wSince the former Shock relocated to Dallas in 2016, the team’s new nickname — the Wings — has, unintentionally, presaged the departures that would define the organization.
During the 2018 season, head coach Fred Williams’ nearly-five season tenure ended ignominiously. Ahead of the 2019 season, then-two time All-Star and 53-point scorer Liz Cambage demanded a trade. In the 2020 offseason, four-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith followed suit. This past offseason, head coach Brian Agler, brought in for his championship experience, decided to move on.
The organization’s most prominent faces have seemed to use their wings to fly out of Dallas.
However, these departures have been balanced by a number of important arrivals and, due to these arrivals, the Wings, finally, are fulfilling the positive connotations of their nickname — they are ascending.
Wings status check
Thursday night, when they host the Minnesota Lynx, the Wings will have the opportunity to again reach .500. Currently, they sit at 5-6 and tied for fifth in the overall standings. In short, they are firmly situated among the second tier of playoff-caliber squads. Before Sunday’s loss to the Las Vegas Aces, the Wings had won three-straight games, knocking off the defending-champion Seattle Storm before taking two-straight contests over the Phoenix Mercury.
Even in defeat, the Wings have impressed. While they suffered a four-game losing streak in late May, the average margin of defeat was less than five points. One of these losses was a three-point overtime loss to the Storm. Another of their six losses also was a narrow overtime defeat at the hands of the defending champs. For the season, their largest margin of defeat is seven points.
These close losses suggest Dallas is better than their around .500 record. Their season-long point differential is plus-2.4, which is the fourth-ranked mark in the league, behind the league’s top three teams — the Las Vegas Aces, Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun. Based on point differential, the Wings, clearly, are the league’s fourth-best team, as their point differential is two points better than the fifth-place Minnesota Lynx.
While their past performances are not totally predictive of future potential, especially in a season that will be interrupted by an extended Olympic break, the Wings’ trajectory is promising.
Why the Wings are ascending
The Wings’ ascent — from where they are now to where they can go — starts with Arike Ogunbowale.
Now in her third WNBA season, Ogunbowale is a certified offensive superstar, nightly navigating the intense attention of opposing defenses by probing, penetrating, floating and firing. So far this season, she is fifth in scoring in the WNBA at almost 21 points per game. And, of course, her preternatural clutchness is unquestioned.
Second to Ogunbowale, the most important arrival in Dallas has been Satou Sabally. Even with the start-and-stop character of her one-plus seasons in the WNBA — due to nagging injuries last season and German National Team obligations this season — the glimmers of Sabally’s ultimate upside entice and excite. She is called the “Unicorn” for a reason.
However, the Wings have begun to soar because of the increasingly solid infrastructure around the burgeoning star duo.
Amongst all of the departures from Dallas, Allisha Gray has remained a quiet constant. The 2017 Rookie of the Year provides the kind of play that often goes overlooked and she serves as an integral, connecting piece. It is not a total coincidence that the Wings went on their three-game win streak just after Gray returned from 3x3 Olympic qualifying with Team USA. Even as her counting stats are down, her team best plus-minus — plus-4.7 — proves her importance.
Along with Gray, Kayla Thornton has been a source of stability in Dallas. She is the exemplification of an undrafted overachiever. Over her five seasons with the Wings, she willingly has done the defensive dirty work while also steadily refining her offensive game. She has started this season shooting a career-high 52 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the 3-point line.
Moriah Jefferson and Isabelle Harrison arrived in Dallas as part of the Cambage trade. No, the duo cannot near replicate what Cambage brings to a court. But, after a couple of uneven seasons, they are beginning to emerge as valued contributors. While much of her time in Dallas has been derailed by injury, Jefferson occasionally has flashed the form that made her the No. 2 pick in 2016. Harrison, who was limited by injury last season, is thriving as a super-reserve center. Although she does not start, she plays starter-level minutes, providing a paint presence as a scorer and rebounder.
Like Harrison, Marina Mabrey has established herself as a super-duper reserve. She offers fearless shotmaking and fiery playmaking whether she is running alongside her fellow Fighting Irish in Ogunbowale or controlling the second unit. The Most Improved Player and Sixth Woman of the Year candidate arrived in Dallas via the kind of shrewd exchange that defines winning organizations. Recognizing the Los Angeles Sparks’ roster crunch during the 2020 offseason, Wings President and CEO Greg Bibb nabbed Mabrey for a second-round draft pick. After somewhat surprisingly becoming fixture in the rotation six games into last season, she now is a weapon whose quick-trigger shot induces fear in opponents.
This combination of experienced and younger vets has allowed new head coach Vickie Johnson to begin to implement the “winning culture” that Swish Appeal’s Eric Nemchock identified as necessary for Dallas.
Just as necessary, Johnson also has encouraged more defensive discipline from the Wings. Last season’s 108.0 defensive rating has improved to 100.5 this season. A defensive rebounding rate of nearly 75 percent, after a sub-70 percent mark last season, has driven this improvement. Some additional sharpening, however, is required if the Wings are to reach playoff heights. They are allowing 23.4 trey attempts per game, the most in the WNBA. While opponents only are converting 30.4 percent of these 3-pointers, preventing 3-point attempts, rather than inducing misses, is a more reliable, controllable defensive strategy.
Based on Allisha Gray’s training camp evaluation of Johnson, the continued evolution of Dallas’ defense should be expected.
Why the Wings can keep soaring
The Wings also have still-untapped upside in the additional five top-seven draft picks that dot their roster: 2021 No. 1 pick Charli Collier, 2021 No. 2 pick Awak Kuier, 2021 No. 5 pick Chelsea Dungee, 2020 No. 5 pick Bella Alarie and 2020 No. 7 pick Tyasha Harris.
Sophomores Alarie and Harris are becoming reliable rotation pieces. Although only in her second year, Harris plays with a veteran’s poise, providing trustworthy two-way contributions as a backup point guard. While Alarie’s playing time has been less consistent, she showed off her potential in the second of Dallas’s wins over Phoenix, admirably battling Brittney Griner as she earned a team-high plus-minus of plus-15.
Among the rookies, only Collier is receiving regular minutes. The Wings are prioritizing her development, starting the top pick even if she is not yet a positive player. However, these developmental minutes could reap rewards during the second half of the season. A potentially interesting comparison is the rookie season of 2019 No. 2 draft pick Teaira McCowan. Then-Indiana Fever head coach Pokey Chatman incrementally increased McCowan’s load over the course of the season, resulting in a strong finish to McCowan’s rookie year. That Collier already owns a more diverse offense skillset — with the ability to step out and hit a jumper — suggests a second-half leap could be coming.
Although her fellow 2021 draftees have yet to see as much time on the court, both intrigue. Like Sabally, Kuier is unicorn-esque, a 6-foot-4 19-year-old who can throw it down and drain 3-pointers. Dungee has the potential to be a scoring dynamo, joining Ogunbowale and Mabrey to form a fearsome bucket-getting trio.
For the rest of the season, the Wings’ flight path might not be totally stable or smooth, but, all things considered, the Wings should continue to soar.