The Jantel Lavender All-Stars

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 03: Jantel Lavender
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 03: Jantel Lavender /

I am borrowing something from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. But let’s start with the name in the title of this piece.

Let’s talk about Jantel Lavender, the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year in 2016. She and the Sparks are a fun team to watch for many reasons. Lavender, even though she comes off the bench, is right at the core of many of those reasons. Her shooting, size, footwork, IQ and vision make her invaluable in what I would call the most versatile trio of bigs in basketball. 

Twice each year, Lowe puts 12-man rosters together as a tip of the cap to players doing fun things on the court. He describes his Marc Gasol All-Stars quite literally as his “favorite players to watch in the NBA”. Then there are the Luke Walton All-Stars, which Lowe refers to as an “annual roster of journeymen and role players thriving in unexpected ways”.

This is somewhere between a Luke Walton All-Stars and a Marc Gasol All-Stars. Lavender was the obvious player to name this piece after. She’s been successful as a starter and as a reserve. She can play alongside any other big. At worst, she’d crack the 7-woman rotation for any team in the WNBA. (She would easily start for quite a few.)

The jumper may be the first thing that comes to mind for many with her game, but she’s good in so many other areas. Lavender has stepped out to shoot more threes in 2017. She can post up a mismatch and attack off the dribble when defenders close out hard to her. She moves her feet defensively, hits the glass, and plays on a string for one of the best defenses. She moves without the ball. I can’t recall any record scratch-type moments from her this season; she makes the easy play to keep LA’s offense moving. She plays well with one or both of Candace Parker/Nneka Ogwumike, and the Sparks are good with either look!

My point: More young kids (and even young pros on this list) should be thinking, “I want to be like Jantel Lavender”. She’s a decorated, accomplished pro playing for a great team at the highest level. She has depth and nuance to her game. She and the rest of the veterans of the Sparks brought their best this regular season; nobody seriously watching that team this season was thinking championship hangover.

Lowe has some detailed criteria for those lists. I have some for this one. They’ll be fluid to an extent, as this is the first iteration.

  • You won’t find multiple-time WNBA All-Stars on this list (even though it’s namesake made the West team in 2015).
  • Positions matter only to reasonably fill out a roster of 12.
  • Fit matters.
  • I’m intentionally narrowing my focus to what we’ve seen this season.
  • Have these players been fun to watch? I won’t be offended if anyone disagrees. But this is my list.
  • At least two of these three things are true: 1) they add value even when the ball isn’t in their hands, 2) can protect the paint/guard multiple positions and 3) it is very clear what their role could be on a great team.

Let’s get to it.


LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 20: Nneka Ogwumike, Jantel Lavender and Candace Parker
LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 20: Nneka Ogwumike, Jantel Lavender and Candace Parker /

F — Jantel Lavender, Los Angeles Sparks

In 7 pro seasons, she never shot below 48%. She’s 80+% from the line. In the aforementioned 2015 All-Star season, she averaged nearly 15 points, 8 boards, and one block in 34 minutes a night. With room, her jumper is automatic.

Lavender has been playing with Parker and Ogwumike for a long time. She’ll take advantage of ball-watching defenders by cutting backdoor or burying them under the rim:

After re-reading her bio, I stumbled again on the fact that she was the Big Ten Player of the Year four times in a row. That has never been done, and I’d say it’s a good bet to assume won’t happen again.

F — Stephanie Talbot, Phoenix Mercury

Talbot kicked off her WNBA career by shooting 38% from deep and appearing in all 34 games for a playoff team. She showed nice awareness on both sides of the ball and was willing to be physical against bigger wings or the occasional switch. Talbot was a solid wing player as a rookie — the type of player every team would love to have.

C — Kayla Alexander, San Antonio Stars

I wrote about Alexander earlier in the season. She eventually got a chance in the starting role for the Stars later in the season, but did San Antonio really do all it could to learn as much as they could about her fit in the league as a starter? Alexander’s minutes were limited against quicker, stretchier bigs.

Alexander makes for a nice with a roster that could use more shooting. To go with a strong right hook, Alexander can stop her rolls short to catch and shoot or spot up 15-20 feet out. She shot 56% on 86 midrange attempts this season.

G — Bria Hartley, New York Liberty

If Lavender is the namesake of this list, Hartley might just be the captain emeritus. There’s just something about Hartley’s season that I don’t know how to measure or even describe. Whether coming off the bench as a combo guard or now as the starting point, she plays well around Tina Charles and is smart in creating her own opportunities to score.

G — Erica Wheeler, Indiana Fever

Erica Wheeler’s 2017 season represents a lot of what makes basketball so fun to watch. When most/all of Indiana’s team was healthy, she didn’t play a ton. But there were flashes of pick and roll brilliance that we’d later see in a larger sampling.

Even when she was asked to play 35+ minutes, Wheeler delivered for a team that eventually only had her left standing to be a primary creator for a pick-and-roll-heavy offense.


G — Natasha Cloud, Washington Mystics (6th Woman)

The end to Cloud’s season has not been ideal. She had to deal with a hip injury that may require surgery in the offseason, per Ryan Ruocco on Wednesday’s broadcast. And yet, she was the first one off the bench for Coach Mike Thibault in her team’s first round playoff game against Dallas.

Cloud pushes the ball up the floor with good pace. In the opening round against Dallas, she logged 11 minutes and did a nice job in keeping Skylar Diggins-Smith in front of her:

G — Alex Bentley, Connecticut Sun

Bentley makes tough shots off the dribble. She can fill either guard spot and do more ball-handling as needed. Every team needs someone that can get buckets late in the shot clock on those possessions that totally stall out.

She also takes good care of the basketball. Her assist-turnover ratio is one of the five best in the WNBA.

G — Leilani Mitchell, Phoenix Mercury

Mitchell was the other late change in Phoenix’s lineup. It is very obvious that Brittney Griner is going to command a lot of double teams. With Mitchell (a career 39.5% 3PT shooter) out there more often with the starting group, it gets much tougher to send those doubles and not get beat.

You probably remember her dagger corner three from Wednesday against Seattle. Here are her other key buckets from that opening round:

G/F — Kaela Davis, Dallas Wings

How’s this for a story: College teammates fresh off an NCAA title contribute right away for a WNBA team that makes the playoffs with an average age of 24. Allisha Gray started at the 2 spot and was named the AP Rookie of the Year. Davis played about 15 minutes a night off the bench, made 43% of her threes and did some good things off the bounce:

At 6’2 with that outside stroke and pedigree, Davis appears to have a very bright future in the modern game.

G/F — Yvonne Turner, Phoenix Mercury

Turner was one of the stars of the opening round. She started only four games in the regular season. In a win-or-go-home situation, she made her first four shots and spent most of her time defending 2016 2nd Team All-WNBA-er Jewell Loyd:

Coach Sandy Brondello talked about going under screens as part of the gameplan on Loyd. When Turner did go under, you saw in those clips that Griner was there to help. Turner followed that gameplan and chased Loyd around off-ball screens for most of the evening.

The 29 year-old-rookie is a great story and is fresh off a performance in which she delivered exactly what her team needed to survive and advance. She’s quick and has long arms. Wednesday’s performance was a special one that probably had fans thinking long term on her potential as a stopper and slasher. And if the jump shot is falling, too? Watch out.

F — Tianna Hawkins, Washington Mystics

Hawkins made this list with Lavender very much in mind. She shot 46% from the midrange this season and poured in some big buckets in round one of the playoffs against the Wings:

F — Natasha Howard, Minnesota Lynx

Howard was nearly as obvious a choice for this list as Lavender. How could I not include the two versatile forwards we saw serving in similar roles in last year’s Finals? Howard is listed at 6’2, but looks more like 6’5 in how well she moves, covers ground and affects shot attempts/passes of her opponents.

Switching on defense is now so in vogue that I’m seeing lots of people criminally overrate the ability of most players to do it. We can get into semantics over the word ‘can’, but I’m going to say it anyway: Can we stop saying every wing with a half-decent wingspan can guard four positions? It cheapens the work of established players that have been successful doing it for a long time.

Beyond the obvious choices, Howard would be one of the first names out of my mouth that can do just that.

Since the league hasn’t announced its official award winners as I write this, I’ll share some of my picks.

1st Team All-WNBA

F Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

F Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks

F Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks

F Tina Charles, New York Liberty

G Skylar Diggins-Smith, Dallas Wings

I think Mechelle Voepel and the AP got it right. I understand anyone making a case to represent traditional positions a bit more than this, but I don’t see this group of five as a stretch in the slightest.

You have a point guard in Diggins-Smith and then Parker, one of the most complete, all-around basketball players we’ve ever seen. She dishes out 4+ assists per game and attempts almost just as many threes. She runs pick and rolls, leads the break and can guard on the perimeter. Ogwumike, too, can and does guard well out on the perimeter. So I see nothing wrong with calling the 2016 MVP the nominal ‘3’ of this group.

Years down the line, people look at All-Star appearances and gold medal counts and All-WNBA appearances. These players were healthy and those four forwards/bigs were undoubtedly among the five best players in 2017.

2nd Team All-WNBA

F Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury

F Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

F Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

F Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

G Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx

Also considered: Chelsea Gray (Los Angeles), Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut), Diana Taurasi (Phoenix), Allie Quigley (Chicago), Stefanie Dolson (Chicago), Candice Dupree (Indiana).

It just wouldn’t feel right if Delle Donne or Griner were left off. Again, think 20 years down the line. Griner bested her previous career high in scoring by more than 6 points per game. And Delle Donne, like Griner, still played in 75% of her team’s games. Delle Donne (quietly, I would argue) ended the season shooting 49% from the floor, 39% from three and 95% from the line.

1st Team All-Defense

G Alana Beard, Los Angeles Sparks

G/F Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx

F Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks

F Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks

F Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

2nd Team All-Defense

G Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut Sun

G/F Shavonte Zellous, New York Liberty

F Tina Charles, New York Liberty

F Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

F Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury

Also considered: Rebekkah Brunson (Minnesota), Breanna Stewart (Seattle), Odyssey Sims (Los Angeles), Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut).

If you hate the idea of Finals rematches, then you definitely hate my first team. I can’t make a case against any of those five players. A selection this year would make it two in a row for Thomas. Zellous really stood out for New York in that she guarded the opposing team’s best perimeter player in close games, not just the toughest wing. She fights really hard for position when she’s off the ball and forced to battle for positioning with a big near the basket.

All-Rookie Team

G Allisha Gray, Dallas Wings

G Brittney Sykes, Atlanta Dream

G Kelsey Plum, San Antonio Stars

G Sami Whitcomb, Seattle Storm

G/F Kaela Davis, Dallas Wings

Also considered: Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe (New York), Stephanie Talbot (Phoenix), Yvonne Turner (Phoenix).

If I had settled on six names, I could have tried to pass it off as a tie, which happened in 2015. Sykes and Gray were shoe-ins with their performance in larger roles, as was Plum considering her strong second half. Whitcomb showed that she moves her feet well and can offer some versatility in defending both guard spots at times. Davis edged the rest of the contenders for the final spot.

More from High Post Hoops