An apology letter to Bria Hartley

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Dear Bria Hartley, 

I’m sorry for what I said about your three-year, max contract from the Phoenix Mercury. You have proven me wrong for saying that it was the worst move in free agency in just the first half of your first season with Phoenix. Your team’s Twitter account has already dragged me and I have seen why the Mercury wanted to invest in you. 

Sincerely, 

Gabe Ibrahim 

Okay, that’s the end of the letter-writing theme because I want to talk about why I think I was wrong on Hartley and what she is doing well. First and foremost, Hartley is playing great basketball. Her counting stat-line is very impressive: 15 points per game, 4.80 assists per game, and 3.10 rebounds per game. She is putting up career-high averages in points, assists, and steals. After going five seasons without a 20-point game, she has put up three in the first 12 games of her Phoenix career. Just based on these basic stats, Bria Hartley has surpassed what I thought she could do based on her tenure in New York. I didn’t see her making a leap to stardom, or at least, semi-stardom at 27 years old. But Hartley has proved that she can be a very important piece for a good team on both ends of the court. 

To be clear, none of this is shocking despite my predictions in the offseason. Like I said then, Bria Hartley is a really good basketball player, a hard worker, and a good fit in Phoenix. I didn’t think she could put up 15 a game because she had never averaged double-digits points in her career. Yet, she was definitely capable of it. It seems like Phoenix expected exactly this based on their comments in press conferences. 

“I’ve always thought she’s been a fantastic player, but she wasn’t always used in the right way. But the girl is a scorer,” said Sandy Brondello after Hartley put up 27 points in a win over her former team. “She continues to grow her game. [Coming into the season,] people were talking about how much we paid her. But that’s how much we thought of her because we thought she would compliment the players we already have. She is certainly showing that.” 

Obviously, any team is going to say that after signing a player. Still, Hartley has undoubtedly been one of Phoenix’s best players and she is contributing to winning on both ends. The team’s net rating jumps by 4.8 points per 100 possession when she is on the court as opposed to when she is off it. Of the 13 lineups that have played more than 10 minutes together in Bradenton, Hartley is the only player in each of the best 5 lineups in terms of net rating. 

The most impressive part of Hartley’s performance is her efficiency. My biggest problem with the signing was that I didn’t think that she could finish three-point shots when the Mercury’s Big 3 found her open looks. 

This year, she is shooting 39.3% from deep on 5.6 three-point attempts per game. Both of those stats are career-highs. In fact, she is lapping her past performance from three. Her previous career-highs in three-point attempts was 3.4 in a season when she shot 30.4% and her previous career-high in three-point percentage was 36.2% in a season where she took just 2.4 attempts from deep. Some may say that the 12-game sample size makes her percentage unsustainable. I think there is validity to that argument, but she has always been good at knocking down open looks and her willingness to shoot this much is a win on its own. 

Hartley is also putting up career-highs in true shooting percentage (53.4%) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.29) on the highest usage percentage in her career (28.7%). In short, Bria Hartley is playing the best basketball of her career and positively impacting the Mercury as much as any player on the roster. While I’m not surprised, I said that was unlikely to happen in the offseason and deserve shade for that. 

HOWEVER, (y’all didn’t think I was going to be gracious through this entire article right?) I think it’s time to parse out my criticism. A lot of people seem to think that when analysts are critical of a signing, that analyst is critical of the player and their skills. Sometimes, that is true. In this case, I was critical of Hartley’s upside and skill set to a certain extent. But I was mainly critical of Phoenix’s team-building strategy in giving Hartley a max contract. She is a good player and is proving that she did have tremendous upside. 

Yet, Phoenix is still 6-6, in the middle of the standings, and have only one win against a team better than .500 this year. Hartley is helping them be a better team no doubt. But she isn’t necessarily pushing this team into the elite of the WNBA, which was the goal. My main criticism of the signing was exactly that: she doesn’t push them into championship contention in the role they have for her. 

Hartley can win the Sixth Woman or Most Improved Player award this year (and she should win one of them!). If Phoenix has to play in both single-elimination rounds, I don’t think the team or her will be happy with those awards. Bria Hartley has undoubtedly proven herself worth a max contract and proved me (and many others) wrong. Yet, the Phoenix Mercury are proving me right by not being a top four team. There is plenty of time for me to be wrong yet again. But for now: 

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