Why The Minnesota Lynx are the Perfect Learning Environment for Renee Montgomery

. Friday, June 12, 2009
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We know that Renee Montgomery knows how to win from her days at UConn.

We know that she has the leadership skills to run a championship team.

What we don’t know is how good a professional point guard Renee Montgomery will be.

Of course, you never really know what you’re getting when you draft a rookie in any sport – all you can really do is make an educated guess and hope.

Yet what makes following Montgomery’s development as a rookie point guard particularly interesting is actually Chicago Sky coach Steve Key’s reasoning for selecting Kristi Toliver one pick ahead of Renee Montgomery.

"We knew we might have the option [Toliver or Montgomery]," Sky coach and general manager Steven Key told the Chicago Tribune. "We all just felt Kristi on the next level had more of our style of play. If you put them head to head, the numbers are pretty much the same. I think Kristi has a little more of that drive, that oomph and the ability to create her own shot."
After a week of play, we have not yet seen much of Toliver (four minutes in one game) but we can start to make an assessment of Montgomery a bit beyond an educated guess.

Thanks to the WNBA LiveAccess archives, I have been able to watch all three of the Lynx’s games so far this season, but paid closest attention to their game on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Sparks.

Although Montgomery has not played big minutes to this point, she has displayed some of the tools that she brings to the WNBA. But most importantly, in watching the Lynx, I think Montgomery has landed in a much better environment to learn how to play point guard at the professional level.

It’s not just that the Lynx are winning that makes this such a good situation for Montgomery. But Montgomery also has the opportunity to learn about the professional game by playing behind a veteran point guard in Kelly Miller and an outstanding young guard in Candice Wiggins. Most importantly, the way the Lynx are playing basketball is a very nice complement to Montgomery’s style of play.

Montgomery vs. the Sparks

Montgomery clearly has the confidence and swagger to lead a team, which will serve her well in the future. One thing that was immediately evident against the Sparks was that Montgomery was by far the best ball-handler of any of the five point guards in the game – Kristi Harrower, Noelle Quinn, Shannon Bobbitt, and Kelly Miller. And while she’s not exactly a big point guard, she has a solid build and is probably already one of the most athletic point guards in the league.

However, right now she’s also still learning the ropes.

Montgomery was clearly able to get by Sparks’ point guard Kristi Harrower almost whenever she wanted. The problem against was finishing plays once she got into the paint. In the second quarter, Montgomery had a bad pass and an errant driving lay-up (which Nicky Anosike cleaned up nicely). Later in the third she had a runner that she missed. Other than that she did not have the time to have a huge impact on the game.

Yet when comparing her game against the Sparks to her other two games, I think we can just attribute these mistakes against the Sparks to growing pains rather than any sort of fundamental flaw in her game. And really her game will fit in perfectly with the Lynx – their strength is their ability to move the ball and drive to the basket. Montgomery gives them a weapon off the bench to keep the pressure on their opponents.

However there’s another observation I made in watching Kelly Miller run the point guard for the Lynx: the Lynx's point guard doesn’t really have to do much of anything except initiate the offense.

With Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins on the wings and Anoskie playing out of her mind with the little Jennifer Gillom fall away jumper to her game, all the point guard has to do is get the ball moving within their offense. In fact, in three games, I'm not even sure Kelly Miller even crossed the three point line more than 10 times.

And that speaks to the coaching job by Gillom, who assumed the job on extremely short notice and has this team playing together extremely well. All Miller does is dribble the ball across half court and pass it to the wing. That’s it. Augustus, Wiggins, and Anosike are taking care of the rest.

What better learning environment could a rookie point guard have?

She can watch how Miller runs the offense and slowly learn how to add her unique talents to the offense. There’s no pressure to do anything spectacular because “amazing happens” on either side of her. She will get to learn from a veteran point guard and learn how to play with two of the WNBA’s top wing players.

What might make Montgomery better than Toliver in the end is that she is in a much better situation to learn how to play point guard. Canty and Perkins can fill the spot of bringing the ball up, but neither is really a great decision maker in terms of running an offense – they are both more scoring points.

Montgomery will have the opportunity to sit back and learn how to translate her skills of running a championship NCAA team to the pros. And I think long-term it will benefit her quite a bit.

“Learning on the Job”: Don’t forget about Briann January

Normally players drafted early in the lottery go to terrible teams and are expected to instantly revive them. Every now and then a player will come along who is special enough to make that happen. However, most players need help.

Jayda Evans’ recent article about Briann January
, the sixth pick and the third point guard taken after Toliver and Montgomery, sort of captures what it means to scaffold players into learning the point guard position.
"It's a huge challenge in the WNBA because you're facing different defenses, better players one-on-one and more pressure," Lawson said of the transition from college. "What's going to help her is the fact that she has such a veteran team. It's kind of like being a quarterback in the NFL. If you're Joe Flacco and you're going against Ray Lewis on the defensive side and you've got a running game, it's like, hey, just don't screw it up. She's got that kind of setup in Indiana, and it's a great opportunity for her to flourish."
January is in a similar situation to Montgomery in that she has a strong system around her and a veteran mentor who she can watch and learn from in practice.

The big difference is that January was anointed the starter in pre-season.

So it will be interesting to compare her progress to Toliver and Montgomery as well.

Where I think January has the edge is she has extremely sharp point guard instincts already. To me, that’s important although some people believe those can be developed over time. Take this story about the development the Portland Trailblazers’ Jerryd Bayless into a NBA point guard (drafted in the lottery after one year of college last year):
"He just needs to get experience at that," said Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard. "He needs to learn how to run the team. He needs to learn how to think the game."
I’m all for giving players the opportunity to develop. But these are some fundamental intangibles that it seems quality point guards enter the league with. I struggle to think of a quality starting point guard who came into the league without these intangibles and developed them on the fly. It seems as though the best point guards had all those things coming into the league and refined them or added skills that allowed them to utilize those instincts more effectively.

Montgomery definitely has all the instincts and the supportive environment necessary to develop into a quality starting point guard in the WNBA and that will give the Lynx a very bright future. If this team can grow together under the leadership of Jennifer Gillom they could be a force to be reckoned with.

Transition Points:

Nicky Anosike has been wreaking havoc
on defense and there is no doubt that her defensive efforts are a major part of the Lynx’s success. There are very few bigs – men’s or women’s – who are able to come out and steal the ball from point guards in open space. Having a defensive weapon like that allows you to do all kinds of creative things on defense. Against the Storm tonight, I’ll be interested to see what Anosike can do to contain Lauren Jackson.

My favorite rookie point guard thus far is definitely Briann January. Hindsight is 20/20… but I would have easily drafted her ahead of the other two, despite NCAA tournament resumes. She has all the skills and instincts to be an effective point guard.

Another interesting point about the development of rookies caught my eye when I read an article from the Charlotte Observer by Rick Bonnell. He describes the number of plays that Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown uses and writes the following:
"To those who see the NBA as glorified street ball -- all improvisation and chaos -- consider this: Bobcats assistant coach Dave Hanners has a summer project, cataloguing every play the team ran last season. That resulted in a 420-page playbook for next season. Larry Brown is known for running a spectrum of plays with all sorts of variations. In reviewing the video from last season, Hanners found 80-plus 'ATOs.' That's the abbreviation for 'after timeouts,' as in something Brown drew up in a huddle. This is why Mike Gminski said before last season that dumb players have little or no chance of succeeding with Brown -- there's just too much data to absorb to get away with lacking concentration."
Something us basketball observers can never see is those 420-pages of plays extracted from random variations and improvisations or those 80+ ATOs that players are asked to follow. I would guess that Brown is at the extreme end of this in the NBA or WNBA, but the point is a player’s ability to play in a system fundamentally depends on their ability to understand it. Conversely, in an extremely loose system without much structure, a player’s desire or need for structure could impede their development as they feel lost in an abyss of arbitrary action. It would be interesting to match where Chicago, Indiana, and Minnesota fit on that spectrum of complex to loose coaching to the development of their respective rookie point guards.

One thing that caught my eye during the Fever-Lynx game was the halftime feature on a rally sponsored by the Fever and Pacers to honor Indianapolis Public School students who exhibited values of “excellence, scholarship, respect, and courage”. I’m not one to fault organizations for celebrating values such as those. However, we also know that rallies and speeches are extremely inefficient ways of improving our public schools. One thing I’ve always wondering is how teams and or players (e.g. player foundations) can establish long-term programs that support the daily activities of schools – even if it’s just one school at a time -- in their cities. I would rather hear about those long-term interactions with schools and hold those up as models for others to follow. I’m not accusing teams of not doing that, but I think those long-term projects probably help schools and teachers much more and get much less attention. What players/teams are doing that? And how well are they working?

H/t to ESPN's TrueHoop for the Larry Brown and Jerryd Bayless articles.