Believe It or Leave It — WNBA Edition

We’re in that lull between the draft lottery and free agency, so let’s have a little fun. Introducing Believe It or Leave It—WNBA Edition! I’ll be addressing a quasi-spicy claim about one of the players from each WNBA team and analyzing to determine whether or not I agree (believe it) or disagree (leave it) with the claim. Consider this similar to an overrated/underrated article without the clickbait.

 

Atlanta: Aari McDonald will win Most Improved Player in 2023

Coming off an incredible college career (especially once she transferred to Arizona) and a phenomenal NCAA tournament to reach the championship game, McDonald came into the league as the third overall pick for the Atlanta Dream in 2021. After a so-so rookie season, people were rightfully skeptical about McDonald’s ability to pull it together at the pro level.

McDonald silenced her critics in 2022, improving her overall “eye test” performance and a lot of her counting stats. In addition to the extensive improvements she made, indicated on the chart above, McDonald finished first in total points and points per game (PPG), fourth in total rebounds per game (RPG), third in assists per game (APG), and with the fourth best defensive rating (DRTG) among sophomores, according to WNBA.com. Given this massive jump in performance, it’s reasonable to think she should’ve received some down-the-ballot consideration for Most Improved Player in 2022. It’s clear McDonald is on the rise in the league and can surely finish with the MIP trophy next season.

Verdict: Believe It

 

Chicago: Kahleah Copper is a top-three MVP finisher in 2023

On the surface, this may feel like a no-brainer. Copper plays for one of the best teams in the league, was the 2021 Finals MVP, and is an unquestionably talented scorer and defender. Kahleah Copper had the most points per 100 possessions with Candace Parker on the bench among all players on the Sky’s roster last season. This speaks to what Copper can do on her own, and if she is going to become the Sky’s new captain and leader sans Parker, she seems poised for the challenge.

However, to know if she’s to be a finalist in the MVP race this coming season, I needed to see where her numbers last season stacked up against the last five MVPs in the league. Knowing her numbers could still grow some, here is what I found:

I added some conditional shading (Copper’s numbers remain in one color to show contrast) to indicate tiers based on the numbers. From this, it’s clear that Copper would have to go off to arrive at the same playing field as the last half decade’s worth of MVPs. Put simply, as much as I like Copper, I just don’t see it.

Verdict: Leave It

 

Connecticut: Jasmine Thomas is the better Thomas defensively

We know Alyssa Thomas, and we know what she can do defensively. Among players who averaged at least 20.0 minutes last season, Alyssa was second in steals, sixth in defensive win shares (DWS), 13th in DRTG, and 14th in defensive rebounding percentage (DREB%). These are strong numbers from a notorious defensive assassin. She was also 55th in turnovers forced, 70th in true shooting percentage against, 77th in points per shot against,  and 51st in at the rim percentage defensively, which accounts for the offensive players’ field goal percentage at the rim, according to Pivot Analysis. Collectively, Alyssa Thomas is a quality defensive player. 

But let’s take a moment to appreciate what Jasmine Thomas has done the past two seasons. Playing in just five games last season due to injury, Jasmine Thomas still put up some impressive numbers. Among players who averaged at least 20.0 minutes per game, Jasmine was first in DRTG and opponents’ fast-break points against per game, fifth in DWS, and 19th in three-point rate against. By that same metric, she also finished seventh in turnovers forced, according to Pivot Analysis. These are outstanding figures for Jasmine, indicating that she is not just second fiddle defensively to Alyssa’s sound play. Going back to her previous full season in 2021, and using the same minutes metric as before, Jasmine was second in DRTG, 16th in steals per game (SPG), and second in DWS. Combining her 2021 and 2022 seasons, she’s eighth in turnovers forced rate and 22nd in points per possession against. With all this in mind, Jasmine is an underappreciated defensive force.

Verdict: Believe It

 

Dallas: Allisha Gray will be the better Gray in 2023

We all know what Chelsea Gray has done in her career, especially last season for the championship-winning Las Vegas Aces. She’s an exceptional point guard who has one of the highest basketball IQs in the league. 

But do you know what Allisha Gray has done? Regarded as the most underrated player in the league in some circles, Allisha’s numbers may just shock you for how similar they are to her surname counterpart’s stats.

Looking at the numbers, you’d think these two were actually related; Allisha and Chelsea have been remarkably similar in their career to date. Let’s not forget that Chelsea is a point guard and Allisha is a wing, so their overall roles and assist numbers are going to look different. One could make the case that the 2022 playoffs proved just how much better Chelsea is than a lot of players, including Allisha. It’s a strong argument, and Chelsea has regularly, especially of late, stepped up her game come playoff time. In 2021, her points per possession (PPP) rose from 0.82 to 1.01 from regular season to playoffs, and a similar increase in this metric took place in 2022, when it rose from 0.98 to 1.21. In 2021, Chelsea’s usage percentage rose from 20.6 in the regular season to 23.9 in the playoffs. In 2022, a similar jump can be seen—21.0 to 25.4 percent. Her points per game also followed the trend, going from 11.1 to 15.4 in 2021 and 13.7 to 21.7 in 2022. Yes, the playoff sample size is about a third of what a regular season is, but Chelsea’s ability to raise the stakes in the playoffs nudges her ahead of Allisha, at least until we see what Allisha can do in more playoff games. However, looking at last year’s numbers should still remind us of the amazingness that was Allisha and what she was able to accomplish in Texas in 2022. This is no knock on either player, but I think 2023 will solidify Chelsea’s standing as the best Gray in the league.

Verdict: Leave It

 

Indiana: The 2022 Fever rookie to take the biggest step forward in 2023 will be Lexie Hull

Take a moment to process if you need to. With big-time players like NaLyssa Smith and the surprising Queen Egbo, not to mention Destanni Henderson and Emily Engstler, it’s entirely possible you forgot about the sixth overall pick from last year. Hull, coming off an outstanding career at Stanford, had her share of growing pains in Indy this past summer.

It’s not a shock to see quality players struggle at the next level, so I not only expect her back on the team, but I also have plenty of reason for optimism. Why? Because of newly-appointed head coach Christie Sides. Sides holds the record for highest three-point percentage in Louisiana Tech history, and she also made a name for herself as both a player and a coach on the defensive end. Three-point shooting and defense are two of Hull’s calling cards, so look for Sides to work with her this offseason and through training camp to maximize Hull’s growth in 2023.

Verdict: Believe It

 

Los Angeles: Chennedy Carter is the most frustrating player in the league 

Chennedy Carter had a phenomenal career at Texas A&M and looked as close to a sure thing as one could find coming out of the draft. But after a trade and some vague reasons many still don’t know/understand, Carter finds herself struggling to make a name for herself in the league despite possessing what many still see as a boatload of untapped potential.

Looking at her numbers, there’s no discernible difference between when she was and wasn’t on the floor for the Sparks last season. This echoes much of the same in Atlanta the year prior. Sure, her defensive chops could use some work, but she’s a decent enough offensive player to be getting more opportunities.

All of this is to say (and sorry for getting meta) that the Carter situation has to be the most frustrating one simply because trying to find stats to prove why she’s so frustrating left me feeling very, well, frustrated. Nothing in the numbers explains why she isn’t getting the playing time or why she was traded. We are left with nothing more than enough smoke and mirrors to make Penn and Teller swoon. I’ll leave this one up to you.

Verdict: Believe It or Leave It (reader’s choice)

 

Las Vegas: Jackie Young is a great facilitator

Let’s go to the numbers—Young was 13th in APG last season. Among players who averaged at least 20.0 minutes a night, she was third in assist to turnover ratio (second if you exclude Napheesa Collier’s four games played). She was also 26th in assist ratio and 37th in assist percentage. If you take a look at the Aces’ assist web, she certainly dished the ball a bit, but Young seemed to be the recipient a lot more. Additionally, I looked at the assist numbers when she was on and off the court. Nothing here would seem to indicate the team is far better or worse with her on the bench or in the game. 

The verdict here comes down to how you define great. Better than average facilitator? Young likely is one, but is that enough to say she’s “great” at it? I’m not entirely sure. Improved facilitating in clutch time? Well, the Aces were so good last year they hardly played any close games, so that eliminates that avenue for analysis. In 2021, among players who averaged at least 3.0 minutes of clutch time per game, Young didn’t rank in the top 50 in assist percentage, assist to turnover ratio, or assist ratio, according to WNBA.com. This begs several questions—was clutch time not her role in 2021? Did her role change that drastically with Becky Hammon at the helm that she would have played more clutch time had the games been closer? She was the Most Improved Player this past season, so does that change her role now to play more clutch-time minutes in 2023? Too many questions without answers for my liking.

Verdict: Leave It

 

Minnesota: Natalie Achonwa cannot live up to her contract

The “Achonwa has the worst contract in the WNBA” story has been thrown around so much that it’s hard to fathom that it’s fiction. I decided to give it a fair shake and see for myself. 

To do that, I looked at every contract in the league and found comparable figures, give or take $10-20k in either direction to include a larger sample size. In November, Achonwa announced she’s pregnant and could likely miss most—if not all—of the 2023 season. With her contract set to expire at the end of the 2023 season, it’s hard to speculate how the end of her contract would’ve gone. Instead, I chose to include win shares from the time her contract began (2021) until now. In the chart above, you can see the comparisons between Achonwa and her contract counterparts. What’s clear is that over the duration of her contract, it hasn’t been the strongest showing. Compared to the three closest to her in salary (Russell, Gray, and Dolson), she’s last in win shares and tied for third in 2022 usage rate. She is also third in 2022 MPG, but my guess is she would have been last had Russell been healthy all year. 

 

See Also

What does this tell us? To me, it speaks more to Achonwa’s usage and health in the Twin Cities than anything overall. I think Achonwa clearly fell out of favor the past couple of seasons with Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and lost playing time as a result. She has struggled with injuries throughout a large portion of her time in Minnesota, including a nagging hamstring injury last season, which have probably hurt her production and thus her playing time. With her likely out for the season, Achonwa will have to reestablish her worth on another team in 2024. Nevertheless, she isn’t a bad player, even if Minnesota wasn’t the best fit.

 

Verdict: Leave It

 

New York: Stef Dolson is a bad defensive player

Let’s be clear—this doesn’t necessarily mean that if I leave this, she’s a good defensive player, but there is a middle ground to be found. In 2022, Dolson averaged just shy of a block per game, good for 22nd in the league. Among centers who averaged at least 20.0 minutes last season, that’s eighth best. She also averaged 3.6 defensive rebounds per game (36th in the league), but her defensive rebounding rate was relatively average at 17.3 percent. Dolson tends to play up to her 6’5” frame, but she can also be a step slow to rotate in help or trap the box to stop a driving ball handler. With a very pedestrian defensive rating of 101.9 and a defensive win share of 0.8 (43rd in the league), Dolson is most assuredly not the worst defender; she merely gives you average-at-best defensibility. She was 134th in the league in turnovers forced, 132nd in blocks per 40 minutes, 61st best in at the rim percentage (something a center should be better at), 154th in rim rate defensively, and 36th in defensive rebounds per 40 minutes last season, according to Pivot Analysis. Some of these certainly speak to a pretty poor defensive player, but I’m not convinced she’s as bad as a lot of people think. 

Verdict: Leave It

 

Phoenix: Sophie Cunningham is an All-Star next season

Before I dive into this, I think it’s worth noting the carnage the Mercury dealt with last year. Including Brittney Griner’s lost season due to her wrongful imprisonment (thankfully, she has returned home), the Phoenix Mercury lost a whopping 96 regular season and 10 playoff games collectively to players being out with injuries. That’s a ton of missed games from their rotation, so keep that in mind when I show you what Sophie Cunningham did last season.

Given the bloated minutes due to said carnage, Cunningham made the most of her increased time on the court and improved nearly across the board. She made some significant jumps in some vital categories, like PPG, RPG, PPP, and three-point rate. What’s worth noting is that while her offensive rating went up (including a very healthy increase in her offensive win shares), her offensive rating in 2021 was already a not-too-shabby 111.7. This tells me that Cunningham was merely waiting for her opportunity to shine, and she got it and ran with it last year. In new head coach Vanessa Nygaard’s more open offensive system, Cunningham was able to launch from deep with reckless abandon. If she’s given that same kind of latitude next season, I think Cunningham’s game could take off even more. We know she doesn’t lack the confidence to try.

Verdict: Believe It

 

Seattle: Jewell Loyd is better as a number one on a team (i.e., without Stewie)

This one might be the spiciest of all the takes. We know Loyd is a very good basketball player, but just how much of her game is a result of playing with the dominant Breanna Stewart? Heck, nearly everyone who’s ever played with her (Sue Bird included) can admit how much better she makes them. So, let’s first see how much better Loyd might be without Stewie on the court. 2019 is the best shot we have to see what Loyd could do without Stewart because that’s the year Stewart missed the entire season with a torn Achilles. In that time, outside of her free-throw percentage, there was no major change to any of Loyd’s career numbers. 

Since Loyd is a different player than she was in 2019, it’s more important to see how she performed in 2022. The difficulty is that Loyd played nearly five times as many minutes with Stewart as without, so we have a smaller sample size to work with when analyzing Loyd’s play without Stewie. However, looking at last season’s numbers, it’s clear Loyd does perform better with Stewart. When Loyd and Stewart were on the court together last season, they had a 12.7 net rating and played some of the best ball on the team. When it’s just Loyd, she tends to struggle (especially defensively), demonstrated by the nearly -12.0 net rating. One lineup with Loyd sans Stewart had a 120.0 net rating, but this was in just two minutes of play. Another was at 92.3, but this lineup also saw just six minutes of time together. The rest were far below average.  In 2021, the trend was the same, albeit not as extreme. Interestingly, during the 2020 Wubble year, Loyd was exceptional without Stewart. 

Are the 2021 and 2022 seasons a couple of off years as Loyd and Stewart continue adjusting their playing styles to playing with one another? Was this difficulty expected, considering that it was inevitable that Loyd would command the ball more as a scorer? Or is this new trend something we need to take seriously, illustrating that Loyd really does need Stewart to be the star she is? I think in this case, context matters. Can the Storm still be as good as they have been with Loyd driving the car and Stewie sitting shotgun? Doubtful. But could Loyd be the go-to option elsewhere? Undoubtedly. With Stewie now a free agent, we may not have to wait long to find out.

Verdict: Leave It (in Seattle with Stewie) and Believe It (elsewhere)

 

Washington: Natasha Cloud is the second-best point guard in the league

This claim presumes that the aforementioned Chelsea Gray is the best point guard in the league. Cloud is a defensive stud and a vocal, emotional, and overall leader for the Washington Mystics. Last season, her assist percentage and assists per 40 minutes were both good for third in the league, only behind Courtney Vandersloot and Sue Bird. She was eighth in assist to turnover ratio, but she also had the fourth highest turnover ratio (13.8) among point guards. Lastly, she had nearly 5.0 turnovers per 100 possessions (not great) and was eighth among point guards in free-throw percentage, a skill that coaches often expect for their point guards to be able to perform at a high level.

This left me with a mixed bag of some really good and some not so good material, so I needed to dive deeper. In looking at how Cloud’s teammates performed with and without her on the court last season, it’s clear there wasn’t a discernible difference. While it’s true her presence on the court is invaluable in the intangibles department, the microstats don’t bear that out. Additionally, the team only had 0.4 more assists per 100 possessions with Cloud on the court compared to off, fifth on the team and last among the Mystics’ usual starting five last year. Gray and Vandersloot were second and fourth, respectively, for their teams in that category. Does this prove Cloud is a bad point guard? No, quite the opposite. She’s a terrific point guard both on the stat sheet and for the team, but is she far and away better than all but one other floor general? No to that too.

Verdict: Leave It

 

All stats as of 1/9. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of Her Hoop Stats.

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