The Wings, in season of transition, are looking to stay airborne

When Brian Agler became the head coach of the Dallas Wings in December, a position vacated by last year’s midseason firing of Fred Williams, he anticipated that his task of leading the franchise deep into the playoffs would be a more gradual and arduous one than his previous role with the Los Angeles Sparks. It’s been a turbulent flight path so far, both in terms of the outcomes of games and the play of his team.

“It is very difficult to achieve high level success in the WNBA,” Agler said in a press release announcing his hiring. “I want to help the team build a strong foundation of championship characteristics and traits; if this can be established then positioning for a championship can begin.”

Agler had just completed his fourth year coaching the Sparks, a stretch that included trips to the playoffs each season, three winning records (including 52 regular season wins between 2016-17) and one WNBA title. Conversely, the Wings have yet to see a winning season in Dallas, and the franchise overall has had one since 2009, when it was in Detroit.

Dallas spent its offseason in tumultuous fashion by losing the two cornerstones to last year’s 15-win season: Skylar Diggins-Smith announced her pregnancy in October and Liz Cambage demanded a trade in January.

After numerous transactions executed before this season began, including sending Cambage to Las Vegas and adding young talent through the draft, what remains is a roster with 2.8 years of average playing experience in the WNBA. It goes without saying that this is an extremely young team, and one that’s missing it’s three most experienced players — Diggins-Smith, Tayler Hill and Glory Johnson — at the moment.

Wings President and CEO Greg Bibb knew that whoever he chose to lead the team would have to oversee the growth of many of its players.

“[A criteria for the new coach] was a proven track record in terms of skill development, helping our young players get better,” Bibb told High Post Hoops. “Brian Agler happens to be the right pick in my mind… for our team.”

It’s inevitable for a roster flooded with youth, and under the direction of a new head coach, to endure a sizable number of ups and downs during a 34-game season. Both individually amongst the players and collectively, the Wings have proven to be no exception.

A few games into the season, these young players were seeing valuable minutes, but the results weren’t there. Dallas began 0-5, and while they competed to a couple of close defeats — opening night, for example, they lost in Atlanta after leading by eight through three quarters — the winless start was capped by a 24-point blowout loss on the road to the Mystics.

“We had a ton of areas of concern [during the winless start], we still do. You can’t focus on what’s going on around you on other teams, you can’t focus on the standings, you can’t focus on anything other than just trying to improve,” he said before the team’s game on Friday.

Despite their point per game total sitting last in the WNBA at 68.7, it seems as though they have made strides towards achieving the improvement Agler so eagerly speaks of. They had won three of their previous four games before a one-point setback against the Liberty on Friday. One of those victories was against the league-leading Sun, who are now 9-3, at home on Wednesday.

Arike Ogunbowale, the rookie selected fifth overall in this year’s draft, has begun to take ownership of the team’s offense. She averaged nearly 22 points per game in her senior year at Notre Dame, but posted 29 total points in just under 19 minutes per game over her first four games in the WNBA.

Over this week’s 3-1 stretch, she scored 74 points and even attempted a season-high 26 shots in a loss to Las Vegas. While she’s only shooting 30.4% from the field on the season, she efficiently buried 10 of her 17 attempts on Wednesday against Connecticut, including three of four from behind the arc.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” Agler told the Dallas Morning News about Ogunbowale’s performance, “Good players and great players, they don’t shoot 40% or below. They’re usually, every other game they’re 50% or above. So that’s what we’re looking for.”

The Wings, though, are still searching for consistency from the collegiate standout — she followed up her impressive performance with a 2-23 struggle in New York. She struggled to break through against Asia Durr’s lockdown defense, missing heave after heave from the perimeter.

“That’s tough,” she told the Associated Press afterwards, “Shots didn’t fall.”

Additionally, Dallas continues to deal with the integration of second-year player Azurá Stevens back into the regular rotation after missing opening night with an injury.

Stevens began this season with expectations to carry a larger offensive load for Dallas. After Cambage’s departure and the absence of Glory Johnson until the conclusion of EuroBasket, the University of Connecticut product is poised to build on a rookie season that saw her make nine starts and average nearly nine points and five rebounds in 21 minutes per game.

She recognizes that although she’s becoming more comfortable competing against the WNBA’s elite, this comes in tandem with opponents’ increased familiarity of her own game.

“I think there’s a certain level of calmness that I have this year because I’ve been here for a year now, I kind of know what to expect,” she told the Connecticut Post before the season began.

“I think, having said that, the level of play is a little harder because people in the league know what you’re doing and it’s not like you’re surprising anyone. That’s on me to step my game up in that area.”

Stevens, like Ogunbowale, has struggled to establish consistency and momentum early in the year, and her numbers are down across the board from her rookie season (MPG, FG%, PPG, RPG). Against Connecticut, she played just eight minutes, missed her only shot attempt from the field, and didn’t score. Agler acknowledges that her recent injury history has played a role in her slow start.

“[Stevens’] offseason was just rehab on a surgery she had on her foot, and that also includes missing all of training camp,” he said. “She’s not quite ready yet.”

The UConn product’s confidence will undoubtedly rise with increased playing time and as she continues to recover from her physical setback, and the Wings hope her eventual contributions translate into more victories.

One positive that’s come from Dallas’ carrousel of shifting roster spots has been the chance for Megan Gustafson, the decorated rookie out of Iowa, to see the floor and show that she can make an impact on a WNBA roster. Gustafson, who was cut by the Wings before the season began, received an opportunity to rejoin their team after Glory Johnson’s departure.

“Right now, Dallas is short on numbers, and they called me back for a reason,” she told High Post Hoops. “They see potential in me… and I’m just going to keep working as hard as I can.”

Gustafson has indeed seized her second chance — in four games and 41 total minutes played, she’s gone 9-for-14 from the field, scored 23 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.

“You’re only going to get more and more comfortable as long as you’re on the floor getting up and down,” she said.

The Wings have also gotten help from other players who’ve taken steps forward in 2019, from players such as Kayla Thornton (11.3 points per game, which is a career-high and ranks second on the team) and Allisha Gray, the 2017 Rookie of the Year, whose scoring averaged dipped by nearly four points per game last season.

In a season of transition marked by a number of moving parts, it seems as though the Wings have felt the disappointment as well as euphoria of a full season in just 10 games. In the process, they’ve also been laying a steady groundwork for a successful future with their coaching hire and providing invaluable playing time to young talent with immense potential.

“I’m really happy for [the team], that they can now see if you keep working hard and stay focused, you can put yourself in position to win,” said Agler.

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