July 30, 2023
Sunday Notes, Week 9: Aliyah Boston as a defender, New York’s unique PnRs, and more!
Our weekly look around the WNBA breaks down Aliyah Boston growing as a defender, a deadly wrinkle in the Liberty offense, and more!
Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today we’re looking at: where Aliyah Boston is growing as a defender, a deadly new wrinkle in the Liberty offense, and a check-in with what Jordin Canada and Sami Whitcomb have been doing. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night.
To be clear, no one in the WNBA is currently tanking on purpose. That being said, let’s see where our teams are right now in lottery standings and where they project to end up (chart vaguely organized by the rightmost column):
|Team:||Games back in lottery:||Games back of No. 8 seed:||Strength of schedule remaining (out of 12)*:||Likely finish:|
|Indiana||———||3||12th-strongest (easiest)||Either top lottery odds or No. 8 seed|
|Phoenix||10.5||2.5||6||Top-two lottery odds|
|Los Angeles||11||——— (tie)||5||Top-two odds if they’re in the lottery|
|Seattle||16||4||10||Second- or third-best lottery odds|
|Chicago||24||——— (tie)||8||Either worst lottery odds or bottom-two seed|
|Minnesota||14.5||-2.5||7||Bottom-two odds if they’re in the lottery|
Aliyah Boston is having one of the couple best offensive seasons by a true rookie in WNBA history (only three other qualified rookies have ever approached her combination of scoring average and efficiency, per Across The Timeline). That’s not entirely surprising, considering she was so unstoppable in college that opponents’ base coverage against her was a double team, although it is a little surprising that her offense has translated so quickly; we didn’t even see A’ja Wilson own professional defenders as quickly as Boston has. Boston has even been a good roller (65th percentile in 36 plays, per Synergy) after basically never running a pick-n-roll (PnR) at South Carolina.
What is less surprising is that Boston is still taking some time to come into her own on the defensive side. Ahead of this past April’s draft, The Next actually identified Boston’s defense as her stronger end of the court, but the learning curve for bigs coming into the WNBA is far higher on defense than it is on offense. Some struggles in PnR defense are no reason to adjust our expectations that she’ll earn multiple All-Defensive honors during her career — in fact, looking at why that lags a bit behind her offense only reinforces our pre-draft assessment. But it requires us to get into a little bit of scouting nitty-gritty.
Whenever you’re scouting film, it’s important to contextualize what you’re seeing, both within the context of the team (what system are they running, who are they playing off of and who are they trying to hide) and the context of the player (how familiar are they with their team’s system, where are they in their career). With any rookie, the most important piece of context is the fact that the worst player on a WNBA court is far better than the average player at a rookie’s previous level of competition. So there’s a key difference between struggling to adjust to professional skill levels and professional athleticism: a point-of-attack defender can learn how to prevent ball-handlers from holding them in a hostage dribble, but she can only get so much better at fighting over ball screens with subpar lateral acceleration and rotational flexibility.
With Boston, it’s clear that the athleticism of a top-flight drop big is there (but hedging I’m still unsure about). The reason opponents are getting to the rim more frequently against the Fever when Boston is on the court and why they shoot a good deal better when they get there seems to mostly relate to understanding timing and angles in drop coverage. Take the following play, from Thursday’s game against the Sparks. Los Angeles runs a basic horns action, and given Kelsey Mitchell’s significant defensive limitations, Boston has to be ready to make up for her if Jordin Canada comes off a screen from Nneka Ogwumike.
Against most SEC guards, Boston releases off of Ogwumike with enough time to side-step alongside them and block their shot at the rim. But Canada is far, far faster than probably any SEC guard. Boston is effectively beaten by the time Canada gets to the arc — you can see at the point Canada kicks out that she’s passing by Boston’s outside hip — which forces Lexie Hull to help from the strongside corner and leave open the short 3-pointer.
What has been more common this year is what happens later in the quarter. Boston is defending an empty dribble handoff between Ogwumike and Karlie Samuelson, with Kristy Wallace guarding the latter. Wallace is a much better defender than Mitchell, but Ogwumike is such a good screener that she still gets caught chasing over, forcing Boston to have to basically guard two players at once while buying time for Wallace to recover. This is a high-level skill, though one she excelled at in college. The key is the big being close enough to the ball-handler to make a pull-up jumper uncomfortable while keeping her hips open enough to quickly recover to the roller if there’s a pass.
The moment Boston is beaten is once again when the handler comes off the screen: Boston is fully squaring her hips to Samuelson to prevent a drive to the cup, but in doing so, she has turned her hips away from Ogwumike. Boston has more than enough rotational flexibility and acceleration to recover to any SEC roller. A WNBA All-Star is, of course, a different assignment entirely.
Boston is making fewer of these mistakes now than she was two months ago, and she’s closer to the play even when she does get out of position. That tells me there isn’t an athleticism barrier, and that this offensively historic rookie is going be to a premier rim protector sooner rather than later.
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Los Angeles Sparks
In two games this week, Jordin Canada put up 41 points on just 28 shots (67% true-shooting), 17 assists and eight rebounds. She’s now up to 13.5 points, 6.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game on 55.5% true-shooting and an assist-to-turnover rate over 2.00 on the season. She’s also a top-three guard defender in basketball.
Start thinking about “All-WNBA Second Team selection Jordin Canada,” folks — it’s got a nice ring to it.
New York Liberty
I’m not sure what happened between Tuesday night and Thursday evening, but whatever it was, the Liberty came out against the Dream on Thursday with the best collective passing they’ve had all season and the most off-ball activity they’ve had since May. I guess almost losing to the Storm will do that to you.
There are some interesting takeaways from exactly how they were generating so much defensive pressure off the ball, but I’ve already written about that and it’s more interesting to see whether New York can keep this up first. The most eye-catching thing the Liberty did was introduce a Breanna Stewart–Jonquel Jones PnR. And they ran it twice!
The ways in which a Stewart-Jones PnR is a matchup nightmare are obvious: Two former MVPs, each of whom has a scoring package that intimidates defenses in more ways than almost anyone else in the WNBA, running an action together that forces defenses to send even more attention their way. Stewart is a unique menace on both ends of the PnR, scoring at 1.138 points per possession as a ball-handler and 1.047 as roller over her last four seasons, per Synergy, both great numbers. Jones isn’t far off as a roller, and though her handle isn’t something you’d want to rely on several times a game, she’s proven capable of leading PnRs as a dangerous change of pace.
To make these big-big PnRs work, the guard/wing trio on the backside of the play has to be able to hold their defenders away from filling the lane to help. If that trio can’t do that, then the defense is going to be able to put one of the bigs in an uncomfortable position and have to rely on her handle. That New York is able to run even a couple of these actions in a game is proof that their off-ball activity is getting better.
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Over her last 12 games, Sami Whitcomb is shooting nearly 40% from deep on about seven 3-pointers per game. Since the 3-point line was moved back to FIBA-length 22’1.75 in 2013, 14 players have done that, including Whitcomb herself in 2021, per Stathead. The only player to do so in just 25.5 minutes per game or fewer was second-year Kelsey Mitchell.
Now please enjoy some recent examples of Whitcomb’s ridiculous shot-making from deep: