ORLANDO, Fla. -- To judge by the decibel levels, the cacaphonous shrieks of a multitude of teenage girls, One Direction's Harry Styles was in the house this weekend -- the HP Field House at Walt Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports near Orlando, to be exact.
In fact, however, it was not the latest boy-band front man who had the girls squealing with untempered delight and clambering for position to vie for a coveted photo or autograph as they awaited the arrival of their idols backstage as a good-natured security force of Disney cast members valiantly strove to maintain order and keep pathways open. Rather, it was the stars of the WNBA on hand for the league's first preseason tournament, featuring the reigning WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx plus three other playoff teams from 2013, that had the kids -- and more than a few of their accompanying parents and coaches -- beside themselves with anticipation.
The event was a success -- and a great kick-off for the WNBA's 2014 theme of "Summer Hoops" -- pretty much any way you measure it. All four games -- Friday night's slate featured East v. East (Chicago Sky v. Indiana Fever) and West v. West (Minnesota Lynx v. Phoenix Mercury) match-ups, while Sunday morning saw a consolation game between the losers (Fever v. Mercury) as an entre to the championship tilt between the Lynx and the Sky -- were sell-outs, though perhaps not the money-makers that term implies. The HP Field House was nicely sized for the rather women's games for this rather hastily assembled tournament in that the stated attendance of 3,194, which included the approximately 1,500 teens participating in the simultaneously held AAU Disney Spring Fling, filled the stands and overlooking galleries, creating an air of energy and high excitement. The same numbers housed in one of the cavernous NBA-scale arenas that play host to the WNBA's regular-season games would have had precisely the opposite effect.
On the Court
On the court, the games were ... well, preseason exhibition games, with all that implies: moments of awe-inspiring talent and powerful athleticism sandwiched between stretches of absolutely dreadful basketball. Anyone who enjoyed the symphony of whistles and free-throw shooting exhibitions that characterized the start of the 2013-14 NCAA women's basketball season and its highly touted changes in rules interpretations would have absolutely loved this weekend's games. The cardinal sins for the WNBA officiating crews seemed to be illegal screens and offensive fouls, many well away from the hoop and often away from the ball as well. The screen violations might in part be a function of rookie post players adapting to the speed of play at the professional level, explained Fever head coach Lin Dunn, but young guards bore part of the blame as well: "I keep telling them they have to wait to give the [post] a chance to set up a [legal position."
Lest we be accused of hyper-criticism, let me point out that the coaches were far more frosty in their own assessments of their respective teams' on-court performances. Dunn, never one to color her feelings, might have put it best when describing her team's loss to the Sky on Friday night: "I thought it looked like we played our third game in four days. It definitely looked that way. We played with fatigue. It showed in our rebounding. We got down 10 points and couldn't come back."
The Lynx' Janel McCarville, who appeared to have added some beef to her upper body and some additional range to her game during the off-season, was equally frank in her assessment of her team's need for improvement: "I would say take better care of the ball," she said of Minnesota's 18 turnovers in Friday's Western Conference championship rematch against the Mercury. "I think we kind of got a little sloppy in the first game here. But that comes with not being together for awhile and only having a short amount of time in camp together. We haven't gotten the rust out completely, so it's good we have this preseason tournament here in Disney World to get the kinks out and start to get our on-court togetherness back."
In general, turnovers ran rampant -- Phoenix had 20 miscues in Friday's game, and though the Fever and the Sky had 16 apiece on Friday, three of the four teams demonstrated even worse ball-handling on Sunday, with the Sky racking up 22 in their meeting with the Lynx, the only team to improve its turnover rate Sunday (17), and the Fever coughing up the rock 18 times against the Mercury -- and shooting percentages were generally abysmal, particularly from long range, but then again, that's to be expected in a preseason game, where players have spent minimal time on the floor together, coaches are testing out their remaining training camp survivors before making their final roster cuts this week, and newcomers are wrought with nerves, knowing that whatever time they get on the floor might well be their last chance to prove they belong on those rosters. Many veterans had not yet arrived from overseas, some were nursing injuries, and with the exception of the Lynx, who seemed bent on turning the tournament into a statement about their primacy as candidates for a three-peat, most coaches opted to rest their stars for much if not all of the games.
That said, just when it seemed impossible to endure yet another whistle, another blown layup, another wide-open jump shot that missed every element of the goal post by a matter of yards, or another pass fired into the stands with no member of the passer's squad anywhere in the zip code, a small miracle would happen: Maya Moore speeding out of the backcourt, deftly sweeping the ball out of an opponent's hands without breaking stride and racing to the far end of the court for the lay-up. Lindsay Whalen taking flight as she drives to the hoop, clocking impossible hang time. Erin Phillips cutting to the basket, drawing the defense into paint in a scramble to stop her, while firing off a no-look, behind-the-back, over-the-head pass to a now-wide open Candice Dupree who smoothly drops in 20-footer.
At times it was not one of the superstars but a less-heralded veteran who turned up the heat, demonstrating skills honed in the off-season: Karima Christmas exploding for a game-high 16 points against the Sky on Friday night, alternating dribble-drives with step-back jumpers while knocking them down at a near-50-percent clip. Lynetta Kizer taking over for the absent Erlana Larkins, still overseas (as was Shavonte Zellous), on the Indiana backboards, hauling down a game-high 10 rebounds the same night, while Tamika Catchings looked on from the bench, nursing a sore back according to the stat sheet. ("We were resting her legs," admitted Dunn.)
Periodically, a rookie would show a glimpse of future greatness -- Maggie Lucas going five-for-nine from the field on Friday against the Lynx, and icing the cake with a trey just to show that, yes, Virginia, the 3-pointer is indeed still a part of the WNBA game and very much part of her personal repertoire. (The Mercury shot a collective 21.4-percent (3-14) from distance Friday, while the Lynx did little better at 25 percent (2-8) from beyond the arc. "She can just plain shoot the ball," said Diana Taurasi, another All-Star who sat out the festivities on the bench having recently arrived back from Russia, of her young teammate; a blushing Lucas turned nearly as red as the badly sun-burned Tricia Liston when she learned of the compliment. Newcomers Damiris Dantas (Lynx) and Gennifer Brandon (Sky) put on rebounding demonstrations for their respective teams on Sunday, with Dantas winning the individual battle on the glass with nine boards to Brandon's eight, though on a per-minute basis (Brandon played just over 11 minutes to Dantas's 27), Brandon's production was pretty impressive.
There were surprises among the rookies, too. Who would have thought that late-third-round pick Jamierra Faulkner of University of Southern Mississippi would have been the Sky's leading scorer Friday, surpasing even 2013 Rookie of the Year Elena Delle Donne, despite playing nearly two minutes fewer? And let's be honest: Did anyone have Louisville's Asia Taylor, who labored for years in the shadow of the more highly touted Shoni Schimmel, pegged as the probable leading scorer of Sunday's championship game, racking up 18 points on near-perfect 6-7 shooting, both from the field and from the foul line? For that matter, where did you have Taylor -- the very last player tapped in the 2014 WNBA Draft -- on your personal mock draft board this year?
And then, of course, we can't forget Sunday's pièce de résistance, the dunk -- by (who else) Brittney Griner. Griner also amassed 25 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks (six, actually -- she blocked one shot twice on the same possession) over the course of the weekend's two games, while averaging roughly 21 minutes per session. But it was the dunk, or what the scorers called a dunk -- by no means one of Griner's best, it incorporated very little hang time and might be as easily described as a very authoritative lay-up, but with Griner's reach, every lay-up comes pretty close to a dunk and who wants to argue anyway -- that brought the crowd to its feet.
All in all, there were just enough of those magic moments to please the crowd and whet one's appetite for the upcoming summer of hoops, which is, after all, one of the other functions of a preseason exhibition. At the end of the day, the Lynx walked away with bragging rights and perhaps the world's smallest trophy, one league president Laurel Richie send was designed to fit well in the overhead compartment on their trip back to Minneapolis.
And that's probably all that needs to be said about the on-court value of the game, given that not every team's players were all in attendance, and not all who were there actually played, and coaches took widely disparate approaches toward incorporating her newcomers into the game, with some, like Reeve, giving her stars plenty of playing time and working new players into the line-up alongside them, one or two at a time, while others ushered in full platoons of newbies and watched while they sorted things out more or less on their own.
Still, for those who just won't be able to sleep without knowing the nuts and bolts of each contest, here's the broad brush with further details available via the provided links.
Preliminary Round: Friday, May 9
Chicago Sky 73, Indiana Fever 66
By far the worst of the weekend's games, the Fever ran neck-and-neck with the Sky for much of the rest of the way in this foul-plagued, turnover-ridden, poor perimeter-shooting contest, with the exception of a second-period scoring lull that ultimately cost Indiana the game. With both sides devoid of most of last year's starters, the game offered a great opportunity for the coaching staffs and general managers to make their final player roster assessments.
Karima Christmas led all scorers with 16 points in 26 minutes for the Fever in defeat, but she was the only Indiana player to break the double-digit scoring barrier. Newly acquired veteran Lynetta Kizer dominated the glass with 10 boards, three of them coming off the offensive glass, for Indiana.
Two newcomers, Southern Mississippi rookie Jamierra Faulkner, who posted 11 points on 3-6 from the field, and Sequoia Holmes (10 points), a wing out of UNLV who spent two years in the W (2008, 2010) but hasn't played in the league since then, led offense for the Sky. Faulkner also dealt out five assists, grabed four boards and even blocked a shot in her 15 minutes and change on the court. Still, most of the scoring for both players came at the penalty stripe, where Faulkner netted five of her six attempts and Holmes went a perfect six-for-six.
Minnesota Lynx 72, Phoenix Mercury 64
This rematch of last year's Western Conference semifinals featured even more turnovers (a combined 38 of them) than the Eastern Conference opener, and nearly equally poor outside shooting by both sides, but conveyed a far more competitive overall feel, owing largely to the presence -- and significant contributions by -- the All Stars from both teams. Reeve unleashed her All-Star cast in the game's first 20 minutes, establishing a double-digit advantage (24-12) in the first 10, expanding the edge to 13 points (39-26) by the break, and then leaving it to the rookies and assorted role players to mop things up, which allowed the Mercury to eke out a more respectable final tally.
Veteran guard Tan White, signed in mid-April as a free agent, led all scorers with 16 points, adding five rebounds and three assists, the latter given back with three turnovers. Seimone Augustus tacked on 12 points, while every player who took the court for the Lynx chipped in at least a free-throw.
Rebounding for the Lynx was "by committee," with Maya Moore and rookie Tricia Liston leading the way with six apiece.
Candice Dupree led the Mercury with 14 points on near-perfect 6-7 shooting from the field, while Griner added 12, plus six rebounds and two blocks -- but five fouls and an equal number of turnovers. Penn State product Lucas impressed with 13 points, on five-of-nine shooting, including one of Phoenix's three treys of the evening.
Consolation Game: Sunday, May 11
Indiana Fever 75, Phoenix Mercury 60
Despite significant minutes allotted to all the Mercury veterans who participated, the Fever subjected Phoenix to a first-class horsewhipping in Sunday's consolation game, one that should have occasioned far more concern for the Mercury brass than Friday night's results. The two teams traded baskets for the first quarter, and though the Fever began to pull ahead in the second, the score was still within five (33-28) at the half. But the Fever roared out of the locker room on an 8-3 run, to which Coleman, Christmas and first-round draft pick Natasha Howard all contributed, over the first two minutes of the second half. The Mercury's only scoring in that span came on a traditional three-point play by Dupree.
Four-and-a-half minutes, the Fever had stretched the run to 19-8 and their lead to 16 points (52-36), and though Phoenix got itself back in the game from there, the Mercury simply couldn't fill the hole they had dug for themselves.
On the bright side, Phoenix got another top-notch performance out of Dupree, who started this game, and answered the call with 15 points on 7-10 from the field, plus two assists, two boards and a steal, in a little less than 25 minutes. Griner added 13, including the putative dunk, led the way for the Mercury with six off the glass (equally divided between offensive and defensive rebounds), plus three swats.
But it was a rookie, the Fever's Natasha Howard, who led all scorers in this early-morning tilt with 16 points on an efficient 7-8 from the field, icing the cake with four boards and a block in just 18 minutes of action. Coleman added 11 points and three assists, while demonstrating far more judicious shot selection (4-7 from the field, including 2-2 from beyond the arc). Jaterra Bonds also stepped things up a notch, rounding out the Fever's double-digit scoring with 10 points on 3-6 from the field (0-1 from beyond the arc), plus three boards, an assist and a steal, and was rewarded with nearly 23 minutes on the floor.
Kizer once again led all players on the backboards, pulling down seven rebounds, and adding eight points, though as on Friday, she struggled with fouls (four personals) and poor shooting (2-11, or 18.2 percent, with many of the misses chippies).
Championship Game: Sunday, May 11
Minnesota Lynx 76, Chicago Sky 69
Don't let the final score fool you: The Lynx had come to Orlando set on making a statement, and that's exactly what they did, hauling out the big guns to blast the Sky, 31-12, in the game's first 10 minutes, returning the starters to the floor in the third period for long enough to ensure no unhappy surprises, and then leaving the mopping up to the new kids on the block for the rest of the game.
Still, it was one of those new kids who seized the opportunity to impress. Given an unexpected start for the Lynx, Louisville's Asia Taylor delivered a game-high 18 points on 6-7 from the field, before fouling out after 25 minutes of action.
Maya Moore shrugged off Friday night's shooting woes, pitching in 16 points on a perfect shooting game Sunday, hitting five of five from the floor, two of two from beyond the arc, and four of our from the foul line. She also contributed four rebounds, three steals and a block in 18 minutes on the floor. Dantas saw 27 minutes of action off the bench, and while contributing just eight points on so-so shooting (3-9 from the field, 2-4 from the stripe), proved herself a beast on the backboards with a game-high nine rebounds. Lindsey Moore, who also saw siginficant minutes, tacked on seven points, hitting just one of her four long-ball attempts, but played a key facilitative role with a game-high eight dishes to her credit.
Delle Donne had a far more productive game for the Sky on Sunday, putting up 15 points and nailing both her 3-point attempts, but was the only double-digit scorer for the losing side. Gennifer Brandon enjoyed an outstanding day on the glass, however, pulling down a team-high eight rebounds in just 11 minutes of action for the Sky.
|Players participating in the AAU's annual 1,500-player Disney Spring Fling grab a chance to catch some of the WNBA action below from one of several balconies overlooking the court during a break between their own games. To a person, those who interviewed by Full Court called the opportunity to play in proximity with the WNBA stars, many of whose own careers began on AAU courts, "inspiring" and "motivating." (Photo by Lee Michaelson)|
Off the Court
As important -- perhaps even more important -- than any of the performances on the court, which after all, could have taken place anywhere, was what was happening off the court. We're not referring here to the WNBA players' opportunities to spend the day at adjacent Disney World, as many did, or to soak in the sun around the swimming pool (as some, including Duke's Liston, did to excess), while forging team bonds and positive chemistry.
Rather, it's what the tournament meant to multitudes of teenage girls who leaned over the balconies to take in the action during breaks in their own game schedules and cordoned the path to the locker rooms just for the chance to meet one of the players who inspire them. Though attendance at Friday's clinic by a panel of WNBA head and assistant coaches might have been better attended, Saturday's events, which included a player panel, a second WNBA coaches' clinic, and a player autograph session were good draws, despite the time conflict for the dozens of AAU teams tied up in an ongoing schedule of games, not to mention the numerous competing amusement attractions in the area.
The AAU event fielded multiple divisions of girls' teams from the fifth through 11th-grade levels, and that is a demographic the WNBA has long sought to cultivate. The league has been highly successful in drawing in families with young children, but for reasons that aren't altogether clear, the interest-level seems to subside for too many as girls hit their high school and college years. It is so disappointing, as this league enters its 18th year, to continue to meet female high school players who, when asked to name their favorite players or role models, will fire off the name of several NBA stars but fail to mention a single WNBA player. Or college players at the highest levels who will unabashedly admit that they have never attended a WNBA game, nor watched one on TV. Disappointing, yes, but something that happens far too frequently to be shocking any longer.
Not so for the group of 1500 highly energized teens and preteens assembled this weekend, however. Though a concedely unscientific decibel count seemed to tilt decidedly in favor of the Mercury -- and Phoenix All-Stars Taurasi and Griner, in particular -- there was plenty of love to go around. An informal poll of Team Essence, who were lingering expectantly near the WNBA playes' route to the locker room while awaiting their turn to take the the floor on the court immediately adjacent to the one on which the WNBA tournament was being held, found nearly as many different WNBA role models as there were high school players on hand.
"I'd say Diana Taurasi," said Taylor Linden, "just 'cause of how hard she plays, and her impact on the WNBA. I want to be just like that when I grow up."
Brittney Griner got the nod of the Essence big girl, "because she's a team player, she works hard, and she [doesn't] give up. I admire her for that."
Maya Moore was Diamond Battle's favorite. "Because she is a great leader and she knows how to encourage her team when they're down and pick them back up.
Reflecting the reach of the league, some teens mentioned players who weren't even there this weekend. "I'd say Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock)," said Nadia Isaac. "I've watched her since college. She works hard. She never stops fighting, and I admire her for that."
"Candace Parker," said LaKrista Walker, of the Los Angeles Sparks post and 2013 WNBA MVP. "Even though I'm a point guard, she's still behind the ball, and she manages the floor just like a point guard to make sure everything is straight on the floor. She don't never doubt her team; she always picks her team up."
Several players tabbed Tamika Catchings, the mention of whose name almost always seemed to elicit nods of agreement from bystanders, even those who had already pointed to other favorites. Hard work was almost universally cited as one of the reasons for the respect the teens had for Catching, as were her humble spirit, history of overcoming obstacles and reputation for giving back, with a handful of mentions of her commitment to defense tossed in.
On a more general basis, of those who had been able to watch at least some of some of the WNBA action over the weekend, the unanimous response was a sense of inspiration. (AAU games were taking place on multiple courts throughout the WNBA tournament, and the weekend as a whole, both on adjacent courts in the HP Center and in other ESPN Wide World of Sports and local facilities, depriving some of the teens the opportunities to sit through watch the full WNBA tournament, something the two organizations might want to consider changing if they repeat this experiment in the future. And this might be as good a time as any to mention that while nobody was making excuses, the confusion and distraction created by frequent buzzers and whistles sounding in the adjacent games could well have played some part in the errors committed on the WNBA floor.)
"It shows us what we might be able to do in the future," said Isaac, who was able to catch some of the WNBA action. "[It] kind of motivates us to be where they are. For me, at least, it pushes me to get great, be great."
"It inspires us a lot," Linden chimed in. "Because you, actually watch them, and admire them, and to see them in person -- well, it means a lot."
Even some of the "warts" on the weekend experience -- turnovers, shooting woes, fouls and the like -- had their "up" sides, according to the youngsters. "Everybody has their bad games, everybody has their good games," said Isaac, almost protectively. "But they're there. They made it."
In fact, mistakes -- and the need to learn from them but not to dwell on them because the game moves on so quickly -- is one of the valuable life lessons basketball has to offer, the teens agreed. Even the best shooters in the game miss at least as many -- if not more -- of their shots than they make. "Everybody makes mistakes -- whether you're at this level or at the higher level, at the WNBA -- everybody makes the same mistakes," Linden observed.
"It shows that they are just like us, that WNBA players are just like us, that they make mistakes too. But we've got to build off of that," agreed Isaac.
The AAU coaches, as well, saw the benefit of the tournament and having the WNBA pros playing in such close proximity to their young charges. "The impact that they had ...," said Essence coach Chris Ayers, his voice trailing off as he reflected appreciatively on the experience. "This is a great impact for the girls, because they get to see where they could be at in the future," said Essence coach Chris Ayers. "It gives them some motivation, and it inspires them to be great."
Howard Ringer, coach of the Panthers, agreed, describing the event as "highly motivational. It gives the girls something to aspire to," he stated.
WNBA headquarters made no announcement as to whether the preseason tournament will become a regular feature of the league's schedule, and no doubt, they will need an opportunity to assess this year's experience before making that decision. But the AAU's James Laughlin told Full Court he viewed the weekend as "an incredible success" and hopes the WNBA will decide to do it again. "It's in their court," he said, noting that the relationship between the AAU's youth development programs and the WNBA fostered the interests of both. Not only did the weekend's events speak directly to a fan base the league obviously wants to cultivate, but, as Laughlin put it, "This, right here, is the future of the sport -- and of the league."
He appears to have the support of several of the WNBA players and coaches, who seemed to relish the opportunity to give back to an organization that had contributed greatly to their own careers. "I think it helps the younger generation to see what their dreams can be. For myself, I know at AAU tournaments, we never got to experience a WNB event. Hopefully, this tournament opened up a lot of minds and people got to see great quality basketball and how competitive we are. Hopefully, it helps this league build and give[s] the younger generations something to look forward to."
Besides, Augustus noted, "It's always nice to get some warmer weather, especially coming from Minnesota." Then, once again turning serious, she added, "Just the atmosphere with the AAU tournament going on, it creates a buzz and a great environment for women's basketball."
Sky head coach Pokey Chatman agreed. "I coached AAU basketball, played AAU basketball, made several trips to Disney and I think it's ... great to marry those two events. ... Good way to kick off the season. You think about it, 'If I was a kid this age being able to come here and see the megastars that are out there, playing in the pro league.'"
"I think it's just phenomenal," Chatman concluded.