Even in defeat, Augustus' potential is eye-opening
Sometimes nothing shows off our potential strengths and successes better than our flaws and failures.
Maybe superheroes, other than their occasionally questionable fashion sense, are almost without vulnerabilities, but the rest of us wage constant battle against that which would hold us back. In other words, any number of people might be intelligent enough to grasp the concepts in a medical textbook, but far fewer overcome the pressures of life in a real hospital.
In last week's game against Connecticut, Minnesota rookie Seimone Augustus displayed all of the skills that make her the heavy favorite for rookie of the year honors and an almost certain participant in the All-Star Game on July 12 at Madison Square Garden.
But in harassing, stymieing and generally bothering Augustus throughout the game with a typically tremendous defensive performance, Connecticut's Katie Douglas often reduced the game's brightest newcomer to the role of flummoxed rookie.
It's not a role Augustus has filled often this season, but in some ways her stumble against the Sun only reaffirms a immensely bright future. Because if she is this good with as much left to learn as the exam against Douglas proved remains in her syllabus, WNBA teams might find themselves wishing there was another league for her to graduate to in four years.
"In a scouting report, it's kind of the basic things," Connecticut assistant coach Scott Hawk said about the challenges of preparing for Augustus. "Somebody likes to go left, somebody likes to go right, somebody likes to catch and shoot, somebody is better off the dribble, somebody is better out in space away from the basket, somebody is better in the lane."
But after rattling off the usual limitations for an opponent, Hawk admitted with almost a verbal shrug of acquiescence, "She's kind of good in all those areas."
|MAHONEY THE NEXT DOUGLAS?|
Katie Douglas led Purdue to a national championship game not by shutting down the opposing team's best player, but by being the best offensive player on the court.
"Like most players in this league, she came in with an identity as an offensive player," Sun assistant coach Scott Hawk said. "That's how they get here, that's reality."
But during her six years in the WNBA, and playing professionally in Europe during the winter, Douglas has become such a defensive presence that her offense (16.4 points per game through 13 games) is almost overlooked as she builds a case for MVP consideration.
Now rookie teammate Megan Mahoney (above, right) might be on the verge of following the same career path. Drafted in 2005 but forced to sit out that season after an injury sustained late in her standout career at Kansas State, Mahoney is a key contributor off the bench for the Sun, averaging 10.9 minutes per game. Like Douglas, she can play a variety of positions and has good touch from outside the arc.
And as she proved in giving Douglas some minutes of rest against Augustus and Minnesota, she's no slouch on defense.
"Her effort has always been there and her willingness to be a good defensive player has been there," Hawk said. "It's kind of the nuances and the finer points of not getting beat, getting over screens and seeing the play develop. In college, a lot of nights you might just be better than the people you're playing against and you can make a lot of plays. Here it's not so easy, definitely not against Seimone Augustus."
Added Connecticut coach Mike Thibault: "She has the size of a forward but the ball skills of a guard."
She also has the demeanor of the Dali Lama crossed with J.D. Salinger, displaying a graceful shyness and reserve that ironically singles her out during even the simplest acts on the basketball court.
Shooting jumpers on the court an hour before the game, she exudes an almost serene comfort with her surroundings. Granted, few players break much of a sweat while loosening up with a few shots, but Augustus takes nonchalant to a new level. Sauntering around one end of the court, she flicks jumpers toward the rim, her toes never breaking contact with the court and the expression on her face shifting only in response to the muscles in her jaw working through a piece of gum.
People check the mail with more energy than Augustus seems to show while draining shot after shot in front of an empty arena.
But even amidst the placid countenance and unhurried movements, Augustus' wrist betrays her. It seems to have a life of its own when she lets loose with a shot, snapping forward with the same velocity Gary Sheffield shows when pulling his bat through the strike zone. Released on its trek with such authority, the ball heads toward the rim with the lowest possible trajectory that still qualifies as an arc.
It's almost as if Augustus has to overcompensate for the amazing speed and fluidity with which she executes basketball skills, slowing everything else about herself to half speed.
Even for her peers, long accustomed to stepping on the court against overhyped media darlings, playing against Augustus can be an eye-opening experience.
"When we played her the first time, that was the first time I'd ever seen her and definitely I was impressed," Douglas said. "And I said it then, and I'll say it again, she's definitely an impact player for that team, definitely going to be a great player in this league She's long, athletic, quick and has all the right tools to be a great player in this league."
The numbers offer strong testimony to support those sorts of eyewitness accounts.
Entering play on Sunday, Augustus' 22.8 points per game ranked second behind Phoenix's Diana Taurasi. She was also shooting 47.3 percent from the field, better than either Taurasi or Mercury teammate Cappie Pondexter, who ranked third in scoring average.
Since 1999, the list of rookie of the year winners is an impressive collection of talent: Chamique Holdsclaw, Betty Lennox, Jackie Stiles, Tamika Catchings, Cheryl Ford, Taurasi and Temeka Johnson. Only Stiles, who saw her career short-circuited by injuries (and won the award ahead of a more deserving Lauren Jackson) isn't currently an elite player in the league. But consider where Augustus' current scoring and field-goal efficiency rank compared to those players in their rookie seasons.
Augustus has a long way to go in her rookie season, and shortening the shot clock has boosted offensive numbers around the league, but she's on pace to not only score significantly more points than past top rookies but do it in a much more efficient manner.
All of which makes what Augustus is doing behind the arc that much more remarkable. Entering play on Sunday, she was one of just 26 players averaging at least one 3-pointer a game, ranking 16th with 1.3 per game. And of the 15 players averaging more per game, only six were hitting a better percentage of their attempts: Taurasi, Douglas, Nykesha Sales, Tina Thompson, Nikki Teasley and the recently-injured Delisha Milton-Jones.
With each passing 3-pointer that drops, it becomes more and more clear that Augustus' modest outside shooting at LSU (only 40 attempts as a senior) was more a reflection of coach Pokey Chatman's system than Augustus' ability.
After Thursday's game, Hawk noted Augustus' range is one of the most significant factors in her success, forcing defenders who already might be a step slower than her to get as close as possible to her. In such a precarious position, they're more susceptible to getting beat off the dribble, as evidenced by Augustus getting to the free-throw line 55 times in her first 13 games.
Entering Sunday, Augustus ranked 15th in free-throw attempts per game, and again her efficiency is remarkable. Of the 14 players ahead of her in attempts per game, only Seattle's Lauren Jackson (88.9) was hitting a better percentage than Augustus' 87.3 percent.
Combine the two lists and it becomes clear exactly how much of an all-court threat Augustus already is as a rookie. Only one player, Taurasi, ranked ahead of her in both 3-pointers per game and free-throw attempts per game. And in 2005, only Taurasi, Jackson, Catchings and Penny Taylor managed to average at least one 3-pointer and four free-throw attempts per game over the course of the entire season.
But for all her skill and production, Augustus is roughly three months removed from walking off the court at TD Banknorth Garden following yet another disappointing NCAA Tournament exit -- a third straight trip to the national semifinals but no appearance in the title game. And for all the talent on display at the Final Four in Boston, few of those players ever will play significant minutes in the WNBA.
There is no wormhole to scoot between end points on the learning curve in the WNBA, and few people know that better than the coaching staff in Connecticut. From crafting a championship contender out of veteran players responding to a rookie point guard in Lindsay Whalen three years ago to cultivating contributions out of draft steals like Erin Phillips and Megan Mahoney, the Sun coaches understand the challenges that confront rookies.
"Obviously [the Lynx] find a lot of ways to get [Augustus] the ball and she seems to know what to do with it when she gets it," Hawk cautioned in saying he couldn't speak directly to Minnesota's experience with this year's top pick. "But with the younger ones, they see more things defensively. More people can just stay with them athletically. So many of these kids come from college and the reason they're here is they're the best player. But everybody here is the best player. Every person that comes in was the best player somewhere.
"For the wing players, it's the ability of people guarding them to stay in front of them, harass them and make the catches tough," Hawk continued. "For the post players, just the pure physical nature. And so for young players in general, in each of those areas, it's learning to cope. You still have the skill set. Now, the obstacles in front of you are a little bigger than they were in college."
Which is exactly what Augustus discovered in matching up against Douglas, arguably the league's best one-on-one perimeter defender. The rookie had managed to score 21 points against Connecticut in the team's first game on May 23, but she shot 39 percent from the floor in doing it, which still ranks as the second-worst shooting night of her young career.
"Katie Douglas is a great defensive player -- not good, not very good -- she is a great defensive player," Hawk said. "And she makes people work every game."
By my own rough count, Minnesota had 38 opportunities to initiate some sort of offense in the first half against Connecticut. Augustus, who had scored 32 points in Minnesota's previous game and would score 29 two nights later, touched the ball on just 11 of those possessions and hit just two of four shots from the floor (including one field goal when Douglas was out of the lineup).
"That's what Katie is known for," Minnesota coach Suzie McConnell Serio said after the game. "You watch her play, and she's not helping off. As soon as the shot goes up, she's finding Seimone and trying to deny her the basketball. And at times we played into her hands, and allowed her to take Seimone away."
Augustus responded in the third quarter, scoring Minnesota's first basket on a graceful runner that showed both her explosiveness to create space and soft touch to finish the shot. She added three more field goals in the first five minutes of the quarter as the Lynx evened the score, but Douglas and reserve Mahoney limited her to just one additional field goal in the game's final 15 minutes as the Sun pulled away for a comfortable win.
Augustus finished with 15 points, her lowest total in a game in which she played at least 20 minutes.
"I don't think she's used to some of things I would do -- you know, I'm not going to reveal those top secrets," Douglas said with a wry smile after the game, looking every bit the six-year veteran with ice packs secured to both knees as she relaxed in front of her locker. "Basketball is all about angles, and just trying to find the angles and different ways to play her. Obviously, my experience every night having to guard the top scorer on every team enables me to do my job against her."
On many nights this season, Augustus has been able to leave an opponent's veteran savvy in the dust, using her remarkable gifts to quietly post staggering numbers. Against perhaps the league's best blend of mental and physical defensive skill in Douglas, Augustus came up short in an enthralling battle between the present and future.
"If you like basketball, you come watch that," Hawk said of the battle between Douglas and Augustus. "You sit and watch that. If you know a little about the game and you watch those two play, you walk away knowing more."
No doubt Augustus did. And so even in defeat, the league's best rookie took one more step toward eventually becoming the league's best player.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.