Oklahoma is home to a consistently-budding basketball culture with the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Tulsa Shock have yet to absorb the same electrical current.
Former coach Nolan Richardson and his patented "40 Minutes of Hell" was an accurate summary of their arrival in 2010, particularly due to Richardson's inability to incorporate the winning contingent that came from Detroit. What remained was a subpar group who lacked continuity, direction and identity.
2011 brought another headache to the city in northeast Oklahoma when the Shock claimed Australian sensation Liz Cambage in the draft, despite reports that quoted her intent to play elsewhere. Cambage's commitment has been questioned ever since, no matter how many streaks of talent emanate from the 6-foot-8 center. Richardson was relieved of head coaching duties midway through 2011, but the Shock broke WNBA records for the longest losing streak (20) and worst overall record (3-31).
Succeeding coach Gary Kloppenburg would take the reins for the next two seasons, but improvements were marginal as Tulsa still finished outside of the playoff race. 2013 saw a spike in enthusiasm following the draft of Skylar Diggins, the popular Notre Dame point guard. The Shock were no longer threatening records of futility, and a sponsor arrangement with Osage Casino locked in financial stability, but Diggins failed to match her preseason hype in a disappointing rookie season.
Sensing another refit was needed, the Shock fired Kloppenburg after the 2013 season. Tulsa's fate now lies with Fred Williams, who was available after Atlanta declined to renew his contract. Williams reached his first WNBA Finals as head coach last year and was credited for decompressing a volatile scene in Atlanta after a dispute between Angel McCoughtry and former coach Marynell Meadors threatened to cripple the groundswell of energy.
Cambage's services will be on hold again, but the Shock are still teeming with height and elasticity. The interior is very deep and can be used at several positions, presenting a multitude of combinations to build the colloquial blocks for a playoff-caliber squad. A pesky defense that leads to quick scores will be a point of emphasis; Atlanta led the league in steals last year under Williams, a tactic he hopes to continue with Tulsa. Still, for all the upgrades, the Shock remain mired in the basement at this point in the season with a league-worst 1-5 record entering the first week in June.
"Fountain of Youth" would be an applicable adage here. Diggins and Angel Goodrich are each entering their second year, with rookie Odyssey Sims shoring up the depth chart.
Transitioning to the pros was difficult for Diggins - particularly with no experienced teammate to lend a hand in the adjustment process. The headband-toting guard averaged just 8.5 points and 3.8 assists per game with a field goal percentage of 32.8. For a time, Diggins was moved to the bench as her shot selection and confidence floundered. Her outside game was lacking, and her inability to convert simple layups was even more bizarre for a player included in the league's "Three to See" campaign in 2013.
So far, prospects are looking higher for Diggins. She put in two strong performances in the pre-season, and her similarly high performances since then are hopeful indicators of a turnaround.
"She's a great passer. She's going to be a double-double type player," Williams said. "Her shooting has gotten a lot better from the outside. She's able to penetrate. She's done a great job keeping herself in shape."
The addition of Sims gives the Shock another high-yield offering, and unlike the scene at Baylor, Sims won't need to lob multiple shots to be productive. In college, her most frequent moves were driving to the basket or shooting from long-distance, strategies that are generally tougher to execute in the professional level.
"She's going against taller players now going to the lane, so she's going to need to pick up that short corner or mid-range shot. What I've noticed of her is her strength," Williams said.
Sims also brings a dose of emotional energy, which could prove entertaining if she helps orchestrate a rally. The native of Irving, Texas will likely try to shelve her 1-of-11 shooting mark in her first career WNBA game, but one data point in a 34-game set is hardly revealing of a player's potential.
Rounding out the point guards is Goodrich, a third-round selection from 2013. Her numbers weren't flashy by general standards, but she did give the Shock a solid option to alleviate the struggles of Diggins. Starting in 16 games, Goodrich posted a higher field goal percentage (42.3) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8) than her fellow point guard. She also had the best plus/minus rating of any Shock player at +11.8 for the 2013 season.
However, with more depth at that position, Goodrich could be relegated to short stints on the floor or appearances in "stat-padding time." Of course, injuries or foul trouble to the players up front changes that approach, and Goodrich serves an example of Tulsa's security that is not universal among the league's other teams.
The two slot is the Shock's most shallow entry, and commonly an overflow arrangement for their point guards in recent years. Tulsa's lone traditional shooting guard is Riquna Williams, a third-year competitor who established herself as a scoring threat in 2013.
Williams averaged 15.6 points per game last year, the product of bumping her shooting percentage across the board. She gained further admiration as the first WNBA player to cross the 50-point mark in a game, racking up 51 in a 98-65 win over San Antonio on Sept. 9.
"I'm looking for that scoring burst from her again this year. She'll be a go-to-the-rim type player for us," Fred Williams said.
Current plans have Odyssey Sims residing in this spot, a situation she encountered at Baylor in her senior year. In that instance, Sims would slide to shooting guard when freshman Niya Johnson assumed primary ball-handling duties.
Roneeka Hodges is the first choice for the small forward position. The eldest member of an otherwise young team figures to get a lot of minutes this season in a career that has swayed between starter and supporting player.
Among the list of starters, Hodges fits the "wild card" persona. Her stats don't give off a sense of danger, but she could go off for a big game if left unchecked.
"She can really help us be a running team, especially in transition, and that really opens up our post game inside," Williams said.
Williams also spoke of moving Glory Johnson up to this position in order to increase her shooting range; Johnson has attempted just three shots beyond the three-point arc in her first two years of play. Jordan Hooper already boasts such range, hitting 36 percent of her three-pointers in her senior season at Nebraska. Even though the three-point line in the WNBA is now longer than the college line, Hooper's ability to go long could place her at small forward for some periods, and Tulsa has more than enough forwards to use this strategy effectively.
Jennifer Lacy's range suffered in the first year of the longer three-point line, making only 25.4 percent of her attempts in 2013, a 15 percent drop from the 2012 season. Nevertheless, her perimeter game is respectable enough to appear in small spurts on the court and perhaps an occasional start.
Johnson has headlined this position for the Shock the last two seasons. An effective player in the paint, she averaged 15.0 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in 2013. She is Tulsa's most reliable anchor inside, and could reach a double-double equation for the first time in her career
"She's a triple threat player for us; on the boards, scoring and defensive steals. We're relying on her to be a strong leader for us," Williams said.
In the season-opener against San Antonio, Johnson scored 15 points and beat her coverage frequently, making 9 of 12 free throw attempts. If players up front like Sims and Diggins can make opponents quiver, Johnson could find herself with isolated coverage, a perfect breeding ground to inflict damage down low.
Tulsa made a notable revision to this position for 2014, replacing Nicole Powell with Vicki Baugh, a 2013 draft pick who was cut during that year's training camp. Baugh played 10 minutes in the San Antonio game, composing a worthwhile introduction with 10 points and 5 rebounds, making all five field goal attempts. Defensively, she was caught multiple times and hit with four fouls, but offered a lot of upside in her debut. Williams noted that Baugh can dunk the ball and brings a shot blocking potential with a mid-range game to boot.
Power forward was the natural position for Hooper at Nebraska, and she could very well be the next "steal" in a growing history of undervalued gems at Tulsa. Theresa Plaisance, the Shock's third-round selection, has the size and mobility to possibly occupy this position, although power forward is the deepest slot on the roster. Still, Williams sees an edge in a potential pick-and-pop sequence with Plaisance
Another likely reserve is Tiffany Jackson-Jones, although she may not be available until late June or early July after surgery earlier this month on her right shin. Jackson-Jones has seen intermittent play since missing the 2012 season on maternity leave. Playing 19 games in 2013, she finished with 4.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
If this slot had to be summarized in one word, fluctuation would be an understatement. The on/off nature of Liz Cambage has left the center position in a constant state of shuffling. This year, Cambage's commitment to the Australian national team leaves the onus of defending the paint to Courtney Paris, a player who logged just eight career starts prior to this season.
Paris took a major step in combating a reputation for being out of shape by recording her first career double-double in the loss to San Antonio, posting 13 points and 14 rebounds. Among her goals this season is a concentration on rebounding
"She's kind of a quiet leader, but she leads in a lot of different ways. I think she's going to bring some good offensive strategies inside the paint," Williams said.
Williams may also tinker with Johnson in the five spot to examine the impact of a smaller line-up. Baugh's interior play could take over when Paris needs a rest, and if her game develops, increase the flexibility of Tulsa's interior rotation. Plaisance, the team's tallest player at 6-foot-5, could also see action through this route.
Tulsa remains hopeful of contending for a playoff spot, no matter how stacked the Western Conference is. Most observers believe there is only one slot open with the firm strongholds of Los Angeles, Minnesota and Phoenix. Whoever joins them is sure to be the underdog, Tulsa included.
"Offense I'm not really concerned about because we got people who can score, run the floor and get rebounds. We just got to improve defensively. Showing the younger players what they need to have done," Williams said.
The Shock carry a degree of sentimental value for enduring their woeful fortunes of the last few years, but 2013 also displayed a few signs of optimism. The most endearing was an end to their losing streak against Minnesota, registering an 83-77 road win that stung the Twin Cities faithful for an extended time. To contend for a post-season berth, Tulsa must reverse the 0-5 record in overtime games last year and instill a level of perseverance to prevent its younger players from emotionally succumbing to unwelcome circumstances.
Tulsa is not the push-over team they once were three years ago, but in the eyes of media, they have not offered enough evidence to warrant respect. Reaching the playoffs for the first time since relocating from Detroit would be a revered first step.
- 2014 WNBA Preview: Can Liberty's three Cs - Cappie, Charles and Carson - spell "championship" for New York?
- 2014 WNBA Preview: Dream 2014 -- Optimism abounds in Atlanta
- 2014 WNBA Preview: Phoenix hopes to reverse 2013 disappointments