June 18, 2023 

Sunday Notes, Week 4: Fever improve, Mercury collapse and a Dojkić breakout

Our weekly look around the WNBA breaks down the Indiana Fever improving, the Phoenix Mercury falling, and the play of Ivana Dojkić.

Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today we’re looking at: how the Indiana Fever are clicking, why the Mercury have just two wins, Ivana Dojkić’s breakout and what we learned about the Mystics guards.

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Indiana Fever

It’s a testament to how good Aliyah Boston and Kelsey Mitchell have been and how solid Erica Wheeler is that the Fever have been as good as they have been these past couple of weeks. Behind the leading play of those three, Indiana has been able to get the rest of its rotation, which had varied between inconsistent and unproductive over its first six games, to fit into roles and just do its job. And that’s how you get the Indiana Fever going 3-1 over their past four games, with two wins over projected playoff teams.

The improvements among Indiana’s role players across the board have been stark. Off-ball guards Lexie Hull and Victoria Vivians are no longer being asked to create offense, but rather to just provide a passing outlet who can attack closeouts and take what the defense is giving them. Over this four-game span, those two have combined to average 11.8 points on 61.9% true-shooting in 29.5 minutes; per Her Hoop Stats, the only guards matching those numbers this season are Jackie Young and Lexie Brown. Kristy Wallace has scaled back her pick-n-roll (PnR) usage but gotten much more adept at toggling (shifting between on- and off-ball usage on the same play); she has become one of the team’s closers, leading the team in 3-point percentage on the highest volume of any of its on-ball options with an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly four in this span. Grace Berger looks leagues better than the point guard who in the preseason couldn’t get to the key against dribble pressure, now creating good offense as a smooth PnR operator and flashing plus wing defense; per 36 minutes, she’s averaged 8.6 points, 6.6 assists and only 2.2 turnovers over this span.

But it’s NaLyssa Smith who has been the biggest star of this Fever breakout. Her 2022 rookie season seemed to prove that she was a legitimate shooting threat, making the next frontier for her game leveraging that spacing to be able to attack downhill off the catch. Unfortunately, her 3-point shooting has fallen off a cliff (she would have to shoot 44.4% over her next 72 threes to match last year’s mark), but her ability to use the threat of her jumper to attack closeouts and to get open by moving without the ball have both improved dramatically.

Smith has turned what was an incredibly rough scoring process last year into a methodical and varied approach. Much of that is of course due to Boston, whose play has ensured that Smith isn’t Indiana’s only frontcourt scoring threat. But a lot more of it is the game slowing for her, getting her finishing touch and developing a feel for how to manipulate her defender. The net effect? Smith is one of nine players this year hitting 50% of over 10 2-point attempts per game, per Her Hoop Stats.

Phoenix Mercury

The Mercury are in dire straits. They lost two of the three games they played this week, beating only the Fever and losing to the Storm and a Mystics team that had only two starters healthy enough to play the second half. And Phoenix lost those two by a combined 33 points. Those losses wouldn’t be especially troubling if not for how they happened, with the anemic Seattle offense getting up to 83 points and Washington, who’d failed to crack 80 points for nearly a month, scoring a season-high. Phoenix scored just 69 points in each of those games.

The history of the Mercury is having offense dominant enough to make up for otherwise lackluster defense — if that hasn’t been Brittney Griner’s M.O., it certainly has been Diana Taurasi’s. But the great Phoenix offenses of yore were stacked with shot-creators, from Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor to Griner and DeWanna Bonner and Skylar Diggins-Smith. Griner is scoring better than ever, Moriah Jefferson was doing great before her ankle injury and Sug Sutton was an electric bucket-getter to start the season. But Sutton’s true-shooting has cratered since she moved from a sixth-woman role to starting — from 22nd-best in the W to 95th as a starter, per WNBA Advanced Stats and Her Hoop Stats. Sophie Cunningham and Michaela Onyenwere have both been very good play-finishers, the former making up for her lack of shooting accuracy with her shot versatility and vice versa for the latter, but there are no other shot-creators on this team. For the first time in decades, the Mercury have only one player who can effectively get their own shot.

The other thing about the great shot-creators in Phoenix history is that every name I mentioned above was also a plus passer for their position. Given that Taurasi’s passing is not what it once was, the only current Mercury who could be considered plus passers for their positions are Jefferson and Griner. Shey Peddy is a very capable backup point guard, but not a leader of an efficient offense.

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So Phoenix has at best two players capable of efficiently getting their own shot and two players capable of creating good shots for others. There are ways to build around that to create a competent-but-unexceptional offense, but the coaching staff has yet to demonstrate that capability. Instead, many possessions still end with Cunningham having to drive or Onyenwere posting up.

If the lack of offensive ability and strategic cohesion wasn’t enough, Griner and Jefferson are also the only Mercury starters who are even average defenders. Brianna Turner has been one of the league’s best defenders over the past three years but has been out of sorts this season. Offense-only play-finishers are essentially the easiest player archetype to find in basketball, and the Phoenix roster is stacked with them. Things would look different if Diggins-Smith was playing, of course, but after the organization has spent the better part of the past couple of seasons alienating her, there was little chance she’d ever play for the Mercury again. For as much of Phoenix’s issues that can be traced back to coaching, at least as many fall squarely on management’s shoulders.

Seattle Storm

Storm Breakout of the Week: Ivana Dojkić.

Last week’s breakout was Jordan Horston, and she immediately entered Seattle’s starting lineup. One game later, another rookie entered its starting lineup, one four years older and born 5,551 miles away: Ivana Dojkić.

Dojkić came to the Storm as one of their mid-20-year-old swings, along with Kaila Charles (no longer with the team), Jasmine Walker (no longer with the team), Arella Guirantes, and to some extent Kia Nurse. Dojkić played good second-half minutes in Seattle’s season-opener, just six minutes in its second game and was a healthy scratch for the next two contests. She has since played 24.8 minutes a night, with that mark increasing over each of the past four games. In the Storm’s three games this week, she started all three and averaged 14.7 points on 45.2% from the field and 37.5% from three, 4.7 assists with almost twice as many assists as turnovers, and 1.0 steals on 21.3% usage. That’s pretty good.

What’s particularly impressed about Dojkić is the difficulty of her usage on both ends. She played combo guard as a starter and was asked both to move well without the ball and lead PnRs against set defenses, creating her own shot at least as often as she was attacking tilted defenses. Defensively, she’s been tasked with guarding the opponent’s best wing, as well as securing the backside of Seattle’s aggressive traps.

Dojkić has already joined Jewell Loyd and Ezi Magbegor as players the Storm can count on for consistently positive production on both ends of the court. Not only is that impressive enough for someone just eight games into their WNBA career, on a team lacking creators as much as Seattle is — it also means the Storm have found a two-way wing under team control for the next four years for well below market value.

Washington Mystics

Speaking of the Mystics’ offensive output against the Mercury: Natasha Cloud was out for that game, but as I mentioned, Phoenix’s defense isn’t one that’s really going to punish a team for lacking a lead playmaker. In Cloud’s stead, Washington started Li Meng, one of the quickest shooters in the league who the Mystics staff had been trying to find more minutes for.

Despite eventual injuries to Shakira Austin and Brittney Sykes (both of whom are probable for today’s game), Washington played most of the first half missing only Cloud. When Austin exited the game with 1:37 remaining in the second quarter, the team had put up 50 points, already its best output of the season in any half. And for as much as that performance was about the Mercury defense, it was also an opportunity to see the issues with the Mystics’ usual starting guard trio of Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Sykes, given the success the offense had replacing Cloud with Li.

Sykes signed in the offseason as Washington’s lone offseason addition on a non-training camp contract. Given what’d been a limited offensive game on very poor efficiency outside the Wubble across her career, it was expected that adding Sykes would present significant issues to an already questionable offense. She hasn’t improved her scoring efficiency — her 2023 true-shooting is actually below her career average — but she’s been the least of the Mystics’ guard problems on offense.

Part of the Washington guards’ problems has been poor shooting performances from otherwise steady hands, mainly that Atkins is having an uncharacteristically bad season from deep and Sykes’ consistently good finishing has been poor this year. If you regressed those towards each’s career average, Sykes would have the highest true-shooting of the trio. As of right now, she’s shooting the highest from 3-point range of the three, is second in 3-point attempts among them, is by far the most active cutter, and easily exerts the most rim pressure.

If Atkins was hitting her 3-pointers at her previous career rate of 36.7%, instead of about 10 percentage points lower, this would be a bit of a different discussion. But as things currently stand, the sum of the Mystics’ guards is less than the sum of its parts. Unless Cloud can finally become a shooter or learn to move well without the ball, this is an issue that is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon.

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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