Pre-Season Opening Night in Seattle: Courtney Paris, Ashley Walker, Crystal Kelly...and a Great Atmosphere

. Friday, May 22, 2009
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Paying to see a WNBA pre-season game seems like a completely irrational choice compared to the alternative of sitting at home (or a bar) to watch Game 2 of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals.

Yet, I suppose the fact that I went to the Seattle Storm’s pre-season opener against the Sacramento Monarchs demonstrates how eager I am for the WNBA season to get started.

I have been to WNBA games in Key Arena before and the energy has always been high. So I was really curious to see what it would be like in this pre-season opener after a long, dark, rainy Seattle off-season (it had been gray and rainy earlier this week…and it’s May). But even though the crowd was relatively small at just under 5,000 people -- many of them kids – they more than made up for it with their energy. At times I couldn’t believe it was just a pre-season game. It was a great place to be overall…but more on that later.

Given the atmosphere, any hope of maintaining an analytical lens for this meaningless game was quickly tossed out the window.

I hadn’t really caught up on any media day information anyway so I went to the game not really knowing the state of either team. I figured I would just go and see what caught my attention. After all, it’s a pre-season game – teams are shaking off the rust, coaches are still evaluating players, and players are still learning how to play with each other in the team concept. Despite those factors, there are a few notes worth pointing out.

The first thing that struck me was the play of Ticha Penicheiro, but that’s to be expected from one of the all-time greats. Even though she is nearing the end of her career, her presence is felt every time she’s on the court. She appears to have total command of the game at every moment she’s on the court. She is one of the most decisive basketball players I’ve ever watched – male or female. And it’s an especially noticeable difference when her play is compared to that of the other point guards in the game who are unmistakably no more than back-up players, if not destined to be cut. I could go on...

But what really stood out for me was the play of the young post players in the game – Ashley Walker, Courtney Paris, Crystal Kelly. Kelly was someone who caught my attention during her rookie campaign last season as an extremely efficient post player. Paris is obviously a much more highly touted rookie who I actually saw play in person a few years back when Oklahoma played the University of San Francisco. I had never seen Ashley Walker play but heard good things about her career at the University of California – Berkeley.

But why is this so significant to me?

When I first tried to watch the WNBA back in the 1990’s one of the biggest critiques my dorm-mates and I had about the league was the lack of quality post play – compared to the NBA, it was rare to see players bang and fight for rebounds or establish position and pull off a drop step in the post to score on their opponent.

Watching now over a decade later, the improved post play is one of the most striking elements of the game. It’s possible that I’m just off base on this point, but it just seems like the post game is definitely evolving and part of that is likely the increasing visibility of the professional game over the last decade.

I find that analyzing post players is always easier to witness live than through the narrow lens of the television or computer screen, so it was great to get a chance to see these players up close.

Of course, this was only a pre-season game so it’s hard to make any broad claims about these young players. So I’m really going to rely on my subjective observations rather than the less subjective statistics. And overall, I think both teams have reason to be hopeful about their post players.

Crystal Kelly: Building on a solid rookie campaign

What impressed me most about Crystal Kelly last year was her instincts. Despite limited minutes and a shifting role on the team, she could just jump into the game and figure out how to rebound, get to the free throw line or score easy baskets. It’s not really something you see very often from rookies. With a year of experience under her belt and a full pre-season to work with her teammates, I would definitely expect her to become an even more efficient player throughout this season.

Really, last night was more of the same from Kelly. She sees the game extremely well. She does an excellent job of finding spaces in the defense and getting there as quickly as possible. When she gets the ball, there are few young players as decisive as she is in either attempting to score or passing the ball and finding herself another opportunity. She does not waste motion at all in moving around the court – in a way she embodies the old mantra be quick, not in a hurry.

However, as usual Kelly does these little things so quietly from play to play that it’s easy for her to go unnoticed, especially in a pre-season game when the point guard play and overall team ball movement are still suspect. It will be interesting to see how she does this season as she gets a better grasp of the team’s offense and her teammates get used to her.

Courtney Paris: Shall we believe the hype?

Sure, you may look at Paris’ line of two points, five rebounds, and one block and think, uh-oh, she’s not ready.

I would instead urge patience.

Let's put this in perspective: it was only her first game so I think the strengths that she demonstrated are actually more impressive than her weakness are disheartening.

Paris will clearly be a good rebounder for the Monarchs from the start. She’s got a big body, she’s not afraid to bang, and she is probably tough enough to fight with almost anyone in the league for rebounds.

That toughness she displays when fighting for rebounds is exactly what will help her offensively as well.

There was one play in particular in the first half where she literally came down the middle of the court, threw her forearms into the chest of her defender in stride, made a quick pivot, and established pretty good position on the block. She’s not afraid of contact and that’s a great sign for a young player. The problem comes after she touches the ball.

First of all, while she is tough and big, it seems that she’s not used to the strength of professional players. She’s going to have to adjust to the fact that she will feel more resistance from WNBA players than she did at Oklahoma. There were times in the second half where Kasha Terry – about 55 pounds lighter than Paris – was able to hold her position pretty well against Paris.

Second, once she got the ball in the post, she was rushing her moves. When her initial move was stopped, she wasn’t really able to recover and transition into a second move. Part of the trouble was that the Storm were doubling occasionally after Paris put the ball on the floor the first time. Since she went into her move so quickly, she wasn’t able to anticipate that double, got stuck, and had to make a frantic pass out of the post or take a poor shot. With a little more patience in the post, I imagine her footwork and hard-nosed play will allow her to become a much more effective post scorer.

Lastly, I think it’s important to note that these two things – strength and patience – are things that young post players always have to work out when they make the leap to the next level. After she adjusts to the opponents, adjusts to the offense, and figures out her role on the team I think she’ll be fine.

I think it will be interesting to see how Kelly and Paris fit into the Monarchs rotation. Both seem to have immense potential on an aging team. If they can continue to develop, they should have a very nice frontcourt duo for the future.

Ashley Walker: "A nose for the ball"

I had never seen Walker play before last night…but wow -- it's hard to miss her once she steps on the court.

She’s all over the court, wherever the ball is. Really, I could not even tell what position she was playing at times as she would be in the post fighting for rebounds on one play and then out guarding Hamchétou Maïga-Ba on the next play. Regardless, she just seemed to be making plays.

From Brian Agler’s post-game comments posted in audio format on the Storm’s website (at the 1:50 mark):

Yeah you see those types of players, those very good rebounders. Those are natural things you don’t teach a lot of that…that’s just a natural nose for the ball. You’ve heard that term a lot. You know those people just for whatever reason have it. They anticipate well, they sort of see what’s going to happen before it happens and just have the ability to make plays.
Really, she has very similar instincts to what I would ascribe to Crystal Kelly. The big difference is Walker really fights for boards in the post. She got three offensive rebounds simply as a result of out working her opponent and being in the right place at the right time.

She is probably a more versatile scorer than Paris or Kelly in that she seems to be able to do more with the ball in her hands, but like Paris, it seemed like she is still adjusting to the changing competition. I don’t recall her pulling off a strong post move, but she more than makes up for that by being able to hit short jumpers and create second chance opportunities.

Walker has a chance to be a real force in the WNBA. She’s tough, strong, and clearly has great instincts. She had some defensive lapses, but that was because she was guarding players clearly faster than her out on the perimeter, which is clearly not her strength at this time in her career. It will be interesting to see how she’s integrated into the offense long-term with the return of Lauren Jackson and the solid play of Ashley Robinson and Camille Little.

I think Walker is on her way to distinguishing herself on a solid Storm team.

An amazing atmosphere

Despite solid play from these three post players, the most striking thing about this game was the atmosphere, which I alluded to at the beginning of this post.

I was talking to a jazz musician the other day about the power of hearing live music – how it adds another layer to the music when you can watch the coordination of the artists, their emotions expressed through body language, and the energy that is put into making each note. It’s a value added to the listening experience that cannot be reconstructed with a studio recording.

Attending a live professional basketball game is similar to me (though not directly analogous) and part of that is because of the crowd – that energy cannot be recreated sitting at home.

For example, during one sequence in the third quarter, Ashley Robinson grabbed an offensive rebound and quickly put the ball back in with a short running bank shot. Then on the ensuing defensive possession, Robinson blocked a shot and the crowd just went nuts – you would have thought it was a mid-season game of some consequence.

To be sure, I imagine this is not too dissimilar to the pre-season in any sport – you have to be a special kind of rabid to shell out hard earned dollars to watch teams work out their bench players’ kinks. However, what’s unique about the WNBA environment is that it feels more like a community in the building.

When Robinson made those plays, people weren’t just yelling drunken cheers or turning to their neighbor and saying, “Wow, that Robinson sure can play.” The whole game they were not only calling players by their first name, but they were just shouting out words of encouragement as though they knew these people. I suppose it’s hard to describe in comparison to a NBA game or a college basketball game, but it definitely has its own unique feel; a friendlier, more positive atmosphere.

But what really got me was a moment near the end of the game.

I was writing down some final thoughts with about a minute to go when everyone started standing up. The game was pretty much over, not to mention the fact that it was meaningless to begin with. I had already checked out mentally and sort of got lost in my own thoughts about the game.

Then a boy in front of me – no older than six – with the most adorable big brown eyes and wavy brown hair stands up and looks over to his mom who had been quite motionless and disengaged for most of the game. He looks back at me as I’m jotting down a few more notes and I catch his gaze but quickly look back down and keep writing.

For some reason I looked back at the kid a few moments later and see him grinning. I sort of grin back and he starts smiling at me expectantly while widening his eyes, sort of begging me to stand up. I laugh, put my pad down and stand up with just about every other able-bodied person in the building.

At that point, he taps his mom on the shoulder and motions back to me as if to say, hey, if that dork taking notes all game is standing, so should you! She sighs and stands and he looks back at me with the most contented smile.

Now perhaps I’m just a sucker for a story like that because I used to be an elementary school teacher and I just think the innocence of childhood is among the best things humanity has to offer. But it was just amazing to me that this kid almost didn’t even care about the time and score, which is what we’re all coached to focus on during a close game. This kid was just completely lost in the moment and expected everyone else to join in with him. When the buzzer sounded the crowd gave the team a standing ovation and the kid looked back at me on his way out, still with that big smile.

Those moments don’t seem to come along very often and when they do, I absolutely treasure them. And there is something about the WNBA atmosphere that just cultivates this amazing spirit when you’re in the arena. I have no idea what it is – normally at sports games I’ve identified about three dudes I would fight (if I was a little bit taller…and bigger) by the fourth quarter. Something else was going on there in that pre-season WNBA game in the last minute. Something special.

(Edited for grammar and flow: 5/25/09)

Related Links:

Game recap from Jayda Evans:

Post-game interview with Ashley Walker

Storm Defeat Monarchs In Exhibition photo gallery

Transition Points:

It’s a shame players are going to have to get cut. When Kimberly Beck went down in the third quarter, my first thought was my lord, I hope she doesn’t get cut due to injury. When she did re-enter the game, it was great to hear the crowd applaud her.

There’s often an assumption that male WNBA fans attend games either with female partners or daughters, but it was great to see the large number of fathers with sons out at the game tonight as well. These players aren’t just role models for girls -- honestly if I wanted a son to learn the game of basketball, I’d be more likely to take him to a WNBA game than NBA game. That’s a personal choice and really a false dichotomy anyway since they’re played at different times…but you get the point…

My logic for skipping the NBA playoffs
last night was that I’d have at least two more chances to watch two teams I despise compete for a trip to the NBA Finals. I honestly don’t care who wins and every clutch shot Derek Fisher makes just makes me cringe (I’m an authentic Bay Area Laker Hater ever since they traded Eddie Jones back in 1999). Now that the Lakers lost, I have three more chances to catch that series. Double sweet.