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2019 Season in Review: Led by Arike Ogunbowale, the Dallas Wings appear poised to ascend

No Liz Cambage. No Skylar Diggins-Smith. But lots of Arike Ogunbowale. Over the course of the 2019 WNBA season, the Dallas Wings turned struggles into successes. Buoyed by the No. 2 pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, look for more success to come the Wings’ way. 

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Seattle Storm v Dallas Wings
Arike Ogunbowale flashed superstar potential. The development of the Dallas supporting cast, including Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis, can help the WIngs soon contend.
Photo by Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2019 WNBA season began worse than imagined for the Dallas Wings.

Even though the departure of Liz Cambage and absence of Skylar Diggins-Smith suggested that the Wings would struggle, their struggles were more stark than expected. Dallas began the season 0-5, looking like the league’s weakest team.

The turnaround was not necessarily swift. But, over time, their subtle improvements were significant. A seemingly directionless franchise thus exits the 2019 season with multiple, mostly positive directions to pursue.

Pro: Arike! Enough said.

Arike Ogunbowale’s second-half surge has been well-documented. The former Fighting Irish star proved that her penchant for getting buckets translates to the professional level, as she strung together a historic scoring streak. Yet, her post-All-Star Break performance deserves further appreciation.

As the Rookie of the Year battle unfolded, Ogunbowale’s offensive prowess was juxtaposed with the Minnesota Lynx’s Napheesa Collier’s all-around production. Ogunbowale often was positioned as the high-volume scorer who filled up the box score, impacting the game in a way that was obvious to all observers. Collier’s game, in contrast, was more nuanced, with her influence understood by those with more refined basketball knowledge. Although this depiction is a bit of a straw-woman stereotype, the constructs of the Rookie of the Year conversation implicitly presented Collier as the more intelligent (and intelligentsia-pleasing) basketball player.

However, Ogunbowale’s offensive improvement was not solely driven by a “Mamba Mentality” instinct, but also by an acute offensive intelligence. Scoring the basketball, especially so consistently, is not easy.

In one of his 2018 podcast interviews with The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, Kevin Durant suggests he cared little for setting single-game scoring records. Rather, he prioritized the ability to consistently score at a high-level, favoring reliability over record-breaking. Even as she broke records, it is Ogunbowale’s ability to score consistently, even in the face of more difficult defenses, that impresses. To again borrow from KD, Ogunbowale went “deep into [her] bag” and improvised, an indication of an offensive intelligence that only should improve over time.

Con: Injury stole Azurá Stevens’ sophomore year

Azurá Stevens, the sixth pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, incrementally improved over the course of her rookie season. For instance, after she averaged under seven points and less than four rebounds per game in June, Stevens posted an average of 10.5 points and almost six rebounds per game in August. Throughout her first year, Stevens also flashed a promising three-point shot. As such, she seemed poised to develop into a versatile, stretch big; a player who could fit beside a diversity of frontcourt mates, as well as complement Ogunbowale by both posting up in the paint and stretching the floor from beyond the arc.

Unfortunately, an early-season foot injury persisted, requiring her to miss all but nine games. In early August, Stevens had foot surgery. A recovery time of six months suggests Stevens should be ready to turn in a promising third-year performance.

Pro: A strong comeback for first-year Wing Izzy B

Of course, the Wings did not want to trade Liz Cambage. All the more, Cambage’s clearly stated preferences constrained her trade market, making it difficult for Dallas to receive a requisite return.

In a sense, the Wings had to settle for “damaged goods” from the Las Vegas Aces. Although the Wings did acquire the Aces’ first and second round picks in the 2020 WNBA Draft, the players they received — Moriah Jefferson and Isabelle Harrison — both missed much of the 2018 season. While midseason knee surgery resulted in Jefferson missing 17 games, Harrison did not suit up for the Aces in 2018 due to a medical leave of absence.

Because of the lack of publicly available information about Harrison’s condition, it was natural to question whether or not she would play for the Wings in 2019. Harrison authoritatively answered this question, confirmed by the Associated Press naming her their 2019 Comeback Player of the Year. She rounded into form over the course of the season, showing increased signs of activity and aggressiveness as her rebounding and steals numbers improved each month. Most optimistically, Harrison could develop into a mini-Dearica Hamby, becoming a star in her role by filling gaps on both ends of the floor.

Con: Other expected contributors could not come back from injury

Moriah Jefferson did not inspire such hope. Even as Dallas President and CEO Greg Bibb expressed in early June that he had “a hunch” that Jefferson soon would debut for the Wings, his sentiment did not materialize.

Jefferson missed the entire season. Information about her status is also wanting.

Since she posted a promising rookie year in 2016 as a San Antonio Star, Jefferson’s production and efficiency has waned. However, it was more than conceivable that a change of scenery or, more accurately, a return to familiarity in her home state of Texas and hometown of Dallas could allow Jefferson to recalibrate the trajectory of her career.

Injury uncertainty also surrounds Dallas’ 2018 midseason acquisition, Tayler Hill. The Wings sent Aerial Powers to the Washington Mystics in exchange for Hill. While Powers has thrived in DC, knee injuries have continued to mar Hill’s career.

If the Wings are in a rebuild, as Bibb suggested during ESPN’s recent Draft Lottery special, winning trades is a necessity. While organizations cannot control injuries, previous injury trouble often is a predictor for future injury vulnerabilities. Dallas’ 2019 midseason transaction, when they sent veteran Theresa Plaisance (who had and would continue to miss games in 2019 with nagging injuries) to the Connecticut Sun for 2019 first-round draftee Kristine Anigwe (a young, athletic and aggressive player with no injury history) is the type of move Dallas should aim to make going forward.

Pro: The return of Sky Digg!

After giving birth to a son in the spring, Skylar Diggins-Smith elected to sit out the entire WNBA season. Although she was around the team, including participating in practices, Diggins-Smith’s return to the court in 2020 will be highly anticipated. The four-time All-Star’s poise and professionalism should steady and center a young Wings team.

Con: The departure of Sky Digg?

With that said, will the veteran Diggins-Smith still be a Wing in 2020?

As mentioned above, Bibb indicated that his team is rebuilding, a term that implies that the organization is prioritizing younger players. Bibb additionally told Dorothy Gentry of The Athletic: “I think we’re starting to aggregate the young talent and this core group is going to ascend to a higher level next year.”

Diggins-Smith could very well be a part of the “core” that Bibb emphasizes. And, it seems that this is what Diggins-Smith intends. Speaking also to Gentry about her participation in Team USA’s mid-September training camp, Diggins-Smith said: “It’s really a huge goal of mine to represent the Dallas Wings in the Olympics. That’s what I’m shooting for.”

But, as Gentry notes, Diggins-Smith is an unrestricted free agent. While Dallas is unlikely not to negotiate a new contract with Diggins-Smith, it is worth questioning how she fits with the timeline of this team.

Pro: Here comes Lauren Cox!

It is not guaranteed that Lauren Cox, the national championship-winning senior forward for the Baylor Lady Bears, will be a Wing by the end of April 2020. Nonetheless, the native of nearby Flower Mound, Texas seems likely to don royal blue and electric green, a satisfying selection for the Wings with the second pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft.

As a 6-foot-4 big with a diverse skillset, Cox could form quite the offensive partnership with Arike Ogunbowale. As long as they can overcome any lingering feelings about the 2019 NCAA national championship game, they could become the league’s next great duo. Cox also has demonstrated defensive chops, suggesting she also could develop into the anchor of the Dallas defense.

Con: Is Brian Agler the right coach for this team?

Agler was not hired to coach this Wings team.

Curiously, Agler seems to have been immune to the speculation that has surrounded the coaches of the other three teams that missed the 2019 WNBA Playoffs. Because of his resume (and, maybe, his gender?), Agler has enjoyed the benefit of the doubt.

Yet, is the coach hired to take a team oriented around Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith to the next level the right coach for a much younger team?

While his squad should enter the 2020 season with significant potential, actualization of this potential will not be an easy task. How will Agler ensure that the budding superstar guard in Ogunbowale meshes with the veteran All-Star in Diggins-Smith? Whose name will Agler call down the stretch of close games? Will Kristine Anigwe and Megan Gustafson get opportunities, especially if Lauren Cox is then in tow? Or, will the developments of all three stall as Agler calls on more established frontcourt players? Can he help promising but inconsistent players in Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis reach their potential?

A path to contention certainly seems possible, but, because of Dallas’ relatively deep and diverse personnel, this path could be traversed in multiple ways. Despite his impressive resume, is Agler equipped to navigate these uncertainties?

We’ll find out in 2020.