WNBA Today, 07/07/2011: Who deserves to start the All-Star Game?

Seeing as we’re going through yet another couple of days with no WNBA games (seriously league, four games in six days? Are you kidding me?), and there are only four days left to get your votes in, I thought it was about time I finally picked my All-Star starters. I hate that we have to do this so early in this league – not that there’s any good reason to start quite as early as the WNBA begins the voting every year – but the clock’s running out. The game’s in just over two weeks. At least everyone’s played nine or ten games by now, so I don’t feel completely ridiculous making choices based on 2011 performance. Candidates will be examined for their candidacy in their position as they appear on the ballot. So while you and I know, for example, that something contrived is going to happen at center in the West, for now we’re sticking to the rules. I’m allowed a write-in vote for someone who isn’t named in a specific position on the form, though, if I so choose. Got to have a little leeway.


West Guards

First, let’s cut off everyone who’s ridiculous. Okay, I’m down to five. Jia Perkins has had a nice few games, but let’s face it, she’s not really in this argument. Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Becky Hammon, Lindsay Whalen, and Seimone Augustus are my shortlist. While obviously everyone likes to vote for their favourites in these things, and I have no problem with that whatsoever, what I’m trying to do here is decide who actually deserves to be starting in San Antonio on the 23rd. Not who’s the cutest or was once really nice when she gave you an autograph. I can’t truly see any other West guard (or ‘guard’, seeing as DeWanna Bonner’s an option on the ballot) entering the discussion with those five.

On a team that struggled to recapture last season’s form even before Lauren Jackson got hurt, Bird’s quietly having a heck of a year. Running the team as always, shooting high percentages from 2-point and 3-point range, and her per game scoring average is up several points on last year. The only negative statistic is the turnovers, all the way up at 2.7 per game. That’s basically just a sign that she’s actually human though, after the ridiculous 1.8 average last season.

Hammon’s turnovers have always been high, but that’s because she takes more risks than Bird and is less of a point guard (and doesn’t take care of the ball as well, but we are comparing her to one of the best). Hammon’s gotten off to a great start this season, scoring, dishing and leading her Silver Stars to the best record in the WNBA. When you’re eighth in the league in scoring and a full assist clear at the top of that category, you’re hard to ignore for the All-Star festivities. Plus, y’know, the game is taking place in San Antonio. Not that I would allow that to colour my decision, but it’d still be kind of nice to see their favourite daughter out there for the tip.

I feel like Taurasi is a little bit of a reach as a starter right now. The numbers are still very impressive – over 20 points per game, strong percentages, helping out in other categories as always – but she played badly enough in the first few games that people were wondering if she was hurt, or if the difficult offseason had drained her mentally. Looks like she’s snapped out of it now, but when we’re only looking at ten games, those early ones count.

The Whalen/Augustus combo in Minnesota has been a key part of the strong Lynx start. Seimone has got some of the spring back in her step, she’s putting points on the board, and despite moving from small forward back to primarily shooting guard, she hasn’t been shown up defensively either. Whalen’s had a great start to the year, pulling the strings, getting her teammates involved and scoring efficiently. As with Augustus, there were concerns about the speed (or lack thereof) of Whalen and that Minnesota perimeter before the season started, but they’re statistically the best defense in the league. Whalen and Augustus aren’t giving the points back on defense.

Ultimately, I think it’s Hammon and then a straight choice between the two Team USA point guards. I give Whalen the tiny edge solely because the Lynx look better than the Storm so far, but it’s not like that’s really been Bird’s fault. She’d be a perfectly valid choice too.


East Guards

This one I find myself approaching a little differently. Instead of cutting the candidates down to an immediate shortlist, I instead have one immediate selection. Katie Douglas, on performance, has to start this year’s All-Star game. She’s a shooter who’s been red-hot through most of the year, averaging 16.5 points per game on 53% from the floor and over 50% from three-point range. She initiates the offense of what is currently the best team in the East a fair bit of the time as well. Douglas walks onto the team with ease.

That leaves us with a whole bunch of candidates for the other Eastern guard spot. Atlanta’s guards have been very disappointing, so it’s a no-go there; Matee Ajavon has surprised most of us with how she’s performed in Washington, but it hasn’t been at All-Star level; and although Briann January was doing okay alongside Douglas, she was nowhere near this game even before she got hurt. So we’re down to New York, Chicago and Connecticut to find our other starter.

The obvious superstar pick is Cappie Pondexter, and although she’s come off the bench in over half of New York’s games, Liberty teammate Essence Carson has played well enough to at least receive a mention as well. Like Taurasi, her former running mate in Phoenix, Pondexter got off to a slow start offensively, struggling a little to find her role in new head coach John Whisenant’s backcourt. She’s improved lately, but it’s still not been quite the Cappie that we remember from previous years. Carson has been a revelation this year, after spending so much of last season in Anne Donovan’s doghouse. She’s been a consistent injection of offense when the Liberty have needed it, and is an early candidate in both the 6th Woman and Most Improved races. Might be a bit of a stretch for All-Star starter, but we’ll definitely be looking at her again when I write the piece on the reserves.

While all the hype in preseason was about rookie Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago’s only true All-Star candidate outside of the center spot is Epiphanny Prince. She’s become their perimeter offense, practically on her own, and while I’d love to see her drive more she’s putting up strong numbers even without going to the hole all that much. Her quick hands and good instincts always make her a threat on the defensive end as well. 43% from the floor, 34% from three, 17 points, four assists and three steals are averages worth paying attention to. Not bad for someone in their second year in the WNBA.

Finally, over in Connecticut, while Kara Lawson may be the better-known name in the Sun’s backcourt thanks to her media work, Renee Montgomery has pushed herself into the All-Star reckoning this season. Defensively she’s not quite the player that Prince is, but offensively she’s become the regular perimeter balance to Connecticut’s Jones/Charles frontcourt. She’s driving to the rim, spreading the ball around better than she used to, and limiting those occasions where you just want to yell at her for constantly shooting the freaking ball. That used to happen a lot.

I have Montgomery at least half-a-rung ahead of Prince so far this season, and Pondexter is still the key in New York so she has to be ahead of her teammate – which leaves a straight choice between Renee and Cappie to join Douglas. I feel a little crazy for saying this, considering that if you lined up all the female basketball players in the world against a wall and picked teams, Cappie would go ahead of her by miles, but I give Montgomery the spot. She has significantly more help in Connecticut than Pondexter does in New York, but Renee’s earned it with her attacking mentality and offensive effectiveness so far this season. Wow. I seriously just picked Renee Montgomery to start an All-Star game?


West Forwards

This one’s surprisingly tricky. Lots of very good players who’ve put in strong performances, without necessarily jumping out at you and demanding to be included. In Phoenix, both Penny Taylor and Candace Dupree are maintaining their impressive numbers from last year, and have helped the Mercury win six of their last seven games. Camille Little was one of the few Seattle players who didn’t start slowly, and lately Swin Cash has stepped up her game alongside her. Rebekkah Brunson started the season like a house on fire in Minnesota, overshadowing the forward next to her who’ll probably be voted in, Maya Moore. Finally, over in San Antonio, we have perennial All-Star candidate Sophia Young and a wildcard surprise in rookie Danielle Adams. I’m ignoring LA and Tulsa, because neither Tina Thompson nor DeLisha Milton-Jones have been setting anything on fire, and as much as I’m enjoying the early days of the Kayla Pedersen era, she’s no All-Star Game starter.

I like Taylor over Dupree as Phoenix’s standout candidate. While Candice has a smooth game and grabs a bunch of rebounds, Taylor does everything and anything for the Mercury. She’s verging on the very exclusive 50/40/90 club (50% from the field, 40% from three-point range, 90% from the free-throw line), averaging 16 points and five rebounds per game, sitting third in the league with over five assists per contest, and she’s even leading the Merc in steals. Her all-round game is just pretty.

Little’s a great role player, but not an All-Star starter; Young’s had too many quiet games this year, although she remains a big part of the Silver Stars’ success; and Cash has only started showing up in Seattle’s most recent games. Adams doesn’t quite make the cut at forward, but I’ll get back to her a little later. That leaves me with Brunson, but it’s hardly just a matter of falling back on her because of a lack of alternatives. Rebekkah was electric to start the season, running off six straight double-doubles to begin the year and playing a central role in Minnesota’s push to finally make the playoffs. She rebounds like a demon, and she picks up her fair share of points largely on putbacks and by running the floor. When you’re that athletic, your offensive game doesn’t need to be all that refined.

Well whaddaya know, it wasn’t that hard after all – Taylor and Brunson.


East Forwards

Wow, after sifting through all those strong candidates in the West, it looks a little bare over here. Crystal Langhorne has been doing a sterling job in Washington trying to carry the load, but it’s hard to name an All-Star starter from such a terrible team. Missing the last two games hasn’t helped her cause. There’s no one from Chicago or New York who merits a mention. Atlanta’s two official candidates were both superb last season, but due to injury, absence and underperformance, neither really deserves to be discussed as an All-Star starter this year. Yikes, I’m literally down to three candidates without even thinking about it.

The first and most obvious is Tamika Catchings, who for her hasn’t even been having that great a year. Her shooting stroke has been a little off in most games, and while she’s been charging after rebounds and playing her usual brand of crazed defense as Indiana’s leader, her offense has been limited. Averaging nearly five points less per game than last year and shooting poorly from outside, through 11 games the Fever’s most likely MVP candidate is someone other than Catch for the first time in a decade, which is something of a shock. Still, a slightly underperforming Tamika Catchings is better than 100% of nearly anyone else you’re going to find.

Over in Connecticut, Asjha Jones is having a solid bounce-back year after playing most of last season at least semi-injured. She’s been overshadowed lately by frontcourt mate Tina Charles, but Jones has been a pretty good sidekick averaging 13 points and five rebounds per game in just 28 minutes. Doesn’t really jump out at you as an All-Star starter though, especially considering she’s probably been the third-best player on her own team. If that.

The third viable candidate I see is Langhorne, who’s been doing her best in a very difficult situation. Playing without their two best perimeter players, after losing two others from last year’s squad, Langhorne has had to put the team on her back (which is probably why it’s been hurting enough to take her out of the last two games). Frontcourt partner Nicky Anosike losing her shot somewhere out in the wilderness hasn’t made Crystal’s job any easier, either. Lang has still been effective despite her lack of help, is somehow still shooting 56% from the floor even though defenses are collapsing on her, and she’s even upped her scoring average by a couple of points. Pretty impressive when your team’s second option is Matee Ajavon.

So Catchings gets in despite not being quite the Catch of last year, because no one’s made enough of a move to push her out. After that, I take Langhorne, because even though her team is playing horribly compared to Jones’s Sun squad, Langhorne’s individual performances have still been impressive. The back injury she’s had lately isn’t enough to keep her out.


West Center

Well this one’s complicated. The two most obvious choices at the start of the season, Lauren Jackson and Candace Parker, are both injured and very unlikely to play in the All-Star Game. That wouldn’t stop me selecting them if I thought they’d earned the spot before getting hurt. LJ didn’t play well enough or long enough to be considered, but Parker had six and a half very good games before injuring her knee. Considering everyone else has only played nine to eleven, and the alternatives don’t knock you off your feet, she’s still in the conversation.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin has had an impact in Minnesota, but more through her influence and presence than anything else. Her numbers are surprisingly poor. Kara Braxton isn’t anyone’s idea of an All-Star starter. Liz Cambage is doing all that she can in Tulsa, but she’s still a ways off deserving to start any All-Star games outside of Australia’s WNBL. Jayne Appel is obviously laughable, and the player who’s actually starting at center in San Antonio – Ruth Riley – is ruled out because she’s on the ballot as a forward. So yeah, any ideas?

Actually, I’ve got one. Remember I said we’d get back to Danielle Adams? Well guess who’s been playing center most of the time that Riley goes to the bench for the Silver Stars? In my slightly sneaky mind, that makes the gunning rookie a candidate here, and she’s a lot more worthy than anyone else I’ve mentioned to rival Parker. 49% from the floor, 38% from three-point range, 16 points per game and nearly five boards in under 23 minutes are incredible numbers for a rookie that many people thought wouldn’t survive at this level. In her first month as a pro she’s shown all the doubters that whatever her size, when you’ve got her level of touch and natural ability, sometimes size doesn’t matter. She’s also fourth in the league in PER, for those who like their numbers advanced, behind only Douglas, Parker and Fowles. Heady company.

So here’s my write-in vote. She might be barely six-feet tall, and a little bit of a reach as a center, but that’s where she’s played a lot of her minutes for the diminutive San Antonio squad this season. Nine games of Adams showcasing her offensive arsenal (and her flopping skills, but the less said about that the better) gives her the edge over six-and-a-half games from a now-injured Parker. Just.


East Center

This might be the hardest choice of the lot, but not because it’s difficult to work out who’s worthy of a place like some of the other spots. Erika de Souza, Jessica Davenport and Kia Vaughn have all had good seasons so far, but this one’s a straight choice between the two Team USA centers, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Both of them have been fantastic. Big Syl is averaging a couple more points, but Charles is ahead by nearly as many rebounds. Fowles’s defensive numbers are a little higher across the board, as is her shooting percentage, but Charles spreads opposing defenses a little more with her greater range, so you’d expect a slightly lower number from the floor. Fowles has the edge in PER, but not by much, and Charles has helped her team to a significantly better record, which is a mark in her favour. You really can’t go wrong either way.

Charles has been phenomenal lately after taking a few games to get going, crashing the boards and scoring inside and out against anybody. Fowles has been impressive from the start, dominating at both ends of the floor, and only disappearing in rare games where her teammates seem to forget about her, or occasionally when foul trouble has been an issue. They’ll both be MVP candidates if they continue like this (although the Sky will probably have to win a few more games to keep Syl in the discussion).

I really fluctuated back and forth on this one, but in the end I go with Fowles. It might be because Chicago are 2-1 in the games between their teams so far this year, or it might be because Fowles got the chance to impress most recently when she single-handedly destroyed Washington on Tuesday night, but there it is. Check back in five minutes and I might’ve edited this paragraph to say Charles.

—–

So there you go, my good people. In summary:


West

Lindsay Whalen

Becky Hammon

Penny Taylor

Rebekkah Brunson

Danielle Adams


East

Renee Montgomery

Katie Douglas

Tamika Catchings

Crystal Langhorne

Sylvia Fowles (or Tina Charles. Or Fowles. Or Charles. Or…)

—–


In other news…

Washington cut Joy Cheek, and re-signed Kerri Gardin. I won’t bore you with the CBA and contract rules that may have led to it, because it’s freaking Joy Cheek and Kerri Gardin. You’ve heard that line about deckchairs and the Titanic, right?

Jessica Breland stated on twitter that she isn’t with another team yet and she’s headed home, which presumably means she’s cleared waivers. That surprises me a little, considering the players still populating some WNBA rosters and what Breland offered New York in her brief appearances. I still think there’s a good chance we’ll see her again this season.


Today’s Games:

None. Again.

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2 comments on “WNBA Today, 07/07/2011: Who deserves to start the All-Star Game?

  1. […] be announced tomorrow night, during the Seattle-San Antonio game on ESPN2. You got my picks for who I felt ought to be starting last week, but if you want me to guess who I expect the fans to have voted in, I’ll go with Pondexter, […]

  2. […] Bear in mind along the way that these are my picks for who I feel deserves to be named – not necessarily who I expect the coaches to send to the game, or who I’d pick if I was simply trying to make the game entertaining. If you fancy reminding yourself who I selected as my choices to start the game, you can find that here. […]

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