It simply wasn't supposed to be this way.
On paper, the Minnesota Lynx were supposed to be one of the dark-horse contenders in the WNBA heading into this season. A Hall-of-Famer on the sidelines in Cheryl Reeve; a dominant frontcourt, headlined by future Hall-of-Fame center Sylvia Fowles and budding star Napheesa Collier. With health, a wing group featuring Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers could give defenses fits in all three levels.
In reality, we haven't seen Collier, as she's been out due to the birth of her first child (congrats!). Fowles is now out indefinitely with a knee injury, halting another All-Star-caliber season and potentially ending her legendary career on a low note. McBride has missed five games due to injury; Powers, with the lack of creation chops around her, has been overtasked for most of the season. Her efficiency numbers — 36% from two, 29% from three — are not at all indicative of how good she actually is.
With the roster in flux for most of the season — heck, you go back to preseason with the surprising release of 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, the return of Odyssey Sims and the eventual release of Sims — the Lynx haven't been able to find a rhythm. They currently sport The W's worst record at 3-13. Though they got off to a slow start last season and ended their campaign by winning 17 of their last 20 games, it's difficult to envision them having a similar turn of fortune.
However, in the midst of the things that have gone wrong for them at this point, I'd like to highlight one of their silver linings. Versatile forward Jessica Shepard has been plugging holes all over the place, particularly on the offensive end.
She's having the best season of her young career: a career-high in minutes (29.1), points (9.6), rebounds (8.4), two-point percentage (51.5%), three-point percentage (26.7%), free throw rate (41.5), True Shooting Percentage (55.2%), and a career-low turnover rate (16.2).
Against the Las Vegas Aces on Sunday night, Shepard slapped up a career-best 22 points, 19 rebounds (also a career-high), and 6 assists in 28 minutes off the bench. It was a wildly efficient outing as well; in addition to shooting 9 of 11 from the field, her 6 assists only came with a pair of turnovers. It isn't responsible to define a player by their absolute best game, but Sunday's outing was a nice window into what Shepard's been providing all season.
Though it'd be easy to start with the scoring, I find myself most impressed by the way Shepard reads the floor. She maps it out incredibly well, which is what allows the Lynx to use her directly as a high-post hub, a handoff partner, a short-roll playmaker in ball-screens. If not directly, she's able to find her own offense with impromptu cuts and a nose for the glass. You don't grab 19 boards, 6 on the offensive end, without knowing where to be.
Not only does Shepard have incredible court awareness, but she also combines it with ball skills that a player her size shouldn't have. She's a deft handler and passer, which opens up the playbook for inverted sets or, again, allows her to take matters into her own hands with randomness.
There was this nifty drive from Shepard against Dearica Hamby, after relocating to the short corner:
Early in the fourth, the Lynx went to high post with Shepard to set up this screen-plus-flare action for McBride. Peep the live-dribble lefty feed from Shepard.
This might've been my favorite possession of the night from her as a playmaker.
It's a beautiful setup from the Lynx.
An Elevator set with McBride in the weak-side corner is certainly a way to spread the floor. Shepard exacerbates things by slipping to the basket after setting her side of the screen. Hamby attempts to pick her up, but she's on Shepard's hip.
A'ja Wilson has to choose between rotating down to cut off a shot from Shepard, or staying home on the sharpshooting McBride. The second Wilson shifts her weight towards Shepard, Shepard hits McBride with a touch pass to the corner for an open triple.
The movement, feel, and playmaking chops were all on display within a six-second span.
On the scoring front, it's important to note Shepard's touch. It hasn't quite translated to three-point range this season — she shot 4 of 11 (36.4%) from three in the first five games of the season, but has attempted four threes since — but she's a quality outlet inside the arc. She's comfortable as a pick-and-pop threat against drop coverage. When asked, she can chew up some space and finish in the intermediate area.
Deeper in the paint, Shepard is an able finisher with either hand. More importantly, she does her work early. When she isn't cutting into space at random, she's able to use her frame to shield off defenders to help her set up shop in the paint. There's a reason she's converting a career-high 62.3% inside of 3 feet this season.
This isn't just the best campaign of Shepard's career, it also happens to be the healthiest. Heading into this season, she had only logged 343 minutes across 28 games. She's already up to 465 minutes this year!
For everyone's sake, hopefully the Lynx as a whole are able to get healthy and put together a run. The talent is there, when it's available.
For now, let's enjoy Shepard's breakout. It's been a long time coming.