May 28, 2023
Sunday Notes, Week 1: Sun and Sparks are fun, Aces show cracks, Austin and Delle Donne dominate
Our weekly look around the WNBA also checks on Chicago, Dallas and Seattle
Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the league. Today we’re looking at: early positive returns from James Wade, Stephanie White and Curt Miller; standout play by Satou Sabally, Jewell Loyd, Shakira Austin and Elena Delle Donne; and some possible keys to beating the Aces.
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The Sky’s offense is working better than expected, and by that I mean it’s an actually functional professional offense generating decent looks on a regular basis. Our James Kay went into how head coach James Wade is doing what Curt Miller never could; namely, getting Courtney Williams to have something approaching an efficient shot diet. Williams is currently on pace for a career-high in 3-pointers per game, at a mark over 250% of her career average. She’s picking her spots more judiciously than ever before, and averaging a career-high in assists as she’s focused on moving the ball rather than getting her own shot. She currently ranks in the top 10 in both assist rate and assist-to-turnover ratio.
An even more unexpected contribution to Chicago’s shocking competence has been rookie big Morgan Bertsch’s elite off-ball movement. I’m comfortable at this point saying that she is a top-10 cutter in the W, a skill that has been a huge part of the Sky spacing the floor well despite regularly playing lineups with only two good shooters. Bertsch is just 1-of-4 from outside the paint in her three games, but was 8-of-11 (2-4 on 3-pointers) from that range in three preseason games. (Unfortunately, she’s out today with an ankle injury.)
The Sun are officially my favorite sub-Tier One team this year. After sweeping an early home-and-home with the Mystics, Connecticut is undeniably a top-four team.
More importantly, for the first time in years, Connecticut is fun. Their main eight-player rotation features eight solidly above-average players, ranging from 22 years old to 35, all skilled in the halfcourt in different ways that can all fit together. And all eight play good minutes on a nightly basis, meaning we get to see a variety of styles all from the same team in the same game. Only the Liberty boast as much good depth as the Sun.
Just as important is that new head coach Stephanie White has shown an impressive feel for adjustments and game-management. In her Sunday against Washington, she played point guard Tyasha Harris and combo forward Rebecca Allen the entire fourth quarter when Connecticut needed more playmaking and spacing to counter the Mystics’ shrinking. In the rematch Tuesday, backup center Olivia Nelson-Ododa earned more minutes when White needed more length to slow down Washington star Shakira Austin. Yesterday, the Liberty matchup meant the starting five were leaned on during the competitive second half minutes.
That versatility has resulted in some incredibly fun lineups. When Allen is at the two, it’s a big ball lineup, but a much more offensively competent one than the four-big jumbo lineups Curt Miller loved. With Natisha Hiedeman, Allen, DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones, the Sun have the first three playing up from their natural positions, but all five players are good team passers, and the combination of shooting and off-ball movement (either interior or perimeter) from all except Bonner create enough spacing that an offense with just two shooting threats has actually good spacing. If Harris is at point instead of Hiedeman, that’s a lot of size and passing at every position.
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Satou Sabally. Despite missing dozens of games over her first three seasons (in part due to her former head coach re-inserting her into games after she’d already gotten injured), “the unicorn” is truly putting everything together to live up to her name. She’s hitting 40% on an average of five 3-pointers a game. She’s earning 6.5 free-throws a night. She’s averaging four assists and a pair of stocks (steals + blocks). And she’s doing it all on good usage, finding ways to scale her game up and down depending on lineups and gameflow. We’re seeing what happens if Sabally can stay healthy, and it’s All-WNBA-level stuff already.
Las Vegas Aces
Teams are once again going to live and die by daring Vegas’ other frontcourt player to hit 3-pointers. This year, that player is Candace Parker, who may not be much of an upgrade over Dearica Hamby in that regard: Over her last three non-Wubble seasons, Parker has shot just 30.6% from deep. What she brings as a passer and help defender more than makes up for that, but it’s at least worth noting. Because the worst shooter in New York’s starting lineup (Courtney Vandersloot) has 35.8% on about three 3-pointers per game since 2014, meaning the Aces’ offensive ceiling is likely lower than the Liberty’s.
Curt Miller’s gameplans against the Aces over the past week have shown a couple of other ways to attack Vegas. On Thursday, the Sparks’ defense focused aggressively on getting the ball out of Kelsey Plum’s hands and getting a help defender close to A’ja Wilson every time she touched the ball. The result was the ball getting funneled to Jackie Young. Sometimes it resulted in a mismatch in her favor, sometimes it resulted in the ball basically dying in her hands. She scored 13 points in the first half on 6-of-9 shooting, but committed four turnovers. Even after being a +14 in the third quarter, she still had the second-lowest plus-minus on the team.
Another concern for the Aces, as it has been for the past three seasons, is their lack of consistently good help defense. Alysha Clark is their lone active nail defender, and Parker is the only consistent weakside rim protector. None of this matters if the shot-making is as good as we know it can be, but it’s worth noticing these things when they come up; Los Angeles looked as good as it did offensively Thursday in large part because they kept moving Parker above the elbow and spamming side pick-n-rolls from the opposite side of the court.
Los Angeles Sparks
As Her Hoop Stats’ Richard Cohen explained this week, the Sparks did a great job using cap space that was about to disappear to shore up the earnings of their superstar. What Sparks management hasn’t done so well is manage the contracts its players are on. Namely, the fact that they’re effectively married to Joyner Holmes while Katie Lou Samuelson is out, and they have no way to keep Karlie Samuelson around without more hardships.
Karlie Samuelson has been Los Angeles’ fourth-best player, at the very least, through its first three games. She’s averaging 12.3 points on 84.2% true-shooting (55.6% fg%/66.7% 3p%/100% ft% splits) with an even assist-to-turnover ratio, and has been excellent moving without the ball, making the right defensive reads and rotations, and even making some good two-player-game passes. If she’s not on another roster once her Sparks hardship expires, we
riot send a strongly worded letter to our local general manager.
It’s worth noting that Miller is really making the best of a very limited situation in Los Angeles. He’s running a lot of actions to free up shooters beyond the arc, and featuring more unique skill sets with a more egalitarian scheme than he ran in Connecticut. The results have made that hard to see, but once the illness going around the Sparks’ locker room filters out, they could surprise you.
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Going off of the first three games of the season, the Storm might be too competent for their own good. Seattle might get uncomfortably close to the playoffs based solely on the fact that the reason they’re tanking — Jewell Loyd and Ezi Magbegor are in/entering their primes but the team still lacks a top-five star — is enough to be better than several Accidentally Terrible teams — Loyd and Magbegor, along with Mercedes Russell, are providing a mediocre-but-not-terrible baseline level of play. Thursday, the Storm seemed likely to take Dallas to overtime until Loyd suffered what for her was an untimely injury, down by two with just over a minute to go, but for management may have been extremely timely.
Now that we’ve got Tank Talk out of the way: y’all, Loyd is incredible. She’s naturally going to be a bit of a chucker with the lack of shot-creation across the rest of the Seattle roster, but on Thursday something special clicked. Loyd finished with 30 points (10-25 FG, 3-9 3pt.), three assists, and three nasty blocks.
Plus: Kia Nurse, in just her second WNBA game since tearing her ACL in the 2021 Finals, put up 20 points on 6-of-11 from deep.
I’ll make you a bet: by the end of the season, the Mystics will have the second-best frontcourt duo in the league. It’s not my boldest bet, given that Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin were the only reasons Washington was able to hang with Connecticut during the second and third quarters of the teams’ two matchups. But consider the other top frontcourts around the league, and you’ll see what I’m saying.
In each of the Mystics’ three games this past week, Delle Donne and Austin both played at a First Team All-WNBA level. That’s just what we’ve come to expect from the two-time-MVP Delle Donne. But Austin is at that level right out of the gate in her sophomore season, an incredible leap for a player whose rookie year had already placed her among the W’s all-time greats. She’s not just flashing shot-creation, she’s making Brionna Jones unplayable in crunch time. She’s not just taking on more scoring load, she’s the second-best player on a veteran-laden team with title aspirations. Hell, she’s even tried taking Breanna Stewart and Alyssa Thomas off the dribble.
The sky is the absolute limit for someone firmly on a Hall of Fame path.
Let me also note that Washington has serious offensive concerns, and will continue to have them even when Ariel Atkins’ shot returns. But for now, let’s just appreciate the fact that Elena Delle Donne is healthy and still an absolute cheat code of a scorer, one that Mystics head coach Eric Thibault is using in as many ways as possible:
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