So after the fans did a reasonable job picking their starters for the WNBA All-Star Game on Saturday, the coaches are left to select the remaining six players in either conference. Because I can never resist the temptation to tell a WNBA coach what he or she should’ve done, it’s time for me to select my reserves just before the official announcement later tonight. The rules say that the coaches have to name six players including at least two guards, two forwards, and a center, so that’s what I’ll be sticking to as well.
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.
Starters: Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi
Okay, first off, I made a list of everyone who isn’t already starting that could even remotely be considered an All-Star candidate. In the West, across every position, I ended up with 16 names (and yes, several of those were a reach). Only five are guards, so I’m already down to a pretty short list, and in fact it’s damn easy to select the first two.
Becky Hammon continues to lead the San Antonio Silver Stars into battle. She’s their top scorer, she’s leading the league in assists, and she’s the darling of Silver Stars Nation. Plus she’s been doing all that with a noticeably injured shoulder since the start of the year. It wouldn’t be right to have an All-Star Game in San Antonio without her, and fortunately for me her play fully warrants being named anyway. The Silver Stars may have been energised by their influx of new talent, but it’s the old stalwarts who are still the central pieces to their puzzle.
In Minnesota, Lindsay Whalen is quietly having one of the best seasons of her career. While the national hype has been around rookie Maya Moore, and Rebekkah Brunson’s repeated double-doubles have drawn WNBA attention, Whalen has been leading the Lynx charge with aplomb. She’s second in the league in assists (behind only Hammon), and she’s been the strong, controlling hand pointing the way for Minnesota since the start of the season. She’s also shooting over 50% from the floor and over 40% from three-point range, easily the best numbers she’s ever put up in the WNBA. Another easy pick.
For the record – and because there’s an extra wildcard pick to make once the two guards, two forwards and center are out of the way – the three remaining guards on my list are Seimone Augustus, Kristi Toliver and Jia Perkins. Augustus may not be quite the player that she was before all the injuries, but it’s been a pleasant surprise to see her scoring so effectively this season even after all the physical issues she’s had. She’s leading the Lynx in points per game, and that jump shot is still one of the prettiest to watch in the women’s game.
Toliver’s a pure gunner who’s clearly worked on her game, and become a significantly more rounded player this year; Perkins is the additional backcourt scoring help that Hammon’s needed for years in San Antonio – but both are something of a stretch as All-Star candidates.
West Guard Reserve Picks: Becky Hammon, Lindsay Whalen
Starters: Cappie Pondexter, Katie Douglas
I made that same list for the East and only got to 12 total for potential reserves, although five are guards. Some of them were real fringe candidates, though. In reality, I see three legitimate options for the two guard spots in the Eastern Conference – Renee Montgomery, Epiphanny Prince and Essence Carson.
Montgomery was one of my selections to start, so you’d think she’d be an immediate entry on my reserves list. The problem is that she’s faded badly in the last couple of weeks, and it’s taken the shine off her hot start. She’s still racking up nearly five assists per game, but her shooting numbers – and scoring is primarily what she’s known for – have dropped nastily. 38% from the field isn’t impressing anyone, although she is forcing her way to the line a hell of a lot to make up for it. Although the free throw attempts have dried up a bit lately as well.
Despite playing primarily at off-guard rather than Montgomery’s point guard spot, Prince has had a similar kind of season. She’s the key perimeter scorer for her team, but is taking and missing a hell of a lot of shots. Prince’s field-goal percentage is holding just above 40%, but her three-point percentage is a little lower than Montgomery’s, she gets to the line a little less and her assist numbers are a little lower (not surprising, seeing as she’s playing the 2). It’s become practically a toss-up between the two, although Montgomery’s team has been playing markedly better which gives her an edge.
Over in New York, Essence Carson has been having the season of her life. She missed a couple of games with an eye injury, but when she’s been available she’s been the extra offensive weapon that the Liberty’s perimeter has needed alongside Cappie Pondexter. Carson isn’t passing much, but that’s not what they’re sending her out there to do when she comes off the bench to attack opposition defenses.
Despite coming off the bench and playing fewer minutes than Prince or Montgomery, I feel like Carson’s consistency and impact on multiple games warrants inclusion. By the skin of her teeth, I still have Montgomery just ahead of Prince, although there’s very little in it at this stage. In case anyone was wondering, the other two guards who made my expanded shortlist were Armintie Price and Matee Ajavon, who are having surprisingly good seasons for Atlanta and Washington respectively. Still, looking back on this season and seeing either listed as an All-Star would leave you wondering just how many people pulled out of the showpiece game due to injury. So they aren’t realistically part of the conversation.
East Guard Reserve Picks: Essence Carson, Renee Montgomery
Starters: Maya Moore, Swin Cash
At least in this group I’m trying to decide between legitimate candidates, not searching around for someone to choose. In Phoenix there are two contenders, with Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree both putting up strong numbers. Dupree may not be managing the ridiculous shooting percentage of last season, but she’s still a very efficient scorer and a smooth presence on the front line for the Mercury. Taylor, however, has been outstanding in practically any area you care to mention this season. She’d be the first player in league history to average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per game if she maintains her current levels throughout the season, and she’s shooting 53% from the field, 44% from three-point range and 86% from the free throw line. If that isn’t an All-Star, I don’t know what is.
In Minnesota, Rebekkah Brunson has been a remarkable rebounding presence for the Lynx. She’s leading the league by a decent margin with over 11 per game, throwing in 13 points per contest at 58% from the floor, and just generally dominating the glass with her ridiculous athleticism. She’s also teamed with Taj McWilliams-Franklin to create a very solid interior presence for the Lynx, which has made them statistically the best defensive team in the league so far this season. She’s practically impossible to leave out as well.
Which – at least for the two initial forward spots – leaves a deserving Sophia Young out in the cold. The Silver Stars forward, a regular presence in All-Star games, has quietly dropped 15 points per game and upped her rebounding to seven per contest for the 9-4 Silver Stars. She’s not flashy or demonstrative, and she’ll always be undersized for a 4, but she remains one of the rocks that San Antonio’s team is built around. Brunson and Taylor have simply been too good this year.
The other forwards who made my long-ish short-list were DeLisha Milton-Jones of LA, DeWanna Bonner of Phoenix, and rookie Kayla Pedersen, who’s been toiling away in Tulsa since turning pro. All three have had decent seasons so far, but none of them really threaten the others mentioned above.
West Forward Reserve Picks: Penny Taylor, Rebekkah Brunson
Starters: Tamika Catchings, Angel McCoughtry
Maybe I should’ve counted Carson or Price – both of whom swing between the 2 and the 3 – as a forward, just to make this part of the article more worth writing. As it is, I only have three forwards on my supposedly long-ish short-list, so this shouldn’t take long.
In Washington, after losing so many players in the offseason and continuing to fight through injuries since the games got underway, the only consistent offensive presence has been Crystal Langhorne. An All-WNBA member last year, Langhorne’s remarkable scoring efficiency and consistency has continued this season even with the lack of help she’s had around her. Her numbers may not be quite as high as last year, but she’s still playing very well in trying circumstances. Maybe an All-Star appearance will make up for all those losses just a touch.
The remaining two candidates have similar numbers in a lot of categories, but I don’t find it hard to choose between them at all. Plenette Pierson has been a central piece of the surprising success that New York have had so far this season. Remember how the Liberty were supposed to fall apart without Janel McCarville and Taj McWilliams-Franklin to rely on down low? Well Pierson’s toughness, combative nature and versatile skills have compensated (along with Kia Vaughn) and New York have kept on winning games. She deserves to be in San Antonio. Apart from her 50% field-goal percentage to Pierson’s 54%, Asjha Jones has amassed stats that are near-identical to Pierson’s this year, but it doesn’t feel like she’s been as key to Connecticut’s play as Pierson has been to New York. The Sun rise and fall behind Charles and Montgomery, with Jones as their hoped-for third-wheel; Pierson is one of the leaders of the Liberty alongside Cappie Pondexter. Therefore, I’d select Pierson ahead of her without a great deal of need for deliberation.
East Forward Reserve Picks: Crystal Langhorne, Plenette Pierson
Starter: Candace Parker
Ignore for the moment that the chosen starter is hurt and won’t be playing in the game. That’s what the coaches had to do when selecting their reserves. My pick to start the game makes this pretty easy, but let’s take a look at the other candidates anyway.
Tulsa rookie Liz Cambage has done her best in difficult circumstances with the Shock. 14 points and five rebounds per game aren’t overwhelming numbers by any means for skilled 6-8 post player, and she’s looked lost at times, but for a 19-year old kid in a new country she’s doing okay. Liz will likely play in her fair share of All-Star games in the future, but on performance and production this season, I find it hard to see her on the 2011 squad.
Kara Braxton was a comedy All-Star when she was voted in as a starter in 2007, but this season she’s actually playing well enough to be discussed as a realistic option. She struggles to play for long periods in the Mercury’s high-paced system, but when she’s been on the floor she’s scored efficiently and provided a big presence for Phoenix in the paint. Still a little bit of a stretch as an All-Star, but it would certainly be a hell of a lot more warranted than the last time she made it.
Statistically, Taj McWilliams-Franklin is having a fairly horrible season. Which just goes to show you the limitations of statistics. 36% from the floor for seven points per game from a post player looks awful, but Taj has been a veteran leader on a team that desperately needed an experienced voice on the floor, and she’s helped transform the Minnesota interior defense into one of the best in the league. The lack of offense and poor numbers mean she won’t make it, but I’d have no problem considering her an All-Star this year for the effect she’s had on the Lynx.
My pick to start the All-Star Game over Parker is inevitably also my pick as the reserve center for the West. Rookie Danielle Adams doesn’t look like your typical professional basketball player, and she certainly doesn’t look like a typical center. Her rotund form made many wonder if she’d make it in the WNBA, including all the GMs who passed on her and let her fall to #20 in this year’s draft. All she’s done in response is shoot the freaking lights out. She’s been an electric burst of offense for San Antonio, coming off the bench to average over 15 points per game on threes, fadeaways and the occasional post move. At barely 6-feet tall she’s not a huge rebounding presence, but when she can get into position she uses that big body of hers to bully her way to a fair few boards. Defensively she drives opposition fans crazy with her constant flopping, but they can’t deny that it works – she’s leading the league comfortably in charges taken. The San Antonio fans love her already, but making her an All-Star won’t just be a home-town pick – she flat out deserves to be there.
And yes, Adams has been playing the five when she comes off the bench, even with Ruth Riley and Jayne Appel on the Silver Stars’ roster. So I see nothing wrong with counting her as a center.
West Reserve Center Pick: Danielle Adams
Starter: Tina Charles
This just might be the easiest selection ever made. For any game, ever. Sylvia Fowles has been a hugely dominant presence in the paint for Chicago this season, and she’s practically the sole reason that the Sky finally look like they might make the playoffs. She’s leading the league in scoring, leading the league in blocks, and third in the league in rebounding. If she ups her rebounds by 0.1 per game over the rest of the year, Big Syl will become only the second player in league history to average 20/10 for a complete season. She’s a shoo-in.
For the sake of the wildcard debate to come, honourable mention goes to Erika de Souza in Atlanta, who’s been inconsistent offensively but her usual big presence down low for Atlanta; Jessica Davenport, who outperformed Tammy Sutton-Brown so significantly in Indiana that she took her starting spot (Davenport has become a better scorer than de Souza, but remains a far less effective rebounder); and Kia Vaughn in New York. Vaughn was given the starting spot for the Liberty almost by default when all the other options left town, but she’s stepped up and proven that she belongs. She’s scoring well, grabbing her fair share of boards, and doing as best she can in John Whisenant’s newly-installed defense. An All-Star spot would be a reach, but the mere fact that she’s even on the fringe is a huge step forward for Kia.
East Center Reserve Pick: Sylvia Fowles. Duh.
The good thing here is that not only do we have the sixth reserve spot available, but at some point the league will have to name a replacement for Candace Parker. History indicates that the replacement doesn’t have to be a center, by the way.
For those paying attention, options remaining for this spot after the previous choices are Augustus, Dupree, Young and Braxton (with Cambage and McWilliams-Franklin as distinct outsiders). I think it’s very close between the first three, but I’d take Augustus as the sixth reserve for what she’s meant to the Minnesota offense this season (even though that makes four Lynx on the squad, which seems high). Parker’s replacement is a toss-up for me between Young and Dupree, two players who are often compared to each other since being selected 4th and 6th respectively in the 2006 WNBA draft. On a general level I tend to feel that Young is the better player, especially considering she’s a superior defender to Dupree, but I can’t shake the impression that Candice has probably had the better season so far in 2011. So I’d take Dupree, but I fully expect the actual replacement to be Young if she isn’t part of the initial six selections. The All-Star Game is in San Antonio, after all.
West Wildcard Pick: Seimone Augustus
West Injury Replacement Pick: Candice Dupree
Those who missed out on the positional picks in the East were Epiphanny Prince, Asjha Jones, and the various centers who were miles behind Fowles. I’m conflicted on this one. I’m not convinced that any of the options particularly deserve to be in San Antonio, but there has to be an 11th member of the roster whether we like it or not.
For what she’s meant to the Sky this season as their only realistic offensive option besides Fowles, I think I’d just barely take Prince, with Davenport a close second after her breakout start to the year for the Fever. But if anyone wanted to argue for one of the other options mentioned, I wouldn’t be opposed to changing my mind.
East Wildcard Pick: Epiphanny Prince
So for those who skipped straight to the end, my reserves are:
(and as injury replacement) Candice Dupree
Now let’s see what the coaches come up with.