What Lauren Park-Lane tells us about the future of the WNBA — Sports Reference adds women’s college hoops — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Feb. 15, 2023

Happy Basketball Wednesday! On Monday night, I was treated to an exceptional show at Walsh Gymnasium. Even by Lauren Park-Lane standards, this one stood out.

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39 points, yes, but that’s just the top line in an 89-82 win over DePaul the Pirates desperately needed. She got them on just 19 shots from the field. She relentlessly attacked the rim, getting to the free throw line 19 times. She dished out 9 assists. She grabbed four rebounds, added a steal.

In other words, typical LPL. The smallest player on the court was the most impactful. Talk to anyone who’s watched her play dating back to her early AAU days, and the story is the same. “Who’s that small girl” morphs into “no one can stop her”, and quickly.

She was inadvertently announced at 5’6 at Monday night’s game — the great Matt Sweeney, SID for Seton Hall, told me she used to be listed that way, before a more honest 5’3 became the norm, in part because people needed to understand how extraordinary she was at that height — but she may not even be 5’3.

It shouldn’t matter, right? But I spend a lot of time obsessed with outliers, in part because across sports, it’s always more difficult for the player who doesn’t fit into the mold, the established comp, the “sure, I remember her, she’s like X” to get her shot.

So even as the history-making game progressed, a lot of the focus in my texts centered around Sidney Cooks, the 6’4 center who has found another level of late, with 26.5 points per game and a three-point accuracy now up to 40 percent on the season.

“I think Sid can play at the highest level, she has all the ability,” Pirates head coach Tony Bozzella told me when I asked him about her WNBA prospects. “…Like you said, 6’4 kids with that kind of talent don’t come along very often.” Then he pointed to Park-Lane, standing nearby, ready for the media avail following his. “Then again, 5’2 kids with that talent don’t come along very often, either.”

He’s right, of course. And I find myself thinking both about whether Park-Lane will get drafted, and thus a shot to go to a WNBA training camp with an opportunity to make that conversion she’s turned into her lifelong story happen at the highest level, or if we’re witnessing, right now, the last few weeks of The Lauren Park-Lane Show.

After her junior season, I asked around WNBA front offices about what it would take, statistically, for Park-Lane to really solidify herself as a WNBA prospect. Two particular data points came up: scoring at the rim and her three-point percentage. The point guard skills were a given, both the assists and the ability to take care of the basketball. But unless she managed to improve that 39.1 percent from three, and her finishing at the rim, the path to the pros was a hard one to envision for most. A 5’11 player probably would get the benefit of the doubt to develop those skills over time. Park-Lane faces a different proof of concept. She has all her life.

Well, she’s done half of it. Per CBBAnalytics, she’s improved from just over half her shots at the rim going down up to 56.5 percent. The three-point accuracy has plummeted, down to 27.1 percent, though her continued accuracy from the line suggests her junior-year proficiency is the more realistic measure of her abilities from deep.

I’ve spoken to Park-Lane several times, and she’s never hesitated to tell me that the WNBA is the goal. So I asked her — should her height have any bearing on whether she gets her W shot?

“I don’t think so,” Park-Lane said on Monday. “My height, I’ve always been this small, and I’ve always found a way to get baskets at every level. Whether it’s AAU, I played at the highest level of AAU… I found a way to score, and I was playing with some of the best players in the country.”

She pointed out that the Big East has in no way curtailed her development, either. And she’s right — she’s dominating right now in a league featuring likely WNBA first round picks in 2023 (Maddy Siegrist), 2024 (Aaliyah Edwards) and 2025 (Aneesah Morrow), all bigs, the last of them on the court all night during Park-Lane’s record-setting performance.

But there’s another element here, something that front offices probably aren’t focused on, but should be: watching Lauren Park-Lane is simply a joyful experience. Yes, WNBA teams need to win games, but this is also an entertainment business.

I am an NBA fan dating to the vintage of remembering the fun of seeing Muggsy Bogues, 5’3, play in the league. I remember Spud Webb, at 5’7, winning the dunk contest. But the NBA determined they’re just not going to give players that size a shot.

And the WNBA is clearly moving in that direction. If you’re not 5’9 or taller — ideally, 5’11 or taller — you’re not getting a look at the next level unless you bring super-human pedigree or stats. It’s the same standardization of skills we’re seeing with bigs — better shoot that three — or wings — shoot that three AND defend multiple positions.

That’s what the pipeline is giving us. It means less specialization. It’s good for the game as a whole. I think you can probably make an analytical argument for it. But you’re robbing the game of the outliers when it happens.

So yes, I took in The Lauren Park-Lane Show on Monday, knowing it is unknown how much longer we all get to do so. That there were empty seats at Walsh Gym was unacceptable. There are two more regular season games, then the Big East Tournament at Mohegan, and Seton Hall probably has to win all its remaining regular season games and at least one at Mohegan to get to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. It is Park-Lane’s goal.

However it goes, whenever she steps on the court, she’s worth your time to go see. Do it while you can — you won’t see the likes of her again, for reasons of both talent and the way the women’s game is changing before our eyes.

Today’s The IX is brought to you by Sports-Reference.com, who has a special announcement!

Sports Reference, the makers of basketball-reference.com, is proud to announce a major update to College Basketball Reference. They have nearly doubled the size of their database by adding women’s college basketball statistics dating back to 2009-2010 with more to come in the next few weeks! Learn more about this update on their blog here.

A core purpose of Sports Reference is to democratize data, so that users can enjoy, understand, and share the sports they love. Their goal is to make as much information about sports available to everyone, and also strive to ensure coverage includes sports that have traditionally been underrepresented. As such, they’re very excited to be able to bring this data to women’s college basketball fans all over the Internet.

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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, The Next
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By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
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Written by Howard Megdal

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