2020 WNBA Season Preview: Atlanta Dream

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

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

Roster breakdown

Notable additions:

Courtney Williams. Shekinna Stricklen. Glory Johnson

Notable losses:

Angel McCaughtry. Brittney Sykes. Jessica Breland. Alex Bentley 

Draft picks: 

1st round: Chennedy Carter

2nd round: Brittany Brewer

Projected depth chart:

Guards: Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams, Renee Montgomery. 

Wings: Tiffany Hayes, Shekinna Stricklen

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

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

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

Playing time breakdown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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