June 23, 2024 

Sunday Notes, Week 6: A’ja Wilson’s dominance, Connecticut’s loss and more!

Our weekly look around the WNBA looks at A'ja Wilson reaching new heights, how the Sun lost, which teams have good spacing, and more!

Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today, we’re looking at whether anyone has ever been better than Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson is right now, how to space around a post-up, how not to space around a post-up, how biomechanical fundamentals affect shooting, and more!

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For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through Saturday night.

Tankathon check-in

To be clear, no one in the WNBA is currently tanking on purpose (at least, the players aren’t). That being said, let’s see where teams are in the lottery standings through Saturday, June 22, and where they project to end up (chart vaguely organized by rightmost column):

Team:Games back in lottery1:Games back of No. 8 seed:Strength of schedule remaining (out of 12)²:Likely finish:
Washington Mystics4.53.59th-strongest (fourth-easiest)Top-two lottery odds
Los Angeles Sparks336Top-two lottery odds
Indiana Fever2———10No. 7 seed
Chicago Sky36.50.54No. 8 seed or bottom-two lottery odds
Dallas Wings838No. 8 seed or bottom-two lottery odds
Atlanta Dream48.5-0.53No. 8 seed or bottom-two lottery odds
1. Phoenix currently owns the top lottery odds, but it is going to make the playoffs
2. Per Massey
3. Dallas owns the rights to swap picks with Chicago
4. Washington owns Atlanta’s pick

It was the official position of Sunday Notes that Dallas was unlikely to face real danger of missing the playoffs, but at this point, the Wings may be digging themselves into a hole too big for the injured Satou Sabally to pull them out of. I mean, a 28-point loss to Washington on Saturday?! Sheesh …

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Atlanta Dream

In the continuing adventures of “what the heck is wrong with Atlanta,” we have poor spacing.

Spacing is created primarily by two things: shooting and cutting. The Dream have forgone the former by starting two non-spacing centers (Tina Charles and Cheyenne Parker-Tyus) alongside a point guard that defenses don’t respect from three (Haley Jones, soon to be Jordin Canada). They are also forgoing the latter through poor cuts, an entirely self-inflicted problem.

Good cutting can create passing lanes, open easier looks for play-finishers and keep help defenders glued to players who aren’t even shooting threats. This is why Mystics forward Shakira Austin, for example, is a positive impact player even without the ball.

The inverse is true as well: Bad cutting closes passing lanes and makes shots tougher for everyone. The long arc of the basketball universe bends toward improving spacing, but Atlanta’s “automatics,” the cuts a given offense’s players are supposed to take as a result of basic reads (as opposed to improvised during the flow), are actively creating worse spacing.

Take this Charles post-up from Friday. It’s a simple four-out, one-in setup, and the Dream swing the ball around the horn looking for a good opening to enter the ball to Charles. Jones gets the entry off, but for whatever reason, Coffey hits an automatic to the opposite block. In doing so, she allows a help defender to quickly double Charles.1 The help prevents Charles from using her momentum off the catch to gain ground against Indiana’s Aliyah Boston, leaving Charles at a disadvantage and allowing Boston to stonewall her into a tougher shot.

Coffey’s cut, from the key to the weakside corner or short corner, was more popular a decade ago. These days, the way a good offense moves around the post entry from this alignment is often to have Rhyne Howard drift toward the weakside corner and have either her or Allisha Gray set a pin-in screen for the other, while Coffey and Jones both slide along the arc away from Charles. This opens the skip pass to the weakside corner, keeps other 3-point options a quick pass away, and makes the defense only able to send help from places where Charles can easily see the proper kick-out pass.

A perfect foil to this is New York — but unfortunately, we go in alphabetical order here, so you’ll have to wait for that.

Connecticut Sun

How did an Aces team one game over .500 cruise to a double-digit win over the top team in the league?2 There are three keys.

  1. Helping off Alyssa Thomas

As a result of both the torn shoulder labrums and just generally what kind of player she was anyway, Thomas is a non-shooter. She makes up for this as best she can with her passing and screening. But those skills can only approximate actual shooting to an extent, and Las Vegas may have the smartest collection of defenders in the league, able to KYP3 their help rotations to take full advantage whenever Thomas (or forward Brionna Jones, but more often Thomas) was stationed outside the paint.

  1. Making DiJonai Carrington’s life hell

Despite scoring a team-high 19 points on Friday, Carrington had a rough go of it. That’s not a reflection of her ability, as she has firmly established herself as one of the best slashers in the league, but it is a reflection of what happens when Thomas isn’t a consistent scoring option. That scoring load had to go somewhere, and to Carrington it fell.

Carrington’s issues mostly came in the pick-n-roll (PnR). Six of her nine 2-point shots in the halfcourt were out of PnRs, and she only hit one of those. Some were missed because of Wilson’s drop coverage, but most misses were the result of the Aces being able to keep Carrington out of rhythm, using guards Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray to chase her into drop coverage and take away her ability to manipulate the pace off the dribble.

Carrington’s ability to get to the line meant her scoring efficiency was far from abysmal, but her struggles from the field were felt because …

  1. DeWanna Bonner missing shots

Sometimes Bonner just misses her jump shots. She is generally a very good scorer off the dribble, but off-the-dribble scoring rarely drives efficient offense for an entire team, and she’s a solid but not great 3-point shooter. Which is to say that, more than most players, Bonner just sometimes goes cold. Of her 2-for-10 performance from the field, she went 1-for-7 on jumpers. Against a team as good as the healthy Aces, she and Carrington can’t both struggle.

California here you come ☀️

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Complete with sweet swag from our friends at Birdies, take in some WNBA action in premium seats when the LA Sparks host the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces on July 5th. 

  • Then catch Angel City vs. the reigning NWSL champs, Gotham FC, on July 6th in style before the Olympic break. In addition to two premium tickets which include warm up field passes, the winners will also walk away with jerseys.

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Las Vegas Aces

The Aces lost to the Liberty last Saturday, with A’ja Wilson’s WNBA-record eight-game streak of 25-point games coming to an end, but Wilson’s torrid start to the season never skipped a beat. Despite missing a ninth-straight 25-piece, Wilson still scored the most points through a player’s first 12 games in any season by a good margin, per Sports Reference … then set the record through a player’s first 13 games, and through 14 games, and she’s already set the record through 15 games despite not having played that many games yet.

Even the games where Wilson clearly wasn’t at her best have been better than most players could ever dream of: 44.4% shooting against Phoenix but with 21 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, three blocks and only one turnover; a pair of games to end May in which she shot 46.0% but averaged 28.5/12.0/3.0/1.5/4.0 (points/rebounds/assists/steals/blocks) and only 1.5 turnovers. No one in WNBA history has ever put up remotely similar numbers over an entire season, and those are Wilson’s off nights!

Over her last five games, Wilson has played against the most imposing frontcourt matchups in the league: Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier and Alanna Smith, Phoenix’s Brittney Griner, New York’s Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, Seattle’s Nneka Ogwumike and Ezi Magbegor, and the aforementioned Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones. Wilson has put up 26.8/11.4/2.4/1.8/1.4 with just 1.8 turnovers per game on 64.7% true shooting.

We are at the point where MVP conversations should probably start not from “Who has been the best player in the league this year?” but instead, “Has anyone ever been as good as A’ja Wilson this year?” And there is a non-zero chance that Wilson is simply having the greatest season of all time.

New York Liberty

Now, this is how you space around a post-up.

The Liberty run horns elbow get to set up a gator to Jonquel Jones.4 Leonie Fiebich doesn’t have the passing window she wants, so she swings to Stewart, who hits the entry pass. Then the magic happens:

  • Stewart takes a laker cut to the weakside block, pulling away the best help defender (Stephanie Talbot) from Jones and causing Sparks guard Zia Cooke to sink off Kayla Thornton.
  • Fiebich drifts along the arc, ensuring that no single defender can guard the pass to both Fiebich and Stewart at any given moment.
  • Sabrina Ionescu begins to drift toward the corner — as I previously described most players are supposed to — until she sees where Stewart is cutting, so she instead lifts. This not only pulls Sparks veteran Layshia Clarendon’s attention away from the paint, but makes it so that Talbot doesn’t have the secondary help defender that would enable her to double the ball.

And that is how cutting provides space.

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Washington Mystics

When veteran guard Brittney Sykes missed 11 games for the Mystics with a foot injury, one of the silver linings beyond an improved draft standing was that viewers were blessed by getting to watch point guard Julie Vanloo doing her thing in a starting role. After a brief return and subsequent reaggravation of the injury on June 11, Sykes is once again unable to play, and Vanloo is back in the starting lineup.

The Belgian veteran in her first season in the WNBA didn’t put up eye-popping basic numbers in that stretch — 8.4 points, 5.7 assists and 3.2 turnovers per game, 38% FG%/34% 3P%/71% FT% shooting — nor do her advanced statistics jump off the page — 51.6% true shooting and 37.9% assist rate, per WNBA Advanced Stats.

But goodness, has Vanloo been fun. The Mystics have had to put the ball in her hands a ton because she and point guard Jade Melbourne were their lone healthy players capable of creating a team advantage out of the PnR. Vanloo didn’t respond with elite PnR play, but the reps she ran were fun as hell:

Really, any time Vanloo has gotten to be on the move and off-ball defenders have had to react, cool things have happened.

In general, getting players on the move before the ball gets to them acts as a force multiplier on what those players do with the ball in their hands. (More on that in a future article.) Many European guards instinctively play to this advantage — think Marine Johannès and Ivana Dojkić in New York. That can become an issue when they make every catch-and-shoot jumper from a spot-up into a movement shot, turning a biomechanically simple action into one with several moving parts. It’s like the difference between trying to pop an ollie while skating straight through an empty parking lot and trying to pop an ollie on top of a train going around a banked curve.

Johannès can get away with bad fundamentals because of an incredible ability to repeat her mechanics each time and because she is one of the handful of best 3-point shooters in the world. Vanloo doesn’t have the same ability to repeat the same mechanics and isn’t nearly as talented of a shooter, so her raw 3-point accuracy is going to keep exceeding her in-game accuracy. But it will still look sweet when it works.

The best part of this for Washington is Vanloo’s on-court impact was statistically minimal: Her on-off net rating was -0.5 over those 11 games, per WNBA Advanced Stats. The team got to keep tanking, its role players got a competent lead guard so they weren’t overtaxed, and fans got some fun highlights. Win-win-win situation.

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  1. Most defenses would have the help come from NaLyssa Smith, with Kelsey Mitchell “sinking” into Coffey’s backside. Mitchell bringing the double instead works because Coffey’s cut takes away the skip pass to Allisha Gray. ↩︎
  2. At least by net rating ↩︎
  3. “Know your personnel,” a catch-all term for adjustments defenders make depending on which opposing players are on the court and where they are stationed. ↩︎
  4. In layman’s terms, the Liberty come out in the alignment where Sabrina Ionescu and Jones are standing across from each other on an imaginary line parallel to the baseline, and run a PnR together where Jones rolls into a post-up and Ionescu swings the ball to someone who will make the entry pass. ↩︎

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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