Sunday, June 8, 2014

WNBA 2014: Youth is Served – Until It Runs into the Lynx

Admit it, WNBA fan. You had reservations about Elena Della Donne’s decision not to play overseas on the heels of her Rookie of the Year showing last summer – especially when her Chicago Sky had been so unceremoniously upset in the opening round of the playoffs by the defending champs. You questioned her competitive nature or her love for the game. A smug “Aha!” was at the ready as play kicked off last month.

The Tulsa Shock’s Skylar Diggins, another of 2013’s touted “Three to See,” similarly raised eyebrows by making the same decision following a rookie season with more than its share of challenges, on both the personal and team front.

Perhaps it’s simply fresh legs, but each of the domestic D & D girls has started her sophomore pro season like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Both rank in the top ten not only in scoring, but also in free throw attempts. EDD squeezed 16 foul shots into 30 minutes of play the other night against the Sparks. Minnesota is the only team that has kept her off the stripe, yet she tops the league with seven attempts per game. Diggins’s 4.5-per-game pace rank her ninth.

The WNBA’s current top ten in free throw tries is actually an even generational split – five 2012 Olympians (Whalen, Taurasi, Parker, Moore and McCoughtry) and several likely candidates for the 2020 squad (Brittney Griner, Glory Johnson and this season’s top pick Chiney Ogwumike along with Della Donne and Diggins).

Successful basketball teams at any level seem to find their way to the foul line regularly while preventing their opponents from doing so. Let’s see who is best applying this old-school logic through the WNBA’s first 21 days of play: 

FTA’s per game              Opponents                             +/-

Indiana 25.33               Minnesota 15.0                 Phoenix +9.3
Phoenix 25.25              Seattle 15.5                       Minnesota +5.7
Minnesota 20.7           *Los Angeles 16.0              Indiana +4.1
Atlanta 19.7                *Phoenix 16.0                     Seattle +2.5
Chicago 18.83              San Antonio 17.0               Chicago +1.8
Connecticut 18.75         New York 17.3                 Los Angeles +0.8
Seattle 18.0                 *Chicago 17.5                     San Antonio -1.2
Tulsa 17.6                   *Washington 17.5                Washington -1.8
Los Angeles 16.8           Indiana 21.2                      New York -2.7
San Antonio 15.8           Connecticut 22.1               Connecticut -3.3
Washington 15.7             Tulsa 22.2                         Atlanta -3.9
New York 14.6                      Atlanta 23.6                              Tulsa -4.6

Michael Cooper’s Atlanta Dream offer an enticing array of talent that bears watching – and the early attendance numbers suggest more Atlantans are taking notice. First-round draft choice Shoni Schimmel’s clever play-making has jump-started the WNBA’s third-best field-goal shooting team and second-best offensive rebounding team. The primary beneficiary seems to be veteran center Erika de Souza, currently the league’s best-field goal shooter. She and the again healthy Sancho Lyttle form arguably the best front line in the circuit. They rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in overall rebounding.

For all their size and athleticism, though, the Dream are the league’s second worst team at preventing second chances. Even as Atlanta looked impressive to their home crowd and a national TV audience last week while repelling Los Angeles 93-85, they surrendered 15 offensive rebounds to the Sparks, their best output of the season. What say we examine these numbers:  [OR% = OR/(OR + Opp. DR)]

Off. Reb. %                         Opponents                                +/-

Connecticut .328               Washington .236                 Washington +48
Atlanta .312                       New York .244                  Connecticut +32
Indiana .291                       Phoenix .248                       Minnesota +22
Chicago .289                     Minnesota .253                    Phoenix +15
Tulsa .287                          Seattle .258                         Chicago +8
Washington .284                Chicago .281                       New York +4
Los Angeles .276               San Antonio .282                 Atlanta +2
Minnesota .275                  Los Angeles .287                 Tulsa -7
Phoenix .263                      Tulsa .294                            Los Angeles -11
New York .248                  Connecticut .296                  Seattle -34
San Antonio .245                Atlanta .310                         San Antonio -37
Seattle .224                        Indiana .353                         Indiana -62

The Cream of the WNBA Crop continues to reside in the Twin Cities. No Brunson, No Wright, No Problem! This is a heady bunch that works to make difficult that which their opponent tends to do well. For instance, Della Donne shot zero free throws in her team’s loss to the Lynx last month, her lone 0-fer of the season. It took Griner three games before she got a hand on a Lynx shot last year, and she had one block in two playoff games against them.

Big Brittney gets her first 2014 chance, in front of the ESPN cameras, next Sunday at the appropriately named Target Center. Set your DVR.