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Friday, July 19, 2019

The “Lucky Lynx?”: How Minnesota Has Translated Bad Fortune into a Talent-Packed Roster

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Photo Caption: The Minnesota Lynx turned an injury-ridden 13-21 2010 record into the top pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft, and used that pick to select UConn’s three-time National Player of the Year Maya Moore, a player with the skills and charisma to transform the franchise.

Photo Credit: ©2011 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sharon Crowson

A large part of the draw of sports is the opportunity for fans to attempt to forecast what will happen—who will win or what player will do well.  While that debate can be entertaining, it can often be futile because of the inherent inability to quantify one of the most important factors in success—luck.  A team’s luck, whether good or bad, frequently does as much to determine its success or failure as talent or coaching.

There is no team in the WNBA that has been more affected by luck—good and bad—than the Minnesota Lynx. On the court, the team has never lived up to its potential, thanks largely to a disheartening run of bad luck, much of it wrought by the injury bug. Team cornerstones Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins have each missed almost an entire season with injuries.

But while the string of injuries and illnesses that has kept them out of championship contention might at first glance be deemed bad luck, in the grand scheme of themes, those setbacks have ultimately benefited this franchise, throwing the Lynx into draft lotteries where their luck has proven to be very good indeed.  The Lynx have picked at or near the top of the draft for several years, and have used those picks to assemble a roster that is arguably the most talented in the league.

The disappointing 2010 season that saw the Lynx miss the playoffs by a whisker may have proved to be their luckiest of all when their number one lottery pick translated into the draft rights to three-time National Player of the Year, Connecticut’s Maya Moore. But Moore is just the icing on the cake for Minnesota’s All-Star roster.

The Lynx have three of the four most recent national collegiate Players of the Year—and come chillingly close to cornering the market on POYs for the last seven years—in Seimone Augustus (2005 and 2006), Candice Wiggins (2008) and Moore (2009, 2010 and 2011).  Those three are joined by recent All Americans Lindsay Whalen, Monica Wright and Amber Harris to give the Lynx what should be a top team for years to come.
On the court, Coach Cheryl Reeves will have a variety of options.  The only real given is that Lindsay Whalen will start at point guard.  Whalen is the perfect point guard for Reeves.  While she lacks the athleticism of some points, Whalen is one of the steadiest and smartest in the league.  Whalen has consistently averaged 12 points and five assists a game and runs the offense well.  However, her main job this season will be to manage her team emotionally.  They are a young squad and will be under extreme pressure to succeed.  She will have to manage her teammates’ emotions and egos as well as their physical performance during games. 

Whalen will be backed up by Alexis Hornbuckle. Last season, Whalen averaged a career-high 33.6 minutes a game. This season, Minnesota needs Hornbuckle to provide enough off the bench to allow Whalen’s number to drop to a more reasonable 29-30 minutes.  While Hornbuckle has the physical skills to provide an adequate performance off the bench, she has yet to show the mental strength of Whalen. Unless Hornbuckle toughens up in that area, she may spend too much time on the bench, keeping Whalen on the floor too much.

The rest of the minutes will be divided among eight players each of whom would have the ability to start elsewhere in the league.  The plan for the last two seasons has been to start Wiggins and Augustus at wing.  When they have been on the court together they were impressive, but Augustus’s 2009 season was shortened to six games due to a torn ACL and last year Wiggins started the year with a knee injury and then tore her Achilles tendon and missed the remainder of the season. 

Augustus has been a star throughout her career, but she is coming off her worst season.  After coming back relatively quickly (perhaps prematurely) from fibroid surgery, Augustus played the second-most minutes of her career, but tallied a career-low 16.9 points per game while shooting a career-worst 42.9 percent from the field. Given the talent surrounding her, Augustus will have to improve her production or see her shots decrease.  This is one area of potential problems for the team.  When a star is eclipsed, it takes a special player not to cause problems.  Time will tell if Augustus needs to be that player and, if she does, whether she can make that transition.

As a shooting guard, Wiggins is an excellent all-around player.  She is a good individual defender and passer who also handles the ball well.  To date, however, she has not been the offensive player the team hoped: Her 14.3 points a game have come on 39-percent field-goal shooting.  Wiggins was a much better shooter at Stanford and, if she cannot recapture her shooting touch, she, too, could see her minutes drop and perhaps even lose her starting spot. 

Backing up Augustus and Wiggins will be second-year player Monica Wright, a three-time All American from Virginia.  Wright stepped into Wiggins’s starting spot when Wiggins went down last year.  Wright compiled a decent season, averaging 11 points a game but shot the ball no better than Wiggins, averaging only 37 percent from the field.  Wright is an excellent defender and, given the fact that she supplanted Dawn Staley as Virginia’s all-time leading scorer, she has the potential to be a stronger offensive player as well.  If Wiggins cannot score with more efficiency, Wright will push her for minutes.

Sharing post duties will be four players who each bring strengths to the floor.  Six-two Rebekkah Brunson is a powerful player who is a proto-typical power forward.  While she is not a prolific scorer, Brunson will consistently put up 10-to-12 points a game.  Last season she broke through on the boards and averaged a career-high 10.3 boards a game.  Brunson also brings toughness to the team.  For years, the Lynx were considered soft in the post and they had difficulty establishing a post game.  Brunson gives them the physical presence that they needed.  At six feet, Charde Houston has been a pleasant surprise in her three seasons with the Lynx.  After leaving Connecticut as something of a disappointment, Houston came into her own in her first WNBA season and has been a consistent performer all three years of her pro career.  However, while Houston consistently scores in double digits, she is not strong on the boards and looks likely to lose minutes to the team’s frontcourt newcomers.

Two of those newcomers will give Minnesota the strongest post presence they have ever had.  The first, a rookie, Amber Harris, the fourth pick in this season’s draft, is a unique player.  Despite her 6-3, 215-pound frame, Harris moves extremely well. While she is at her best facing the basket, Harris can also take the ball off the dribble or knock down a three-point shot.  If she proves her ability to defend smaller power forwards, she will provide match-up nightmares for almost every WNBA team.

The second new face in the Minnesota frontcourt is a seasoned veteran. In a move that may well prove to be as important as their draft picks, the team signed free agent center Taj McWilliams-Franklin in the off-season.  At 40 years of age, McWilliams-Franklin is the league’s oldest player, her performance doesn’t seem to have lost much over the years. Last season, her thirteenth in the WNBA, McWilliams-Franklin averaged 10.6 points and 5.4 rebounds a game while shooting 51 percent and playing 30 minutes a game. Unless she suddenly loses a few steps, there is no reason to think McWilliams-Franklin’s production will drop this year.  Almost more important than her play on the court will be her presence in the locker room.  McWilliams-Franklin is one of the league’s most respected players and one of its best leaders. 

If the Lynx put a line-up on the floor that consisted of Whalen at point, Augustus, Wiggins and Wright on the wings and Brunson, Harris and McWilliams-Franklin in the post, they would have a formidable team.  But, of course, that is not all they have.  A 91-98 loss to Los Angeles in the final week of the 2010 regular season cost Minnesota the tie-breaker, depriving them of a spot in the playoffs and casting them into the draft lottery instead. A lucky draw in that lottery gave the Lynx the top pick in April’s draft and they used that pick to draft all-everything Maya Moore, one of the most celebrated players to emerge from college in recent memory. Despite her youth, Moore is already being spoken of as one of the sport’s greatest players ever. The accolades are well-deserved: There is little that Moore cannot do on the court and she will get minutes at the shooting guard, small forward and power forward positions. Moore, with her exceptional jump shot, can score almost at will and should immediately have a huge impact for the team.

Moore will be valued for more than her on-court performance. If, as she surely will, she brings to her pro career the single-minded determination to win that fueled her collegiate success, Moore will be the team’s hardest worker. Moore’s versatility, talent and attitude will immediately make her one of, if not the absolute, best player on Minnesota’s roster. Her biggest challenge will be learning to handle the physical play of the pros.  As she makes that adjustment, she could prove to be unstoppable.

The talent of Moore, Augustus, Wiggins, Wright, Brunson, Harris and McWilliams-Franklin gives Reeves a multitude options.  She can put a team on the floor that is smaller and more athletic or one that is bigger and more physical. 

With a roster as talent-rich as Minnesota’s, the temptation is to view the coach’s role as just suiting up her players and staying out of the way.  But in truth, Reeves, in her sophomore year as a WNBA head coach, has a considerable challenge in front of her in trying to mold her group of young, very talented players into a team. (As a well-respected veteran, McWilliams-Franklin will be a valuable asset for Reeves in that process.)  Reeves will have to do the Xs and Os coaching, as well as managing match-ups.  But, just as importantly, she will have to manage her players, with their emotions and egos. And she will have to do so under considerable pressure.

Minnesota is a team that has perpetually looked to the future. That must change in 2011: For Minnesota, the future is now. The 2011 Lynx have the talent to perform at the top of the league and the depth to withstand injuries. It is time for them to put up or shut up. No excuses will be acceptable if this team does not end up as one of the league’s very best.

Editor’s Note: In Part II of this series, Full Court’s Bob Corwin takes a look at how the Lynx have fared in the early going.

Originally published Fri, June 17, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.