Jacobs just as key as Augustus for Lynx success
Imagine sitting on the beach with a cold bottle of your favorite beverage but no bottle opener, a cloudless day but no sunscreen, and an iPod but no headphones.
|The Mystics are unbeaten at home. Can they stay that way Tuesday when Washington hosts the Sting (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET)? And be sure to catch the halftime show, when the WNBA's All-Decade team will be announced.|
On paper, you've got the building blocks of a good day; in reality you've got nothing but frustration.
The Minnesota Lynx know the feeling, having frequently watched what appeared to be talented rosters dissolve into mediocre teams with disappointing records on the court. Only twice since entering the league in 1999 have the Lynx posted a winning record, and they've never finished a season more than two games above .500.
And while the Lynx have often slipped under the radar by avoiding the depths of disaster -- the franchise has never failed to win double-digit games in a season -- consistency isn't an attribute when you're consistently mediocre.
Early results this season have looked distinctly familiar, even after the Lynx scored a 13-point victory against Houston on Sunday to improve to 4-4, but the foundation appears far more solid this time around.
And it's not entirely because of Seimone Augustus.
As much as Augustus deserves every bit of praise coming her way for making WNBA defenders look like second-stringers for Auburn or Mississippi, it's not the first time the Lynx have enjoyed the services of a franchise scorer. Katie Smith might have lacked Augustus' explosiveness, but she was annually one of the league's top scorers and remains a mainstay for the national team.
What the Lynx haven't had is a point guard capable of getting all of the team's flashy toys to function properly. And that's why Amber Jacobs -- the only member of Minnesota's starting lineup who wasn't a first-round pick -- might be the secret ingredient to Minnesota's success.
In the team's seven-year history entering this season, the Lynx have had just one player average as many as four assists per game: Teresa Edwards in 2003. As good as Edwards was in finally making her WNBA debut, the player with arguably the best vision in the history of the women's game was a shadow of her former self. But in seven seasons of basketball, she's the best Minnesota has offered at point guard.
There are third-world dictators with a better record for sharing the wealth than the Lynx.
Seven years and the only repeat on the list is a shooting guard who averaged nearly as many 3-pointers as assists in those seasons.
But through Minnesota's first eight games this season, Jacobs is averaging 3.9 assists in 26.3 minutes per game, including a season-high nine assists against Connecticut on May 23.
The Lynx appeared aware of the need for a solution when they drafted Shona Thorburn in the first round (seventh overall) and Megan Duffy in the third round (31st overall) this spring, but the real solution might have come two years before, when they selected Jacobs with the 33rd overall pick in the 2004 draft.
Buried behind Helen Darling as a rookie and Kristi Harrower in her second season, Jacobs still showed signs of improvement on the court, increasing her assists by nearly 50 percent without increasing her turnovers last season. And once Harrower, an Australian training for the World Championships, opted not to return this season, Jacobs had an opportunity to show off her leadership as the most experienced point on the roster. With Thorburn slowed by the ankle injury she sustained in the NCAA Tournament, Jacobs capped off a strong preseason with 13 points and seven assists against Seattle in the team's only preseason game and opened the regular season firmly entrenched in the starting lineup.
The assists aren't all that separate Jacobs from past Minnesota point guards. Averaging nine points per game and shooting nearly 50 percent from behind the arc, the former scoring star at Boston College opens up passing options for herself by forcing defenses to play her honestly. For a team with a polished post presence like Nicole Ohlde and an emerging force in Vanessa Hayden, Jacobs' outside touch creates assists whether or not she ultimately records them.
With two talented options on the bench, Jacobs might ultimately fall short of setting a single-season team record for assists. And whether it's this season or next, she may eventually end up losing minutes or splitting duties between running the show and playing shooting guard in a three-wing set with Thorburn and Augustus. Against the Comets, Duffy came off the bench to play 20 minutes as Jacobs struggled with four turnovers. And Thorburn isn't going anywhere -- the rookie from Utah has the potential to be one of the league's best point guards, let alone the team's best.
But in her performance thus far, Jacobs has demonstrated that the Lynx have a leader who in overcoming the limited expectations that accompanied her arrival is now capable of guiding a collection of talented parts to something at least equal to the sum of those parts.
Jacobs isn't the best player in Minnesota's starting lineup, but it's not her job to be the best. Like any point guard, it's her job to make the best better.
And when Augustus, Ohlde, Hayden and others represent the "best" in the equation, that's a frightening prospect for opponents.
Despite averaging just more than 12 minutes per game, Washington Mystics rookie Nikki Blue was averaging 3.0 assists per game before getting blanked by Connecticut on Sunday. Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith, Detroit's two leaders in assists, together average 7.2 assists per game, just 0.2 more than Washington starter Nikki Teasley.
No wonder the Shock are again scuffling along at 4-4, while the Mystics are still a surprising 4-3 after losing to the Sun.
But for Detroit, the play of Swin Cash has to be almost as big a concern as the lack of production in the passing game. Cash has shown signs of her old brilliance -- most notably in a 20-point, 12-rebound effort against the Liberty. But more often she has looked like a player still coming back from knee surgery. Averaging more minutes per game for the Shock than anyone but Smith, Cash clearly has the confidence of the coaches and medical staff. But in shooting 36 percent from the floor while averaging 0.5 steals and 0.3 blocks in eight games (numbers far below her pre-injury averages), Cash at least raises questions about whether she has regained complete confidence in her own game.
As for the Mystics, Sunday's game against the Sun was a display of what has gone right for this team with new point guard Teasley for the first half. But in the second half, the Sun (playing without Taj McWilliams-Franklin for the second game in a row as she attends the high school graduation of her daughter in Italy) proved that the Mystics are still several laps behind the two-time defending Eastern Conference champs.
Washington hung with Connecticut in the first half, piling up 12 assists as Teasley appeared able to find the open player in almost every half-court set. But once the Sun turned up the defensive pressure after halftime, the Mystics seemed tentative and dependent on Alana Beard to bail them out. While Beard was brilliant, scoring 29 points and shooting 52 percent from the floor (beating the Sun down the floor in transition more times by herself than most teams do in an entire game), her teammates shot just 37 percent from the floor.
Ideally, Teasley finds open looks for Crystal Robinson, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Chasity Melvin -- three players capable of hitting midrange jumpers or going to the basket -- while Beard occupies a defense's attention. It's an offensive philosophy that worked to the tune of 49 percent shooting in Washington's first six games, including easy wins against Detroit and Houston. But when a team's defensive effort frustrates Teasley and forces Beard to carry too much of the load, Washington's weak rebounding leaves the Mystics extremely vulnerable.
The good news is the weak bottom of the conference all but ensures Washington a playoff berth and gives the Mystics 27 more games to perfect their chemistry with Teasley.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.