The Minnesota Lynx welcomed two new faces to Mayo Clinic Square on Friday morning when the team signed guards Moriah Jefferson and Evina Westbrook to rest-of-the-season contracts. The UCONN alumnae will assume the roster spots created by the departures of a pair of veterans, forward Angel McCoughtry and guard Odyssey Sims, who were each waived upon mutual separation agreements on Thursday.
Three players familiar with the 2022 Lynx — forward Nina Milić, center Hannah Sjerven and guard Yvonne Turner — were re-signed to hardship contracts prior to the start of practice, as well.
All five players will be available for Saturday night’s home matchup with the reigning champion Chicago Sky.
Sjerven takes the place of Rennia Davis, who was released Thursday. The Rogers, Minnesota native in the preseason displayed excellent fight defensively and on both backboards. She provides another interior option to help take the burden off Jess Shepard, who played the entire second half against the Fever on Tuesday.
“What we did in Indiana is not something we really want to do,” Reeve said about not wanting to push Shepard, who is enjoying her first fully healthy season — to this point — in nearly four years, too hard. “Which is [a factor in] the decision to add another post player and to bring Sjerven back to help make sure that we don’t put ourselves in a difficult situation.”
The arrival (or re-arrival) of all five players capped off a whirlwind week of transactions that put to the test Minnesota head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve’s collective bargaining agreement knowledge.
“We’re well-versed in the hardship categories. I think that’s what’s different this year is coming out of training camp we didn’t feel this team was quite the team we needed it to be,” Reeve said Friday afternoon following practice. “Who wants to be making changes at the point guard spot 72 hours before the season?”
The Westbrook signing was the most complex of the five. WNBA teams are required to have a certain number of season-long contracts (not including the hardship contracts). To comply with this, Reeve had to release the three hardship replacement players on the roster (Davis, Milić and Turner) to get under the salary cap, before then signing Westbrook to a rest-of-the-season contract, along with Jefferson, on Friday.
Some fans and media members were confused when the team announced Thursday that it had signed Westbrook to a hardship contract, then announced today her signing to the full-time roster.
That confusion was well-earned, because any team who signs a replacement player to a hardship contract and then wants to sign that player to the full-time roster must first terminate the hardship contract and then wait 10 days before re-signing the player. This is also why the Lynx haven’t signed Milić or Turner to the active roster even though they have been here longer than Jefferson or Westbrook.
Westbrook, however, never put pen to paper on the hardship contract, according to the official WNBA transactions page, so she was eligible to sign a rest-of-the-season contract Friday morning.
Reeve added that it isn’t her preference to wearing the GM hat during the season.
“We’ll do what’s necessary. We’ll keep tweaking until we feel we’ve got the team where we want it,” the four-time champion head coach said.
The hope is obviously that the additions of Jefferson and Westbrook remove the necessity for further tweaking at the guard spot, which has been the crux of the Lynx’s roster movement.
Leader of the Pack
Minnesota has a new starting point guard in Jefferson — a lead guard who has 77 starts under her belt — who will be asked to carry a significant load with her leadership and offensive skillset.
“We’re looking for leadership. Someone who’s going to not only be able to organize, but to have the sense to understand what you’re running, why we’re running it,” Reeve said about her expectations for the team’s point guard. “It may take her a little time in terms of the nuances. But in terms of just management of the floor? That’s something we feel Moriah can do.”
The six-year veteran has struggled to replicate her rookie year form in recent years, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be a valuable addition for a Lynx team looking for more shooting and efficient playmaking. Jefferson has started beside superstar guard Arike Ogunbowale the past two seasons, so she will have more opportunity at the controls of this offense. That opportunity excites her, especially when a Hall of Famer like Sylvia Fowles can ease things for her.
“For me just watching the way she, as a big man that screens and just rolls and offensive rebounds, finishes so well around the basket on either side... as a point guard it’s kind of like your dream,” Jefferson said Friday after practice. “It makes your job so much easier when you have somebody who understands the game the way she does.... “I’m super happy to really get a chance to play with her.”
Jefferson will be valuable to the Lynx because she is capable of creating her own shot off the dribble below the arc as well as converting in spot-up chances above the arc.
This is why she was able to play off of Ogunbowale, and will be able to play alongside Turner and Aerial Powers, at least offensively. She has struggled with turnovers at time in her career, so that will be a key area to watch; Reeve may live with growing pains as long as Jefferson can continue her 26.2% career assist percentage, which would rank in the 95th percentile in most WNBA seasons, per Her Hoop Stats.
Roughly 70% of Jefferson’s 2-point baskets in her career have been unassisted, which is especially valuable considering how much space Fowles can help create for Jefferson with screens. The Dallas, Texas native has scored north of 48% of her season’s points in the paint three times, so her ability to collapse the defense will be important, too.
“I want to be aggressive helping my team to get stops, then get out in transition no matter what,” Jefferson said about her approach. “So I’ll try to find myself in the paint a little bit and get to the spots where I can set people up for getting open shots. Then, the rest of the offense kind of flows together.”
When the former UCONN standout doesn’t have the ball, she can get her shot off quickly and knock it down at an efficient clip.
The Lynx have not had a legitimate threat to do this in a while pic.twitter.com/ia558YwMUl— Lucas Seehafer (@seehafer_) May 14, 2022
Serviceable defense is all the Lynx will need from Jefferson — as long as she can be a capable distributor and offensive engine — and that is what she has done for her career. She ranks slightly below average in indicative defensive metrics.
We’ll find out more about Jefferson on Saturday night against the defending champs when she takes the floor prior to tip-off alongside the rest of the Lynx starters.
Westbrook may be a rookie playing on her first WNBA contract, but she plays with a maturity that excites Reeve and the Lynx coaching staff.
“I just see a mature player who has been kind of unfazed by the challenge that’s gone on the last two days,” Reeve said Friday. “I think she’s used to it, thanks to [UCONN head coach] Geno [Auriemma]. I think for her she’s just kind of ready to figure out how she can help because she’s been through the experiences.”
The No. 21 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft is used to new environments. She transferred from Tennessee to UCONN after her sophomore season and thrived with the Huskies. She ranked in the 97th and 91st percentiles in assists per game in her two seasons in Storrs, and in the 85th and 92nd percentiles in steals, according to Her Hoop Stats.
Her defense will be needed most off the bat, but she is an intriguing scorer below the arc, too. She shot 54.9% and 57.7% from 2 in her two seasons at UCONN, which place her in the 93rd and 96th percentiles, respectively.
It will be interesting to see how Reeve deploys her, considering the staff is still learning about what they have in Westbrook.
“All I can say is, second or third day with her, first game, we’re still learning about her. I just know she’s going to get opportunity,” Reeve said. “So what role? I guess it depends on what happens when she’s on the floor. We’d like to have a player come off the bench who’s going to be assertive, aggressive, that sort of thing. And we can make decisions [from there]. If it goes well, she stays out there longer.”
Jefferson and Westbrook will have excellent opportunity to make an impact and stick long-term in Minnesota, but getting off on the right foot is an essential step. How much leeway they get from Reeve and company is to be determined, but Lynx fans should be excited about the ways they can lift the team in areas they badly need help.