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‘It’s a war zone’: What’s behind the WNBA’s triple-double revolution

(Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports)

CHICAGO — Sabrina Ionescu executed the perfect boxout with three seconds left in the third quarter of a game against the Chicago Sky on June 12. She leapt up and tipped the ball around the much taller — 6-foot-7 to her 5-1 — Li Yueru, before corralling it with a second on the clock.

The board was her 10th of the game, securing Ionescu the second triple-double of her career. With it, she became the first player in WNBA history to record the elusive stat line in just three quarters.

Eleven days later, Candace Parker completed the same feat, breaking her own record as the oldest player to record a triple-double. It was also the third of her career, which stood alone at the time as a WNBA record. On July 6, Ionescu added another to her tally, tying Parker. With her stat-packing style of play continuing to thrive in the league, it seems like only a matter of time before the record is broken again.

And if Ionescu doesn’t do it, someone else will. Players like Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers and Haley Jones will soon move from college to the pros, bringing with them diverse skill sets and stat lines.

When the record is surpassed, no one in the league will be surprised. Triple-doubles are becoming more commonplace in the WNBA.

“I think the game is changing,” Parker told reporters after picking up her third triple-double. “I think we’re gonna very soon see this on a nightly basis. We’re going to see those playmakers who have the ball in their hands. So I don’t know how long I’m going to hold onto this. But I’m grateful for this opportunity to play on a team where we can spread the wealth.”

Veteran player Courtney Vandersloot also has multiple triple-doubles to her name, so the accomplishment isn’t new. It’s especially present at this year’s WNBA All-Star weekend. There have been 16 triple-doubles in league history, and Parker, Ionescu and Vandersloot are responsible for eight of them.

The frequency of double digits in a stat line is just one example, pointing to a bigger picture of basketball evolution.

Jewell Loyd, the 2015 first-round pick, is in the midst of her seventh WNBA season. And each year, she says, the on-court product becomes more exciting.

“People are coming in, and we are flooded with skill levels that are a little bit better,” she said. “I think the growth of the game, people are working on their games early on, so when you’re coming into the league, you’re not shocked. The game is so much faster and quicker.”

Atlanta Dream rookie and All-Star game participant Rhyne Howard is a prime example of WNBA readiness. Howard scored 33 points on May 15 in her fourth WNBA contest. Her transition to the league since she was selected with the first overall pick on April 11 has been seamless.

“I feel like I came in really confident and really strong with my game,” Howard said. “With my coaches and teammates telling me what they need from me, I couldn’t come in and just play mid.”

Loyd expects scoring to continue to explode across the league, as staying in front of opposing players becomes more and more challenging.

That’s not ideal for defenders, but it’s good for the league.

“It’s hard to guard people one-on-one,” Loyd said. “It’s hard to play pick-and-roll defense. A lot of solid players are able to do different things, more than one thing a lot of times. It’s a war zone.”

The Seattle Storm guard also pointed to the league being influenced by European basketball because of the contingent of women that play overseas in the offseason. Players are no longer boxed in by their position. Guards get rebounds, while bigs shoot 3s and dish dimes.

A more fast-paced and high-scoring on-court product, complete with triple-doubles and logo 3s, is reflected in the format of the All-Star Game. The WNBA announced Friday that the shot clock in Sunday’s game will be shortened to 20 seconds, and a 4-point shot will be in play. Two circles beyond the 3-point line on each end of the court will allow for even more scoring.

In addition to her ability to record triple-doubles, Ionescu is known for shooting from extra-long range. After winning the All-Star Skills Challenge on Saturday, she anticipates putting up a few 4-pointers on Sunday.

As for her fourth triple-double, that will likely have to wait until the regular season resumes.

“I’m not sure about (one in the All-Star Game),” she told JWS’ Autumn Johnson on Friday, before adding with a laugh, “But I’ll try.”

Instead, the focus for Ionescu and fellow first-year All Stars Howard, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young is a bit more attainable — and more important.

The WNBA’s next generation, while changing the game, is proving that experience doesn’t always matter. Each season, first-year players come in more polished than the last.

“There are a lot of us, and there are a lot of us that are here in the All-Star Game, which is really exciting, to see new faces and a lot of young talent,” Ionescu said. “We are trying to make a name for ourselves. We are going to keep grinding and keep getting better, showing everyone that it is possible to be young and successful in this league.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.