can she earn free throws after hardly earning any trips to the line? Put pressure on the rim off of the pick and roll? Shot a fine percentage in the paint, but did not get there much. Not a bad defender, but is she the best fit on that end next to Ogunbowale, someone who may never be better than average?

Kayla Thornton: Should benefit from being slotted into a lower usage role. Needs to shoot 3s even if they do not go in. Good multi-position defender whose versatility works well with the various young pieces Dallas has. 

Satou Sabally: Extremely promising rookie year. Hopefully her 3 point shooting from Turkey comes with her to the W, as that was one part of her college game that abandoned her in 2020, shooting only 20% from 3. The sky is the limit for her.

Bella Alarie: Defensively had a strong rookie year. And on a team that could use more defense and does not need offense as much, could earn a starting nod. But her offense will hopefully come, as someone who can likely shoot 3s and make some plays off the dribble. 

Key Reserves

Isabelle Harrison: Over matched as a starting center, but she might end up in that role again if none of the young bigs are quite ready. But she is a good backup center, so long as she focuses on defending and only scoring off of passes from teammates. No more Harrison post ups when either Ogunbowale or Sabally are on the court, please. 

Allisha Gray: Signed a good contract for the Wings this off season. A good sign that she was willing to stay. Not a bad contract for Gray, but thought she could have gotten more if she had tested restricted free agency. On the court she is solid at everything but does not really stand out in any area. If Dallas goes small more, she can definitely play the 3, as she has good size. Last two seasons her 3 point shooting has improved, a key for her to play next to Ogunbowale and Sabally.

Tyasha Harris: Same question as her rookie year. How is her off ball shooting from 3? Can she be the ideal pairing with Ogunbowale, or is she more likely a backup point guard who needs the ball in her hand to be effective. Played well in limited minutes as a rookie. Her good size for her position and thus ability to guard either guard position does pair well with Ogunbowale.

2 Key Questions

  1. This year and next the Wings do not have to worry that much about the cap given the number of rookie contracts they have. But 2022 is coming and decisions will need to be made eventually. Arike is a max player, as is Sabally if she lives up to her potential, but the clock is ticking on the rest of the roster. The hardest part of a rebuild is done, with two players who could be the best players on a semifinal team, but the next step of who to put around them is tricky. Which young players can be kept? Will any free agents choose to come to Dallas who are worth it? Especially important for the Wings to be careful handing out protected contracts to veterans, as the Astou Ndour and Moriah Jefferson contracts have not been successes.
  1. In a high leverage playoff game, Satou Sabally and Awak Kuier’s best positions seem likely to be the 4 and the 5. Both eventually will have the size and length to play there, while providing elite shooting and skill at those positions. The question becomes where does that leave the team’s more traditional bigs in Bella Alarie and Charli Collier. Having one as a nominal starter who plays lots of minutes, but is benched in high impact moments, may make sense, but ought to be reflected in their eventual second contracts.  

Indiana Fever

Danielle Robinson: Surprised me with how good she was for the Aces in 2020, so it’s possible she does it again, but who were the Fever outbidding when they offered her a 3 year guaranteed contract at $155,000? How many other teams needed a starting point guard at all, much less one who does not shoot 3s, relies on athleticism, and is heading into her age 32 season?

Kelsey Mitchell: The best player on the Fever. The one player who could definitely be a good player on a team that makes some noise  in the playoffs. The 3 point shot is the foundation of her game and she should be trying to get to 10 attempts per game, but it was the jump in her 2 point percentage in 2020 that was really promising. After 2 season below 40% she hit 50% in 2020. Continuing that is key to maximizing her offense. Some defense would be nice, but she is at the bottom of the reasons the Fever struggled there.

Tiffany Mitchell: Among the more confounding offensive players in the W. Generally good 3 point shooting and good free throw shooting go hand in hand, but not here. A player who shot 23% from 3 and 95% from the free throw line in 2020, she is a shooting guard who is better with the ball in her hand miscast as a 3 and D wing. But the team traded Kennedy Burke, who is actually the right size and shoots 3s, for a rookie. So T. Mitchell it likely is at this spot.

Lauren Cox: What is her best position long term? The Fever want to play her at the 4 and it is plausible that she will have enough passing and shooting to make it work on offense. However, I still suspect long term she is a center. Will the Fever play her there? Can she chase around quicker 4s?

Jantel Lavender: Lavender is a consummate professional, but easily the most confusing contract of free agency. A 3 year guaranteed contract for $175,000 for a 32 year old player at a position that contributors can be found later in the draft or after training camp cuts, if the ones the team has drafted in back to back drafts are not the answers. 

Key Reserves:

Teaira McCowan: McCowan has so far to go to be a starting center defensively in the W, but some progress is a hope this year. Offensively she is impactful, but the Fever were one of the worst defenses in WNBA history in 2020, and got worse with McCowan. 

Kysre Gondrezick: The most surprising draft pick in 2021, she has as good a chance to earn minutes as any player in this draft. She does play the same position as Kelsey Mitchell, but the Fever should be trying to see if they can play together. 

Kathleen Doyle: Unclear if she is a W player but there will be opportunities to be had to show that she is. With Julie Allemand in Europe with Belgium responsibilities, now is the time for Doyle to show what she can do. Even in limited minutes as a rookie, hard to have as limited an impact as she did, but this year should be a more true test of her abilities. A TS% of 32 is hard to do.

2 Key Questions:

  1. Other than Kelsey Mitchell, who on this team is good enough to start in the WNBA semifinals? The 2020 Aces or Sun could have really used Kelsey Mitchell’s shooting and shot creation, but who else would have been playing in either series? Danielle Robinson started for the Aces, but is not getting younger and has a game built on speed, which tends to age poorly. 

Julie Allemand is turning 25 this year and is at a position that players tend to peak later, so she has a chance. But I’m hard pressed to see anyone else on this team reaching that standard. Championship or bust is an unrealistic standard in sports, but being one of the best 4 teams, in my view, should be the goal. Instead, the Fever seem to be scrambling to be the worst team in the playoffs.

  1. Rhyne Howard time? The lottery has not been kind to the Fever recently, but this is not the year to be giving up on the draft. If once again the Fever do not get the #1 pick, there are other players who would have gone #1 in the 2021 draft. NaLyssa Smith’s position in the W is less clear than Howard, but she would immediately be the best athlete and the only true 3/4 on the roster.  

Las Vegas Aces

Projected Starters:

Kelsey Plum: Coming off of a devastating injury, how Plum plays may be the driving factor in whether the Aces are a good playoff team or a championship team. In 2019 she showed against the Mystics that she could get her own shot even against a locked in, experienced defense, something the Aces sorely lacked in 2020. Might be a year away from full recovery, but here’s hoping she can regain enough to make an impact this year.

Chelsea Gray: For a player who has been considered in the conversation for best point guard in the W, her last 3 playoffs have been underwhelming. Gray is good at using her size and savvy in the regular season, but appears to be overtaxed as the primary shot creator against the best defenders in the playoffs. If the Aces use her as an off ball threat, and she can hit enough open 3s, she should be a good fit. But she may be better as an of ball guard now than point guard.

Angel McCoughtry: How real was her shooting improvements? Career splits of 46/29/80 shooter, she shot 52/47/88 in 2020. Assuming she stays healthy and her minutes limit continues, she will hopefully maintain her impact as a smart, big wing with good athleticism, but the shooting in 2020 might be an outlier. Even if her 3 point shooting percentage falls, the team could benefit from her taking more attempts.

A’ja Wilson: A deserving MVP candidate, can she change her game to play next to Cambage? Her best position is likely center, especially if she continues to not shoot 3s. In the regular season the fit between her and Liz Cambage should not be an issue, but this is a team with championship aspirations. Continuing to improve her passing in the post and when facing up would be helpful.

Liz Cambage: A dominant post player, she still has room to subtly improve basically everywhere. A good passer, but could improve there. A good defender, but someone who playoff offenses can sometimes take advantage of in space.

Key Reserves

Dearica Hamby: A super sub, who is she better next to, Wilson or Cambage? And does Laimbeer ever go small in the playoffs in key moments. And if he does, who plays next to Hamby? Wilson, for more mobility on defense? Or Cambage, as the player more adept at passing out of doubles and keeping a 4 out offense humming?

Riquna Williams: We have seen the limitations of the back court of Chelsea Gray and Williams, but for all the talent of the Sparks front court of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, they did not have the post up skills off Wilson and Cambage. Williams should be able to feast on open 3s. And even playing for Laimbeer it is hard to see her not getting her shots up.

Jackie Young: A solid regular season player in 2020, she really struggled in the playoffs. In the playoffs, when starters play more and teams are better, she no longer had the same size and athleticism advantage, and her lack of shooting was even more glaring. An issue for the Aces team wide, but Young went from 26 minutes in the regular season to 20 minutes in the playoffs, with a low of 9 in games 4 and 5 against the Sun.

2 Key Questions:

  1. This version of the Aces has to try to win the championship this year. If Kelsey Plum is not back in shape, does this team have any moves to bolster their back court? What could the Aces get for Jackie Young and a couple of picks? With Angel McCoughtry, Liz Cambage, and A’ja Wilson entering free agency, the Aces will not be able to keep all 3, without McCoughtry taking a steep discount. Now or never for this group.
  1. Why did the Aces offense fall off so badly in the playoffs last season? In the regular season in 2020, the Aces were second in the league with an offensive rating of 107.3. That tumbled all the way to 93.4 in the playoffs. Dearica Hamby being hurt certainly played a role, but the Aces should be asking themselves if all the clever sets they run to mask their lack of shooting in the regular season, as well as relying on transition offense, are simply less valuable in the playoffs. When teams could scout and lock in, they did not have any counters to teams loading up on their best player.

    While the returning players will help, as the team did not face this same drop off in 2019, notably Plum who won the starting spot in the 2019 playoffs, this team is still not exactly overflowing with shooting relative to their competition. Depth has been a strength, but that matters less in the playoffs, as starters play more minutes. While my pick tentatively for the championship, definite the whole is less than the sum of its parts potential here.

2021 Season Preview: Atlanta, Chicago, and Connecticut

The 2021 season is finally upon us. For this year’s previews, I am going to focus on who I project as 8 of the teams’ top players for each team and then 2 big questions I have about the team this upcoming season. I am going to not include European players who may come over late in the season, given the unknowns about their commitments. Each week will cover 3 teams.

Atlanta Dream:

Projected Starters:

Chennedy Carter: The difference between Carte who is a good starter and Carter who is the best point guard in the league is her shooting from 3. Both off the dribble and catch and shoot. This is especially true as the Dream continue to surround her with other ball dominant guards. She shot 37.5% on relatively few attempts last season, so a promising start.

Courtney Williams: Williams likely is who she is. A good, if not great, starter. This will likely not be the year she shoots more 3s and fewer long 2s, but it would be nice. She can play off ball, but stepping into long 2s is an inefficient way to play without the ball in one’s hands.

Tiffany Hayes: Hayes is a good starter. But benching one of Hayes or Williams and letting them run the second unit in favor of Shekinna Stricklen might make sense. Stricklen is not as good a player as them, but she can shoot open 3s and is not a player who can create shots even against second units. Hayes might be the choice, given she is more dependent on having the ball than Williams.

Cheyenne Parker: Asking her to be the starting power forward and stretch big is asking quite a bit. While she showed some stretch last season, she only shot 1.6 3s per game. However, this team does not seem to have a better option at the 4 that would allow Parker to play the center. Something for them to address going forward. 

Elizabeth Williams: A solid starting center. All-defense first team was a bit much last season, but ideally she can keep providing solid rim protection and a good pick and roll partner for Chennedy Carter.

Key Reserves:

Aari McDonald: What level of shooter are we getting in the W. And she struggles with her shot, how does she find minutes in a crowded back court? First year struggles are to be expected for most young point guards, but still important questions to monitor.

Shekinna Stricklen: Stricklen struggled last season but she is the only player on this entire team who is a proven plus shooter. She was brought in for a reason and should earn a chance to show what she can do. 

Tianna Hawkins: A very solid backup big. If she can get her shooting on track could finish some games depending on the matchup. This team can almost play 5 out with a front line of her and Parker and really space the floor for Carter and Hayes.

2 Key questions:

  1. Why so many ball dominant guards? I mentioned it above, but to reiterate, there are diminishing returns to players whose best attribute is creating with the ball in their hands. The opposite of shooting, which has no diminishing returns, as shooters can be just as valuable off ball as they are on. So the big question will be who on this team can shoot the open shots their talented guards create.
  1. Who is their 4 of the future? Cheyenne Parker can play there temporarily, but her best position is as a center. This team has guards and centers, but it is very unclear who exactly is supposed to guard the Napheesa Collier’s of the world. She seems too big and/or too fast for this team. To be fair, Collier does that to most teams. But it is a question worth trying to answer. That is likely the next position to try to upgrade. Maybe if the team disappoints, Rhyne Howard or NaLyssa Smith will be available in next year’s draft.

Chicago Sky

Projected Starters:

Courtney Vandersloot: Best point guard in the W. For the Sky to win a championship, might need to look for her own offense more. Too good a shooter while also able to put pressure on at the rim to not look to score.

Allie Quigley: Offensively is still be among the best shooters in the W, but with the improvements of Kahleah Copper, will be interesting to see who finishes big games. Competes on defense, but is limited there compared so other options the Sky has.

Diamond DeShields: After a lost year to injury in 2020, has the tools to be one of the 2 or 3 best small forwards in the league. Particularly interested to see her ability to create offense for others as well as herself and improve on her even assist to turnover ratio.

Candace Parker: Does Wade stagger Parker and Vandersloot’s minutes to have someone who can create offense on the floor at all times? While they should be a good tandem, they can also play separately and hopefully mitigate the issues the Sky have faced without Vandersloot on the floor.

Azurá Stevens: A healthy season for Stevens would be wonderful. If she can force teams to guard her at the three point line, this Sky offense may be close to unguardable.

Key Reserves:

Kahleah Copper: What does she need to do to be a starter on this team? Hard to imagine either Quigley or DeShields coming off the bench, but Copper played really well last year. Copper is enough taller and more athletic than Quigley, it might make sense to start her in some match ups. 

Gabby Williams: What is her position? Entering a contract year, some clarity would help her market. Shows abroad that with the ball in her hands is her best role, but so far has not justified that much responsibility in her time in the W.

Shyla Heal: Heal was one of the few player selections in the draft that made me look smart, as I had her about where she was drafted. I am a bit concerned at her youth and the role she is stepping into. Back up point guard at 19 on a team with championship goals is asking a lot. But Heal is nothing if not confident. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. Who finishes games? The Sky have done a good job putting together a flexible team with quite a few options. Vandersloot and Parker have to be on the court, but other than them, this seems like a team that can mix and match based on who is playing well and the opposing team. Wade is a good coach but even good coaches can prove to be stubborn in the playoffs. This is a team with the ability to play different styles and should take advantage of that. 
  1. Now or never with Candace Parker not getting any younger. Are there any in season trades to put this team closer to a championship, even on the margins. Gabby Williams is a restricted free agent and there have already been rumors of her being moved. A sign and trade after the season would be fine, but worth exploring something in season too.

Connecticut Sun

Projected Starters:

Jasmine Thomas: Continues to slowly but surely add to her offensive game. This team will need her to be a bit more aggressive offensively to be respectable without Alyssa Thomas. 

Briann January: Defensively January put on a clinic in the playoffs with the Sun last year. When she is locked in, she is as fun to watch on that end as any guard in the league. Offensively, she is fine, but does have her limitations.

DeWanna Bonner: Her 3 point attempts cause teams to guard her in the regular season, but her inability to shoot hurts in the playoffs. 25% from 3 is tough to overcome even given her well rounded skill set. Any improvement in that area is maybe not likely, but would be beneficial for a team looking to compete next year with a healthy Alyssa Thomas.

Kaila Charles: The least secure of the projected starters, can she match up with other 3s and 4s in the W? 37% from 3 on limited attempts from 3 is promising, especially combined with her good size and athleticism. Good year for her to really show what she can do.

Jonquel Jones: My pick for best player who only plays center in the W, especially if she can continue to shoot in the high 30s from 3. Though this is a year she my end up playing some 4, given injuries and limited bench options. Entering her age 27 season, should be able to contend for first team All-WNBA center. Liz Cambage is great, but Jones should be able to give her a run for the spot.

Key Reserves:

Brionna Jones: If Charles does not start, will likely be Jones. Jones outplayed my expectations in 2020, but playing two centers might be tough sledding in the more spaced out W each year.

Natisha Hideman: Solid backup point guard in the limited minutes Jasmine Thomas does not play. This is the year to show if there is anything more than that. Improving on her 35% from 2 is key to that. 

DiJonai Carrington: Not a great sign when a player does not start for their college team and shot under 30% from 3 for her college career, but will get the opportunity to show what she can do on a thin team at the guard/wing position. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. Are any of the young guards on this team going to challenge Briann January? For as good as January is defensively, this Sun team needs more help on offense than they do defense. The inability to create offense hurt them in the series against the Aces.
  1. Jonquel Jones is an unrestricted free agent next year. Can this team pay her the super max? And if they do, they will need to hit on a couple of the young players as this is only going to become even more of an experiment in stars and young players. Beatrice Mompromier was a great pickup last year after being cut by the Sparks, can the Sun do that again?

The Potential of Rennia Davis’s and What to do With a Wing Who Can’t (yet) Shoot?

The 2020 draft is a weak one. The next three after 2021 should all include players who have superstar potential, depending on early opt outs, but with Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter already in the W, 2021 does not have such top end talent. With the draft short on potential best player on a team in the WNBA finals, outside of maybe Awak Kuier, the next step for teams is finding players who can fit around their stars to help them reach the finals.

Rennia Davis, a 6’2” wing for Tennessee Lady Volunteers, is a long athlete who can guard multiple positions. Tennessee has been able to use her to guard any position 1-4. She rebounds well, better than some centers, on both the defensive and offensive glass. Part of how Tennessee upset South Carolina in one of their meetings was Davis is the rare wing who can play at the 4 against the front line of South Carolina and hold her own. 

Her two main limitations, shooting and ball handling, keep her from likely being a top 3 pick in this upcoming draft. She is a career 32% shooter from 3 who has trended downward since her sophomore year and is at 27% this season. She is the third option when it comes to initiating offense on the wing for Tennessee, and her assist to turnover rate is close to 1 to 1 as a senior. She has improved her assist to turnover rate ever year at Tennessee, so continued improvement is possible, but it is a weakness for now at the next level.

It is possible that Davis can improve her 3 point shooting. Her shot is not broken, with decent footwork and no obvious hitches or other issues. She shows good touch around the rim. She’s an 84% free throw shooter, and free throw shooting is a better predictor of shooting ability than threes. 

But some players who shoot three throws well do not figure it out from 3. Tiffany Mitchell of the Indiana Fever is a prime example. She is at 27% from three for her career while shooting 90% from the free throw line over five seasons.

But lack of shooting does not mean Davis can not be helpful to a team in the right situation. For a team who drafts Rennia Davis, one way to take advantage of the things she does do well is to use her as a small ball center. While this would likely only be effective in certain situations, as she is likely not quite big enough to defend the biggest centers like Liz Cambage, even with help, Davis is a strong, long, athlete who rebounds well.

Take the Dallas Wings for instance, if Dallas were to use either the fifth or seventh pick in the upcoming draft on her. A lineup of Satou Sabally, Kayla Thornton, Rennia Davis, Arike Ogunbowale and another guard, Marina Mabrey or Ty Harris, would be a switchable lineup with shooting at 4 positions.

Davis’ lack of shooting and ball handling would be less of an issue given the alternatives around her. Dallas already experimented with Sabally and Thornton at the 4 and the 5. Adding Rennia Davis’ length, defensive savvy, and rebounding could improve such an approach.

Thornton, Davis, and Sabally can all switch onto smaller players on defense, and fly around the court providing help. None of the players are likely to provide much rim protection outside of Sabally a bit, it could still be an effective combination in the right match up. 

The flip side is that if a team like the Indiana Fever at 4 ended up with Davis, things could be much more difficult. A team who has taken centers in two straight drafts would likely pigeon hole Davis into the small forward role. Lauren Cox can nominally play power forward, but is unlikely to be her best position long term. While Davis’ defense would be valuable there, the lack of shooting on a team planning on playing Danielle Robinson at the point guard and two centers up front would be unlikely to work. 

For Davis to succeed, either a team will need to be creative in using her and/or she will need to improve her shot. Both are possible, but neither guaranteed.

2021 WNBA Draft Board 1.0

My draft board is going to focus on the ten players I think have the best chance to contribute in the WNBA. Why 10? That is roughly how many players contribute meaningfully in the WNBA out of a given draft class.

To get a sense of how many players in a given draft contribute in the WNBA, I looked at how many players drafted from 2007-2016 averaged 15 minutes per game for 3 seasons. I was generous with a couple of players from the 2016 class, who it is reasonable to assume will hit that marker over the coming years, like Julie Allemand. This worked out to 10 players per draft class.

10 is the average, and it varies by class, from a high of 14 in the deep 2008 draft to a low of 7 in the shallower 2012 draft. So far, the 2021 draft is looking more likely to be on the weaker side, more 2012 than 2008. The better players in the 2021 class already graduated in Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter. The better players from the 2022 class are not eligible to be drafted, namely Rhyne Howard.

Also important to note that every player in college basketball can return for another year, so none of these players are guaranteed to even be in this draft. I am including every player who could be eligible for the draft. All stats as of 1/18/21.

  1. Awak Kuier / Forward / 6’4” / Passalacqua Ragusa

Shooting Splits: 49/38/67

The Finnish forward is currently playing, and playing fairly well, in the top Italian division as 19 year old. She may take a little longer to develop than some of the other players on this list, as she is younger than most of them, her ceiling is the highest. She is the most likely to reach all-WNBA level.

Strengths:

Very mobile. Kuier is 6’4” with long arms which she uses well to challenge players at the rim and has the ability to defend in space. She has seen more on ball screens than a big playing in the NCAA and has shown the ability to defend.

Good passer. In games with the senior Finnish team, their most successful offensive plays were with her passing from the high post. 

Shooting: Kuier’s 38% from 3 in Italy is likely higher than her true ability, given her more pedestrian numbers from the free throw line, but she can shoot.  Much better shooter with her feet set.  Not a shooter off the dribble, though she has the confidence to try.

Weaknesses:

Lack of strength: She has the frame to get stronger, and it should come with age, but she really struggles to finish inside against stronger players and gets knocked out of position fairly easily when trying to rebound.

Decision making on the move: A good passer when standing still and surveying, she can run into issues in when to pass or look to score when on the move. Fixable with more high level experience.

  1. Natasha Mack / 6’4” / Forward / OK State 

Shooting Splits: 56/na/63

A player who was playing at the junior college 2 years ago, Mack is a relatively unheralded player, but has been playing extremely well this year. She has clearly defined skills that can translate to the next level. Will likely not have the offensive creation to be a star, but she should fit around other ball dominant players well. 

Strengths:

Athleticism: She leaps off the screen when one watches her and how fast she is. Can provide a rare combination of rim protection and defending in space. Shades of Natasha Howard, but taller, on defense.

Rebounding, both offensive and defensive. A good rebounder, in particular she should be able to use her athleticism and nose for the ball to punish teams that try to put a smaller player on her on the offensive glass. May not develop into a big who can punish smaller players in the post, but keeping her off the offensive glass with a guard will be tough.

Weaknesses:

Feel for the game on offense. This may already be going away, as she has a positive assist to turnover ratio, but Mack was playing at a junior college two years ago, and the transition to the pros might be rough on the offensive end. Should be able to finish plays as the roller, but still a question if she can make plays on the short roll.

Punishing switches. An acceptable post player at the college level, would offer more versatility if she shows that she can punish teams for defending her with a smaller player.

  1. Charli Collier / 6’5’ / Center / Texas 

Shooting splits: 56/33/82

Collier is the consensus number 1 pick on most other draft boards. In a vacuum, however, I might have her even lower lower than this. But other folks may be seeing things I am missing, so three it is. I will have more to say about Collier, and the challenge of scouting bigs, in the future.

Strengths:

Shooting: Good shooter and not just for a center. 33% from 3 is not spectacular, but has a good looking shot and is over 80% from 3, so should be fine there. She should benefit from coaching at the next level that encourage their bigs to shoot if they are good at it. The ability to pick and pop with confidence will be valuable.  

Posting up smaller players. She should be able to use her size to make it hard for teams to switch smaller players onto her, and she should face single coverage in the spaced out WNBA game, versus the constant triple teams she sees at Texas.

Rebounding: She is a good rebounder, both on offense and defense. Uses her long arms well and really pursues the ball.

Weaknesses:

Defending in space: She combines limited lateral quickness with also getting lost off ball too easily. Teams have had success back cutting her, and she reaches often, which puts her in foul trouble.

Passing: For a player who is consistently double and triple teamed, it is hard to believe that she has only 4 assists total on the season. 4 assists over 12 games is impressive, and not in a good way. Centers do not need to be exceptional passers, but for a top draft pick, that is really bad.

  1. Arella Guirantes / 5’11” / Wing / Rutgers

Shooting splits: 40/39/90

Guirantes is the player I have the least feel for in this group. Given the difficulties of watching women’s college basketball, I have seen her play the least on this list. In particular, I’m not sure what to make of her subpar two point percentage so far this season. She is shooting 40% from 2, in the 32nd percentile per Herhoopstats. How much of that is her carrying a team with limited offensive talent around her and how much is on her, is something I will be paying attention to as we go forward.

Strengths:

Shooting, particularly off ball. Guirantes is a 40% 3 point shooter and a 90% free throw shooter this year. In a role where she is not tasked with most of the shot creation, she should be able to improve her efficiency and be valuable. 

Off ball defense: While not the best athlete guarding on ball, she uses her long arms well to be disruptive, particularly off ball. She is averaging an impressive 3.1 steals and 2.2 blocks per game this year.

Weaknesses:

Finishing at the rim. She is a crafty player who uses her size and strength to attack, but it is concerning that she needs to use so much guile against other college defenders. May struggle to finish against wnba size and length.

Lateral quickness: May be a one or two position defender. May not have the lateral quickness to guard quicker, smaller guards. She also does not have the bulk to really guard up a position, though her intelligence and long arms may help there.

  1. Dana Evans 5’6″ / Guard / Louisville

Shooting Splits: 54/40/90

While I am high on Evans, it is important to note that she is in a better situation than some of her peers. Evans is surrounded by talented shot makers and ball handlers, which put her in position to succeed. She can turn it on and carry Louisville, but generally does not have to the way Aari McDonald does.

Strengths:

Shooting: Evans has shot 38% or better from 3 in each of her last three years. One aspect of her shooting to keep an eye on as the season progresses is her shooting off the dribble. If she shows the ability to shoot off the dribble, and force teams to not go under on the pick and roll, that would be big.

Scoring inside: She has made strides scoring inside the arc, hitting 55% from 2 this year. She shows craft and ability to score at the rim, but it is something to keep an eye on as she goes against bigger and more talented bigs as the college season stumbles along.

Passing: A good passer, if not an exceptional passer. While a score first guard, she can pass enough.

Weaknesses:

Size: At only 5’6”, she will struggle to guard bigger guards in certain situations. But she competes defensively and should not be a huge liability. Offense is more important for point guards, anyways. 

Finishing: Her 53% from 2 point range is a large jump from prior years. If she keeps that up, it will be a good sign, but she will have to prove she can finish at the next level.

6. Michaela Onyenwere / 5’11 / Wing / UCLA

Shooting Splits: 47/28/82

The UCLA wing has been successful playing as a small ball four in the college game, but the transition to the perimeter and the wing might be a challenge. Still, she offers enough upside to be worthy of a gamble if a team thinks they can help her continue to develop her shooting and handle.

Strengths:

Transition scoring: Onyenwere is likely the best pure athlete in this draft, with the possible exception of Mack. She is hard to stop in transition and that should translate to the next level.  

Scoring against mismatches: She should be able to bully smaller players. Teams will have to put at least a wing with decent size on her, or she will go through them to score. 

Weaknesses: 

Defense: For all her athletic gifts, they do not always translate into defense. At 5’11” and seemingly without exceptional length, she does not block many shots or get many steals. 

Halfcourt offense: A 5’11” forward whose only half court offensive move is to post up and shoot short fade away has work to do to play in the WNBA. Teams will not run their offense through her, and it becomes unclear what her role is off ball. Has worked to improve her 3 point shot, but is not a particularly good at it yet.

7. Aari McDonald / 5’6″ / Guard / Arizona

Another player, along with Collier, that I am lower on than others. Explosive guard who competes hard, but lacks offensive polish. Definitely a player who could make me look foolish, as she may be able to take advantage of the increased spacing at the next level to live at the rim, even as a point guard who has a shaky 3 point shot. 

Strengths:

Defense: While only 5’6”, so she is limited in how versatile a defender she can be, she is an excellent on ball defender and could likely guard quite a few shooting guards, given her strength and competitiveness.

Transition: A blur in transition, she puts pressure on the opposing team and can either finish or make the right pass.  

Weaknesses:

Shooting: McDonald thrives in transition on offense, but struggles more in the half court. Does not have blazing straight line speed or the level of craft that Jordin Canada for instance has to make up for a lack of shooting. And its not just shooting from 3. Lacks touch on midrange shots and floaters.

8. Rennia Davis / 6’2″ / Wing / Tennessee

Shooting Splits: 56/23/74

Rennia Davis looks like a prototypical wing in the modern WNBA, but does not show it often at Tennessee. For a top prospect, she is unusual in that she is third in usage on her team, and behind 2 other wings who Tennessee runs their offense through.

Strengths:

Size: At 6’2”, she is good at using her size to move her feet on defense and force opponents to take tough shots. She is also willing to crash the offensive glass and score over smaller players. 

Rebounding: Rebounds like a 4 and better than some 5s.

Weaknesses: 

Handle and shooting: Low usage would be less of an issue if she could shoot. She is shooting 23% from 3 on the year. She was in the low 30s before this year, and will likely need to be in the mid-30s to really be playable. She does not have a tight enough handle to attack off the dribble either, so would need to improve there to be a secondary creator.

9. Shyla Heal / 5’6″ / Guard / Townsville Fire

Shooting Splits: 43/31/86

Heal starred in the WNBL in Australia for the Townsville Fire at only 19. The Fire had a successful season, losing in the finals to the Liz Cambage and Leilani Mitchell led Southside Flyers. 

Strengths:

Scoring: Heal is a crafty scorer who has a good handle and is good at getting into the lane.

Passing: While a bit wild with the ball, as to be expected with a young point guard, she showed the ability to make all the passes expected of a point guard.

Weaknesses:

Athleticism: Might not have the athleticism to be a starting point guard for a playoff team, unless her skill level rises. Only 31% from 3, but 86% from free throw, is good, but not enough to make up for decent, but not great, athleticism.

10. Jasmine Walker / 6’2″ / Wing / Alabama

Shooting Splits: 44/39/79

Strengths:

Being tall and shooting: Walker is a versatile shooter. She can shoot off of screens, shoots even when heavily contested. She is shooting 39% from 3 on 8 attempts per game. She is in the 99th percentile in attempts per game in college basketball and 82% in accuracy, and she is a 6’2”. 

Weaknesses:

Athleticism: She is an ok athlete, but nothing special. She also is not particularly strong. This may cause issues on defense. May not be strong enough to defend 4s, but too slow to guard 3s. She does compete on defense. 

Playmaking: An assist to turnover ratio well below 1 is not good. If she gets the ball, she is most likely shooting. To be fair to her, Alabama does not surround her with many other offensive options, as the rest of the team struggles to score outside of the paint. Still, she is likely strictly a floor spacer, at least early in her career.

Players to watch for who did not make the cut:

Kysre Grondezick- West Virginia: Guard. Solid at all the things a shooting guard needs to do, but not exceptional at anything.

Shakira Austin – Ole Miss: Center. Oozing with talent, but is somewhat inconsistent in actually producing.

Evina Westbrook – UCONN: Big point guard. Still regaining her athleticism, has good numbers across the board, but can disappear for long stretches.