May 26, 2024 

Sunday Notes, Week 2: Indiana Fever need ‘point five’ mentality; replacement-level centers

Pacing issues in Indiana; Mercury find another quality backup center

Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today we’re looking at Indiana’s roster skill set mismatch and the replacement level of a center these days. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night. I have also been working on a small ball feature this week, so this may feel thinner than usual.

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Indiana Fever

The Fever are in a strange place offensively. Setting aside any questions of whether there’s a Sixers-like issue of the years of losing becoming ingrained in some of the holdovers, Indiana has the difficult part of the lineup down: Caitlin Clark is already a star-level offensive player and should only continue getting better, Kelsey Mitchell is quickly developing rapport playing off of her and Aliyah Boston is rounding into form as a defensive anchor.

There have been moments of brilliance from that trio, with how well Clark and Mitchell pressure off the ball and how quickly they attack off the catch, alongside how defenses respect the threat of Boston in the paint.

There are two issues right now. First and foremost, Boston does not play fast. She’s not a fast player, which is fine; Clark played three years with Monika Czinano, who is certainly not known as a track star, and Boston has plenty of short-area quickness. But there is a difference between being fast and playing fast, and right now the Fever offense usually stagnates when Boston gets the ball at the pinch or low post.

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This was fair to expect, given that Boston played in a slow, deliberate offense at South Carolina and the Fever ranked 10th in pace last year, per Her Hoop Stats. It’s not easy to learn to make decisions within a half-second of catching the ball, but that is what it takes to beat modern WNBA defenses. It involves learning how to read the floor before the ball even touches your hands. It involves making every movement into and out of the catch point deliberate. And it’s what Clark and Mitchell are already often playing by. For Boston to truly integrate her post game with that pair’s scoring and toggling, she needs to learn to play fast, but a player of her caliber who has never had to do so before needs grace and time.

The other, less pressing issue is the forwards. Whoever starts at the 3 next to Clark and Mitchell needs to be able to guard onto backcourt scoring threats or Indiana will get eaten alive — that’s the biggest reason why Betnijah Laney is so invaluable to the Liberty. Katie Lou Samuelson can’t do that. And I’m not sure who the ideal 4 is in whatever version of the Fever is a legitimate contender, but it’s not NaLyssa Smith right now, between how little defenses respect her outside jumper and the fact that she remains one of the handful worst frontcourt defenders in the sport (which is what got her benched last night for Temi Fagbenle).

Those issues with the forwards don’t matter until it’s time for the team to be a home-court advantage threat. Though if Smith’s defense isn’t going to improve, the Fever should be cutting their losses sooner rather than later at the upcoming trade deadline.

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Phoenix Mercury

There are a few things I’m interested in when it comes to the Mercury, but I’m saving most of those for a later piece. For now, let’s check in on the value of backup centers.

Last season, Olivia Nelson-Ododa was proving an excellent backup center for the Sun, just a season removed from being a mid-second round pick who was traded as the sole return in a larger salary dump by Connecticut. During this breakout, I noted:

The replacement level for centers in the WNBA has risen quite a lot in recent years. That’s a subtle change that has implications for how rosters are constructed, how salaries are paid and who can be considered a star. It also has implications for how much better a college big has to be than her guard counterparts to justify a high draft slot.

This season’s Nelson-Ododa is Natasha Mack. After multiple WNBA teams decided they’d rather have worse rim protectors who didn’t have Mack’s 6’11 wingspan, she spent a couple years starring in the Polish league and one in the Turkish before the cheap depth-needy Mercury came calling.

This WNBA season, Mack has provided quality paint defense and screening with solid connective passing for Phoenix, a competent starter who should slot into the backup role well once Brittney Griner returns. Further proof that backup center is currently not a position that takes much investment to return good play.

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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