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The Ultimate Role Player: How Bridget Carleton Elevates the Minnesota Lynx

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The Lynx’s key separator come playoff time could prove to be their strong depth, which is fueled by first-time Olympian Bridget Carleton. 

Dallas Wings v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Bridget Carleton brings everything you want from a key player on a winning team.

The third-year player and former All-American from Iowa State is dynamic, versatile forward who possesses excellent awareness and basketball IQ on both ends, always plays within herself, and, simply put, plays winning basketball nearly every time she steps foot on the court.

Don’t just take it from me, though.

Since the start of the team’s rebirth on June 23rd in Atlanta, Carleton has emerged as arguably the most consistent cog not named Sylvia Fowles in a red-hot Minnesota Lynx machine poised for a deep playoff run. As a result, Carleton’s play has evidently earned the trust of four-time WNBA champion head coach Cheryl Reeve, whose standards for excellence from her players are as high as can be.

“Bridget does everything you ask of her,” Reeve said after the team’s big win over the Seattle Storm last week. “She’s one of those players that does things right.”

Minnesota Lynx v Atlanta Dream Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

When you watch the Lynx play and focus in on Carleton, specifically, you see a player who is almost always in the right spot, executing what Reeve has drawn up in that day’s game plan, and a step ahead of her opponent. She’s one of the smartest players I’ve seen in the league, has rock solid fundamentals, and never takes a possession off, especially defensively.

Those attributes create a perfectly synergistic combination, which fuels a sequence of key tide-turning plays that stand out at some point in every Lynx game.

For Carleton, everything starts with her versatility on the defensive end of the floor as an impact defender who gets it done as well when she’s defending off the ball as she does on it.

Defensive Versatility

What immediately stands out to me about Carleton’s defensive acumen is her off-ball defense.

Interior Help Defense

I’ve seen few players this season who are able to diagnose plays, get to the spot she is supposed to be in, and then blow up the play like Carleton has shown the ability to do consistently.

In this play, Carleton starts out the furthest defender from the play. Collier has both feet in the paint, but has to respect Breanna Stewart’s outside jumper, so Carleton slides to the opposite block, knowing Sue Bird is behind her in the corner, in order to pack the paint and prevent an easy bucket inside. While Bird is a 43% 3-point shooter, Carleton knows that Jewell Loyd has no chance of throwing a skip pass that makes it over Fowles’ arms and is still able to get all the way to Bird without her being able to intercept it. When Carleton sees Mercedes Russell roll, she darts across the paint to make a steal some 30 feet from her defender, because of her A+ positioning and play recognition.

Carleton walked through her mindset throughout that play at practice on Thursday and it was a joy to listen to. It’s obvious how well-prepared she is in terms of understanding how opposing players and teams want to play, and how well she knows Minnesota’s defensive scheme.

While doing so, she noted how crucial it is for the Lynx to prevent easy baskets inside. Because she isn’t as tall or long as Collier, she does not have the same margin for error Collier does in terms of positioning and often is aggressive in her help defense partly for that reason.

As a result, opposing teams are taking less shots from the paint and shooting significantly more 3-pointers with Carleton on the floor. For reference, the nearly 7% difference in 3-point rate with Carleton on the floor is greater than the difference between the team who shoots the third-most 3s (Seattle, 0.329 3PR) and the team who shoots the 10th-most 3s (Atlanta, 0.243 3PR).

Numbers suggest this a good thing.

The shot quality (expected opponent effective field goal percentage of shots taken) while Carleton is on the floor is significantly lower than with her off of it. The -0.01 difference with Carleton out there is about the same as the difference between the fourth-best defense by shot quality (Phoenix) and the ninth-best defense (New York). Plus, the team’s defensive rating of 97.9 with Carleton playing would rank third in the W behind Connecticut and Las Vegas.

The average team 3-point shooting percentage is roughly 34.5% (expected value of 1.035 points per shot), while the average at-rim shooting percentage is about 59.4% (expected value of 1.188 points per shot). Based on expected points, and when you factor in that the Lynx defensive rebound percentage climbs 5% overall and 8% on missed 3s with Carleton on the floor, this is a winning proposition.

The lower short mid-range frequency is simply telling of the fact that teams aren’t getting the opportunity to take clean looks from there compared to when Carleton is off the floor.

A good deal of this could be attributed to the fact that 65% of Carleton’s minutes come alongside Fowles — the likely WNBA Defensive Player of the Year — but when you pair the numbers with the film, it is evident that Carleton’s positioning is a significant contributor to that effect.


When I was rewatching the Lynx/Sun game from May in advance of Minnesota’s two-game trip to Mohegan Sun a couple weeks ago, this sequence stood out for a few reasons.

First, just look at how many times Carleton’s head darts back and forth between her matchup, DeWanna Bonner, one of the WNBA’s toughest covers. Next, when Jasmine Thomas has the ball above the break, Carleton preemptively digs on Jonquel Jones’ post-up, which forces Thomas to throw the ball to Briann January for a corner post entry. Damiris Dantas then tries to front on the inside of Jones to allow her help to come from the back side, which Carleton executes beautifully to steal it from the likely WNBA MVP.

Once she steals it, Instead of waiting for a guard to come get the ball, Carleton immediately gets her head up and looks downcourt before running the break herself and finishing it off with a well-timed bounce pass to Fowles for a bucket.

That sequence perfectly illuminates that Carleton possesses the skill and smarts to consistently make winning plays that add up over time.

Perimeter Defense

My favorite aspect of Carleton’s perimeter defense is her ability to stunt and recover without needing back-side help.

Here, Carleton is defending at the point of attack. She first realizes Crystal Bradford is well above the break, which suggests she would have time to recover on a kick-out. With that in mind, she stunts to help Rachel Banham on the ball screen, so that Fowles can stay home on the roller, and which forces a kick-out to Bradford. Carleton closes out nicely, jumping straight across in front of Bradford to make a block above the break.

This next clip is a great example of Carleton seizing an opportunity to make a tide-turning play. Carleton catches Kristi Toliver (who was just hired as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks!) sleeping, which leads to a big triple from Crystal Dangerfield and extended the Lynx lead to five, starting an 8-0 run.

Carleton’s impact doesn’t always show up in the box score. Momentum is very difficult to quantify; because of it, players like Carleton become underserved and unheralded for terrific play. Many of Carleton’s good plays and sequences result in a momentum boost that starts a run, like this play did. These moments are particularly noticeable when she is playing primarily with bench players, because they can springboard the starters to come in and ride the momentum through inflection points of games.

Offense

Shooting

Offensively, Carleton is impactful because she consistently makes the right play and plays within herself, and — unlike many bench players in basketball — it doesn’t take BC three or four possessions to get herself into the flow of the game.

In six of her last seven games, Carleton has made her first shot (four 3s, two 2s) within 1:05 of entering the game. All of those shots were her first attempt of the game, too.

I asked Carleton last week about what has enabled her shooting confidence.

Carleton replied quickly, “My coaches. My teammates. I know when I come in that my role is to play great defense and to shoot shots when I’m open, and I’ve been able to knock them down the last few games, which I’m happy about.”

For a Lynx team whose coach has said on multiple occasions recently they need to shoot more 3s, that kind of instant shooting accuracy (and willingness to shoot) has been a palpable lift.

Of late, her 3-point shooting has been quite good. Over her last 15 games, Carleton is shooting 42.4% from 3 (on 2.3 attempts per game), which leads Minnesota in that span. Of the 14 3s she’s made in the last 15 games, several of them have come in key moments, kickstarted the offense after a drought, or both.

In the first game of the season’s second half, the Lynx allowed the Liberty to storm back early in the fourth quarter to tighten the game largely as a result of a lack of ball movement and player movement on offensively.

This has been an issue for Minnesota all season, so I asked Carleton about it.

“It’s a lack of certainty of what we’re in. What kind of offense are we running? Are we in transition, or do we need to set up a play? If so, what play are we running? That in-between phase where we don’t really know what’s going on, essentially, but I think everyone has to stay shot ready,” she said.

“We can still move the ball even if we’re not in a specific offense or a flow. Someone can attack, someone can pass, we can get into our combos, and that’s just playing basketball. We have a lot of great players that are able to just play. So, when we do have those moments where we’re stagnant and the ball’s not moving, we need to get into that more and just play and be free, so we can build off that.”

After the Liberty pulled the game within a possession, Carleton had had enough. She halted a fierce New York run with a massive 3 that sent the crowd at Target Center into a frenzy. Her shot was the start of a 12-5 run that the Lynx rode to victory.

In June, Carleton may not have taken that shot. Now, it’s clear that the moment doesn’t impact her willingness to shoot, or whether or not the shot goes in.

“I have confidence coming off the bench no matter what time of the game it is,” Carleton said Thursday after practice. “I’m always ready to go.”

When the game has called for her step up, she’s answered the call with big shots in key moments. Since June 23rd, she’s shooting well in high leverage moments in the second half.

Especially since the Olympic break, Carleton’s offense has looked confident and seasoned. I asked her if the load she had to carry in Tokyo has helped the game come to her more easily in the WNBA.

“I matured a lot over the Olympic Games and that break. Playing, I had a lot on my shoulders at the Olympics, and it was my first Olympics, so there was a lot going on. I felt a lot of pressure,” Carleton said. “I feel I learned a lot as a player and my confidence going back into the [WNBA] season grew a lot. I think that stems a lot from my Olympic experience.”

She put it on full display against the Storm, especially in big moments. That display started with a bang. Carleton’s massive triple to stretch the lead from three to six after a 13-6 Storm run helped keep the Lynx afloat long enough to grind out another win in the fourth quarter at home.

The best part about the shot was that the play was ran for her. Collier set a perfect screen off the hand-off and Carleton was shot-ready the whole time coming off it. And then boom. Cash money triple.

She followed it up with a tremendous stretch featuring excellent entry passes, which is an extremely valuable asset to this team, given Minnesota has three Olympians who love to play inside.

Not to mention that she was playing lockdown defense on Stewart on the other end.

In this first clip, Carleton puts on a catch-and-shoot clinic. As you may have noticed in the previous two clips, Carleton likes to step into 3s with her right foot. In this situation, she knows she doesn’t have much time to fire, so she steps in with her right foot as she’s catching it. By the time the ball is at her chin, she has already loaded with her right foot. She doesn’t bring it lower than that, and fires with pure form.

Then, Carleton makes her shot fake look exactly like her normal loading motion. Her right foot clicks in and the ball is in the shooting pocket, but instead of shooting she darts past her defender and delivers an on-time and on-target pass to Dangerfield for a 3.

It’s a great example of her comment above, saying that even if a play isn’t called, the team can still attack, cut, pass and make good basketball plays happen with a good offensive flow.

Even when she goes to shoot the ball, her offensive awareness is apparent. Here, she curls to receive an inbounds pass that would’ve been a fine look. Instead, she sees out of the corner of her eye that her fellow Candian Olympian Natalie Achonwa is wide open in her favorite spot to shoot from, so she passes out of her shot for an easy assist.

Carleton’s offensive game is centered around her shooting. The threat she poses as a shooter opens it up for her other skills to shine through, whether it be attacking closeouts and playmaking from there, passing out of shots, or providing spacing that can allow for a one-on-one matchup for Fowles or Collier in the post.

Off-Ball Movement

Good role players play within themselves and make good plays. Great role players do it on every possession and are smarter than their opponents.

Here, Carleton notices that Bonner, for whatever reason, hard denies Clarendon the ball, so she inbounds it to Phee and immediately cuts to down the wide open lane to receive the ball on a give-and-go. From there, she gets to the middle of the floor and hits a lifting Kayla McBride for a side pocket 3. Players who possess elite play recognition will usually find ways to punish defenders when they make mistakes.

Next, Carleton displays her ability to ad-lib.

Neither of these plays are meant to be back cuts, but both are perfectly timed and extend fourth quarter leads against top five teams in the W.

This upcoming play is an example of how Lynx players can take advantage of Fowles’ massive roll gravity. After Fowles sets the screen, she commands the attention of three Wings players waiting to help if she gets the ball.

While Layshia Clarendon is driving, but before she gets to the spot she’s going to pass from, Carleton realizes that Arike Ogunbowale’s back is turned to her, so she cuts right past her. Carleton times her cut so that when Clarendon turns the corner, she will be in a great position to receive the pass and finish. Clarendon does her part and Carleton pays her off with a bucket.

All of BC’s off-ball movement is quite simple, yet is a concept the Lynx do not employ enough as a team. However, after two straight losses in Connecticut two weeks ago, back cuts and UCLA cuts are becoming a more prominent feature of the offense as a means of using opposing defenses’ aggression against them.

Summary of the Bridget Carleton Experience

Bridget Carleton’s game cannot be perfectly summarized in a couple of clips, but these two highlight one of the best stretches of her season.

After trailing by eight at halftime and three at the end of the third quarter, the Lynx sorely needed someone other than Kayla McBride to step up offensively and give the team a spark.

Coming into the final frame, Carleton was 1-of-3 from the floor and 0-of-2 since making her first shot of the game. She missed two shots in the first 1:25 of the fourth.

So what did she do? Carleton continued to completely lock down Satou Sabally, holding her scoreless in the quarter.

Then, she forces Sabally off of her spot to steal the inbound. She makes the right pass to Collier before floating back out to the 3-point line to take a wide open 3. She misses. Clearly frustrated, she lets it go, before McBride tells her to keep shooting. On the next trip down, she stunts on Ogunbowale to force Arike to pass, which results in a terrible air-ball 3, leading to a run out. Carleton fills correctly to the corner on the break and Clarendon finds her for a 3, which she shoots with zero hesitation right in Sabally’s face. Bang.

In the second clip, a few possesions later, she sprints back to stop Sabally in transition before catching Satou sleeping with a perfectly timed steal that results in a bucket on the other end, which gives the Lynx all the momentum and a five-point lead they would not surrender on the way to an 85-79 win.

After starting the game 1-of-5, Carleton’s effort never wavered on either end. She kept defending and she kept shooting, and made the two biggest shots shots of the game. Both came immediately after BC forced a stop on the other end.

“I think this has been brewing for Bridget. Bridget was doing what she had been doing this season,” Reeve said after the game. “You’re open for a shot you knock down in your sleep (shot No. 1), it doesn’t go in. You get a pull-up jumper (shot No. 2); it’s the right shot, but it doesn’t go in. Bridget could’ve easily felt bad for herself. But she turned the tide when she really aggressive guarded the perimeter and got a couple of breakaways.”

After lauding role players who stepped up in the win, Reeve came back to compliment Carleton once again.

“She didn’t stop shooting. She didn’t think twice about it. I think it speaks a great deal of Bridget Carleton’s mental toughness,” Reeve said. “You have to have [mental toughness]. Every team has to have that.”

In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned about Carleton, her mental toughness may be her best skill. It doesn’t matter if she starts the game 1-for-1 or 1-for-5. She’s going to let it go and lock you up on the other end, while maintaining an unwavering confidence in herself that enables her to shine in the biggest of moments.

In the playoffs, will beats skill.

Bridget Carleton is full of it. And she’s ready to make it the rest of the league’s problem in the playoffs, whether they’re ready or not.