August 13, 2023 

Sunday Notes, Week 11: Napheesa Collier is a star, Azurá Stevens is good again, and more

It’s your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA for the week of Aug. 6-12

Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today we’re looking at: the level of stardom Napheesa Collier is approaching, Azurá Stevens finding her groove, and some fun with stats. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night (Aug. 6-12).

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Tankathon Check-in

To be clear, no one in the WNBA is currently tanking on purpose. That being said, let’s see where our teams are right now in the lottery standings and where they project to end up (chart vaguely organized by rightmost column). Washington will be added to this table next week if it loses one of its two games this week (vs. Chicago and at Indiana):

Team:Games back in lottery:Games back of No. 8 seed:Strength of schedule remaining (out of 12)*:Likely finish:
Indiana———4.510th-strongest (third-easiest)Top lottery odds
Phoenix11.532Second-best lottery odds
Seattle17.549Third- or fourth-best lottery odds
Los Angeles120.53Either third-best lottery odds or No. 8 seed
Chicago25.5———5Either worst lottery odds or bottom-two seed
Minnesota15-1.512Bottom-two seed
* Per Massey

Indiana and Seattle’s impact on health data

We lead off today’s Notes with a guest contribution from Lucas Seehafer, who runs The Next’s WNBA Injury Tracker, about estimating relationships between injury and winning.

Fun with numbers: If you remove the Storm and Fever from the data set, the correlation between total games missed and team winning percentage is .559, which is a pretty moderate correlation; 31% of the variance in win-loss records could be explained by injuries1. But because the Storm and Fever are so bad regardless of health, the correlation is virtually zero and only 1.9% of variance in record is due to health.

Indiana Fever

The Fever won a game this week, which is pretty cool. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about Kristy Wallace’s per-game averages. Behold:

2022, with Atlanta: 6.6 points, 2.3 FGM, 0.9 3PM, 36.8% 3P%, 2.3 rebounds (0.6 ORB, 1.7 DRB), 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 1.5 turnovers
2023, with Indiana: 6.5 points, 2.5 FGM, 0.8 3PM, 36.5% 3P%, 2.3 rebounds (0.6 ORB, 1.7 DRB), 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 1.4 turnovers

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Los Angeles Sparks

Azurá Stevens since the calendar flipped to July, per WNBA Advanced Stats: 13 games, 12.5 points per game (54.1% true-shooting, 40% 3P% on 3.0 3PA), 6.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks, 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Availability is the best ability, but for the 2023 Sparks, availability has been the only ability that’s mattered. Los Angeles has missed a league-high 90 games due to injury, plus the third-highest injury incidence rate in the WNBA, per Seehafer’s injury tracking. To that end, Stevens missed the first five games of the season but has been available since. The team needed her in the fold both to integrate into her new system and to stop having to play all the other bigs 30 minutes a night.

At that point, availability was just about the only ability Stevens had. Clearly struggling to adjust to a new system on a team missing multiple key rotation players, she averaged just six points on 39.1% true-shooting — which would tie Haley Jones for the sixth-worst mark in the WNBA this year, per Her Hoop Stats — with more than twice as many turnovers as assists in June. After those first 11 games of her season, though, things have made a turn for the better. She’s probably not going to keep shooting 40% on three 3-point attempts per game, but she really doesn’t have to in order to be an impactful and versatile contributor.

Minnesota Lynx

Where does Napheesa Collier rank in the hierarchy of “could be the Nth-best player on a title team?”

Coming into the 2023 season, I was skeptical that the answer was anything higher than “third-best.” She had been a very efficient scorer in her rookie year and was great in the offensively juiced environment of the Wubble, but her 2021 showed issues with providing value off the ball. Regression in her 3-point shot meant defenders were sagging off of her to help on other actions, and worse finishing meant she wasn’t able to punish off the dribble as much. Her weakside and perimeter defender continued to improve, but it’s hard to provide star-level value as a weakside-defense-first combo forward.

With Collier having almost a full calendar year to recover between the birth of her first child and the start of the 2023 season, there was reason to expect Collier would be showcasing an expanded skill set this year — especially since a depleted Lynx roster would be heavily relying on her. And all she did over the first two games this year was score 37 points on 30 shots with seven assists and eight stocks2.

Now, it hasn’t quite been a consistently dominant season for Collier: she averaged over 25 points per game on 62.6% true-shooting in July, but her efficiency across the other 17 games this year is almost exactly the same as her 2021 mark. A career-low in 3-point accuracy doesn’t quite instill optimism either. But Collier has shown growth in ways that should raise expectations of what she can consistently contribute to a contender.

The first step in that improvement required nothing from Collier herself. Rather, Minnesota starting her at the four this year instead of the three, where they’d played her in previous seasons. What that revealed wasn’t any new skill in particular, but instead that Collier could be one of the league’s most valuable defenders at the four. Given that the four is an inherently more impactful defensive position than the three, filling that role with a perimeter-capable player allows a lineup significantly more flexibility on both ends of the court. Think of Lin Dunn in 2012 discovering that sliding Tamika Catchings down to the four made the Fever almost twice as good as they had been the season prior.

Collier being able to hold up at the four isn’t surprising; the Lynx had given her a good amount of minutes there over her first few seasons. The fact that Collier has been one of the best defenders in the league while having to cover up for possibly the worst defensive supporting cast in the WNBA? That is not only impressive, but it allows Minnesota’s front office a heck of a lot of latitude in finding championship-level players to add to this team.

Offensively, the only area in which Collier hasn’t grown is her 3-point accuracy. Her handle has greatly improved thanks to a deeper and more refined bag, which makes her drives incredibly difficult for any defender to guard. Most importantly, her ability to create shots without the ball has grown leaps and bounds.

Take this play from Tuesday’s win over Chicago, for instance. After the Lynx’s initial wide action doesn’t create an open shot, Kayla McBride takes Marina Mabrey off the bounce, and Collier moves away from the rim to move the one-pass-away help defense farther from McBride. After McBride pulls back, Collier turns it into an empty pick-n-roll, perfectly positioning her slip against the Sky hedge to create an open roll to the basket.

Plays like that are the difference between a great role player and someone who can be an integral building block of a scheme. Another skill that makes that difference is playmaking: a good offense cannot be built around a player who does not create efficient offense for their teammates. That’s one of the biggest reasons why this year’s Storm have had mediocre overall offensive showings in half of Jewell Loyd’s best games, per Across The Timeline. Of the past 14 WNBA champions, only the aforementioned 2012 Fever lacked at least one elite individual playmaker, and they made up for it with a collection of players who were plus playmakers at their respective positions.

Though Collier still isn’t Catchings, her playmaking has greatly developed this year. She was never a ball-stopper before, but she’s now opening shots for teammates beyond just drive-and-kicks or dump-off passes. The result is that Collier has been able to be Minnesota’s primary tool for forcing defensive rotations, the engine of a mediocre offense. Which I don’t mean to be an insult at all; the fact that a player of her defensive caliber with an offensive skill set as wide as hers can be the best player on a mediocre offense is something that’s genuinely impressive — case in point, Seattle’s worst-ranked offense.

These two areas of offensive growth for Collier — opening shots for herself off the ball and consistently opening more efficient looks for her teammates — place her firmly in the “second-best player on a title team” tier. For reference, that’s a tier which has recently included Chelsea Gray/Kelsey Plum, Courtney Vandersloot/Kahleah Copper, Loyd, Sylvia Fowles and Nneka Ogwumike. Couple that with Collier’s premier defensive value and hopefully a return to her career-average 3-point mark, and you’ve got an indispensable star.

  1. .559, the correlation coefficient, is R. R2, .559*.559 represented as a percentage, is 31%.
  2. Steals + blocks

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Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.


  1. RM Williams on August 13, 2023 at 12:31 pm

    Em, you are so right. The Lynx front office needs to find some championship players to not only bolster the scoring on a consistent basis but to offer up some first class defense. The question is – who goes? That is easy, and painfully obvious. Considering who might be available in free agency, some potential high caliber draft picks, and some possible steals from other teams, the Lynx could be in a position to create not just a good team, but a championship team. For example, we haven’t seen Lou Lopez Sénéchal yet. Maybe Dallas could be persuaded to give her up. Jewel Loyd? Maybe, for the right price. Paige Bueckers? That would be a plus, as would Georgia Amoore. Depending on where the Lynx fall in the draft order, there are others, like Lexi Donarski, Maddy Westbeld, Nika Mühl, Ayoka Lee, the list goes on and on. And who would go? I’ll leave that to the imagination of those who can see past the “fan favorite” or “local celebrity” factors. As the saying goes, it isn’t show fun, it’s show business. Well, this isn’t sports fun, it’s sports business, and the Lynx need to hunker down on the business end a really build a championship team. It is impossible to replicate what once was. It is very possible to build what can be. Get busy, front office.

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