Entering 2020, the Dallas Wings look a lot different than they did at the end of the 2019 season. One of the places where that’s most notably different is in the team’s guard rotation.
Last year, the Wings used the fifth pick in the WNBA Draft on Notre Dame shooting guard Arike Ogunbowale. Theoretically, Ogunbowale would have formed a strong backcourt duo with star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, and the newly acquired Moriah Jefferson would have provided another ball-handling option who could play the one.
But Diggins-Smith didn’t play in 2019 and has now been traded to the Mercury. An injury prevented Jefferson from suiting up too, which left Ogunbowale to take over lead guard duties for Dallas. But point guard isn’t Arike’s natural position. With Jefferson back in the fold this season and South Carolina’s Tyasha Harris joining the team via the 2020 WNBA Draft, Ogunbowale gets to move back to the position that Dallas drafted her to play.
So, how’s that going to work?
Arike Ogunbowale: Shooting Guard
Arike Ogunbowale is a shooting guard.
As a rookie, she was forced into the point guard role because the Wings didn’t have anyone else to take on the role. Her 22.6% assist rate as a rookie was higher than her assist rate in any of her four collegiate seasons at Notre Dame.
A quick glance at Ogunbowale’s offensive Synergy chart reveals a good bit about why moving back to an off-guard role will work so well for her:
The one area where she really struggled was in transition. Once in the half-court offense, things worked out fine for Ogunbowale, but Dallas really needed to have an actual point guard out there running the floor in transition. They’ll have that now.
Ogunbowale can now focus on some of the areas where she already did really well — spot up and shooting off screens — and still has the ball-handling skills to run pick-and-rolls in the half court. She told the media in a Zoom call this week that she’s spent a lot of time this offseason working on her change of speed. Arike gets to play in a role where she’s more comfortable and familiar. But she can also run some plays as a secondary ball-handler, and with an improved focus on how she varies her speed on drives to get around defenders, she’ll be even better in that role.
I asked Ogunbowale about the adjustments she’ll have to make in 2020 since she’s moving to a different position. Arike reiterated that she’s “really not a point guard,” and added that she’ll “be able to play on the wing a lot more.” But Ogunbowale also said she’ll “be able to help with anything, whether [she]has to play the one, the two, or the three.”
That versatility is going to be crucial this season. Dallas has a lot of players who can play multiple positions, at guard but also at virtually every other position. What this rotation winds up looking like is anyone’s guess at this point. Where will Satou Sabally play? Bella Alarie? Allisha Gray? Kayla Thornton? The Wings have a ton of players who can slide around to various spots on the floor in a way that feels like it’s trending towards a kind of positionless basketball.
And a player like Ogunbowale is really at the forefront of that. She’s just such a strong offensive threat both with and without the ball in her hands. Pairing her with some true point guards — more on them in a minute — unlocks so much for Dallas because Ogunbowale gets to move to more of a combo guard role. The more things a player can do, the harder they are to defend. Arike Ogunbowale being able to play multiple roles this year while having teammates on the floor who can absorb some ball-handling responsibility is going to allow Ogunbowale to do more things when she’s on the floor. More off-ball movement. More spot ups. More plays where she’s shooting off a screen. That’s going to make her an even more dangerous weapon than she was last season.
What Moriah Jefferson Brings To The Wings
Last winter, Liz Cambage requested a trade out of Dallas. Just before the 2019 season tipped off, that trade materialized, with Cambage heading to the Las Vegas Aces for a package that included guard Moriah Jefferson.
Jefferson, who is from Dallas and played college basketball at UConn, missed all of the 2019 season. Knee issues have plagued her over the past couple of seasons. But when healthy, Jefferson is a force on the basketball court. As a rookie in 2016, Jefferson started all 34 games for San Antonio, averaging 13.9 points, 4.2 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. She was also a fantastic shooter from deep during her first two seasons, shooting 45% from three in 2017.
That year, Jefferson scored in the 76th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Her dribble jumper ranked in the 85th percentile in points per possession. Jefferson was very, very adept at creating offensively that season. She was rarely used as a catch-and-shoot option — just 19 possessions — and helped the Stars produce strong results when the ball was in her hands.
Jefferson is a few years removed from that production now and we don’t quite know how she’ll look after returning from a long injury layoff. But it’s clear from her past that the talent is there for Jefferson to make a big impact.
On a media call earlier in the week, Jefferson noted that she’s excited about this team because they “have a lot of good people who can spread the floor” and that the team can “run a lot and get out in transition.” That style of play feels like a snug fit for a player who, in 2017, ranked in the 85th percentile offensively on transition plays. Jefferson knows how to run the floor and how to control the pace of play as a lead guard.
And having all the shooting around Jefferson will also open up driving lanes for her. Yes, she’s good at lifting up for three off the dribble. But Jefferson said on that Zoom call that she “likes to penetrate a lot, get inside the lane, get into the tunnel.” She’ll have the space for that, and she’ll also have outside weapons that she can kick the ball to if the defense collapses on her drives.
Tyasha Harris’s Role
Rookie Tyasha Harris might be the missing piece in the guard discussion.
One of the best pure point guards in all of college basketball last season with South Carolina, the Wings drafted Harris with the seventh pick in this year’s WNBA Draft.
Harris was an excellent pick-and-roll player last year. That should pay dividends on a Wings team that ranked sixth in the league in the percentage of their plays that were logged as pick-and-roll ball handler plays but just 10th in points per possession on those plays.
Harris will also help with the team’s struggles in transition from last season. Having one or both of Harris and Moriah Jefferson on the floor for the majority of the time is going to enable this team to play fast. For a team as young as this one, playing fast is going to be a big part of the recipe for potential success.
Assistant coach Bryce Agler called Ty Harris an “elite point guard” while speaking to the media this week. He added that the team considered her “one of the best passers” in this year’s draft class. Agler said that Harris “can create for other people,” and compared Harris to Sue Bird in that Harris “can be a floor general […] but also score as well.”
A Sue Bird comparison for a player who hasn’t stepped foot on a WNBA floor yet is some extremely high praise, but Harris’s college career suggests that Agler’s comparison has merit. Last season for South Carolina, Harris averaged 5.7 assists per game — 14th most in the country and the most in the SEC — and shot 38.4% from three. Harris shot the ball well on both catch-and-shoot and dribble jumper looks.
One potentially interesting wrinkle comes in how the Wings might use Harris. Both Jefferson and Harris can be described as true point guards. But when asked about the potential to play multiple positions, Harris talked about how she’s been practicing in lineups with Jefferson. Harris is technically the two in those lineups, but described it as a “one-two punch thing [where]whoever gets the ball” takes the ball-handling duties. Harris said she likes this approach.
And the approach should work, because while both players are best suited at point guard, both also have strong shooting chops, allowing them to play off-ball as well. Factor Ogunbowale into the mix, and you’ve got three guards who can bring the rock up court and run the offense. All of whom can also excel when the ball’s not in their hands.
It’s also good that the Wings and head coach Brian Agler aren’t trying to push some kind of old school idea of how basketball positions work. You have three playmaking guards. Find a way to get them all on the floor as much as possible. It sounds like that’s the approach we’re likely to see this season with Dallas.