Look: it’s hard to identify good role players in basketball. The NBA was in business for about 60 years before observers, either inside or outside the game, began to identify good role players reliably. It was only in 2009 when Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, went out on what was then a limb by proposing that Shane Battier, scorer of 7 or 8 points per game, was actually a good player.
Lewis wrote an article, called “The No-Stats All-Star,” that was one of the first mainstream proposals that a player could be good without pouring in buckets. Lewis described how it could be done: “Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse.” I remember thinking the whole thing was heretical. Things have changed.
Considering how long it took the NBA to figure role players out, it’s understandable if the WNBA — just over 20 years old, with a fraction of the front office resources — would still be behind the curve. Then again, those 20 years — especially the last 10 years — have taken place in front of a much smarter basketball-watching public. We now affirm, without hesitation, that players like Alana Beard (6.9 points per game in 2017) or Rudy Gobert (13.5 points per game) are vital to team success. We know confidently that Draymond Green (11.0 points per game) and Seimone Augustus (10.9 points per game) are essential members of their reigning championship teams.
Still, I know that the WNBA has yet to solve the question of identifying its low-scoring but high-impact role players. I know this because Courtney Paris barely gets any minutes.
Paris is a nine-year veteran in the league and in her first as the backup center for the Seattle Storm. The first numbers one might look at are uninspiring: 11.2 minutes and 2.2 points per game on the year. This has been a trend in Paris’ career, as she’s only been a regular starter in three of those nine seasons. Still, a bit of digging into the stats and, more crucially, watching Paris operate on the Storm, and it’s clear that Paris is in the same position that Battier was in before 2009. Not only is she a No-Stats All-Star, but nobody even realizes it yet.
Paris’ game: start by picturing the menacing lockdown post defense of Ben Wallace. This skill-set is enough to be extremely valuable in the WNBA, where each of the last three championship teams (Lynx, Sparks, Mercury) have won on the foundation of a dominant interior scorer (Sylvia Fowles, Nneka Ogwumike, Brittney Griner). Only, Paris is a more prolific rebounder than Wallace, ranking second in WNBA history in rebound percentage, a career average that has remained steady from her rookie year up to now. Paris regularly notches clear possession wins over big-name centers, using aggressive, physical post position to stifle and bother shots, or even prevent entry passes entirely:
On offense, the similarities end with Big Ben, who had trouble producing on the more glamorous end of the floor. While Paris has very limited shooting range, she is a productive complementary player thanks to her ability to find open spaces by actively cutting without the ball. Paris is a deft, heads-up passer when teammates cut open as well. The end result is a ton of high-percentage looks at the rim for the whole team:
Altogether, Paris has a top-20 Net Rating, a seismic per-minute impact that keeps company mostly with the league’s more recognizable stars. That high mark is even more impressive considering that Paris is usually playing with the Storm’s second unit, whose other members score considerably lower on the same metric. (Seattle’s starters tend to keep up their massive plus-minus numbers when Paris is, briefly, in lineups with them.)
When I asked Paris before a recent home game about her subtle statistical career year, I was thinking the mistaken thought that any player who excels in advanced metrics must be monitoring them closely as well. It became clear that 2018 is effectively the same as other years for Paris because she is, truly, exclusively focused on playing within a team concept: “You have a role. I do think there are things that I do well, and in the times I go in the game I try to provide those things for my team.”
Paris even credited the brutal year-round grind of the women’s game for helping expand her uncommon skill-set (tough defense + creative passing): “I think it’s just the years of playing, and different roles I’ve had to play on different teams. I go to Europe and you’re the man, you’re the guy on the team, the number one player.” Please note that Paris is completely cool with what is no doubt the culture shock of going back and forth from primary option to bench player, depending on what season it is.
It’s true: between MVP candidate Breanna Stewart (32.6 minutes per game) and Most Improved Player candidate Natasha Howard (26.5 minutes per game), there are not a lot of freely available minutes in the Storm frontcourt. However, both Stewart and Howard are undersized for their positions, meaning that the imposing Paris could prove crucial if the Storm are locked in a playoff series against a Fowles, Griner, or Liz Cambage. Let’s say Howard is moved into a sixth-man role while Stewart starts at four and Paris starts at five. That means Paris, not the team-leading scorer Stewart, is working to absorb the demanding, physical defensive assignment. On offense, Paris’ lack of shooting range does not mean that the Storm’s league-best 3-point shooting begins to lose crucial spacing on offense. Because Paris is adept at the high pick-and-roll — both as roller and bone-rattling screen-setter — she could fulfill a role similar to the one Clint Capela plays on the spaced-out Houston Rockets.
The NBA and its audience had no choice but to acknowledge Battier’s effectiveness in 2012, when he emerged as an every-game starter during LeBron James’ first championship run. With the Storm sitting at 19-7, the WNBA’s best record, perhaps a similar playoff moment could be awaiting Paris, so she can finally be recognized as a bona fide No-Stats All-Star.