12 Things: Kelsey Mitchell, Talbot time, shaky Sun

Minneapolis MN-July 2: Minnesota Lynx forward Stephanie Talbot (8) shoots as Atlanta Dream forward Nia Coffey (10) tries to block in the fourth quarter at Target Center. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Star Tribune via Getty Images).
Minneapolis MN-July 2: Minnesota Lynx forward Stephanie Talbot (8) shoots as Atlanta Dream forward Nia Coffey (10) tries to block in the fourth quarter at Target Center. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Star Tribune via Getty Images). /

The first full month of the 2019 WNBA season is in the books. More stars are on the mend working their way back from injury and all EuroBasket departures will be back shortly. Going team by team, here are 12 things on the last week-plus from around the league.

Chicago’s pesky spacing 

There’s so much to like about this possession in the first minute of last week’s game against the Sparks.

The lane will almost always be wide open with Stef Dolson and Jantel Lavender in the starting lineup. Each is more likely to spot up than occupy a low block. Working late into the shot clock, an Allie Quigley-Dolson pick and pop draws a third defender into the action to take away Dolson’s 3-pointer.

The cut by Diamond DeShields made this sequence sing, and it’s the perfect way to tap into her explosiveness when she’s off-ball as somebody else runs a pick and roll.

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt could’ve managed that 2-on-1 on the back side had DeShields stayed in the corner. Had TRP committed earlier to DeShields, Courtney Vandersloot would have been able to step into an uncontested triple.

Riquna can do that, too

The moment Essence Carson signed with Phoenix this offseason, Riquna Williams became one of the league’s toughest players to replace. L.A. really needs her versatile 3-point shooting to ease the pressure on their stars, who need the freedom to isolate and improvise on a whim for this team to contend.

They also need Williams to play more often like she knows that she can blow right by people, which she did twice on this trip in their win over the Aces.

These drives make the Sparks more unpredictable on a team level. And actually probing to get all the way into the paint will make her life easier when she’s trying to fill it up with one or both of Chelsea Gray or Candace Parker resting.

Next steps for Thornton

The majority of Kayla Thornton’s minutes have been at the 3 this season. She’s flashing more confidence in her pull-up jumper and looking to attack those matchups by getting into the post.

Early in their win over Minnesota, she set up an open triple with a quick skip pass and drilled a short jumper over Danielle Robinson.

Minnesota’s flurry of injuries has forced them to play Napheesa Collier more at the 4, making it tougher for them to do the same. And without that threat of Collier post-ups and duck-ins looming quite as large, Lynx opponents should see fewer cons to rolling out three-guard lineups.

Durr getting it done

Anybody that watched Asia Durr play in college has seen this rough outline before: Get a head start going left and go score.

Her ability to do that at this level felt like a safe bet. Executing this pass is one small step in becoming even more of a threat at the pro level—making a defense pay with an on-target pass to set somebody up for an easy look when you draw some extra attention.

In theory, some of those reads will only get easier—and more dangerous, potentially leading to open spot-up triples—once Amanda Zahui B returns from EuroBasket. Reinforcements on the perimeter will allow Katie Smith to put more shooting on the floor across all 40 minutes.

Don’t look now, but the Liberty are 7-7 and due for a big boost offensively with even more freedom to play 4-out around Tina Charles.

Atlanta’s head tap

The Dream have incorporated an action that has become very popular at all levels of the sport. Oregon State ran it quite often this past season. The Golden State Warriors signaled it with a head tap, often featuring Kevin Durant in the post and Steph Curry coming off a screen back toward the ball for an open triple.

Atlanta used one of their biggest hammers, a Tiffany Hayes baseline drive, to set it up.

And with a ‘Hammer’ screen looking to set up an open 3-pointer on the other side of the floor, this structure is about as good as it gets for the Dream: Hayes getting downhill, screening to free up the available shooters around her and the bigs looking to sneak through the cracks cutting to the basket or attacking the offensive glass.

Big moments for Mitchell in OT loss

Kelsey Mitchell was not making this read last season.

Probing the baseline as a rookie, she usually dribbled out the other side and the possession would stall out. (This also illustrates the value of Natalie Achonwa’s growth as a shooter.) Mitchell hit some huge 3-pointers late in this game as well. As bleak as things got last season, it’s exciting to see good things happening for the Fever in 2019.

Washington playing through Delle Donne in transition

How do you guard this?

In all of four seconds, you have to transition from containing a 4-5 pick and roll as Kristi Toliver runs off a screen to a Spain pick and roll. At best: Shekinna Stricklen doesn’t bite on the pump fake, Delle Donne works into an iso and either gets off a clean look over a much smaller player or forces an immediate double and finds the open teammate.

The Courtney Williams conundrum 

The Mystics are the clear-cut best team in the league right now because they constantly force your defense into scramble mode and can switch your best actions on the other end to force you to shoot over them.

Is Courtney Williams good enough to beat this kind of defense in a playoff series? If she isn’t, the Sun as presently constructed will be completely outmatched. She can shake free from bigger players with a quick move, but this—a semi-contested floater—is about as good as it gets for a player that doesn’t force the issue at the rim or get to the foul line a ton.

Due to her reliance on that pull-up jumper, a big chunk of her shot windows are more likely to look like this:

Jasmine Thomas, the lone Sun guard that can put real pressure on the rim, also disappointed offensively. Washington’s switching hurts Alyssa Thomas’ value even more than Williams.

My big-picture takeaway from that game: The Sun need to actually come ready to play through Jonquel Jones. They can’t let another season pass without going down swinging with the ball in the hands of their best player enough for it to matter.

Getting an easy one for Hamby at the 3

Some of the best stuff the Aces have run this season taps into the fear of switching a guard onto A’ja Wilson or Liz Cambage. Both can attack off the bounce or shoot over the top so quickly that it’s even more of an emergency situation than it would be with some fellow stars at the position.

Dearica Hamby, playing at the 3 here against Indiana, got an easy bucket via a UCLA cut as Sugar Rodgers rose to the top of the key, eliminating the most obvious source of help.

Sophie’s 19

In trying to forecast what the Mercury would look like when Brittney Griner was on the bench this season, I did not expect to see any minutes without at least having Alanna Smith out there to space the floor.

That said, this drive by Sophie Cunningham stood out most from her 19-point performance against Indiana. These are the simple, decisive plays Yvonne Turner, Essence Carson and Briann January haven’t made enough in support of Griner and DeWanna Bonner while they wait on Diana Taurasi’s return from back surgery.

Putting Howard in space

Seattle’s approach to the start of their recent game against the Aces was very interesting. The slow start was a bit misleading; they put a lot of pressure on the Aces from the jump.

  • They created a quick iso on the left side on the first play of the game, giving Howard a head start to see what Wilson would do as she closed out.
  • Howard slipped a screen to get downhill from the right side to draw Cambage across the lane, potentially setting up a quick feed inside to Mercedes Russell or a kick-out for an open triple.
  • Re-screening for Shavonte Zellous forced a switch, giving Howard an opportunity to drag Kelsey Plum down into the post.
  • Howard ran an inverted pick and roll with Jewell Loyd as the screener. Note Russell standing in the opposite corner to maximize the distance Cambage would need to travel to help out at the rim.
  • On another re-screen for Zellous in transition, the Aces miscommunicated, allowing Zellous to stroll right in for a layup.

Talbot’s time 

After injuries forced her to step into 30-plus minutes in back-to-back games, now is a good time to reiterate some praise for the Lynx cashing in on the Phoenix roster crunch by acquiring Steph Talbot for a second-round pick.

Some writing was on the wall the moment the Mercury signed Essence Carson, a veteran at the position that would clearly supersede Talbot and Yvonne Turner in the rotation.

An interesting what-if, were the league to have free agency after the draft: Would the Mercury have even signed Carson had they known they got Sophie Cunningham at No. 13 in the draft?

The Mercury made it clear in the preseason that they really liked Cunningham but probably couldn’t have known for sure that they were going to execute a trade with Atlanta and still land her at the beginning of the second round.

Camille Little’s guaranteed contract hurt Talbot’s chances as well. Little ranks behind Sancho Lyttle among the backup forwards but can still bring some value if Alanna Smith isn’t going to play much off their bench.

The 3-and-D label for Talbot is not an exaggeration, though. She’s a really valuable, cost-controlled player that made some big plays in key moments for the Mercury last season. (Another hypothetical: What if Talbot doesn’t get that concussion in last year’s semifinals?)

You have to move on chances to add good players at a relatively low cost, something the Lynx have done several times in the last five months. Minnesota has a bunch of guards and wings. Finding time for all of them when healthy is tough, but plenty of teams would stand to benefit if they could plug Talbot into their rotation right now.

LAST WEEK'S 12 THINGS. Ariel and Azura lock up, Gabby and Jackie get downhill. light

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