Column: Officially unofficial 2018 WNBA All-Star selections

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 5: Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury and DeWanna Bonner #24 of the Phoenix Mercury react during the game against the Connecticut Sun on July 5, 2018 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 5: Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury and DeWanna Bonner #24 of the Phoenix Mercury react during the game against the Connecticut Sun on July 5, 2018 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Though conferences no longer factor into the selection process, WNBA All-Star voting remains difficult as ever.

More than 15 percent of the WNBA’s player pool will partake in All-Star weekend this year in Minneapolis. All things considered, that is a considerable amount. That doesn’t make the process any easier for All-Star voters.

Liz Cambage, Angel McCoughtry, A’ja Wilson and others did not need to be factored into these discussions last year. Our own Howard Megdal shared his ballot yesterday. Before I get to my officially unofficial picks, some friendly reminders that some seem to forget when discussing awards or potential All-Star nods:

  • There are exactly 22 spots. There is zero wiggle room on that number. If you don’t like a pick or want to make a case that someone got snubbed, then you need to make a case for said player to take the place of somebody else. Wringing hands over 30+ names without choosing some over the others makes a mockery of the entire process.
  • The degree to which people care about Team X having three All-Stars compared to Team Y having two All-Stars even though Team Y is ahead of Team X in the standings will always be different. It most definitely should not be any sort of tiebreaker, though. Voters should always choose the players that they believe to have played best thus far.
  • As mentioned at the start, three (if not more) superstar-caliber players have entered the mix. Some players are putting together comparable if not better seasons. That may have earned an All-Star nod in 2017. Different year, different format, different level of competition for each spot.
  • It is always difficult to determine how many missed games should disqualify somebody from All-Star consideration. I don’t have a rule. Perhaps I, and others, should. But for 2018, that number for two 2017 All-Stars (Alyssa Thomas — 10, shoulder; Stefanie Dolson — 7, stress fracture) is too high in my mind.
  • Can we all agree that the positional definitions, specifically for small forwards, are a bit wonky? It would help if we had lineup data readily available. Some threes, including Maya Moore, have spent a decent amount of time as the nominal power forward. Many threes in the league haven’t done that at all. I wouldn’t make the case that Moore of all people is gaining an unfair advantage. This year, I’d argue every other three has a better chance of being voted in as a guard because there currently is so much superstar talent up front in this league. Depending on who you’re considering for your last few spots, those guard/forward designations may impact your thinking in the complete opposite way in comparison to someone else’s ballot.

Nine guards, 13 forwards. Let’s get to the picks. I’ll share them in three different tiers — locks, didn’t have to think hard about it, and last calls (all stats valid as of the morning of July 12).

‘Locks’ tier 

Diana Taurasi, G, Phoenix Mercury

Liz Cambage, F, Dallas Wings

A’ja Wilson, F, Las Vegas Aces

Chiney Ogwumike, F, Connecticut Sun

Candace Parker, F, Los Angeles Sparks

Sylvia Fowles, F, Minnesota Lynx

Maya Moore, F, Minnesota Lynx

Brittney Griner, F, Phoenix Mercury

Breanna Stewart, F, Seattle Storm

Elena Delle Donne, F, Washington Mystics

Taurasi has been completely out of this world. Allie Quigley, Kelsey Mitchell, and Kristi Toliver come close at times, but nobody can truly put the same type of pressure on an opposing defense. The mere threat of a three ball going up the second Taurasi crosses halfcourt sends entire defenses into panic mode. She also remains one of the absolute best at forcing the issue to get to the free throw line. Complain all you want about call-seeking behavior. Sometimes it’s tough to watch. But Taurasi — and several others that are really good at it — is willing to go inside to take that beating and deserves those calls more times than not.

How incredible is it to see the impact of Wilson, Cambage, and Chiney Ogwumike knowing that at this time last year, we were raving about the incredible depth of star frontcourt talent in this league without mentioning any of them? Wilson and Cambage lead the entire league in free throw attempts per game, and each is uniquely skilled as a scorer to go get a bucket quickly before double teams arrive.

Wilson catches and shoots right over people, something that’s still tough to process whenever it happens. I like to borrow the term of ‘ball-racking when talking about Wilson’s game — she shoots right over power forwards and centers as if they’re a stationary ball rack incapable of bothering her shot. Only Cambage is this skilled, this long, and strong enough to go right through the chest of every center in the league without fear. (And both, when given the opportunity, are very dangerous straight-line drivers.)

Chiney Ogwumike hasn’t missed a beat in her return from an Achilles tear. Her footwork and balance through contact inside are as good as it gets, and her ability to go get a bucket late in the clock adds some much-needed scoring balance to a Connecticut team that was lacking in that department last season.

We do not talk about the defense of Parker, Moore, or Fowles enough. That end of the floor is tougher to quantify, but it’s also what puts them over the top in my mind as the three best players in the world. Delle Donne really appears to be in position to thrive in a playoff setting with LaToya Sanders and an army of capable wing-sized shooters/playmakers around her. Stewart has been unconscious from two-point range. Dan Hughes has really opened up the floor to create more opportunities for his superstar forward to rise up for short jumpers in the lane or slice all the way to the rim more often as a roller.

Griner has shown that last year’s offensive production is real. In some ways, she’s been even better. Per Synergy, Griner leads the league in total post ups. On 189 possessions, she has been good for 1.148 points per possession — a better mark than a 2018 league-average offense, or 1.017 points per possession (via Swanny’s Stats).

‘Didn’t have to think hard about it’ tier 

Tina Charles, F, New York Liberty

Nneka Ogwumike, F, Los Angeles Sparks

Skylar Diggins-Smith, G, Dallas Wings

Chelsea Gray, G, Los Angeles Sparks

Tiffany Hayes, G, Atlanta Dream

Allie Quigley, G, Chicago Sky

Kayla McBride, G, Las Vegas Aces

No, New York’s struggles were never going to keep Charles off this list. While we’re here, don’t make the mistake of referencing her field goal percentage as the base of an argument on her efficiency. Charles is shooting 47.4 percent from inside the arc, her best mark since 2012.

McBride’s start to the 2018 season actually presents us with a good opportunity to discuss the polarizing and sometimes dreaded topic of ‘The Leap’. Her efficiency has skyrocketed (47% from the field, up from previous career high of 40.6 percent; 44.8 percent from three, up from 39.6 percent) with Wilson in town to balance out their offense.

Gray is so skilled and plays with so much confidence that it becomes easy to forget that she is in just her second season as a full-time starter. Teams have been eager to experiment just to wall off her driving lanes and prevent her from torturing smaller guards down on the block. Phoenix started a game with 6’4 DeWanna Bonner on Gray and switched every pick and roll she was involved in, even if it meant having Brittney Griner come all the way out to her.

Nneka Ogwumike is one of the premier two-way players in the world. She battles inside with centers standing at 6’2, catches everything, and rarely misses around the rim — she was at 71.8 percent from inside five feet as of Sunday. Diggins-Smith and Tiffany Hayes are fast. They’re impossible to contain when they’ve got a live dribble. The only two guards in the top-10 in free throw attempts? Hayes and Diggins-Smith.

Quigley is one of the best shooters in basketball. Sprinting around screens, in transition, off the dribble — she can do it all. Chicago’s defense has been miserable. (In their defense, they’ve barely had their full team for half of their games.) As of Thursday, though, they’re just three games out of a playoff spot. With anything but an elite shooter in Quigley’s spot, the Sky would be in big trouble.

‘Last calls’ tier 

Courtney Vandersloot, G, Chicago Sky

Kristi Toliver, G, Washington Mystics

Sue Bird, G, Seattle Storm

DeWanna Bonner, F, Phoenix Mercury

Natasha Howard, F, Seattle Storm

Continuing on the Sky: They’ve now had the misfortune of seeing Vandersloot’s season overseas bleed into the start of the WNBA season in both seasons under head coach/GM Amber Stocks. Sloot’s passing puts her in rare air. She’s constantly in the lane or driving along the baseline, looking to set her teammates up. And her shooting (38 percent from three last year, 42 percent this year) has very quietly opened up more space for Quigley and Diamond DeShields.

If you felt Bird’s 2017 All-Star nod was a bit of a lifetime-achievement award, I simply don’t know what to tell you. She was deserving last season and belongs in this conversation again this year based entirely on her play, not her legacy. She’s still the second-biggest driving force behind the league’s best offense, and her three-point shooting has made her invaluable as a floor spacer when she isn’t orchestrating in the pick and roll.

Toliver is right up there with the fear she instills with her long range shooting. She’s second only to Taurasi as a threat to can threes over people off the dribble. I’m a huge sucker for any action involving Toliver and Delle Donne. Most teams aren’t able to align the matchups to switch that without fearing the inevitable Delle Donne post up.

Though her free throw rate is down, you could argue that Bonner is having the best offensive season of her career. She makes quick decisions, which has really allowed her to thrive with Taurasi as the team’s primary ball handler. With Sancho Lyttle out for the season (ACL), Bonner’s length and quickness have become even more important, as she may be their best option to matchup with the elite fours in this league late in games.

Howard, meanwhile, is having the best season of her career in her first year as a full-time starter. The time she spends hanging out at the top of the key has made it nearly impossible to contain Stewart because the lane is now wide open. At a hair under 36 percent to date, Howard’s been good enough with the three ball and can easily put it down to get all the way to the rim. Her defense, of course, is what made it impossible to leave her off this list. On top of that, it may be the element Seattle needed to elevate to a point where they could compete for a championship.

Also considered: Alana Beard, G, Los Angeles Sparks; Diamond DeShields, G, Chicago Sky; Jewell Loyd, G, Seattle Storm; Kelsey Mitchell, G, Indiana Fever; Candice Dupree, F, Indiana Fever; Angel McCoughtry, F, Atlanta Dream; Rebekkah Brunson, F, Minnesota Lynx; Alyssa Thomas, F, Connecticut Sun