If Washington Mystics General Manager Angela Taylor wants to create a "culture of winning", then it's hard to imagine finding an active player with a stronger resume of winning than veteran Olympian and WNBA champion Katie Smith.
During today's teleconference to announce Smith's long-anticipated signing, Taylor called Smith one of the best players in the world and that championship pedigree is certainly something that she will add to the team.
"I think Katie is someone who just has a ton of experience," said coach Julie Plank during today's media teleconference. "We were in a lot of close games last year - I think she understands what it takes to win. She's extremely competitive, extremely mentally tough, and she plays both ends of the floor. There's nothing that she can't do...I'm really excited to coach her and I know our players are really excited to play with her."
On the court, what Smith represents is something else that Taylor has sought in the offense - versatility. Smith is a player able to play all three perimeter positions and is stong enough to defend any one of them. As Taylor mentioned in her interview with Swish Appeal last week, having multiple players on the floor who can handle the ball is a key to success, even more valuable in today's WNBA climate with 11 player rosters.
"My versatility and ability to play a lot of different positions whether it be the 1, 2, or 3," said Smith during today's media teleconference. "Even if it's giving Lindsey Harding a break at the 1 at times or being able to run the point when Lindsey's on the floor. It's all of us being interchangeable. And sometimes I can play the four depending on match-ups. So I think it's just depending on the game, depending on the game plan, and how we're doing and what we're doing, that's just where I'll fit in."
While her versatility and veteran leadership is certainly welcome, at age 35 and coming off an injury-shortened season, the Mystics are certainly not getting the same Smith that won two ABL championships or even the one that helped lead the Shock to 3 WNBA championships. So it would be reasonable for fans to wonder what tangible contributions Smith can make to the Mystics.
In chatting with Taylor last week, three needs came up as most critical to the team taking the next step forward: scoring, ball control, and post play.
Although Smith may address their need for scoring and to some extent ball control, the Mystics are still well aware that they need to improve their post play.
Scoring might not stand out as a major area of concern for the Mystics.
As noted by Taylor, the team did increase its scoring output to 76 points per game last season from a league-low 69.6 in 2008. For the most part, their scoring strength was getting transition and hustle points - they were third in the WNBA in both 2nd chance points and fast break points. The problem was finding points in the half-court.
"Our offense has been predicated on the defensive end - we get out in transition and we're deadly in transition," said Taylor in an interview with Swish Appeal last week. "It was in the half court that we struggled. And part of that can be attributed to familiarity with the system, players getting comfortable with one another, and so we'll focus on our half court execution."
Consistent with her reputation as the ABL's all-time scorer and the WNBA's third all-time leading scorer, Smith was a pure scorer last season based upon the SPI playing styles framework - relative to the league, she looked scoring opportunities more than 97% of the league. Most importantly, she was the most efficient scorer on the since-relocated Detroit Shock last season and among the most efficient wing scorers in the league despite injury.
That efficiency should help the Mystics considerably - the team's biggest four factors weakness was effective field goal percentage relative to opponents and even if Smith's production drops a little this season, she is just one more player that knows how to get points in a half court situation.
Of course, she will not be without help - the Mystics are expecting internal improvement on the scoring front.
One major aspect of center Crystal Langhorne's improvement last season was her scoring - over the last five games of the season, Langhorne actually led the team in scoring with 14.2 points per game while the season leading scorer Alana Beard recovered from injury. Although she was by no means a primary option, as she continues to develop as a young post player, she will be able to contribute points in the half court.
Taylor also expects forward Marissa Coleman to rebound from a rookie season "derailed" by a high ankle sprain that lingered "both physically and mentally" to become a more effective scorer. Taylor pointed out that during the first three games of the season the team not only went 3-0, but were one of the top scoring teams in the league. Upon returning from injury she was mostly a spot-up shooter -- which was valuable --but Taylor expects more this season.
"When she returned to the team she and Monique Currie - Monique was our best 3pt shooter at 38% -- in our three position really relied on being able to spread the floor so that Lindsey and Matee Ajavon and Alana Beard could create off the dribble," said Taylor. "So I think that one of the things we're looking for from Marissa is to step up her game to the next level -- be more consistent, be more explosive off the dribble as well as well as being a spot up shooter. People cannot lay off of her but if they get up on her I think that in college she displayed that she's really able to put the ball on the floor, have more of a mid-range game or get to the basket and finish. So I'm looking for her to do much more of that this year - to be more aggressive offensively as well as to continue to work on her defense."
Although Currie was the team's best three point shooter - after being considered a slasher when arriving in Washington, she shot the highest three point percentage of her career- she was also among the best offensive rebounders at the small forward position as well as in the top ten in the league in free throw rate. So despite a down season relative to her career and inconsistency, the team re-signed her on the basis of her strengths.
"One of the things is Monique statistically was inconsistent but at critical times in the game, Monique Currie was on the floor for us," said Taylor. "She was our best free throw shooter and in the league she was one of the best players at getting to the free throw line which again I think is a critical thing for us to get to the free throw line and change the course of the game. And we are looking for her to be more consistent but if you look at her numbers and if you look at her efficiency over 40 minutes, Monique was in the top 5 or top 6 at her position. So one of the things for us is we shared time between Marissa and Monique quite a bit last year and one of the things that we'll look at is who is going to step up and really own those minutes. But we do look for Monique- she's had a great off-season overseas, she's working on her game, I think that she has a perfect complement."
Regardless of the expected improvement of both Coleman and Currie, it should be clear that Smith will add a more consistent, efficient, and reliable presence on the wing for the Mystics.
But increased scoring efficiency was not the only problem - the main problem Taylor identified in the half-court was ball control.
"If you look at our turnovers, that's a lot of possessions and we lost a lot of games by 2 or 3 possessions," said Taylor of a major contributor to their half-court scoring problems. "And we turned the ball over in many of our losses too many times. And so possession by possession, take care of the ball. We feel like we do take care of the ball much better than we have in the past. If we don't make silly fouls on the offensive end, that's gonna help us in the scoring column by having more field goal attempts."
To be sure, the Mystics did improve on the turnover front - there were last in both assist differential and turnover differential in 2008 and moved up to 11th and 10th respectively in 2009. That said, Smith adds another player to the mix who can handle the ball and knows how to make plays, taking pressure off of Beard and point guard Lindsey Harding to handle the ball whose turnover percentages left something to be desired.
"Our players, they have the ball in their hands quite a bit and Alana in particular can't turn the ball over," said Taylor of the turnover problem. "So making better decisions with the ball and having a better interior game will hopefully help with that."
Beard is also a pure scorer by SPI styles, although she's also noted for her defensive prowess. Although she was the team's leading scorer, she was also far less efficient than Smith was last season as well as being a high usage player with a high turnover percentage - she committed the most turnovers of her career last year.
With Smith on board, one would have to assume that both scoring and ball handling responsibilities would be more distributed, thus decreasing the turnover percentages of all three (Beard, Harding, and Smith were in the 60th-90th range in turnover percentage in 2009). Less pressure on primary ball handlers combined with more scoring consistent and efficient scoring options will almost certainly help the Mystics' half court offense.
"We have a lot of players that can create for themselves but I think our perimeter shooting will be much better and we'll have more options offensively," said Taylor. "So I think we'll be able to create a little bit better, share the ball much more as we get to know the offense and get to read and understand who we're looking for in certain sets, which plays are for what players and those type of things I certainly think that they'll be in year two in our system."
However, the biggest need for the Mystics after the Smith signing is still the post.
"Our biggest need - and it's certainly no secret - is we need to enhance our post game," said Taylor last week. "We need some posts to step up and to have a bigger post presence, both on the defensive end and the offensive end. I think we were last in the league in blocks so we don't really block in the paint and we have some great defenders who are going to get all over their guards so we need somebody to have a presence interior defensively. And we need to be able to have a low block presence, another post player who can contribute offensively and be our primary threat out there. So that's our primary focus this off-season: how can we improve our post game?"
Ironically, despite looking for help in the post, Langhorne was arguably the team's most statistically valuable player, primarily due to her combination of rebounding, scoring efficiency, and a low usage rate. That combined with her strong performance at the end of the season certainly could make it reasonable to believe that they have someone to anchor the post.
However, there are two problems in the post - the Mystics were the only team with out a post player with average scoring tendencies in their rotation based on SPI styles (Minnesota's Quanitra Hollingsworth is barely in the middle third of the league; Washington's Bernice Mosby was right around the 44th percentile, but only played 6 minutes per game). So although Langhorne stepped up her scoring late in the season, for the most part the team did not even have a post player looking to score. So although they were sixth in points in the paint, it wasn't necessarily coming from their posts.
The other problem is on the defensive end - as Taylor said, the team's success is predicated on creating offense from their defense. As an undersized post player, post defense is just something that Taylor says Langhorne is still working on and may always be limited in. After signing both Smith and Kristin Haynie, it looks like they will most likely make that addition through the draft.
"We have we've narrowed it down to probably 3 or 4 different players at number six," said Taylor. "Certainly we're looking at post players in college so there's a few post players that resonate with us and that have been playing well and that would fit into our system. Very different post players so they're all not the same, don't bring the same things to the table. So we're evaluating who may be there at #6."
Perhaps their ability to find a post contributor in addition to adding Smith is what will most determine whether they improve this season. Nevertheless, Smith should make the Mystics a slightly better scoring and ball handling team, in addition to giving Plank a more versatile option to play with in the rotation.
- Taylor commented last week on what Haynie brings to the team.
- More on Marissa Coleman: "She complements our perimeter really well, she has great size, and we look for big things from Marissa because she is capable of scoring. And I think the thing that was surprising was her ability at the defensive end – she matched up with Candace Parker or Tamika Catchings. The three position is pretty intimidating and potent and I thought she matched up pretty well for someone who in college didn’t really rely on her defense that much.
- Taylor also said that they will be looking at perimeter players in the draft: "There's also some perimeter players that we think can fill some holes - like I said before, we are looking for some combo guards or someone to add depth on the perimeter. And so we feel pretty good about it right now. It's not a deep draft but I think a month or two ago some of us were a little bit disappointed in the draft. I think now some players are starting to step up and rise to the top so we're pretty happy about our position and think we'll get a great player. Maybe not make an immediate impact, but that will be a natural player that we can draw on for a long time."
- Not that there is a strong statistical indicator of defense in basketball, but taking the weighted defensive elements (blocks, defensive rebounds, fouls and steals) of David Sparks' val metric that measures the value of player contributions, Langhorne ranked 11 in the league among post players. However, the issue for Langhorne will be more position defense than statistical outcomes.
- Just looking back through the archives briefly, I found this little tidbit that I wrote on Rethinking Basketball relevant to what Taylor is doing with the Mystics now:
"Forever Opti-Mystic": When Will the Mystics Rise Above Mediocrity? (September 2008)
The fact that Connecticut beat the Mystics with their bench playing major minutes speaks volumes about Connecticut's team building strategy. They have built a system that functions even without their stars. Nobody expected them to be at the top of the Eastern Conference this year, but there they are with home court advantage.
That seems like a good way for the Mystics to start to me -- establish a system, find players who fit the system, and build slowly toward a cohesive unit. It might not result in instant success, but at least fans might feel like the team is building toward something rather than floating around in the abyss of mediocrity. And perhaps that will help the fair weather male fans like me stick around for a little bit longer.