I was all set to strip the Tulsa WNBA team of their nickname. I’d had enough, and they didn’t deserve to keep the same title as the storied franchise that won three championships back when they were playing in Michigan. Too much mismanagement, too many horrible performances, and too many completely unwatchable games of basketball that poor WNBA fans have been subjected to ever since this team moved to Oklahoma. I even had a whole new name picked out. We were going to call them the Wreck. Still a five-letter word ending in -ck, just like their official nickname; a far more fitting description for the state of their franchise and their roster; and a homophone of ‘rec’, as in the rec-league team that they frequently resemble. However, then they had the impertinence to go out and actually show some improvement against Connecticut on Sunday afternoon. Still lost, and it wasn’t really all that close, but improvement nonetheless. So, Tulsa franchise, you get to keep your nickname. For now.
I think it’s fair to say that most of us go into Tulsa games with more of a sense of trepidation than anticipation these days. You’re hoping for signs of life, and enough flashes from the kids or the fading legend to keep you interested, but in general you’re expecting the worst. Last night was one of the better occasions, especially compared to their three previous games this season, all of which were debacles. Connecticut opened up an early lead, and were ahead 29-22 by the end of the first quarter, but no one who tuned in will have been shaking their head too much or shut off their computer in disgust. That’s progress. They were helping each other on defense (at least occasionally), and hitting some shots at the other end, and just generally looking something like an honest-to-goodness professional basketball team.
The inimitable Nolan Richardson produced his third starting lineup in four games, promoting rookie Chastity Reed and bringing Tiffany Jackson off the bench for the first time this season. I’d offer qualifiers like Amber Holt’s injury or the need to shake things up, but Richardson messed with his lineup throughout last year as well, so at this point I think he just enjoys tinkering. Besides Holt being out, Richardson also chose not to use Miranda Ayim or Marion Jones, and considering she played 1:23 total, Jen Lacy might as well have kept her sweats on too. That left a seven-player rotation, which I think helped the Shock stay in more of a rhythm yesterday than they’d managed in their previous games, because there were fewer fluctuations and less craziness in the lineups. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Nolan send out 10 players for 20 minutes each in their next game, but for yesterday at least, this looked a little more like a unit.
The real interest with this Shock team is obviously in the highly touted rookies (not least because over half the roster probably won’t be in the league two years from now). Liz Cambage is an enormous load to try to contain, even at the tender age of 19, and naturally I spent much of the game concentrating on her. First let’s get the negatives out of the way. She takes too many shots where she’s off-balance or still seems to be halfway through her move when she releases the ball. Maybe that’s because she’s not quite used to the strength and physicality of the competition she’s facing in this league yet, but she needs to learn to put up the majority of her shots when she’s square to the basket. Sounds simple, but a lot more of them will go in, trust me Lizzie. She’s still picking up silly little cheap fouls on unnecessary reach-ins and swipes (then getting pissed off about the calls and picking up techs, which isn’t great either). Again, she should get better about that as she learns the foibles of WNBA officials.
Most importantly, and I’m sure the likes of Tom Maher and Carrie Graf have drilled this into Cambage for years already, she needs to fully realise that most of a post player’s work is done before you receive the ball (or your man receives it, if you’re on defense). If you get strong position deep in the paint, then catch the ball, the layup is easy. If you’re already wandering off the block, and catching the ball way out towards the three-point line, you’re going to have a hell of a lot more trouble beating your man and putting the ball through the hoop. Too often, Cambage drifts down the court, then turns around and waves for the ball, rather than fighting for deep position first. Similarly, she got caught too many times yesterday loping down the court in transition, only to watch Jones or Charles score for Connecticut before she was a threat to them in the paint.
Now for the positives. First off, she’s really pretty good at most of that stuff I just mentioned already. I’m picking holes because that’s what I do, but she’s already so big and strong that she frequently gets good position on offense almost without trying. On defense, her pure size and length creates problems, even though her mobility and speed isn’t exceptional. She usually keeps the ball high, which players like her have to do to keep it out of the reach of little ballhawking guards, and she’s got nice touch and decent range for a post player. I’d like to see a little less loping and a little more sprinting from end to end, but they’re asking her to play a lot of minutes and she’s never faced this kind of schedule before, so I can understand some fatigue (and some natural efforts to conserve energy). And finally, let’s not forget, she’s nineteen. That’s still nuts. She’d be years of development away from this league if she was American, but fortunately for us viewers, she’s not.
The other high-profile rookie on this squad is Kayla Pedersen, who I’m still not entirely sure what to make of. She’s clearly got a basketball brain and a varied skill set, but she looks a little slow at times to survive at the small forward spot where she’s getting most of her minutes. Also, while she’s shooting a reasonable 41% from the floor (reasonable for a rookie on a mess of a team, that is), some of the misses have been ugly. They tell me she has three-point range, but I’m yet to see it in her pro appearances. I see flashes of Erin Buescher (later Erin Perperoglou), one of my favourite WNBA role players of recent times, in Pedersen’s game, with the potential to offer more at the offensive end than Buescher ever did. However, Buescher developed herself into a heck of a defensive player, capable of stopping a whole variety of different players. Right now I see Pedersen likely trying to defend a variety of different players for this squad as the season goes on, but not necessarily stopping many of them. If she works on her game and learns how to do that, she’ll have a long WNBA career.
So anyway, back to the game. The Sun maintained their lead through the second and third quarters, usually somewhere between seven and ten points, but never quite able to blow the game open like San Antonio did in their two games against Tulsa. The Shock’s offense got completely stagnant in the third quarter, allowing Connecticut to push their lead to fifteen, before Ivory Latta decided the fourth quarter was going to be her time to shine. Cambage was knocked out of the game early in the fourth when she got accidentally smacked in the face by teammate Tiffany Jackson, removing the primary offensive weapon, so Latta got all kinds of aggressive looking for her own shot. No one’s going to complain when they’re practically all going in. She was the Shock’s only scorer in the final stanza – with 15 points in the fourth quarter alone – until a Jackson jumpshot with 1:27 left in the game. At one point Latta dragged the Shock within six, but the Sun responded with a couple of buckets and held on for a 90-79 win, without ever being in too much danger.
Part of the reason you spend so much time watching Cambage and Pedersen with this roster is the complete lack of alternatives. Obviously Latta can score, and maybe she can run a team, but it’s frankly hard to tell. Sheryl Swoopes looks fairly healthy, which is nice, but at 40 the mind is willing but the body isn’t quite up to it any more. Tiffany Jackson is probably lucky to still be in the league, but she’ll grab a few rebounds and throw in a few points if she’s in the mood. Coach Richardson’s ‘system’ doesn’t seem to work in this league, and he’s struggled to adapt, but the roster that GM Richardson has put together is a central part of their struggles as well. Now, on to Andrea Riley. She only played 12 minutes yesterday, but honestly, I could go on for pages. She’s horrible. Absolutely horrid. Really, truly, abominably awful. She can’t run an offense, she doesn’t pass the ball, she’s not even that quick or annoying on defense, and she can’t freaking shoot. Remember that kid who you used to hate playing ball with because he (or she) would never pass the damn rock, but you grudgingly put up with it because he/she was actually pretty talented and tended to put up points? Andrea Riley is that kid, if that kid couldn’t score. I’d say she was working her way back to full fitness after having her baby, but she was exactly this atrocious in LA last year as well. How she’s still in this league is frankly beyond me.
Over to the other side, and apologies to Sun fans for having to wade through all that to get to the stuff about their team (hopefully it wasn’t too painful). There’s a good team here somewhere. I’m just not convinced that they’re anywhere approaching great, or ever will be without significant upgrades. A healthy Asjha Jones teamed with Tina Charles is a very strong tandem in the post. They can both score inside and out, but they’re comfortable giving each other room and even finding one another for scores. Jones threw a nifty little bounce pass to Charles late in the fourth quarter last night that reflected their increasing confidence as a unit, and the still-developing chemistry. But neither is a Jackson/Parker/Taurasi level of star player who can carry a team, and without that you need a really strong group at the other spots. Their guards are good, but not great. Kara Lawson makes up for a lot of Renee Montgomery’s deficiencies as a point guard, but you can still see that both of them would probably be better off playing off the ball. The rest of the pieces are all decent, without being anything to write home about. Greene, White and McCray will probably be enough to fill the remaining minutes on the outside adequately on any given night, Griffin still looks like an energy role-player rather than a lottery pick, and DeMya Walker looks older than Taj. I think they’re going to win quite a few games, and be in the playoff mix all season, but right now I wouldn’t expect to be the slightest bit scared of them once we get there.
Still, for the time being, the Sun improve to 2-1 before heading to Washington on Thursday night, while the Shock perform well enough to retain their nickname. Seems like a win-win all around. We’ll see whether Tulsa can continue to avoid becoming the Wreck tomorrow night, on ESPN2 in Indiana.
In other news…
Cambage was chattering away on twitter last night, celebrating the Mavs’ victory like the rest of us, so her ‘mild concussion’ from the game doesn’t seem like anything to worry about.
WNBA Players of the Week were announced today (as they will be every Monday throughout the season), and the awards went to Katie Douglas in the East and Rebekkah Brunson in the West. I probably would’ve gone with Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles instead of Douglas, but Katie was a worthy choice as well. Brunson’s come flying out of the blocks for the Lynx and was the obvious choice out West.
Tomorrow will be the first in an occasional WNBAlien series, tentatively called ‘Your WNBA Questions Answered’, where I’ll try to cover whatever you people out there may want to ask about the league. I’m thinking salary cap, CBA, trades and rules, but something as simple as “How good do you think Courtney Vandersloot can be?” would be welcome as well. For the first one, I fully expect to be making most of the questions up myself, but feel free to throw out your queries if there’s anything you’d like me to tackle. Even unanswerable questions like ‘what would be a truly equitable trade for Andrea Riley?’ are welcome. Comment here, email, tweet or throw up a flare if you want to get in touch.