June 4, 2023 

Sunday Notes, Week 2: Chicago’s defense, Mystics’ offense and Jade Melbourne

Our weekly look around the WNBA also checks on Tiffany Hayes and Rachel Banham's shooting and Lexie Hull's mechanics

Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. For multiple reasons, I was unable to watch as much of the action this week as I usually am, so this edition may feel a little shallower than usual. We here at Sunday Notes aim to do better in the future. Anyway, today, we’re looking at: the success of the Sky defense, the trouble with the Mystics’ offense, positive play from Jade Melbourne and Tiffany Hayes and Lexie Hull’s shot mechanics!

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Chicago Sky

The Sky are seventh in the W in both the standings and in net rating — which sounds bad, but being a perfectly neutral unit is pretty good right now. At the very least, it’s definitely interesting; for a team whose best lineup last week on paper was Marina MabreyCourtney WilliamsRebekah GardnerKahleah CopperElizabeth Williams, it’s little surprise that Chicago has the third-best defensive rating in the league and the worst offensive rating in the league, per WNBA Advanced Stats. What’s more surprising is that that lineup has played exactly four minutes together and is a -4.

Four Sky lineups have played at least 10 minutes through six games, three of which have superb defensive ratings. All three of those include either Morgan Bertsch or Alanna Smith at the four.

James Wade hasn’t gotten Bertsch or Smith to be standout defenders, but like I talked about with Curt Miller’s Sparks last week, the biggest differentiator around the league right now is teams that are bought in. And in a hard hedging scheme like Wade’s, having lesser defenders buying in and giving full effort does enough to impact opposing offenses that exceptional defenders like Copper and Williams and Gardner are able to cover their teammates’ shortcomings and still make defensive plays.

Connecticut Sun

Tiffany Hayes is currently running the second-highest 3-point percentage across a full season in her career, on a career-high number of attempts per game, with her highest rate of self-created 3-pointers since 2018. It’s been a lot of this:

Is this sustainable? Maybe! Hayes is getting a lot of space to work with and is generally given the second- or third-most defensive attention at any given point. If she can indeed keep this up, Connecticut’s offense really can be great.

Indiana Fever

Lexie Hull is currently shooting 0-of-10 from 3, which is not good. But I don’t think Hull’s current struggles are attributable just to shooting variance. She did shoot quite poorly in 2022, but she wasn’t wildly airballing or front-rimming everything like she did this week against the Dream and Sun. Which, for a consistently near-40% 3-point shooter at Stanford, that’s eyebrow-raising.

I think Hull’s o-fer mark this year may be related to her mechanics: Where she used to basically release the ball right as her feet left the ground (the ideal timing), on at least five of her misses this year, the ball has still been at forehead level after she’s already left her feet. A delayed release like that means a less efficient transfer of power from her lower body to her upper body, leading to overcompensation in the arms — try to shoot a 3-pointer without jumping and see which muscles have to work harder. The effect is extremely inconsistent accuracy, which would explain why basically all of the misses in question have been off-line.

I don’t know if the Indiana staff were working with Hull on tweaking her form or if this is a bit of the yips. Either way, I don’t think it’s a problem she can just play through.

Minnesota Lynx

This week in “Rachel Banham is a shooting guard”:

Final tally: Four games played, 57 minutes, 11-of-19 3pt., two assists, four turnovers, 22.2% usage.

Per 36 minutes, that translates to: 7-of-12 3pt. (57.9%), 1.3 assists, 2.5 turnovers.

Seattle Storm

Jade Melbourne was one of the most exciting players in the world this past winter. As a 20-year-old, however, it was expected that she’d take some time to acclimate from the jump between Australia’s WNBL and the WNBA. But it looks like something may be clicking: After playing six and zero minutes in the Storm’s first two games, respectively, Melbourne averaged 18 minutes, seven points on 50% from the field and from three, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists this week.

We’re talking about a two-game sample, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s some material growth here. Melbourne was demonstrably more confident and aggressive this week, rarely hesitating to press any advantage she could find:

As Noelle Quinn suggested after last night’s loss in Los Angeles, it’d be an understatement to call her defense a work in progress. But for this Seattle team, on pace for easily the worst defense in league history, per Her Hoop Stats, how much worse could it really get?

Washington Mystics

Recall last week that I mentioned we’d at some point have to talk about the Mystics’ “serious offensive concerns.” Now is that point.

Through six games, Washington has the 12th-best defensive rating relative to league average in W history, per Her Hoop Stats. It also is just a half-point clear of Chicago for the worst offensive rating in the league. The Mystics don’t make up for this with remarkable pace, nor are they any better in crunch time. Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin are an incredible one-two punch, the former ranking top-20 in both usage rate and true-shooting and the latter ranking 32nd in usage and 22nd in true-shooting.

But beyond Delle Donne and Austin, things have been bleak. Ariel Atkins rediscovered her jumper last night, going 4-of-8 from 3 after shooting 21.7% through their first five games, but she and Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes have still combined to shoot just 33.3% from the field. Sykes, a career sub-30% 3-point shooter, is the only player besides Delle Donne hitting at least 30% from deep.

That awful shooting has been the biggest issue for Washington. The only shooter defenses are only worried about is Delle Donne; they’re even choosing to live with Atkins getting up 3-pointers. The other big problem is Cloud and Atkins and Sykes providing little to no pressure without the ball. No one from that starting guard trio is a particularly good or active cutter, meaning that defenses can help off of them without having to worry about actually finding them on the closeout. There’s no halfcourt pace, no backside actions, nothing to force any defenses out of their comfort zones unless it’s Delle Donne or Austin going to work.

Take the following play from Friday. Delle Donne sets an excellent screen to force the 5’9 Veronica Burton to switch onto her, then takes a short roll so she can get the ball without running into Natasha Howard’s help. Li Meng cuts to the ball for some reason, completely preventing an entry from Cloud at the strongside elbow, and Austin keys off of Li’s cut and lifts to the weakside elbow, further mucking up the play.

The Wings basically play four corners defense and Washington cannot answer.

Another great example came last night. The Mystics start with some corner offense, but since they’re playing against a team switching 3-through-5, Delle Donne doesn’t get as much of a mismatch as they usually want. Once the ball swings back to Atkins, a better system would have Austin 45 cut from the wing to the opposite dunker’s spot, setting up an empty pick-n-roll (PnR) or dribble handoff between Atkins and Cloud at the slot. This kind of sequence is almost banal in today’s NBA.

Instead, Atkins gets a middle PnR, and because the Lynx don’t care about Cloud or Sykes, there’s four defenders against Washington’s two-player action.

If Sykes keeps hitting 35.0% of her 3-pointers, the Mystics will still be starting two non-shooters in their starting lineup (Austin and Cloud), and their best-shooting guard, Atkins, has a bit too lengthy of a jumper to be a real volume shooting threat. In today’s day and age, you need to get creative with your non-shooters just to ensure defenses aren’t starting off with a numbers advantage. Washington is playing at least two such players and hasn’t been concerned with creativity in that realm for years. That’s a championship-losing recipe.

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.

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