In Chicago Sky forward Shyra Ely's touching blog post describing her reaction to her recent season-ending injury, one piece in particular just seemed to jump out and humanize the experience of being a professional athlete.
Resilient... - Yardbarker
I'm 26 years old, going into my 6th year in the WNBA. I can't afford to take 6-9 months off due to injury. I'm under contract and I just had one of my best seasons in the WNBA and overseas. (I played in China for 2 months.) Disappointed is not the word! You don't take injuries into account all the time. This is my livelihood. I'm supposed to be playing.
Whether it's a role player whose absence will barely register on the radar of casual fans or an All-Star expected to carry a team, what's humanly at stake - and perhaps often underappreciated -- is always the livelihood of someone who's dedicated their life to refining their craft.
It's easy for fans to forget the human side of professional athletes that Ely describes so well and so I not only appreciate her for reminding us of this oft-ignored human side, but also her willingness to illuminate it for us with such honesty. And upon hearing about Washington Mystics All-Star guard Alana Beard's season-ending ankle surgery, Ely's post is one of the first things that came to mind -- even if it's not necessarily a career-threatening injury, it's sad to see a player lose a year of a career that will only last a finite period of time.
That said, as fans, the initial impulse after an announcement like Beard's is to wonder what it means for the Mystics, a team who returned to the playoffs in 2009 and figured to only be on the upswing after an outstanding draft and signing playing legend Katie Smith.
In a release posted on the Mystics' website yesterday, general manager Angela Taylor counterposed a statement of disappointment about Beard's injury with a statement about the team's depth, talent, and intent "to continue to compete for the Eastern Conference Championship". However, in losing a player of Beard's caliber, there definitely seems to be a new layer of difficulty added to that quest for a conference championship. In the context of the developing broader narrative of this WNBA season, Beard's injury makes the Mystics another team that might be adversely affected by the roster cuts prior to the 2009 season and the salary cap reduction prior to this coming season.
Although the New York Liberty were relatively comfortable waiving forward Kelly Mazzante - who was a marginally productive role player for Phoenix last season -- after she suffered an ACL injury, the Mystics won't quite have it so easy in replacing Beard.
Unfortunately for the Mystics, there is no longer an inactive list in the WNBA and the only way to free up Beard's roster spot and salary cap hold is to waive her. Given that Beard was the team's leading scorer last season, it seems unlikely that the Mystics would waive her meaning the team will have to go with 10 players for the season. That's not to say that they cannot compete for an Eastern Conference Championship, but it does mean that they have a tough road ahead doing so shorthanded.
There is certainly no way to account for how an injury of this magnitude might affect a team's morale or how a team will respond to this by individually or collectively raising their level of play and "overachieving". However, we can look at the Mystics personnel as it currently stands and make some reasoned assertions about what exactly they might miss based on the team's strengths and weakness.
Washington's improving scoring
While the Mystics were a much improved 9th in points per game last season (76.0) and 6th in points per possession (94.82), that scoring success is actually tempered by the fact that the team was 5th in points off turnovers (17.67) and third in both fast break points (11.89) and second chance points (12.78) - they were actually a team that struggled to score in half court sets.
Washington Team Needs & Outlook: What Does Katie Smith Bring the Mystics? - Swish Appeal
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."
The point is accentuated by the fact that perhaps their most significant four factors weakness was being outshot by their opponent (by effective field goal percentage). Losing Beard certainly does not help that situation.
Although Beard is known as a defender, she was also the team's leading scorer last season averaging 15.9 ppg. Moreover, in terms of SPI playing styles - which does not include "defensive" types -- she's a "pure scorer", a player whose scoring tendencies rank among the top 10% in league. In fact, she was not only the most productive pure scorer on the team last season, but she was one of only three perimeter pure scorers on a team with 3 post players in the rotation that classify as "scorer's opposites" or utility players.
In addition, part of the explanation for their half-court struggles might be that they only had three players (Beard, Matee Ajavon, and Nikki Blue) on the team with usage percentages of above 20%, a league low and an indicator that they did not have a whole lot of players adept at creating scoring opportunities for themselves. With Beard out and Blue still an unsigned restricted free agent, that leaves only one player active for 2010 with an above average usage percentage.
So given that the team was heavily reliant on perimeter scoring last season, losing their most productive perimeter scorer - a player who contributed almost 16% of the team's overall production - and one of the few they looked to for creating shots is quite a huge blow.
Certainly adding Katie Smith helps that situation, but although she was more efficient last season, she was less productive overall and is yet another player with a usage percentage under 20%. Although she said upon signing with the Mystics that her health was fine, recurring back injuries are not exactly unheard of either.
All-WNBA defensive ability
Washington allowed the fourth least points per possession last year demonstrating a solid defense. Beard - named four times to the WNBA All-Defensive Team - was obviously a major part of that.
The best way I've ever heard to describe Beard's defensive ability was from a former NC State player who played against her and said when she extends her arms they seem to reach from sideline to sideline (there was profanity used as well that I shall omit here). With a memorably long wingspan, quick hands, and quick feet, it's no wonder Beard is an outstanding defender. Statistically, she had the 4th highest steal percentage in the league and is a strong on ball defender with her physical gifts. So replacing what she brings defensively will be difficult to say the least, even with adding Smith.
However, Taylor did mention wanting to increase the team's shot blocking ability in her February chat with Swish Appeal - they finished 9th in the league last season - and presumably, that's what they expect #6 draft pick Jacinta Monroe to bring to the team. Monroe has the athleticism and length to become a solid weakside shot blocker in the pros and while Beard's ability to stop penetration before the point of a shot block might be more valuable, having a shot blocker helps. Given that Smith is no slouch on defense either - though perhaps as quick as Beard - the defensive loss from one player might be made up for through adjustments in the team's scheme.
Alexis Gray-Lawson's chances?
Taylor previously told Swish Appeal that Gray-Lawson would have to "beat someone out" to make the team and with the number of perimeter players on the team already it would have been difficult, though not impossible. Although Beard's injury doesn't free up a roster spot, with the lost scoring and the interest in adding a combo guard prior to the injury, Gray-Lawson might have an improved chance.
The concerns about Gray-Lawson are three-fold based upon communication with Taylor: whether she can score consistently at her height, defend bigger and quicker point guards in the WNBA, and run the offense. However, if she can prove the ability to create scoring opportunities for herself - what she's probably most well known for -- given this team's personnel, she might have an additional edge now. It's definitely an optimistic assessment of her chances, but given the unfortunate circumstances, she suddenly looks like more of a third round steal.
Given that Washington was a playoff team last season and only seemed to improve this off-season, they seemed like a likely candidate for a playoff spot along with the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever who also didn't change significantly. In losing Beard, that might not seem quite as certain.
The Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty have made significant changes that will likely make the Eastern Conference very competitive. It's too early to say for sure that the Mystics have become early applicants in the Maya Moore Sweepstakes, but it's a huge loss nonetheless that could slow the momentum of a rising franchise.