Welcome to the second part of The Breakdown! We'll be looking at the Phoenix Mercury side of their game versus Chicago Sky game from June 12th, and also taking a closer look at Elizabeth Williams, a center for the Atlanta Dream.
I chose that specific game because I think many people probably thought these two teams would be contenders, both early and late in the season, and they've mostly disappointed. Will they make the playoffs? Sure. Of that, I have little doubt. But it was interesting seeing these two mildly disappointing teams go at it, and take a look at where they are now, a little under a third of the through the season.
I chose Elizabeth Williams as the player to break down because of what she represents to the Dream. Williams is not just a big center whom they expect to do what centers do; they traded the fifth overall pick for her, in a pretty good draft, and must think very highly of her. I haven't been super impressed with her play this year, but the Dream are kind of a weird team, and besides, she's only in her second season in the WNBA.
PHOENIX MERCURY v. CHICAGO SKY
I've written at length about the poor defense that the Mercury have played this year. It's been baffling, considering that they have been one of the best defensive teams in the league for the last few years. A lot of that, of course, is because of Brittney Griner, who at 6'9" looms over every player in the WNBA. It's hard to drive the lane or even pull up for a jumper when someone is ten inches taller than you are.
However, she hasn't been the same dominant force on defense that she has been in years past. She doesn't move with any springiness or speed; it's almost as if she's injured. Look at this clip:
What kind of angle is that? She's going to be slower than the ball handler, simply because that's how physics (usually) work, but she goes in a straight line to a spot where Sky player has already passed her by. It's as if Griner thought she could get to that spot before her opponent did, and ended up being a few steps behind. For whatever reason, she's just slow to assess and react.
Offensively speaking, the Mercury struggled mightily early on. They rebounded with a stellar third quarter, through beautiful plays like this from Diana Taurasi:
Scoring gets a little easier for this team in this third quarter and in the fourth, but I wouldn't say they looked like the San Antonio Spurs. They missed a lot of shots, both tough and easy, in the first half, and made a lot more of those in the second half. They're always a threat to go nuclear, as they have in several games, but sometimes they make it look really, really difficult to do so.
Not only did the Mercury offense improve, but so did their defense. I showed that clip of Griner moving slowly, and she wasn't the only one; in the first half, the Phoenix defense didn't seem to be moving very well. I don't know if they got a pep talk or what, but they came out of the gates playing much faster and much more energized. Look at this clip at the end of the game:
They held the Chicago Sky to 13 points in that fourth quarter playing defense like that. Now, if they can just do that for an entire game, they'll be the team that we all thought they would be coming into this season.
It would be generous of me to say that I was skeptical of the trade for Elizabeth Williams. I'm not a fan of trading draft picks, and I'm certainly not a fan of flipping a top five pick for a player who essentially barely played in her rookie season. I'm still not sure that it was the wisest move, but after this early third of the season, I think Elizabeth Williams is a much better player than I gave her credit for.
One of the things that made me kind of nervous is that she's not that big, and not jump-out-of-the-gym athletic; she's 6'3", which is a good height, but only weighs 195 pounds, and she moves like a traditional center when she's running down the floor. However, I got caught up in the measurable, and as such I saw what I wanted to see.
Having watched her play the Connecticut Sun, I realized that while she's never going to leap over tall buildings, that she's got what I would call ‘functional athleticism'; Jerry Rice ran a near 4.7 forty, and yet he blew past dudes on the field. Williams has that same sort of ability. Watch this clip:
She starts by backing down Kelsey Bone, who is bigger than she is, and still manages to move her some; when that doesn't quite produce the results Williams is looking for, she hits a turn-around, fade-away jumper. That is not an easy shot to make, and centers of all shapes and sizes can look real clumsy trying stuff like that. She makes it look easy.
Williams, defensively, didn't impress me as much, but I believe that she's going to always be a solid defender, and may even one day grow into a super duper rim protector. Look at this clip:
Perhaps the toughest thing to do when you first begin a professional basketball career is to grasp the nuances of defense. You have to have studied what you're supposed to do enough that it becomes automatic and second-nature instead of reactionary; that takes a lot of time, even for the best defenders in the league.
Add onto the fact that Williams is on her second team, and presumably had to learn a different kind of defense in Atlanta, and her defensive play is all that much more impressive. She plays this pick and roll perfectly, dropping deep into the lane and tipping a pass away for a steal.
At the beginning of this season, I felt like she struggled pretty mightily. But she's averaging 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks, leading the WNBA in that last category. She's really come on of late.
Though perhaps I would've done differently, I think it's hard to argue now that the Dream made the wrong decision; Elizabeth Williams is a good WNBA player, and should she continue to improve, she could be a cornerstone of that defense for years and years to come.