PG: Odyssey Sims/Brianna Kiesel
SG: Skylar Diggins/Riquna Williams
SF: Karima Christmas/Jordan Hooper
PF: Plenette Pierson/Tiffany Jackson-Jones/Vicki Baugh
C: Courtney Paris/Amanda Zahui B./Theresa Plaisance
Significant additions: Zahui B., Christmas, Pierson.
Significant losses: Glory Johnson, Roneeka Hodges, Jennifer Lacy
At one stage, this looked like a thoroughly positive offseason for the Tulsa Shock. They added two veteran campaigners who both know how to win and how to play hard-nosed defense in Karima Christmas and Plenette Pierson. They lucked into a much better player with the #2 draft pick than they expected, when both Jewell Loyd and Amanda Zahui B. unexpectedly declared. They had Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims returning as the most exciting young backcourt in the league, after a season spent working out how they fit together. Then they suddenly found themselves embroiled in yet another mess with one of their young post players. After all the time and energy they’ve wasted chasing after Elizabeth Cambage, this time it was Glory Johnson causing all the drama. First it was the arrest after her fight with then-fiancée Brittney Griner, which led to a seven-game suspension from the league. Then she couldn’t be bothered to show up for training camp on time (or even to call the team to let them know she’d be late). Over a week into camp she deigned to drive to Tulsa from halfway across the country – only to reveal that she’s pregnant the day before the regular season begins. A player who’d been a pleasant surprise for the Shock since they selected her 4th overall in 2012 now won’t play for them this season (maybe ever again), and it leaves a hole in a frontcourt that already had some issues. That wasn’t what they needed on the eve of a season where they’re hoping to finally make the leap into being a truly competitive team.
First the good news, which starts with the backcourt that has the potential to scare the hell out of opponents for years and years to come. Diggins improved dramatically in her second WNBA season, learning how to finish at the basket under pressure and playing a generally far more composed game. She could still improve significantly from outside, but the fact that there’s still so much room for growth only makes her scarier. Sims increasingly took over initiating the offense as last season progressed, taking some of the load off Diggins’s back, and she can be just as electric as a scorer. Very few teams have enough backcourt defenders to handle the pair of them. With Riquna Williams hopefully healthier this year to be the bench sparkplug behind them, and Jordan Hooper and Christmas both happy to fire away from outside when defenses forget about them, there’s plenty of scoring to come from Tulsa’s perimeter this year.
The interior brings more questions, and starts to lead us towards Tulsa’s central problems. Courtney Paris has developed into a solid contributor, but her lack of mobility still makes her something of a liability as a defender. Pierson’s grit and smarts are a nice addition, but her body’s barely held up in recent years in New York and if she makes it through this season unscathed it’ll be a surprise. Zahui B. brings her size and skills to the party, but may take a little time to acclimatise to the pro game. Tiffany Jackson-Jones seems to be constantly injured, and appears to be starting the season that way yet again. Plaisance and Baugh are backups (and Plaisance is currently suspended by FIBA for a drugs violation, a story which has been utterly ignored amid the Johnson drama). With the high-scoring perimeter the interior players are enough on the offensive end to chip in when they can and play complementary roles. It’s the defense where they continue to be worrying.
Because defense is where this team was a train wreck last season, and while Pierson and Christmas are nice additions to help around the edges, it’s going to take a serious team effort to improve significantly on that end of the floor. They don’t have any real rim protection unless Zahui can offer that – which is a lot to ask from a rookie – and they just looked lost at times on that end of the floor last year. Fred Williams needs to be drilling this group constantly on defensive fundamentals and playing on-a-string defense, and the whole group simply needs to commit to working harder. They were poor in transition last year as well as in the half court, which is unforgivable because so much of it simply comes down to effort. They’ve struggled to close games out and win tight contests in recent years, but they wouldn’t be involved in so many of those games if they played better defense throughout and were could build leads. This group will score points – they need to be dedicated to stopping the other team.
Before the news about Johnson emerged today, a lot of people seemed overconfident about Tulsa’s improvement this season. Yes, there’s plenty of talent on this roster, which is a very pleasant change from a few years ago – when they were a group of bench players in search of five starters. But they still haven’t won more than 12 games in a season since making the move to Tulsa. Sometimes everything just clicks – the Lynx went from 13 wins one year to 27 and a championship the next, for example – but more often, you have to learn how to walk before you can run. With their younger players developing and other Western teams taking a step or two backwards, a playoff run is certainly a possibility this season. That’s progress. But let’s not start dreaming of championships just yet, with or without that power forward who’ll now be taking the season off.