WNBA Dissected: Stars growing through efficiency and more from 2021 Week 5
Players showing growth, whistles that need to be blown, voting that makes no sense and more from around the WNBA this week
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1. A Peek at Efficiency
If you've paid any attention to basketball in recent years - and if you haven't then how the hell did you end up here? - you'll have run into one particular word quite a lot: efficiency. While a lot of modern analytics have grown from the somehow startling realization that three is quite a bit more than two, on a more general basis it's been about being efficient. You get the right people to take the right shots at the right time and you maximize your chances to win games. Obviously it gets rather more complicated than that, but that's what it boils down to.
A couple of WNBA players in particular have illustrated how much improved efficiency can improve your success on the floor this season. For Tina Charles in Washington, it's been striking. It might be a couple of years since we've seen her play, but the memory of endless mid-range set-shots was still strong. Charles has obviously always been a very good player (you can’t win MVP if you’re not), but especially in her last couple of years in New York she looked a fading force. No longer willing to get down on the low block and fight for points inside - or maybe no longer capable - and without the range outside to make up for it, it seemed debatable whether she had much left in the tank. Then this season arrived, and the Thibaults got hold of her.
Through 10 games, Charles has taken 84 shots from inside eight feet, and 54 threes. That only leaves 56 shots - a mere 29% of her attempts - coming from anywhere else. By WNBA.com definitions it drops even lower, with only 42 of her attempts coming from 'mid-range' (22% of the total). In 2019, her last WNBA season, she took 185 from mid-range, 33% of her total attempts; the year before it was 159, for 29%. If you go back to her early days in New York, or even her seasons in Connecticut, where she wasn't shooting threes at all, the number of mid-rangers is similarly high.
This year she's been cutting out the mid-range, and it's been very effective. She's in the paint making the moves we all remember, helping lift her field goal percentage back from the .389 of her ugly final Liberty season to a respectable .448 this year, but vitally she's also stepping out beyond the arc. Her three-point attempt rate has leapt to .249 having never been higher than .156 in any previous season. She's right around league average in making them at .333, an area she already showed she could reach in previous years - only now she's shooting over five a game, rather than one or two. It's pushed measures of her overall performance like PER, true shooting percentage and win shares to levels we haven't seen in a decade, and helped carry Washington to being a near-.500 team even without Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman or Alysha Clark (or the several other players they lost in the offseason). She might even have played her way back into Olympic consideration, something which looked a longshot before the season began.
Also making changes for the better this year is the star performer in Atlanta, Courtney Williams. I've always been conflicted when watching Williams. She can be a glorious player to witness in action, leaping out of the gym to grab rebounds, rising like a salmon to knock down jumpers from above the fray. But then we came back to that awkward 'efficiency' concept. She was so in love with the mid-range jumper, and seemingly so reluctant to drive into contact, that she almost never went to the free throw line. Combined with a Charles-esque reluctance to step behind the three-point line, even when she appeared to have the range to hit from there, it meant that she was sometimes more style than substance. Everything looked great, but the underlying numbers showed a player closer to average than her obvious talent suggested should be the reality.
This year there's been a leap. The free throw rate, which for several years in Connecticut was so low as to threaten records for players with her level of attempts (and dropped back into that area again last year in the bubble), has ticked in the right direction. Meanwhile, someone seems to have convinced her that three is meaningfully more than two. She's taking 4.7 threes per game, a staggering jump for a player who had never averaged more than 1.8 threes per contest in any WNBA season. She's hitting a startling 44% of them, but even if that regresses to a more ordinary number it'll be key to expanding and improving her game. Even though she's been a little off from inside the arc this year - .402 from two-point range, the lowest figure of her career - that's been more than off-set by the triples. Even without Chennedy Carter on the court for much of the season to help draw defensive attention, and taking on a heavy load both in terms of minutes and in leading the Dream's offense, she's producing.
I'd still like to see Williams look for contact more than she does, rather than trying to avoid it. Playing alongside Tiffany Hayes, who's been a daring driver with a high free throw rate for her entire career, ought to offer a positive example. But it seems like coaching staffs (and maybe an occasional mathematician) are getting through to these players. Efficiency doesn't have to be a dirty word.
2. Blow the Damn Whistle
Now to a topic that I genuinely feel strongly about, rather than my general bluster in this space. The soccer world had a devastatingly scary moment this week, when Denmark's Christian Eriksen collapsed to the ground during a Euro 2020 match and had to be resuscitated via chest compressions and a defibrillator on the pitch. He survived and is now recovering in hospital, but one of the reasons for that was the quick reactions of both his teammates and the referee in charge of the game. Play was stopped immediately, and medical personnel were instantly waved onto the pitch to help him.
Would that happen in an NBA or WNBA game? The current impression is that it might not. Officials virtually never blow their whistles to stop the game due to injury, even if a player is writhing in obvious agony on the floor, or there's been clear contact to their head that should be checked immediately. We often see games go on for extended periods while waiting for a team to notice the injury and call timeout, or for someone to rush over and grab an opponent to commit an intentional foul. It feels like it's going to take something horrible for this situation to change - a serious injury that could've been helped with quicker treatment, or an injured player on the floor being caught up in play and either being hurt worse, or hurting someone else as well. We should be looking to fix this before that happens.
The rulebook already allows it. The section on Suspension of Play states that "An official can suspend play for retrieving an errant ball, resetting the timing devices, delay-of-game warning, inadvertent whistle, instant replay, a seriously injured player, or any other unusual circumstance." But officials don't stop play for injuries, presumably because they've been instructed to keep their threshold for 'serious injury' very high. We've seen play stopped constantly in recent years for video reviews of virtually everything, and yet unless there's some prospect of calling a flagrant foul or a technical, referees don't stop the game for people in obvious distress.
I appreciate that this system could be abused. As someone who watches a lot of soccer, I've seen plenty of play-acting and exaggeration over the years. But allow officials to use their discretion and a little common sense. You stop the game when there would be minimal advantage gained or lost, and everyone understands that the threshold for stopping the game would be higher in crucial situations. This isn't that complicated. These games already have so many stoppages that we've grown accustomed to. Accept that there might be a couple more occasionally, in return for protecting the health and safety of your players.
3. Nonsensical Graphics of the Week
Maybe I'm just continuing to attack a poor deceased horse at this point but, well:
That's a former WNBA MVP, who'll be on the USA team at the Olympic Games next month if she can get healthy, having her name misspelled two different ways simultaneously on a televised WNBA broadcast. Unreal.
That one narrowly beat out this gem from an Aces broadcast:
The information is actually wrong, given that they failed to include a Sparks-Lynx game from the previous night, but that's not the highlight. It's a graphic of how many Commissioner's Cup games teams have played, and how many they have left. So the second column, in every case, is obviously 10 minus the first column. What it fails to show in these 'standings', is any indication of how many times the teams have won or lost so far. Great. Helpful. Plus there's still that lovely box on the left where they've plopped the graphic in a box that's completely the wrong shape, so you can just about see that this might be the WNBA's Mission Cup.
4. Exercising your democratic right, sort of
The WNBA finally announced their All-Star Game this week, but for once I'm not blaming them for how long it took. That was likely caused by waiting on Team USA to finalize their plans for pre-Olympic camps and preparations, and having to work around that. The problem I have is with the bizarre and essentially pointless voting system they've come up with.
You can vote, for all of 12 days, for four backcourt and six frontcourt players. Those votes will count for 50% of the totals, with players and media splitting the remainder. Then you take the top 36 vote-getters, not counting the 12 who by that stage will have been named by Team USA to the American Olympic 5-on-5 roster, and the coaches get to decide which 12 of those 36 actually play for 'Team WNBA' against the US in the game.
It's thoroughly overcomplicated and means that the results of the fan vote are even less meaningful than in typical years. Not only does the public only contribute 50% of the totals, they also are only helping to assemble a pool of 36 from which the actual All-Star team will be picked. While All-Star is always mostly just about trying to engage the fans, it makes the whole thing seem like a bit of a waste of time. All the initial vote is doing is picking the top-48 players in the league (considering most of Team USA will be near the top). That’s an average of four players from every team in the league. You might as well just let the coaches pick from everybody, because you’d likely end up with the exact same result.
As with these unusual almost-all-star games in the past, it also leaves some confusion about who will actually count historically as having been an 'All-Star' in league and personal records. It shouldn't really matter, but these things get used to assess a player's performance and Hall of Fame credentials when their careers are over. So at least on some level, it matters a little.
5. Lineup Minutiae
Interesting times in New York, where they responded to an injury to Sabrina Ionescu not by promoting Jazmine Jones into the lineup, but by sliding Sami Whitcomb over to point guard and adding Rebecca Allen in as yet another switchy forward. Help from Betnijah Laney, still having an exceptional season alongside her, means that Whitcomb doesn't have to play a pure point role, but she's looked perfectly capable in the couple of games so far. It's perhaps more interesting from an international perspective than a WNBA one, because Whitcomb was left out of the Australian Opals squad for Tokyo in favor of Leilani Mitchell. Rules restrict teams to one naturalized player, so they can't take both, but the most obvious reason to prefer Mitchell was for her ability to run the team as well as shoot from outside. Whitcomb illustrating that she can play point as well - while Mitchell has lost her starting spot in Washington and barely hit a shot all season - suggests they might've made the wrong choice.
While they're continuing to win, Seattle is continuing to tinker. Outside of their big three of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird it's been something of a patchwork effort for the Storm this season, especially when going to their bench. Katie Lou Samuelson and Mercedes Russell appear cemented as the other starters, but Noelle Quinn seems to be trying to construct her rotations so that there are never too many bench players out there on their own. The trust in Jordin Canada seems to be dwindling, with backcourts that don't feature at least one of Bird or Loyd rare to see in recent games. It'll be interesting to see how this develops over the season and who is still in the rotation come the playoffs - especially as the Storm have a lot of impending free agents, and are going to have to decide how much their non-stars are worth paying in future years, if they're worth keeping at all.
On a general note, we're still seeing plenty of hardship exception players around the league due to injuries and absences. If you follow me on Twitter you may have already seen various updates on rules and regulations, but it seems worth adding here that there is no limit on hardship exceptions. You can be granted as many as necessary to get back up to 10 healthy and available players, and while the payments count against the salary cap, they also allow you to go over the cap to add them if necessary. At the same time, it's not a requirement to get up to 10 available bodies. All of these people cost money, and sometimes it might not be worth it to bring in someone as an insurance backup. Minnesota, with their recent raft of injuries, have been illustrating a lot of these points lately.
6. Clark's Corner
It took a lot to drag this honor away from a certain dirty-work Lynx wing this week (she'll likely appear here later in the season), but I love this set of three steals. The first and last clip are partly enabled by how poorly Phoenix have shot from three this season. Sami Whitcomb has no fear of leaving Megan Walker alone in the corner, despite how good of a passer Brittney Griner has become. But on all three, Whitcomb is quick and opportunistic, and creates a turnover. She's an underrated and pesky defender, and with Natasha Howard injured and very little size or interior presence without her, New York needs as many of those as they can get.
Of course, she also did all this in a game her team won by two, against a squad led by the coach who left her out of the Australian Olympic squad. So I'm sure it felt all the sweeter.