September 3, 2023
Sunday Notes, Week 14: Point guard growth, from Dana Evans to Sabrina Ionescu
The Next's weekly journey into trends and analysis from around the WNBA
Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today we’re looking at the development of three point guards: Dana Evans, Grace Berger and Sabrina Ionescu. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night.
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):
|Team:||Games back in lottery:||Games back of No. 8 seed:||Strength of schedule remaining (out of 12)*:||Likely finish († if clinched):|
|Indiana||———||Eliminated||5th-strongest (eighth-easiest)||Top lottery odds†|
|Phoenix||8||Eliminated||2||Second-best lottery odds†|
|Seattle||16.5||Eliminated||7||Worst lottery odds|
|Los Angeles||12||——— (down a tiebreaker to Chicago)||1||Third-best lottery odds|
|Chicago||25||——— (has tiebreaker over L.A.)||3||No. 8 seed|
|Atlanta||14.5||-1.5||8||No. 7 seed|
It is the official position of Sunday Notes that Washington is not in danger of missing the playoffs.
Seattle is pretty much guaranteed to have the worst lottery odds if either Atlanta or Los Angeles miss the playoffs, and whichever of those teams misses out will leapfrog Seattle into the third lottery spot.
Chicago missing the playoffs means Seattle will be third and Chicago fourth (though, really, it would be Dallas, since they have Chicago’s 2024 first round pick). But the slightly weaker schedule — and the Sky has the tiebreaker over the Sparks, too, after taking 3-of-4 this season — is why Sunday Notes currently lists Chicago as the likely No. 8 seed and Los Angeles as missing the playoffs.
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Dana Evans has taken another significant step forward this year. She has continued being a disruptive defender at the point of attack while mostly eliminating her tendency to get beaten downhill because of that aggression. She has turned her midrange game from a liability to a major strength, having shot 55.6% on 45 floaters this year after shooting 26.7% on 30 attempts across her first two seasons, per Synergy, her 2023 mark ranking No. 2 in the league behind only Jackie Young (minimum 20 floaters). Her 3-point shooting off the catch has rebounded from a down 2022, now ranking near the top quartile in accuracy, per Synergy.
Her overall 3-point mark (29.4%) belies that skill, though, because she continues to take nearly as many pull-up threes as spot-ups. In her defense, nearly all of her minutes come either in direct replacement of Courtney Williams or Marina Mabrey and are played alongside at least one bench big, per Add More Funds, leaving her with a dearth of teammates capable of commanding defensive attention or reliably attacking closeouts off the catch.
Even though Evans has spent most of her time leading bench-heavy units, her most dramatic improvement has probably come as a passer. The game has clearly slowed down for her in a way that has enabled her to be a true live-dribble playmaker, rather than keying in on either scoring or passing each possession as she seemed to do over her first two years. And after rating out as an average passer all-around last season, she ranks No. 17 in assist rate and No. 22 in assist-to-turnover ratio in 2023, per Her Hoop Stats.
The intangible effect of Evans’ maturation on the court is how much more consistent she has been. Consistency is not an easy skill to find in the WNBA, but night-in and night-out, the Sky know what they are going to get from Evans. That is incredibly important for a point guard especially, because it allows the players around her to be more confident in their roles.
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Grace Berger is a shoo-in for a spot on this year’s All-Rookie team. Her minutes have increased every month, as her steady passing has earned her more time to build comfort as a scorer. Per Her Hoop Stats, she currently ranks above the 60th percentile in true-shooting and above the 75th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
If you had told me after the preseason that this would be the case, I would not have believed you.
I was particularly high on Berger heading into this past April’s draft; though we ranked her fifth among draft entrants on The Next’s final board, I personally had her No. 4, above the likes of Haley Jones and Maddy Siegrist. Her extraordinary polish, game management, versatile scoring, and ability to guard 1-through-3 all projected well to the WNBA level.
But the preseason came and Berger struggled mightily. She was barely able to dribble the ball from the halfcourt line to the key without a point-of-attack defender flustering her too much to bear, let alone run a pick-n-roll or get to her spots. In 29 minutes across two games, she was only able to get up four shots, and committed four turnovers without recording an assist. Through the Fever’s first 18 games, she was a healthy scratch twice and averaged under seven minutes in the other 14. She scored 26 total points in that span.
Then Indiana starting off-ball guard Lexie Hull suffered a broken nose, leaving the Fever with around 20 minutes per game to fill. Berger played 14 minutes in Indiana’s first game without Hull, scoring a then-career-high … five points. She topped those marks the next time out, setting new career-highs with 15 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals with just one turnover in 36 minutes in a close game against New York. Two weeks ago, she had five assists and only one turnover against Phoenix.
Berger’s increase in production has in large part come because of how she has continued to gain comfort throughout the course of the season. (There was an amusing trend through her first couple months where every game, she would be able to drive a few feet closer to the basket than the last.) The game-winning 3-pointer Kristy Wallace hit against Atlanta last week was open because of a defensive rotation caused by Berger decisively driving off the catch:
With Indiana locked into the No. 1 odds in December’s draft lottery, there is a 45% chance that general manager Lin Dunn will be spending her winter and spring trying to convince Caitlin Clark, one of the five greatest prospects in women’s basketball history, to enter the draft. And if Dunn succeeds, she may have found an excellent backcourt partner for Clark in Berger: a lead initiator who’s both a good cutter and increasingly capable of shooting off the catch, scalable as a scorer, and versatile and switchable across multiple guard positions.
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New York Liberty
The most ridiculous thing about Sabrina Ionescu this year is the fact that her 3-point mark from beyond 25 feet would rank No. 11 in the WNBA by itself, per Sports Reference and WNBA Advanced Stats. The second-most ridiculous thing is that she is shooting a career-high 44.9% from three (third-best among qualified players, per Her Hoop Stats) and career-low 38.3% from two (91st-best).
In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t really matter: Ionescu ranks No. 15 in scoring average and No. 14 in scoring efficiency (true-shooting). But more importantly, her 2-point shooting mark is a mirage. Early on, it was low because of a poor finishing streak to begin the season, but that trend has dramatically reversed course:
Ionescu is in just her third full season in the WNBA, and we’ve already seen her grow leaps and bounds in becoming the greatest volume shooter the league has ever seen. The Liberty’s recent games against Las Vegas have shown how much more lethal the continued development of her driving game has made her. If the past couple months are indicative of her finishing ability going forward, she may still have the potential to be one of the few greatest offensive guards the W has ever seen.
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