Those left behind weigh in
June 27 marks the first day of competition in FIBA’s EuroBasket tournament, which is one of the first steps for European countries to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Twelve WNBA players from eight teams will compete for 10 different European countries. We detailed all this in Part 1 of the EuroBasket preview.
Note: Cecilia Zandalasini played for Minnesota last year and is playing for Italy at EuroBasket, but she is not included because, unlike Fagbenle, she is not on the Lynx’s 2019 roster. Rather, Zandalasini is considered one of several former WNBA players or draft picks on EuroBasket rosters.
In most years, a few WNBA players miss the start of the season due to overseas commitments, but midseason absences are rarer. Dallas Wings head coach Brian Agler said that EuroBasket “is a tough one to deal with because … [players] are gone for two or three weeks right in the middle of the season.” Earlier this week, High Post Hoops shared insights from departing players on the difficulty of playing for another team midway through the WNBA season, what their expectations are of the tournament, and how they will keep in touch with family and teammates during their time away.
High Post Hoops also spoke with several WNBA coaches and players about the impact that EuroBasket will have not only on their teams, but also on the league—and the playoff race—as a whole. This article shares their perspectives.
WNBA players who have a teammate competing overseas expressed a range of emotions. Before the Washington Mystics said goodbye to forward Emma Meesseman and guard Kim Mestdagh, Elena Delle Donne joked, “I’m mad at these two for leaving us.” Teammate Aerial Powers said, “of course we’re sad … but we want them to do well.” Chicago Sky guard Katie Lou Samuelson said of teammate Astou Ndour, “It’s awesome for her to get to go represent her country … and come back with that [experience].”
Agler, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, and Chicago Sky head coach James Wade all said that EuroBasket was a factor in selecting their final 12-woman rosters. “You definitely have to consider those things,” Wade said. “I think [having] one [EuroBasket player] is tough; having two would be even tougher. Having one, it takes away from our depth, but you deal with it because of the quality of [the] player.” Mike Thibault said that guard Kim Mestdagh playing in EuroBasket “was pause for thought,” but he ended up choosing her anyway for the Mystics’ final roster spot.
Coaches around the league also agreed that EuroBasket will reduce some teams’ depth and could affect the outcomes of several WNBA games. “Some [teams] can handle it a little bit better than others,” Agler said. The first-year Wings head coach continued, “For us right now it’s not ideal, just with the new staff and [Johnson is] a starter for us. But for someone like Washington with Meesseman … they’ve also played some years, like last year, without her where they’ve done well. They’ve sort of got a core group … I don’t see them missing a beat. Nothing against her. It’s just how they are.” Unsurprisingly, Thibault was more circumspect about his team’s chances without Meesseman and Mestdagh, noting that the Mystics will play four straight road games in three different time zones while the duo is overseas. “We have a ton of road games where we could use [them],” he said.
Because player absences will likely affect regular-season results, they are also likely to affect playoff seeding and teams’ chances of winning the 2019 WNBA title. “It is definitely going to have a major impact,” Seattle Storm interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg told High Post Hoops. Agler stopped short of agreeing that it would “definitely” play a role, but said, “If a player … would leave and really affect [a team] during that stretch, then it’s going to affect things … you get down to those playoff spots, it’s going to be determined by one or two games, you know, [seeds] eight through two. … So it could impact that. I don’t know whether it will or not, but it could.”
Besides the fact that some teams are losing more players than others, the players left and will return at different times, so one team might lose a player for three weeks while another might lose a player for six. Wade’s strategy for handling Ndour’s absence was to make sure that she understood all of the plays and developed chemistry with her WNBA teammates before she went overseas so that her transition back to the WNBA would be smooth. Despite being a first-time head coach, Wade expressed confidence that he could handle Ndour’s absence, citing the fact that he coached Ndour as an assistant for the San Antonio Stars in 2016, when Ndour left midseason for the Olympics (and returned with a silver medal). “I think it’s tough for any player to adjust,” Wade said, “but me having familiarity with her … because I’ve coached her before, I think it’s gonna make it a little bit easier.”
With Ndour gone, the Sky players are adopting a “next woman up” mentality. “We all have to pick up a bit,” Samuelson said. Gabby Williams added, “[Ndour] brings good minutes off the bench and she’s really productive, and, you know, that’s a lot of height right there, so our other posts will just have to step up.”
In Washington and Dallas, coaches and players voiced similar themes. Agler specifically mentioned forwards Theresa Plaisance and Azura Stevens as players who will likely have bigger roles while starting forward Glory Johnson is overseas. Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said, “Emma [Meesseman] is a key part of this team, so it is an adjustment. But … the difference-maker for us right now is our bench stepping up … we’ve got to be able to play without Em. We lose Em for a month.”
While players are overseas, teams shared different expectations about how often they would check in. Glory Johnson, who will play for Montenegro, said she planned to watch every Wings game and be in touch with teammates “probably … every day,” but Washington’s Aerial Powers said of her overseas teammates, “We’ll probably check up on them, but for the most part, probably let them focus a little bit.” Chicago’s Wade said he has strong relationships with Ndour’s Spanish coaches and has talked to the Spanish federation throughout the WNBA season. On June 5, three days after Ndour’s departure, Wade said he had already been in touch with her: “We’re definitely gonna keep up with her, we’re rooting for her, and we definitely talk to each other often.”
When players return from EuroBasket after the July 7 championship game, all 12 teams will have to make another adjustment. The teams getting players back will have to incorporate those players back into their lineup, which will necessarily change the scouting report again for their opponents. However, WNBA players and coaches seemed much less concerned with this second set of adjustments than with how they will play without the EuroBasket players. Wade claimed that the Chicago coaches “haven’t really worried about integrating [Ndour] later on.” Similarly, Washington’s Ariel Atkins said, “I don’t think it’ll be hard implementing [Meesseman and Mestdagh] back into our team because of who they are just as people, but them leaving … it’s a missing piece.”
When asked how the Mystics would make up for that missing piece, Atkins seemed to speak for every team in the league that is losing a player to EuroBasket. “I guess we’ll figure it out because we don’t really have a choice but to,” she said matter-of-factly. Her teammate Natasha Cloud even ad libbed a catchy rhyme to sum up Meesseman’s absence: “We gotta hold down while she’s out of town.”
The twelve WNBA-turned-EuroBasket players may be out of town, but they’ll hardly be out of mind. In fact, even in their absence, they will be huge factors in the 2019 WNBA season and title chase.
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