The WNBA is evolving right before our eyes

by Howard Megdal

Early in an Aug. 14 game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the New York Liberty, Candace Parker did something she does all the time, something she has been doing since she was named the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year and MVP back in 2008. It was remarkable on its own terms and unremarkable for her — a perfect encapsulation of not just how stars like Parker have changed the nature of women’s basketball, but of how the women’s game is opening onto a new stylistic future.

Parker was playing the pick-and-pop game with Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray, something she does often. Parker’s ability to pass allows her to facilitate the offense from the perimeter. But New York couldn’t send a smaller defender out on her, as the 6-foot-4 Parker would simply take her to the rim. So instead the job fell to Liberty star Tina Charles, who is herself also 6-foot-4. Charles switched out onto Parker after Parker received a looping pass from Gray but arrived a moment too late, just as Parker buried a 3.

For years, it’s this very play that has made Parker a singular figure in the league. The WNBA always had bigs who could step outside — Lauren Jackson in Seattle, Lisa Leslie in Los Angeles, even Rebecca Lobo took her share of 3s — but Parker was the league’s first true full-spectrum big, capable of creating offense in every way and defending a variety of opponents. Because Parker can do all that so dazzlingly well, she’s already a legend. But it’s the consequences of that — the rupture and expansion in the game that followed — that are Parker’s most remarkable legacy.

This was visible just a few possessions later. Tina Charles entered the league as a relatively conventional big and was, like Parker, instantly a star. She was and remains capable of scoring around the rim with an endless array of post moves, but for years rarely ventured beyond the 3-point line. In her 2012 MVP season, she attempted just five 3s and made just one. It was the first triple of her career, in her third pro season.

Charles does plenty of work in the paint, still, and her initial answer to Parker’s 3 was a fadeaway from about ten feet, followed shortly thereafter by an outlet that led to a fast break. The three-part response was punctuated when her teammate, Kia Nurse, found a trailing Charles beyond the 3-point line at the top of the key. This time it fell to Parker to close out — again, a moment too late, as Charles drained the 3, one of 30 she’s made this season in 90 attempts.

This is the new reality of the WNBA, and the change that Parker has made. It’s no longer a surprise when a WNBA big can range out beyond the 3-point line, facilitate the offense — Charles, who sat in the high single digits in assist percentage as a rookie, reached 23.4 percent in 2016 and has remained in the mid-teens in her two seasons since, even without an elite second option on the floor — and open up the game offensively.

It is an article of faith among all longtime observers of the WNBA that the league has never been better or more fun to watch, with wide-open offense and more players capable of doing it all. More than that, the league seems to be approaching a point when a team cannot compete for a title without at least one such player — either a guaranteed mismatch like Parker or Charles or, as more and more players like Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart enter the league, a way to avoid such a mismatch nearly every game. The change is so dramatic, and happened so fast, that it’s been paradoxically easy to miss. The unprecedented is everywhere now.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“The game’s just become more and more versatile, with players needing to be able to do it all,” Elena Delle Donne said before the WNBA All-Star Game in Minneapolis. She was sitting next to Stewart on one side, and the similarly talented A’ja Wilson sat next to Stewart. “It’s been fun to watch the growth of the league. When I was growing up, there were only a couple players I could look to and try to emulate — like Candace Parker, Kevin Durant — and now there’s a handful of us. I’m sure there’s gonna be more.”

Delle Donne would know, if only because of how the league has changed since she arrived in 2013 as a 6-foot-5 wunderkind out of University of Delaware. Her singular ability to block shots and rebound, at an inch taller than Parker and with a stronger build, came complete with a 3e-point shot that she sank 45.2 percent of the time her senior season, despite drawing endless double- and even triple-teams.

The WNBA, as if in anticipation, had moved the 3-point line back in time for her rookie year — from 20 feet, 6 ¼ inches to 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches, matching the FIBA standard. Delle Donne, being Delle Donne, didn’t miss a beat, hitting 43.8 percent of her deep attempts her rookie season. But the league saw just four of its 12 teams get even 20 percent of their overall points from 3, and the league as a whole shot just 32.6 percent from long range.

In 2018, the league is up to 34.2 percent, not far from the 35.3 percent players shot collectively from the shorter distance in 2012. But the greatest difference comes in volume: 21.6 percent of all shot attempts in Delle Donne’s rookie year of 2013 were from 3, but entering the games of Aug. 9, in 2018, 28.2 percent of WNBA shot attempts come from beyond the arc. The number that’s grown steadily over Delle Donne’s career. “My dad must have had a dream or something,” Delle Donne said when asked how she kept pace with the league’s changes, “and decided that was gonna be the future of women’s basketball.”

But the league’s ongoing stylistic revolution is by now well beyond the imagination of one father and his preternaturally talented daughter. In that same game with Charles and Parker, the Liberty deployed Amanda Zahui B., a 6-foot-5 big out of University of Minnesota, and gave her the green light to shoot from anywhere. After spending the early part of her career as primarily a rim protector, she’s now taking nearly five 3s per 36 minutes for Katie Smith, and as such providing the same sort of matchup issues for opposing second units that stars like Delle Donne and Parker and Charles provide for their counterparts.

Parker, for instance, has been partners with 6-foot-2 Nneka Ogwumike on the court for the past seven years, with Ogwumike utilizing an increased range — 32 3-point attempts between 2012-2015, but 26 alone in 2016 — to the most efficient shooting campaign in WNBA history, one that helped her earn the league’s 2016 MVP. She’s shot more in each subsequent season, for obvious reasons. The game has changed, and she — and everyone else with the chops to pull it off — has changed with it.

Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

The odds-on favorite to take home the 2018 MVP, Breanna Stewart, has been the most recent trailblazing WNBA star to carry this revolution forward. Her coach, Dan Hughes, designed the Storm offense around creating mismatches for Stewart, which has meant deploying her at various times as a supersized wing or in the post against bigs who are too slow to keep up with her. She’s having the best season of her career at 23, sinking nearly 39 percent of her 3s and taking 4.9 of them per 36 minutes.

Stopping Stewart is, at this moment, as mysterious for opponents as slowing down Delle Donne. Interestingly, even when the two face off, both of them get their points. Last Thursday, Delle Donne scored 30 against Seattle while a fatigued Seattle team rested its starters in a blowout. Back in July, Delle Donne scored 29 and Stewart scored 25 in a showdown that many believe could be a preview this year’s WNBA Finals.

“Especially with the size, being able to be 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, and being able to handle the ball, and being in the front, being a post, it’s unguardable in a sense,” Stewart said. “Even when we’re guarding each other, it’s still hard. Obviously we know what we like to do, but it’s hard to stop.”

There’s no real debate within the WNBA’s coaching ranks when it comes to embracing the league’s new, faster, 3-heavy offense. Old-guard coaches like Dan Hughes, Cheryl Reeve and Mike Thibault have been just as enthusiastic about it as newer hires like Katie Smith and Amber Stocks. Thibault has been pushing for “positionless basketball” for many years, and Delle Donne was the centerpiece of his philosophy, a long-sought star he finally acquired before the 2017 season. Even Bill Laimbeer, the Las Vegas Aces coach whose team is the lone outlier when it comes to gunning 3s, is deploying likely Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson, who stands 6-foot-5, as a forward instead of a center. Wilson’s college coach, Dawn Staley, described Candace Parker as the ideal for where Wilson’s game would go prior to her senior season at South Carolina.

Hughes, who once navigated the 2001 Cleveland Rockers to a 22-10 record despite getting just 15.9 percent of his points from 3 and finishing dead last in pace, has more fulsomely embraced the future. His Seattle Storm are running and collecting a league-high 29.9 percent of their points from 3s. That said, Seattle is one of ten teams getting more than 20 percent of their points from 3, with another, the Minnesota Lynx, just below that mark at 19.7 percent. The slowest-paced team in 2018, the Los Angeles Sparks, play at a rate of 77.7 possessions per 40 minutes and the fastest-paced team in 2001, which was also the Los Angeles Sparks, played at a rate of 71.9 possessions per 40 minutes.

Put another way, this mirrors the NBA expansion beyond the 3-point line — from 21.5 3s attempted per team in 2013-14 to 29 in the 2017-18 season — while leading to a faster, more efficient game in all areas. The WNBA shot 60.2 percent from 1-5 feet in the 2018 regular season, up from 56.4 percent just five years ago. And there’s been no decline in effectiveness in the paint, generally — at 32.7, 2018’s points in the paint per team are essentially unchanged from 2013’s mark of 32.8.

“I think it’s a couple things,” Hughes said of the game’s evolution. “I think it is the competency of the players is increasing. But I also think analytics play a part of it. I think people have studied, you’ve got examples in all kinds of basketball, now, what the 3-point shot does to effective field goal percentage.” Hughes has taken that new understanding of best practices and done his best to apply it to the team he has. “Very early in the year [3-point shooting] was incredibly important. Then we kind of evolved and got a little more down in the paint. Now we’re a little bit of a hybrid. There’s no doubt that, analytically, studying the impact of the 3-point shot, has caused people to ponder and say, ‘You know what? We can play in this way and be successful.’”

The effects are being felt even at the league’s extremes — the two tallest players in the league, 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner and 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage, have both taken 3s so far this season — Cambage made four of them en route to scoring 53 points, a league record — and Diana Taurasi, the league’s all-time record holder for 3s made and attempted, is shooting more than ever from deep, enjoying a career renaissance at 36.

The ever-combative Taurasi wasn’t quite ready to declare that having an inside/outside star like Breanna Stewart or Elena Delle Donne was a prerequisite to winning a WNBA title going forward, though. “Last time I checked they don’t have any championships,” Taurasi grinned during All-Star weekend, standing next to her Phoenix Mercury teammate Brittney Griner. “I mean, we can talk about last time I checked she’s got a championship,” Taurasi added, gesturing to Griner, “on the best team that ever played, with the best record ever.”

But that happened 2014, I pointed out. It was the most recent of Taurasi’s three titles, and the league has evolved since then. She acknowledged as much, while pointing out that Griner, too, has moved in that direction. Taurasi even said it might be time to embrace another lengthening of the 3-point line, which would open up the lane even further and maximize the effect that the newly elevated skill and athleticism of the league’s players has had on the game itself. It’s been the way Taurasi has altered her game — she’s all but eliminated the mid-range jumper, attacking the rim with renewed vigor, and the result was a true shooting percentage of .638 in 2018, the best mark of her career, at age 36.

“The league is so versatile right now,” Taurasi said. “You look with the size, and the length — that’s where the NBA went, that’s where the WNBA is going, that’s where basketball’s going in general. I think you see that overseas. The traditional positions are getting erased. It’s very blurry. You used to have a 3 was a 3, a 4 was a 4, a 5 was a 5. Now I don’t know what the difference between a 2 and a 3 is. Muscle mass? I’m not really sure. What’s the difference between a 4 and a 5? Those are the blurred lines. We still have the notion of having traditional positions, but I think that little by little those things are starting to go out the window.”

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