Welcome back to Above the Break. This week we’re looking at the Sun vs. Aces matchup, the Wings rotation and NaLyssa Smith beginning to flex her range.
The Aces finally lost another game on Thursday. The Liberty finally won another game on Wednesday, giving us three teams that now sit at two wins. It’s early, but the playoff picture feels like it’s already solidifying, with seven teams over .500 and the Sparks two games up on a Fever team that won’t win too many more games for the eight spot
We won’t be breaking down the playoff chase this week, but we will be breaking down some other things from around the league that I’ve had my eye on.
Making sense of the Wings rotations
If there’s one thing we knew would happen heading into this season, it’s that the Dallas Wings under Vickie Johnson would once again run some weird rotations. Last season, it never felt like the team found lineups they liked, and this year, we’re trending in that direction again.
Eight different players have started a game this season for the Wings. Only Allisha Gray and Arike Ogunbowale have started in every game, with Satou Sabally, Tyasha Harris and Teaira McCowan each getting one start each, while Kayla Thornton, Isabelle Harrison and Marina Mabrey have started eight games each.
McCowan and Sabally both got their first starts last game and at least when it came to McCowan, it was a confusing decision.
Digging into Wings data at PBP Stats, the Wings have had a plus-2.47 net rating when Harrison and Thornton have been on the floor. The duo has played 194 minutes, so we have a pretty good sample size that says those two work together. Meanwhile, lineups with Sabally and Thornton or Sabally and Harrison haven’t played a ton of minutes, but have mostly returned positive results.
Dallas needs to figure out a way to make Teaira McCowan work. But for a team with playoff aspirations, is that way really just throwing her into the fire and saying “okay, start this game?” The Wings did the same thing last year with Charli Collier, who started 18 games but was 10th on the team in minutes per game.
And then there’s how Dallas is handling minutes for last year’s rookies, Collier and Awak Kuier. Collier has only played in six of the team’s nine games, playing over 10 minutes just once. Kuier has played in every game, playing as few as two minutes and as many as 19.
At some point, the Wings have to find some consistency with their rotations. If you want McCowan to work — which of course you do, even if her fit with the team is a little weird — then you need to figure out a consistent role for her. If you want to start her, start her. If you want to play her 10 minutes per game off the bench as a change-of-pace center, do that. But right now it feels like the coaching staff is trying to do everything with every player, exploring new combinations in a way that doesn’t lead to any sort of consistency.
What we learned from two Sun-Aces Games
The Aces finally lost another game, with Thursday’s loss 97-90 to the Sun snapping a seven-game winning streak. Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray both left the game in the fourth quarter and didn’t return, but Vegas was already heading for a loss before they went down.
So, what did these two games between the league’s two best teams teach us? Maybe that Vegas isn’t the unstoppable force that we thought it was.
Connecticut is really the antithesis of this Vegas team. Under Becky Hammon, Vegas is getting stretchier and stretchier. But Curt Miller’s Sun team is devoted to playing big and making it work, playing non-shooters at positions where you’d think you’d want a shooter and just bullying teams.
In Tuesday’s 89-81 win, Vegas let some of that bullying happen. Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones combined for 24 rebounds and five stocks, for instance. But Connecticut’s lack of shooting (6-for-22 from 3) hurt them. Thomas was a team-worst minus-15. The Aces won without a barrage of 3s, with the team instead shooting an absurd percentage in the midrange — if I’m counting right, they were 8-for-16 from inside the arc but outside the paint.
In the second game, Vegas shot better from deep, but so did the Sun. The team finally got Jonquel Jones going offensively, with her going 4-for-6 from deep. The difference, I think, was that the Sun were still able to do the bullying that they usually do, but the added impact of Jones stretching out the floor allowed Connecticut to exploit some Vegas weaknesses.
So, what have we learned? Vegas is now 1-2 against the W’s two 7-3 teams. One of those teams has Jonquel Jones. The other has Elena Delle Donne. I wonder if Vegas just isn’t built to stop these kind of players — bigs who play like wings. It’s no surprise that the Aces beat Connecticut in the game where Jones kind of vanished offensively but then lost in the game where she became a focal point for Connecticut.
NaLyssa Smith shoots 3s now
In her first three seasons at Baylor under head coach Kim Mulkey, NaLyssa Smith attempted 27 3s. That number rose to 38 attempts last year after Nicki Collen assumed the head coaching position, but the 3-pointer was never really part of Smith’s arsenal, and she never shot above 23.7 percent on the season from deep.
Smith is already at 23 attempts in her first eight games as a WNBA player, though, and she’s shooting 39.1 percent from 3. It’s a small sample, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves and call Smith a good 3-point shooter or anything. Still, it’s a trend worth noting.
It’s also a trend that shouldn’t be too surprising.
Smith was handcuffed by Mulkey for three years. If you don’t follow a lot of college ball, you can think of Mulkey’s coaching as analogous with Bill Laimbeer’s coaching: a very traditional look at the 4 and 5, with guards and wings that look to drive inside and don’t take many 3s.
So of course Smith wasn’t shooting. When Collen took over, Smith had more of a green light, but of her 1,148 minutes last year, 573 were played with Caitlin Bickle. Bickle is the stretchier big among Baylor’s three bigs last year, so in those minutes, Smith served mainly as the center, limiting her chances to shoot.
Now in the WNBA, she gets to play more at the 4, with her college teammate Queen Egbo at center. (Egbo herself has been a revelation for the Fever. She had disappointing college numbers, but foul trouble was a big part of that, plus she always seemed to struggle against Vic Schaefer’s Texas team, which got a lot of attention since that was the marquee Big 12 matchup.)
Anyway, back to why this shouldn’t be too surprising. Smith saw an uptick in 3-point attempts last year. She also shot in the 79th percentile in free throw percentage, per CBB Analytics. Shooting well from the line can be a marker of future growth in terms of 3-point shooting.