Curious About Kristi Toliver: Is She the Right Pick For the Sky?

. Saturday, April 11, 2009
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So early on last summer I got really interested in seeing better draft coverage for the WNBA.

I was going to watch college games.

Crunch stats.

Do a WHOLE mock draft.

Then life happened...

I only watched a few games (few with any top prospects).

I didn't even bother with stats (thankfully, the Pleasant Dreams blog did do some last summer, which I find helpful).

Mock draft? Ha!

And then the unthinkable happened -- I was all set to do some cramming for the draft Thursday morning before my 11 o'clock PST meeting. Then the meeting got pushed to 11:30 PST...then 11:45...then I got there at 11:50...and the meeting didn't start until 12:02... in the end, I missed the entire draft....

So now I sit here two days after the draft almost completely clueless about the newest WNBA rookie class and lamenting the fact that I didn't have the guts to cancel the damn meeting ("Um, I'm sorry, but I really have to watch the WNBA draft right now. Can we put off the meeting about the grant proposal due Tuesday? Thanks!").

But what really sucks is looking around for post-draft analysis on the WNBA. Rebkell is probably the best source on the web for any of that (since the most knowledgeable WNBA fans -- knuckleheads notwithstanding -- are writing there). And kudos to and Pleasant Dreams for managing to stay on top of the draft since the summer.

(If I'm missing someone's work please do let me know)

Anyway, what did catch my eye is the choice of my adopted favorite team: the Chicago Sky. I watched quite a few of their games last season and wrote a bit about them and what I thought they needed. So their pick of Kristi Toliver is a really fascinating commentary on what they thought they well as what they thought they already had.

So here's my tiny contribution to the WNBA draft blogosphere: a very, very surface level analysis of the Sky's first round selection of Kristi Toliver..

Why the Sky Fell...Out of the Playoffs

I'm not on the Sky's staff (obviously) so it's not like I think my assessment of their team is really the final word... but just from feedback I got from Sky fans last season here is what I can say:

1. The Sky never really figured out how to integrate Sylvia Fowles into the offense (despite an amazing Olympic performance) or use Candice Dupree and Fowles together effectively.

2. The Sky struggled in the half-court (click here for more) due to their inability to establish a consistent post game and inability of their guards to penetrate...

3. As a result, I referred to the Sky as a "perimeter-oriented" team because they would resort to passing the ball around the perimeter looking for a shot opportunity as their offense continued to stagnate. But as one Sky fan pointed out, that's probably an incorrect assessment -- they weren't really firing up a lot of perimeter shots and certainly weren't making a lot. Really they just were a team that was not very proficient at creating offense...which sort of circularly leads right back to point #1.

So what were the Sky's needs?

So to me the Sky were set at three positions: center (Fowles), power forward (Dupree), and combo guard.

Strategically, it seems like they needed to get the ball in the post more often and establish a post game in order to open up their perimeter game (moving the ball and forcing the other team to double down or get torched in the paint).

In addition, given the mobility of their bigs -- Fowles and Dupree -- an uptempo game could really help them keep opposing defenses off balance.

What I really thought this team needed to bring it all together was a pure facilitator that could push the ball, see the floor, penetrate in the half court, and distribute the ball to open scorers cutting to the basket or open on the perimeter.

Jia Perkins was much more effective at this than Dominique Canty, Quianna Cheney, or KB Sharp for the second half of last season...but she is still clearly ideal in the role of a combo guard scorer who can be a very good secondary ball handler.

OK so there are two ways I see to look at the Sky's needs:

a) They are so inept at establishing a post game that they should just resign themselves to being a perimeter-oriented team and add another perimeter scorer...

b) They should work to establish a post game because they potentially have one of the best one-two post combos for years to come and therefore should add a pure facilitator to get them the ball....

My choice? B -- find a facilitator and make teams stop the post threats. Their choice? Apparently A.

What Kristi Toliver might tell us about what the Sky are thinking...

Take this with a grain of salt as I have yet to see Toliver play a full game...

From everything I've read about Toliver, the Sky are planning to rely on perimeter scoring. What leads me to believe that? It just seems that Toliver is one of those scoring guards who can pass, but would generally look for her own shot first.

Again, I say that not having seen Toliver. Pleasant Dreams had Toliver ranked as their #3 prospect as of his early season prospect rankings (would be interested to see his updated numbers if he has the time to plug 'em in). So she could be a VERY good scoring guard.

But here's what I don't get -- unless she's a Becky Hammon type guard (who spends a good bit of time off the ball, by the way) is this really the type of point guard the Sky needed to get Fowles and Dupree involved in the offense? Was she really the best point guard available...much less the best player available?

What really troubles me is this list of weaknesses from (points of concern in bold):

Lacks the basketball IQ to manage a pro team (in particular decision-making and knowing personnel); needs work on the defensive end, which stems from being too thin and not strong/quick enough to guard position; shot selection can be horrible at times; shoot first, pass second nature won't always work in the WNBA; handle can get sloppy and can easily be picked off by average college defenders; prone to high turnover numbers, compounding of mistakes, and losing composure (does not hide frustration well); commits bad reach fouls on defense due to lack of defensive fundamentals; lacks creativity in the half court (not a playmaker);
Doesn't a player like that seem like the opposite of what the Sky need? Aren't those the very problems Sky fans suffered through for most of last season?

Sure Toliver could grow as a player, this assessment could be completely off-base (it's almost impossible to predict college to pro success accurately 100% of the time) , and maybe her positives just outweigh the negatives.

I guess I need help seeing how Toliver was the best pick for the Sky. Would Renee Montgomery who was selected just after Toliver have been a better pick? What about the hole at the three position? If they really wanted Toliver that badly, couldn't they have traded down slightly, grabbed Toliver and something else?

In any event, it will be fun this year to keep track of Toliver and the Sky in the context of their bright future. Hopefully this squad can gel together and make some noise in the league this season.

Relevant Links:

WNBA offers female athletes a goal to shoot for

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What the NBA Could Learn From the WNBA: Staying in School FTW

. Wednesday, April 8, 2009
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Martin Johnson wrote a nice little piece for about how the University of North Carolina men's team won the national title primarily on the strength of their upperclassmen...which is further support for the NBA to implement a higher age minimum, as the WNBA has always done. The result could be better basketball:

As a result, the sort of “veteran” teams that we’ve become accustomed to seeing cut down the nets on the first Monday in April, may become the norm throughout the NCAA. Building a winning college basketball program used to be equal parts recruiting talented players and coaching them into a unit. Since the mid-‘90s, it seemed that recruiting had begun to take on a dominant share. With the recent title teams and coming changes in the NBA, those veteran teams will become the standard across the board. When they do, the upsets that once characterized this tournament will return.

The response from women's basketball fans: uh, duh....

No matter what critiques one might have about women's basketball this is something that it has right already -- their players stay longer and it makes for the development of great teams rather than the fleeting excitement of great individual performances.

Nevertheless, I often go back and forth on this age minimum issue (especially when considering Darnellia Russell's situation), but you can't deny the results: as a fan, it makes for better basketball during one of the premiere basketball events in the U.S. -- March Madness. How can you argue with that?

So I wonder, having just witnessed March Madness and now looking forward to the draft, does anyone really believe that the WNBA should loosen their age minimum? If so, how?

I'm honestly soliciting thoughts on this rather than purporting to have something new to say about the issue... but I will just rehash some of the age-old arguments for the sake of discussion...

The Phenom Factor

I would call you foolish without reservation if you said that LeBron James was not ready to go pro. Ditto for Greg Oden...Kevin Durant...the list goes on. The latest in that line of players who has absolutely nothing further to gain from college basketball is clearly Blake Griffin, who announced that he's making the jump to the NBA yesterday.

So would the WNBA cave or bend their age requirement with a player like Brittney Griner coming through the pipeline...or having already watched Maya Moore play around with college kids all season?

Clearly players like Chamique Holdsclaw and Candace Parker have argued that staying in school was a good I don't know how much clamoring for a change there really is. And honestly, if Parker and Holdsclaw are ok with it, there aren't really many other college players in the world who should have a problem with it.

But is it fair to confine a player of Griner's obvious talent to the NCAA?

Why the Phenom Factor *Should* Not Matter for the WNBA?

People love stories.

Plenty of people have done research on that... but really, I think we can all agree on that.

Women's basketball needs a narrative that will "legitimize" it to people who have doubts, draw them in, and keep them coming back.

Those narratives should start by watching the players develop a college legacy -- from the recruitment stages, to the growing pains of losing in the early years, to winning championships in their later years. It gives us something to hold on to. Something to look forward to...and builds upon long-standing college allegiances to build pro allegiances.

Furthermore, it goes back to developing a narrative about what a female athlete *is* before even trying to move forward with marketing a professional women's game. We have to shift the narrative of what it means to be a female athlete if we really want to see women's sports take off in this country.

So then...

Why Not Scrap the Age Minimum and Start Creating Those Narratives With Younger Players?

Simple answer (to the completely absurd hypothetical question I've made up to set up the rest of my post): It's just plain silly to send messages about a glamorous career in sports to kids who have not even lived away from their guardians yet. In fact, it borders on irresponsible, reprehensible, immoral.

OK... strong words... (perhaps you can tell the recruiting industry bothers me).

But when I see stories about sixth grade phenoms who are ranked as a member of next decade's recruiting class, I almost want to vomit. I mean wasn't there a great movie documenting how corrupting these elusive Hoop Dreams can be on players, family members, and coaches? Was that not convincing enough? Why do we continue to want to perpetuate this cycle of setting kids up to be crushed?

And though the NBA can not be held responsible for some opportunistic wanna-be who feels the need to make a living ranking sixth graders in basketball, part of what keeps this insane recruiting industry sinking to new lows is the large amounts of money in the promised land at the top, in the NBA. The easier it is to get to that promised land -- meaning you don't have to pretend to take four years of classes seriously -- the easier it will be to legitimize the idea that someone should be tracking kids as early as sixth grade. So although I don't blame the NBA (or the NY Times) for creating this basketball mythology, I think that sending a message from the top that there is more to life than basketball (*gasp*...I can't even believe I wrote that) is valuable.

So I will come to a tentative conclusion about the WNBA age requirement: if women's basketball wants to avoid this race to the bottom of convincing kids who still watch Saturday Morning cartoons that "Basketball is Life" then the age requirement is one way to keep things in perspective. This is a game, kids should enjoy as a game, and hopefully continue to see it as a ticket to getting a top flight education rather than a gambling on the fragility of a professional basketball career.

I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow... ;)

Transition Points:

For anyone who really wanted to Free Brittney Griner from the horrific tyranny of a college education, then consider the Brandon Jennings plan -- go play in Europe and get your money until you're eligible to play pro in the U.S. Call me crazy, but I happen to think Griner made the right decision by choosing education... but how long before a female baller decides she's better off bolting to Europe for a few years?

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What Difference a Year Makes: Why Ahistorical Analyses of Sport Perpetuate Misrepresentations of the WNBA

. Monday, April 6, 2009
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If you pay attention to women's basketball, you've probably heard about that March ESPN the Magazine article that included a cover photo of a pregnant Parker.

Of course, this led to some commentary about the state of the WNBA, female athletes, and marketing. The WNBA even made a good move by posting an interview with the editor of ESPN the Mag to get some insight into the thinking behind the article. But there were two articles in the last week or so that really caught my eye.

Of course, there weren't really any new arguments added to the discussion... really just people rehashing the same old arguments in new packaging.

However, the big difference this time around is that given all the media attention given to Parker and the Olympics last year, speaking from a place self-imposed ignorance about the WNBA no longer carries much credibility. Parker's arrival on the national (and international) sports scene last summer was one of those special moments in sports history that even the below-average lunkhead male would have had a hard time just ignoring. This does not mean we suddenly have a whole lot of enlightened, gender-conscious WNBA's just a new sort of ignorance I guess...

So that's progress, right? Maybe people are watching and now making "grounded" critiques of women's sport? Eh...partially. What really bothers me is how people insist upon accounting for the WNBA's struggles by scrutinizing the athletes rather than thinking through the business of sport. What we end up getting is these analyses that exist within an historical vacuum and lead to conclusions that don't really add up when you try to re-situate them in reality.

Call me crazy, but I just happen to like arguments that are based on some form of real evidence... so here are some of the thoughts I jotted down.

Framing is Everything

First, before jumping on the easy critique bandwagon, ESPN the Mag should be applauded for putting a female athlete on their cover in the off-season. It is not necessarily unprecedented, but let's admit it's rare, especially for team sport athletes.

Second, I think getting to know these athletes as people is a valuable endeavor, so the ESPN article was good in that respect as well.

So the positives aside, what has obviously attracted attention about the article is the discussion of Parker's cup size in the opening paragraph.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of critique of that opening paragraph, I think it's the perfect time to ask a question: beyond's question of what was the thought process behind putting Parker on the cover, I wonder what was the thought process behind how they would present Parker to the world.

So going back to the issue of getting to know the athletes, here's what I think we have to consider: if Parker herself brought up this issue of cup size, then it's not so much a question of a sexist double standard to mention it -- it occurred in the interaction and is therefore something worth accounting for in the description. My question is why frame the article by sexualizing Parker given that this is a sexist society? Couldn't that have waited for a few paragraphs?

Editor-in-Chief Gary Belsky claimed in the interview that they put Parker on the cover because she ESPN the Mag " a magazine that makes its living by predicting the future and looking forward." OK, fair enough. But wouldn't it have been neat to start looking forward by trying to shift the way we think about female athletes rather than going through the same routine of interpolating them through a beauty standard?

Rather than looking forward to a time when we appreciate female athletes for being female athletes, the framing of the article simply reinforced the way we already see female athletes. But it's almost as if even in the process of trying to move forward in representing female athletes, we get tripped up by the same old narrative.

We can't blame ESPN the Mag for that -- I don't think anyone has the "right" language to talk about female athletes yet. But at the very least, we need to work to find ways to anticipate the consequences of certain framing decisions and work to mitigate them. Where better to start than our professional wordsmiths? I'll look forward to seeing what ESPN the Mag does the next time a female basketball player graces their cover...and hopefully we won't have to wait too long.

Framing Sets the Stage for How We Discuss Women's Sports

So anyway, moving beyond the context of the ESPN the Mag article, here's another problem with how we discuss women's sports: since we don't really have a good way of discussing or understanding female athletes without blatantly objectifying them, we instead try to compare them to male athletes.

I think I've ranted about the tendency to compare female athletes to male athletes before, so I won't go deep into it. But I think this tendency along with our lack of familiarity with seeing female athletes in the public eye leads to these strange ahistorical arguments.

There was a March 31st article in an Illinois State school newspaper (ok, I know... I'm not going to expect too much from a student newspaper) with the headline, "There's no stopping's sports are better than women's sports". The author claims to be taking a balanced approach to understanding why women's sports -- like the WNBA -- are struggling by essentially saying the following:

It is not that people do not want to watch a sporting event that showcases all women, it is that people would rather spend more time watching (who they by and large consider to be) the best.

It is not that people do not want to watch a sporting event that showcases all women, it is that people would rather spend more time watching (who they by and large consider to be) the best.

Next, it is the level of difficulty. Many people watch sports to see spectacular plays that they could never actually perform themselves. This typically happens more frequently in the men's game.

Whether it is basketball, football, baseball, etc., people want to be entertained, and a "highlight reel" play has a greater chance of happening at a men's game.

Women's sports, while also performed at a proportionately high level, tend to place a much greater focus on the fundamentals of its game (or at least that is what is advertised).

So while execution may, in fact, be equal to or possibly greater in the women's game than the men's, it can become boring. And the major networks cannot afford to televise boring.

Then in the next paragraph he presents an argument that I find quite important:

Brand loyalty is also a major reason behind the masses preferring one game over the other. Although, both the men and women played their first official game in the same year (1892), their major league equivalents (NBA and WNBA) saw the men's game evolve into a televised program long before the women. So to expect fan and media coverage to drastically even out, even though the WNBA did not start until 1996, seems a bit unreasonable.

So here's the contradiction and the reason I think situating these arguments historically helps a little.

Essentially his argument is as follows:

People like to watch the best play a given sport.

People like to watch the best because they make spectacular plays.

Men are more likely to make spectacular plays than women.

Women are comparatively boring and therefore difficult to market before they're boring.

But then he acknowledges that the WNBA has only been around since 1996...exactly 50 years after the NBA (founded in July 1946). If we buy his argumentation, we might be led to the assume that people immediately took to the NBA because it was spectacular. But that's not true at all.

If you look closely at the development of the NBA (or the NFL...or NHL for that matter) the trend is much different than that. In the beginning, people thought the NBA would never compete with more popular sports like boxing (yes, boxing!) and baseball. Once the NBA got past that initial hurdle of becoming a viable sport, it hit a slump again in the 70's which some people associate with an increase in black players along with owner corruption. It wasn't until the Bird-Magic rivalry of the 80's that the NBA really took off.

So why is this important to consider? There was a time when the idea of professional basketball being marketable was laughable. There was a time when the idea of black professional basketball players was laughable. It's not like people watch sports purely because they are spectacular. By most accounts, the ABA definitely had the NBA beat in the "spectacular" category. In the end, it comes down to people buying into the narrative a sport presents.

Until we find ways of presenting legitimate narratives about female athletes and female team sports, they will continue to remain unmarketable because people are simply too steeped in thing about women as sex objects. The NBA found gold by doing two things: 1) embracing the good fortune of having a bi-coastal, bi-racial rivalry between Bird-Magic and 2) deciding to market individuals rather than teams. People connect with stories. They talk about stories. And they get addicted to stories. It just so happens that the stories that work best are those that resonate with people's existing sensibilities...not ones that challenge their pre-existing ways of thinking about the world. That's quite a hurdle for women's basketball to overcome...

"The Pimping of Candace Parker"

So given the need to create new narratives, can we blame "Team Parker" and the WNBA for going along with this ESPN the Mag story...especially prior to knowing that Parker's C cup would take on a prominent role? I say no.

There was a pretty good article at the Bleacher Report last week with the headline "The Pimping of Candace Parker". In it, the author claims the following:

This transitions to the second point—women's sports are "foreign." It can be seen as different or foreign from men's sports. Trying to sell the WNBA to men who are used to seeing rim-rattling dunks, no-look passes, ankle-breaking crossovers, and backboard-pinned blocks is similar to attempts at sell soccer to the football-crazed United States.

Agreed. But then he concludes with the following:

However, the selling of these leagues are doomed to failed thanks in part to the difficulties in expanding its audience to include a male demographic who have a hard time buying women as athletes or their leagues as comparable to male leagues.

The desperation to sell women's professional athletics in the United States must resort to the unfortunate pimping of its talented (and beautiful) athletes, such as Candace Parker. Unfortunately, there are not enough Johns out there to buy the product.

For the record, I agree with most of what the author says... but I think the conclusion could be refined. Both male and female athletes are "pimped". The difference is that within the definition of masculinity is included some notion of physical prowess and dominance. That simply does not yet exist within the "feminine mystique" that most people have bought into.

It would be hard to establish that Michael Jordan as "basketball player" is not intimately tied to our implicit understandings of Michael Jordan as "male". He's a physical specimen and dominated the NBA for years.

The difference is that within the context of society we understand these as unproblematic attributes of maleness. The challenge then is not to sell women as athletes separate from their gender but to learn how to include "female athlete" within our entrenched understandings of femininity. That is going to take time and conscious effort on the part of those who write about and frame news about female athletes.

It's not a failure of the athletes. It's not necessarily a failure of the WNBA in the way they're "pimping" their athletes. It's a matter of finding a way to integrate the narrative of a given sport within the epic social narratives we've already accepted. That will be harder for women's sports because we as a society do not yet accept women as athletes. But we cannot pretend that anybody has ever accepted a professional sport purely on its "merit" of being "spectacular".

The problem the WNBA faces has as much to do with sexism as it does with the fact the we have become a hyper-consumerist society that buys in order to establish and reinforce our sense of self. Instead of continuing to make arguments about whether women are spectacular enough to be accepted as athletes -- meaning we would need more Parker-types who can dunk -- I think we need to start thinking about developing a language that helps us embrace athlete within our notions of femininity.

And perhaps that will allow us to find other ways to frame articles about female athletes other than discussing their cup size...

Update: Responses to this post from other blogs

New Rethinking Basketball Post

On Ginobili's Injury and Candace Parker's League

Relevant Links:

Female Athletes: Be pretty, but not sexy. Or pregnant.

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