The W Dozen, 2020 Week 1: Rise of the Little Big Women
A weekly column covering 12 interesting tidbits from around the WNBA
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Introducing the reintroduction of a weekly column that used to appear at WNBAlien many moons ago: 12 items, issues, events and quirks from around the WNBA which have piqued my interest this week. You may well disagree with some or even several, but hopefully you'll at least be entertained.
1. Small bigs coming up huge
If you pay even cursory attention to men's basketball you'll have seen a shift in recent times towards 'small ball'. If you're a true center and you want to continue getting paid in the NBA you better be able to protect the rim, and you should probably get used to coming off the bench and start practicing your threes. Power forwards these days are really just wings who can stand up straight somewhere near the basket. However, the women's game and the WNBA have largely avoided these shifts, or at least not embraced them to the same extent. We still have centers like Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles and Liz Cambage who do all their best work in the low-post; genuine combo-forwards are rare, and if you're going to be playing the 4 you better be able to switch at least a little with the 5 and guard those centers when necessary.
But - and this is going to become a theme over the course of this bizarre and unusual season - when some players drop out, others are going to step up and impress. And in an opening weekend that featured a lot of high-paced, end-to-end basketball, many of those players were those 4s-who-look-like-3s. With Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles and LaToya Sanders opting out, Myisha Hines-Allen grabbed her opportunity with both hands, showing an array of off-the-dribble moves, outside shooting, and her more established brand of hard-work production inside.
On Sunday, with Jessica Breland traded away and both Glory Johnson and Kalani Brown in quarantine, Monique Billings produced a very similar trick for Atlanta, exploding for 30 points, 13 rebounds and a couple of highlight-reel blocks. She and Hines-Allen have had similar roles in prior years - limited minutes off the bench, expected to provide an injection of energy and effort when called upon. Given greater responsibility on the opening weekend in 2020 - in many ways because their coaches ran out of alternatives - they showed what they might be capable of if given greater opportunity. And before anyone points it out, I know the Dream list Billings at 6-4. It looks significantly generous.
Talking about 'small' 4s who impressed over the weekend, Alyssa Thomas looked like an MVP candidate before the Connecticut Sun faded down the stretch against Minnesota. She's the textbook example of a player who fell into her spot at the 4 - after several fairly mediocre years as a small forward - due to injuries forcing a coach's hands. Meanwhile, with Marie Gulich out and Chiney Ogwumike at home, Seimone Augustus even played some small-ball 4 in a successful debut with Los Angeles.
So I'm not saying the true power forward is dead in the WNBA. Several teams did pretty well in their opening games with two bigs playing most of the game. But there are smaller, quicker, multi-faceted forwards who can at least survive defensively at the 4 if their coaches are willing to give them the chance. And this weekend it was very entertaining seeing them produce.
2. Mercury thirds in retrograde
Live on ABC on Saturday, the Phoenix Mercury lost the third quarter 30-8 and turned a tight game into a blowout defeat. In and of itself, this is no big deal. One game, brush it off and move on. But it brought back memories of last season for me, so who knows what it did to Sandy Brondello and the Mercury faithful. In 2019, the Mercury were 5th in the WNBA in net rating in first-halves, with a fairly mediocre +2.6. They were second in the league in fourth-quarters, at +7.5. But in third-quarters they were a staggering -17.1, just barely above the miserable 2019 New York Liberty. They even carried it into the playoffs when a poor third-quarter let Chicago break away and knock them out.
Going back to previous seasons, the numbers don't suggest that this third-quarter curse has been a long-term thing, so Brondello may have been hoping that it would just disappear in 2020. The collapse against LA was not a positive sign. Whether it's doing something different at halftime or sacrificing a chicken to Jobu, the Mercury need to fix their 3rd-quarter issues as quickly as possible.
3. Holy Overreacting, Batman!
Having just spent several paragraphs inspired by single-game events, this is your reminder that all this is Small Sample Size Theatre. With only 22 games in the regular season this year we're probably going to have to accept some trends more quickly than usual, but give it a little time before you go nuts. A team isn't necessarily terrible after one bad loss, and a rookie isn't taking over the world just yet if they put up 20 and 10. That said, one thing deserved all the reaction it got...
4. Wax on, wax off
I tweet quite a bit during WNBA games, and try to be vaguely entertaining or informative (come join the madness at @RichardCohen1 if you so desire). But one particular message this weekend drew far more attention than all the others. As one person replied: No Mercy!
5. Hammer time
Only one of the six weekend games was genuinely close, and no long-time WNBA fan could possibly have been surprised to see Allie Quigley hit the game-winning shot. What was really fun was how they got there. The Sky's head coach is James Wade, who spent several years working in San Antonio as an assistant with the Stars. They were the sister team of an occasionally successful men's team you might’ve heard of called the San Antonio Spurs. A team that had an action called the 'hammer' play which they repeatedly ran to great success. Named after former NBA player and current Milwaukee Bucks assistant Darvin Ham, the hammer involves a cross-court pass along the baseline to a player cutting off a back screen to the far corner, as this video illustrates:
Here are the Spurs themselves running it:
Cut to many years later in Chicago (well, actually in Bradenton, Florida), and see if you recognize anything:
The weak-side screen from Dolson that's meant to spring Quigley into space doesn’t entirely work, because Jackie Young does a nice job of fighting around the pick and recovering to Quigley in time. Unfortunately for Young, Quigley is good enough to fake, step aside, and nail the three under heavy pressure. At the end, you can see a little hand wave from Young as if to say "what the hell else was I supposed to do?"
6. Oh Dear-ica
Meanwhile, from four minutes earlier in the same game, a less impressive moment:
That's a flop, ladies and gentlemen. That's a flop so egregious that it could be seen from space, never mind from five yards away where referee Dannica Mosher was watching and called a charge. Dearica Hamby was immediately subbed out by Bill Laimbeer, possibly to congratulate her on pulling it off and somehow getting the call.
7. Messages, and how they get lost
On a far more serious note, we all know by now that this WNBA season is being devoted to the Black Lives Matter movement and causes that deserve to have more attention brought to them. That led, among other things, to the Black Lives Matter/Say Her Name t-shirts that were being worn in pre-game and on the sidelines, and to the players choosing to walk back to the locker room before the national anthem was played rather than stand on-court. Sadly, that led to controversy when it was reported as players "walking off during the anthem" (which was untrue).
The problem is that so many people are looking for reasons to be offended and hoping for something to complain about, rather than having any interest in hearing the whole story. Perhaps in some ways, it's good that people are paying enough attention to the WNBA that their actions are causing some waves, but the media also has to be careful in how they report these events. Otherwise the message gets lost along the way, and then no one ends up gaining anything from all the energy being put behind this season's efforts.
On a tiny rule-minutia note - which you'll be aware, if you've read my content before, is part of my brand - the players may technically be breaking a WNBA rule even by walking off before the anthem is played. The action felt like a compromise in the first place - sending a message, but also avoiding the image of everyone kneeling before the game (or pressuring anyone into kneeling who didn't want to). However, the official line in the 2020 WNBA Rule Book reads:
There's not really any equivocation or wiggle room there. I'm not remotely expecting the league to make an issue out of it, or to start fining anyone, but it's interesting that the rule is still there and being ignored. Maybe they'll quietly delete the line at some point or even, horror of horrors, stop playing the national anthem at sporting events where no one is representing their country anyway.
8. Sweet Fantasy
For the first time in well over a decade, I'm in a fantasy WNBA league this year. Fantasy sports and gambling is an area where the WNBA has needed to take more advantage for a long time, so it's a shame that we can't play anything via their official site (and that 'pick one player per day' game they used to run was a dismal excuse for fantasy sports anyway). Fortunately, sites like Sports.ws have stepped in to fill the gap. However, I can't say I genuinely recommend it. Watch this play below:
I happen to have Kelsey Mitchell on my fantasy team, and also happened to have the boxscore for the game up when this bucket went in. Julie Allemand's three was added but Mitchell didn't get the assist, and frankly I was horrified. If you check the play-by-play now, they ultimately added it, but that doesn't take away those seconds of feeling utterly cheated. I’m by no means blaming Sports.ws - there’ve been a host of stat and box score issues already this season and all they’re doing is accepting the feed. But even if I win this league, which let's face it is unlikely, I'm not sure it'll be worth the stress.
9. Lineup Minutiae
Again, long-time readers will know that this stuff fascinates me, so an assortment of interesting lineup or matchup decisions made by the coaches across the opening games:
For all their rookies, New York went with the most veteran starting lineup they could possibly offer to surround Sabrina Ionescu and help her out. Of course, when you have seven rookies on your roster, that means you're going to have a very inexperienced bench. Expect heavy growing pains with the Liberty this year.
Phoenix and LA both have three very obvious starters, and two less certain spots. The Sparks went with Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Riquna Williams, which makes sense given they were the people in possession of the spots from last season. Ruffin-Pratt in particular will have a role as the defensive stopper when LA needs someone to guard the best opposing perimeter player. Brittney Sykes and Seimone Augustus could both be alternative options to Williams at some point. Phoenix started Nia Coffey and Brianna Turner, although Coffey played very limited minutes (and was replaced by Shatori Walker-Kimbrough on Wednesday night). It wouldn't be a surprise to see Brondello play around with that wing starter spot all season.
Marianne Stanley went with the veteran pair of Candice Dupree and Natalie Achonwa in her opening games as Indiana Fever head coach, leaving Teaira McCowan on the bench and disappointing many fans. Even more disappointingly, when McCowan did play on Saturday, she didn't do anything to make Stanley look bad for that decision. Fortunately there was significant improvement last night.
In the absence of Odyssey Sims, Minnesota started Lexie Brown and Shenise Johnson in their backcourt. Brown might be listed in some places as the point guard, but it was largely Johnson who brought the ball up the court and acted as the primary initiator. Rachel Banham did some of that as well, before Crystal Dangerfield performed so well in the second half of their opener that the fourth-quarter point guard decision was made easy for Cheryl Reeve. Perimeter minutes in Minnesota are going to be a patchwork of options this season on a game-by-game basis.
Injuries and illnesses obviously affected a whole variety of lineup choices. Most notably in Chicago, Diamond DeShields came off the bench for only the second time in her career due to knee inflammation, and didn't look like herself in the minutes she played. Kahleah Copper and Gabby Williams are better backup options than many teams would have, but the Sky will be anxious to get DeShields back to full fitness as quickly as possible. She did look a little better on Tuesday night, so hopefully she’s on an upward curve.
Finally, do we have a point guard controversy bubbling in Dallas already? Veteran (and very well paid) addition Moriah Jefferson has started so far for the Wings, but rookie Tyasha Harris already looked a calming and stabilizing influence when Arike Ogunbowale would let her have the ball.
10. Follow the money
I seem to have become a WNBA salaries guy, one way or another, so inevitably when I heard about Kyrie Irving committing $1.5 million to help supplement the income of WNBA players who opted out of the 2020 season, I did the math. It depends on who is allowed to count - did Maria Vadeeva or JiSu Park opt out or just not show up? Did Kiah Gillespie opt out or agree to be suspended rather than cut? Does Natasha Cloud get to claim more money when Converse already said they'd cover her salary? - but I estimate it’s about $1 million in total salary that players gave up. So Kyrie may get a fair chunk of his money back.
Regardless, it's a nice gesture from Irving. NBA players have always been some of the strongest supporters of the WNBA, recognizing the skill and talent of the players more than the average man on the street. If more of them could use their considerable wealth to get involved on the business side of the WNBA in future, as Baron Davis suggested he might, it would likely only be a positive for the league.
11. Knees and ankles and backs, oh my
It’s been somewhat forgotten amid the pandemic and the stress of getting the season started in any form, but success in the WNBA is always heavily affected by injuries. We’d already been reminded of it by DeShields struggling with her knee, Tianna Hawkins fighting a lumbar sprain in her back and various other players around the league battling minor issues. Then Karima Christmas-Kelly went down on Tuesday night with what was later confirmed as a ruptured Achilles, sadly adding another entry to the long list of injuries she’s had to recover from over the last three years.
This is why the best teams are often the deepest, and the ones that win titles are frequently the teams that stayed the healthiest over the course of the season. We don’t know exactly how the strange circumstances of the 2020 season are going to affect players. Some of the vets have just had their longest break from playing in years, but did they use that to get in great shape, or to eat every cake they could lay their hands on? The majority of games this season are going to be played on just one day’s rest, with 22 games crammed into 50 days, but is that more or less important than the lack of air travel required to get to them? All these things could affect the frequency and severity of injuries, even if a lot of it simply comes down to dumb luck.
Regardless of the how and the why and the who, the chances are that health is going to play a role in the destination of the 2020 WNBA championship.
12. Be still, my beating Clark
She's only this far down the list because I'm inevitably going to talk about her again later on this season. Alysha Clark is so freaking good. The absolute consummate role player, she only brings things to the table without taking anything off. She'll happily defend the opposition's best wing (very effectively) while standing in the corner and never touching the ball on offense if that's what you need her to do. Her shot chart is constantly like something out of the Houston Rockets handbook - threes, layups and free throws, for the most efficient production available.
Then there are my most beloved Clark moments. On a team with so much offensive talent, opposing teams often try to get away with hiding one of their weakest defenders on her. Frequently, that's a small guard. But Alysha Clark both works hard on her game, and led the nation in scoring as a post in college. You're not getting away with that against Alysha Clark. The Storm will see the mismatch, clear out the post, and things like this will happen:
Welcome to the WNBA, Sabrina.