VIDEO BREAKDOWN: San Antonio’s Kayla Alexander
In watching and following Stars games closely this season, one player has been very effective by making simple plays: fifth-year center Kayla Alexander. The Summitt spoke with Alexander Friday on her solid start, decisions she makes on the court, the Stars’ slow start, prominence of top end front court talent in the WNBA, and more.
San Antonio runs a lot of pick and roll, and for good reason. They have four skilled players that can create and knock down shots in Moriah Jefferson, Kelsey Plum, Kayla McBride, and Monique Currie. Coach Johnson has deployed two bigs almost exclusively to date and has five players worthy of minutes in those spots.
One way Alexander has set herself apart amid that group: She’s canning catch and shoot jumpers in the pick and roll like nobody’s business.
Alexander can also space to the short corners to open things up a bit on Jefferson’s drives late in the clock or when she’s got a mismatch:
How has she been so effective, knowing when to cut her roll short then knock down those shots? “Repetition,” she mentioned first, explaining that a great deal of time is invested in taking game-like shots such as those during and after practice.
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But for a player coming off the bench, Alexander has also shown a great deal of confidence. “It’s a combination of both,” she went on, “going overseas and having the confidence to do it in a game.”
The jumper has been a great compliment to her inside game. Coach Johnson has noted Alexander’s ability to carve out deep post position. In the half court, she’s been able to go to work in straight post ups to get to her right hook:
“That’s always been my go-to,” Alexander said. She cited the work her father put in with her growing up in teaching her that shot and working to make it a formidable weapon.
Post play extends beyond straight post ups. As teams play smaller and switch more often defensively, the opportunities to punish teams with duck-ins and seals are plentiful. I’ve been a proponent of Sylvia Fowles’ brilliance in that the current MVP favorite keeps it simple, too. Flip to any Lynx game and you’ll see her ducking in, sealing and pushing her defender up the lane line, and running the floor so effectively that Cheryl Reeve often doesn’t need to call her number—she’s already flipping in a layup seconds into many Minnesota possessions.
Alexander is doing those same things well and often, even when a set isn’t specifically being run for her:
Watch San Antonio’s offense closely and you’ll see a ‘Horns’ set up often, as you would with many teams in the W. Jefferson or Plum will often begin possessions by probing one side of the floor. It’s tempting to call them dummy pick and rolls, which they are until they aren’t. Lag in getting through the screen and those guards will turn the corner (or Plum will drill a three).
Alexander is most often going to roll hard after that initial screen. When possible, she’ll stop, pivot, and bury her defender under the rim right in the middle of the lane. Just about any defender is at her mercy in cases like these:
Another simple, effective strength of her game: she’s already going to roll to the rim often in the current scheme. That extra effort won’t always be seen—someone else might be open, ball pressure or a trap may make that pass too tough, or teammates may look to her a beat late as she’s clearing out to avoid a three-second call.
“I like to do what works with me,” Alexander stated, “and if I can, get easy layups.” It’d be tough to argue with her approach, especially when you take a look at this recent five-game stretch:
That 7-for-10 shooting performance against the Lynx and a season-high 32 minutes against Chicago, in particular, are worth noting. As we approach the halfway point, Alexander is one WNBA player that appears ready to take on a larger role.
“The key is [to] always be ready,” Alexander said. “When I go on the court, I play my game [and] do everything I can to make the team successful.”
You’ve seen the jumper, the straight post ups, and the extra wrinkle she adds to their pick and roll attack. How’s her defense holding up?
Alexander’s size and length make her a tremendous asset near the basket. In order to secure more playing time, she’ll need to guard well in space as well. Just think about the Sparks or the Mystics, who each start bigs that will constantly operate 15+ feet from the basket. Alexander’s minutes have been somewhat limited in those matchups, but we’ve seen a few glimpses of her ability to move laterally then alter shots at the rim:
Back to the inside. Alexander’s work to gain position has been admirable. Defensively, she does a great job to see the whole floor when she’s off the ball—she ‘keeps her pistols up’ and her head is on a swivel. Alexander had the Stars organization to thank for her progress in that area.
“They taught me a lot. I had a really big learning curve coming over. They’re patient and they teach that a lot—be aware of what’s going on off ball.”
There is never a night off in this league when it comes to post play. The greats in this league like Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles are always working to duck in for quick scores just as often as she is:
Thanks to her mentioned awareness, Alexander is able to help then get back to her assignment to box out. Her length makes it near impossible to fire a line drive skip pass, and she can get back into a play to block shots without even jumping:
At the pro level, we can sometimes downplay the value of effort level. Playing well in the half court can be demanding enough. Johnson wants her 1, 2 and 3 to all have the mindset to grab and go. That calls for rim runs like this one from San Antonio’s bigs, sometimes knowing there’s no chance the ball will come their way.
Stop those rim runs short from time to time and she’ll have all day to catch and shoot:
Running the floor doesn’t always guarantee a shot attempt. A teammate may have an open jumper as the trailer gets across half court. Alexander doesn’t give up, and that pursuit pays off with chippies like these:
We’ve hit on the basics: pick and roll play, post ups, battling for position, help defense, post defense, pick and roll defense, and changing ends. The season is young, but Alexander is doing the little things, too.
If Alexander continues to hit her open jumpers and score on deep post ups, and in turn, see more floor time, defenders will get antsy (if they don’t downright abandon/stray from their scheme).
The ripple effect could do wonders in unclogging a struggling offense. Alexander plays to her strengths and embraces all that comes with her role, even the dirty work: “That helps teammates get open and get open shots.”
Jefferson could see bigger creases to get into the lane, Plum could rain fire from all three levels, and McBride could have more opportunities to attack close outs rather than being regularly face-guarded off the ball.
And of course, Alexander may soon be forced to make plays if this hot midrange shooting continues—she’ll need to feed the opposite post, get to the rim with a dribble, or keep the machine moving with a dribble handoff:
Sometimes it’s as simple as making the next pass when a defender slides over to stop her roll:
Alexander has even flashed a floater, a trick any big would want in her toolkit, as rolls to the rim can be unpredictable:
The pick and roll has been a great starting point, but it isn’t the entirety of the offense. Secondary actions off the ball and early sets to free Kayla McBride are necessary to utilize her well-rounded game.
Alexander and McBride are two of the three longest-tenured Stars. Alexander and McBride could easily turn to more give-and-gos, given Alexander’s post success and McBride’s smarts as a cutter:
Right now, the Stars also just need that first domino to fall. Even after an 0-14 start, Alexander has seen many positives with her team. “We’re always fighting,” Alexander said. “We’re still close with each other. As a team, we don’t let it affect ourselves off the court. We win together; we lose together.”
Alexander has only made herself more valuable to a San Antonio club that brought her back on a multi-year deal for 2017. Vickie Johnson told Howard Megdal on the Locked on WBB podcast back in May that Alexander is “a part of our team for a long time to come.”
Going winless this long is tough on any competitor. Push aside the win-loss record and you’ll see valuable contributions from role players like Alexander that can impact winning in this league. Talk to her, and you’ll understand why that locker room is in good hands and likely to continue to improve as July approaches.