The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 29, 2020
What we've learned so far from the WNBA season — Elizabeth Williams talks early Atlanta Dream success — Must-click women's basketball links
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What we’ve learned so far from the WNBA season
I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s been quite a shock to the system to go from none of the basketball to all of the basketball.
That’s not a lament, to be clear. It has been glorious to process it all, to cover it — hearing regularly from players and coaches about things happening on the court, not just wishes and projections, but actual data to crunch, drama to behold.
There’s a lot more to come, gloriously: by the time we reach the weekend, we’ll have twice as much information as we do right now, as I write this on Wednesday afternoon. And taking anything big-picture from what’s happened so far is dangerous. Half the teams have only played once — if the Sparks had been one of those teams, and I was only evaluating based on their decimation of Phoenix, I’d have a different take than I do after seeing them get crushed by the Sky.
Even so: here are my way too early initial thoughts.
Seattle is what we thought they were
Essentially, the Storm had one path to falling short of a souped-up version of their 2018 selves, and it was a fairly worrisome one. Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, their two best players from the championship campaign, were coming back from injuries, and might be rusty, or worse, something short of their previous selves.
So far? Not so much.
Stewart moves, as she said, as well as before the injury, with better balance. She’s making 44.4% of her threes. Sue Bird is hitting shots from deep, and in 43 minutes, she has zero turnovers so far. Zero!
But the biggest indicator of Seattle’s dominance? They have this extra gear they first perfected in 2018. They sense weakness and come out and destroy you. They did it in the fourth quarter against the Liberty, the third quarter against the Lynx. It is the hallmark of a Breanna Stewart team, by the way, the reason Stewart doesn’t win a lot of close games (can’t hit a last-second shot if you left your opponent for dead long before).
The general consensus around the league about playing the Storm is similar to King George III’s take on the Americans picking John Adams as their second president.
The second seed is wide-open
Lots of coaches around the league have talked about how, come playoff time, there’s little advantage to be gained based on seeding.
But that’s not really true. Yes, 5-8, 6-7 is all going to be a fun free-for-all of single-game samples. And the reward you get for 3 or 4 is even smaller than in past years, there’s no home court advantage for Diana Taurasi to come in and destroy after a single bye.
But that two seed? Effectively it is a second one seed. You get the double bye, and then you have to win just as many neutral site games as the one seed does. A deciding Game 5 was played in DC last season — this year, with no fans, it gets played… in the same place as every other game.
So who will earn this valuable real estate? Everybody seems to have a different answer. Chicago is starting strong, but with Diamond DeShields limited by a knee injury, their ceiling could be lower if she’s less than 100% all season. The Sparks, as mentioned up top, were elite against the Mercury, then not only lost to Chicago, but got this Candace Parker estimation postgame:
Declaring her team wasn’t ready to play in the second game of the season is a loaded statement if I ever heard one. And Phoenix? Well, again, small sample, but seeing Brittney Griner go out and promptly commit her two early fouls, sit for the rest of the first quarter and show us all that the depth up front is lacking was a useful analytical tool. (I also want to know why she’s still doing that. It’s frustrating to me, and I don’t have a rooting interest!)
Don’t sleep on Atlanta
For much of 2019, the genera consensus was that the 2018 Dream were the outlier. This has not been my view, and 2020 is reinforcing that in a number of ways.
But after falling a game short of the WNBA Finals in 2018, this is not anything like the same team, either. Nicki Collen now has Chennedy Carter leading the way, and Carter’s always had pro talent — probably could have gone to the league right from high school. The knock on her was that she was shoot-over-pass, but even that’s not backed up by the numbers — her assist rate of 27.1 percent ranked 138th in the country last year. Put another way: it’s not just a tool, Carter’s passing is a skill she brings to her rookie season. You don’t have to project it.
Then there’s the emergence of Betnijah Laney, who has always been able to get on the court because of her defense, but has turned into a dangerous wing scorer to complement Shekinna Stricklen. Collen has useful players up and down the roster, with more coming — Glory Johnson has been cleared, Courtney Williams and Kalani Brown, it is hoped, will soon join as well.
There are plenty of teams in the mix — Myisha Hines-Allen is no fluke, for instance, which gives Washington a very Connecticut 2019 feel, and the Lynx will be dangerous once Napheesa Collier returns to form and Odyssey Sims comes back.
I’m just saying: if the Atlanta Dream get the two seed, I’m not going to be surprised, and neither should you.
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This week in women’s basketball
He also profiled Paige Bueckers, who won another award (get used to it).
Ari Chambers spoke with Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, and is can’t-miss as always.
Christine M. Hopkins and Jenn Hatfield trace the development of Belgium’s national team, and its impact on the WNBA.
Really good reporting from Britni de la Cretaz here on why the WNBA’s activism has been so effective.
Chantel Jennings has your first weekend roundup at The Athletic.
Camille Buxeda profiled Sue Bird for a SLAM cover story.
Come for the Kelsey Mitchell cooking, stay for the commando entrance by Kennedy Burke.
Sean Hurd spoke to Brittney Griner about what it means to be Black in America, among other things.
Rodger Sherman used the Tom Thibodeau hire by the Knicks to talk about the Liberty. I approve!
Jenn Hatfield looks at the collegiate women’s programs that have been cut.
Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is starting a newsletter of WNBA past and present interviews.
Tweet of the Week
Erica McCall is a national treasure. Her response when a Twitter user criticized her for hopping on the DeWanna Bonner bandwagon late.
Five at The IX: Elizabeth Williams, Atlanta Dream
Listen to Elizabeth talk about how the Dream play, what’s encouraging about their early success, along with her work off the court as well. Just click on her face!