May 20, 2023
Two Ups and a Down: Opening Night edition
Griner's return the ultimate highlight of the first day of WNBA action
The WNBA regular season is officially underway! The league kicked off the 2023 campaign with four games featuring some of the WNBA’s most successful franchises, iconic names, and prominent rookies.
Let’s take a quick look at a couple of good things and one not-so-good takeaway from all of the opening night action.
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Up: The Mystics’ defense
It should come as little surprise that the Washington Mystics’ defense harassed their opponents on Friday night; they were the league’s top defense (96.0 DRTG) during the 2022 season, after all. However, I’m not sure many expected them to look as dominant as they were against the New York Liberty, perhaps the favorite to win it all this summer.
The Mystics held the Liberty to 23-for-67 (34.3%) from the field and forced 20 turnovers, seven of which came off the hands of Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot.
“I think [Vandersloot and I] forced it a little bit and when you’re down and trying to build up, you have to take some of those risky passes and push,” Ionescu said. “From the start, we have to take care of the ball and that’s something that we’re going to do. But also, they have great perimeter defenders and that’s something that we knew going in.”
Washington held a masterclass in navigating screens — both switching when appropriate and fighting through — and executing rotations from the jump.
In the clip above, Brittney Sykes and Ariel Atkins do an excellent job of staying with Ionescu despite the Liberty’s attempts to free her with multiple screens. Shakira Austin drops with Jonquel Jones while simultaneously cutting off Ionescu’s path to the basket, forcing her to dribble baseline and dish out to Vandersloot on the wing. Atkins recovers quickly while Sykes follows Ionescu to the corner. The two switch against the Liberty’s guard-only pick-and-“roll” while Austin sits back and swats Ionescu’s layup attempt into the stands. It’s a thing of beauty.
But Washington’s starting guards weren’t the only ones to put on a clinic. In this clip, a Stef Dolson hip-check hinders Shatori Walker-Kimbrough‘s path slightly, freeing up Ionescu for what should be an easy bucket. However, wily veteran and NBA assistant coach Kristi Toliver had her eyes on the action the entire time and planted herself in the restricted area, placing her in a perfect position to force an Ionescu miss.
Washington head coach Eric Thibault exalted his defense after the game.
“They are defensively bought into being the best defensive team in the league, and they will lay it on the line. I think that goes up and down the roster,” Thibault said. “That’s a contagious thing. When we start, one person picks up and pressures, the next one follows. We’re active. We’re using our hands, we’re moving our feet. That’s the team that we want to be on defense every night.”
Washington may not be the favorite to win the title, but their defensive acuity may very well make them contenders.
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Down: Lynx point guard play
The Minnesota Lynx are proceeding in virtually uncharted territory. For the first time in forever, the team does not currently employ a future Hall of Famer on the court. (Their coaching staff and front office, though, are full of them.) President of Basketball Operations and head coach Cheryl Reeve has been uncharacteristically open about the current state of the franchise. The 2023 season is primarily about developing for the future by finding ways to grow individually and as a team. Well, their play against the Chicago Sky revealed how adding a true point guard would aid their return to prominence.
Rachel Banham and Tiffany Mitchell served as Minnesota’s primary initiators against Chicago. Their performance left something to be desired, to say the least. (Lindsay Allen, the only true point guard on the roster, sat with a hamstring strain.) The two combined to shoot 1-for-9 from the field to go along with eight turnovers and only two assists. The Lynx were -14 when they were on the court.
“Our pick-and-roll offense just was not good,” Reeve said after the game. According to Reeve, Banham and Mitchell struggled with making the appropriate reads and attempted too many throws over the top of opposing defenders. The result was a bevy of turnovers and forced looks.
However, Reeve expected some bumps in the road. She admitted that Banham “is not really a point guard” and that Mitchell is still adjusting to her new ball-handling duties. (Mitchell’s point guard skills largely impressed Reeve during practices and the preseason, the coach said.)
“We signed her to a guaranteed contract that was widely criticized. So I will say, it is early, but I believe in Tiffany Mitchell, no question about it,” Reeve said prior to the game.
Reeve also expects to see others handle the ball as well: “We’ve talked a lot about [how] we don’t want to be an offense that’s only driven by one person. So, multiple initiators. All five players have played all positions on the floor. I think that’s gonna be the beauty of our team is that we’re not going to be pigeonholed into labels by position.”
Regardless, the Lynx will need better play from their point guards — and “point guards” — moving forward.
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Up: Brittney Griner is back in action
Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained and used as a political pawn by Russia for most of 2022, meaning she did not play basketball for 579 days.
It took her all of two minutes to register a basket, rebound, assist, and block.
For one night, the results of the game don’t matter. We all got to watch Brittney Griner play basketball again.
That’s not just a good thing, that’s a great thing.
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Written by Lucas Seehafer
Lucas Seehafer is a general reporter for The Next. He is also a physical therapist and professor at the undergraduate level. His work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Forbes, FanSided, and various other websites.
The Minnesota Lynx are in dire need of a real point guard. Mitchell may have a guaranteed contract, but Banham does not. There is no time to wait. Destanni Henderson is available, Didi Richards is available, and I’m sure there are others. Last night’s game was a prelude to Banham’s season; lack of awareness of her teammates, an obvious need to prove she is still worth being in the W, and consistently chucking up shots without any surety. Unfortunately, this is as good as it gets, and the rarity for Banham is a good game, not an off game. Make the move now, or the Lynx will be stuck with a sub-par player for the season.