July 1, 2021
Chennedy Carter is getting better, and that should terrify the WNBA
The unprecedented interior excellence of the Atlanta Dream second-year guard
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No, you can’t stop Chennedy Carter
“How do you stop Chennedy Carter?” is a question that WNBA coaches have wrestled with over the past two years.
After missing most of June with an elbow injury, the Minnesota Lynx thought they might have an answer: foul the hell out of her. 30 seconds into the game, we found out that doesn’t work.
In one fluid motion, Carter fakes a pass to open a lane to the hoop, bolts past Lynx guard Kayla McBride, and approaches Sylvia Fowles — sorry, that’s 6’6, 3x Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles. The young guard rises up, already in the throes of a business decision that most WNBA players wouldn’t make, and corks her body at the rim. The result is a success.
Just 25 games into her WNBA career, it’s hard to envision a path where this sentient And-1 mixtape doesn’t become an all-time great. A big reason for that is that she keeps getting better.
Carter was not among the top 36 All-Star vote-getters (fans have 50% of the vote, with the media and players at 25% a-piece) nor was she selected for Team USA’s 12-person roster. Her recent injury likely spurred the omission, but Carter’s ceiling stretches much higher than top-48 recognition. On her current track, she can be the best player on a championship team once she hits her prime.
The league has rarely, if ever, seen a young guard who is this exciting with the ball in her hands. The fact that this is the worst version of Carter — with room to grow on the perimeter — should terrify the WNBA.
Carter is an absolute menace at the rim
We’ve seen the handles-too-fresh, feet-too-quick, score-at-will archetype before, à la Cappie Pondexter or Allen Iverson, the latter of whom Carter models her game after. But with WNBA defenses improving year-over-year, Carter’s propensity for error should be a lot greater than it is right now.
At just 22 years old, Carter is averaging 16.1 points, 3.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds and has looked flawless since returning from her injury. Though her stat line is nearly parallel to her rookie numbers, a closer look reveals a player who has leveled up through her first nine games of the season — especially at the rim.
This season, Carter’s just about doubled her shot attempts at the rim (3.2 to 6.0) while maintaining the same efficiency at the rim (60%) that we’ve come to expect from back-to-the-basket centers. It’s impossible to project exactly what Carter’s ceiling looks like, because we haven’t really seen a guard do this before. Only once in WNBA history has a guard eclipsed her production inside, and that’s before we account for Carter’s playmaking.
It’s old news that Carter has a little extra sauce on her handles and footwork, but her skill at the rim has reached new heights this year. Once she gets to the paint, her bag is bottomless.
Dare we reiterate, this is just her second year in the league. When you have a co-sign from Lil Wayne, I suppose anything is possible.
Carter’s stride on the inside
Though she is more than happy to draw contact, Carter has begun the year looking much more comfortable with her finesse and elevation at the rim (attribute that, perhaps, to a strong work ethic and the absence of an ankle injury). In both of the plays below, Carter sizes up her defenders and gets them onto an island before changing her speed and direction. Once she has the defense where she wants it, it’s highlight time.
Her elevation is just a part of her evolution as a slasher, however. Between this season and last, Carter has turned a once-decent floater into a now-deadly one. Not only has that helped her become less predictable in the paint, but it has also served as a much-needed boost when her mid-range shot isn’t good enough to draw post players away from the rim.
As for that change of direction? Carter is seriously reinventing the wheel of how a small guard can create. What sets her apart is where (and when) she changes direction.
When you’re guarding Chennedy Carter, it’s never too late to get your ankles snatched.
Of course, Carter’s had to adapt to a new play style this year. Her in-between game has fallen flat, as she’s converting just about one out of every four mid-range looks this season. That ranks last among players with at least 3.5 attempts per game.
There’s also room for growth in her outside shot, as she’s converted just one of her eight 3-pointers this season. It isn’t a doomed shot — analytics have constantly told us that she’s a middle-of-the-pack spot-up shooter — but off of the dribble, teams give her the space to shoot.
What is amazing, though, is how well she has adjusted to her newest inefficiency.
Carter has figured out what opponents feared — there is no real way to keep her from the hoop. When teams give her space, begging her to pull up from mid-range, she’ll hesitate, draw them in, and then explode past, as she does here:
The pick-and-roll is even more puzzling for teams to figure out. A switch is a Thanksgiving feast in the eyes of Carter, and even if defenses aren’t inclined to give it to her, the moments when they do are examples of how gifted this guard is.
Carter has also gotten better at adjusting to blitzes, which means her defender’s best resort is to pray that drop coverage works. As we saw above against Chicago, that’s a risky bet.
There’s plenty more time in the future to talk about Carter’s much-improved defensive focus, her improvement as a playmaker in the Atlanta offense, or her emergence as a leader on this team, with Carter deferring to her teammates more than any player I’ve interviewed at The Next. But these are conversations for another day.
Until then, there’s just one message for opposing defenses. Watch your head.