The Upside of NaLyssa Smith

NaLyssa Smith, the second overall pick of the Indiana Fever, is not having the level of success of the players picked either ahead or behind her, at least not yet. Rhyne Howard, the number one overall pick in the 2022 draft, was deservedly named to the All-Star game that just happened in Chicago. Shakira Austin, the third overall pick, is starting over two other players in Myisha Hines-Allen and Elizabeth Williams who are veterans who have started 239 games between the two of them. Both are having very impressive rookie seasons, to match anything recent rookies have done.

However, the story of a player’s career is not told in their first year in the league. Look at last year’s class, with Dana Evans having the best games from the class in 2022. Michaela Onyenwere, last year’s rookie of the year, has struggled to find playing time and her shot from both 2 and 3. 

NaLyssa Smith has shown enough to think she has a chance at being the best scorer player from this class, in time. NaLyssa Smith’s strength is her scoring versatility. She can both shoot 3s and pressure the rim. After a cold start, she is shooting a very respectable 35% from 3, though only 58%. While she is not going to be running off screens like Howard anytime soon, her ability to stretch the floor at the 4 and 5 is valuable. Austin has yet to make a 3 in her career.

Smith is able to put pressure on the rim from the perimeter in ways that Howard does not. Austin will use her speed against slower centers, but Smith has been able to at times beat even good 4 defenders. Howard is shooting a decent percentage at the rim, but hardly gets there. Though both Howard and Austin are good athletes, Smith walked into the league as one of the most explosive players, able to soar for rebounds. The Fever can continue to user her for alley oops to provide an unusual ability to put pressure on the rim, something only really Brianna Turner in Phoenix also does.

The table below shows how Smith is versatile compared to Howard and Austin. All 3 are effective for rookie, but Smith is the most balanced. Usage and 3 point stats three per Her Hoop Stats and % in the paint and % less than 5 feet per wnba.com/stats. Worth noting that shooting numbers by distance can be wonky, where does a layup count when the player took off 6 feet away but ended less than 5, but still interesting.

USG3 Pt%3PA/40% Point in the PaintShooting % less than 5 feet
Rhyne Howard23.8%36%8.722%60%
NaLyssa Smith22%35%3.649%61%
Shakira Austin18%0.167%68%

All three of these players will improve as they move forward, so the fact that Howard and Austin have been so effective and will keep getting better give them an advantage. However, going into the draft it was acknowledged that Smith was likely going to take a bit more time, as her transition to the W was potentially going to be trickier than Howard, who already had the dead eye shooting, or Austin, who was stepping into a veteran laden team with multiple quality veterans, including a former MVP. 

Smith is hampered by being on the youngest team with the fewest quality veterans around her. Kelsey Mitchell should have made the All-Star team and Victoria Vivians has had a good season, but other than those two the surrounding talent is not as strong as the Dream have, never mind the possible championship contender Mystics. Smith will look even better, assuming the Fever rebuild adds sufficient talent. Aliyah Boston next to Smith would be quite enjoyable, but even the size and shooting of Diamond Miller on the wing would be a solid addition.

The one area that Smith is well behind both Austin and Howard is in defense. While Smith competes and has shown the ability to move her feet in space against smaller defenders, she is not the level of help defender that the others are. Howard, a wing listed 2” shorter, blocks more shots and gets many more steals than Smith

As the Fever grow over the next few years, Smith has the tools to be the prototypical modern big on offense. Her size and speed means she can plat either 4 or 5 depending on the needs of the Fever and she should be able to help anchor a good playoff level offense in time.

Tiering the WNBA at the All-Star Break.

The All-Star break is a good time to put the wnba in tiers.

Championship Favorite:

Chicago Sky

The Sky have a great combination of depth with every player on the roster able to contribute during the regular season, but also a fairly clearly defined top 7 or 8 for the playoffs. The Sky’s ability to stretch the minutes for Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot in the playoffs will give them the leg up on the rest of the league. James Wade is my favorite for head coach and GM of the year. I am overall skeptical of combining the two in one person, but he has made it work with the Sky.

Finals favorite, championship hopeful

Las Vegas Aces

Becky Hammon has mostly coached this team well, but I would like to know what is happening with the team’s bench. If the players on the bench were not good enough, then they should have been cut and better options found. Was Crystal Bradford healthy to take backup 3/4 minutes? I am as high on Kierstan Bell as anyone, but waiting for her to develop may be counterproductive for a team that could win the championship this year. Wonder if Hammon and the front office are on the same page.

Semifinal hopefuls. Could win championship if things break right

Seattle Storm

Can this team score enough in the playoffs against the best defenses? The defense has been as good as ever, but scoring can be a real chore for this team when the big 3 are not on the court. Tina Charles may help that, provided she doesn’t hurt the defense too much. Breanna Stewart is my pick for MVP and DPOY if the season ended today. I picked them to win before the year, but the offensive issues have knocked them down a step from the top 2.

Connecticut Sun

Jonquel Jones is the Sun’s best player, but possibly because of her malleability the Sun have not been set up to maximize her skill set. This contributes to the team’s issues scoring in the half court against good teams. Their offensive rebounding and transition offense can pound mediocre teams, but the team’s issues against the Sky in last year’s playoffs do not seem to be fixed. More DiJonai Carrington, if her 3 point shooting maintains, and less AT at the 3 might be one solution, to give JJ more space to operate.

Washington Mystics

Is EDD a top 4 player in the W on the same tier as A’ja, Breanna, Jonquel? If so, Washington could win a championship. But that is a lot to ask of someone who missed two seasons with injury.  The new playoff structure is perfect for this year’s Mystics, who deserve better than a one and done game on the road as the 5th seed, if that is where they end up. While they would be on the road for two games in Seattle if the season ended today in a best of 3, that is much better than the old single elimination style. Series are where basketball is at its best.

Likely making the playoffs. Not winning a round. 

Atlanta Dream

The Dream keep winning a decent number of games and I still think they would be better off with one more lottery trip as I wrote here. I’m not going to complain too much though, because getting to see Rhyne Howard play 2 games in Connecticut in the playoffs, or whoever the end up facing, will be awesome. 

Dallas Wings

This has been a promising season for most of Dallas’s better players. Allisha Gray should have made all-star over Kahleah Copper. Satou Sabally when healthy and available has been excellent. Arike Ogunbowale will be paid like a top 5 or so player next year, so continuing to improve her shot selection is important, as her 54% TS so far this season is an improvement and ok, but could be better. Dallas would benefit from Vickie Johnson settling on a big rotation. Fun location for Brionna Jones to end up next year, cause presumably that would solve who the starting center is. 

Hoping to make the playoffs

Los Angeles Sparks

Start Chennedy Carter. The Sparks do not have their own draft pick in the next draft because of trading for Carter. Nneka Ogwumike is carrying the Sparks to hopefully make the playoffs, but for this team to climb any higher in the next couple of seasons they need see if Carter can begin to reach her potential. Jordin Canada has been fine and Kristi Toliver can still shoot, but they aren’t changing LA’s fortunes in future seasons.

Phoenix Mercury

Until Brittney Griner is free it will be tough to talk about the Mercury. But basketball is still being played there. The Tina Charles experiment did not work, for among other reasons, this team seemingly not realizing who their best players are. Charles was going to be a somewhat awkward fit with Griner, but even more so with Skylar Diggins-Smith. The Phoenix Mercury should not trade SDS unless things are really untenable. If they do, picks and at least one decent young player should be the goal and a full rebuild, even if Diana Taurasi plays one more year. Struggling for relevance for DT’s year 41 season is not worth it.

New York Liberty

Sabrina Ionescu living up to her full potential has been the most important development of the season for New York, but the best story in the W for me is Han Xu looking like a real live W level player. She should be starting, but as the first big off the bench she has been excellent. Who knows how often she will make it to the W in future seasons, so I am going to enjoy every game I see of her this year and appreciate her growth as a player

Minnesota Lynx

Cheryl Reeve the coach is once again bailing out Cheryl Reeve the GM. The process of arriving at a functional W team was unorthodox with year 2 of Reeve stumbling into a veteran pg bought out by their original team, this year with Moriah Jefferson. This team getting Aliyah Boston to pair with Napheesa Collier next year would be very fun, if they can’t make the playoffs. Otherwise, hopefully Reeve can figure out a decent center on reasonable money, cause one more year of the Powers, McBride, Achonwa contracts will hamstrung this team as Collier begins her well deserved max in 2023.

Hoping for Aliyah Boston

Indiana Fever

See my piece on both Atlanta and Indiana to get my thoughts. Basically, good job Indiana getting good young talent. Try for that for one more season next year and then see about really competing.

Embracing the Rebuild is Working for Atlanta and Indiana. But What Comes Next?

The Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever have made real progress in their respective rebuilds. After two years, in the case of Atlanta, and more than two in the case of Indiana, of aimless attempts to be the 7th or 8th seed without much success, both teams are set up much better to one day make a run in the playoffs.

For both Atlanta and Indiana, the key first step was the top of the 2022 draft. The Dream used their own third pick and some of the return they got for trading Chennedy Carter to trade up to select Rhyne Howard. Eighteen games in, all signs point to Rhyne Howard being good enough to at least be the second best player on a team that competes deep into the playoffs. She joins Aari McDonald in interesting young talent. McDonald will hopefully join Howard as a starter on said team, but she seems likely to at least be a good backup, as she has raised her true shooting from a below average 48% to an acceptable 56% as a sophomore.

The Fever, in turn, took NaLyssa Smith with the second pick. While Smith has not been as consistent as Howard, she has certainly looked the part of a player who could one day be a key piece on a good playoff team. The Fever also added more young talent than Atlanta alongside Smith in Emily Engstler, Queen Egbo and Destanni Henderson. If even one of those players can be a starter on a good playoff team, that is good for the Fever.

The Dream were more beset by bad luck than poor roster decision in 2021, but still had to respond to where they ended up. They were smart enough to recognize that once the relationship with Chennedy Carter was beyond salvage, they needed to recoup what they could. They received a competent point guard in Erica Wheeler and a pick that they already flipped for a potential star. New ownership made some fine choices with Dan Padover brought in from the Aces to run the front office and Tanisha Wright as coach.

The Fever, on the other hand, were undone by poor roster decisions more than bad luck. They were not young, nor good, an unfortunate combination. They picked players who were not good enough, in drafts without sure things. They overpaid, relative to the cap, for aging veterans who were not going to take the Fever anywhere. I am happy for Danielle Robinson getting paid, but signing a 32 year old point guard who doesn’t shoot 3s was a curious decision at the time and has not made more sense in hindsight. With Tamika Catchings moving on and Lin Dunn as interim manager, the approach has become much more sensible.

Indiana is already out of the playoffs, so they should be focusing on seeing what they have with the younger players on the roster. Atlanta has a more interesting conundrum in that they would be in the playoffs as the 8th seed if the season were to end today. While playoff experience is worth something, given the way the WNBA draft works with two year cumulative records, the Dream would be sacrificing the 2nd best odds at a top 2 pick for the privilege of being waxed by the Las Vegas Aces.

Losing a couple of playoff games will not help the Dream as much as Aliyah Boston, Haley Jones, or Diamond Miller would. Rhyne Howard still has work to do to show that she can be engine of a good offense. She may be better suited to using her shooting to play off someone more equipped to break down defenses. Add one more top draft pick if you are Atlanta, and then see who might be interested in signing with two top draft picks, one in Howard already an established All-Star caliber player.

Indiana will have a high draft pick in 2023. They should once again use their cap space to take on unwanted contracts from other teams, a la the Bria Hartley trade, rather than trying to sign a free agent like Brionna Jones. Jones is very good, and should earn a larger contract from someone not the Sun next year, but not so good to lead the Fever higher than a 7th seed. Indiana likely should be aiming for another decent pick even in the 2024 draft, as Indiana is less likely than Atlanta to get decent veterans to sign there unless there is already a top team in place. Caitlin Clark or Paige Bueckers would pair very nicely with NaLyssa Smith and co. Then Indiana can really be ready to contend.

2022 WNBA Season Preview 3: New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington

Here is part 3 of 3 of my season previews. If you missed them, here are part 1 and part 2.  New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington. Key questions and 7 interesting roster spots. 

Brittney Griner will not be a part of the Phoenix section. Here is the latest news concerning her detention in Russia. And because the WNBA and the people close to Griner are encouraging folks to make more noise about her detention, I wanted to note it here. I am hoping that Griner is able to make it home and focus on her health and well being soon.

New York Liberty

How far in the playoffs does New York need to go to not have put themselves on the proverbial treadmill of mediocrity? A hybrid rebuild without any top 15 players is a tough outcome and doesn’t lead to winning many playoff rounds typically. Other than Sabrina Ionescu if everything goes perfectly in her development, who is likely to be a top 15 player on this roster? Maybe Natasha Howard with a full, healthy season, but certainly no guarantees. 

I am not a championship or bust kind of person, but all of this for the Liberty to once again be fighting for the 8th seed does not seem like sustainable team building. Maybe if Nyara Sabally comes back fully healthy in 2023 her and Sabrina can lead this team into the future, but we shall see. Then again, maybe they sign Breanna Stewart and/or Jewell Loyd in the next couple of years and this is all academic because a New York team that is willing to spend money will attract top free agents. 

Starters:

Sami Whitcomb: Who counts as pg between Whitcomb and Sabrina Ionescu is an interesting question and I lean Whitcomb for now. Whitcomb is a solid starter who can shoot and play make and is not terrible on defense. Too many turnovers and not as good assist rate as one would like, so hopefully she settles in if NY uses her as their main point guard.

Sabrina Ionescu: Needs to be the shooter from 3 off the dribble she looked like to unlock her full star potential, but even without that is a solid player. Likely won’t be as good as her college teammate Satou Sabally, but that is no shame given how good Sabally is. She is still the highest upside player on the team, so will be worth watching. If she can take over lead ball handling duties from Whitcomb this team will go farther.

Betnijah Laney: Can Laney be efficient if it makes sense for her to take a step back if any of the other Liberty players step up? Her shooting numbers in 2021 were still up from her career average, but not nearly as good as in 2020. Her penchant for long 2s also hurt her TS% where she shot 53%. Especially if she plays more off ball, more 3s and fewer long 2s would be good.

Natasha Howard: I would play Howard, especially in the playoffs, at center as much as possible. I suspect Sandy Brondello does not agree with me and so it will be interesting to see how Howard does at the 4. Two main things to watch with Howard is can she stay out of foul trouble and still be a disruptive defender and can she be effective from the perimeter as a 4.

Stefanie Dolson: Also a big who needs to watch for foul trouble. Fouling could be an issue for this Liberty team but especially for the bigs. Should be a serious upgrade on offense when she can play as someone who can pass, shoot and set quality screens.  But there is a ceiling on how effective she can be given defensive concerns, which is why she was the perfect third big for the Sky and might be overmatched starting for the Liberty if they make the playoffs.

Reserves:

Micheala Onyenwere: An enjoyable surprise in 2021, she certainly outperformed my expectations in winning rookie of the year. Though deserved, she was out of the rotation mostly by the end of the year as her hot start from 3 did not continue. Did she add to her perimeter game? Will she be able to convince teams to guard her out there? Or can she play at the 3 for this now pretty big heavy team.

Han Xu: The most unknown of the players I have written about for this series, but the now 6’10” Han Xu is a skilled center. Still may not have the strength to really bang in the W, but I hope we get to see how her skill level at her height translates in the W. A matchup with her national team teammate Li Yueru, who is looking to play for the Sky, would be particularly fun.

Phoenix Mercury

Key Question:

How many players on this team are both good on offense and defense? Skylar Diggins-Smith could be if she improves her focus and effort on the defensive end. Brianna Turner could be if she is played with four shooters on offense and just has to finish. Other than that, it is unclear how this team is going to play both ends consistently at the level they aspire to. 

Trying to maximize the end of Diana Taurasi’s career is good. However, this is also a year where Phoenix repeatedly punting on the draft might come to hurt .0

them. Even with BG, this is a team that has some depth in the front court, but not much less elsewhere.

Starters

Skylar Diggins-Smith: Two straight seasons of good numbers from 3 mean her shooting improvement is looking real. That is huge as she is still fast and strong for a point guard. Now improving her defense would benefit Phoenix, as Diana Tuarasi certainly isn’t taking the tougher back court assignments. 

Diana Taurasi: When healthy showed that she can still get buckets, so this will be a season of hoping she is healthy when it matters most. Hope she feels up for some of her 30 foot shots early in the clock, as those are always a joy.

Diamond DeShields: Still has the outline of a productive and effective wing, but her TS% has gone down since her rookie year and has been under 50% the last two years, which is not good. Health has played a role, so hope for her being fully healthy. It is also missing shots and just not being effective in a half court offense. Phoenix may be better, but I would not have signed her to that contract.

Brianna Turner: Some ability to do something with the ball in her hands more than a foot from the basket would be nice if she is going to be played at the 4 instead of a smaller 5. As a smaller 5, her speed and defensive playmaking would be very useful and her lack of offensive game less of an issue. Maybe with Tina Charles’ ability to space the floor this pairing can work.

Tina Charles: In 2021 she was a very good offensive force and a not good defensive presence. This Phoenix team has more offensive talent than that Washington team did not but fewer good defenders, so this might be an even more extreme case of good offense and bad defense. 

Reserves:

Kia Nurse: If Nurse is healthy and able to play this year, she should be able to challenge for the starting small forward role. DeShields did not come to Phoenix to come off the bench, but Nurse may be a better fit next to the other Phoenix starters with her ability to hit open shots. 36% from 2 shows she has much less upside than DeShields, but 35% from 3 is better than DeShields has ever shot.

Sam Thomas: If Thomas makes the team, it will be a test of the utility of a strictly 3 and D college player transitioning to the pros. This was one of the reasons I did not have Lexie Hull as a first round pick. But Thomas and Hull may show that this archetype can work.

Seattle Storm

Key Question:

Who is the fifth player on this team in crunch time, assuming Mercedes Russell plays at center. Not being able to go 5 out does limit this teams offense to a degree, but they don’t really have a good option next to Stewart to go 5 out, so Russell it is. That other spot though seems far more up for grabs. I’d bet the competition is between Briann January and Gabby Williams. Both are good defenders, but January is the better shooter while Williams offers more versatility with her size and passing.

I’d give the edge to January, if Loyd can handle guarding Kahleah Copper and other taller players without being killed. January can then guard the tougher guard option and allow Sue Bird and easier assignment. January can then hit open 3s and will be guarded in a way that Gabby Williams won’t be. Even if Williams has a good year from 3, teams probably will still dare her to shoot to take away the Storm’s much more dangerous options.

Starters:

Sue Bird: If Bird is healthy for the playoffs, she will be able to use her smarts to be a fine help defender and her shooting and passing to lead the Storm. For a player who never goes into the paint on either side of the ball, she is still at her age very effective.

Jewell Loyd: Made strides in creating her own shot and creating shots for others in 2021. This should continue to grow. While her shooting percentages fell a bit under a heavier load, they were still quite good. A career high in assists with only a small jump in turnovers helped as well. A good, if not great, defender and all told Loyd is the best shooting guard in the W.

Gabby Williams: I anticipate January finishing games, but think Williams starts to allow Jewell Loyd to play her more natural position. Williams excels with the ball in her hands, as a decent passer and finisher but not a shooter. How much will Seattle play her on ball, given they have better options, but those options are also better off ball players than Williams?

Breanna Stewart: The best player in the world. Hopefully she can be healthy all year as Seattle is my choice to win the championship. Their best players, other than Bird, are in their prime and Stewart is key to this. On the court, it is looking like 2018 was an outlier of a season shooting wise. If she can get closer to those shooting numbers that would obviously benefit her and the Storm. But she is amazing at everything even if she isn’t that level of shooter.

Mercedes Russell: Hopefully she is healthy, as the W is as always not forthcoming with any medical information so we have no idea what her injury is or any kind of timeline for when she might be back. Doesn’t space the floor, nor is she a center who can switch, but she is perfectly acceptable at everything else a 6’6” center should be good at.

Reserves:

Briann January: Her fit on Seattle should be great. Her major limitation is reluctance to fire from 3 unless wide open and inability to create her own shot, but neither are thing she will be needed to do in Seattle. She can take her open 3s and defend at an elite level and nothing more on Seattle. 

Ezi Magbegor: Her outside game has not developed, but if anyone on this roster can offer lineup versatility to alternate with Russell, it will be Magbegor. Seattle doesn’t seem to trust her yet, but  she is still only 22 and is still improving. Her 3 point shooting

Washington Mystics:

Key Question?

The key question is the health of Elena Delle Donne and to a lesser but still important degree, Alysha Clark. But that is not something I can know about and we can just hope for good health for both. My question is about the decision to trade down from 1 to 3 and draft Shakira Austin. Unfortunately, the Christyn Williams, the 14th pick who the Mystics also got in the trade with Atlanta, is out for the year with an injury. So even more than most trades this one will be incomplete. Thibault may have also been counting on the swap pick they got next year being good, if the Sparks do not live up to their potential.

Thibault knows basketballl far more than me, but I am all in on Rhyne Howard and especially given Alysha Clark’s health concerns, I think she would have been a better fit on this Mystics team. Austin has to really develop her offensive game, especially given wings who shoot like Howard and can defend are harder to find than centers like Austin. There’s a reason Clark is being paid more than Elizabeth Williams. Thibault is an excellent gm though, so I look forward to seeing if and how I was wrong in my evaluation of both.

Starters:

Natasha Cloud: Cloud is good at either guard spot and thus it will be interesting to see how much of the season she plays at point guard and how often she plays next to Rui Machida or another point guard. Particularly given she is also going to be playing some with non-shooters in Elizabeth Williams and Shakira Austin, if she can have a good season shooting from 3, that would help the Mystics.

Ariel Atkins: Made incremental progress as a shot creator and passer. To be more than an elite role player will need to continue to improve. As is though, she is a very effective player. An excellent on and off ball defender.

Alysha Clark: A 34 almost 35 year old wing who relies on her lateral quickness dealing with a foot injury is tough. If Clark comes back healthy and is still a good defender, great. But if not, one wonders if the Mystics will regret passing on Rhyne Howard.

Elena Delle Donne: The best offensive player in basketball when healthy. One of the greatest shooters in W history and at 6’5” has learned to use her size effectively. Hopefully we get at least a couple more healthy seasons out of her. 

Elizabeth Williams: A common theme with former and even maybe current Dream players, she has not played in this kind of space. Should be able to pressure the rim as a roller in pick and rolls. Will be interesting to see if Washington plays a switching style with her, as she is fairly athletic for a center but has not traditionally been asked to switch out onto guards. 

Reserves

Rui Machida: I don’t tend to root for one player over others, but I do hope Machida’s brilliance translates to the W. A brilliant passer, I think she can hit enough shots and defend just enough to be an effective backup point guard. 

Shakira Austin: To be clear, Austin is a good player and I was high on her before the draft. I may criticize the Mystics front office, but she was not able to control where she was drafted or the circumstances. I hope for nothing but the best for her. Her defense should be good, if not right away as a rookie. She will be a star if she can shoot efficiently and gain advantages against other starting centers with her face up game. 

2022 WNBA Season Preview Part 2: Indiana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Minnesota.

Part 2 of 3 of my WNBA previews. Click here for part 1. Here is Indiana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Minnesota. As before, this will cover a key question for each team and the top 7 most interesting rotation players.

Indiana Fever

Key Question:

What does this team look like in 2025? More than Atlanta, Indiana has a realistic sense, finally, of where their roster is at. Indiana has to nail and be lucky with their draft picks since free agents are not signing in Indiana. And while the Fever know more than I do, there was some very confusing picks made by them in the most recent draft. If one of Lexie Hull or Queen Egbo turn into borderline starter quality players, then the picks worked. The main concern I have with both drafting both is the lack of upside. It is possible to see how either could be decent W players, but the odds of either becoming even above average starters seems low. NaLyssa Smith was a good pick, but whether she is a star or merely a good W player will be fun to watch as well.

The decision to trade Teaira McCowan showed the Fever are not going to try for the 8th seed at all costs. A step back this season for a chance at Aliyah Boston and better days in the future is smart. This year will be one of evaluating the draft picks they have as well as hiring a new general manager, who will then have to decide whether Marianne Stanley is the right coach to move forward with. Stanley is a Hall of Famer, but unlikely she is coaching this team for much longer.

Starters:

Danielle Robinson: The contract was too much and for too long, but Robinson is a fine player and the fact that this team in theory has more shooting than last year’s should be to her benefit. Too soon probably to cut her salary and not the worst idea to have a solid veteran point guard to help the rookies become acclimated to the league. If she ever could shoot it from 3 it would be nice, but probably not at this point going to happen.

Kelsey Mitchell: One of the better scorers in the W, now that she is on a max contract, should be looking to up her playmaking and defense. She’s unlikely going to be as good as Jewell Loyd in those areas, but the gap does not have to be as big as it is now. Her 3 point rate has also gone down every year of her career, which for such a good shooter is not ideal.

Lexie Hull: Hull may not start right away, but she in theory provides the shooting and defense this team has been lacking from the 3 position the last few years. She will not be as good as a rookie as Tiffany Mitchell, but teams might actually guard Hull at the 3 point line, which would benefit the rest of the starting lineup. Does Hull have the foot speed to defend quicker 3s and 2s? Something to watch.

NaLyssa Smith: Should walk into the W as one of the best athletes in the league. How will that translate? Will they show up in block and steals and how is her finishing going to be at the W level? Stretching her game out will be important long term, but not something to worry about as a rookie.

Queen Egbo: This team has no good centers with W experience. I don’t know if this team could be worse defensively than the last few, but if they end up with 2 rookies in the front court, it could get ugly. Long term my questions about Egbo are on the offensive end far more than the defensive, but she may take her lumps as a rookie on both ends. 

Reserves

Tiffany Mitchell: As unusual as it is, once again Mitchell shot nearly 90% from 3 and under 30% from 3. Usually those go hand in hand, but not with her. She is best with the ball in her hands given her lack of shooting, but is not a great finisher in the paint even given her athleticism, nor much of a playmaker with an even assist to turnover ratio. Big year as an unrestricted free agent to see what her next contract will be.

Emily Engstler: Does her high level feel allow her to defend multiple positions? How does her elite help defense translate? The offensive concerns are there, but she will have the time to figure those out if she can defend at the W level. Showing she can play some 3 and not only the 4 would be helpful as well.

Las Vegas

Key Question

What is A’ja Wilson’s best position in the playoff, at the highest levels? And if the answer is at center, does this team have enough quality perimeter play to be able to play her there? And if it is at power forward, who is that center that can help the team defend and not get in the way of Wilson on offense? 

My suspicion is the answer is center. If you have a Liz Cambage level center, you make do, but this iteration of the Aces does not. Here is where the selection of Mya Hollingshed made sense and her subsequent waiving so surprising. This team needs a few of the 3/4 types who can shoot 3s. They don’t need offensive creation from those spots, which makes it slightly easier to find, but that archetype is still hard to find. If Hollingshed simply was not good enough ok, but she should have been kept if there was any chance of her growing into a contributing player.

In a playoff series, Dearica Hamby should be starting and if she is ready Kierstan Bell behind her. The centers on the roster can take the minutes when A’ja has to rest, as few as possible. Given Kiah Stokes and Theresa Plaisance are the only centers on the roster after cuts, signs are looking good.

Starters:

Kelsey Plum: Speaking of players who should be starting. Kelsey should also be encouraged to fire away from 3 off the dribble whenever she feels comfortable. Outside of Diana Taurasi, no one in the W can bend defenses the way Plum can beyond the arc. Her improvement finishing in the paint has made her ability to shoot from 3 even more deadly, since she can better drive a hard close out.

Riquna Williams: Quietly had the best season of her career in 2021. Even in the Aces system under Laimbeer, she got up nearly 5 3PA attempts per game. That can and should go up under Hammon, to the 6 she shot in LA, or even 7. Even if her 3 point percentage dips a bit with harder attempts, teams will guard her more closely if she firing away out there.

Chelsea Gray: Gray at this point is best used as a wing who can pass like a point guard. She can guard other teams wings using her strength, and not forced to guard speedy point guards. On offense, something the Aces could try are small-small pick and rolls with Gray and Plum. If the opposing point guard switches onto Gray, let her get to work in the post. If they don’t switch, let Plum attack the advantage.

Dearica Hamby: Hamby can often take the more difficult front court matchup, even if she is giving up quite a bit of size, and she offers just enough stretch to help out Wilson. More willingness to shoot would be nice, but not necessary. Assuming health, if she still comes off the bench she should still be getting closer to 32 minutes per game, not 24 she got in 2021.

A’ja Wilson: My pick for MVP this year, because she should be continuing to improve and her raw numbers will be back up as she will be the focal point of this team. W MVP voters tend to prefer players on a top 2 team, but might as well start pushing for a player who drags a somewhat lesser roster to 3 or 4, where It hink the Aces will finish. 3 point shooting is the obvious thing Wilson could add, but passing is more important and should continue to improve. Last year was Wilson’s best passing season and this one  could be even better. 

Key Reserves:

Jackie Young: A 36 game player, not an 8 game player so far in her career. Jackie Young and the Aces need to try to figure out what to do with her when playoff defenses sag off of her and she stops having such a dramatic advantage in size and strength. Either play her at point in bench units with shooting around her or she needs to shoot 3s herself. Otherwise we may be on year 4 of her minutes being cut in the playoffs. Would also help see what her next contract will be, as she enters restricted free agency. 

Theresa Plaisance: I subscribe to the idea that gravity is what the defense gives to an offensive player. This is a product of the actual effectiveness of a player and their willingness to shoot. More attempts at  mediocre percentage will lead to more spacing than a 40% shooter who only shoots once in a blue moon. Plaisance may not be the most effective 3 point shooting big at 30%, but her willingness to fire is worth something, at nearly 8 attempts per 40 minutes. If Wilson is going to play the 4, she may an answer at the 5, though defensively that would not be ideal.

Los Angeles

Key Question:

Just how good are Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter? Both players for different reasons are hard to place in proper tiers. Carter due to lack of playing time for ~reasons and Cambage because of playing on deep Aces teams and a possibly underperforming Wings team. I have questions about how a team with Skyler Diggins-Smith and Cambage barely made the playoffs in 2018. If Cambage is closer to top 5 than I think, this Sparks team may be able to make it far in the playoffs. If Carter would have challenged for the All-Star team, maybe this team even makes noise in the semifinals and challenged for the finals if both players play up to their considerable potential.

If Cambage is closer to 15, Tina Charles like, and Carter is more solid starter, this Sparks team could be closer to another lottery trip. Assuming health of the veterans, something that did not occur in 2021, I think this team will be closer to 4th than 9th, but the downside risk is real, given the Sparks gave up their 2023 pick to Atlanta in the Carter trade. There is a reason my first W game of the year will be Sparks at Fever. This is my most interesting team of 2022. 

Starters:

Chennedy Carter: Devastating first step and the ability to finish around and through contact. Inconsistent shooter and defender, but has the tools to be good at both. Hopefully the Sparks put the ball in her hand let her get to work, since this is a team that could not score in 2022. This is a team that does not need to get cute on offense. Post ups for Cambage and high pick and rolls for Carter until other teams show they can stop it.

Kristi Toliver: Hopefully with a better roster and better health, Toliver can have a bounce back year. A back court of Carter and Toliver may not offer much defense, but Toliver is such a good fit on offense next to Carter I want to see it. Toliver can provide second side ball handling once Carter has kicked out a pass and Toliver could feast on open 3s from both Cambage and Carter.

Brittney Sykes: Teams won’t guard Sykes outside of the paint, but someone needs to play perimeter defense. While DPOY level defense is unlikely, Sykes is a good defender. Hopefully she can effectively cut when off ball and use that athleticism to finish, something that she has not been as good as one might hope.

Nneka Ogwumike: I would like to see Fisher stagger Cambage and Nneka so that both can play the vast majority of available minutes at the 5. The Sparks should try to limit as much as possible how much they play with neither Nneka nor Cambage on the floor. Nneka is such a crafty cutter and just enough of a shooter to make the pairing work, but she is clearly also this team’s second best center.

Liz Cambage: Can she be put in position to play 30+ minutes in the playoffs? And what kind of roster needs to be constructed to help her defend well enough to win a championship? Two questions to watch for this year. Keeping her minutes down in the regular season is good, but for a Cambage lead team to win in the playoffs, she needs to play more. The offense in time with Cambage can be elite, but the question is how does LA build a good enough defense moving forward. Cambage is a fine defender, but at the highest levels can be forced to guard in space in ways that is just hard for any 6’8” center.

Key Reserves:

Jasmine Walker: Is Walker, drafted in 2o21 but hurt last season, ready to be the backup stretch 4 this team could use with Nia Coffey gone? She would be able to play 4 out around either star front court player, allowing Carter to also play in even more space. Walker seemed in college to be a decent, not great athlete, and will have to have good technique to hold her own on defense. 

Katie Lou Samuelson: There is a world where Samuelson has improved her defense and is able to shoot the lights out, where she ends up the starting 3 over Sykes. I don’t know that she has the strength to play the 4, but I would like to see her and Sykes together. A lineup of Carter-Toliver-Samuelson-Walker-Cambage would be fun. Might score 110 in 40 minutes and give up 100. 

Minnesota Lynx

Key Questions:

Other than whether Napheesa Collier will play this season and how much, the other question is did Cheryl Reeve fail to anticipate the new salary cap system and overpay, relative to the cap, Natalia Achonwa and Aerial Powers? Achonwa was the more notable miss in free agency, but Powers has the bigger contract to live up to. The Achonwa contract likely cost them both Crystal Dangerfield and their 2021 first round pick Rennia Davis. Reeve is a great coach, but as a GM the last few years has not done as well.

Powers was the more defensible contract, but still may be overpaid relative to the cap. A back court of Powers and Kayla McBride did not have enough passing or ball handling, hence the scramble for Laysha Clarendon last year and the last minute signing of Odyssey Sims this year. But it is still a question if Powers have the size and strength to play the 3. She may, but will be interesting to watch. Reeve may have paid top dollar to two players who play the same position in McBride and Powers, who are both signed through next season also. 

Starters:

Odyssey Sims: Sims, the surprise signing on 5/3 by the Lynx to presumably start at point guard, can be a decent player, though 2021 with the Dream was rough. She only sort of does the things necessary to be a point guard. She generates low efficiency shots for herself and can make the basic passes. One outlier season in 2019 with the Lynx she had an above average passing season. But coming off a year with a sub 43% TS is tough. By comparison, Jasmine Thomas has had a TS ever year since 2016 right around 50%. And Sims is not nearly the defender Thomas is.

Kayla McBride: A wonderful catch and shoot player, McBride is also a fine defender, particularly using her strength against bigger players. A tick below star level because she isn’t generally going to create shots for herself or others, she is still very effective. 

Aerial Powers: A somewhat tough season in 2021, but could bounce back. Her 3 point shooting was below the 33% where it really needs to be to be a positive and her turnover rate spiked. Starting year 2 with a new point guard signed 3 days before the season and a converted 2 guard as backup and both true point guards waived from the roster is not ideal, but here is hoping.

Natalie Achonwa: Achonwa is not who I would start, I would prefer to see if Angel was ok to try out playing the 4 in a smaller lineup with Achonwa backing her up to limit Angel’s minutes. But I bet Cheryl Reeve will go with the big she signed to a large contract. Achonwa does not provide any stretch as  4, nor is she particularly adept at chasing the faster 4s in the league. But then again, she also gets overwhelmed by the bigger centers. She is a W level player, but will be curious how Reeve uses her this year with better options in Napheesa and Damiris Dantas out to start the season.

Sylvia Fowles: Enjoy her final year. The best defensive center in W history, someone who thrived both in the more interior oriented game during her early days but has been able to stay just as effective in the pace and space era by impeccable defensive positioning and understanding. Watching her stymie guards who are 15 years younger and more athletic is a joy. 

Key Reserves:

Bridget Carleton: Though some of the other cuts by the Lynx were ones I do not agree with, Carleton being on the team is good. If not Angel, Carleton could also start at the 4 instead of Achonwa. Thanks to Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast for pointing out that would be worth trying.

Rachel Banham: I would not have kept Banham. While a good shooter, I don’t think she offers sufficient playmaking to be a point guard, even a backup one, nor does she offer enough on defense. I look forward to being wrong though and if she has a career year, I will enjoy every moment of it if she performs well, even if i I would have kept Crystal Dangerfield.

2022 Season Preview 1: Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Dallas.

The 2022 WNBA season is approaching. Here is part 1 of 3 of my season previews. For each team I look at one key question and then run down some things to watch for for the top 7 players on each team. The top 7 get the bulk of the minutes and drive the success of a team, and frankly are unlikely to be waived between me writing and publishing these.

Atlanta Dream:

Key Question:

Who on this team will be on the next good Atlanta Dream team? Rhyne Howard, ideally, is the one definite answer as a starter. Aari McDonald, but more likely as a backup in my opinion, and maybe Nia Coffey, who is only 26, if the rebuild goes quickly. Otherwise, the Dream have not been using their bench to stock up on young players as much as I would have liked them to. This is a team that might win some games if their veterans play well. I wonder if they play too well will they look to trade any of those veterans to both get stuff back and to increase the odds of getting Aliyah Boston?

Kia Vaughn is a fine veteran, but does this team need her leadership, with other veterans already around? The Dream signed all of their free agents to one year deals, Parker is on the books for next year from the prior front office. In time Atlanta may be a place that can get free agents, but for now they should be building through the draft and through second drafts with players who did not make their initial team. They don’t seem to feel that way outside of Rhyne, so we shall see. 

Projected Starters:

Aari McDonald: While the Dream may start Erica Wheeler, they should go with the future here. If Aari is not on the trajectory to be a starter, that is important information. If she comes off the bench for most of the season, well that will also tell us something, but getting to watch McDonald play would be the more interesting way to learn. Can she defend bigger shooting guards so can Atlanta play her and Wheeler together. Can she score efficiently from, well, anywhere in the half court. 30% from 3 and 34% from 2 will likely improve, but by how much?

Tiffany Hayes: Depending on where the Dream go at the 4, this might be the most space Hayes has played in. While that is not saying much given some of the shooting starved teams she has played on in Atlanta, it would still be very fun to see a bounce back season from Hayes. A very good slasher and solid defender, if Atlanta surprisingly pushes for a playoff spot it will likely happen because Hayes has a great year. Possible, if not especially likely.

Rhyne Howard: The clear #1 prospect in my view in the most recent draft, watching Howard play with W level talent is the thing I am most looking forward to. In terms of future stardom, I am very curious to see how the Dream use her this season. Does Atlanta ask her to score in the flow off the offense, or do they have her to run a decent amount of pick and rolls and shoot off movement? The latter would be more fun, but the former understandable as she has all the tools to be a 3 and D+ wing as a rookie and grow into more in time.

Nia Coffey: Coffey shot a very good 41% from 3 in LA last year and provided impressive rim protection from an undersized wing. She would be a great fit at the 4 this season in Atlanta. She should be encouraged to shoot even more from 3 than she did in LA, as any additional spacing she can offer to Mcdonald and Howard will benefit their development. 

Cheyenne Parker: A Parker-Coffey front court might not be perfect defensively, but will be able to score. Parker should both be able to be a good pick and roll partner for any of the Dream bigs, while also being able to post up any mismatches. I do hope they limit how often they ask Parker to post up similar sized centers, but in a pinch she has the skill to do so.

Key Reserves:

Erica Wheeler: Wheeler should be the primary backup for both McDonald and Hayes. A McDonald-Wheeler back court might be too small, but it is the kind of thing worth experimenting with. Dream will hope for a good 3 point shooting season, as this team does not need Wheeler dribbling the air out of the ball every possession and would benefit from her playing off ball more as a veteran leader. 

Monique Billings: Her ability to generate turnovers in a high pressure defense was impressive early in the Dream season in 2021. While overmatched as a starter given she isn’t much of a threat on the offensive end outside of offensive rebounding, she should pair fairly well with either of the front court starters against bench units. If the Dream can get out in transition, that would also benefit her, so she can use her speed against slower bigs.

Chicago Sky

Key Question:

How does this team maximize the chances that the veterans, and in Azurá Stevens’ case, injury plagued starters, make it to the playoffs healthy and rested? James Wade has made the big moves for the Sky successfully, but this season might test his ability to nail the margins. No general manager hits every signing to a minimum contract, but the Sky may be relying on their’s more than most teams. While there is no one on the roster likely to end up as overmatched as Shyla Heal was in 2021, who exactly is playing back 2 and 3 is as much a mystery with the season days away as it was months ago.

Two players for the Sky to either bring back or bring in if their current backups are not good enough are Kamiah Smalls and Kitja Laksa. Smalls was waived, so of course possible that Wade and co. have decided she is not good enough, but she has shown more in her overseas performances than the players they kept. Kaela Davis is long and athletic and looks good, but she is a career 36% shooter from 2 and not a good 3 point shooter. Laksa is a dead eye shooter who may not have the defense to be a starter in the W, but would fit nicely off the bench with the Sky.

Projected Starters:

Courtney Vandersloot: Going to quote what I said last year, because nothing has really changed other than trying to win another championship: “Best point guard in the W. For the Sky to win a championship, might need to look for her own offense a bit more. Too good a shooter while also able to put pressure on at the rim to not look to score.” Given prioritization, is this the last season we see her for a bit? If so, I am ready to enjoy every minute of it. 

Allie Quigley: Can the Sky save her for the playoffs again? The Sky’s difficult choices at the back end of the roster may make it harder for Wade to limit Quigley’s minutes. She was incredibly important in the playoffs, but at age 35, almost 36, needs her minutes managed.

Kahleah Copper: The next step for Copper to raise her game and become an all-WNBA level player is to play make for others. A wonderful finisher and just good enough 3 point shooter, Copper fits well next to other playmakers. If she can even incrementally increase her playmaking, maybe run a few pick and rolls and get open shots for Allie Quigley, that would make the Sky even harder to guard.

Candace Parker: How much does she have left? Can she make it to the playoffs healthy? The Sky were two teams in 2021. A mediocre team without Parker and a championship caliber team with her. Similar to Quigley, the Sky’s loss of some depth might make it harder to sit her, but the Sky should be willing to lose some regular season games to hopefully keep her healthy and rested. My favorite part of her playoff run was her brilliance as a help defender who was able to muck up other teams’ offense when they played total non-shooters.

Azurá Stevens: Stevens being healthy for the playoff run and able to play fairly heavy minutes was key for the Sky. Knock on wood for another relatively healthy season. Stevens is valuable for her ability to guard bigger posts while on offense providing some shooting and ability to attack a closeout. She and the Sky will benefit from her continuing to improve her ability to finish plays.

Key Reserves:

Emma Meesseman: Meesseman has a history of coming off the bench and finishing games so may do the same. It may be matchup driven because for teams that don’t have Liz Cambage or Sylvia Fowles, a Meesseman-Parker front court might make sense, with Stevens in to guard the bigger centers. If she is a backup, Meesseman can shoot all the midrange 2s she wants as she keeps bench units afloat on offense. As a starter though, hopefully she will be a bit more modern in her approach and space the floor better.

Julie Allemand: The French league ends so late it is unclear when Allemand will come over, but the Sky should be hoping for sooner rather than later. She is the most proven of the backup guards and even wings for the Sky. If either Quigley or Vandersloot need to miss time, Allemand would be as good a replacement as possible. A weaker defender than either, she is a reasonable facsimile on offense for either Vanderquig. Not the movement shooter Quigley is nor does she put pressure on the rim like Vandersloot, but she is a good shooter and passer.

Connecticut Sun

Key Question:

How do the Sun fix their half court offensive issues in the playoffs? This team has the talent and chemistry, pun intended, to be a top 2 team in the regular season again. The next step is to figure out how to score against high level opponents in the playoffs. Defensively 5 out offenses provide some challenge to the Sun, but they have the personal, especially with Alyssa Thomas back healthy, to defend that style.

Shooting guard is the one position that could be up for adjustments for the Sun. As I mention below in my section on Natisha Hiedeman, Curt Miller may need to sacrifice defense for some offensive burst from his guards. Either that or Jonquel Jones improves her midrange game to the point she can be a reliable option there. The fit of DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas on offense is going to be somewhat clunky against the best defenses given neither shoots from 3, either at all or well, so the Sun have to find solutions around that. 

Projected Starters:

Jasmine Thomas: The best defensive guard in the W, can the Sun make up for her offensive limitations to win a championship? Functionally a 3 and D point guard, the Sun will need to find other places to generate offense in the half court against the best of the best. Thomas improving her shooting, particularly off the dribble, would also be helpful for the Sun.

Courtney Williams: 3>2. If the shot clock is running down or if it is the best shot possible, then a Williams midrange shot is much better than nothing. But the Sun and Williams should be trying for better where possible. But if she wants to play her same game, it might be time for Natisha Hiedeman to play with her fiance and for Williams to prop up bench units on offense.

DeWanna Bonner: To paraphrase Draymond Green, Bonner may be a 36 game player, not an 8 game player. Her high 3 point attempt rates cause teams to guard her in the regular season, but her inability to shoot hurts in the playoffs. Her foul drawing also dips in the playoffs against the best defenders and best refs. A very fun player in the regular season, but the playoffs await.

Alyssa Thomas: An incredibly fun player who is as good as one can get without shooting 3s. You name a skill a big wing should have other than shooting and she has it. Passing, ball handling, defense, rebounding all of it.

Jonquel Jones: A deserving MVP in 2021, the next step for her is the inverse of Courtney Williams in that Jones is very good at seeking out either 3s or attempts at the rim, but does not have as good an in between game. A reliable way to generate decent midrange jump shots in the playoffs would be a boon to both Jones and the Sun, when teams load up to stop her. 

Key Reserves:

Brionna Jones: Overqualified as a backup center, she plays well next to either Thomas or Jones. Jones is the best possible development outcome for the undersized center who can’t shoot and aren’t particularly fast, she should be studied by all other such players with hopes of making it in the W. 

Natisha Hiedeman: What does Hiedeman need to do to earn Kurt Miller’s trust in the playoffs? She isn’t as good at defense as the other options, but she isn’t a traffic cone either. And on offense, she is the only player on the team, except maybe Nia Clouden, who will take 3s off the dribble. She could improve her finishing and getting to the rim, but you aren’t getting those from Thomas or Williams either.

Dallas Wings: 

Key Question

Why such a large contract for Arike Ogunbowale? Per herhoopstats, Arike will be making the supermax starting in 2023 for 3 seasons. Depending on a few free agents next year, she will be one of roughly 5 or so players who make that super max contract. More in her section below, but I am not convinced that paying Arike that high a percentage of the cap is sensible, especially given they have more young players coming off of rookie deals soon. Satou Sabally will likely get the same salary for the 2024 season and beyond. Dallas is quickly going to be priced into their team, so they should be seeing if this is a team that can go as far as they want to. 

Money matters in a hard capped league. Ask Phoenix or Connecticut how it goes with 3 super max contracts, trying to churn the end of the roster. I have my concerns that Arike will be so good as to justify such a contract, given she is being paid along the lines of Jewell Loyd and Diana Taurasi. Will Dallas be able to match if Marina Mabrey gets a large offer? Dallas will also have to pay Teaira McCowan, one reason I did not like that trade for them.

Starters:

Arike Ogunbowale: The improved 3 point shooting and volume was good. But unfortunately, nothing else really improved, except for the contract. 39% from 2 from such a high usage player is bad. The defense was among the worst for starters in the league. 3.3 assists was not good enough, especially given her assist to turnover ratio has been the exact same in all four years. And the quality of pass does not seem to be going up, too many drives into 3 defenders and not a good kick out.

Marina Mabrey: Likely not a star, as she does not have the first step or handle to get to the rim and appears to be a good 3 point shooter, not a great, so unlikely to be Diana Taurasi from deep. But Mabrey should be starting for this team over their bevy of point guards. Not a lock down defender, but she competes and can continue to improve, especially against bigger players who can’t drive right past her. 

Allisha Gray: A weird season last year including coach Vicki Johnson suggesting Gray forgot how to play 5 on 5, but she should be starting for this team. The only player has shown the ability to both shoot 3s and defend at a high level. Without playmaking improvement similar to Kahleah Copper she isn’t a star. If Dallas won’t start her, they should 

Satou Sabally: If the Wings win a championship with this core, it will be because Satou becomes a top 3 player in this league. Her assist numbers aren’t particularly impressive, but her ability to whip passes to the corner with either hand is. A fully healthy season from her, with more consistent defense, is how this Wings team makes it to the next level. WHile she should not start at center, the best playoff version of the Wings likely involved her playing the 5 in heavy doses. 

Teaira McCowan: If Bella Alarie had not opted out of the season, she would have been my choice for starter. But I bet McCowan would have started anyways, given the Wings traded for her. McCowan is definitely a W level backup center given how dominant she can be on the offensive end. Great size, decent hands and draws lots of fouls. The defensive end is where the questions lie and we will get a season to see if outside of the mess of Indiana whether McCowan can be the anchor of a league average defense.

Key Reserves

Charli Collier: The #1 pick from 2021 started 18 obligatory games as the #1 pick, but eventually the team realized to win they needed to play her less. Rebounds fairly well, but still unclear what else she does at a starting player level. Some evidence of stretch to the 3 point line and improvement defending in space would be welcome.

Veronica Burton: The theory with the Burton pick makes sense. A good defender who can play next to Arike or Marina and take the more difficult assignment. But I did not have her as a first round pick because of the questions on offense. But that means playing off ball. Can she shoot? Will teams guard her out there? Does she have the handle and athleticism to get to the paint when she has the ball?

WNBA 2022 Final Draft Board

This is my third year doing a draft board for the WNBA draft. Lessons have been learned from past years editions and will continue to be learned. Two that stand out are that centers with great defensive potential maybe ought to do something on offense and that teams value athleticism in wings, even when they aren’t yet able to shoot. Then again, though my love for Natasha Mack’s game has not panned out yet, neither have the choices to draft Stephanie Watts or Aaliyah Wilson.

I have tiered the player on my draft board to give a sense of how I think they might turn out and which players are comparable. I am tiering these players based on an 80th percentile outcome. So this is if they develop well, but for instance if any of these players develop like Jonquel Jones, I will be too low on them. I have learned from last year to assume lower than how I labeled them then. The W is really high level basketball and the tendency in draft evaluations is to overestimate player contributions, not the other way. And as good as the top 2 players in this draft are, there are no A’ja Wilsons or Breanna Stewarts, most likely.

Also, some people hate player comparisons because they are so imperfect, but I think for ease of communication they are hard to beat. When I am reading about a prospect I know nothing about, I appreciate envisioning who in the league they could have some similarities with.

Couple of time All Star:

  1. Rhyne Howard Wing 6’2” Kentucky

Howard’s shooting and positional size will keep her in the league as a solid starter and give her a shot at an all-star or two. Whether she can become the 1st or 2nd option on offense for a good team is the major question to watch. She is a fine passer, but may not be able to break down defenses and get to the rim to allow that playmaking to shine. She is a smooth athlete but does not have the greatest first step. Similarly, a good handle, but is not a point guard with a wing’s size, more of a straight line driver.

Still, her floor is a solid starter given teams can always use athletic wings who can shoot. Teams year after year take chances on wings who can’t shoot hoping they develop. Howard already can! Of all the draft prospects, she could have started for that Phoenix Mercury team that made the finals last year, as someone who had the size to matchup with Sky and nail open 3s from Griner’s passes.

I have no inside information, so teams will be able to do more research, but the character concerns surrounding her seem overblown and stem from people trying to explain away the lack of top SEC talent around her at Kentucky and why she couldn’t drag them farther.

Above average starter

  1. NaLyssa Smith Big 6’4” Baylor

Smith absolutely could be the best player from this draft class. While not especially likely, the outlines of a taller more explosive Napheesa Collier are there. To move her #1 though for me, I would have wanted to see more of her perimeter game. To see more of her shooting from the perimeter and more of an ability to create open shots for others. A 1 assist to 2.5 turnover ratio is not ideal.  .

Smith used her verticality well at times at center, including holding up against Ayoka Lee. But for someone with her athleticism, her defensive impact did not show through in her block or steal rates. If her perimeter game doesn’t develop and she doesn’t provide the rim protection needed to be a starting five, an energy big off the bench at best is a possible outcome, a la Monique Billings. This is what separates Howard and Smith. Less downside risk with Howard, but still star potential.

Solid starter:

  1. Kierstan Bell wing 6’1 FGCU

Bell would be the high risk, high reward pick here. If she ends up being taken towards the end of the first round or even the second, I would not be shocked. But If you are picking in the lottery, you should consider swinging for the fences. Will Bell be Alyssa Thomas but a better shooter? Probably not! But she has the size, skill and athleticism that is hard to find in potential 3/4 types. 

While her team was overwhelmed by Maryland’s size in the tournament, I thought Bell showed she can hang with elite size and athleticism. Maryland has a good collection of players with W size and speed and Bell held her own. 

  1. Shakira Austin big 6’5” Ole Miss

Austin is more of polished on the defensive end than offensive end at this point. She is a potential lottery pick based on potential growth on the offensive end. She will show flashes in each game of a do it all center who can shoot 3s and handle and be an effective center in a modern 5 out offense, the kind we have seen win the past 4 championships. However, the results really are not there yet, 46% 2 point percentage is low for a center and 24% from 3 is not good. A 1.7 to 2.4 assist to turnover ratio is actually pretty good, especially given how rough the guard play at Ole Miss could be at times on offense, but not good enough to say she will be an amazing passer at the next level.

Austin defensively could be really good. She has the size to play more traditional drop defense and the lateral quickness to play in a more switch heavy scheme. She may be able to run around with quicker power forwards, so if the offensive game continues to develop she might be able to offer some positional versatility as well. 

Borderline starter

  1. Nyara Sabally big 6’5” Oregon

If Sabally had not dealt with a couple of serious injuries, I would likely have had her #3 as my favorite center prospect in this draft. If teams are scared off by her medicals, she definitely could fall into the second round. Multiple ACL tears is tough for a young athlete. I don’t have access to those medicals, so I guess I hope she has better injury luck in the pros.

But on the court, Sabally is the actual stretch five that people talk about Austin being. She shot over 40% from 3, admittedly on low volume, in her career at Oregon. She averaged 2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks, all good if not amazing numbers. While not a dominant inside presence on defense, but she moves well for her size and does offer rim protection.

I do wonder about having 2 centers at 4 and 5. Last year Charli Collier was the only center taken in the first round. That trend might continue if teams feel multiple good wings are more valuable than multiple centers. And good wings can be harder to find than serviceable centers. I thought about accounting for that, but while it is possible at least a couple of the wings and guards I have after here will go above Sabally, I had a harder time figuring out which should.

Solid backup

  1. Christyn Williams 5’11” guard UConn

Williams does not excel in any one area, but she is solid across the board as a big guard/wing. A 35% 3 point shooter, decent but not good. A positive assist to turnover ratio, but not exceptional. She has the size and strength to play the 3 in 3 guard lineups at least some of the time. There is a good chance she will benefit from the additional spacing at the next level. UConn plays with fine spacing relative to the college game, but the W is still more open. 

 UConn players can be tough to scout because how much talent they play with. Katie Lou Samuelson going higher than she should have and Tiffany Hayes lower are examples. Williams has not been asked nor given the opportunity to be the main scorer. Unfortunate championship game aside, Williams has been able to effective even when the offense isn’t run for her. She is also a good defender and has the size, strength, and athleticism to play the 3 in 3 guard lineups.

  1. Nia Clouden 5’8” guard Michigan St.

Clouden is a fast guard who can also shoot. If she gets shoehorned into running a teams offense, that might not go so well. But if she  can pair with another guard, she can be an effective off ball player. She shot 40% from 3 this year on decent volume. A bit lower in prior years, but her free throw percentage also took a jump this year, which is a good sign that her shooting improvement was real.

Defensively she was not a disaster, but is likely what would keep her from being a starter. She is a bit undersized for the 2 and not a lock down defender at the point guard. Has the tools to be a fine defender, but I would not be drafting her for her defense.

  1. Destanni Henderson 5’7” guard  South Carolina

Henderson picked a great game to have her career high and maybe the best game of her career. But it didn’t change where I have her on my board, though it was impressive. For Henderson, I think of Dana Evans as a rookie and the pros and cons of what she offered. She could shoot 3s when open, she could run a functional offense, and wasn’t a disaster on defense even though she was giving up size.

This would be my most likely prediction of Henderson at the next level, but even more so. Henderson is a better spot up shooter and defender, but not as good off the dribble and might struggle to do anything in the paint at the next level.

Backup to the backup

  1. Sika Kone 6’3” big Mali

Unfortunately for Kone, she is out with a knee injury for a couple of months. Reports are she may be able to play in some of the W season, but it is unclear if she will or would even want to. However, towards the end of the first round of the W draft, taking a player who won’t even come over this year could be a good choice. And between 9-12 would be a good value place to draft the Malian big and have her come over for the 2023 season when she will be only 21. Her inexperience shows in little things like defending on the perimeter, but the talent is there.

Kone is a very good athlete with a nose for the ball and a great rebounder. She showed off her skill and athleticism facing a good French squad where she went 10 for 10 for 26 points with 9 rebounds. What is keeping her from being higher on my draft board is questions about what position she is. If Kone can continue to improve her skills, a late first early second round pick might be a steal. But equally possible she tops out as an energy big who struggles to stick in the W.

  1. Emily Engstler 6’1” wing Louisville

I very nearly did not have Englster in my draft board at all because of concerns about what she will do on offense in the W. While her 3 point shooting was solid the last couple of years, her free throw shooting is a major worry. It is very unusual for  a good shooter to be a 63% free throw shooter and she was worse in prior years. She also would have a couple of really bad misses on open jump shots most games and I wonder about her form.She likely does not have the handle or speed to be making plays for herself, so she will need to provide value spotting up off ball. 

What did end up landing her on my draft board is her defensive feel is so high. If she can improve her shooting to be a positive off ball, she could be an excellent defender at either the 3 or the 4. Her combo of steals and blocks is excellent. She also gets steals generally without gambling way out of position, as her positional defense is also good. She may be a bit undersized at the 4, but she held her own quite well against the size of South Carolina.

  1. Elissa Cunane 6’5” big NC State

Watching Cunane it was easy to focus on what she asked to do, but was not necessarily WNBA level good at. Namely, no team who drafts her should expect to be getting a player who can post up other W centers and score efficiently in the post. However, she can do enough other things that she could still be a solid backup big at the W level. She has good size and has shown the ability to defend in the post against the best centers such as Aliyah Boston. Boston won the matchups, cause she’s the best player in college basketball, but Cunane did better in single coverage than most do. More of a good positional help defender, she would likely need to play drop defense. Not gonna be able to switch, most likely.

She also can likely shoot better and more than she was encouraged to in college. Amanda Zahui B., though a very different prospect than Cunane as a shot blocking extraordinaire, offers the outline how Cunane could be a useful backup big. Cunane is likely a better shooter than Zahui B., the defense will be the question.

  1. Jade Melbourne 5’9” guard Australia

Jade Melbourne has not had the hype of Shyla Heal, but Melbourne is another Australian guard worth a look at from WNBA teams. Melbourne is a fast, athletic off guard who could be a solid option off the bench for a W team, and possibly grow into more. She first impressed me as an 18 year old in last year’s WNBL when she willingly challenged Liz Cambage in the paint. Cambage got her once and Melbourne finished the other time, but it showed that she has a good mix of athleticism, skill and confidence.

The big question for her going forward is whether she can improve her 3 point shot. She only shot 28% from 3 this season, but the shot looked improved from prior years. If she can continue to improve on that, she is a good slasher and all around player. She did not look out of place athletically on the court against the likes of Jackie Young and Marina Mabrey and alongside her teammate Brittney Sykes. She’s not a Sykes level athlete, but very few are. 

Players most likely to make me look foolish:

Veronica Burton: Defensively she is excellent, but not sure being an amazing 2 position defender, given her shaky shooting and not especially quick first step on offense, is enough. But she could definitely prove me wrong. Jasmine Thomas is a model for that kind of guard.

Rae Burrell: If Burrell had been healthy all year, she very well may have ended up in the 7-9 range. It is where I had her in my first edition of this draft board. I just have too many questions about whether she is athletic enough to hang at the next level and what her shooting is. If it is closer to her junior year where she shot 40% from 3 and 80% from the line, then maybe I overreacted to an injury plagued senior year and should have used her full body of work to evaluate her.

WNBA Prospect Matchups in the Tournament to Watch

When scouting college players for their ability to play the next level, the trickiest part is projecting how they will do against players with similar talent levels. There just aren’t that many players good enough to play in the W. The NCAA tournament can be a perfect time to watch, for instance, two WNBA sized centers play each other and get a sense of their game. A 6’5” player dominating smaller opponents may be necessary for their chances at the next level, but it is not sufficient. Plenty of very good college bigs, as well as guards and wings, have not made it at the next level

With all that in mind, here are some of the best matchups to watch and root for in this year’s tournament. Not just seniors either. Rhyne Howard facing off with NaLyssa Smith would be fun, but there are WNBA prospects in other classes as well that can give a good test and we can start seeing who might be drafted in 2023 and beyond as well.

While I write here about second round and beyond potential games, this also serves as a what to watch for in the first round, since there are some upsets I will be rooting against and some I will be rooting for.

Oregon vs. Tennessee: Nyara Sabally vs. Tamari Key

Assuming both Oregon and Tennessee both win their first round matchups, this is a great center head to head matchup. Sabally has had an unfortunate injury luck with her knees, but she has the talent to be a top 10 pick if she comes out this year. Key can struggle with foul trouble, but she is a great test for other W prospects as a true 6’5” shot blocker who can move her feet ok. While Key is not likely a first round pick next year, she has W size to test Sabally, and could make teams want to follow her next year for the 2023 draft.

This game would also give a chance to see Rae Burrell against strong competition again. Burrell has not been the same player this year after being injured early on. A smooth athlete, can she recapture any of that, and be effective against an Oregon team with good size in the middle? How is her shooting? 34% from 3 is not bad, but down from her 40% last year. More promisingly, her free throw shooting is for a second year 80%.

Ole Miss vs. Baylor: Shakira Austin vs. NaLyssa Smith

If these two teams meet in the second round, Austin and Smith would likely not start the game matched up, but would likely end up matching up at times. Smith has shown herself to be the clear number 2 pick in this draft. Austin, for me, is definitely  top 5 pick, but whether she is third is still an open question. To show up against the Baylor front line would be a good sign. Can Austin generate offense for herself and teammates? That is a good test as to whether she is a franchise level center, or as is more likely, merely a good center who might be an average starter.

Centers are a more replaceable position outside of the very best, which is why i have leaned towards wings in that third position, but Austin might be good enough to be the choice there. We saw this last year with teams taking swings on athletic wings over centers in the first round.

NC State vs. Kansas St.: Elissa Cunane vs. Ayoka Lee

This would require Kansas St. beating a solid 8 seed in Washington St, but I am hopeful, as i would love to see this center matchup. The optimistic case for Cunane relies on her being able to hold up as a post defender, while using her face up skills at the next level. She is likely not strong, nor skilled enough to be a post player at the next level. But if she can use her shooting to force Kansas St. to adjust their defense and maybe bring Ayoka Lee out of the paint, that would show how she could be used in the W. And for Lee, this would be a test of her defense. Blocking shots near the basket when you are as big as she is is one thing, but defense, especially at the higher levels, is a lot more than that.

FGCU vs. Maryland: Kierstan Bell vs. Diamond Miller/Angel Reese

Questionable seeding from the NCAA committee has made the chances of seeing Bell and FGCU past the first round lower than it should be, but they have the talent to beat Virginia Tech. I will be rooting for it, because getting to see Kierstan Bell against two long athletes in Miller and Reese would be a perfect way to get to watch the potential top 5 pick in Bell. She has spent most of the past two years the biggest player on the court, but will have to transition to a hybrid 3/4 role at the next level. This would be a good way of seeing how that would look, at least on offense.

Virginia Tech is an interesting matchup for FGCU, but Bell may have to guard 6’6” Elizabeth Kitley. That is the kind of matchup an undersized mid-major is forced to deal with, but would not happen were Bell to find herself on the Indiana Fever. 

UConn vs. Sweet 16 and beyond: Evina Westbrook/Christyn Williams vs. the best

Westbrook is higher than her teammate Williams in plenty of draft boards and mock drafts, but I have them reversed myself. One reason is who has shown up in big games against the best opponents. Westbrook generally puts up better all around numbers, with more assists and rebounds than Williams, though this year Westbrook has slumped shooting from 3. But Westbrook’s best games tend to come in conference against over matched Big East opponents. 

For Westbrook to be a first round pick for me, I would like to see her have one of her strong 12 points/8 rebounds/ 8 assist games against an elite opponent and make herself actually felt. As a contrast, Williams has done that. Against Baylor last year Williams scored 21 points, got herself to the line for 6 free throws and contributed to UConn’s win. Westbrook wasn’t bad per se, including shooting 3-5 from 3, but was not able to contribute when UConn needed to the degree either Williams or Paige Bueckers as a freshman did.

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.