Stefanie Dolson is primed to be a focal point in the Chicago Sky’s playoff transition game
Dolson dribbled the ball and gathered herself, if only for a second. It’s a moment that would leave most fans holding their breath, ready to sigh in frustration at the inevitable turnover spawned by their 6-foot-5 center caught in the middle of the floor.
But there is an understanding of the fast break between Dolson and the near 6,000 in attendance at Wintrust Arena: they buy the tickets, she puts on the show.
Dolson delivers with a smooth 40-foot pass that sails into the hands of Allie Quigley. The pass just misses the outstretched arms of Johannes, who goes flying past the All-Star shooting guard. Allie Quigley does what Allie Quigley always does when she’s wide open: she hits the shot.
The art of the outlet pass by Stefanie Dolson.
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The outlet pass remains one of the great unheralded moments in basketball. Despite it being perhaps the most representative moment of the sport—a player snagging a rebound and having to make a completely improvised, split-second decision to initiate action on the other end of the court is basketball at its most entertaining—outlet passes remain underrated.
Perhaps it’s because outlet passes rarely lead to a direct assist. For Dolson’s part, she’ll rarely get credited with an assist from her outlet passes since the Sky’s pass-happy transition style often means two or three people other players handle the ball on most fast breaks.
Or perhaps it’s because even when outlets are perfectly executed in the midst of chaos and traffic, they can still come off as pedestrian passes, often resulting in a point guard walking the ball up.
But outlet passes still produce some of the best moments in basketball. And with the Sky putting their speed on full display in their first round playoff win against the Phoenix Mercury on Wednesday night, outlets could be more important than ever for the Sky moving forward.
Sometimes they’re bold and brash, like the one above, and are so obvious in their mastery that it’s impossible not to gawk. Many times, however, they are far too easy to miss, lost in the electricity of a fast break.
Maybe Dolson doesn’t see Allie Quigley, the far simpler option, to her left. And maybe Asia Durr is blocking her view of the nearby Diamond DeShields. But who she does see is Courtney Vandersloot, already moving up the floor. Instead of standing up and pivoting for a better position, Dolson hits Vandersloot in stride with a wraparound bounce pass that allows the Sky’s fast break maestro to get ahead of two Liberty defenders.
Here again Dolson ignores the typical progression of outlet destinations and jumps it straight to Vandersloot, who’s halfway down the court expecting the pass. DeShields doesn’t even hesitate to run on the break, knowing full well Dolson is going to launch it, and sprints past the Dream’s defense.
The old adage that a pass moves faster than a pair of feet applies here—the Sky’s backcourt knows they don’t have to come to Dolson, they can start the break before Dolson even has her eyes up. These outlet passes are a way for the Sky to speed up their already-blazing-fast offense. Sure, Vandersloot, Quigley or DeShields can all push the break on their own, but they become much more lethal when they’re receiving their passes near the free throw line or at mid-court, as opposed to under the basket or on the block.
Here Dolson casually lobs a pass while falling out of bounds to her front court mate Jantel Lavender, who’s no slouch passing the ball either. Lavender distributes the rock accordingly and it results in her getting the ball back for an easy layup. Dolson’s outlet kickstarts all of this and forces the Fever’s defense to scramble on the break and lose sight of Lavender.
These are the plays that could help keep Dolson, and the Sky’s offense, deadly in the next round of the playoffs. Chicago preys on teams that can’t get set quick enough in transition, picking apart scrambling defenses inside and out. The Sky rank third in transition offense, and only the Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces have scored more transition points, per Synergy.
Speed killed the Mercury when Chicago hosted them, but the Las Vegas Aces will also look to play fast in the Sky’s second round matchup. The Aces played at the second-fastest pace, behind only the Sky, and Chicago will have to beat them at their own game.
Where the Sky and the Aces differ, however, is on defense. Las Vegas had the best defense by defensive rating in the league this year, and the second-best half-court defense. Chicago has been middling all year, a big improvement from last season when they set the record for the worst defensive rating in WNBA history, but not enough to carry them.
Chicago can poke holes in the Aces by getting themselves going on the break, as the Aces were in the bottom half on transition defense this year, per Synergy. The trouble for the Sky will be Las Vegas’ ability to limit other teams’ chances to even get out on the break, a skill bolstered by their league-leading 21 free throw attempts per game.
Dolson’s passing can be a big factor in countering that slowdown. Many of Dolson’s numbers were down this season, partly due to consistent foul trouble and partly due to settling into her role in Chicago’s offense. She’s not asked to be the traditional high-usage, post-up big that earned All-Star nods in 2015 and 2017.
But the outlet pass is where Dolson can continue to have a significant impact in allowing the Sky to play the way they play best. She can be the catalyst that keeps the ball speeding up the court and the Aces on their heels.
The stage will be set for her to do just that on Sunday with a hungry Chicago crowd watching from home—she just needs to nail the performance.
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