2013 WNBA Finals: Erika de Souza's career-high scoring efficiency makes her a challenging matchup for Minnesota

USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Dream center Erika de Souza wasn't named to the 2013 All-WNBA team, but her All-WNBA caliber season is a major reason why her team was able to return to their third finals in four years.

It's generally difficult to determine what qualifies someone as "underrated", but there's definitely evidence to suggest that Atlanta Dream center Erika de Souza has earned the label.

She was a blatant snub from the 2013 All-Star game before being added as an injury replacement for Chicago Sky star Elena Delle Donne. And by almost any statistical standard, she was an equally blatant snub from the 2013 All-WNBA team.

An All-WNBA caliber player

All-WNBA

Team

Position

MEV

PER

Plus/Minus

Parker

L.A.

P

21.02

29.26

4.6

Moore

Minnesota

W

20.11

28.08

14.7

Taurasi

Phoenix

PG/W

19.59

24.09

10.1

Fowles

Chicago

P

19.26

27.83

18.5

McCoughtry

Atlanta

W

18.02

24.53

13.6

Catchings

Indiana

W/P

17.22

26.53

15.4

de Souza

Atlanta

P

17.15

22.98

-0.3

Whalen

Minnesota

PG

16.79

21.03

10.2

Delle Donne

Chicago

W/P

16.62

24.96

19.9

Williams

Tulsa

W

16.16

24.16

-6.7

All-WNBA

Team

Position

MEV

PER

Plus/Minus

Ogwumike

L.A.

P

15.81

26.46

9.7

Robinson

San Antonio

PG

15.38

16.64

8.5

Augustus

Minnesota

W

14.78

22.1

5.9

Dupree

Phoenix

P

14.52

18.08

-8.3

Bonner

Phoenix

W

14.45

18.62

12.9

Brunson

Minnesota

P

14.34

20.24

7.7

Griner

Phoenix

P

14.25

23.1

5.4

Johnson

Tulsa

P

13.55

20.76

-7.9

Charles

Connecticut

P

13.42

19.06

-10.3

Larkins

Indiana

P

12.78

17.47

-0.9

Season statistics for the top 20 WNBA players in 2013 by MEV as of 9/7/13.

The above numbers are a chart I put together for myself prior to the final week of play in the regular season and since the numbers didn't change substantially since then, I'll just post them now.

All-WNBA voters are asked to select a C, two forwards, and two guards. Had Parker been voted in as a center (where she technically played this season for the Sparks), then de Souza would just be on the wrong side of positional classification. But with Parker being voted in as a forward, de Souza was by far the second best center after Fowles and it wasn't even close for any number of reasons. For those who believe that traditional positional classifications are flawed constructs, even a more fluid framework of two interior players, two wings, and a distributor for the sake of handing out awards would make de Souza a difficult player to exclude from one of four post selections.

We could go on nitpicking All-WNBA selections, but of course the awards don't matter as much as what de Souza has actually done on the floor for her team: regardless of whether she gets the accolades befitting a top 10-15 player, she's been a significant part of her team's success this year which is ultimately what most players value.

"De Souza is one of the premier centers in the world," Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn said prior to the Eastern Conference Finals. "She's a tremendous basketball player. She's a veteran. She's got playoff experience. She's been in the Finals. She's an Olympian. She's big, strong, and physical. In a lot of ways, she's like (Chicago Sky center Sylvia) Fowles but she's a little more mature in her body and just in the experiences she's had. She presents a real challenge for us."

De Souza's improvement in 2013

Although most everyone is probably aware of her experience and physical attributes, 2013 has arguably been a career year based on PER and the observations of those familiar with her career.

"I think Erika has really improved over the years in her development," Dream coach Fred Williams said in a media teleconference earlier this week. "In her time with us at the Atlanta Dream, she established herself as being an All‑Star player. This has been one of her outstanding years, I think, in her career."

From a scoring standpoint, this has absolutely been true.

Earlier this season when I wrote about how the Dream would deal with the absence of forward Sancho Lyttle who left to play for Spain's national team even before getting injured, I didn't even mention de Souza as an option to make up for the lost scoring efficiency: since posting a career-high (in seasons with 340+ minutes) true shooting percentage of 57.5% in 2010, de Souza has declined as as scorer. But it's no coincidence that the Dream find themselves heading back to the Finals with de Souza's career- and team-high 57.7% true shooting percentage leading the way even without Lyttle.

When the Dream aren't looking to McCoughtry, de Souza has become another go-to option for them in post. And like McCoughtry, once you allow her to get the ball within the five-foot range, there just isn't a whole lot a team can do to stop her: she has to be one of the strongest players in the world above 6-foot-5 and she's not afraid to throw her weight around to get shot attempts and offensive rebounds.

Only six players in the league had 200+ attempts in the 1-5 foot range during the regular season, according to the data provided by the Lynx - among that group, only Los Angeles Sparks All-Star Nneka Ogwumike shot a better percentage (66.7%) than Erika de Souza (65.9%). Were it not for being named to the All-Star game as an injury replacement, de Souza would be the only player in that elite group of interior scorers not honored as one of the league's best.

Yet push de Souza out to just the 5 to 10 foot range and that percentage is literally cut in half (33.33%). And the other reason to muscle de Souza out of the paint is her ability to go get offensive rebounds: de Souza wasn't by any means a dominant offensive rebounder with a 9.8% offensive rebounding percentage, just fifth among starting centers. Part of that pedestrian offensive rebounding rate might be explained away pretty easily: over the first 11 games of the season, de Souza averaged just 1.72 offensive boards per game getting no more than 3 in a game. After an eight day break at the beginning of July, she averaged 3.08 offensive boards a game. In the playoffs, she's been averaging 4.2 per game.

Regardless of how much her ankle affects her in the Finals, the reason she's so hard to keep off the boards is the combination of her size and energy - she's easy among the highest energy centers in the league on the offensive boards and her effort just seems to increase with each big play she makes. There aren't many players in basketball history who seem to derive so much pure joy from getting an offensive rebound and putback.

Key matchup: Erika de Souza vs. Rebekkah Brunson/Janel McCarville

Prior to the Eastern Conference Finals, ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson mentioned during the media teleconference that de Souza stood out as one of Atlanta's biggest advantages over the Indiana Fever.

"I think Erika de Souza has to be an advantage," said Robinson. "Larkins has played her well, but with her size, she's got to be a go-to option in the post and make easy baskets and establish physical play."

Minnesota's front line is clearly both bigger and deeper than Indiana's, but they're still going to be running a set of 6-foot-2 posts at her for the most part in Rebekkah Brunson, Janel McCarville, and Devereaux Peters. The tallest player on their roster is 6-foot-5 Amber Harris who has played exactly 7 minutes in the 2013 playoffs but height isn't what's required of this matchup: they need strength.

McCarville has shown the ability to fight with de Souza to keep her out of position to score on post ups around the basket and the Lynx will need her and Brunson (as well as Peters if she draws the assignment) to do their best to push her away from the basket. In the past when de Souza wasn't this efficient as a scorer - including when these two teams last met in the Finals - this might not be as big a concern. But with her ability as both a dominant post scorer and offensive rebounder - not to mention the way she just takes up space in the paint - de Souza poses a major challenge to all WNBA opponents.

For more on how the Dream and Lynx match up, check out our 2013 WNBA Finals storystream. Click here for the full WNBA Finals schedule.

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