Taylor's midseason return boosts Mercury
The Phoenix Mercury are receiving plenty of attention for hiring Paul Westhead and drafting Cappie Pondexter, but the act of simply waiting for Penny Taylor might prove to be just as important.
Last season's trade that sent Katie Smith to Detroit notwithstanding, deadline deals are rare commodities given the financial realities of the WNBA salary cap. As a result, late-season surges are all the more difficult to mount because teams are rarely able to address weaknesses or deficiencies. If you couldn't rebound in May, odds are you won't be able to rebound in August.
The exceptions, of course, are current players coming and going with injuries and other affairs.
And as WNBA teams prepare for each squad's final 10-game dash for the postseason, few understand this better than Phoenix. Because if the Mercury -- currently fifth in the Western Conference and just a half-game out of the final playoff spot after beating Charlotte on Saturday -- are to finally return to the postseason, it will be largely thanks to Taylor's return.
In her sixth WNBA season and third with Phoenix, Taylor rejoined the Mercury at the end of June after spending most of the month at home in Australia following the completion of her European season in Italy. In an interview with the Arizona Republic, she explained she just needed a breather from the 12-month grind experienced by many of the league's players.
Thankfully for the Mercury, her brief respite left her enough time to return not only for the stretch drive but also early enough to be at full speed for the final month of the regular season. After averaging just 18.4 minutes per game in her first five games as she adjusted to Westhead's physically demanding style of play, Taylor is averaging 33.3 minutes and 15.8 points in her last four games.
As the team deals with Pondexter's tendinitis, Taylor's extra minutes are vital. The consistently underrated Australian has long been one of the WNBA's best all-around talents and is an ideal fit for Westhead's up-tempo offense.
Some players can shoot from outside and some players can consistently take the ball to the basket, but only special players can do both. Last season, only four players averaged at least one 3-point field goal and at least four free-throw attempts per game: Tamika Catchings, Lauren Jackson, Diana Taurasi and Taylor.
And while range of any kind is valuable for a player who can also work inside or off the dribble, accurate range can be lethal. Of those four players, none shot better from behind the arc than Taylor at 40.4 percent. In fact, in her first two seasons in Phoenix, Taylor shot 41.6 percent (79-for-190) from behind the arc and is off to a similar start this season at 40 percent (12-for-30).
When it comes to all-around skills, Catchings clearly remains the league's gold standard. In addition to her scoring exploits, Catchings averaged a combined 14.1 rebounds, assists and steals per game last season (and she's nearly duplicating those numbers this summer). Jackson (12.0) and Taurasi (9.9) earn their own places in any discussion about the league's best all-around players, but Taylor (8.6) is right there with them.
With two of those players on the court together in a system that encourages them to put those skills into motion, the Mercury are dangerous. And if Taylor's return can give Pondexter a chance to earn some extra minutes of rest (although she played 36 minutes on Saturday) before joining her teammates at closer to full strength for the final few games, the Mercury might surge all the way to a playoff bid.
Thanks in part to an important, albeit familiar, midseason addition.
This year's rookie class is already staking a claim to an unusually large share of stardom, with Pondexter, Seimone Augustus, Candice Dupree and Sophia Young all taking part in the All-Star Game and Monique Currie living up to expectations in Charlotte. But it's in the role players, the more common domain of rookies, that this year's class might find the depth to solidify its place as the best in league history.
Still, as Houston's Mistie Williams and Los Angeles' Lisa Willis are proving, there's no guaranteed formula for making a transition from the college game to the pro game.
The WNBA draft is as much about needs and fits as it is about pure talent. It's why Connecticut took Jessica Brungo ahead of her more celebrated Penn State teammate Kelly Mazzante in 2004. The move looks iffy now, with Brungo out of the league and Mazzante playing consistent minutes in Charlotte, but Brungo was almost immediately a valuable contributor off the bench as a rookie on a team that went to the WNBA Finals. The Sun needed a wing player with some size and defensive skills who was comfortable playing without the ball in her hands, and Brungo, a role player in college, fit the bill.
So it was for Houston this spring. With Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Michelle Snow handling most of the offense, and a former college scoring star in Roneeka Hodges learning the ropes, using a second-round pick on a player who might have beat anyone else remaining on the board in a game of one-on-one didn't make sense. Instead, the Comets took Williams. And while Williams might have been a go-to player at the majority of Division I programs, she had essentially become a very talented role player by the time Duke reached the Final Four in her senior season.
And perfectly accustomed to playing a supporting role, Williams has been sensational for a Houston team that desperately needs immediate contributions as it deals with injuries. Playing an average of 23 minutes per game in the last five games, she's averaging 8.8 points (on 67 percent shooting) and 7.6 rebounds. Free-throw shooting might ultimately determine whether she remains firmly entrenched in Van Chancellor's rotation (she's just 8 of 18 from the line in the last five games), but she has been an ideal fit for this team.
On the other side of the equation, Willis was a star at UCLA, averaging 17.8 points per game as a senior and winding up the fifth overall pick in the draft. On the surface, especially compared with her peers at the top of the first round, she seems to be struggling through a so-so rookie season. But on a Sparks team loaded with effective role players around Lisa Leslie and Chamique Holdsclaw, Willis is coming along as a reserve capable of bringing some offensive punch to the court in limited minutes.
In the three games this season in which she has played at least 18 minutes, Willis has scored double-digit points. On a deep team that is cruising toward home-court advantage in the postseason, Willis fills two roles as a future primary option and a current offensive boost off the bench.
Despite entering the league with very different expectations and backgrounds, Williams and Willis are providing their teams with key contributions even if they aren't earning a lot of headlines. And most years, that's all we expect from rookies.
The Indiana Fever are the worst shooting team in the league, but could they possibly ride all those misses to the WNBA Finals?
It's perhaps the most puzzling statistical conundrum of the season that a team which shoots so poorly can be so good. Even after Saturday's loss to Los Angeles, the Fever are 15-9 and 2½ games behind Connecticut in the Eastern Conference. They also rank 13th in field-goal percentage, ahead of only the woeful New York Liberty. Factor in that the Liberty are more effective on 3-point field goals than the Fever, negating a slightly lower overall field-goal percentage, and the Fever rate as the league's most scattershot squad.
And the Fever are unified in their inaccuracy. Among players with at least 10 field-goal attempts this season, Tamika Whitmore is the only one shooting better than 43 percent from the floor (and Whitmore's team-best 44.8 percent mark ranks just 26th in the league). Three of Indiana's top four scorers are shooting less than 40 percent -- the same number as the East's three other probable playoff teams have combined.
The Fever also average fewer assists (not surprisingly, given their inability to convert) and fewer steals than their opponents, while managing just a push on the boards.
So what are the Fever doing right? Because there are a lot of teams that would trade their more impressive stats to be six games on the right side of .500 at this point in the season.
At first glance, it seems like the Fever might be padding their record by beating up on the weak links in the Eastern Conference. A third of the team's wins have come against Charlotte, New York and Chicago. Add in two wins against Washington, and is this simply a team capable of taking care of business against teams who simply might not be as talented as they are? Maybe not. The teams Indiana has beat have a collective winning percentage of .425. That ranks far behind Detroit, whose victims have a collective winning percentage of .466, but it puts the Fever in the same general territory as the Mystics (.431) and ahead of the Sun (.401).
All of which leaves defense as the most logical explanation. Indiana's opponents shoot a significantly better percentage from the floor (43 percent) than the Fever, but as with Sacramento's defense, that's not the whole story. The Monarchs won a title last season, and are threatening to chase down the Sparks this season, in part because no team does a better job of limiting an opponent's quality possessions. And even as offense soars around the league, the Fever are following the same blueprint.
On average, a team attempts about 65 field goals and 21 free throws in a WNBA game (a team like Phoenix averages 70 field-goal attempts while Houston averages 59, but most fall somewhere in the middle). But against the Fever, teams are averaging just 61 field-goal attempts and 16 free throws. Among the five teams allowing the fewest points per game, only Sacramento (59-18) does better at limiting possessions. As a result, Fever opponents manage just 52 points directly on 43 percent shooting, while Detroit's opponents manage 50 points directly on 39 percent shooting.
The Fever don't play a completely slow-down style, averaging a respectable 63 field-goal attempts on offense (although that's inflated by the putback opportunities provided by their woeful shooting), but they are successful at maximizing the shot clock on defense and not bailing out opponents with fouls.
In fact, only two teams average fewer fouls per game than turnovers forced: Sacramento and Indiana.
It would be much easier to predict a postseason breakthrough for the Fever if they shot a little bit better. The comparison with Sacramento falls short on several levels. The Monarchs are an average shooting team; the Fever are just bad. The Monarchs are the deepest team in the league; the Fever have just two reserves averaging double-digit minutes.
But it's safe to say that while the Fever aren't built like Eastern rivals Connecticut or Detroit, they aren't any kind of fluke.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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