Alissa Pili is 1-of-1 — Alicia Berber, Cheryl Miller talk Riverside CC scandals

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Dec. 13, 2023

Q: Why isn’t there a WNBA comp for Utah sensation Alissa Pili?

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A: Because Alyssa Thomas doesn’t shoot threes.

Seriously, though, it’s been hard for me to fathom, over the past two years, how there isn’t more WNBA draft buzz around Pili. (This isn’t retrospective; I am on the record about this.) And it seems as if Sunday changed that conversation, in ways that are often ascribed to single games but rarely do.

Generally speaking, teams are making choices based on a collective gathering of data, combining in-person scouting with statistical patterns and extensive interviewing of the player and those around her.

But three different WNBA front office executives told me they’d reconsidered how to rank Pili after she scored 37 points, facing Kamilla Cardoso and the top-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks.

“You have to,” one texted me. “Her ceiling just changed.”

This is a reasonable conclusion. Cardoso is a certain WNBA pro, 6’7 with a pro body already, an obvious first-round pick in the 2024 draft. And she simply couldn’t slow Pili down, not only on the perimeter, where Pili had the quickness advantage, but under the basket as well, despite Cardoso’s five inches on Pili.

“What Pili does is transferable,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said of Pili’s prospects, speaking with reporters during the tripleheader at Mohegan Sun on Sunday (truly an elite event). “She’s going to be efficient at the next level shooting. You can’t stop her — like, it’s impossible to stop her — but she’s got to have a bad night and probably a bad night is her shooting 60%.”

Pili shot 15-for-23 on Sunday, her second straight 30-plus-point performance since her teammate Gianna Kneepkens went down for the season with a knee injury. For other teams, losing Kneepkens would itself be a season-ender for title hopes, but the Utes played the Gamecocks close throughout and remain a contender. Part of that is the supporting cast for head coach Lynne Roberts. But the biggest part by far is Pili.

“If anyone has questioned or doubted how good Alissa Pili is, I think today showed that she’s the best player in the country,” Roberts said on Sunday. “And I don’t say that lightly. She’s just unbelievable, you know, and she’ll play at the next level.”

When I say there’s no comp for Pili, it isn’t just the shape of her game — an ability to hit more than 40% of her threes; an endless array of post moves that allow her to finish around other, taller bigs; a tremendous capacity for rebounds (from hands her coach lovingly describes as “these big mitts”); and an elite ability to both pass and avoid turnovers. It’s that seeing her, a pinball with Inspector Gadget arms (I have asked Utah’s all-American SID Corie Sue Holmes for her wingspan and will share as soon as they measure her), is unlike any experience anyone can name.

It’s why everyone keeps trying. Swin Cash, who’s seen a game or two in her time, gave it a shot:

Not bad! But Le’coe only added the three late in her career, and only shot it like Pili does in one season, that 2010 Seattle Storm campaign that won both Willingham and Cash a WNBA title. Pili comes to the league in April ready to do this immediately. Nor was Willingham the passer Pili is.

The ceiling is not role player. It’s much higher than that. An Alyssa Thomas who shoots threes? Well, an Alyssa Thomas that doesn’t shoot threes just earned First Team All-WNBA honors.

“For me, there’s no doubt that she’s going to play in the W,” Roberts said of Pili. “I’ve been asked, who would she guard in the WNBA? And my question is, who’s gonna guard her? You know, the object of the game is to score more points than the team you’re playing. She’s the best at it.”

She’s also, it must be said, a critical part of Utah’s defense. Her steal percentage is 2.6. She’s managing a block percentage of 4.2 without living traditionally as a five does, under the basket. That’s beyond the steals and blocks numbers Thomas herself reached in any season at Maryland.

“I think whoever it gets her is going to be so relieved that they that they did it,” Roberts continued. “She’s a unicorn. So it’s a little bit, not the prototype, but I’m telling you, she’s the real deal.”

Her performance Sunday earned her many more believers.

This week in women’s basketball

Great stuff from Jackie Powell (that’s redundant, of course) on the paradox of international players in the WNBA.

How Arizona got back on track, from PJ Brown.

Great news, Angel McCoughtry is playing again! Athletes Unlimited continues to be intriguing.

Southern Miss’ head coach has been through a lot recently. Thoughts are with her.

Tony East was in the room with the Indiana Fever when they earned the top overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

Five at The IX: Alicia Berber, Cheryl Miller

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
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By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.