2019 WNBA season preview: Eastern Conference things to watch for

The 2019 WNBA regular season tips on Friday. Our first of three 2019 WNBA season preview pieces here on BBall Index will introduce one key issue to watch for with each Eastern Conference team, beginning with the team that came just moments away from a trip to the 2018 Finals.

Atlanta Dream

Breland, Billings opening things up for Tiffany Hayes

The Dream will look to build on last season’s run to the semifinals without All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry for at least part of the season. She suffered a torn ACL last August and a timetable has not yet been set for her return.

Atlanta’s offense will be in capable hands with All-WNBA guard Tiffany Hayes. The Dream may struggle, though, to surround her with enough shooting to open more seams to the rim. They shot just 31.8 from deep last season, the league’s third-lowest mark and lack an established high-volume stretch big.

Much of the pressure to hit open jumpers created by Hayes rests with starting power forward Jessica Breland and second-year reserve big Monique Billings. Both are capable from midrange. Knocking down open shots from that range at a respectable clip can be one factor that plays a part in tipping the scales in their favor without one of their top two scorers.

The veteran Breland, naturally, has more of a track record. She shot 42.6 on 176 attempts from 11 to 21 feet last year—her first season with the Dream—per Swanny’s Stats. She shot it at a similar mark in both 2017 and 2014 but shot at or near 50 percent from that range in 2015 and 2016.

Billings shot 16-of-33 from midrange last season as a rookie and shot 4-of-18 on 2-point jumpers outside 17 feet as a senior at UCLA per Synergy Sports.

Hayes doesn’t need much daylight or time to get to the front of the rim. Breland making the most of her pull in spot-up situations can at least force her defender to cover more ground to become a significant obstacle to Hayes in the paint.

Chicago Sky

Gabby on the move

Sky fans likely remember the team’s June 8 road game against the Phoenix Mercury. Not because of the result—they lost by 17. That was the day 2018 No. 4 overall pick Gabby Williams scored a season-high 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting.

One 30-second stretch in that game gave us a glimpse at the kind of weapon she can be early in the clock out of a simple dribble pitch action after working up a head of steam.

It’s just tough for opponents to load up for those early attacks. The pitch allows Williams to get going downhill, using the cushion her defenders cede at this stage of her career against them. She scored out of the action again in the second half with a pull-up jumper.

Watch Alaina Coates in both clips. It looks like she’s stepping out both times to set a hammer screen to free a shooter to slide down to the opposite corner for an open triple. All-Defense center Brittney Griner has to react to that threat to some degree. Williams is too quick for even a shot blocker like Griner to straddle that line between the two.

The Sky are even more loaded with shooters to involve in actions away from the ball to occupy potential helpers. Any guard can set Williams up to make more of these drives in 2019 and force opponents into more tough decisions: ask somebody to stay in front of Williams already at full speed on their own or send help and hope you can rotate in time to take away wide open 3-pointers.

Connecticut Sun

Jasmine Thomas cashing in (more) at the rim

2017 All-WNBA center Jonquel Jones is the player many are expecting to explode this season. A more gradual development in recent years worth monitoring with this team: starting point guard Jasmine Thomas and her year-over-year growth finishing around the basket.

She’s gotten better in each of her four seasons with the Sun. She shot just 43.3 percent on 90 attempts within five feet in 2015 per Swanny’s Stats. Her efficiency has risen each of the last three years: 52.7 percent on 131 attempts in 2016, 57.9 percent on 114 attempts in 2017 then 60.4 percent on 106 attempts last year.

Upon further review of each of last year’s 106 attempts, it became clear that she could be due for yet another jump. Nearly 25 percent of the misses would fall more in the bucket of attempts that were lightly contested and still more likely than not to be converted in the future.

First, be sure to note the ‘how’ with these attempts. Thomas’ burst and quickness are not recognized nearly enough. She completely dusts the likes of Breland, Elizabeth Williams, Natasha Howard and Glory Johnson—some of the league’s nimbler and more capable switch defenders.

The creativity of the finishes matters, too—the way she slows up and extends to remove the possibility for Breland to wind up and get a swing on the ball, uses the rim to screen off Brittney Griner, quickly accelerates and crosses over Sancho Lyttle to split and get into the middle of the lane and goes into a speed finish extending with her right on the left side of the floor to sneak it under Howard’s outstretched arm.

The Sun, like the 2018 champion Seattle Storm, play with impeccable spacing. Thomas already shot north of 60 percent around the basket, right on par with the league average, on a relatively tough diet of attempts. More of those looks falling in the regular season could give Connecticut’s veteran leader to cash in those same looks in the postseason, where they’ll need her ability to put pressure on the rim.

Indiana Fever

Kelsey Mitchell’s off-ball scoring

We hit on some of the next steps the 2018 No. 2 overall pick can take in year two earlier this offseason. Mitchell’s efficiency was good considering her age and workload on a bad team.

The Fever need to show some progress in racking up some more wins and generally sticking around in more close games. And Mitchell does need to tidy some things up. News that broke earlier this spring won’t make those efforts any easier. One of her top running mates, 2018 No. 8 overall pick Victoria Vivians, is out for the season after suffering a torn ACL playing overseas.

As a rookie, Mitchell finished second in 3-pointers made off the dribble, trailing only Diana Taurasi, who had one of her most productive seasons to date last year. Defenses were already forced to bend to account for what Mitchell can do off the dribble.

Opponents simply can’t run the risk of letting her step into pull-up 3-pointers. Few players outside of Taurasi require that level of urgency.

But without Vivians and given the context of Indiana’s 12-player roster, now would be a good time to get Mitchell off the ball some more to sharpen those abilities at this level while leveraging her shooting ability to open seams up for others.

The Fever appear to be in a position to lean into two-point guard lineups again this season featuring Mitchell and one of the returning Erica Wheeler or rookie Paris Kea.

Mitchell only used 13 possessions off screens last season per Synergy Sports. 2019 No. 3 overall pick Teaira McCowan, a 6-foot-7 center out of Mississippi State, could be an imposing off-ball screener. Defenses are more likely than not to go all-in to run Mitchell off the line, which would open the door for McCowan slips or duck-ins deep in the lane.

New York Liberty

Han Xu playing off of Tina Charles

One of the top priorities for the Liberty this season has to be to develop a bigger scoring threat—in whatever form that may come—from the other big slot next to Tina Charles. A stretch big, of course, would be ideal to space out while Charles conducts her office hours on the low block.

Kiah Stokes and Kia Vaughn logged most of those minutes in recent years. The latter is still an unrestricted free agent. But both are play finishers more than anything else offensively. Life gets too tough for Charles playing next to a center that needs to hang around the paint.

Amanda Zahui B is expected to provide the threat of some 3-point shooting from that spot. She got up 61 attempts in 460 minutes last season.

2019 second-round draftee Han Xu introduces an interesting middle ground. We’ve seen her cash in from the midrange on the international stage, including last fall’s FIBA World Cup. One of Team China’s most effective sets was a simple screen by a guard to allow Han to step back from the block into the short-corner area for a catch-and-shoot jumper.

Han can spot up around Charles and knock down the open looks that come her way. It’s yet to be seen if the 19-year-old will stretch out to the 3-point line.

Vaughn shot 22-of-50 on those looks last season, Stokes 5-of-19. Han also brings more of a back-to-basket game worth tapping into in the right matchups. She’s a big target rolling to the basket and can step into 15-footers to alleviate some pressure on their guards.

Are the Liberty any closer to jumping back into the postseason? Who knows. Last season was so difficult to get a read on because of the ownership limbo they were stuck in as James Dolan stuffed them into the Westchester County Center.

The ownership dust has settled. 2018 No. 10 overall pick Kia Nurse had a very strong rookie campaign. They added Han and 2019 No. 2 overall pick Asia Durr. This will be Charles’ age-30 season. But the Liberty have infused their roster with dynamic young talent.

The party line has been that they need more scoring. They took some good bites at the apple. We’re about to find out how ready those players are to fill some bigger shoes to get them back into playoff contention.

Washington Mystics

Plugging the hole exposed in the Finals

The Seattle Storm raised some very real questions about this team’s offense in last year’s Finals, namely in how successful they were cranking up the pressure on some Kristi Toliver pick and rolls.

At her size, she isn’t suited to survey the entire floor and deliver the most readily available passes. One issue that goes hand-in-hand: the Mystics didn’t have five scoring threats on the floor at once at any point in last year’s Finals.

Starting guard Natasha Cloud disappeared. She did shoot a career-best 38.6 percent from deep on 83 attempts, which will need to continue for her to become one of those additional threats this season. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who the Storm had no interest in guarding out at the 3-point line, signed with the Los Angeles Sparks this offseason.

Head coach and general manager Mike Thibault added another 3-and-D wing with a late first-round pick in Kiara Leslie out of NC State. She’s expected to miss 3-4 months after undergoing knee surgery. Aerial Powers, fresh off an offseason extension, is banged up heading into the season. 2017 first-round pick Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is in line for a much bigger role to fill some of those same needs.

Elena Delle Donne was not at full strength in the Finals, which sapped their offense of its biggest weapon—the freedom to throw it to her anywhere on the floor, let her go one-on-one to score or pass it out to an open shooter once the double team arrives.

A big part of this regular season will be about seeing how the likes of Cloud, Leslie, Powers and Walker-Kimbrough can grow in their confidence to knock down open looks at a higher clip to make those decisions to divert extra attention toward Toliver and Delle Donne even more difficult in the playoffs.

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