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.

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Transition Points: WNBA LiveAccess is Finally Both Live and Accessible

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So I have finally gotten to watch some games. Which is good.

Just yesterday I got it to work on not only Safari but Firefox as well.

The archived versions of games are of course the smoothest way to watch, but the live stream is also improving.

There's a little bit of a Blair Witch Project effect going occasionally...

But bottom line is this: you cannot be a fan of that which you cannot see.

LiveAccess is therefore a huge leap forward and although fans should hold the WNBA to a higher standard, the WNBA is getting there with limited resources. So kudos.

Will have some thoughts on a few games I watched later.

For now...some other thoughts...

Part 1 of Storm 10th Anniversary Documentary posted

The first part of the 10th Anniversary documentary that the Storm showed on Storm vision at the first Storm home game on Sunday has been posted on the Storm's 10th anniversary website (click here). It's worth a look.

I recall at the game that Lin Dunn got a large round of applause at the game when she first appeared. Which is funny because I think I've seen posts from a Fever fan or two that have not been quite so pleasant...

Kobe: the Mad Mamba

It's been quite an impressive Finals series to watch. Last night's game was one of the better NBA Finals games I've seen in a few years. Kobe Bryant is determined to win a championship without Shaq and get that monkey off his back.

Mike Wise of the Washington Post had a particularly funny characterization of Kobe in this morning's article, "Hey Kobe, Smile! You're Winning":

It's as if he doesn't want to merely defeat Howard and the Magic; he wants to disembowel them.

Once genteel this time of year, friendly even, as he flashed his telegenic grin chatting amiably with whoever crossed his path.

Now the mad Mamba looks like he wants to take your lunch money. Meet you behind the cafeteria. Dunk maliciously on your children.
What I find funny about this is that all the attention is on Kobe and his ability to win without Shaq...but he's doing so with one of the deepest rosters we've seen this decade.

I'm a San Francisco 49ers and it reminds me of how the 1995 Niners helped Steve Young get the Joe Montana monkey off his back by bringing in any Pro Bowl player who would take a pay cut to play for them.

This is not a slight on Bryant or Young -- but I'm not entirely sure what has been proven by replacing Shaq with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza...plus the veteran clutch savvy of Derek Fisher. So Kobe can win with one All-Star future Hall of Famer (2000-2002) or a bunch of really good players (2009?), but not on a team with three other Hall of Famers (2004)? I'm not really sure this gets a monkey off of his back yet...

Mickael Pietrus' foul on Gasol

Here's one for all those people out there who have quit watching the NBA because it sometimes just becomes a display of hyper-masculine bravado rather than actual basketball:

OK...so recap: did Gasol have to dunk at the end of a game that was already decided and would put the Lakers up 3-1? No. Probably not.

But in what alternate universe is there any justification for Pietrus' actions? Hitting a player in the air and then talking trash? Fouls like that could jeopardize a player's career and even though Gasol landed without getting hurt, Pietrus needs to be suspended for that one.

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"Your mind powers will not work on me...WNBA."

. Wednesday, June 10, 2009
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I am finally free from the tyranny of the WNBA's "The game you are tuning into has not yet started" mind trick.

(I suppose the force can have a strong influence on the technologically weak minded)

And I finally have time (or am willing to ignore responsibilities to such an extent that I am able) to watch a game...

Theoretically, that means I can watch the game I want to watch tonight: Los Angeles vs. Minnesota.

I would love to see the Sparks play and see how Renee Montgomery looks at the point...

Unfortunately, when I tried to open that game I got nothing... not even the Jedi mind trick...

Then I tried to read Rebkell and the server was down (?)...

So obviously, the only thing left to do was make a post with a Star Wars reference.

What else was I to do?

Update: it's working...let the Rethinking Basketball WNBA watching season officially begin.

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When did you first fall in love with basketball?

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Sadly, the only WNBA game I have seen this season is the Storm-Monarchs one I attended at Key Arena on Sunday night.

I tried watching a few games via WNBA Live Access this past weekend and alas was told that the game I wished to watch had not yet started. Then the week started up and for various reasons, I have just been caught up in doing things other than staring at my computer screen (a nice change of pace).

So with the extra time to think, my mind wandered as it typically does.

I was thinking about an article I’ve been asked to write for a friend’s blog and suddenly my mind wandered to a question that I’ve thought about frequently when writing this blog:

When did you first fall in love with basketball?

The question is neither complex nor original. In fact, as I thought about the question, I was reminded of a similar question from the movie Brown Sugar:

When did you first fall in love with hip-hop?

(Full clip from Brown Sugar can be found here)

Of course, Sanaa Lathan (who has never been in a bad movie as far as I’m concerned) was also in Love and Basketball (one of my favorites), which followed a similar narrative (girl meets boy, puppy love with the phenomenon and each other, girl and boy grow up together, girl and boy end up together) and answered the basketball question in movie form.

I suppose I already answered this question for myself when I wrote about Chuck Daly last month – I undoubtedly fell in love with basketball because of Isaiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons as a collective. But for some reason the question never gets old.

Then I just got silly and started imagining what the opening scene of my personal movie would be if I were to answer the question in a way similar to the way Brown Sugar did it with hip-hop.

Who would be in my interviews? What would they be likely to say? Would anybody say anything about their love affair for basketball as funny as what Black Thought said about his love affair with hip-hop during the Brown Sugar intro:

I was gonna be dealing with hip-hop whether I wanted to or not. Like a forced marriage, it was pre-determined.

This thought experiment was forced to end once I started thinking about what I would be wearing in my vignette (80’s clothing just is not cool) but I share only because I’m curious about what others think:

When did you first fall in love with basketball?

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Sue Bird, Seattle Fans the Key to Storm Success

. Tuesday, June 9, 2009
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The storyline that has captured the headlines about the Storm’s home opener Sunday night is reasonable enough: Lauren Jackson plays in Key Arena for the first time since last July and starts the game with a personal 8-2 run to lead the Storm to an 80-70 victory over the Monarchs.

It feeds off of the summer drama of a big name free agent who ultimately decided to stay loyal to the franchise that made her a star. Great story.

And yet, I saw something different Sunday night in Key Arena.

The most impressive thing about the Storm’s home opener against the Sacramento Monarchs Sunday night was not the individual performances of their stars as much as the way they channeled the fans’ energy into their basketball performance.

There was plenty of reason for fans to be excited Sunday night, aside from the standard excitement about a home opener. Of course, much has been made of the fact that Sunday night was the tenth anniversary of the Storm's founding. About ten minutes before tip, city council members Jan Drago and Bruce Harrell presented Storm president Karen Bryant with a proclamation that declared June 7th, 2009 Seattle Storm Day.

All of that was background to Lauren Jackson’s actual introduction where she was greeted by an almost deafening roar of applause and cheers as she came down the aisle through a mob of excited fans. By the time the game started, the crowd was so hyped up that a Monarchs win would have just seemed…wrong…

I mean, c’mon… you can’t beat the Storm at home with Jackson returning on the first Storm Day…it’s just not right…

Certainly, one could argue that all this talk of the Storm riding a wave of crowd-induced momentum is a bunch of nonsense – after all, the players did have to play the game. But Jackson’s start to the game only reinforces the idea that the crowd sort of lifted the team to victory.

In fact, at first it looked like all the emotion and energy would backfire and force the Storm into a chaotic frenzy -- Jackson picked up her first foul on a reach just after tip while trying to steal the ball and get out on a fast break. However, after getting that reckless play out of her system, Jackson settled down and channeled that energy a bit more effectively.

Jackson got to the free throw line and hit the Storm’s first basket allowing the crowd to sit down and with us sitting down, she proceeded to show us all the full range of her talent. She hit a lay-up off a post up from the block, a three, and then a jumper from the elbow. She also grabbed an offensive rebound or two and blocked a shot. After verbally thanking the fans for all of their support just prior to tip-off, it was as though her play to start the game was simply a reminder that there is more yet to come. Jackson was hyped, the fans got more hyped, and next thing you know it’s 17-4.

It’s always fascinating to watch players draw upon the energy of a spirited home crowd. For the Storm in particular, it is really difficult to deny that a large part of their home court dominance last season was the lift that Seattle fans give them from pre-game introductions to finish. The fan atmosphere at Key Arena is a key ingredient to the Storm Basketball mystique. That momentum absolutely carried them to victory Sunday night.

However, while Jackson got all the headlines for her return performance, it was Sue Bird’s ability to manage the game that kept the momentum going for the Storm. Bird was in full on attack mode from start to finish and when she decides to take on the role of the aggressor, she is among the most difficult players to stop in the WNBA.

While many people judge Bird’s effectiveness by her scoring, it was her ability to control an otherwise sloppy and frenzied game that was most impressive Sunday night.

Bird is much better as an aggressor

At times at the beginning of last season, it seemed as though Bird would be passive to the point of disappearing – it was as though she was deferring to others on a team of all-stars in order to make sure the team’s chemistry was in tact.

After a game against Lindsay Whalen and the Sun, I wrote the following:

Whalen is aggressive, gutsy, and plays with a lot of passion. Her strong build and balance allows her to do things other points cannot (rebound and withstand contact on a drive). She’s a player who can will a team to victory (I still think her Final Four run at the University of Minnesota is one of the greatest tournament performances of all time).

In contrast, Bird is more of a finesse player who plays the role of facilitator, especially on a talent-laden team like the Storm. She’s not necessarily a “pass-first” point guard as she takes some questionable shots and has been a good scorer throughout her career. In fact, she took a number of contested shots and at least two shots before even passing the ball. But what strikes me about Bird – and what probably gets her the label of “pure point guard” -- is that she makes the right decision to set up her teammates and racks up the assists.
Towards the end of the season, that changed and Bird became much more of the gutsy aggressor that I had previously described Whalen as. And when she aggressively attacks the basket and looks to set up her teammates, the Storm become very difficult to stop.

But then there are the other little things Bird does for the team that I think people sometimes overlook – during that 17-4 start, it was Bird getting the team out on the break, orchestrating the half-court offense, and creating turnovers on defense. She knows how to make the right decisions to get her teammates involved and put the team in the best possible position to win given the match-ups. It’s as though Bird was single-handedly responsible for channeling and distributing all of that fan energy to the rest of her teammates.

And it’s not just a matter of dictating the tempo of the game that makes her important. At times she just simply shredded the Monarchs’ defense.

On a particular series of plays in the fourth quarter with about five minutes left in the game, Bird just seemed to be toying with the Monarchs’ defense. First, she recognized a double team and simply dribbled out of it to keep the offense moving. On the second, she was doubled on the wing, split the double before they could set themselves, and hit a one handed floater from the baseline. The next play, she got the team out on the break saw Janell Burse and floated a perfect lead pass to her for the layup and a foul.

Jackson is a force in her own right, but I would argue Bird is the engine that quietly keeps the Storm moving when they hit lulls. When Bird leaves the game, there is a noticeable drop-off in the Storm’s performance and that seems like it is something that has to be addressed. The Storm simply cannot play the same game without Bird running the show for them, regardless of whether Shannon Johnson is healthy or Tanisha Wright is improving. The whole team stagnated without Bird on the floor.

This team is probably deeper this year – especially in the frontcourt – but they will only go as far as Bird takes them. And it’s not necessarily good to be so dependent on one player. What I wonder is how they can figure out to either hold themselves steady at times when Bird has to rest or perhaps change their style of play to accommodate her absence. If the team loses ground every time Bird leaves the floor, they will be in trouble down the line.

Bird and fans deserve co-MVP honors for the Storm

If the Storm are to re-establish their home court dominance this season, it will be important for them to find some way to manage the game while Bird is out of the game. The fan energy will be there and players like Bird are necessary to maintain the momentum on the court that results from that initial burst of fan energy.

But I cannot say enough about Storm fans – it’s truly an amazing environment to watch a game and it gets to a point where you cannot help but root for the Storm once you step in the building, even if you aren’t a die-hard.
During one of the Storm Vision vignettes during the game, Lin Dunn commented, “That’s what’s great about the Seattle community – they’re committed, they’re loyal, and they’re great fans.”

So what on earth is going on in Key Arena that people so fiercely support their team? Part of it is simply the venue

Regardless, the atmosphere in Key Arena is always amazing. And if Seattlites continue this trend, the rest of the league might as well mark an “L” next to their calendar on the dates they visit Seattle.

Related Links:

Snapshots of Opening Night

Transition Points:

Courtney Paris looked much better in her second trip to Key Arena than she did in the first. She looked much more patient in the post and did a better job of finding spots within the offense to score. It will take time for her to figure the WNBA out...but I think Sacramento fans should remain hopeful..

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Snapshots of Opening Night from Key Arena: Celebrating the 10th Year Anniversary

. Monday, June 8, 2009
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Did you really think I could resist going to opening night at Key Arena?

Absolutely amazing atmosphere.

I have a lot to say about the game itself (update: you can find my reflections on the game here), but in the meantime here are a few initial pics of the game...

Most importantly to the world of Seattle politics... city councilmembers Jan Drago and Bruce Harrell announced that June 7th is now officially Storm Day...

How many pro sports teams can claim to have their own day? My bet is not many.

Key Arena is just a great venue in which to watch basketball, partially because it's so small and intimate...which is exactly what gave the Sonics a convenient excuse to leave (I insist that the truth is that Clay Bennett never intended to stay).

The other day I was talking with a long-time Seattle Sonics fan the other day about the whole Clay Bennett debacle and the hubbub over building a new arena for the Sonics (which a city that is closing schools probably cannot afford) and he made a very simple point about the foolishness of the whole ordeal:

Why would the NBA want to make Seattle fans pay for a worse basketball experience?

Last night's game just drove that point home -- Key Arena is an absolutely amazing place to watch a basketball game.

Or maybe I am just getting sucked into this Storm of basketball madness...hmmm...

Is it just me or is that thing they do where the players come out of the crowd during player introductions super cool?

Jamie Redd, a member of the original Storm team and now coach at Pacific Lutheran University, was in the crowd for the big night and was apparently trying to hide out...but to no avail. As a University of Washington alum herself, she gave a shout out to the National Champion UW softball team as well. Go Dawgs.

The halftime entertainment was Red Panda, who apparently recently performed at the NBA Finals. I watched for about two minutes, then spotted Patrick Sheehy from the Chasing the Title blog and said hi.

I really liked the little documentaries they showed throughout the game, particularly the one with Lin Dunn talking about the team's first season and the one about their Stormin' the Lake event at Green Lake Community Center. Good stuff...will look forward to seeing more of those...

Doppler led a special 10th Anniversary Edition of the traditional train...but it really looked like the same ol' train to me. That's ok...because the kids (and uh...aged kids) looked like they were having fun.

I still can't decide if Doppler is endearing and fun or just flat out annoying...

Regardless, I definitely intend to go to more Storm games this year.

Great basketball. Great atmosphere. And things are always a bit sweeter when you win...

For a write-up of the actual game that occurred, click here.

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