Roaming the Baseline: Sabrina Ionescu, Jayson Tatum, Teaira McCowan
Hi, hello, and welcome to yet another edition of Roaming The Baseline! This will be a weekly endeavor where I point out some things that caught my eye: a hot or cold streak from a player, a developmental flash, a well-run play, a funny tweet, who knows? There will be film -- it’s me, so of course there will be film -- but this will also be a bit looser. It’s an extension of my Twitter feed, if you will.
With that said, let’s roam the baseline.
BRING ME LIBERTY, OR BRING ME DEATH (BY PICK-AND-ROLL)
Well, well, well. If it isn't the New York Liberty, fresh off a 2-20 season, getting off to a 3-0 start. Quibble over the early strength of schedule if you will, but it's fair to say this team looks different.
That different look starts with Sabrina Ionescu, a dynamic lead initiator that combines high-level pull-up shooting with I-see-everything court vision. There isn't a surefire way to slow her down. You can attempt pressing her, but she's pretty darn good at navigating her defender into screens.
If you get caught on a screen against Sabrina, you're practically dead.
Just peep the patience from Ionescu on this possession. She's able to get a little separation from Danielle Robinson as she flies off the screen. From there, the hang dribble freezes Teaira McCowan (#15), and causes Victoria Vivians (#35) to rotate over. A timely cut from Sami Whitcomb (#32) puts Kelsey Mitchell (#0) in a tough spot, freeing the corner skip to Betnijah Laney (who's making an early case for MIP).
Ionescu leads the WNBA in pick-and-roll possessions (32) by a wide margin, per Synergy. She's generating north of 97 points per 100 pick-and-roll possessions (passes included), placing her in the 83rd percentile right now.
This is obviously early season stuff, but Ionescu is also the only player that ranks in the top-five in scoring (21.0) and assists (9.0), while also leading the WNBA in three-pointers made (10). It wouldn't be a total shock for any of those designations to hold throughout the season if she stays healthy.
She's that darn good.
TEAIRA MCCOWAN, DOING HER WORK EARLY
Send this clip to every big (wo)man camp in the country.
There is no play-call here. No frills. This is Teaira McCowan busting it up the floor, knocking Kylee Shook back and setting up shop in a threatening post position.
She's able to put Shook on her right shoulder to create a wider window for the entry pass from Robinson. There is absolutely nothing Shook can do to prevent the pass, nor does she have the length to bother the shot.
It's textbook stuff, stuff that McCowan was doing at Mississippi State. It's what she did as a rookie; for the life of me, I still do not understand why she didn't get more playing time last season.
If you want a number, I'll present you with this one: per Synergy, McCowan leads the WNBA in points (15) off those deep middle seals. Liz Cambage is the only other player in double digits (10).
JAYSON TATUM HAS FULLY ARRIVED
23 points. 7-of-10 from the field, 2-of-3 from three. Three assists, one measly turnover.
That's a darn good game for a hired gun off the bench. A play-finishing wing that sprinkled in some transition dimes or something.
The fact that this is what Jayson Tatum did during the third quarter of Tuesday night's play-in game is absolutely absurd.
There's only so much you can do against Tatum now. As I wrote last month, he's rounding out the rough parts of his game. He's gotten more comfortable operating in the intermediate areas. He gets downhill more often, and with more purpose. You don't luck your way into 17 free throws.
The fun part of getting good at the average stuff is that it simply unlocks more of your great stuff. In a way, the hesi-and-drive to Tatum's left against Rui Hachimura ultimately helps him set up this stepback against Davis Bertans.
50 points. Big win. Playoff spot secured. The Leap is happening right before our eyes, folks.
THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO "HMMMM"
- We're working with a 30-minute sample right now, but the early returns for the A'ja Wilson-Liz Cambage combo have been positive (plus-6.4 net rating). A'ja took a three on Saturday and made it. Let's just say I'll be keeping tabs on that all season long.
- I am just especially fascinated by how the Atlanta Dream plan to find minutes for Chennedy Carter, Courtney WIlliams, Aari McDonald, Odyssey Sims and Tiffany Hayes. They've shown some early willingness to go with three guards, but I am terrified of what the defense will look like.
- Breanna Stewart (averaging 27 & 12 through two) is the obvious draw for the Storm, but I'm intrigued by Ezi Magbegor. She got the start on Tuesday night against the Aces; her blend of size and skill provides a nice complement to Stewart's, well, everything.
- A quick glance at the blocks per game leaderboard will highlight two members of the Phoenix Mercury: Brittney Griner (2.7, 2nd) and Brianna Turner (2.3). Unsurprisingly, among the teams that have played multiple games, none have allowed a lower field goal percentage than the Mercury.
- The Sky outscored the Mystics by 19 points in the 25 minutes that Candace Parker was on the court. This might be as scary as we thought it would be.
PLAYS I LIKED
Pick Your Poison
The Indiana Pacers absolutely molly whopped the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night. Among the many, many, many plays in which the Hornets looked unequipped to defend this team, this play caught my eye.
I appreciate the misdirection to kick things off, with Justin Holiday kinda faking a connection with Doug McDermott before lifting above the break. McDermott does a great job of setting Terry Rozier up, and Domantas Sabonis finishes the job by sliding over a step to prevent Rozier from shooting the gap.
Watch Your Back(cut)
It's all about playing against tendency here. Boston loves to run pindowns for Tatum to get him attacking on the move. Bradley Beal has positioned himself -- back to Marcus Smart, practically hugging Tatum -- to prepare for this screening action.
Tatum uses that so-called knowledge (and that positioning) against Beal, juking before darting to the basket for an easy lob.
I talked about Ionescu's pick-and-roll proficiency a little bit earlier, but I like this set-up from the Liberty.
We get a Pistol/21 look as Ionescu trots up the left side of the floor. Laney "ghosts" the screen before running off a flare from Shook. That action between Laney and Shook not only occupies their defenders; it also puts strain on the weak side since Ionescu is able to gain inside leverage on the drive.
The drive forces a rotation, which leaves Crystal Dangerfield (#2) splitting the difference. Whitcomb recognizes that dilemma and cuts inside, receiving a pass and getting an uncontested lay-up as a result.
Good stuff all around.
THE READING LIST
There is plenty of high-level basketball content out here if you know where to look. I wouldn’t be where I am as a writer without reading a ton of Zach Lowe or Chris Herring or Caitlin Cooper or Mirin Fader or... well, you get the point.
Anyway, here are some -- not all, but some! -- of the stories I’ve read this week that I think you should check out. Their Twitter handles will be linked under their names, so click and follow if you don’t already.
ESPN's massive playoff guide is well worth your time.