Defending in Space: Sylvia Fowles vs. Teaira McCowan

Sylvia Fowles is a first ballot Hall of Famer who is still playing at a high level at age 36. The 6’6” center for the Minnesota Lynx is good for reasons that are clear when watching her. Her low post scoring, rebounding, and being really tall at the rim are obvious when watching her. An area of her game that is less obvious, but that has allowed her to thrive despite the changes in WNBA playing style over the previous 5 years, is her ability to defend in space.

Teaira McCowan at her best appears to be the best of the next wave of dominant centers in the WNBA. However, she has only started 3 of the Fever’s 7 games, and those starts were due to injuries. For the 6’7” center for the Indiana Fever to reach her potential, she will need to show that she can go from being a liability guarding in space to someone who can hold her own, even when teams repeatedly target her. 

The WNBA, like all levels of basketball, has realized over the past five years that 3>2. Since 2014, the percent of shots from the 3 in the WNBA has gone from 21% to 29% in 2019. That’s from this article in the Athletic ($) about the rise of the 3 in the W, worth reading if you have a subscription. This shift has shown no signs of slowing down this season, as more teams are even having centers like Kiah Stokes of the New York Liberty, who had never shot 3s before this year, fire away.  

While shooting more 3s is better than long 2s because of the extra point, it is not the only benefit to shooting 3s. The other reason 3 point shooting leads to better offense is that it helps create much wider driving lanes for players to attack off the dribble, thus improving offense in the paint as well. This forces centers to spend more time guarding in space against guards and forwards. Post defense is still useful for centers, but defending in space matters as much if not more.

Compare and contrast the 2019 Mystics and the 2015 Indiana Fever. The Mystics had the best offense in WNBA history with an offensive rating of 112.9 points scored per 100 possessions last year with pristine spacing. The Indiana Fever made it to the finals in 2015 and pushed the Minnesota Lynx to 5 games. They were 3rd in offense that year, with an offensive rating of 99.8. They led the league in percentage from 3, at 36%, but they only took 14.9 threes per game. The Mystics in 2019 took 25.4. The Lynx took even fewer 3s and were worse on offense, if you are wondering why I highlight the Fever here.

This can be seen just by looking at the spacing on the floor.

Sylvia Fowles was on the Lynx team that beat those Fever in that finals in 2015. She went from playing against that kind of spacing, to playing the Washington Mystics with 4 or 5 shooters at a time. This is a transition that has run other centers out of the WNBA entirely, or forced them to be situational players. Carolyn Swords, for instance, starts for the Aces, but typically plays between 10 and 20 minutes.

Fowles, however, has been able to keep up with the changes. She is excellent at defending in space. While not the swiftest player laterally, she is significantly more effective on this type of plays than many of her younger contemporaries, such as Liz Cambage or Brittney Griner. One can see this in that teams are disinclined to even challenge her. When she shares the court with Damiras Dantas, teams are more likely to run the pick and roll with Dantas’ defender. And Dantas is a fairly athletic big in her own right.

Sylvia Fowles here is defending a Courtney Vandersloot pick and roll. Vandersloot, of the Chicago Sky, is a good athlete who finishes fairly well at the rim. Even though Vandersloot has a head of steam, Fowles is able to move her feet and Vandersloot hits the bottom of the backboard. Fowles is decisive on where to go. Even one false move or hesitation and Vandersloot is at the rim with an open layup. 

Sylvia Fowles defends pick and roll successfully.

Fowles is able to do this against even the best slashers. Kahleah Copper, also of the Chicago Sky, is as fast as they come in the W, and at 6’2” has the size to finish over and around size. Fowles is called for the foul here, but that was a very questionable call.. She forces Copper to make a wild pass back out.

Fowles good defense on Kahleah Copper

Compare those plays by Fowles, against two talented players with experience in the W, with McCowan trying to defend pick and rolls involving the Wings’ 3 rookies, Tyasha Harris, Bella Alarie, and Satou Sabally. Alarie, being guarded by McCowan, screens for Harris here. McCowan seems unsure of where to be. She is not high enough to contest if Tyasha Harris shoots off the dribble from 3, which fair, that’s a shot the Fever is likely willing to give up, but then she is still completely unable to provide any resistance to Harris at the rim. She is standing on the wrong side of Alarie, and it’s not like Alarie suddenly flipped the screen.

McCowan not defending Tyasha Harris.

This is a regular season game with 3 rookies repeatedly targeting Tearra McCowan. Imagine if the Fever made the playoffs against a team like the Storm, what would happen. Here is another example, about a minute later in the same game against the Wings. Once again, Alarie is being guarded by McCowan, and screens, this time for Satou Sabally.  McCowan switches out onto Satou Sabally, thus leaving her on an island against Sabally. It does not go well for Indiana.

McCowan not defending Satou Sabally

Defending in space, both in the pick and roll and when switched onto a smaller player, is among the hardest things for a young big to learn in the pros. McCowan will get better at this part of the game, but she has a long way to go to reach the predictions some had of her being a top 10 player in the WNBA. While it frustrates Fever fans, this is likely part of why Marianne Stanley has opted to not start Teaira McCowan.

Sylvia Fowles, on the other hand, has a team that is starting a rookie 5’5” (if that) pg in Crystal Dangerfield and giving heavy minutes to other unheralded rookies near the top of the standings in the WNBA. She does have help, in particular Napheesa Collier is following up her rookie of the year campaign with another good season so far.  But Fowles’ ability to keep up with a changing league and stay as effective as she has is as impressive as it comes. Here’s hoping her calf injury is not too serious and she is able to come back soon this season.

The Awkward Fit of DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

good spacing against Sparks in 2019

all Sparks players in paint or near ball handler.

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

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

4 Lynx players in paint

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

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

4 Sparks players in paint

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impact of the Chicago Sky’s Other Wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Season Preview: Washington Mystics

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

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

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

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions: Leilani Mitchell

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

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

Wings: Ariel Atkins, Emma Meesseman, Essence Carson

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

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

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

Lineup Breakdown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Phoenix Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury have brought in talented players, though how good they are going to be will ride on Diana Taurasi’s health. A middling team in both offense and defense a year ago, Sandy Brondello will have more offensive talent, but how to improve the defense is going to be a challenge. 

Even maintaining the defense at the level it was at last year may prove to be a challenge, given that two of the more effective defenders on the team have now moved on to other teams, in Briann January and DeWanna Bonner. While January did slip a bit, DeWanna Bonnner is a big loss. While offensively, she is better at the 4, more on that in my Sun preview, she is very valuable in her ability to ability to guard both 3s and 4s.

The Mercury were able to upgrade their point guard position with the trade for Skylar Diggins-Smith. Diggins-Smith was a no-brainer of a trade for 3 draft picks with the Dallas Wings, given their time to win is now.

While point guard is settled, they do not seem to have addressed the hole at the 3 left by Bonner leaving. Bria Hartley got the most perplexing free agency deal in the offseason. She seems prime to be an example of the winner’s curse, where the team that got her services ends up overpaying. Good for Hartley, but maybe not so good for the Mercury. It leaves the Mercury with options for the 3 who are too small, inexperienced, or not good enough.

Shatori Walker-Kimbroughis a good player, but I would have kept Jocelyn Willoughby, a rangy athlete to play on the wing. Walker-Kimbrough will likely be better than Willoughby, as a player who has already proven she can hang in the league, but she plays a position the Mercury already have depth at.

The Mercury have high hopes and are often listed as one of the new super teams. I am skeptical. This team should make the tail end of the playoffs, the 7 or 8 spot. However, unless Diana Tuarasi is able to return and still be the player she was, it is hard to see this team climbing in the standings. 

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions:

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Bria Hartley, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Jessica Breland, Nia Coffey

Notable Losses:

DeWanna Bonner, Leiliani Mitchell, Briann January, Camille Little. Kia Vaughn, Essence Carson.

Draft Picks:

2nd round: Te’a Cooper

3rd round: Stella Johnson

Guards: Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Bria Hartley

Wings: Nia Coffey, Sophie Cunningham.

Bigs: Jessica Breland, Alanna Smith, Britney Griner, Kia Vaughn. Brianna Turner. 

The Mercury only have enough space to carry 11 players, instead of 12 that they could. The Bria Hartley contract and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough trade were both somewhat befuddling moves, and this is one area where that is the case. The opportunity cost of being able to carry one more young player to potentially develop is another drawback to the Mercury’s approach. Coffey is most on the bubble, should a better wing option come available, though as the hardest position to fill in basketball, unclear who the Mercury would want. Teams have to cut down their rosters by March 26th, so this will be updated once that happens. 

Playing Time Breakdown:

Brittney Griner is the starting center. While only 29 years old, her game has been in a slow decline of effectiveness the past few years. She is still a top center, and should remain effective for as long as she wants to play and stays healthy, given that her two main skills, height and touch, don’t diminish with age. The main thing I will be watching with her is the way in which the modern basketball emphasis on shooting and spacing hurt how dominant she is, as she was quite good last year, and the team still struggled.

Skyler Diggins-Smith at point guard is the other guarantee of player and position on this roster. While a center who thrives in the half court and a point guard who likes to get out and run is a bit of an awkward fit, Diggins-Smith has experience playing with Liz Cambage and there are other other players, like Walker-Kimbrough, who can get out and run on the roster. Diggins-Smith has had an up and down career shooting the 3, but given the attention Griner draws, a better year is possible

As an aside, my personal hope is for Griner to shoot 2 threes a game. She has a nice looking shot on the 1 made three she had all last season. The image of Griner blocking a shot, Diggins-Smith sprinting to the other end, and then Griner strolling up and into a wide open trailing 3 and nailing it is wonderful. Griner is a career 80% foul shooter, she has a solid midrange game, and having her shoot 2 threes per game is absolutely doable. I definitely don’t want her to stand 25 feet from the basket whole possessions, but a couple of times a game, she should let it fly. 

What happens in between Diggins-Smith and Griner is up in the air and is where I have some questions about the roster construction of this team. Assuming health, Taurasi will play, and will hopefully be close to the Taurasi we saw in the 2018 playoffs, one of the most dangerous offensive players in WNBA history. But that is a lot to ask of a player who will be 38 whenever we have a season, should a season happen. A healthy Taurasi improves the offense in almost every category.

Who Taurasi will be asked to defend is one of the key questions, should she prove able to play. Taurasi is 6 foot, whereas Bria Hartley is 5’8” and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is 5’9”. Against quite a few teams, Taurasi will be able to handle guarding the three, or one of Hartley or Walker-Kimbrough will be able to guard a bigger player, but there are teams, such as the Sky with DeShields, or Minnesota and Napheesa Collier, where that seems unlikely to work well. Not to mention whatever kind of jumbo lineups Washington goes with, should Emma Meesseman make it over for the season.

If Taurasi is played at the 2, her natural position, that leaves Nia Coffey and Sophie Cunningham as the only two wings on the team. Modern basketball rewards having more wings, not fewer. Of course the Mercury were not going to get the kind of elite wings that have won championships in the past few years, such as Elena Delle Donne or Breanna Stewart, but I’m still confused as to their vision for this position. This is where the cost of giving Bria Hartley such a large deal comes in for me.

While based on pure production, Kahleah Copper’s contract was even less justified than Bria Hartley’s per herhoopstats, the reason I have Bria Hartley as least justifiable contract of this past offseason is because Copper is 6’1”, vs. Hartley’s 5’8”. Copper provides more defensive versatility, not to mention she is 2 years younger. Not that this was an option, but Copper on this roster makes a lot more sense.

Impossible to know if Skekinna Stricklen was open to going to Phoenix, but Stricklen is making $15,000 less this year than Hartley. Stricklen is a much better shooter, has the size to play the 3 and even some of the 4. While Stricklen is older, and not the swiftest on defense, she would have been a great fit on this roster. They are trying to win now. Brondello is a good enough coach to find a solution that I am not seeing. Let’s hope so, for the Mercury, cause Diamond Deshields ran them off the court twice in the final games last year, and I see little that changed.

Brianna Turner played fairly well towards the end of the year at the 4 for the Mercury, though she really plays like a 5, so I am penciling her in there. Alanna Smith was the Mercury’s 2019 number one draft pick, and Jessica Breland is there. Breland has the defensive reputation, though she had a rough year last year in Atlanta and at 32, may have lost a step. Alanna Smith provides the most shooting, based on college numbers, so may get a look at some point, since to maximize Griner one would want 4 shooters around her.

Phoenix has two positions sewn up, but a bunch of questions up and down the roster elsewhere. Diana Taurasi is one of the greatest players in WNBA history, but she is also turning 38 soon and coming off a year of injuries.  The lack of wings and 4s that complement Griner, make me skeptical of this team’s ceiling. Playoffs are doable, advancing will be a challenge. 

Grades for Tina Charles Trade

The Tina Charles trade was not unexpected, but many did seem surprised by the return the New York Liberty received. This year is going to provide at least some insight into whether Charles’ issues last year were a function of the players around her, particularly guard play, or if Charles is not the player she was, or some combination of both. I have combined the draft night New York Liberty trade with the Phoenix Mercury and the three team trade involving Tina Charles to cover all the recent transactions. I am writing as if this season is happening, as I so dearly hope it does.

For my trade grades, I grade as follows. 

A= great trade that the team clearly should do.

B= good trade that makes sense.

C= trade I would not have done, but not terrible.

D= Bad trade. 

Trade Details:

New York Liberty get: Tayler Hill, 2020 Aces (via Wings) No. 9 pick (Megan Walker), 2020 Mercury No. 10 pick (Jocelyn Willoughby) 2020 Mystics No. 12 pick (Jazmine Jones), 2020 No. 15 pick (Leaonna Odom), Mystics’ 2021 2nd and 3rd round picks. 

Washington Mystics get: Tina Charles

Dallas Wings get: Mystics’ 2021 first round pick, Liberty’s 2021 second rick pick. 

Phoenix Mercury get: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough

New York Liberty: A-   

Given the timelines for building a championship caliber team around Sabrina Ionescue and Charles’ remaining quality years, moving Charles makes a lot of sense. Charles had her worst season last year, posting career low numbers of efg% of 39% and a career low for win shares of -.01 both per Basketball Reference. Her production began to slide the year prior, when her rebound rate fell and turnover rate rose. Charles has been a great player, but is an unrestricted free agent after this year, and has not been nearly as good the last two years.

Given Charles struggles relative to her lofty standards, the Liberty did a good job collecting assets to help get players to put around Sabrina Ionescue. Tayler Hill will likely be bought out, coming off of a couple of injury plagued years and at a position the Liberty are now deep, given she was not particularly efficient even in her best years. The benefits are the draft picks. The Liberty will hopefully hit on at least one of the wings they took with the picks they got. Wing is a position that is hard to fill and is needed next to Ionescue. If 2 or 3 turn out to be rotation level players, or one blossoms into a solid No. 2 next to Ionescue, they will really have had a good trade.

If the Mystics can get Charles back closer to prime Charles, then the Liberty may have gotten too little in return. Then again, given how many good 4s and 5s there are around the league, it’s not clear anyone else was offering anything more. 

Washington Mystics: B-

If a fully healthy and present Mystics team were guaranteed, this would have been a c grade from me or maybe lower. However, given that Charles is a durable player and is guaranteed to be here in the US, Charles does provide insurance against Elene Delle Donne being injured, or Emma Meesseman not being able to play this season given travel restrictions around the coronavirus. Charles gives them someone who can soak up minutes and compete hard each night and which will benefit the Mystics in the regular season.

Playoffs are different. In a playoff matchup with their full team, I am concerned that the Mystics are giving up shooting and playmaking for inefficient post play. It will be harder to bench Charles in key moments, or play her fewer minutes in the playoffs, than it was Latoya Sanders. And at this point, Latoya Sanders provides more rim protection than Charles. Charles has preferred not to have to bang with bigger centers, like Griner and Cambage, so how will Washington play Meesseman, EDD, and Charles together? Meesseman at the 5 on D? That worked well enough last year, but only because of the advantages it brought on offense, advantages that will be lessened with Charles’ lack of shooting and playmaking from the perimeter. Big lineups will tower over other teams, but it will be interesting to see if there is enough space inside for EDD or Meeseeman to take advantage with Charles also on the floor.

A few seasons ago Charles showed some ability to shoot the 3, but topped out at 35% on low volume and declined from there the past two years. The WNBA is moving more and more towards shooting at four or five positions on the floor and more modern offenses (outside of the Aces, at least). If Charles has lost a step, and teams are moving towards more shooting, the league might be moving past her. It is hard to see how she will match up against Brenna Stewart and Natasha Howard and a Seattle team that is my favorite to win it all this year. To be clear, Charles should still be a good player, but there is a difference between a good power forward and 7x all star Tina Charles. 

Washington clearly hopes that they will be able to get more out of Tina given how much more shooting and effective guard play they have than last year’s Liberty. If she can use the added space on offense to improve her post efficiency, and/or shoot closer to that 35% mark from 3, this grade will be too low. I am so excited to see how this plays out, definitely a situation I would be happy to be wrong.

Dallas Wings:  B+

Giving up the 9th pick in this year’s draft for a likely slightly worse draft pick next year to salary dump Tayler Hill is a reasonable decision. It is unlikely that the Wings would have gotten a better deal. Especially given how many picks they had, and the roster crunch they will be facing, this is a deal that helped them punt some of the picks they had down the road. Tayler Hill was unlikely to be in their future plans, especially as they picked Arike Ogunbowale and Tyasha Harris in back to back drafts, along with signing Moriah Jefferson. 

Phoenix Mercury: C

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is more ready to contribute this season than Jocelyn Willoughby or whoever the Suns might have taken at 10 had they intended on keeping the pick.  A win now move makes sense, given even Diana Taurasi won’t play forever. However, given the curious signing of Bria Hartley, the presence of Diana Taurasi and Skyler Diggins-Smith, a bigger wing seems an area of need. Willoughby at 6’0” seems like she might have been more valuable than another guard shorter than 5’10”. Or who else was available, besides Walker-Kimbrough? Who are the Mercury starting at the 3 and 4 right now? Nia Coffey? Jessica Breland? Decent players, but interesting that the Mercury got another guard rather than wing, given the loss of DeWanna Bonner, who thrived at either 3 or 4 spot and was so important to the team.

Three guard lineups with Taurasi will work against quite a few teams, but interesting to see if that carries over to the playoffs when teams can more effectively target mismatches. Mercury are not known for developing young players. This is a case I would have liked them to try, especially since they will still have Griner to build around even once Taurasi retires.

WNBA Draft Board 2020

My first post on the WNBA. The goal with this blog is for there to be articles twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays. Please follow me on twitter on the right to debate my rankings.

The WNBA draft is happening tomorrow night on ESPN. Thankfully they moved it off of ESPN 2. As we all deal with the coranivirus pandemic, I am looking forward to the draft more than I have ever looked forward to any sporting event that was not an actual playoff game. I am excited to see these players start their professional careers, hopefully in 2020.

This is a list of my personal ranking of the players and where they are likely to be in 4 or 5 years in the WNBA. This does not take into account team needs. I tend to think teams should draft in tiers, only taking into account team needs between somewhat similar players, so I have grouped players in tiers. Stats for 2019 season and height from herhoopstats. If anyone knows where to find players’ wingspans, let me know. Wingspan matters when projecting defensive ability. 

Tier 1: Potential Franchise players.

1. Sabrina Ionescue

5’10” guard, Oregon (51.8 FG / 39.2 3PT / 92.1 FT)

 While there is a chance Satou Sabally has a better career in the W, Sabrina is the real deal. Pick and roll dynamo who can shoot 3s off the dribble with good efficiency. Really impressed with her improved finishing at the rim, something that really stood out in Oregon’s win over Team USA. There are some questions on how she will handle teams switching athletic 3s and 4s onto her 1 on 1. Shooting should allow her to be valuable off ball. Decent size and fight to at least hold her own on defense. 

2. Satou Sabally

6’4” wing, Oregon (46.4 FG / 33.8 3PT / 79.2 FT)

Big wing is the most valuable position in basketball, as they are the hardest to find and impact winning in so many different ways. For recent WNBA champions, each was led by someone who played on offense as a big wing. Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart and Elenna Delle Donne. Satou has all the tools and has shown the potential to be just this kind of franchise player. Good scorer at all levels, though more of an adequate 3 point shooter than a great one. 80% from the line is a good sign, as free throw shooting is more indicative of long term shooting ability than three point shooting. Fouls a fair amount and turns the ball over more than ideal, but both of those are paradoxically not bad signs for young players as both generally improve with experience. Not a liability defensively, though will be interesting to see whether she simply holds her own or is a plus in time on that end.

Tier 2: 1x or 2x all stars

3. Chennedy Carter

5’7” guard, Texas A&M (45.2 FG / 25.3 3PT / 72.9 FT) 

After big wing, the next most important position is shot creating guard, particularly one that can shoot from 3 off the dribble (see also, Sabrina Ionescu) This is a bet that Chennedy can be that kind of player. Is a better three point shooter than she showed this year, 35% over the course of her three years at Texas A & M. But she is a dynamic enough scorer she just needs to keep the defense honest with the 3, not be Allie Quigley. Undersized, can she guard other 2s or will she have to cross match with a bigger point guard. Or play point guard, which might be her best position long term. With W spacing and more talent around her, she certainly has the ability to be more of a passer and improve on her already pretty good 27% assist rate. Turns the ball over too much, though may be able to do less in the W than on a Texas A & M team that relied on her so much and raise her pedestrian 1.25 assist to turnover ratio.

Tier 3: Solid WNBA starters

4. Lauren Cox

6’4” big, Baylor (46.5 FG / 40.0 3PT / 62.5 FT)

Center is a position that it is hard to justify a high lottery pick with, unless the player can be an offensive hub a la Liz Cambage. Can she defend other 4s and shoot well enough to stretch the floor to play full time at the 4? There are competent centers who can finish at the rim and block shots to be had for relatively cheap in free agency and later in the draft. Look at the Sparks and how many centers they had last year. Lauren has some upside in this area of being a plus offensive player, if she improves her jumper and passing. Her floor is higher than many other players in this draft, but has less upside.

5. Bella Alarie

6’4” big/wing, Princeton (47.4 FG /35.6 3PT / 74.4 FT)

Alarie’s offense should translate. Good shooter, fluid ball handler for a big. Good shot blocker. Among the many losses of no March Madness this year is not seeing Alarie against better opponents, particularly on defense. She played well against Iowa, the best team Princeton faced this year, but more data points would have been great. Moves her feet well defending guards in space at the Ivy League, but may struggle in the W. Still, a lot of potential upside with her offensive ability and rim protection.

6. Kitija Laksa

6’0”, South Florida. (39.9 FG /38.2 3 PT / 96.5 FT)

Shooting shooting shooting. The WNBA is moving forward more and more with the realization that 3 > 2 each year. Seattle and Washington both one shooting the lights out, and Las Vegas showed the limits of talent and size overcoming a lack of shooting. Kitija Laksa is the best shooter in this class, when taking into account both volume and accuracy. Has some ball skills, isn’t just a stand still shooter. Decent size. Defense may not be a strength at first but has decent size. Allie Quigley but taller is a possibility. Needs to improve finishing and shooting in the paint.

Tier 4: Borderline starters, valuable backups

7. Ruthy Hebard

6’4” big, Oregon (68.5 FG / NA / 69.5 FT)

Being the third option on a loaded college team can create difficulties in projecting to the next level. Devin Booker the classic example from the men’s side of the game.  Hebard says she can shoot more than she has shown. Would be more valuable if she could even stretch out to 15 feet. Even without a shooting touch though, her elite efficiency at the rim stands out. Not the biggest center, but should be able to bang with bigger centers, a la Latoya Sanders. Not a back to the basket player, but given how much more efficient pick and roll is than posting up, used right could be a force. High to draft a center, but has a clearer path to effectiveness than players after this. 

8. Crystal Dangerfield

5’5” guard, UCONN (46.3 FG / 41.0 3PT / 86.0 FT)

Shoots and passes like a WNBA level point guard. Runs off screens well, knows how to set up bigger defenders and run them off of picks. Issues are size on defense and finishing over wnba length. Finishing an issue, though shows touch on floaters. Competes on defense and gets steals, but 5’5” is generous. Because of that, she is a floor raiser in the regular season and at worst a good back up point guard, but the question is if she is good enough to justify hiding her on defense, particularly in the playoffs when teams search out mismatches. 

9. Tyasha Harris

5’10” guard, South Carolina (42.6/38.4/85.7) 

Good at everything one wants from a point guard, but is she great at anything? Similar to Jasmine Thomas, at her peak. Career high 38% this past year from 3, up from 30% the prior 3 years. If that is real does provide the ability to play off ball. Is a good defender and has good size, could cross match and guard 2s to protect a smaller shooting guard teammate. Dangerfield has a longer history of shooting better. Harris has better assist numbers, but particularly this past year, much more dangerous teammates.  Basically a coin flip between the two with slight edge to Dangerfield’s ability to score off screens and be more dangerous on offense.

10. Megan Walker

6’0” wing, UCONN (47.7 FG /45.1 3PT / 82.1 FT)

    Similar to Laksa, her value will be shooting. But she took half as many attempts this past year as Laksa did in her most recent full NCAA season. Can she ramp up her shooting, especially off the dribble? Average at best athlete. Does she have the athleticism to hang on defense and attack off the dribble? May not be big enough to play more than spot minutes as a small ball 4, where UCONN played her quite a bit this past year. Though does fight and rebound fairly well at the 4.

11. Te’a Cooper

    5’8” guard, Baylor. (43.8 FG /41.5 3PT / 73.0 FT)

    Good defender against pgs, but may not have the size to defend bigger shooting guards. Good at the simple pass, but not an exceptional passer. Swing skill will be the 3 pointer, which was much improved this past year. Given average free throw shooting, might be closer to a low 30s three point shooter. Good burst, particularly in transition, but not a great finisher.

12. Beatrice Mompremier

Big 6’4”  (52.1 FG/ 30.8 3PtT / 70.5)

Has the potential to be an excellent center at the pro level. Will be helped if surrounded by shooting. Good shot blocker and rebounder. Too upright defending on the perimeter, gets blown by too easily. Could stand to improve finishing at the rim. Face up game only useful when she can use speed advantage, not much craft. Given that decent centers are easier to find,  taking a gamble on another wing might be a better use of draft pick in this range. 

Also receiving consideration:

Mikiah Herbert Harrigan big, South Carolina

Kiah Gillespie wing, Florida St.

Joyner Holmes big, Texas