WNBA Dissected: Third-year bigs who have to deliver and more from 2021 Week 2
Discussing McCowan, Turner, injuries, surprising contract decisions and excellent vision from around the WNBA this week
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1. Third year's the charm?
You aren't given a lot of time to prove yourself in the WNBA. If you don't look useful pretty quickly you'll be shown the door, and it can be very hard to fight your way back through. If you're a first-round pick, you usually get a couple of years at least. You're expected to make strides in that second season when you know what the pro game is all about, and you've had an offseason either overseas or in the gym to develop at the new level. By year three, you better be able to produce if you want to start earning that second contract, and no one gives much of a damn where you were drafted anymore. Two posts have taken different paths to where they are now in the early stages of their third seasons, and are still trying to show exactly what they can be at this level.
Teaira McCowan was a tantalizing prospect coming out of Mississippi State. While the global game of basketball might have been trending towards smaller frontcourts and more positionless systems, the WNBA still featured dominant centers like Fowles, Griner and Cambage who were hard to ignore and very difficult to deal with if you didn't have one of your own. So at 6-7 and almost impossible to move when she doesn't want to, McCowan seemed like an answer - even if there was work to do on her ball-skills and consistency. Indiana Fever fans felt like they had a cornerstone piece to build around for their future.
By contrast, there were a lot of questions about Brianna Turner's prospects coming out of Notre Dame. She had an impressive college career but at 6-3 and with limited offensive skills away from the basket, people weren't sure whether she was big enough to play center or skilled enough to be a modern power forward. Hence posts like Kalani Brown, Alanna Smith and Kristine Anigwe were all selected ahead of her, and even once Turner was selected at No. 11 she was immediately traded to Phoenix for Marie Gülich.
On Fever teams that were bad when she arrived and have generally gotten worse since then, McCowan largely remains a tantalizing prospect. There are stretches in games where she looks practically unguardable. So big and strong inside that you can't stop her from barrelling her way to the rim, and even if she misses the finish it'll just mean an extra offensive rebound on her numbers before it goes in on the follow. It’s not against the greatest defense you’ll ever see, but look at this vs New York this season, and just how easy it is:
However, there are also the games - often the very next one - where McCowan disappears off the face of the Earth. You look at the boxscore and see a similar number of minutes, but only four shots, and wonder how a 6-7 behemoth could've been on the floor for much of the night without you noticing. We've honestly been watching this with McCowan for three years and it's startling how little has changed. When she was a rookie it seemed promising - the good games were signs of what she could be in the future when she settled and could do it night-in and night-out. After three years of the same stuff, you have to wonder when, or if, the consistency will ever arrive.
Turner's path was rather different. She didn't play much initially - typical of rookies under Sandy Brondello - but clawed her way into meaningful minutes on a fairly mediocre team by midseason. Even then, they kept her role very simple - play some defense, grab some rebounds, and don't get in the way while Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner shoot. Last season wasn't expected to be hugely different, even as a regular starter. She really broke out when Griner left the WNBA bubble after 12 games, pushing Turner into a more important role in the middle of the Mercury defense. She averaged over 12 rebounds per game in the remaining 10 regular-season contests (and had 25 rebounds total in their two playoff games), impressing enough to make the All-Defensive first team and be considered by many as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Defense has been a rather less positive element of McCowan's story. Her size obviously offers a level of intimidation that you see from any of the post giants, but moving her feet lightly and quickly enough to deal with pick-and-rolls or driving guards can be a problem. She's hardly alone - Griner, despite her massive and immediate impact as a post intimidator, took a while to learn how to handle the pick-and-roll on the pro level. However, three years in and McCowan's still sometimes something of a stationary target. That's also a part of what's led to her inconsistent minutes in the WNBA, because when opponents are successfully picking on her, coaches feel like they have to pull her from the game. You might be able to live with some inconsistent offense or an occasional defensive breakdown, but when either keeps happening then teams will look for alternative options.
Turner, meanwhile, has looked impressive in early games this season. She doesn't seem like a natural fit next to Griner - the more obvious modern option would be a forward who could stretch the floor and leave the paint as open as possible for Griner to operate - but Turner has found ways to be effective. She's improved as a passer, and she keeps her eyes open and her hands up while cutting hard to the rim when opportunities present themselves. Her constant energy and willingness to fight for rebounds have helped fill for some of the deficiencies in Griner's game, and you rarely notice the floor being cramped by there not being a fourth shooter on the floor around the perimeter.
Both of these players are still only 24 years old. There is still plenty of room for them to develop, whether for their current franchises or somewhere else. It would be fascinating to see how they would fare in different situations - Turner as a regular starting center on a non-Griner team, or McCowan on a more talented team with different targets and requirements, for example. To be fair to McCowan, the lower expectations placed on a player like Turner when coming into the league means she’s had to achieve far less to feel like a success story than McCowan would have. Neither is likely to be out of the league any time soon, but they're heading towards the end of those rookie-scale deals. Expectations only get higher once you start being seen as a veteran.
2. The Eyes Have It
Two plays here, one from the oldest player in the league, one from a youngster (who might be her heir apparent with Team USA). I love them because it's all about the eye-contact before the pass, not the actual pass.
Look at that from Bird. Clocks the defender facing the wrong way, catches the eye of her superstar teammate, little head-nod, cut, bucket.
This is a little different, but only because the ball's in play and there was no need for the nod. Ionescu and Howard look at each other, read the play, Howard cuts behind the defender and it's over. Vision is everything in basketball, in many ways.
3. Does not compute
For those of you who follow me on Twitter - and if not, why not? - you may have already seen this tidbit earlier this week:
Now, this isn't particularly Earth-shattering news. No one ever claimed it was. Anigwe’s probably going to be done in Dallas shortly (discussed further in Lineup Minutiae below), while Cunningham and Smith have been fringe rotation players in Phoenix for their 2+ WNBA seasons, without ever shooting particularly well or being able to cement consistent minutes. However, the Mercury decisions are still interesting and something of a surprise.
Every drafted player signs a rookie-scale contract coming into the league, which covers three non-guaranteed seasons followed by a team-option for a fourth. The decision on that option has to be made by the early stages of the player's third season, but because the fourth year has always been non-guaranteed it's rare that a player who's survived on a roster that long will not see their option exercised. There's very little downside for the team because the player can still just be waived whenever necessary for no cost.
This is, however, about to change. One little line was added to the WNBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement when the new version was signed in 2020, lost amongst all the headline news. It says that fourth-year options, if exercised, will now "be fully protected for lack of skill and injury or illness". In other words, those fourth years now become guaranteed money that a team can't just cut and forget if they later decide they don't want to keep the player after all. But this only applies to rookie-scale contracts signed after that new CBA was signed - so it begins with the Ionescu-led 2020 class whose options will be decided over the upcoming year. Cunningham and Smith, drafted in 2019, would have been on a non-guaranteed contracts for 2022, enabling Phoenix to control their rights without being committed to keeping them for that year. So one explanation for the Mercury decisions is that they erroneously thought the Cunningham/Smith options fell under the new rule and didn't want to be locked in to guaranteed money.
The other most likely explanation is that they're just not particularly attached to either player after a couple of unspectacular seasons (although if that's the case, you might've expected them to look harder for replacements in the offseason). The Mercury are already very close to the salary cap for next season, and that's without factoring in any effort to re-sign impending restricted free agent Kia Nurse. The options for Cunningham and Smith would ultimately have been for $72,141 (the minimum for players with 3 or more years of WNBA experience), but they may well be hoping to fill those slots with players on next year’s lower minimum of $60,471.
Of course, Cunningham and Smith might've had a little trade value, or could've just been waived later if the Mercury ultimately needed the cap space. They'll now automatically become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.
4. The pain, the pain!
Every damn year. Every single season injuries play a part in the destination of the WNBA championship and have a significant impact on whose performances we get to enjoy along the way. It never takes long for us to be reminded of this fact, and this year is already no different. We lost the likes of Alyssa Thomas, Angel McCoughtry and Alysha Clark before the season had even started, and then this week players seemed to be dropping like flies. Diana Taurasi was ruled out for a month with a sternum injury she'd already played through for a couple of games, Natasha Howard's MCL sprain has her expected to miss 4-6 weeks, Jasmine Walker limped out of a game with what proved to be a torn ACL and there are a host more who've missed games for a variety of ailments. It's really a shame.
Some of this is the workload we often talk about in women's basketball. Many of these players go overseas during the WNBA offseason and essentially play year-round, which inevitably has damaging effects on the body and makes injuries more likely. However, maybe we should've expected this in 2021 in particular. Last year's WNBA season was intense and late, so anyone who went overseas was cramming games into an even tighter window. Also, the effects of Covid-19 meant that many players weren't able to train or condition themselves as well as they would in normal years, so maybe more of them breaking down was somewhat inevitable.
There's not an enormous amount we can do about it. Everyone wants the players to be paid more, and therefore - in the WNBA's ideal world - play only in the US. However, when the WNBA season is only four months long and there are still well-paid opportunities in other countries, I'm unconvinced that they'd all stay home anyway. More of them would see it as a viable option, but these are professional basketball players - a lot of them don't want to stop playing basketball competitively for seven or eight months of the year. Especially when they can be well-compensated to play somewhere else. There's also the fact that several of the players who've missed time this year were among the ones who stayed home in the offseason (Taurasi, McCoughtry, Candace Parker, Aerial Powers, Elena Delle Donne). Sometimes it's just bad luck, wear-and-tear, or aging limbs.
Let's just hope that I don't have to write this section again too many times this season.
5. It's basketball, but not as we know it
By the time you're reading this, we'll be two-and-a-half days into the FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifier, but there's still time to catch the vital closing stages. Representing Team USA, Kelsey Plum, Allisha Gray, Katie Lou Samuelson and Stefanie Dolson had an easy win over Indonesia to open their tournament on Thursday, before a tough 21-17 win over a strong French team. Their remaining group games are Saturday, before all the vital knock-out games on Sunday. Only two teams go through from each group, and with Satou Sabally’s Germany in the pool with France and the US, someone strong is heading out before they even hit the quarter-finals.
Only three Olympic berths are available for each gender in this tournament, so it's the winners of the semi-finals and the third-place playoff that will be celebrating (they're not even going to bother playing a final). All available live and free via FIBA's 3x3 YouTube channel (although for once it's you in the US who have to be awake at some unusual times to catch the entertainment - games have been starting at 5am Eastern and running all day, although you can lie-in until 6.45am on Sunday).
6. Lineup Minutiae
This week we're going to focus more on upcoming decisions than moves coaches have already made (like Leilani Mitchell being benched for Sydney Wiese in Washington, or Kylee Shook being ahead of Kiah Stokes in the rotation in New York, or the revolving post options next to Breanna Stewart in Seattle).
Once the 3x3 Olympic Qualifier is over, a couple of teams are going to have some decisions to make. Dallas currently has 14 players under contract, which means that once Allisha Gray and Satou Sabally return, two of the 14 will have to go. Originally, the most likely choices seemed like Kristine Anigwe and Dana Evans. Anigwe was a late pickup off waivers, and appeared to be a temporary fill-in down low while they waited for Sabally and rookie Awak Kuier to be available. Evans unexpectedly fell to them at #13 in the draft and started the season third on the depth-chart at point guard (maybe lower). However, Anigwe's been given some actual playing time, sometimes ahead of last year's No. 5 overall pick Bella Alarie, and Evans has seen the floor in recent games as well (often ahead of this year's No. 5 Chelsea Dungee).
Anigwe and Evans still seem the most likely, but Alarie's continued to struggle badly on offense whenever given a chance (2 points this season in 25 minutes), and Moriah Jefferson was either benched or injured when Evans played instead of her for a couple of games, depending on which report you read on which day. Cutting Jefferson would be very expensive after giving her a three-year guaranteed contract before last season, but she might be open to discussing a buyout (although as of last night, she’s back in as a starter). Moving on from Alarie this soon would be a surprise, but not a complete shock at this point. I've also seen Dungee suggested, and she’s barely played at all, but cutting the No. 5 pick barely two months after selecting her would probably be too embarrassing for any front office to swallow. If for whatever reason they wanted to, I'd expect them to find some kind of trade for her.
When Samuelson returns, Seattle will also have to make a move to create room. The most likely option appeared to be releasing rookie point guard Kiana Williams, who's seen minimal action so far, and even when she's played it's often been off the ball while someone else actually runs the point. Then last night the Storm announced that Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who’s played 73 seconds this year in one appearance, is pregnant and will miss the rest of the 2021 season. While they may want an extra post as insurance at some point, for now that probably saves Williams. The Storm can temporarily suspend Herbert Harrigan (don’t worry, she still gets paid in full) and keep the remaining 12 players on their active roster.
7. Clark's Corner
Alternative title for the concluding section this week was "Dream a Little Dream of We". Atlanta isn’t what I'd call a good team at this point, but they are pesky. They seem like they'd be annoying to play against because they're quick and aggressive. But they also have the second lowest team assist percentage in the league so far this season, which isn't a huge surprise considering the number of ballhandling scorers on their roster. However, in their last couple of games it's felt like there's been some chemistry building, and we've seen some plays like the one below. When you make the extra pass, turn down a good look for a great look, positive things tend to happen.
That's teamwork. When you work as a unit, rather than as a bunch of talented individuals, basketball tends to run more smoothly. The Dream are far from the finished article, but there are signs of progress. It's a start.