Over the course of the off-season, Swish Appeal has spoken with coaches and general managers around the league reflecting on their 2009 performance and looking forward to their 2010 season.
As part of those interviews, I asked two somewhat connected questions of the people I talked to:
- Are there players on your roster that aren't noticed by the fans or getting attention they deserve?
- Is there anyone in particular who you think is poised to have a breakout season?
Although it may seem that these questions lead to a list of Most Improved Player candidates, that's not necessarily where they're going.
"Underrated" players, or players who don't quite get the recognition they deserve from fans and media are not necessarily candidates for "improvement" -- the possibility of going from unrecognized to recognized doesn't necessarily mean a player improved more than anyone else.
Having a "breakout season" could have more to do with changing teams or getting more minutes which might better maximize a player's talent, but not necessarily reflect "improvement".
In addition, a number of second year players were mentioned but as one person told me recently, "second year players are supposed to improve!"
So while some of these players could very well be a candidate for the Most Improved Player award, this could almost be considered a list of players who might get more recognition in one way or another but aren't really the best MIP candidates.
A few details
- We collectively asked this question of 9 of 12 teams (apologies to the Indiana Fever and Los Angeles Sparks; I spoke with Steven Key of the Chicago Sky prior to the draft, but did not ask these particular questions)
- Taking the names I received, I've separated out the second year players and created three lists.
- I ordered the players by the most persuasive arguments.
First, breakout players.
Nicky Anosike, center, Minnesota Lynx
Anosike headlines this group of players to watch as an underrated potential breakout player who was easily one of last season's best second year players.
Anosike probably has two things working against her garnering more recognition. First, she has always been overshadowed by the people she played with. At the University of Tennessee, that was 2008 top 5 draft picks Candace Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle who most people would agree had better college careers. As one person recently told me, the only thing she could remember about Anosike at Tennessee was missed layups.
Coach Cheryl Reeve pointed out a similar problem with the Lynx.
"Nicky has such solid guard play around her that her presence in the post flies under the radar," wrote Reeve in a late January email when asked about underrated players.
Not only has she been surrounded by great guard play, but she's also been surrounded by scorers like Seimone Augustus, Charde Houston, and Candice Wiggins.The fact is, fans and journalists alike like scorers because, hey, the game is won by scoring. And by statistical tendencies, Anosike is a non-scorer.
Although she developed her offensive game tremendously between her first and second seasons, she is fundamentally a defensive player. However, an argument could be made after the first two years of her career that she is the best defender in the league simply because she is able to effectively guard almost any position from any area of the court. She is one of the most dynamic defensive weapons of any player in the WNBA right now.
But before I make an even bigger claim, let me start simple: Anosike might best represent the slogan "Basketball is Basketball." I'll quote at length from what I previously wrote about the Lynx:
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After watching the Sun, Shoals suggested that the WNBA is "the new frontier" of basketball. Although he was referring to Whalen and Lauren Jackson, in truth, Anosike might even better represent the notion that the WNBA is not just different, but in some cases actually illuminating basketball possibilities we might never have imagined.
In the basketball universe, it’s almost unheard of to see a defensive player like Anosike able to both patrol the paint and even pester guards into turnovers. She looks as comfortable defensively on the wing as she is in the post.
To put her ability in statistical perspective, over the past two seasons, Anosike has had the best two year run of steals of any center in WNBA history since Yolanda Griffith between 1999-2000 (they each had 156, but Griffith had the edge in steals per game). Griffith actually led the league in steals per game in 1999 and 2004. If you're a long-time WNBA fan, perhaps this isn't that remarkable since it's happened twice in league history. But it's never happened in the NBA, even among power forwards, who are generally shorter and quicker.
That Anosike -- who was second in the league in steals per game last year -- has a chance to repeat that feat is therefore quite astounding in the context of basketball history. While Griffith was a much more well rounded player -- she led the league in rebounding, steals, and free throw attempts in 1999 and was second in scoring and field goal percentage -- we must also remember that Griffith was 29 in 1999. Anosike will enter this season at 24. It's not entirely far fetched to say that she could develop into a similarly dominant player.
It's just another aspect of the game that makes this team so fascinating to watch for people who enjoy thinking about the game of basketball.
So let's summarize: no NBA or WNBA center has ever led the league in steals. Yolanda Griffith came close a few times but over the last two seasons, Anosike has put together the best two year run of steals of any post player in basketball history. Not just the WNBA, but basketball history.
Of course, steals are not everything and can often be misleading (some people may use New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul as the classic example of that). However, steals are an awfully good indicator of agility and defensive intelligence. To have that in a center that is also in the top 10 in the league in blocks and rebounds is probably more remarkable than people give credit for. I've said it before and I will say it again, many times: a center who can block shots, rebound, and then go out and defend players on the wing and get steals in space is a defensive force like basketball really has not seen before.
Anosike is already among the most unique players in the history of basketball. And again, she's only 24. She will get better. So what makes her a potential "breakout" player this season? It's likely that she will be a key player on a winning team -- if not a playoff team -- in 2010, the first such team for the Lynx since 2004. Offensively, although she shoots just under 70% from the free throw line, she had the most free throw attempts of any player in the league last season and a free throw rate of 47%. That ability to get to the line alone is valuable to the team on offense even if she doesn't put up the big scoring numbers.
If Anosike continues on her unexpected trajectory of improvement, becomes even more versatile offensively, and ends up playing for a playoff team it's hard to imagine that she will continue flying under the radar.
Candice Dupree, power forward, Phoenix Mercury
As strange as it may sound to say a historically good defensive center is poised for a breakout year, it probably sounds even weirder to claim that an All-Star forward could have a breakout season after demanding a trade and being sent to the conference many assume to be tougher.
However, when asked for a breakout player, Mercury general manager Ann Meyers-Drysdale brought up Dupree.
"Dupree’s numbers overseas were pretty good, and being with a new team and a new system we hope that her #’s will increase from last season," said Meyers-Drysdale.
Mercury coach Corey Gaines echoed the same sentiment at Media Day yesterday and Scotter noted the same thing in his analysis earlier today. However, while Gaines mentioned defense and rebounding and Scotter mentioned floor spacing, the thing that might not have gotten enough attention is that Dupree is actually quite effective as a transition player.
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But Phoenix likes to score fast and in bunches and Dupree can do that. There were three forwards last year among the top 20 players in the league in fast break scoring -- Dupree was #20. That will almost certainly increase this season. So although Pondexter led the league in fast break scoring and was a critical part of the Mercury's fast break attack, Dupree is also more than capable of functioning in this system.
"The offense I learned from coach [Paul] Westhead is built around a four," said Gaines in last week's WNBA pre-season media conference. "The real offense is built around a four, strong four that demands a double team -- and Candice Dupree is that player. We've never experienced that before here in Phoenix and I think people will be a little shocked when they find out that the offense is not really meant for the guards, it's meant for a four who can score."
In almost every facet of the game, Dupree stands to rise into conversations about the league's elite this season
Ashley Walker, forward, Seattle Storm
It might also seem weird to call Ashley Walker a "breakout player", given that her rookie season was shortened due to injury and then she received limited minutes in her return. But what makes Walker a player to keep an eye on as a breakout player is her ongoing transition from the interior to the wing. Coming into the league, she figured to be an undersized interior player. Now, as former University of Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini commented yesterday after watching her during the Storm's scrimmage against Team China yesterday, Walker has become just an athletic, physical forward. She has been among the most consistently impressive players in Storm training camp.
"Ashley Walker, I don't know how this is going to play out, but I think she's been one who has made a significant change from last year to this year," said Storm coach Brian Agler last week when asked which player in training camp might have a breakout season. "That has to do with her weight and her ability to play on the perimeter a little bit better this year...I'm not saying she's where she needs to be but she's made significant improvement."
Walker has shown the ability to score from multiple places, adding three point range and looking increasing comfortable handling the ball. With the Storm looking for scoring options off the bench, the success of Walker's transition to the wing might actually play a key role in the Storm's success as a team this season.
Ruth Riley, center, San Antonio Silver Stars
When I asked Dan Hughes about breakout players, he gave me two: Megan Frazee and Ruth Riley. Riley might appear to be a particularly odd choice for a couple of reasons: first, the Silver Stars currently have 8 front court players on their roster (nine if you count Alysha Clark as a combo forward). So even with Ann Wauters choosing not to play in the WNBA this season, minutes will be thin in the Silver Stars rotation. Second, one could very easily argue that the 30-year-old center has been on the decline since her 2003 or 2004 season with the since relocated Detroit Shock. So what is Hughes' reasoning?
"The other thing with us in signing Ruth Riley is having her healthy," said Hughes back in late January. "She is coming off of surgery where we're looking forward to a health situation that we haven't enjoyed with Ruth -- I think she could be the healthiest we've coached her in three years...I think she and Megan Frazee are people that are interesting to see how 2010 plays out."
Considering that Wauters might have been a more important part of the Silver Stars' offense than people give credit for as a passer, Riley -- the best healthy passer of the Silver Stars' current centers -- could step into that role of high post facilitator. In a sense, last season was a natural experiment for Riley as Wauters' replacement: they split starting games in half as Wauters didn't return to the U.S. until mid-season. Not only did the team win one more game with Riley as the starter, but Riley also played much better individually all-around, nearly tripling her scoring average on 52.5% shooting and shooting just over 30% from the three point line.
Will a healthier Riley return to 2003 WNBA Finals MVP form as the team's full-time starter? That remains to be seen. But if Hughes is correct and this is the healthiest they've had her, she could be more productive than people might expect.
Shanna Crossley, guard, Tulsa Shock
When asked who the team's best shooter is on media day, the majority of the Tulsa Shock gave the same answer, including Shanna Crossley: "Me."
"Is that even a question?" said guard Natasha Lacy.
"Oh, that's Shanna Crossley," said assistant coach Wayne Stehlik. "Nickname's 'Layup' -- that's what the players call her. We the coaches don't call her that, but the players do."
So with so much attention given to her shooting in training camp and a start against the Seattle Storm on Sunday, it might come as no surprise that of the three Tulsa Shock coaches asked for a breakout player, two mentioned Crossley.
"I would think Crossley would have a really good shot at breaking out and being a really good player," said Richardson.
The excitement over Crossley's shooting might come as a surprise to some people who were lukewarm on Tulsa's decision to trade forward Crystal Kelly for her in mid-April. Given the team's seeming lack of depth in the post with Cheryl Ford out for the season and Taj McWilliams-Franklin signing with New York, it seemed like an odd move.
However, coming off an injury-shortened season last year in which she played the least minutes per game in 19 games for the Silver Stars, Crossley could indeed be a player who surprises some this season. In the Shock's lone pre-season game against the Storm, Crossley not only scored 10 points on 3-6 shooting, but also contributed to the team's defensive attack with 3 steals.
Most of all, the biggest reason to believe in Crossley's potential as a breakout player is the faith her coaches and teammates have in her. It's difficult to breakout if a player isn't put in position to do so and it appears that the Shock staff is going to give her that opportunity.