Can a Satou Sabally and Kayla Thornton Frontcourt Work Without a Traditional Center?

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On August 21 against the Washington Mystics, Isabelle Harrison of the Dallas Wings exited with a season-ending ankle injury. The next game, the Wings moved Astou Ndour into the starting five, but her role quickly shrunk after that, as the Wings turned to a less traditional combination of players in their frontcourt: Kayla Thornton and rookie Satou Sabally, who formed a positionless approach to the frontcourt.

But in a league where having a traditional center has long been an important strategy when it comes to winning games, can the Wings get away with a lineup that doesn’t feature a true center? Can Sabally and Thornton use their versatility to make up for the fact that neither has the size that teams traditionally want out of a post player?

It’s an intriguing question. As the WNBA moves more and more out to the perimeter, the league changes. The roles that need to be filled change. The importance of certain things change. But the Wings are basically playing a small forward at center sometimes — has the league changed so much that that becomes a viable strategy?

Well, let’s see what the numbers and film say about that.

Bella Alarie: The Complicating Factor

Of course, there’s one thing that would make this whole discussion irrelevant. If Bella Alarie can get her offensive game up to par next season, the Wings can run a starting lineup with Alarie, Sabally, and Thornton in which Alarie plays the five and Sabally is back in her more natural wing position, or they could move Thornton to the bench with Alarie at the five and Sabally at the four.

I don’t have a lot to add to this point. I just think it’s important to note that if we’re thinking long term, there’s a good chance that a Sabally/Thornton frontcourt isn’t the thing we’ll be seeing the most. But it is the thing we’ll likely see the most for the rest of this season and for Dallas’s playoff appearance if they keep trending in the direction of the eight seed, so let’s focus on that duo today. Besides, you can click here to read more words from me about Alarie.

Inside The Numbers: Sabally and Thornton

There’s been plenty of lineups with both players in them, but far fewer where the team didn’t have at least one of Bella Alarie, Isabelle Harrison, or Astou Ndour on the court too. What interests us the most in the pursuit of our answer today is how the team has fared when it’s been Sabally and Thornton without one of those three bigs.

Add More Funds’ WNBA WOWY data can help us filter this out.

Offensively, these lineups have played 76 minutes, constituting 138 offensive possessions. In that time, the team is scoring 1.138 points per possession. Defensively, they’re allowing 1.036 points per possession.

Anyway, those numbers mean nothing without context.

As a whole, the Dallas Wings are scoring 1.029 points per possession, which means the offense for our selected lineups has done better than the team as a whole. And defensively, the Wings allow 1.070 points per possession, so the selected lineup is performing slightly above what the team as a whole has done.

How do these numbers compare to lineups where the Wings have Thornton, Sabally, and another big?

Harrison/Sabally/Thornton lineups have scored 0.975 points per possession and allowed 0.835.

Ndour/Sabally/Thornton lineups have scored 0.764 points per possession and allowed 1.389.

Alarie/Sabally/Thornton lineups have scored 1.020 points per possession and allowed 1.090.

So, the Sabally and Thornton and no big lineups have performed better offensively, which makes plenty of sense. This allows the Wings to have Arike Ogunbowale, Allisha Gray, and a point guard on the court, which gives them a good mix of creators and scorers. Defensively, it’s been a mixed bag, which also makes sense, because you do need rim protection, and these lineups leave you susceptible on the interior.

One last query, while we’re here: what about Sabally/Alarie lineups that don’t feature Thornton or another big? We’ve had 89 of those, with the team scoring 1.045 points per possession and the defense allowing 0.966. So, pretty comparable to the Thornton/Sabally numbers, which is a good sign long term for the Wings. 

Justin’s Film Room: Sabally/Thornton Possessions

So, we know what the numbers say, but the sample size is fairly small. Let’s better visualize things by looking at some of these Sabally/Thornton possessions on both ends of the floor against the Fever from this past weekend.

First up is a play that results in a missed Sabally three, but is a good indicator of what this lineup can do:

Marina Mabrey brings the ball up the floor, with Kayla Thornton staying back with her while the team’s other three players establish themselves at different spots to space out the floor. Gray’s in the corner. Arike’s on the wing. Sabally is down low where you might expect a center to post up, but then slowly backs her way out to the left corner, so that the Wings have a five-out look going on.

Thornton sets a screen up at the three-point line, opening up driving space for Mabrey, who heads for the bucket while the other four players on the floor are all spotting up behind the line. Sabally’s defender stays low to contest a Mabrey shot at the bucket, leaving Sabally unguarded on the perimeter. Mabrey finds her, and Sabally has plenty of space to lift for the shot. When she starts to actually connect on those threes at a rate similar to what she did in college, these attempts are going to go in.

That’s a fairly simple play, but that doesn’t mean the team can only run simple plays with this combination out there. From the second half:

This play starts out basically the same way, which is a Kayla Thornton pick at the top of the arc. This time, though, Thornton rolls instead of pops, but the Fever defense cuts off the roll and Mabrey’s path to the basket, which means that it’s time for plan B. In this case, that’s to push the ball out to Sabally. The versatility that Satou Sabally brings to the court is that she can dribble and move around behind the arc. On this play, she gets the ball and dribbles left, then hands it off to Arike. Sabally screens, which forces a switch, leaving Arike with two important things on the perimeter: space and a big on her. That’s all she needs to lift up and drain the three.

The positionless approach here for the Wings means that they have five players on the floor who can shoot from deep and multiple players who can set picks and then either roll or pop. That makes it really tough for opposing defenses to figure out how to guard this team.

What about defensively, though? Let’s watch one possession and then zoom out from it to talk about larger issues:

So, some thoughts:

  • Kayla Thornton is the best defender this team has. She can defend inside. She can defend outside. But she can’t do both things at once, so without a true center on the floor, you have to basically choose what Thornton’s going to do.
  • On this play, she was guarding Candice Dupree, which left Satou Sabally to defend against Natalie Achonwa.
  • Sabally can do a good job providing resistance against a player in the post, but there’s a size disadvantage, which on this play results in the Fever getting the offensive rebound. You’re going to have to be fine with that issue.
  • On the other hand, Indiana really didn’t want Teaira McCowan — their most center-y center — on the floor against this particular lineup. I think these Thornton/Sabally lineups might be in trouble at times against traditional bigs who can use their size and strength in the post, but also teams are often going to be too worried about being killed on the other end to play a McCowan-type against this lineup. So, possibly an issue defensively, but also creates issues on the other end for the other team.
  • If the other team goes small, the Wings have some good defensive players on the floor and a good defensive coach to figure things out!

So, Can This Work?

Short term? Yeah, I think the advantages of running this lineup offensively is better than some of the defensive downside. Running this current starting five is the best chance that Dallas has of making a playoff appearance in 2020.

Long term, I think it shouldn’t be your main plan. There’s some good frontcourt talent in this year’s draft — Natasha Mack, Charli Collier, Awak Kuier — that the team should be looking at. But the versatility that this lineup creates means that if they need to run it, they’re going to be fine. The WNBA is trending towards a style of play where you want whoever your five is to be a versatile player on both ends, and both Thornton and Sabally fit that mold.

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