Rookie Point Guard Briann January is Adjusting and Making an Impact

. Friday, June 19, 2009
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Sure we probably all agree that draft position doesn’t mean a thing once the games begin.

But that doesn't mean it isn't fun to reflect on those draft day decisions once we see the players in action.

It’s difficult for me to ignore that in the WNBA’s first rookie rankings of the 2009 season, the top 3 point guards on draft day – Kristi Toliver (#3), Renee Montgomery (#4), and Briann January (#6) – are ranked in reverse order of their draft position.

Of course, it’s still early, so we can only make tentative claims about which of these rookie point guards is actually the “best”. And of course, I have to qualify my use of the word “best” by saying that so much of that depends on the fit of the player within the system and chemistry with teammates.

But there is a big difference between January, Montgomery, and Toliver.

Have you actually watched January play?

She doesn’t look anything like a rookie on the court.

Montgomery and Toliver do.

That’s certainly not to say that this debate is finished – obviously Montgomery and Toliver might just be on different developmental timelines. They are all in very different systems with different teammates. And January had the comparative advantage of having publicly stated confidence of coach Lin Dunn…enough to earn a starting position in her first game as a pro.

I get that.

However, whether it be figuring out how to make plays for teammates or moving from starter to bench player, among the most impressive things about January has been her ability to adjust to flow of the WNBA almost seamlessly. Among the toughest parts of being a rookie with players who may have over a decade more basketball experience than you has to be not only adjusting to the lifestyle, but finding ways to be flexible as the team tries to incorporate you into its system. After all that, there’s still that matter of actually making a positive contribution.

January is not merely adjusting, but she’s having a major impact.

Mark Dent of the Indianapolis Star
nicely summarized her ability to adjust and have an impact on the Fever’s impressive 73-61 victory over the LA Sparks last Friday:

This rookie likes coming off the bench. She promises. It gives her time to gauge the opponent and the challenge to increase her team's energy level.

"That's what I want to do," she said.

So when January found out she wouldn't start for the second straight game, she didn't mind.

She came in midway through the first quarter with the Fever leading 12-11. In the next 10 minutes, she had six points and three assists. When Bevilaqua replaced January with about seven minutes left in the second, the Fever led 32-16.
And really, Dent’s description doesn’t even do January’s performance justice.

On her first play off the bench, January had an assist to Jessica Moore. On her second play she was fouled on a three and made all three free throws. And on her third play, she made a three. She would have had another assist two plays later had Tamika Catchings made a three-point attempt.

If the ability to immediately influence the game doesn’t move you, then perhaps the nice drive and assist to Eboni Hoffman, or the steal and beautiful fast break lead pass to Katie Douglass might impress you.

And perhaps the biggest testament to her impact: after she left the game, the Sparks went on a 16-3 run. Coincidence? Maybe – you could attribute that to the Sparks getting hot, other personnel changes, or Catchings and Douglass getting tired. But if you take this small sample of January’s young career as evidence of her basketball ability, she’s good. Really good. And her impact on her team thus far is undeniable.

These of course are all subjective observations of mine. Clearly, I just like the way January plays ball. And just as Leilani Mitchell became the Rethinking Basketball rookie favorite of the 2008 season, I am becoming increasingly biased and blinded by Briann January this season.

I remember being told as a teacher that we should not play favorites, but let’s be honest: every teacher has that one kid who they can’t help but like a little better than the rest. It’s human. Same with sports journalism: they can tell you not to cheer in the press box, but deep down if you don’t develop an affinity for someone you must not love the game.

This is why I turn to statistics – they help temper my blatant biases. Not saying that they’re perfect – statistics often tell convenient half-truths (not necessarily lies). And obviously, the choices I make about which metrics are important illustrate my own biases. But I have this bad habit of wanting to make defensible claims about the world rather than just spouting random opinions and hiding behind my right to free speech.

So I wondered, how might point guard statistics support or challenge’s rankings of the top three point guards in the 2009 WNBA draft?

The numbers are being crunched as you read…so look for that post soon.

Update: Of course, after I posted this on Friday at 1pm PST, Briann January picked up a DNP-CD later in the afternoon...and then Kristi Toliver woke up and put up two impressive games in a row on Friday and Saturday evenings... so obviously, that changed everything... and made it all much, much, murkier...

2nd update: Rankings posted here.

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Why We Cannot Count the Monarchs Out…Yet

. Wednesday, June 17, 2009
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Prior to last night’s game against the Minnesota Lynx, Monarchs announcer Krista Blunk tried to put a positive spin on the Monarchs’ struggles to start the season.

I definitely think they’re better than a 1-3 team and I think it is early. If this is the way the season is going to go, there are going to be games that teams could have won and should have won and there are going to be games that just slip away. And that’s exactly what’s happened.

After the Monarchs let yet another game slip away losing to the Lynx in a closely played 86-83 game, Blunk reiterated her point and Chelsea Newton had more hopeful talk.

We will have everyone back and be healthier. We have a whole week to work on our defense and that is our focus.

Normally when I hear this kind of talk I dismiss it as irrelevant spin.

Clearly, the Monarchs are not in a pleasant situation right now sitting at 1-4 at the bottom of a very competitive Western Conference.

However, the optimism about the Monarchs is not entirely unjustified.

As of today, the Monarchs have played the toughest schedule of any team according to petrel’s RPI rankings on Rebkell, playing 3 of the top five teams in their first 5 games in the WNBA’s power rankings.

Given the injuries keeping players out and the number of players playing with injuries, it would be something of a miracle if the Monarchs were above .500 right now. Even with a healthy roster, they would have to be playing close to championship basketball to come out of that schedule with a winning record.

So beyond what has to be a disappointing start, what can we take away from the Monarchs’ first few games?

I’ve had the opportunity to watch them a few times this season – the road loss against the Storm, the overtime loss against the Mercury, and last night against the Lynx – and this does not strike me as a hopeless team. The problem right now is that with so many pieces banged up, it’s been difficult to establish a rhythm.

So the question is, how good might the Monarchs look once they hit their stride?

There’s no “I” in “team”…but there is in “win”…

The key to Monarchs basketball is their imposing frontline and that they play extremely well as a unit.

So as coach Jenny Boucek has said, even when they blew out the Mercury, the key to this team’s success is execution.

However, the biggest struggle the Monarchs have was touched upon by play by play announcer, Jason Ross. With the Lynx’s LaToya Pringle on the line late in the 4th quarter and the Monarchs up by 1, Ross said the following:
Every time it looks like the Monarchs may be establishing something here comes Minnesota to tie it…and Sacramento has had the lead for a lot of this 4th quarter but just can't seem to get any separation.
Ross’ description of the flow of the game itself is a perfect metaphor for describing the Monarchs’ on-court problems, especially without Ticha Penicheiro.

The Monarchs have a number of talented bigs who can score inside and dominate the offensive boards. However, that requires one of two things – either the perimeter players have to get good shots up within the flow of the offense or they have to get the ball to their bigs in scoring position.

Far too often, neither happened last night when the Monarchs needed it most down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Seimone Augustus was just reminding us why she got WNBA Player of the Week honors last week, almost scoring at will; she was in one of those zones where the defense couldn’t stop her, she just happened to miss occasionally.

As much as I personally love and value team basketball, a team cannot win without someone who can make plays when the team needs it.

The Monarchs’ guards were unable to penetrate and create openings to make plays for most of the game meaning they were making extremely difficult entry passes into the post.

That problem was only compounded by the fact that starting perimeter players Kara Lawson and Sholanda Robinson shot a combined 3-16 from the field and 1-6 from the 3 point line. Lawson did not get to the free throw line once and Robinson went 1-2 from the charity stripe.

In other words, all the Lynx defense had to do was pack it in and cut off the passing lanes. At the end of a close game, it becomes extremely difficult for a team to score when nobody is able to make a play beyond 5 feet from the basket.

At no time was that illustrated better than when the best shot that they could get down one point at home with 8.9 seconds left was a three pointer from Kara Lawson…who was 1-6 to that point.

A team simply can’t win when the defense is able to force them into relying upon a weakness.

Waiting for Ticha’s return…

One player mentioned in post-game interviews that the team is awaiting Ticha Penicheiro’s return and really that would address that problem of making plays.

Lawson is an efficient point guard in that she does not turn the ball over and can run the offense. But she isn’t the type of player who can really force the defense out of their comfort zone to make plays for others at the end of a game.

That’s what the Penicheiro of old could do. And she’s still got enough of that to really help this team.

Blunk suggested on a few occasions that she thinks the Monarchs should run more, but I would argue they don’t have the playmakers out there right now to make plays in space. However, something I was impressed with was the ability of the Monarchs’ bigs to make plays for each other.

Crystal Kelly and DeMya Walker did an excellent job of passing the ball in the post which helped to create plays that catered to their strength – post play. One idea would be to run some sort of high low offense where their post players play a hi-lo double post or some other scheme that would allow them to make decisions with the ball and free the perimeter players to get open in scoring position.

While Kelly still looks nervous with the ball and Walker sometimes looks hesitant to passing situations, the post game is absolutely their strength.

Defense still a work in progress, but offense needs help sooner

The Monarchs’ pointed to the defense as a reason for the loss to the Lynx and it was a problem. Anybody is able to penetrate the Monarchs defense: Augustus, Renee Montgomery, Candice Wiggins, Charde Houston, Nicky Anosike…even Kelly Miller made a cameo in the paint early on in the game.

Their perimeter defense was not just the failing of guards – it was like anyone caught in space with a Lynx player was destined to get beat. That has to be fixed…and likely will be.

But even if they play good defense, they have to be able to score on offense more effectively. Right now, they are almost too reliant on team basketball.

Transition Points:

Crystal Kelly never ceases to amaze me. Krista Blunk suggested she is better coming off the bench and I agree – Kelly is the epitome of a flow player. She sees the game extremely well and just identifies gaps in the defense and quietly puts herself in position to score. When she gets the ball, she’s decisive. As a result, she gets herself to the line extremely well and is able to contribute without appearing to be dominant. It’s really amazing to watch from such a young player.

Renee Montgomery looked solid against the Monarchs though she started off a little rough trying to establish herself by taking shots a little early in the offense at the end of the 1st quarter. In the second half, I thought she calmed down a bit and played within the offense much more effectively. The last three minutes of the 3rd quarter might have been her best performance of her short professional career – in the stat sheet, she recorded an assist, a three pointer, and a floating lay-up. Really, she should have recorded two more assists that were lost when her teammates missed makeable layups. In addition, she played extremely aggressive defense during that stint. Kelly Miller is the better fit as the starter for this team right now, but Montgomery stands to be an impressive point guard down the line.

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“If the WNBA had the gumption to take a more progressive stand…”

. Tuesday, June 16, 2009
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When I first watched the All American Red Heads video montage that has been floating around WNBA circles, it was hard to ignore the political impact they might have had in addition to the historical legacy of women’s basketball.

For women to not only get paid to play professional basketball, but also show off and outplay men as they were doing it had to be considered radical for the time. From John Molina’s All American Red Heads website:
When the Red Heads set out on the road, they weren't just playing basketball. They were pioneers to break down all of these stereotypes....and didn't even know it at the time. They were just women that had a great passion to play basketball…

They would only play against men and by mens rules. During that time, women were playing 6 on 6 with only 3 players being allowed to cross the court.

There was still much concern at the time, that women shouldn't play the game like a man because they weren't as physical and could hurt their chances to have children.
As Molina implies, even if the Red Heads' players did not consider themselves “activists” or “feminists” but “just passionate athletes”, they were undeniably involved in a highly politicized activity, even if only by challenging stereotypes. And as we know, those stereotypes of gender (or race) have concrete social consequences.

Based upon the type of public statements made about women today, we can probably infer that the concept of women (a) being paid to (b) travel around and play basketball (c) against men (d) with men’s rules and (e) beating them was met with some sort of resistance, if not outright hostility. I would assume that it took quite a bit of courage and strength to even make the decision to participate in such an activity.

As I try to imagine the mainstream response to the Red Heads, I also wonder about their reception by feminist/women’s rights activists of their time – how did representations of women as athletes either fit or deviate from broader feminist agendas of that time?

If movement building is fundamentally about reframing various norms, values, or roles to overcome injustices or social problems, then images of women breaking the stereotypes that perpetuate inequality would seem potentially valuable to a movement.

Even now, in 2009 (*gasp*!!), the repeated statements made about female athletes – specifically those who play “men’s team sports”, like basketball – illustrate that the notion of “female” and “athlete” still creates a measure of cognitive dissonance in the collective consciousness of mainstream society.

So the idea that a women’s professional basketball league is not somehow political strikes me as a complete fiction.

Which means I have to wonder a similar question about the WNBA – how does the league fit or deviate from broader feminist agendas? And if there is a fit, should the league openly embrace those broader agendas?

A former high school sports reporter raised a related issue in the comments of a recent blog on Bitch Magazine. While the story he tells does not necessarily have to be considered a call to action, it’s worth considering as we think about the place of the WNBA in a broader socio-political context.

“…if the WNBA had the gumption to take a more progressive stand toward homosexuality, would it have helped this girl?”

The comment came in response to an article entitled “We Got Lame” in which Bitch Magazine writer Jonanna Widner wrote about how the early marketing of the WNBA turned her off from the game. At the end of the article, she made three recommendations for the WNBA:

1. “embrace the dykes” (referring to fans, not necessarily players)
2. “embrace the rebels”, and
3. “let go of the mommy fetish”

Many of the comments to that post focused on the use of the word “lame” and whether it was appropriate on a feminist website that takes an anti-oppression stance (a subject for another blog post that I believe Widner will address). So Luke, the sports reporter, responded to the article on Widner’s next post about female dunkers:
I covered high school athletics for a community newspaper the past two years, and during this past basketball season there was a scandal on the girls basketball team that absolutely sickened me. To make a long story short, our star player (a dynamite sophomore 5 guard and one of the most exciting athletes in our school, IMO) was forced to quit the team because of a homosexual relationship.

Her own mother forced her to quit two weeks before the end of the season, apparently because someone had seen her kissing another player.

There wee only about 7 girls on the team to start with, and 90% of what the team did was based on feeding her the ball. They lost the last 4-5 straight games of the season, finished outside of the playoffs and cut short a very entertaining season. To make the whole thing worse, she will likely not be allowed to participate in any sport whatsoever next year, since she quit the team before the end of the season.

There is no doubt in my mind that this kid has the potential to be a Division I, perhaps even professional athlete, but it seems as if her own parent's homophobia is going to prevent it. As I was reading your earlier post, I couldn't help but wonder to myself, if the WNBA had the gumption to take a more progressive stand toward homosexuality, would it have helped this girl? Would having openly gay professional athletes featured on television have made her mother more accepting?
First of all, we could easily dismiss Luke's story as trivial; this situation could very easily be reduced to a matter of a family decision outside the reach of a massive corporate sponsored basketball league with a “feminist” agenda. However, I think that’s beside the point.

The point here is that our limited notions of what girls should and could be has significant limiting effects on the daily lives of individuals. It’s not some abstract ranting of a radical feminist who wishes that all men would just drop dead. It’s a matter of honoring the humanity of women.

The WNBA presents an opportunity to contribute to the process of breaking down stereotypes and provide a challenge to dominant culture. And yet the league seems to straddle the fence trying to cram these images of female athletes into the box of existing notions of womanhood rather than challenging the limits of the box altogether.

So Luke’s questions also implicitly beg the broader question of the potential of the WNBA to actively shift the public consciousness around specific feminist agendas. What would it mean for the league to actually serve as a political friend to the girl that Luke describes not just by passively existing, but by actively sending a social justice oriented message?

What is to be done?

The Expect Great campaign is certainly an attempt to challenge dominant narratives. But as has been described ad nausea at this point, the campaign is somewhat ineffective. The problem seems to be that the league wants to challenge the dominant narratives but can’t decide how. Widner opines the following:
This week, the league began its 11th season the same way it has since its first one: In trouble. The league doesn’t make money. Television viewership continues to fade, as does attendance. Several teams have folded. It’s bad—in fact, every season since that first one, the NBA has subsidized the WNBA’s existence, because the latter can’t sustain itself (hmmm…the men supporting the women, because they can’t make it on their own…for all its queerness, I guess there are some things in the league that remain entrenched in hetero tradition). Clearly, the family-oriented marketing, the insistence on tamping down any dyke-ynesss or alternative-ness—these strategies aren’t working.

And yet, still…that insistence continues. The league can’t stop pushing its superstar, Candace Parker (who can dunk too), not because of her strength, smarts, and skills on the court, but because she just had a baby. And the media won’t STFU about it either. Parker landed a coveted “5 Good Minutes” interview spot on the popular ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption” to talk about her baby. How come she didn’t get it when she first dunked in a pro game?

And then there’s this:,0,2366...

Yet another fashion spread featuring 6-foot lady ballers from the New York Liberty—the so-called “Glamazons”—couture-clad, posing awkwardly with basketballs.

It’s not working. No one is buying it, WNBA, and you’re bleeding money to boot. You are a laughingstock.

And that makes me so, so sad.
If nobody is buying the current line and those that are will show up regardless, why NOT just embrace a more political orientation?

“But it’s just entertainment!”

Of course, the counter-argument is obvious: if the WNBA promoted itself as an advocate for women instead of “just a bunch of passionate basketball players” there is the risk of losing fans. But do we really believe that?

Who is it exactly that would stop paying attention to the league if it took a specifically political orientation?

I’m not suggesting policy advocacy – the fact is, there is not even agreement among feminists or activists about what policy course should be taken. There is not one singular feminist agenda and the idea that there could be seems profoundly anti-feminist. It doesn’t mean showing up at abortion rallies or choosing a health-care platform for the league to sponsor.

There are of course many different ways to serve as an advocate for women. But I agree with Widner -- athletes concerned with makeup, pushing fashion and talking babies just doesn’t seem to be the way to go and in fact, it may even perpetuate the kind of narrow notion of womanhood that Luke is concerned about.

Furthermore, even if the league doesn’t want to frame itself as a political or “feminist” entity, other people seem to enjoy doing so. Take the following statements from a renowned WNBA critic about the WNBA and recently nominated Justice Sonia Sotomayor (I refuse to link to that person’s site, but you can get the text of the piece from the DailyKos):
I called a spade a spade. I correctly pointed out that Sonia Sotomayor a/k/a So-So a/k/a Sonia From the Block a/k/a Justice J-Lo a/k/a Red Sonia has done nothing remarkable, that she got every single place she got for one reason: that she's a female Latina and got affirmative action for it. That she has the same background and life story as J-Lo a/k/a Jennifer Lopez.
But you can't tell the truth in America. Or, at least, you can't tell it without being attacked and savaged by the left in America. So, predictably, the Nazi-funded Media Matters folks, the reconquista illegal alien schlubs at the National Council of La Raza and their friends at the Washington Post, and the WNBA season ticket holding brush-cutted "women" at various feminist groups are all upset about my truth-telling on Justice J-Lo. They say it's prejudiced. Uh-huh.
The WNBA can try to remain neutral and separate from those “rabid feminists”…but in the end, it can really escape its political identity.

“I finally understand what feminism is about”

Rethinking Basketball was sort of established on the premise that the WNBA is a legitimate lens through which to explore the intersection of pop culture representations and gender inequality in the U.S.

And yes, there have been similar posts about the WNBA and politics in the past on this blog.

Yet, it still seems worthwhile to ponder Luke's questions.

That does not necessarily mean there is one answer, but it does seem like there is value in thinking more deeply about the convergence of gender politics and women’s sport.

In that spirit, a post on the Pleasant Dreams blog responding to a post about criticisms of the WNBA from the “13 Teams, 1 Journey” blog comes to mind.
What I will say is this: after following the WNBA for a year and reading the comments that sportswriters and so called "experts" write about it: I finally understand what feminism was all about. I understood it on an intellectual basis, but never on a visceral one. Jesus, nobody should have to put up with that kind of shit on a daily basis. As men, we should all thank the first women we meet - not because of their contributions to history, but in sheer gratitude to the female gender for not killing every man within 15 miles.
While I may not agree that women have reason to kill every man within 15 miles to begin with, I think petrel’s comment does point out that there is some political value to the WNBA regardless of whether it chooses to embrace it.

Certainly the very existence of pioneering women like the All American Red Heads could be considered vital to the creation of the WNBA. And when you consider the Red Heads and the WNBA as part of an extended progression of women’s professional basketball rather than two distinct phenomena, it seems problematic to claim that the political element of the women’s basketball suddenly fell to the wayside.

So given the political legacy of women’s professional basketball that the WNBA is immersed in, you have to wonder what its political legacy could be. After 70+ years of women playing professional basketball, it would be rather surprising to hear a player claim that she was unaware of the political nature of the activity.

If we assume that a large number of women involved in the WNBA – from players to coaches to league officials – are aware of its political nature, then that begs a follow-up question: should the WNBA take on a more overtly political image? And what influence could a women’s sports league have on broader society if it did take a political stand on issues of concern to women?

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NY Times on "Quantifying Basketball's Intangibles": Why Not Start with the WNBA?

. Monday, June 15, 2009
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Something mysterious happened this weekend that I am struggling to figure out:

I had no interest in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Perhaps it’s because I was just busy with other things this past weekend. Perhaps it’s just because the whole thing started to feel anti-climactic, but not necessarily inevitable. Perhaps it’s because I don’t particularly like watching arrogant people succeed (really, do we need more of that in the U.S. right now?).

I hope this does not make you think less of me as a basketball fan.

But in between procrastinating on work with fuzzy or distant deadlines, I spent some time reading the responses to Phil Jackson’s tenth championship and Kobe Bryant’s first without Shaquille O’Neal…as though we really needed to hear more of that storyline.

And yet, I somehow found something interesting to think about in WNBA terms.

There was a story in the New York times about the NBA’s experimentation with a new statistical tracking system during the NBA Finals, which they plan to pilot further next season before implementing fully in the 2010-11 season:

The system will be useful on the offensive side. On Thursday, the goal of the trial run was to measure the velocity of passes and the precise distance of field goals. But the effect may be more prominent on the defensive end, where players are measured in a limited method that hardly stretches beyond blocks and steals.

The cameras attempt to break down how effective Mickael Pietrus is while guarding Kobe Bryant, and compare Derek Fisher’s defense with that of his backups, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown.
For those of us interested in analyzing defense statistically, this could be a huge advancement. So much more to reflect on and argue about. Fun all around.

But then I wondered why this isn’t being piloted in the WNBA. Which brings up a question that some of us come back to repeatedly – should the NBA see the WNBA as an opportunity to pilot new ideas that might improve the professional basketball experience?

I say yes.

If the NBA is serious about moving in this direction, why not invest in setting the system up in the WNBA’s NBA cities and working out the kinks? It would seem to do two things – a) see if the system works and b) give basketball enthusiasts another reason – albeit perhaps superficial – to pay attention to the WNBA.

Jayda Evans opened her blog today by writing that the WNBA is moving at "a ho-hum pace" in a time in which ho-hum is simply not enough to generate buzz for a relatively new league. But what if the WNBA was at the cutting edge of how we watch and think about basketball in addition to providing women the opportunity to play ball professionally in the U.S.?

Might not work, but I wonder if that was ever discussed as a potential idea.

Transition Points:

Note on the Finals: I still think the notion that either Shaq or Kobe has won a title “alone” is somewhat absurd – Shaq won “alone” with Dwyane Wade and a host of other talented though aging veteran players and Kobe won “alone” with Pau Gasol and one of the most talented rosters top to bottom that we’ve seen in a while. Both Wade and Gasol are locks for the Hall of Fame as far as I’m concerned…so hopefully the mainstream media will soon dispense of this story. Win “alone” with Maurice Williams and then maybe the conversation will have some merit…

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