Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 20, 2020

The funnel shrinks — Sydney Wiese talks contract extension — Must-click women's basketball links

(Hi! Howard Megdal here. The IX helps build the necessary infrastructure for women’s sports media. In this moment, freelance budgets are being cut, reporters are losing their jobs. Women’s sports always bears the brunt of that first.

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The funnel shrinks

I remember the latter stages of a preseason game back in 2018 between the New York Liberty and the Dallas Wings, watching a rookie center named Mercedes Russell getting a ton of floor time for Katie Smith’s team.

It piqued my curiosity — the Liberty had a stacked frontcourt filled with returnees, so I wondered why Russell was getting that time.

Smith explained to me that it wasn’t about the possibility of Russell remaining on the team once everyone returned from overseas, as she ultimately didn’t — getting cut after two games. It was about making sure other teams had a chance to see Russell, and for Russell to get the opportunity to prove herself.

She showed enough that when Seattle needed a big a few weeks later, the Storm signed her. A few months later, Mercedes Russell was a WNBA champion, and by 2020, Dan Hughes views her as a vital part of the team’s rotation.

This is not a criticism of the WNBA’s decision to push teams to cut down to 12 players by May 26, ahead of paying players beginning June 1. It is the responsible thing for both sides to do — for the WNBPA, to assure paychecks for the lion’s share of its membership, and for the league, to stand by its lifeblood and continue the goodwill that helped forge labor peace and a landmark new partnership between the two sides.

But it is also an unwelcome reminder of just how exclusive a club this league is. A men’s pipeline that includes 15 roster spots per team, 30 teams, not to mention hundreds more within a G League designed to keep players here and developing absolutely dwarfs the WNBA 12-to-a-team. And that is before accounting for the number of WNBA teams who have top-heavy payrolls and made the decision to play with 11. It’s not 144, though you hear that number often, it’s almost certainly going to be less than 140 by the time final rosters are announced.

Another quiet conversation I remember having: this one, earlier this year, with Rider women’s basketball coach Lynn Milligan. I’d gotten my first live look at Stella Johnson, and in ways that cannot be captured by her stats alone, understood her to be a different level of player. A pro. It’s what Milligan has been saying for years.

The two of us agreed that night in Jersey — when everything was normal, when it felt safe to pretend we could all see, with at least some clarity, what next month might look like — that whoever drafted her, with a week or two of training camp, would understand this as well.

The Phoenix Mercury picked her. That’s a stacked roster, especially at the guard/wing spots Johnson would be fighting for.

Now, she doesn’t even get to fight for it. There are large and small tragedies all around us right now, and maybe in the larger context of mass death, the delay or even the possible denial of a professional future in women’s basketball ranks low on the list.

But I mourn for it, even so. The funnel got smaller as a result of this awful time.

This week in women’s basketball

I wrote about what New York missed by getting Sabrina Ionescu’s debut, scheduled for this weekend, postponed. (If you want New York sports, men and women, in your inbox every morning, sign up for my Home Teams! It’s free.)

Matt Ellentuck also tackled what we’ve already lost.

Jenn Hatfield spoke to five coaches trying to get comfortable in new jobs amid, you know, the global pandemic.

Lauren Cox is intense about UNO.

Erica Ogwumike discussed her choice: the WNBA or medical school.

Carly Thibault-DuDonis got a promotion.

Gabe Ibrahim wrote the best piece you’ll read this week about a Hug Mug.

Geno Auriemma and Diana Taurasi met up and spoke, with the results as interesting as you’d expect.

Cassandra Negley caught up with a trio of would-be WNBA rookies.

Terrific in-depth WInsidr video with Dearica Hamby.

Elizabeth Williams joined The End of Sport podcast.

Mitchell Northam is must-read on the ACC, as always.

Cheryl Reeve goes in-depth on her roster here.

And goes in-depth about her son’s drawing here.

I miss Bob Rathbun on Atlanta Dream broadcasts. (LaChina Robinson, too!)

Russ Steinberg caught up with Kathy Delaney Smith about 16 over 1.

Ben Dull looks at what Kathleen Doyle can be for the Fever.

Yet another reason why it matters, for coverage and fan engagement, that we know #WNBA salaries, this from the great Megan Gauer.

Just Women’s Sports caught up with Kamiah Smalls.

Dorothy Gentry wrote about Astou Ndour.

Arike Ogunbowale joined The Ringer’s panel of players on “The Last Dance”.

Nicki Collen and Lloyd Pierce talked coaching.

Napheesa Collier wrote about life in the coronavirus moment at Players’ Tribune.

Bella Alarie joined the HerHoopStats podcast.

We all owe a lot to Mel Greenberg.

Carlie Littlefield weighs in on her Princeton experience.

Jackie Powell went deep on Sonia Citron, Notre Dame commit.

Kamie Ethridge speaks about the post-Bobi Buckets era.

A really good read from Katie Lou Samuelson about struggling with depression.

Tweet of the week

Five at The IX: Sydney Wiese, Los Angeles Sparks

(Wiese joined a reporter Zoom call Tuesday to discuss her two-year, $162,400 contract extension.)

Sabreena Merchant, SB Nation: I’m just curious what the experience with virtual training camp has been like for you so far, and how you feel that’s impacted your ability to get to know the rookies and the new players?

Sydney Wiese: It’s different. Obviously, not being able to be in person with everybody and actually playing basketball, it’s a different feel for virtual training camp. But I think that it’s been a different level of depth we’ve been able to reach getting to build that camaraderie through these meetings as a group, but also we’ve had a couple meetings just as the team so we can get to know each other as people, more so than, you know, the camps have been full of terminology, our principles, our foundation for defense and offense. But it’s cool to have that opportunity as well to get to know each other as people. We have new faces and so getting to know how they are as competitors and who they are as people. And then the rookies, I can’t imagine how they’re feeling, it’s a crazy feeling to be welcomed into the league to begin with, but now there’s no training camp where you can compete and sort of have that comfort zone of basketball and playing and practicing. You are just looking at each other on-screen, and you have inside jokes from past seasons and you’re being welcomed into this new world and trying to build those relationships. And they’ve done a great job soaking up the information, asking questions, and being themselves. So I think that’s been the main goal for us, giving one another a platform to express ourselves and to get to know each other on a different level the best that we can.

John W. Davis, Winsidr: Hi Sydney, quick question. With the new CBA did you, how much did you think about, you know, possibly entering free agency and trying to see how much you could command on the open market as opposed to resigning with the Sparks?

Sydney Wiese: Loyalty is a big thing for me so for them to extend this opportunity within itself, to show their commitment, their belief, and how they value me and what I can bring to the table, it shows a lot. They didn’t have to offer that to me, they didn’t have to offer a contract extension. I find a lot of pride representing the Sparks organization, so there really wasn’t a desire for me to expand or look anywhere else. I love being able to compete with these women. I’ve built so many great relationships here and I love living in Los Angeles. I love the organization. There is really so many pros that come with being a part of the Sparks organization and so my heart was set on being in LA for as long as I can and I want to hold true to that and I value that loyalty component that can be pretty rare to find at this level and so I, it didn’t even cross my mind to try to look anywhere else.

Howard Megdal, High Post Hoops: When you look at this roster, there’s a significant amount of talent on that backcourt. Now I know you’ve always battled for spots in the rotation but battling for a starting rotation obviously is very different In this mode,.I’m wondering how you think about it and what do you think the continuity of coming in knowing the team going out, how Fish runs things that makes it different for the role you hope to get this season.

Sydney Wiese: Yeah, I think, ultimately, the beauty of a team sport is the role that each person can play, and [Fisher’s] philosophy is everybody stays ready and it’s not that anything is guaranteed by any means, but your name can be called at any moment. And so, like you said, we have a very talented roster of amazing, legendary players and so you never know on any given night who’s going to go off, who might have an off night. It’s amazing to be a part of a group, where we do have a lot of depth and also maturity and there’s people of high character within this team, and I think ultimately it’s that goal of wanting to do whatever each of us need to do to put ourselves in position to compete for a championship. And so I take on whatever role that I’m given, and I do the best that I can and continue to work on weaknesses, continue to try and stay in my lane in regards to my strengths and trying to find that niche, every season. And like I said, the opportunity within itself to be a part of this league to be a part of this team, that’s enough for me. And so I’m going to run with it and continue to improve and I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds as we continue forward.

Angel Gray, Spectrum: You told Mary and I last year that you and Derek Fisher have a mantra. To stay ready. If you can just kind of dive a little bit deeper into that relationship and how it can be improved, or some things that you are looking forward to just in understanding what style he has. And just as far as the core pieces I know there’s new faces, but the confidence you have and building that relationship.

Sydney Wiese: Our coaching staff and Coach Fisher to have that first season under their belt. Last season it was getting to know each other, going through the wars together, learning the terminology learning the expectations, finding that that different level of trust as the season went on and understanding and you can’t really manufacture that you just have to go through it and you gotta figure it out and so I think that season plays a huge role as we move forward. We’ve gotten to know him, he’s gotten to know us. And what I love about him is he keeps those lines of communication open, he wants to hear from us as players and he values, our feedback, and he knows he’s been out there before so he knows that we’re the ones out there that are seeing things that we can communicate the adjustments that need to be made in the moment or in the big picture and so we’ve had a lot of great talks, as a group and individually with him going into this next season and during this virtual training camp about ways that we can be better. And so, I think that last season. For me personally, getting to know him and getting to connect with him. And having those discussions with him. You can’t. There’s no way to go around the intricacies of building relationships, and so I think, as time goes on, and as you have those conversations and even as you share things about yourself and who you are away from the game. It adds more layers of depth to that trust in that relationship that you can use when you compete and work together.

Jim Alexander, LA Daily News: Do you feel like a survivor given everything you’ve dealt with over the last couple months with COVID-19? What do you take out of that experience?

Sydney Wiese: I’m grateful that my case was mild. It wasn’t the reason why I wanted to go public with it was not to scare anybody, it wasn’t to add any more chaos or craziness to the uncertainty that all of us were facing. I wanted to use my story and my experience to connect with others who might be going through a similar thing to bring more of a steady approach to everything that was going on. I think I was more focused on making sure my parents were going to be healthy and okay because I’m staying with them and at the time and there’s still so many things we don’t know about it. So I had a feeling when I was traveling back from Spain that I wasn’t 100 percent. I didn’t want to say that I had the virus, but I had a feeling that there was something up. And so I was recovering even before I got tested and got the test results, and so I wanted to make sure that I continued to take care of myself and take the precautions necessary to protect others more so than anything. I think as we continue to go forward and things are starting to open back up in different cities and it’s different everywhere, that we continue to take those precautions of washing our hands and monitoring our distance from other people. Even though things are sort of going back to normal, it’s very important to still monitor those things and protect one another. I think the coolest thing from my experience is now being able to give back. I’ve been donating plasma every week so it’s been really cool to be a part of that convalescent plasma donation program and because of the antibodies in my blood. I’m not trying to say that I’m saving lives by any means, but to have the opportunity to at least use that experience and give it back in some way, it’s been really cool for me to be a part of.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

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