Brian Agler is beaming.
Ask the two-time WNBA champion head coach anything about his team and you’ll see his face light up with excitement, too.
The Dallas Wings fell to 5-15 coming out of the All-Star break after a 32-point drubbing at the hands of the Las Vegas Aces, but Agler didn’t take this job with both eyes on the present. He wants to build another championship team.
The franchise needed a coach that has seen it all. Circumstance has limited the 2019 roster severely.
“When I first got on the job, we had Liz [Cambage]. I knew Skylar [Diggins-Smith] was expecting. We didn’t know the timetable on that at all. So we had no room on the cap to get into free agency. Then we went through free agency. We went through the draft. We still hadn’t made the [Cambage] trade yet.
“Right at that moment, you’re pretty much done with trying to put your training camp roster together. So really not until we got into training camp did we try to figure out how things were working and how things could work. It took us a while. And I still don’t think we’re done yet because we still don’t have Skylar and Moriah [Jefferson]. They’re not here.”
On top of the Cambage trade request and absences of Diggins-Smith and Jefferson, Tayler Hill (knee) and Azura Stevens (foot) have been sidelined due to injury. Glory Johnson missed time while away competing at EuroBasket.
Agler is enjoying the challenge and rolling with the punches, reminding his team of what they’re working toward while still squeezing as much as possible out of the present, ensuring his team won’t make excuses and drift through the 2019 season.
“We’re making improvements,” he said. “We’re advancing. We’re not close to where we want to be or where we need to be, but I do like coaching this team. They’re really coachable. They want to do well. They’ve just not experienced greatness at this level.”
Without the services of the team’s two best point guards, younger players have been thrust into larger roles, including 2017 first-round picks Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, undrafted rookie Brooke McCarty-Williams and 2019 No. 5 overall pick Arike Ogunbowale.
Bigs Imani McGee-Stafford and Isabelle Harrison, acquired in the Cambage trade, are each looking to make a lasting impression in the final year of their rookie-scale deals. 2019 second-round pick Megan Gustafson is back with the team as a result of the numerous absences after getting cut by the team before the start of the regular season.
Lacking steady point guard play and on-court leadership of an All-WNBA talent like Diggins-Smith to allow everything else to fall into place can make things difficult for young players.
“We’re going through growing pains,” Agler said. “We’re gonna keep going through ‘em. But I also know that if we don’t go through it now, it’s not something that you can do two years into it.
“We are starting from the ground floor, experimenting with our roster and combinations and positions. But more importantly, it’s just a focus on incorporating these championship traits. We’re not a championship team. But before you’re a championship team, you’ve gotta have championship traits. That’s got to be established. So we’re taking our time establishing those things.”
Johnson, Diggins-Smith, Hill and Theresa Plaisance are the only players with more than three years of service.
Fourth-year forward Kayla Thornton is the player Agler will continue leaning on even more to step into a bigger leadership role in the interim. She has drawn rave reviews and flattering comparisons from Agler, who cited the strong work she’s put in defending All-Stars Chelsea Gray and DeWanna Bonner.
“What she’s kind of turning into, to me, as we move down the road here in this season and beyond is, she’s gonna be that Alana Beard, Tanisha Wright person that you can put on all types of players and kind of be your defensive stopper,” Agler said. “She’s more probably like Tanisha in that way. Tanisha was really good in a one-on-one situation taking her assignment and guarding one person. Alana was good at both.”
Bonner shot just 7-of-35 in three meetings with the Wings this season. Thornton’s defense played a big part. She’s quick enough to keep Bonner in front and strong enough to avoid getting bumped back or knocked off course.
“[Thornton] has turned into being our leader,” Agler added. “I’ve said to our team, with her one-on-one, with everyone in the room, ‘I’m gonna lean on you.’ She’s embraced that. Now all of a sudden, to me, she’s one of the top two-way players in this league and can be impactful on both ends of the floor. You see that with post players a lot. There’s not many perimeter players that are impactful on both ends of the floor. And she’s one of ‘em.”
When asked about that role of defensive stopper, Thornton deflects, instead talking about how much better she needs to be. That kind of response shows you exactly how she was able to make it as an undrafted free agent out of UTEP. Thornton’s path puts her in an interesting position to lead a group of younger players, helping them immerse themselves in the grind of the season without getting too caught up on who isn’t suiting up right now.
“My journey has been a blessing,” Thornton said. “I thank God for this opportunity. I’d just say I’m trying to instill in them hard work. You come in and you do the hard work, everything else plays out. The game will pay you back if you do what’s needed.”
Agler continued, pointing to somebody he rostered in Seattle and the current member of the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff that made sure he didn’t overlook the player that would become one of the league’s elite defenders.
“Alysha Clark. Jenny Boucek talked me into keeping Alysha Clark,” Agler said. “[Boucek] talked me into it. [Clark] was the last player—-we were deciding between her and somebody else. And [Boucek] just said, ‘Look. Alysha brings the intangibles that we want on our team.’ She was right!
“You can always talk yourself out of stuff like that. You can always talk yourself out of keeping people for somebody that you think has upside. Well, look at Alysha Clark. Look at that upside now.”
Agler is very high on another long, smooth, athletic Kayla (sp.) on his roster: Kaela Davis.
Davis has continued seeing some time running the point, as she did in parts of her first two seasons since Agler took over.
“Kaela’s really talented,” Agler said. “And I think we’re starting to see a little bit this season of what she’s capable of doing with the ball.”
“It’s been a process, but I’m loving it,” Davis said. “[Agler] has really helped me find that role to be successful.”
Davis, listed at 6’2”, is smooth. She slithers into the lane with ease, something very few guards can replicate. She hasn’t finished very many of those looks, shooting below 47 percent from the restricted area in each of her first three seasons per WNBA.com.
Look out if and when she does.
“I think the fact that I’m getting there is what I’m hanging on right now,” Davis said with a smile. “I’m missing, not being super efficient around the rim right now. That’s a work in progress. I have to keep getting there. I have to keep getting in the paint and kicking out, start hitting those shots and it will be onward and upward from there.”
“I’ve been on her hard,” Agler added. “I don’t know if there’s anybody I’ve been on as hard as I’ve been on her—-challenged her, tried to figure out where she plays best, how she can help us—because she’s gifted.
“And now, I think we might have figured it out a little bit. Let her play the point. It’s probably different than it was a year ago. We’re really having her be aggressive because she’s a talented player. I don’t know if we’ll ever get this out of her and I don’t know if she’ll ever be this, but she’s got All-Star talent, skill, size.
“She can shoot it, she can pass it, she can drive it, she can defend. Now, to get to that level will be up to her. She knows it. She knows the standards I have for her. And I’m on her really, really hard. I try to get her close to that. So we’ll see.”
Davis has been in and out of the starting lineup this season. Throw her out there with Thornton and two bigs, and you’re going to have one of the league’s biggest, longest five-player units.
Dallas has been successful doing some switching with bigs long and mobile enough to guard on the perimeter and bigger guards/wings like Davis and Thornton that can grapple down low with some opposing bigs.
Watch Davis first switch out onto Chelsea Gray, then onto Kalani Brown. Davis prevents Brown from getting a deep seal. Harrison stuck with Gray initially and recovered in time for the block.
L.A. didn’t generate any clear advantages out of their initial actions. Forced to scramble with the shot clock winding down, teams aren’t going to be able to consistently generate high-quality looks.
When the teams met again days later, we saw an example of Harrison switching onto Gray again. This time, she corralled Gray’s drive and forced a tough shot as Thornton switched onto Chiney Ogwumike and did just enough to hold her off inside so that Dallas could finish the possession with a defensive rebound.
“That’s just us,” Davis said. “I think that’s just part of our team. We’re a little short-handed right now, so people are having to step up and fill roles that maybe they wouldn’t have to with Glory at EuroBasket, [Diggins-Smith] out, and [Harrison] had an injury. So to be missing players is tough, but we have to step up. And we embrace it. I think that’s the biggest thing. We’re not gonna back down from those challenges that come our way.”
On the other end, Ogunbowale has shouldered the league’s fourth-highest usage rate (28.0). She’s taking on more traditional point-guard duties. Agler has been impressed with her every step of the way.
“She’s getting better at it,” Agler said. “I have people think of it this way. So every game we play, she’s taking on the other team’s best defender. It’s been a challenge. It’s not been an easy thing for her. I think she’s handled it as well as anybody that I’ve been around. That’s probably what impressed me the most is her resiliency. Now, is it frustrating at times? Yeah, she gets frustrated. But she doesn’t carry it with her. She can digest it and respond to the next game.
“We’re gonna keep putting the ball in her hands, keep wanting her to be aggressive,” Agler added. “I think in the bigger picture, this year is gonna be really good for her down the road. We’re asking her to play the point which she’s never done before. We’re asking her to sorta get us in the offense which she’s never done before. We’re asking her to learn how to be a distributor as much as she’s been a scorer. So down the road, she’s gonna really benefit, as will we, from this season.
“When someone has a personality and the attitude of, ‘Okay, I’m gonna try to do my thing, I’ve gotta make adjustments, things aren’t going my way,’ are you gonna go into a funk? Her confidence has never wavered any. I think that’s a really good sign. When you think about the good players in the professional ranks, they’re really confident players. They don’t live that rollercoaster of, ‘I’m in a slump.’
“She doesn’t ever really look at herself as being in a slump. It’s just, ‘Shots aren’t falling. I’m gonna keep going.’ Now that being said, we’ve gotta work through some of the things people are doing to her—sending numbers to her, trapping her in pick and roll, picking her up early, being physical with her, fighting over screens. Those are things that she’s gonna have to deal with. She’s been really coachable. It’s been a fun journey for her, and it’s been fun for me to watch how she’s dealt with all of this.”
Ogunbowale’s crossover and ability to start and stop on a dime make for a deadly combination that clearly translates just fine to the pro game.
She also has a knack for picking her spots to rise up and use the glass with her in-between game—a must for any smaller guard to score efficiently in the paint.
But because she’s so quick, there’s reason to believe she’ll do plenty of damage right at the rim without college defenders that are free to sit at the front of the rim for the duration of the shot clock. This right-hand, left-foot finish on the left side of the basket disrupted the timing of Jonquel Jones rising up for a potential block.
The ship may have already sailed on the Wings becoming a surprise playoff team this season. There’s still plenty to play for. Agler is focused on helping his team develop those championship traits.
How soon does he expect his vision for the franchise to come to fruition? Does he have a three-year plan like Bill Laimbeer in Las Vegas?
“I don’t know when it’s gonna happen, but I would expect it to happen at some point,” Agler said. “It wouldn’t shock me if these two teams [Las Vegas and Dallas] are in a championship series two, three or four years down the road. It wouldn’t shock me.”
Before they can soar to those new heights, the Wings will continue to look to tow that line—developing their young talent as they make the most of the precious time left in the 2019 season and shaping a roster that will give them the best chance of bringing home the franchise’s first title.