June 11, 2023
Sunday Notes, Week 3: How to beat the Sky, Ionescu’s improvements, Alanna Smith and Horston’s breakouts
Our weekly look around the WNBA breaks down cracks in the Chicago Sky's defense, some breakout performances and the Xs and Os behind it all.
Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the league. Today we’re looking at: the Alanna Smith renaissance, Curt Miller’s guide to beating the Chicago defense, Sabrina Ionescu taking another big leap, and Jordan Horston’s breakout. Along the way, we’ll talk about maximizing mobile players in space, neutralizing hedge defenses, the most important and underrated part of creating great spacing, and building confidence in young players.
It appears James Wade’s raison d’être is to make me eat crow, and frankly, I have to hand it to him, because he’s doing a wonderful job of it. Two weeks ago, it was getting Courtney Williams to be an efficient shot-taker and playmaker. Last week, it was getting plus defense from lineups with Morgan Bertsch and Alanna Smith at the four. This week, it’s just more Alanna Smith.
Smith is 26 years old with four prior years of WNBA experience under her belt. In spite of this, her nine games this season have been enough to increase her career minutes played by over 35%, her career scoring output by over 50% and both her career assists and blocks by exactly 50%. She has done this while leading the league in 2-point percentage and making 43.3% of her 3.3 threes per game.
But enough of the stat sheet, as wild as it may be. What has really made the difference on the court?
For starters, Wade is one of the few coaches in the W who reliably sets up each of his players to succeed. In her nine games in Indiana last year, Smith almost exclusively played the role of a traditional four (or a big-ball three in the Fevers’ occasional, stomach-churning three-big lineups), asked mostly just to spot up on offense and provide help defense from the dunker’s spot on the other end. Little else was asked of her during her three seasons in Phoenix, either.
It turns out that Smith has skills on both ends of the court — just not the ones Marianne Stanley or Sandy Brondello were trying to feature. As a Sky, Smith has been a plus connector offensively, both in passing and in screen-and-rolling, as well as a quality off-ball mover. Defensively, she’s not a huge paint or help presence, but as I detailed last week, Chicago doesn’t need her to be. Instead, her ability to navigate space both on and off the ball allows the Sky to keep hedging with aplomb and feel comfortable using their length at every position to disrupt lanes all across the court.
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Los Angeles Sparks
Speaking of the Sky figuring things out, the Sparks showed the formula for beating the Chicago defense Friday. I talked last week about how the Sky defense was able to have a top-three defensive rating by leveraging their three All-Defense talents such that getting maximum effort from two average or mediocre defenders made their whole more than the sum of its parts. Well … Curt Miller inverted the whole equation and beat Chicago by 15.
The simple way to beat a hedging defense is by passing through or around it — NBA offenses have understood this so well that it’s been a decade since anyone has been able to contend running a primarily hedging scheme. But the WNBA has two huge issues: there aren’t enough coaching minds who study and copy trends in the NBA, and the average W player is quite poor moving without the ball compared to their NBA counterpart. Los Angeles, however, doesn’t have these issues! It can use its guards’ off-ball movement and its bigs’ interior movement to force backside defenders to respect them as threats off the catch, spelling doom for the backline help that hedging relies upon.
In the two clips below, the Sparks run empty pick-and-rolls, which by their very nature make it very tough for the backline rim protection to rotate onto the roller and recover back to her original assignment. In the first, Dearica Hamby’s excellently timed cut to the key forces Elizabeth Williams to vacate the rim, leaving Nneka Ogwumike with a wide-open layup. In the second, Layshia Clarendon and Jordin Canada moving along the arc and toward the left corner creates so much spacing that the Sky can’t provide any help from the backside. Smith knows that Ogwumike would be wide open if she helped Williams, so Hamby basically has a routine finish as soon as Lexie Brown has an opening to pass.
An even more fun way to make the hedge untenable is the dribble-handoff keeper. Because there will usually be a moment when both the screener’s defender and the handler’s defender are on one side of the screener, a big who can handle the ball can basically spin away from both defenders and get a head of steam with an open lane. Below, Williams has to switch onto Ogwumike, leaving Hamby with a great look on the layup.
Credit to Curt Miller this season: he’s always come out with a well-tailored game plan, every game.
New York Liberty
Satou Sabally and Ezi Magbegor are pretty easily the Nos. 1 and 2 when it comes to way-too-early Most Improved Player stock. But Sabrina Ionescu has subtly made an enormous leap on both ends of the court, and her offensive improvements in particular have been indispensable to a Liberty offense that has largely disappointed since its Week One flashes.
Ionescu has quietly been the best shooter in the WNBA this year, and it isn’t particularly close. Her overall field goal percentage is down, but don’t let that fool you: Ionescu is some bad finishing luck from having the same true-shooting as Chelsea Gray. She’s making over 43% of nearly eight 3-point attempts per game, numbers nobody else can match, and from absurd distance — the 3-point arc is just over 22 feet from the rim, but over a third of Ionescu’s attempts have come from 25 feet or deeper. She’s hitting about the same rate off the dribble and off screens.
It’s a no-brainer that the level of defensive attention that such sharpshooting commands is a major offensive boon to New York. But the fact that she’s bombing away from 25-plus feet is actually more important than the fact that she’s hitting them at all, at least as far as the rest of the Liberty are concerned. This is something many coaches have recognized for a number of years and which the great Caitlin Cooper looked into a couple of years ago. WNBA defenders haven’t yet totally caught onto the fact that Ionescu is going to force them to face-guard her three feet behind the arc — as I often try to make clear, this is a league that moves at a snail’s pace strategically. But for now, she’s going to keep doing that, and once defenders adjust, then you’re going to see a lot of possessions where the other Liberty stars have no help defense to worry about.
A less impactful but equally impressive jump from Ionescu has been on the defensive end. She’s improved a bit on her tendency to guard on the ball as if she’s wearing cinderblocks for shoes, but the real gains have come in her off-ball defense.
As I mentioned with Chicago, when you have multiple elite help defenders who can make up for teammates’ shortcomings, the players around them can have positive impacts just by giving effort and making quality rotations. And that in particular has been where Ionescu has picked up the slack. With Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones behind her and Betnijah Laney often alongside her, Ionescu is providing a level of defensive activity that really helps buoy the New York defense, in a way in which she often used to be a liability.
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I understand why Jordan Horston is playing at the four — she’s got a 6’6 wingspan and excellent help instincts and hasn’t shot a viable 3-pointer since high school. But the Storm have been asking her to spend much of her time defending A’ja Wilson, Natasha Howard, Satou Sabally and Breanna Stewart. She’s done a great job within that context, but at a certain point, you have to give her more chances to succeed to help build confidence.
Seattle started doing that Tuesday during the second quarter against Los Angeles (partly because their usual units couldn’t score). Playing against Dearica Hamby and Azurá Stevens making her season debut, Horston had the chance to match up against players more like herself in strength and overall build. And from the 4:14 mark in the first quarter through halftime, she sat for just two minutes. That gave her a chance to feel out the game, to get into a rhythm and most importantly to play through some of her mistakes. That’s how she was able to be comfortable creating offense like this:
And it’s how she was able to get confident providing defense like this:
Horston finished the first half tied for second among all players in scoring with eight points on 4-of-8 shooting and with as many steals as the entire Sparks team (three). She continued her breakout Friday, playing 27 minutes and finishing with 10 points, nine boards, two blocks and two steals. She even shot 2-of-5 from 3! I’ll leave you with this wonderful highlight reel of her night against the Mystics. Happy Sunday.