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Candice Wiggins: On the Positive Side of "Combo Guard"

Candice Wiggins is already one of the best "combo guards" in the league.

And that’s not a bad thing.

After 12 games off the bench this season and putting up some amazing rookie stats, it’s hard not to get excited about Wiggins’ star potential. She’s exciting to watch because she plays with so much passion that you can almost feel how much she loves the game.

However, at the beginning of the WNBA season there were some doubts as to whether Candice Wiggins could play point guard. She was labeled a "versatile" guard who could play the point, but it was assumed that she was clearly better on the wing.
"I've played the point all through college," Wiggins said during the pre-season. "I love to bring up the ball and alleviate pressure from my teammates. I know my true position is the '2', but I can also play the '1'."

Since the season started, she’s demonstrated the ability to move fluidly between off guard and point guard and she has arguably earned herself a starting position on the Lynx.

This past weekend, Wiggins proved that she is definitely a "combo guard" in its most positive sense – possessing the ability to influence the game off the bench by scoring, defending and creating opportunities for her teammates. Although the outstanding play of veterans Deanna Nolan and Shannon Johnson grabbed the headlines in back to back losses against the Shock and Comets, Wiggins more than held her own.

Not only has she responded to doubts about her ability to play the point, but she is also the perfect example of how valuable a talented combo guard can be to a team.

The shift from the "traditional" point guard

A few years back there was a story about the WNBA’s transition from traditional point guards to point guards who could score, led by Diana Taurasi.
The WNBA's transition away from the traditional point guard has been equally simple, and, in more ways than Taurasi, 2004 has been a tipping point… The WNBA's point guards, led by Taurasi, are becoming bigger and more physical all the time. And the ability to score makes the league's modern point guards much more dangerous on offense - even as passers, suggests [Sue] Bird.

Wiggins seems to be a continuation of this trend – she’s definitely not a traditional point guard -- although she doesn’t have quite the size of Taurasi. Whereas this trend seems to be popular in the WNBA, it has become taboo in the NBA.

In the NBA, "combo guard" has the stigma of being a "tweener" – a player who is too short to play shooting guard but not quite possessing the ball skills to be a point guard. Part of that is because we continue to hang onto antiquated notions of what it means to be a "point guard":
Our perspective on what makes a point guard great is seriously warped, and I blame it all on the false heralding of the assist as a game-changer and of purity as the singular path to point guard greatness. Because we believe assists to be of utmost import, and because pure point guards are more valued than scorers, we consider PGs who get lots of assists to be pure and thus, the best. They supposedly raise the game of their teammates. They make everything offense easier. They lead, muzzled or not, because they pass. It's malarkey (and I offer Jason Kidd as proof).

Could the same thing be happening in the WNBA? I think so…and I think it is the primary reason people have doubts about Wiggins.

Combo guards can balance scoring and distributing

Last week I looked at the league’s starting point guards and focused on the exact opposite critique: that people often assume a point must be able to score in order to be effective. And David Berri over at Wages of Wins would seem to have a similar take in his comparison of Lindsay Whalen and Becky Hammon: like the NBA the WNBA overrates scoring.
…Hammon - relative to Whalen - is the much better scorer. This is true from the line and the field. But when we look at the Net Possession factors - rebounds, steals, and turnovers - Whalen has an immense edge. Whalen is better on the boards, gets more steals, and is far less likely to commit a turnover. As Win Score indicates (and this is the same story told with Wins Produced), Whalen’s advantage with respect to Net Possessions completely erases Hammon’s edge as a scorer.

So which is it? Are we overestimating scoring or assists?

For point guards, I think the answer is that it actually requires balance.

What a great "combo guard" can bring to a team is the ability to balance scoring and setting up teammates. In fact, if you watch the Lynx closely, Wiggins actually sets up her teammates by making hers such a scoring threat. The way she attacks the basket puts pressure on the defense to focus on her, which in turn opens up opportunities for others. And similar to Whalen (or Deanna Nolan) she does it in more ways than one.

Wiggins can rebound, knows how to blow by defenders, can find open teammates on the move, and wreak havoc on defense (though Shannon Johnson had a great game, at one point during the second half Wiggins actually forced Johnson to dribble out the entire shot clock by pressuring her at half court ). She influences the game by keeping the defense on its heels every moment she’s in the game.

Sure she has a low assist ratio relative to the field of starting point guards, but that’s because she’s doing so much scoring. What’s more important is that she’s also not wasting possessions for her team with all the scoring she does and that’s pretty amazing for a rookie guard. However, she occasionally has lapses where she gets too focused on scoring.

The downside –and perhaps the reason why some people may still doubt her ability to play the point – is that she often seems out of control. You know how coaches advise players to "be quick, but not in a hurry"? Wiggins often looks like she’s in a hurry.

She has a quick release on her shot, but sometimes it seems like she’s just flinging the ball at the basket, especially when she doesn’t get her feet set. Once she really gets into the flow of the game, she can also make ill-advised drives into bigger players, double clutching on shots and failing to score. But when you consider that the Lynx seem to just come alive when she’ on the court, all of those flaws can be dismissed as rookie mistakes.

It might be tempting to look at their recent losing streak and say Wiggins is not effective at point guard, but I think that’s hardly the problem. The thing to remember about Candice Wiggins is that the energy and heart she brings to the floor every game results in a huge net positive effect for her team.

Get her off the bench!!

I absolutely think that as a combo guard, Wiggins has the ability to start for the Lynx. Of course there might be all kinds of behind the scenes reasons she doesn’t start – adjusting to the WNBA, learning the plays, how she’s performed in practiced, etc, etc. But just based on her court performance, when she’s on the floor, good things happen.

In the game against the Comets on Saturday, the most effective lineup saw for the Lynx was:

Wiggins, Seimone Augustus, Noelle Quinn, Kristen Rasmussen, and Nicole Ohlde.

What was great about that lineup is that they were able to run and capitalize on Wiggins speed, but also use Wiggins as a scorer with Quinn distributing to Augustus and Wiggins.

As a combo guard, Wiggins was able to switch between scorer and distributor depending on the situation. For a brief time, Houston was off balance and a large part of that was on the strength of Wiggins’ play.

Nicky Anosike was also great when she was in because she can run the floor and rebound (she ran into some early foul trouble). But this type of lineup worked well for the Lynx because it allowed them to run. And with other quality guards in Lindsey Harding and Anna DeForge, the Lynx could run all game.

So if the Lynx started with this lineup…

Wiggins, Augustus, Quinn, Anosike, and Ohlde

…they would have a combination of their best scorers and best passers on the court with their best rebounders. That’s exactly the type of lineup needed for a running game: someone to rebound, someone to get the outlet pass, and the rest streaking down to floor looking for early offense. The Lynx just don’t seem to be structured as a team that can bang, so the might as well play to their strengths.

This is not a slight to Anna DeForge or Lindsey Harding who are also talented players, but the Lynx have been getting off to such slow starts that it seems best to get Wiggins on the court, establish an uptempo game, and then keep the guards rotating in to just wear the other team down. There’s no better way to utilize a deep, fast lineup.

If the combo guard fits, play her…

The critique that Candice Wiggins can’t start because her ball-handling and passing skills aren’t yet refined is misguided. She has great instincts and is one of the most efficient guards in the league right now. She just doesn’t get the job done the "traditional" way.

Ultimately, what this issue of the combo guard comes down to is that a combo guard is only as good as the team around her. She can make players better, but she also has to be in a system that fully utilizes all of her abilities. Anne Donovan summed up the point nicely:
"There's no doubt that it's changed, times have changed," she says. "Really, it's a matter of style. You talk about a point guard scoring 20 points per game, obviously Carrie Graf's liking that. In Connecticut, it didn't work for Shannon Johnson to take that many shots, but it's sure working in San Antonio. It's a match of coach's style and player's style."

But when you have a talent like Candice Wiggins, you find a way to make it work.

Relevant Links:

Turnaround time

Burden of playing catchup sinks Lynx

After a fast WNBA start, Wiggins seeing a few losses

June 14th, 2008: Minnesota at New York

Ballad for the Combo Guard

The Best Player in the Game

The Evolution of the WNBA Point Guard