A year later, San Antonio Stars still looking to define themselves


NEW YORK—San Antonio Stars head coach Vickie Johnson insisted that she hadn’t begun thinking about 2018, as she stood and watched her team warm up prior to their penultimate game at Madison Square Garden last Friday night.

“Well, we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Johnson told The Summitt. “We’ll sit down after the season. I don’t like thinking about the future. I only focus on the present. So right now, this is enough for me.”

More from News

But with that season now complete, figuring out what the Stars learned about their young roster, the true purpose of the 2017 season, is a complicated thing. More significantly, what they didn’t figure out—just how their three most significant talents, Kayla McBride, Moriah Jefferson and Kelsey Plum play together—is something that complicates any roster decisions to be made by general manager Ruth Riley.

The internal organizational turmoil that preceded and ultimately leaked into the days following the decision to draft Plum all boiled down to a simple question: do those three players work in a single lineup, a building block for the future?

Worryingly for San Antonio, Johnson does not think we’ve seen enough of them to know yet.

“Not enough, not enough,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, I always say you need two penetrating guards. Two guards who can think the game, it’s a wonderful thing. Even in the NBA, there are no more true ones. I mean, [Lonzo] Ball is a true one. [Rajon] Rondo is a true one. But Kyrie Irving? Not a true one. Westbrook? A two playing the one. Isaiah? A two playing a one. So we don’t get caught up in that.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – SEPTEMBER 2: Erica Wheeler and Kelsey Plum
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – SEPTEMBER 2: Erica Wheeler and Kelsey Plum /

The problem with Johnson’s claim to prefer positionless basketball is that it has been contradicted by her lineups for much of the season. To be fair, this was her first year with a new group—she pointed out that she coached this year to see what she has, but next year she’ll go in “knowing what this group can do.”

But while a late arrival from Turkey delayed McBride, an ankle injury limited Plum early and a knee injury ended Jefferson’s season prematurely, the trio were all healthy and together for roughly half the season. And Johnson seldom played them as a group, making her at least partly responsible for the Stars not yet knowing what the three of them can do together.

I asked her if she had any regrets about this.

“No, I don’t do that,” Johnson said. “I just go with the flow of the game, see how it goes.”

The problem with a coach merely setting lineups for the moment in a rebuilding season, of course, is clear: there’s no more definition of the Stars as an entity now than there was as the team tipped off in May.

One thing Johnson sounds certain about is that the Stars begin with Kayla McBride, and her reasoning is sound. McBride is a big, rangy 5’11, significantly more muscular and capable enough of guarding whoever is necessary—twos, threes, even some ones—that she managed to finish in the top half of the league in defensive points per possession, per Synergy, without a defined defensive role.

Johnson referred to this as “her team”, and McBride sounded comfortable with that definition, matched by a work ethic that kept her out on the floor long after the end of warmups, working around screens by coaches, putting up shots, her warmup uniform drenched with sweat.

“I’m up for the challenge,” McBride said of her coach’s words. “I think VJ has a lot of confidence in me, offensively and defensively.”

SAN ANTONIO, TX – AUGUST 12: Moriah Jefferson
SAN ANTONIO, TX – AUGUST 12: Moriah Jefferson /

But a more defined role might matter when it comes to maximizing the elite talent of McBride. For example: she shot just 31 percent from three in 2017, 30.5 percent in 2016. She’s been a 40 percent shooter from deep overseas.

The likely mismatches and more open threes available in transition are vital to making this Stars team truly dangerous. The Stars finished tenth in the league in pace, and dead last in offensive rating. They were middle of the pack in offensive points per possession in transition, but the combination of their league-worst performance in the halfcourt and how often they failed to run doomed them at the offensive end.

Meanwhile, not only did McBride hold her own defensively, so did Plum, who finished in the upper half of the league in defensive points per possession, as did Jefferson, whose elite defense rated her second in the league in the stat. So can the three perform defensively in a way that allows them to utilize this roster’s biggest talent advantage?

“It’s tough,” Jefferson said, dressed in street clothes and sitting on the bench prior to Friday night’s game. “It’s one thing when you’re playing against, say, a Dallas, and they have say Saniya [Chong], Skylar [Diggins-Smith] and another small guard at the three. But take a New York, with Shavonte Zellous at the three who will post you up. So I think it’s all about the matchup. We’re all tough, and can hold our own, but I think it’s about the matchup at the two, the three.”

Both Jefferson and Johnson expressed the belief that a true rim protector could solve this Gordian knot of a roster—and unlike last year, the lottery pick the Stars possess gives them access to potential elite fives like A’ja Wilson of South Carolina and possibly Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner.

“I think that would help us a lot,” Jefferson said. “Right now, we don’t really have a five other than Kayla [Alexander]. Everybody else is a four. Getting a rim protector, a shot blocker would be great for us.”

Precisely what Riley is thinking heading into the WNBA draft lottery, which will be held September 14, is hard to discern as of now. She’s done very little discussing in the media this season about the team’s progression, though she’s kept a watchful eye on the team, and was with them on Friday night.

SAN ANTONIO, TX – JULY 25: Head coach Vickie Johnson and the San Antonio Stars huddle before the game against the Washington Mystics on July 25, 2017 at the AT
SAN ANTONIO, TX – JULY 25: Head coach Vickie Johnson and the San Antonio Stars huddle before the game against the Washington Mystics on July 25, 2017 at the AT /

But the extent to which she’ll need to guess how her already-collected pieces work together, as she adds to them, is more speculative than it really needed to be. Effort wasn’t the issue—one merely needed to watch Plum march into the breach, again and again, muscling her way to the hoop against the taller Liberty in the fourth quarter of a long since decided game, to understand that.

And yet the top overall pick, sitting with a Knicks ice bag on her ankle as the season neared its end, sounded awfully similar to the way the Stars talked about their roster back in May.

“I think we’re really young,” Plum said. “It was tough this season, with injuries, Kayla arriving late. So we never really got in a rhythm of practicing together. But I think when we’re healthy next season, seasons after that, we’ll be able to get in rhythm. Because they are phenomenal basketball players.”