When Will Dallas’ 2021 Rookies Spread Their Wings?

Leading into the 2021 draft, it was virtually impossible to not talk about the Dallas Wings. The Wings’ roster had been gutted over the last few seasons, but the front office amassed an unprecedented war chest of draft capital. They controlled four of the first seven picks, including the first and second overall. 

This rebuild was not option one, two or three for Dallas originally. However, rather than wallow in mediocrity, management wisely pivoted when the main pillars of the team began to fall.

Following a move from Tulsa in 2016, the newly rebranded Dallas Wings were an exciting, young team on the rise. With stellar talent at the top of the roster and interesting role players around them, the Wings quickly became a WNBA League Pass favorite. They appeared at the time to be on a linear, upward trajectory toward title contention. 

After two brief—and I mean brief—appearances in the postseason, stars Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith became discouraged with their situations in Dallas. Wings management gradually came to the realization that their only viable option was to rebuild their roster through the draft.

Cambage, who was still under contract at the time, requested a trade prior to the start of the 2019 season. Her wish was granted, and the All-Star center was sent to Las Vegas for Moriah Jefferson, Isabelle Harrison and future draft compensation. 

The biggest fear of any front office is losing an asset for nothing, so it cannot be overstated how important it was for Dallas to get a respectable return for their All-WNBA level point guard, Diggins-Smith. In 2019, Diggins-Smith remained on Dallas’ roster, but she gave birth in April and sat out the entire season. Skylar made it clear that she was leaving Dallas, but she agreed to a sign-and-trade deal which sent her to Phoenix in exchange for three first-round draft picks. 

Despite losing some key players, the Wings competed admirably in the 2020 Wubble on the back of the league’s leading scorer, Arike Ogunbowale. They finished ninth in the standings and narrowly missed a postseason bid. Still, it was readily apparent that they needed to upgrade their roster in the frontcourt. Taking advantage of Seattle’s need for a forward, the Wings traded Katie Lou Samuelson to the Storm in February of 2021 to grab yet another first-round pick.

With an abundance of draft riches in the Wings’ pockets, Dallas’ front office was more than ready to capitalize on April 15. 

 

How the Wings Used (Some of) Their Draft Picks

Hours before the 2021 draft began, the Wings traded the seventh pick to Los Angeles in exchange for the Sparks’ 2022 first rounder. This left the Wings with picks one, two, five and 13.

When the 2021 draft finally arrived, there were no surprises at the top. As nearly every mock draft had predicted, the Wings took Charli Collier and Awak Kuier first and second, respectively. These dynamic, offensive-minded bigs were perfect choices to pair with Dallas’ MVP-candidate guard Ogunbowale.

With the fifth overall pick, Arkansas guard Chelsea Dungee was taken off the board. 

Dana Evans, who was selected with the 13th pick, got traded to Chicago just six games into the season. In exchange for Evans, the Sky handed over a 2022 third-round pick and an option to swap 2022 first-round picks. Dallas also acquired Shyla Heal in the deal but proceeded to waive her shortly thereafter. Clearly, that trade was all about adding more draft picks to the arsenal.

After the dust settled, the Wings were rolling into the heart of the season with a rookie trio of Collier, Kuier and Dungee. 

The general expectation for Dallas was to improve, albeit on a slower curve due to their lack of experience. The Winsidr pre-season power rankings had the Wings pegged at 10th in the league, which was actually one spot worse than they had finished the previous season. Even with the continued development of leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale and All-Rookie forward Satou Sabally, the Wings were still seen as a lottery or fringe playoff team heading into the season. If their outlook was going to change significantly, it had to be on the backs of their newest additions.

 

Hurry Up and Wait: Slow Playing the Development Game

In 2019 and 2020, the Dallas Wings did not hesitate one bit to dish out minutes to first and second year players. Ogunbowale led the team in minutes during her rookie season (32.1 mpg), and  Sabally played the second-most minutes per game for the Wings in her first year (28.1 mpg).

It would have been a reasonable expectation that this trend of rookies getting heavy minutes would continue. However, head coach Vickie Johnson has taken up a different philosophy during her first year with the Wings. Out of the 12 players that have appeared in 10 or more games for Dallas this season, the three rookies rank 10th, 11th and 12th in minutes per contest.

 

Games Played Games Started Minutes Per Game
Charli Collier 28 18 12.3
Awak Kuier 15 0 8.9
Chelsea Dungee 14 0 4.6

(Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and current as of 9/14/21)

 

One of the worst places a team in pro sports can find itself is in the middle of the pack. This purgatory-esque zone in the standings keeps you outside of real championship contention and simultaneously removes the possibility of getting a top pick. Because of this, the traditional logic of a rebuilding team is to play your young players as much as possible and continue to add players who are on the same general timeline as they develop.

The Wings have clearly made a choice to not take that approach. Despite cries from fans to see their rookies play more, there are three compelling reasons I see as to why they have not:

  1. It is hard to drum up fan interest in a team that is perpetually in the draft lottery. Making a push towards the postseason means more ticket and merchandise sales as well as,  generally, more fan engagement on social media. With the Wings securing a spot in at least one playoff game this season, they got a tangible bit of success to show fans that they are on the right path.
  2. They were directly competing with Los Angeles for a playoff spot. Since Dallas controls the Sparks’ 2022 first-round pick, they did not have to choose between the playoffs and the lottery. Unless LA and Dallas both made the playoffs, the Wings knew they would end up with a chance to get the number one pick again next year. Despite a few brief runs, the Sparks have largely found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture all year. This made Dallas’ decision to pursue the playoffs easier.
  3. Although Arike’s free agency is still a couple of years away, the Wings are feeling pressure to win sooner rather than later. She is currently on a deal that is quite a bit below her market value, and there are eleven other teams that would be happy to add her transcendent scoring abilities to their roster. There have already been signs of frustration from Ogunbowale, such as the incident in which she poured water on the court in a recent game against Las Vegas and sat on the bench as coaches and teammates cleaned the floor.

As compelling as these reasons are, there is still room to wonder what exactly the strategy is in terms of bringing the rookies along. The manner in which coach Johnson has used (and not used) the rookies has been incredibly inconsistent.

For example, Collier started the first game of the season and played over 26 minutes. In that inaugural game, Charli posted 11 points, 10 rebounds and a plus/minus rating of +15. The next time Collier played more than 20 minutes was 14 games later.

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Kuier’s time on the court has been similarly unpredictable and sparse this year. In 15 appearances, only two have been for 20 minutes or more. In a Sept. 7 game against Connecticut, the Wings struggled mightily, and Awak had a chance to stay on the floor for much longer stretches. The first real flashes of brilliance we have seen from the 20-year-old Kuier came that night, including five blocks and 2-of-4 shooting from deep.

 

 

For Dungee, opportunities to get on the floor have been as slim as they come. With only 64 minutes logged for the entire year, Chelsea has been unable to catch any type of rhythm in the WNBA so far. With shooting splits in her final year at Arkansas of 42.4 percent from the field, 38.7 percent from beyond the arc and 79.0 percent from the free-throw line, we know she is a capable shooter. There is just not enough evidence to know if it will translate to the pro game yet, and we will likely have to wait until 2022 to learn more.

Stay patient, Wings fans. The rate at which the 2021 Dallas rookies have been rolled out may be disappointing to you, but this young core will soon spread their wings and bring their team back to national relevance. Some playoff experience, gathering more talent in the draft and a full offseason are all ingredients that will help Dallas keep getting better.

 

About Michael: Girl dad, marketing professional, sports fanatic and founder of HoopSocial. You can follow him on twitter at @mike_hoopsocial.

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