In describing what point guard Lindsay Whalen brings to USA Basketball during a media teleconference on Wednesday, coach Geno Auriemma provided a description of her game that helps to explain the underlying logic of how the roster was constructed.
"It would be really difficult for a guard to play on our team that was more scoring oriented than passing oriented and as I said, she’s really good at finding others," said Auriemma. "The physical nature of the game over here really plays into Lindsay’s hands. She’s like a running back in football, she can hit people. She loves it, the physicalness of it. That’s the kind of game that’s going to be played here and I’m anxious to see her when the tournament starts tomorrow."
Although WNBA season numbers won't provide a neat translation to FIBA play (players will have both different roles and different rules), Whalen (47th percentile in the league in field goal attempts) was actually less scoring oriented than Sue Bird (48th percentile) and definitely less so than the other primary options considered (Lindsey Harding, 54th percentile; Renee Montgomery, 60th percentile). With that, it's not necessarily surprising that she was the more willing passer, with a 28.21% assist ratio compared to both Harding and Montgomery who were well below the league average assist rate for point guards at around 21%.
As good as Whalen has been balancing scoring and passing as a point guard, her physical nature most obviously translates to her rebounding ability where she was just above average among point guards by percentage and well ahead of any other guard under consideration, including Kara Lawson whose omission of the team might have been a surprise to some given her past experience.
In other words, what Whalen appears to bring the team is a little bit of everything that one might imagine this team would need from the guard position: a player who can balance passing and scoring efficiently as well as bringing a physical presence at the point guard spot to complement the finesse style that starter Sue Bird brings. That's not to mention the fact that she had among the highest free throw rates in the league (40.6%) and better than anyone else on the USA roster.
"All through the training camp portion, I felt like Lindsay kept getting better and better and she was growing on me because of her ability to get to the rim," said Auriemma. "When we started to evaluate all the guards that we have, obviously we didn’t have Sue (Bird) and then Dee (Taurasi) showed up later, I don’t know that anybody did more than Lindsay did. She might have been a part of USA Basketball a lot sooner if it hadn’t been for her injuries and some other circumstances. I’m happy for her. I’m happy for us and I know she was like a little kid at Christmas time when she found out she made the team."
What we definitely can't measure is what Auriemma saw in those practices from Whalen as the team's leader during those practices - of the guards under consideration, Whalen brought by far the most experience running a team as the lead ballhandler. The fact that she doesn't have the international experience of some of the others is offset by both years of experience both in the WNBA and overseas.
"It's a little different style, but for me I think I try to bring the same intensity, same effort and energy every year to practice," said Whalen during her media teleconference on Wednesday. "To get nominated to the team, there was a selection process. I tried to use some of the things I've learned and been able to work on over the past 5-6 years playing in the WNBA and Europe to my advantage on the court. I've tried to make plays when they're there and hit shots and play defense. I think everything that I've learned has helped me and will continue to help me throughout this tournament."
Over the first two games in the World Championships, Whalen has shown a sampling of everything she brings the team. Although she was 0-for-5 in their first game against Greece, Whalen had an assist ratio of 30.36% and a turnover percentage of 10.12%, which made her very efficient as a distributor (a pure point rating of 4.54, about what she had during the WNBA season). In Game 2 against Senegal, neither she nor Bird had particularly efficient games as ball handlers (they both had turnover percentages of over 25%) but Whalen was 100% from the field and grabbed a team-high 5 defensive rebounds for an impressive 27.91% defensive rebounding percentage. In Game 3 against France, Bird functioned primarily as a scorer and Whalen had an even more efficient game as a ball handler - although she only played 16 minutes, she had no turnovers and two assists for an assist ratio of 33.33% and a pure point rating of 8.33.
It's pretty much what Whalen described what she would bring in last Wednesday's teleconference.
"Well, I think I've worked on defensively being in the right spots," said Whalen when asked her thoughts on why she made the team. "Being active on the ball. Offensively just trying to make things happen and get in the lane and put pressure on the defense. If I don't have the shot, look for people and try to get to the rim and either make someone foul me or make the shot. Make the open shot if I did get the open shot. I guess those are a couple of things, but just tried to do all those things a little bit better."
Looking at all that Whalen has contributed from the point guard position, she might be a pretty good example of Auriemma meant when he said prior to the tournament that what this team lacks in size and experience, they'll have to make up for with "creativity" and chemistry.
Small U.S. women’s hoops team ready for big time | News | USA Basketball
“Our guys are all undersized for what we’ll be playing against,” said Auriemma, the UConn women’s basketball coach who also will coach the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s team that will compete in London. “We’ve got a lot of undersized guys. We’ve just got to do it differently. We’re going to have to be creative.
“These guys play together pretty well. It’s not hard to get them to play together. They’re unselfish. They’re good kids. They play really hard. They’re competitive as heck. We’re just not big enough.”
A basketball team is not necessarily best constructed around filling positions, but building a unit that can accomplish something that seems obvious: score more efficiently per possession than their opponent and prevent their opponents from scoring efficiently. The composition of the unit that accomplishes that can vary as long as they a) maximize the skillset they have to b) accomplish the things necessary on a basketball court to win that battle - it's a matter of what individual strengths each player contributes to the whole and how they complement each other as they actually play to produce a winning outcome. Having players as versatile as Whalen has proven to be from the point guard position is essential to that "creative" process of succeeding despite being undersized.
While experience, size, and (whatever wisdom comes with) age matter, as Auriemma said, this is a team that has had to figure out how to get by without those things. And let's not kid ourselves - as Whalen said for herself, many of the players who have little international experience do have experience playing overseas in the WNBA off-season. So they aren't entirely unfamiliar with the game and/or its players. It's basketball. So a quick look at the performances of some of the newcomers and what they bring to the roster (based on the information provided by USA Basketball).
Jayne Appel (San Antonio Silver Stars)
When looking at some of the roster choices, Appel has probably stood out as one of the more surprising ones, especially if you're concerned about the positional breakdown - based on WNBA style of play, she could actually be considered redundant to Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles. Given that she has only played significant minutes in one game, it's hard to make any sort of definitive statement about what she brings. What we can't measure is defense and by all accounts from the practice sessions, Appel was among the team's best.
An argument could certainly be made for Kara Lawson (or Seimone Augustus) over Appel. However, considering that the team has two strong distributors in Bird and Whalen and two perimeter scorers in Diana Taurasi and Angel McCoughtry (that could easily fit the "2" position), it's easy to understand how a third strong interior player was chosen over a 5th or 6th guard. Down the road, getting another center international experience with the USA Basketball system isn't a particularly bad thing either.
Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun)
Charles has been a solid contributor in all three games thus far, shooting a high percentage but more importantly hitting the boards hard and contributing to the team's dominant offensive rebounding. Although she was kept off the offensive boards in 27 minutes against Senegal, in Game 1 against Greece she had a game-high 6 and in Game 3 against France she tied for a game-high 3.
Candice Dupree (Phoenix Mercury)
Dupree is more of a finesse interior player compared to Charles, Fowles, or Appel and has continued to show that her instincts moving in space are among the best for interior players. Where that shows up best is in her scoring efficiency -- she has shot 16-for-19 for the tournament while also being strong on the defensive boards with a 30% defensive rebounding percentage against France.
Asjha Jones (Connecticut Sun)
Like Dupree, Jones is less of an interior "banger" and for the past two years in the WNBA has actually been more of a "pure scorer" - proportionally, her number of field goal attempts (76th percentile in the WNBA) far exceed her contributions on the interior (blocks & rebounds) (52nd percentile in the WNBA) relative to other players in the league. With the exception of Game 1 in which she had a 38.28% offensive rebounding percentage, that's pretty much how things have played out for her. She's played limited minutes and had limited shot attempts, but after that first game she has yet to grab another rebound.
Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream)
We know that Angel McCoughtry is among the world's best scorers and best perimeter defenders. Looking at the steals and field goal attempts, it's exactly what one might expect.
Maya Moore (University of Connecticut)
Moore continues to be Maya Moore: simply amazing. Like Whalen, she just does a little bit of everything.