Offseason training

Just as the best players use the offseason to work on their game, I do the same thing as a basketball writer and editor.

The prevailing theme around this time of the year is that things are slow. It’s a good time for a vacation. That sort of vibe.

But I believe this is the BEST time to go hard and get better. This offseason, I’ve been using some of my spare time to break down all kinds of stats from last season. Continuing to study the game.

On the job, I create challenges for myself. Pushing myself to uncover the big story that hasn’t been aggregated (while following the new protocol–word to Windy).

I’ve also been watching the WNBA more than any previous summer. If you consider yourself a fan of basketball, I don’t know why you wouldn’t be watch high-level competition. The league is full of most elite players in the world. I mean, c’mon now…

I challenge myself by taking on extra work. Staying up late and waking up early if need be.

I’m continually working on my discipline and getting my mind and body right so I can perform at the highest level.

But most of all, I’m dedicating myself to writing on a daily basis. Once and for all, I’m committing to keeping this skill super sharp.

What can you provide?

Today, you hear a lot of brand marketers asking the question, “What problem do you solve?”

It’s a question that works for a lot of people, getting them to focus more on what they do.

Fair enough. When I was in college, staring my impending graduation in the face, I asked myself a similar, but perhaps a more powerful question:

What can I provide others?

Asking myself this question made me think about my passions and figure out ways of channeling it into a service.

For instance, back in college, I was a big NBA fan (obviously still am). From years of playing fantasy basketball, watching games on TV and playing pick-up, I already had a bette-than-basic understanding of the game.

So I brainstormed different ways to provide a service to basketball fans.

Having no budget, but the good fortune of high-speed internet (my university boasted some of the fastest connection speeds in the country at the time), I found a way to stream live NBA games on my computer, upload the most dramatic/interesting moments to YouTube and use social media to share the content.

All of this was happening just as YouTube and Twitter were poised to take off. The NBA too, for that matter.

It was an immediate hit. I made a name for myself in the basketball community and NBA video clips still dominate our newsfeeds over 10 years later.

The key was to focus on what I was uniquely capable of providing. There may not be a path laid out already. That’s fine. The beauty lies in creating your own way. Using your willpower to forge a new path.

Quick 2 Cents on Raptors Trading for Kawhi Leonard

The Raptors and Spurs are expected to make a trade call today regarding a deal centered around swapping Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan.

It’s a bold move for Toronto, one that could turn catastrophic if Leonard leaves Toronto after just one season. But with the Raptors’ potential as a team essentially capped out, it was a move Toronto had to make.

We’ve seen this situation before.

An All-NBA player with one year left on his deal (Paul George) tells his team that he wants to play for the Lakers.

The player is traded to a team not of his choosing (OKC), and a season-long recruitment period begins.

The Thunder ended up getting George to re-sign despite OKC not being on his radar a year earlier. Toronto is hoping for the same result with Kawhi.

Toronto is not a top free-agent destination for many reasons—being north of the border prime among them. The chances of signing an elite talent like Leonard would seem all but impossible in free agency.

Rather than going the rebuild route, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri is going all in. The price to get Leonard was high. But it was a necessary gamble.

The price to get Leonard was high. But it was a necessary gamble. #byHOPZ

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On the train

The quiet car, riding into the city, might as well be my sanctuary. The Hudson River racing to my left. Lounging on a cushy seat. Fifty minutes to myself.

The ritual ride into Manhattan brings a calm, old-school, newspaper vibe. Like my tee should be a suit coat, and my Bulls cap a fedora.

The old soul in me wishes I could travel across the country this way. Or across Europe one day. I wish that trains might continue to meander across the land. These 100 mph-plus trains strip the beauty away from the ride.

As my train gets into the city, I’ll savor this moment like the last bit of coffee in my cup.

And don’t hate on the language. That’s a layup.

Where Does A’ja Wilson’s Rookie Season Rank All-Time?

I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t expect A’ja Wilson to be this dominant this year.

When I wrote about Wilson for SLAM before the 2018 season, I thought Wilson had a good chance to be Rookie of the Year, but expected her to struggle at times against bigger, more physical competition.

But with her 34-point, 14-rebound performance in the Aces’ comeback win over Connecticut on Saturday, Wilson has all but secured the ROY award.

Wilson has turned around the long-suffering Aces franchise (formerly San Antonio Stars) and could become the first rookie to make the First Team All-WNBA team since 2008.

Twenty games into her WNBA career, Wilson is putting up numbers that few players—let alone rookies—have ever put up.

Wilson ranks second in the league in scoring (21.0), fourth in rebounding (8.7) and fifth in blocks (1.7). Perhaps even more impressive, she’s turning the ball over just 1.6 times per game despite a 29.2 usage rate (third-highest usage rate in the league).

The only knock on Wilson’s rookie resume is her 53.4 true shooting percentage, but that’s hardly a knock.

All this begs the question: Where does Wilson’s season rank among the greatest rookie seasons ever?

Excluding the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997, only three other players have had singularly dominant rookie seasons.

1. Tamika Catchings, Indiana, 2002
18.6 PPG, 57.1 TS%, 8.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.9 SPG, 1.3 SPG, 2.6 TOV, 26.2 USG%

Catchings’ rookie season is hands down the best in WNBA history, but she sat out a year after being drafted by the Fever.

Similar to Ben Simmons, Catchings had a year to train as a professional before her rookie season. Some would say that Catchings wasn’t a true rookie.

She led the league in steals and was a First Team All-WNBA selection in 2002.

2. Candace Parker, Los Angeles, 2008
18.5 PPG, 58.2 TS%, 9.5 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.3 SPG, 2.3 BPG, 2.8 TOV, 24.4 USG%

The only player to ever win the ROY and MVP in the same season, Parker was absolutely dominant in 2008. She led the league in rebounding and was a First Team All-WNBA selection.

Parker had the advantage of playing alongside Hall of Fame center Lisa Leslie, who was still elite at age 36.

3. A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas, 2018
21.0 PPG, 53.4 TS%, 8.7 RPG, 2.5 AST, 0.8 SPG, 1.7 BPG, 1.6 TOV, 29.2 USG%

If Wilson keeps up the current pace, her rookie season will rank top-3 of all time. That puts her in the same trajectory as some sure-fire Hall of Famers.

4. Breanna Stewart, Seattle, 2016
18.3 PPG, 57.6 TS%, 9.3 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 2.4 TOV, 24.5 USG%

Stewie lost more games during her rookie WNBA season than she did during four seasons at UConn, but she wasn’t any less incredible.

She won a Gold medal with Team USA at the Rio Olympics en route to a nearly unanimous ROY selection.

Quick 2 Cents on Bulls Matching Zach LaVine’s $78M Offer Sheet

Let me get this out the way right now: I’m a Bulls fan. I grew up in the Chicago area and got hooked on the NBA during Chicago’s second threepeat.

So I’m naturally rooting for this deal to work out in the Bulls’ favor. That said, I honestly think John Paxson and Gar Forman made the right decision to match Zach LaVine’s four-year, $78 million offer sheet from the Kings.

LaVine played just 24 games last season as he finished rehabbing an ACL tear from February of 2017. The Bulls then shut him down for the final 14 games of the season, as they tanked their way to the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 Draft.

LaVine didn’t have much of a chance to hit his stride during his abbreviated 2017-2018 season, but he demonstrated his ability to become an elite scorer in the league.

A month shy of his 23rd birthday, he dropped 35 points in a clutch performance vs his former team. Only a handful of guards near LaVine’s age (Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, D’Angelo Russell) displayed a comparable offensive capacity last season.

Salary-wise, LaVine’s new deal most closely resembles Gary Harris’ four-year, $84 million extension with Denver. On average, LaVine will be making $1.5 million less than Harris per season and is the superior scorer.

The knock against LaVine has been his defensive deficiencies (which are especially apparent when comparing to a player like Harris). That said, he has the physical tools to improve on that end of the court. And his tireless work ethic will help him get there.

LaVine has potential to become a multiple-time All-Star and an elite scorer. He wants the responsibility of taking big shots. And most importantly, he’s a leader in the Bulls’ locker room.

The opportunity to sign a player like LaVine—who exhibits all the traits and abilities you want in a young player—doesn’t come around often.

It’s a gamble, especially given LaVine’s ACL injury, but certainly one worth taking.

Most Improved/Disappointing WNBA Players This Season

We’re about halfway through the 2018 WNBA regular season, so let’s take a look at which players have impressed (and distressed) so far this year.

2018 WNBA Most Improved Players

1. Natasha Howard, Seattle
2017: 11.7 MPG, 52.8 TS%, 2.4 RPG, 4.3 PPG
2018: 26.2 MPG, 64.8 TS%, 6.6 RPG, 13.6 PPG

The easy choice for Most Improved Player this season, Howard is taking full advantage of a new opportunity in Seattle. Howard went from playing just 11.7 minutes off the bench in Minnesota last season to starting at center for the Storm.

She’s extended her game to the three-point line, while shooting a staggering 64.8 true shooting percentage. With the expanded minutes, Howard is putting up career-highs in every category.

Adding Howard was perhaps the most underrated move the offseason, as the Storm effectively gave up just the No. 17 pick in the 2018 Draft in return.

2. Natalie Achonwa, Indiana
2017: 18.3 MPG, 59.7 TS%, 3.7 RPG, 7.1 PPG
2018: 24.5 MPG, 60.5 TS%, 7.2 RPG, 10.1 PPG

Achonwa has been Indiana’s most productive player as a full-time starter this season. Still just 25, Achonwa is young enough to be part of the Fever’s rebuild.

She’s rebounding the ball at a rate on par with the most efficient bigs in the league. And while she’s never been much of a shooter, Achonwa has stayed effective in the post and from the foul line.

2018 Most Disappointing Players

1. Jonquel Jones, Connecticut
2017: 28.5 MPG, 63.4 TS%, 11.9 RPG, 15.4 PPG
2018: 20.5 MPG, 58.7 TS%, 5.2 RPG, 8.6 PPG

Last season’s Most Improved Player, Jones has clearly regressed in 2018. She’s struggled to stay out of foul trouble and hasn’t rebounded the ball nearly as effectively.

Jones has struggled alongside Chiney Ogwumike. Forced to match up with DeWanna Bonner last night, Jones played only 13 minutes, scored 2 points, grabbed just 1 board and committed 3 fouls.

2. Layshia Clarendon, Atlanta
2017: 29.8 MPG, 45.4 TS%, 6.6 APG, 10.7 PPG
2018: 18.5 MPG, 44.2 TS%, 1.9 APG, 4.9 PPG

After being named an All-Star in 2017 and spending an offseason training with USA Basketball, Clarendon’s production has dropped off precipitously. Most alarming has been Clarendon’s shooting numbers—34.7 percent from the field and 15.4 percent from three.

With Tiffany Hayes, Renee Montgomery and Brittney Skyes all playing well, Clarendon will continue to find it difficult to get consistent minutes off the bench.