We inch ever closer to the 2020 WNBA season, but many questions still remain. The COVID-19 pandemic has continued into July, and the state of Florida has reported over 9,000 new cases of coronavirus in each of the first two days of the month.
For the WNBA — which will be playing its 2020 season remotely in Bradenton, Florida — that’s disconcerting news. Many WNBA players have already opted out of the season, some citing health concerns and others choosing to focus on fighting for social justice reform rather than play in Bradenton’s so-called “bubble.”
Meanwhile, the Dallas Wings are rebuilding — again. The Wings can’t seem to go long without a disgruntled star player wanting out (Elizabeth Cambage in early 2019 and Skylar Diggins-Smith earlier this year), which, in conjunction with a 10-24 2019 record, has given them quite a collection of assets.
Those assets include an enormous haul from the 2020 WNBA Draft: No. 2 overall pick Satou Sabally, No. 5 overall pick Bella Alarie and No. 7 overall pick Tyasha Harris. They’ll join 2019 Rookie of the Year runner-up Arike Ogunbowale and fellow 2019 draftee Katie Lou Samuelson as players the Wings will hope to retain and develop for future contention.
That’s a well-rounded group of youngsters, and it’s unlikely that the Wings will be running out patchwork rotations like they did for much of 2019. These things take time, though, and while Ogunbowale’s ascent to stardom and the Wings’ talented 2020 draftees are reasons for excitement, expectations of Dallas should be kept reasonable.
Potential problems for the Wings
Team defense might be shaky
The Wings might have a lot of exciting young players, but that’s not going to help them plug their many holes on defense — at least not right away.
In 2019, the Wings allowed 101.6 points per 100 possessions, ranking 10th in the WNBA in defensive efficiency. Dallas played a switch-heavy defense that often left the team prone to fouling; the Wings allowed opponents to post a cumulative free throw rate of 0.321 — worst in the league — as their lack of both rim protection and point-of-attack defense kept them from establishing much of an identity on that end of the floor. According to Synergy Sports, the Wings were 11th in the WNBA in halfcourt defensive efficiency, much of which stemmed from ranking dead last in total pick and roll defense.
This, of course, is all data from last season, and it’s true that the Wings should have more depth than they did in 2019. Much of that depth will come from rookies, though, and it’s notoriously difficult to get young players up to speed quickly on defense. It’s hard to see them taking much of a leap in this area.
A major reason why the Wings’ defense was so poor in 2019 is because they were undersized up front. The team just didn’t have an answer for players like Brittney Griner, Liz Cambage, Sylvia Fowles and the multitude of other dominant frontcourt players in the WNBA, and it showed in the statistics: Dallas ranked 11th in the WNBA in post-up defense per Synergy Sports, as well as 11th in percentage of shots allowed from 1-5 feet (34.9 percent).
The paint was a problem for the Wings on offense, too. In 2019, Dallas ranked 11th in the WNBA in both shot frequency (28.2 percent) and field goal percentage (50.7 percent) from 1-5 feet.
Dallas might be better at scoring the ball from that distance — the team put many of its frontcourt eggs into the Megan Gustafson basket when it re-signed her for multiple years, and she’s an efficient post-up player — but defensively, it still lacks the size to go toe-to-toe with most other WNBA teams. The newly-acquired Astou Ndour (who the Wings got in the three-team trade that sent Diggins-Smith to Phoenix) has the wingspan to make some plays in the paint, but she’s still more of a finesse forward than a bruiser, and her slight frame makes a defensive assignment of Griner or Cambage a tall task.
Potential promise of the Wings
Improved 3-point shooting and better floor spacing
While the Wings may continue to struggle on defense in 2020, their offense (which didn’t fare very well last season, either) has plenty more firepower than it did in 2019 and should show significant improvement.
Much of this will rely on the 3-point shot, which was clearly a point of emphasis for the Wings this past offseason. After posting a cumulative effective field goal percentage of 43.6 percent and taking 29.2 of their shots from 3-point range last season, the Wings invested in plenty of outside shooting, trading for strong shooters Marina Mabrey and Katie Lou Samuelson. They’ll also have veteran point guard Moriah Jefferson back; Jefferson, who missed the 2019 season rehabbing from injury, is a career 36.6 percent 3-point shooter.
The Wings’ 2020 draftees can shoot it, too. Alarie, in particular, stood out from her fellow power forward prospects in that she has immediate stretch-four capabilities. Harris turned herself into a reliable 3-point shooter during her time at South Carolina, while Sabally can score efficiently from anywhere on the court, including long range.
All this outside shooting will surely modernize the Wings’ shot chart, and in turn should benefit their incumbent players. Ogunbowale quickly established herself as one of the WNBA’s best at getting to the rim last season, and she’ll have much more space to operate if she’s surrounded by consistent 3-point shooters.
Established core of young talent
As good as Ogunbowale was in 2019, much of her workload was born of necessity. With both Diggins-Smith and Jefferson sitting out the season, Dallas got very little from its point guard position, prompting head coach Brian Agler to slide Ogunbowale over from her natural shooting guard spot to handle playmaking duties.
Whereas the 2019 Wings were playing catch-up from the beginning, Dallas’ 2020 squad will enter the season with clear goals and player rotations. Yes, the Wings are rebuilding, but they now have several players — Ogunbowale and Sabally, in particular — who will give them reason to believe that better days are ahead. Agler has his crew — now he needs to develop it.
As an added bonus, the Wings have not yet had any players opt out of the 2020 season. During these times of uncertainty and chaos, it would be heartwarming to see a young team grow together and emerge from the 2020 season a focused and battle-tested group. Let’s hope that comes to fruition.
Despite player opt-outs adversely affecting many of the WNBA’s top teams, the Wings should still be treated as a team that will have the odds stacked against them. Dallas has some high-ceiling offensive talent, but such ceilings are almost never reached in a single season, and the team’s weaknesses on defense are going to be difficult to overcome. It’s much safer to pencil the Wings in as a lottery-bound team for 2020.