December 27, 2020 

Best in the Big 12: Welcome to the Ashley Joens experience

The Iowa State phenom has been more aggressive this season and delivered promising results for the Cyclones

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Ashley Joens takes a shot against North Dakota State on Dec. 12, 2020. (Photo: Luke Lu, Iowa St. Athletics)

There are endless possibilities once the ball hits Ashley Joens’ hands — places she could go, angles she could create, moves she could make — but more often than not, the ball will end up in the basket. Sure, this was the case last year when Joens led the Big 12 in scoring. But something is different this year. Joens has become more aggressive, more capable, and more collected, and her dominance threatens a conference hierarchy that hasn’t seen a non-Baylor champion since 2010.

Through nine games, the junior phenom is averaging 25.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game on 50/37/91 shooting — splits that are unmatched by anyone averaging over 20 points, per Her Hoop Stats. Last season, opponents could not stop Joens, but they found little ways to slow her down. This season, that is not the case.

Joens has made incremental changes to her game that have allowed her and the Cyclones to thrive. Joens’ sharpest change this season has been her willingness to attack the basket. 39.4% of her shot attempts are coming at the rim this year, climbing from 28.9% last year, according to CBB Analytics. That means she’s no longer settling for less-efficient midrange shots, though she’s hit four of her six attempts in that area this season. Even when she’s matched up against WNBA-sized bigs, such as South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston or Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee, Joens loves to get to the hole. In fact, it’s those games where Joens has been most aggressive.

Ashley Joens FG% (left) vs. the frequency of field goal attempts by zone (right) through her first nine games. Charts via CBB Analytics.

“Ashley is maybe the best all-around player in the country,” head coach Bill Fennelly said. “That’s what I keep telling our freshmen. ‘It’s really hard to play as a freshman but you’re playing alongside the best player in the country and that’s going to help you.’”

Joens is a unique case study because of her versatility on the court. There are plenty of ball-dominant scorers who expend most of their energy with the ball in their hands, but Joens is different. She still carries much of the scoring load — more than anyone else in the conference, in fact — but she’s just as effective without the ball, screening and flying around as her teammates operate. She simply scores when the team needs her to, and in blowouts, she can defer to her teammates.

The stat sheet backs that assessment up. The Cyclones’ three nonconference losses are certainly no indictment of Joens, who averaged 34.3 points and 10 rebounds in those contests. Rather, the team needed her to score for any chance to stay in the games. It’s not as if she struggles to keep her foot on the gas — Joens has registered double-digit points in 37 of her 38 games since last year. More accurately, she’s the best safety valve in the country. And she’s only getting better.

Even though Joens is at the top of every team’s scouting report, her versatility makes her game virtually unpredictable, especially around the rim. Not only is Joens comfortable finishing with either hand, but she has a variety of moves at the hoop alternating between spinning pirouettes, reverse layups, and lengthy floaters. Joens is not the tallest athlete on the court, standing at just 6’ even, but her finesse in the paint is too quick for most post players to handle.

Beyond her advanced understanding of angles, Joens also posses a Downy-soft touch at the rim. The Cyclones often situate her in the post, where she’s comfortable creating shots around bigs, rather than through them. Once she gets a wing in the post, though, her strength kicks in.

“She’s so strong, she bodies people down,” Iowa star Caitlin Clark said of Joens. “She’s going to be a pro someday.”

Interior scoring is just one part of the junior’s offensive toolkit. Joens is one of the few players in the conference with a legitimate stepback 3-point shot, and she’s currently averaging about two 3-pointers per game — a figure that could creep up if the Cyclones lean even further into perimeter shooting. That’s good news for Iowa State — the less comfortable defenders feel sagging off Joens, the easier it is for her to create a path to the hoop. It doesn’t hurt that her ball-handling ability has also taken the leap this season, from merely dependable to borderline deadly.

Even though she scores efficiently at all three levels, the most effective shot in her arsenal comes at the charity stripe. Joens actively seeks contact out, and her hyper-aggressive approach in the paint has translated to 59 free throw attempts, which she has converted an absurd 91.5% clip. That’s a figure WNBA scouts will come back to once she becomes eligible in 2022.

“She’s got the toughness, the competitive spirit, the love of the game to be that kind of player,” Fennelly said of her WNBA future. “And she’s worked hard to become that.”

Before the season, Fennelly said Joens had to become more creative in pick-and-roll situations for her game to reach the WNBA level. She’s improved in the pick-and-roll, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lapses. Joens draws her fair share of double teams, and it has led to more turnovers than Fennelly probably wished for.

Rather than passing out of doubles, Joens typically tries to power through her opponents. Usually, she’s skilled enough to score, but the more efficient option would be a pass to one of the team’s many marksmen (more on that in a second, though). Joens doesn’t have a true weakness outside of her playmaking, but even that deficiency hasn’t been fatal. She’s committed 17 turnovers this season (compared to just 10 assists) but in the context of her scoring load, it doesn’t project as an issue come tournament time. Improved playmaking would be more of a luxury than anything else at this point.

Iowa State has a modern offensive approach, with Joens at its nucleus. Most lineups can go five-out, which means that all five players hover around the perimeter to create space for the lead ball-handler and cutters. Iowa State’s current crop of specialists is impressively adept from deep, with six players on the roster averaging at least one made 3-pointer per game. That includes sophomore standout Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw, who just recently returned to action and has converted eight 3-pointers in just two games.

This has given Joens ample room to operate. While she has the highest usage rate in the conference by a wide margin, it isn’t because her teammates can’t create their own shots. It’s simply the most efficient offense that the Cyclones can run, and Joens’ versatility allows the team to remain unpredictable. She is the heartbeat of an Iowa State team that gives her the oxygen to keep on beating.

“With this team, they’re all shooters, they can all make from outside,” Joens said. “I think another team knowing that can kind of open up the floor a lot more.”

Joens is not a bad decision-maker by any stretch of the imagination. It just so happens that the best shot is usually going to be whatever she chooses to do with the ball in her hands. But if she does become a more creative passer out of the pick-and-roll, it’ll be about finding teammates in the corner or passing out of short-roll situations as the screener.

She’s also arguably the best defender on the Cyclones’ roster, with the length, strength, and quickness to operate anywhere. On that end of the court, Joens isn’t necessarily a ball-hawk, but she’s a calculated positional defender who knows when to jump into the passing lane or double a post player. It’s why she’s averaging more stocks (steals + blocks) than fouls. Among other incremental improvements, Joens is fouling just 1.6 times per game (compared to 2.2 last season). She’s committed two or fewer fouls in seven of nine games, which has helped her stay on the floor and thrive on defense.

“She’s our best defender,” Fennelly said. “We try to put her in spots where she isn’t going to foul. When she was a freshman, defense was optional, but now she’s embraced that … that’s the growth of all great players. They accept being an all-around basketball player.”

Once conference play starts, Iowa State’s most interesting wrinkle will be the growth of freshman guard Lexi Donarski. Most first-year players don’t arrive with a cemented spot in the starting lineup, but Donarski is no ordinary freshman. While others are still finding their footing at this level, Donarski looks like she’s gliding out on the court, and can score at will with the ball in her hands. She’s started all nine games for Iowa State, and she leads all Big 12 freshmen in scoring with 11.9 points per game, per Her Hoop Stats. If she continues to give the Cyclones quality minutes, Iowa State could be a dark horse come tournament time.

Iowa State’s postseason chances, nevertheless, rest on Joens’ shoulders. That should induce a sigh of relief for Cyclones fans, and it doesn’t seem to bother Joens one bit. Last season, Joens and the Cyclones ended Baylor’s 58-game winning streak thanks to her free throw with 0.1 seconds left, which gave Iowa State the one-point victory. She already has a slew of impressive performances against top teams, including a 32-point outburst against a South Carolina squad that was ranked No. 1 at the time. So yeah, teams like Baylor and Texas have seen her before, and they’ll be ready. She will be too.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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