We’re about a week and a half into the 2022 WNBA season, and while it is still early, we learned a lot from game action over the past week.
The 3-1 Las Vegas Aces are rolling offensively, leading the league in scoring at 91 points per game. The Washington Mystics handed the Aces their first loss of the season and have looked like a championship contender so far, even with Natasha Cloud missing the last two games due to COVID-19 protocol.
Rhyne Howard and the WNBA rookie class continue to put on a show, and the New York Liberty have a few areas of concern that need to be addressed. Here are my thoughts after the past week in the WNBA.
I wrote last week that it was far too early to hit the panic button on the Lynx. And despite the dramatic changes they’ve made to the roster and their 0-4 start to the season, I’m already starting to feel better about the direction of the team.
Last week, the Lynx agreed to a contract buyout with Angel McCoughtry and mutually parted ways with Odyssey Sims due to personal reasons. The next day, the Lynx signed guards Moriah Jefferson and Evina Westbrook to season-long deals. They also released the hardship contracts of Rennia Davis, Yvonne Turner and Nikolina Millic, only to announce that two of the three had re-signed the next day — a transactional process required when dealing with hardships. Minnesota wanted to part ways with Davis, and needed to release all three to make that possible.
Some saw the roster moves and predicted the Lynx might be tanking, but I don’t believe that’s the case for two reasons. One, every transaction the team made had something to do with a player’s injury or inability to perform at 100 percent. Two, it would be shocking for head coach and GM Cheryl Reeve to tank Sylvia Fowles’ last season. Minnesota still has a chance to be competitive this season, and while maybe not to this extent, the early-season challenges were expected based on the make-up of the current roster.
In need of reinforcements, the Lynx activated Kayla McBride on Monday after she returned late from her overseas season with Fenerbahce in Turkey, simultaneously releasing Turner from her hardship contract to make room. McBride is listed as available for Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Sparks. If Damiris Dantas gets healthy and Aerial Powers produces more consistently, the Lynx should be right back in the mix.
Based on their performance against the Chicago Sky on Saturday in an 82-78 loss, I am encouraged that things are looking up in Minnesota.
Rhyne Howard scored a career-high 33 points in the Dream’s win over the Indiana Fever on Sunday, the most of any WNBA player so far this season. Her performance included 17 of Atlanta’s 21 first-quarter points. The rookie is now fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 20.8 points per game for the 3-1 Dream.
Below is Howard’s shot chart from the first quarter of Sunday’s game:
Howard’s offensive skill set and scoring ability are undeniable. It’s how quickly and seamlessly her game has translated to the WNBA that is most impressive. Howard has not skipped a beat from her career at Kentucky, playing with a level of confidence that is putting her in elite historical company and making the Dream the talk of the season so far.
In the example shown below from the game against the Fever, the Dream are set up in a 1-4 high, dump-down look. The team can take a number of different approaches out of this action, but what makes the play so effective is the Dream’s ability to sell their fakes.
When Erica Wheeler dumps the ball down to Cheyenne Parker, she cuts down to the opposite short corner. Nia Coffey turns and appears to want to pin down for Wheeler, but she instead pins Howard’s mark. Howard does a great job of timing this up, waiting for her defender to hesitate briefly as the help on Wheeler. That short pause and screening action provide just enough space for Howard to get her shot off.
RHYN3️⃣ HOWARD🔥 pic.twitter.com/Il5M9i0kA6— Atlanta Dream (@AtlantaDream) May 15, 2022
RHYN3️⃣ HOWARD🔥 pic.twitter.com/Il5M9i0kA6
In the clip below, we see the Dream exposing Indiana’s scramble defense and sharing the basketball with an extra pass.
The Fever miscommunicated on how to play the high-ball screen, which forced them to scramble — or X out — to defend the shooters. Kristy Wallace had a good look at the basket, but she decided to swing it once more to a wide-open Howard in the corner. This is a great example of passing up a good shot for an even better one.
17 points in the first quarter for the #1 draft pick @howard_rhyne 😲 Are you not amazed? pic.twitter.com/xuWYl8WPwO— WNBA (@WNBA) May 15, 2022
17 points in the first quarter for the #1 draft pick @howard_rhyne 😲 Are you not amazed? pic.twitter.com/xuWYl8WPwO
New York Liberty
The Liberty played four games in nine days, dropping the last three after winning their season opener against the Connecticut Sun. With a new, high-profile coach and top talent, expectations for the 1-3 Liberty are higher than they’ve been in years, but this week reminded us that the team is still a work in progress. Two of their most glaring areas of concern early on have been rebounding and scoring.
The Liberty are currently last in the league on the boards, pulling down just 28.9 rebounds per game and getting out-rebounded by their opponents in every game so far. In no game was this more evident than in their 92-85 overtime loss to the Indiana Fever on Friday, when they were manhandled on the glass, 57-33, and allowed 17 second-chance points. Those were extra possessions New York could not afford to give up in such a close game.
The Liberty are also averaging a league-worst 72 points per game. Their offensive struggles were on full display in an 83-50 loss to the Sky last week. New York shot just 33 percent from the floor and 13 percent from the 3-point line, with Han Xu the only Liberty player to reach double figures that night.
In their overtime loss to the Fever, the Liberty had three players in double figures, but their third-leading scorer, Natasha Howard, went just 1-for-15 from the floor. Those are rough numbers for anyone, let alone your starting post player in such a close contest. New York has to find a way to get more consistent production from its offense, starting with trips to the free-throw line and second-chance opportunities.
Howard did bounce back with an efficient 14-point performance in a loss to the Wings on Sunday. Betnijah Laney has also looked a lot more comfortable offensively in the Liberty’s last two games. Sabrina Ionescu leads the team in scoring with 18.8 points per game, and the anticipated return of Rebecca Allen will give this team a veteran leader and poised outside shooter.
Another bright spot for New York has been the impressive play of Han Xu. In 12 minutes per game across two games, the 6-foot-10 center is averaging 10 points, good for fourth on the team. Her 64 percent field-goal percentage currently leads the team, and she’s also 2-for-3 from beyond the arc. While the 22-year-old continues to adjust to the physicality of the WNBA, her instincts, mobility and efficiency bode well for the Liberty as they look for answers on offense.
In the following clip from Sunday’s game, Han catches Wings center Teaira McCowan dropping a little too low in help and takes advantage of her height and quick release. Han does not need a lot of space for her shot because she can create it with her length. WNBA teams will certainly be adding this to their scouting reports on her moving forward.
6'10, Han Xu from the three-point line? Why not! 👏 pic.twitter.com/ASOzemmzpS— WNBA (@WNBA) May 15, 2022
6'10, Han Xu from the three-point line? Why not! 👏 pic.twitter.com/ASOzemmzpS
Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.