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WNBA 101 for Wolves Fans, pt i: The Game


One of the big goals for this site over the summer is to build some interest in the women's game, specifically the Minnesota Lnyx.  It will never cease to amaze me that the women's professional game does not have a greater following.  In many ways it is the perfect middle-ground between the pack-em-in/slog-it-out male college game and the individual-dominated NBA.  Last week I conducted an interview with Lnyx assistant coach (and everyone's favorite TV color commentator) Jim Petersen about women's ball, his choice to coach in the WNBA and the young core of the Minnesota Lynx.  His interview contained enough good information that I thought I would put it into a series of posts that would help Wolves/NBA fans become more familiar with the women's game.  In this edition I will make some general points about the women's game in comparison to the NBA.

One of the biggest criticisms I hear NBA fans level at the women's game is that it is an unathletic collection of non-dunking ballers who play below the rim.  Let's go through these charges one by one.  First, if you have not sat in the lower level of the arena during an WNBA game, please do so before you throw out the unathletic card.  The WNBA is a hard-hitting league with the best female athletes in the world.  From picks to fighting for lose balls, this is a full contact league.  Second, while the league isn't playing above the rim (yet), it has undergone a change in the past 5-10 years.  "The level of talent has really gone up in the past 10 years," says Petersen.  "There has been a [talent] explosion and from talking to people associated with the game, and being associated with the game, it is mainly due to better coaching at all levels, from AAU to the pros. These gals have really risen the level of their games and they're probably 10-15 years behind the men's game in terms of athleticism and closing quickly."

Along with the contact, the speed of the WNBA game is the first thing that will catch your eye should you attend a contest at Target Center or on FSN North.  These players are quick on and off the ball and they are miles and miles removed from Pat Reusse's crass "synchronized tip-toeing" generalization of women's ball that was amazingly put into print a decade ago.  One of the main draws of the NBA is seeing the world's greatest athletes go at full speed while playing an entertaining game.  The WNBA has the world's greatest female athletes going at full speed playing an entertaining game and, in many ways, it is a more entertaining spectator sport for basketball purists than is the NBA.  From the paint to the perimeter, this isn't a plodding game.

"We run a lot of the same play sets [as the NBA]," says Petersen.  "In the NBA they run something called the horn set; they do this at the WNBA level along with a lot of sideline and middle pick and rolls and a bunch of variations on that theme, but what separates the leagues is that the WNBA is truer to continuity basketball." 

"Continuity basketball means that there is not just a single option, or a quick hitter.  There are 2nd and 3rd options built into the playsets and you just don't see that in the NBA all that much.  In the NBA you'll see the defense broken down on a pass or two.  In the WNBA they might not play the greatest defense at all times but you may have to get to a 2nd or 3rd option in order to score."

Of course the NBA apologist response to this is that this is part of what makes the NBA so interesting: it is a league that allows its superstars the ability to take over a game with spectacular individual plays.  It is geared in every way, shape and form to allow its players to take long 3 pointers or get into the lane for a spectacular fan-pleasing dunk.  The women's game is more team-based in nature.

"The women don't rely on dunking and the 3 pointer or backing people into the deep post," continues Petersen.  They are more true to the pass and cut game which is predicated on ball movement and player movement.  So often in the NBA you'll see a point guard dribble to the sideline and run a pick and roll and that's it.  In the women's game you'll see a ton of weakside action that is just as important as the initial strongside action and I'm amazed at how good the players are with this type of game."

There is nothing I enjoy more than taking my two girls to a basketball game.  While I will never turn down an opportunity to see the Wolves, I find that Lynx games provide more teachable and parent-child moments than does an NBA contest.  At any point in a Lynx game I can look out at the court, point to any player and say "see what she is doing?"  Often, during an NBA game, this would mean finger pointing at someone like Corey Brewer standing around while twiddling his thumbs beyond the arc in a 1/2 court set while Randy Foye dribbles or Al Jefferson sets up a post move.  With the Lynx, it's Charde Houston setting up a cutting angle; it's Nicky Anosike positioning herself for a better get the picture.  In the WNBA there is a lot of stuff happening off the ball and it is a joy to watch.  It is Princeton basketball with better players and athletes.  It doesn't have to be a father/daughter type moment; this type of ball should appeal to anyone who yearns for the good ol' days of team ball without the over-the-top individualism that took over the NBA in the 90s and early 00s. 

The WNBA runs many of the same sets as the NBA.  It isn't behind the times.  According to Petersen, things like DDM and an increased reliance on the 3 are seeping their way into the league and they should be mainstays in a short time.  What the WNBA gives up in terms of dunking and ridiculous acrobatics, it more than makes up for it with a complete team game that is watchable from end line to end line and with each and every single player on the court.  Every cut matters.  Every pick matters.  2nd and 3rd options matter.  There are hard hits and sick handles.  There are quick guards and beyond-strong post players. If you like basketball, you will enjoy the WNBA.  You will enjoy the Lynx. If you are the type of fan who likes to talk about how the NBA has moved away from a more team-based approach, the WNBA is for you.  If you think the Princeton offense or Bobby Knight-ball is the bee's knees, the WNBA is for you.  If you enjoy watching off-the-ball action, the WNBA is for you.

I strongly urge you to catch a Lynx game in person.  You can view their schedule by clicking here.  I highly suggest catching their games against Connecticut (August 7th) or San Antonio (August 9th).  The Sun are led by former Gopher Lindsay Whalen and SAS is one of the most professional outfits in the league (surprise).  A lower level ticket is worth every penny. 

In the next edition of WNBA 101 for Wolves Fans I will write about the Lynx and their players.  I am in the process of finding additional interviews with the team and I hope to continue this series throughout the summer.  A big thank you also goes out to Jim Petersen.  The guy is a serious gentleman and he has continually said nice things about the site while mentioning us on TV and on the radio. 

What say you?  What do you enjoy about the women's game?  What don't you enjoy? Will you go see a game this summer? 

Until later.