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Should Tayler Hill still be starting for the Washington Mystics?

Last week, I gave my positives and negatives on this season for the Washington Mystics season so far. And no, this is not a post where I'm going to say that I'm taking it all back because the Mystics are now in a two game losing streak given their road losses to Seattle and Phoenix. However, Tayler Hill, the team's first round draft pick has so far failed to deliver as a scorer and other guards on the team have outplayed her on the offensive end. So, should someone else be starting?

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt may be undrafted, but she is playing at a very high level and you can make a case that she should start over Tayler Hill.
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt may be undrafted, but she is playing at a very high level and you can make a case that she should start over Tayler Hill.

If you read this site often, you probably know that my answer to this question is no, but I do have to acknowledge that this is a legitimate question that is worthy of a post in and of itself. First, at least before the season, Mike Thibault said this about why Hill is starting over Matee Ajavon through CSN Washington's Ben Standig:

Long term for our success, she needs to be a part of it. We're going to throw her into the fire, make her learn on the run. I told her 'study opponents, get tendencies down. Get a book on everybody. Start seeing what kind of an impact she can make. Concentrate on the defensive end and the offensive side will take care of itself.

Fair enough. At least in other statistical categories that don't involve shooting the basketball, Hill isn't doing that badly in the 20 minutes per game that she's playing where she's averaging two rebounds a game, over a steal per game and over an assist per game.

I remember that Hill said in her press conference at the 2013 Draft that she wants to be best known for her basketball IQ. A lot of these things aren't necessarily shown on the stat sheet. At least Nate and I have seen that she is playing strong perimeter defense, and is also able to make good passes on offense, even they don't end up as assists. Obviously, we want to see more than just "IQ", but with the exception of her shooting, Hill isn't clueless on both ends on the floor.

Players who could start at guard for DC besides Tayler Hill

1. Matee Ajavon (10.3 ppg on 41.8% shooting, 38.5% three point shooting; 2.4 assists per game)

Why she should start over Hill - First, it's pretty simple, Ajavon is having a great bounceback season from last year's debacle when she didn't even make 30% of her shots overall. Second, she already has familiarity playing with Crystal Langhorne and Monique Currie as all three have been together in DC since 2009. Lastly, Ajavon started the second half in yesterday's game against the Phoenix Mercury.

Why not: Given that Nadirah McKenith isn't a regular rotation piece, Ajavon is the team's backup point guard. In addition, there is no legitimate scoring threat in the second unit right now either and Ajavon provides that threat. Another thing to note is that Ajavon is getting most of her stats against second units of other teams. Putting her in the first unit could drop her efficiency. In addition, Ajavon is a turnover-prone player and averages more turnovers than assists.

Lastly, Ajavon is listed at 5'8" and Ivory Latta, the other starting guard is listed at 5'6". The Mystics cannot afford to have a diminutive backcourt for very long where most teams have a guard who is closer to 6'0". In yesterday's game for some stretches with Latta and Ajavon, the Mystics were dwarfed by Mercury point guard Diana Taurasi who is listed at 6'0" and Briana Gilbreath, the starting shooting guard is also at 6'0". It's actually commendable that the Mystics didn't get blown out by the Mercury given the backcourt size disadvantage.

2. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (4.9 ppg on 43.5% shooting, 2.4 rebounds per game)

Why: Ruffin-Pratt often plays with the first unit (Latta, Currie, Langhorne, Kia Vaughn) in crunch time. Second, she is a player that doesn't necessarily have to have the ball in her hands in order to be effective. Also, she has been more assertive with the shots she takes.

Also, unlike Matee Ajavon, Ruffin-Pratt has better height where she's listed at 5'10" and is also a big and strong body for the guard position and could also give many small forwards fits as well because of her strength. Generally speaking, she's more comfortable than Hill is.

Some of the comfort-ability that Ruffin-Pratt may come from the fact that she's playing in her native area. She is from nearby Alexandria, VA, and also three of the other four first unit players are ACC school alums, with Ivory Latta as a fellow North Carolina alum, so that helps her to some degree too I'd imagine.

I am no fan of picking up regional players so I'm always skeptical when one is picked up, and Ruffin-Pratt was no exception, but she honestly has played with a chip on her shoulder and has proven that she belongs in this league, so I'm convinced that her signing was a great basketball move. In other words, it was not a move to get her family to buy season tickets or to get T.C. Williams High School (yes, the Remember the Titans school since that's where Ruffin-Pratt went) students to watch games.

Why Not: Like Ajavon, Ruffin-Pratt's points come mostly against the second unit players, and also she has yet to make threes. That said, Tayler Hill is 1-16 with threes right now for what it's worth. Also, it wouldn't surprise me that if she were starting, Ruffin-Pratt wouldn't be getting many opportunities to score.

My determination: If the Mystics decide to tweak the starting lineup at guard, it's best to let Tierra Ruffin-Pratt do so. First, she appears to be in a comfort zone when playing and is much more aggressive than Hill has been, even though she is doing so against other second units while Hill is playing against the first units more. Next, Ruffin-Pratt is a big and strong guard who could help them defensively as well.

With that said, here's another quick question:

If Tayler Hill is relegated as a bench player, could that just exacerbate things and perhaps shoot her confidence down?

On one hand, as professional basketball players or like any other workplace, if you're not performing well in your role, you're losing your job. Seeing Hill just not perform over seven games while seeing every other perimeter option deliver is certainly a reason why Hill should lose her starting job, if not her spot on the roster given how short leashes are on rookies who are not the "anointed ones" in the WNBA.

But unlike Tierra Ruffin-Pratt who is often playing with another rookie on the floor with Emma Meesseman, Hill is playing in a lineup consisting of four veterans who often need the ball to be effective on offense. Crystal Langhorne is no longer the undisputed primary option on offense anymore given Ivory Latta's scoring ability and is not playing to her expectations. Kia Vaughn often jacks up hook shots and is averaging 34.6% of her attempts from the field. I will say that Monique Currie however is playing well as a playmaker this season where she's averaging nearly three assists a game and isn't averaging two turnovers. She has definitely been an unsung hero and consistent player this season for DC in addition to Latta.

Granted, none of these four players played on top teams last year or the year before for that matter. But it's still going to be kind of intimidating for a rookie, in particular, an unheralded one because of the three picks ahead of her to just assert herself in the WNBA when the players she's with are all veterans.

In the last few games, maybe I'm just seeing things that were always there and am noticing them now, but there is more effort to get Hill involved on offense. In the Phoenix game, the box score will say that Hill had no points and missed all of her seven shot attempts which some folks will say is justification to bench her for the next several games, and some will probably say that either the Mystics should cut Hill today and/or that they should have picked one of the two local picks or another big post staring them in the face in the Draft where both Zack and I gave our reasons why they wouldn't be the right players for this team.

Also, writing Hill off as the Mystics' version of Jan Vesely and Kwame Brown combined right now is not fair to her or the Washington Mystics. The WNBA, unlike the NBA has a Mickey Mouse training camp and player development structure thanks to 11 man rosters and no guaranteed contracts for 1st round picks which inhibits young player development, and by just giving the white flag to the European leagues which should be considered adversarial to the league, not as partners, at least in my opinion.

The Washington Wizards had eight preseason games before starting their 82 game season. This allows players, including rookies to find their rhythm before the regular season. Hill so far has played a total of eight professional games, and I won't include the Mickey Mouse Brazil game. It's hard for any players, especially rookies to adjust to the pros when there are only two preseason games, and then you have to fit in college graduations and before then, even school assignments which is often the case with WNBA players. Combine all that with non-guaranteed contracts along with being the first "Non-Big Three" draft pick, and that's pressure.

Last Thoughts

So, after seeing Tayler Hill's 0-7 performance last night, I actually was not as disappointed as some other fans may feel. First, she's playing good defense which is what Coach T wants out of her and everyone else. Second, the vast majority of her shots were open looks and she's more assertive shooting the ball than before when she would have passed it up. So what I'm trying to say is this. Hill has been in a shooting slump. That happens to anyone and for her, she's not given a green light to jack it up at will unlike Ivory Latta and that may make it even harder for her to get out of it when she's in a lineup of veteran players who are trying to #ShockTheWorld and show that they are better than 5-29. Sorry Tulsa Shock for the use of your hashtag.

Hill's also a rookie, and still the most important player for the future of this team. It's nice to see that other rookies like Ruffin-Pratt and Meesseman are playing above expectations, but at the same time, Hill's success or failure will likely either accelerate this rebuild a year or even two or set it back by just as much. Given that I trust Coach Thibault, he's going to do whatever he can in order to get us to see games where fans can see Hill provide strong performances in her prime and even earlier than that. Remember, careers are established over many years, not by a few games.

As for whether she should start, again, I still think Hill should remain starting games since that will give her time to get going early if nothing else. As I've stated from the beginning, this 2013 year is a rebuilding year, not a "win now" year. Sure I'll take wins when they're there, but winning games at the expense of Hill's development is something we cannot afford if the Mystics want to be a perennial contender.

As some basketball pundits say, "It's not about who starts games, it's about who finishes games." Right now, Hill isn't finishing them, and hopefully when she gets out of this slump, she'll be there in crunch time draining game winners for the team in the nation's capital.