Lisa Leslie talks Sparks, Brittney Griner and TPI

February 23, 2013 - 6:06pm
Lisa Leslie recently received a lifetime achievement award from BET. (Photo courtesy of BET)

Lisa Leslie recently received a lifetime achievement award from BET. (Photo courtesy of BET)

Don't think that because Lisa Leslie retired from basketball that she's doing nothing but watching daytime TV and reminiscing about her illustrious career.  She’s part owner of the Los Angeles Sparks, runs the Lisa Leslie Leadership Academy and most recently has started working as a spokesperson for UPS and the launch of the UPS Team Performance Index (TPI).

The Team Performace Index is a formula derived from six key statistical categories with a proven correlation to a team’s overall success. Teams are rewarded for performing efficiently and effectively in all categories and then are ranked from highest to lowest to create the index. The categories:

• Offense – Effective Field Goal Percentage
• Defense – Effective Field Goal Percentage Against
• Rebounding – Rebounding percentage (if there are 100 rebounds in a game, and a team grabs 60, the rebounding  percentage is 60 %.)
• Ballhandling – Assists/game, steals/game, opponent assists/game, opponent steals/game
• Overall miscues – “Non-steal” turnovers/game, fouls/game, opponent non-steal turnovers/game, opponent fouls per game
• Success - Winning percentage

Full Court: Tell us more about the TPI and why it’s relevant?

Lisa Leslie: I think the UPS Team Performance Index is interesting because it looks at the numbers. It’s about getting smarter and working faster. A lot of the other polls have some sort of bias, you look at the teams, which team you think is the strongest based on wins usually, but they don’t take into consideration how accurate and efficient the team is.  

In 1996 Tara Vanderveer was our coach for that Olympics and we would take basically the TPI of our team for each individual player, so I really got into it early in my career to focus on my field goal percentage, based on how many makes and misses. It was the same thing with rebounding, offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding, and steals and blocked shots -- those were all positive numbers but they get subtracted from all the negative things such as fouls and foul shots missed and turnovers and even when you miss shots, those are considered negative, so TPI really looks at the overall performance and the efficiency of the team. When you look at that with rankings, some of these teams are ranked as high in the TPI numbers because they are the most efficient teams.

FC: The first time you looked at the TPI, what teams surprised you? Were there teams you thought were too high or low in the rankings?

LL: I looked more, not at the teams being high, but the teams that were low. When it first came out Stanford was around 15 and I was surprised because I know Tara looks at the efficiency of her team, but as time went on I’m not surprised that Stanford has moved up to seven. But I think when you look at a team like Maryland (currently fifth), that was surprising to me, but when you see them play they do a great job defensively getting into passing lanes and they really create a lot of turnovers and they are really efficient getting the ball inside.  When you look at Tianna Hawkins, their leading scorer, she shoots 60 percent, so you can see how a team like Maryland would move up higher.

And the same thing for a team like Notre Dame. Skylar Diggins does a great job of leading her team but Natalie Achonwa is very efficient on the inside, she doesn’t miss much. I watched her play in the Olympics and she has great hands and shoots 53% from the field and is an 80% free-throw shooter, so when you look at all of those numbers as a team, they don’t lie. I’ve always been intrigued by the numbers, especially in a time when a lot of players just look at their points, but they don’t look at the percentages and how many shots did I take to get those points. When you can teach players to work more efficiently, you are more likely to be successful.

FC: There are teams ranked pretty high in the TPI that wouldn’t make the top 25 in the polls, such as Albany, Toledo and Wyoming. What does this tell us about these teams?

LL: Let’s face it, not all players have the opportunity to go to a Connecticut and Baylor and Notre Dame, Tennessee and Stanford, so there are a lot of players who are looking for good schools. The TPI can really tell you if you are going to a solid school. It tells you who is playing the game the proper way and that might allow players to play at the next level in the pros because they are going to learn good basketball skills.

FC: What can basketball players learn from the TPI?

LL: The TPI can tell you what things you can focus on. I can guarantee that the top teams are focused on these numbers and in my success as a player having played in four Olympics, these numbers mattered to me and once it was in my head as a player, I thought about them.  

For instance, if you get the ball and the clock is winding down, you don’t just jack up a shot from half court if you don’t need that shot to win the game. That’s messing with my TPI, it’s going to take down my shooting percentage because it’s more likely to be a missed shot. So there are a lot of things like that. If you get an offensive rebound, are you in a good position to put it back? If not, I kick it back out and reset it so I still get a positive point for me not just throwing the ball back up there if I’m not in position to make the basket.

FC: With the NCAA tournament around the corner,  we’ve seen teams like Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford and Connecticut making multiple appearances in the Final Four, and it’s looking like a similar storyline this year. Are there teams that can break through this year?

LL: What I love about the NCAA tournament is that it’s anybody’s game. If you can catch Baylor, Stanford or UConn on an off night, there are never any guarantees. You have to come to play because there is still always that possibility, that fear that you can lose. Right now there are some good teams out there like Louisville, which has nice size and runs the floor well. Kentucky, they are a tough defensive team led by Adia Mathies who can play the one or the two. I think Maryland is another good team, with Tianna Hawkins, they could go deep in the tournament and I’m always curious about Delaware, with Elena Delle Donne. She does a nice job of leading the way, she’s one of the best players in the country, so could this be the time they upset someone? It’s always possible.

FC: Talk about Brittney Griner. It’s been really exciting watching her development in college, she’s dunked multiple times this year and obviously everyone is excited to see her at the next level.  

LL: I think Brittney Griner has really evolved into the next best center that we have ever seen and I think she is going to continue to evolve at the next level because she is so dominant. At her size, at her height, at her athletic ability, all of that combined with the fact that she is really a student of the game, she’s a phenomenon. Her ability to dunk on people in proper movement is special -- you don’t need people cleared out. Some of us who have dunked, it’s usually in fast break situations, where Griner can turn and drop step (and dunk). She’s the evolution of women’s basketball and it doesn’t hurt that she has Odyssey Sims to get the ball inside to her. I love it, I love watching her and I’m just really excited to see how her career blossoms over the next few years.

FC: Are you surprised she hasn’t dunked more in college, especially after dunking more than 50 times in high school? Has she underachieved in the dunk category?

LL: Dunking is very difficult, first off. People are not aware that dunkers can get hurt and that you can hurt her whenever she takes off to dunk. I found that at every level I got better and better and the players around me got better. It’s hard when you don’t have players that play up to your level. They are not her height, not her size, it’s very difficult to operate and move around smaller people when you have big feet, (laughs) that’s just the way it is. I can tell you, in college I was good, but I became much better as a pro because I had taller post players and centers guarding me -- that helped as opposed to having a six-foot player behind me, getting low, tripping me up. Then there’s two or three others standing around, so it’s a lot easier said than done and I think Brittney’s game and ability to dunk will increase in the WNBA as well as overseas.

FC: As part owner of the Sparks, how excited are you for this upcoming season, especially having just acquired Lindsay Harding?

LL: We are very excited, I love our movement because Lindsay Harding is what we call a baller. She’s a player who plays fast and works hard and is very efficient and she is a very good defensive player, and we need that kind of pressure on opposing guards. We are able to move Kristi Toliver to the two where I feel she can be much more successful and not worry about bringing the ball up because she is a scorer. We have Alana Beard on the other wing and Alana really just came into her own the second part of the season -- she had been off over a year from injury. Then of course we are always led by our greatest player in Candace Parker. Our goal is always to win a WNBA championship, and when we don’t do that, we feel like we’ve failed.

FC: Tulsa recently signed a jersey deal. How important is that for the league?

LL: I think overall we are always excited when we get support around the league. Corporate support is huge for us because we need corporations to support our league in order for us to be successful as much as we need fan support. I feel very hopeful about the future of getting in more sponsors, and that’s my goal -- to find sponsors who believe in the WNBA and our product and what we are putting out on the floor. Also, our players are improving. We’re not staying stagnant, and the level of each player from an individual perspective has improved.

FC: Earlier this year Geno Auriemma made some interesting comments about changes that need to be made in the game such as lowering the rim, I think in part it was because of his frustration that the game hasn’t grown as fast as he would like. What are your thoughts on how we can improve the game?

LL: I think the game has improved by leaps and bounds -- players are moving faster, crossing over and it’s really a beautiful sight to see that we are still playing team basketball. I think it’s not about looking at it half empty, but looking at it half full. The things that I think we need to improve women’s basketball have nothing to do necessarily with the players. Appearance is very important and in order for you to be a marketable player, appearance does matter, so how you look and represent yourself and having your hair combed and looking presentable is important, but beyond that I think the things we need to look at is more media coverage. We need more coverage and highlights of the WNBA and the college game, because the only way to get hooked is to visually see what we are about. The hard part is, if you want to find out something about women’s basketball you have to go seek it out and find it versus it being fed to you the way that a lot of men’s sports are on a daily basis.

You can follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaLeslie.