The Journey Here
It’s been four years since Minnesota Lynx guards Kayla McBride and Moriah Jefferson shared a back-court when they suited up for the Las Vegas Aces in 2018.
Before they were stretching defenses in Sin City, the dynamic and highly competitive duo started beside each other for the now-extinct San Antonio Stars. There they learned the hard way, at the hands of the dynastic Lynx squads of the 2010s, what winning in the WNBA looks like.
“They were champions on both ends of the floor. Coming up, from 2014 through 2017, they owned this league,” Lynx guard Kayla McBride recalled recently, with a laugh. “‘We used to be down 10 and be like, ‘Yeah, we in the game!’”
The 2017 Stars squad lost 14 games in a row to open the season. Two of those losses came on the road at the hands of the Lynx, where McBride learned what the Lynx organization was all about.
“Coming from San Antonio, we would always go through and be like, ‘Oh my God, like, this is so cool.’ It’s not even necessarily about who they had on the team,” McBride said after pausing to find the way to best describe those Lynx teams. “It was how they played together and the atmosphere, the trust, and how much fun they were having on both ends of the floor. They were champions on every possession.”
It was those Lynx teams that showed McBride how much work went into upholding that culture, and that ultimately drove both McBride and Jefferson to dream about joining it one day, together.
“Coming from college, we both played for championship organizations and you know when we played against the Lynx, everything is [part of] a championship organization, ran by the book here,” Jefferson said before admitting her Stars got killed a few times. “I remember just saying, ‘It would be so cool to be able to get the chance to play for a team like that.’ I think God’s timing is perfect. It always works out the way it’s supposed to. And we’re here now and we need to make the best of the situation that we’re in.”
“We were always like, ‘We’re gonna come here one day and it’s gonna be perfect timing,’” McBride recalled of their shared dream, after her first game back with Jefferson, a road win over the Los Angeles Sparks. “There’s going to be something special about it. ... I’ve had dreams about it and everything.”
Since the days when those dreams were just dreams, both players have learned a significant amount about what goes into winning, especially in a league that is as difficult as the W is on a nightly basis. What they each have learned — and now understand and show in their games — are staples of the Lynx culture.
“It really is about being disciplined and being consistent. I think if you have those two things, you can be successful in this league,” Jefferson said confidently. “Every night you’re gonna play against one of the best players in the world, so it’s extremely hard to not be disciplined, and to come out and play really good defense. It’s extremely hard to not be consistent and get wins back-to-back.”
“You gotta bring your A game every night. You can’t take plays off, can’t take possessions off, or you’ll get buried,” McBride added. “And then just continue to push yourself, too, off the court and keep getting better. You can’t just stay the same. You gotta consistently continue to get better or else you’ll get left behind.”
Minnesota head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve has spoken at length throughout her career about the need, for any player or team hoping to be successful in her system, to be collectively mature, disciplined, and consistent in order to win. Reeve has used all three words on multiple occasions this season to describe both Jefferson and McBride.
Now that Reeve has them both in Minnesota, it is paying dividends. The team’s play has been much improved over the four games Jefferson and McBride have played together, as reflected by the team’s 2-2 record with them compared to the 0-4 start without them sharing the floor together. Minnesota’s offense has jumped from 10th without both playing together to 5th with both active.
“Maturity. I think maturity, consistency, those are some of the greatest things you can say about players like that. You know what they’re gonna do; you know what you can count on,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus about what her back-court duo unlocks for the team. “[Kayla] continues to mature as a player and has really come into her own as a leader for this team. ... [Moriah] is coming here with maturity and knowledge of what it takes [to be consistent]. She can be counted on and she’s got confidence. At that position, obviously, that’s pretty important.”
Fit On and Off the Court
McBride and Jefferson are fits together obviously because they bring that maturity and consistency that Reeve demands, but also because each player’s skills accentuate the other’s. Both are excellent shooters who give each other the space to draw limited defensive attention, which creates a more spread-out offensive attack at all three levels.
Jefferson is especially good when attacking off the dribble, so Reeve has utilized McBride in the screening game to create space for her point guard.
In the first clip, McBride runs off Sylvia Fowles, keeping Sabrina Ionescu occupied and out of the lane so Jefferson has space to get to the rim for the and-1. Then, Reeve dials up a McBride ram screen (off-ball screen that plays into an on-ball screen) to give Fowles more space to set a screen for Jefferson, while also getting a defender out of the lane to chase McBride above the break, clearing the way for an easy layup.
McBride has as much shooting gravity as any player in the entire WNBA, so you can bet Jefferson will continue to reap the benefits of that all season long.
Minnesota likes to use UCLA cuts for its guards and Los Angeles knows this. Fowles is a good high-low passer, too. Reeve takes advantage of this by using the threat of Jefferson cutting off of Fowles as a decoy; watch Lexie Brown take a hard step towards Jefferson, then flip her hips because of it. That enables Jefferson to set a good screen and get a wide open deep look for McBride.
But where Jefferson really creates space for K-Mac is as a handler who poses a threat of getting into the paint on any given possession. Here, Jefferson comes to set up a dribble hand-off (DHO) for McBride. Both Crystal Dangerfield and Sami Whitcomb respect Jefferson off the dribble enough that neither cheats toward McBride coming off the DHO. Dangerfield shows, but then the two miscommunicate over the threat of Jefferson as a shooter (46% from 3 last year, 61.5% this year).
This string of plays show the attention Jefferson commands as a scorer, and her playmaking savvy. She holds UCONN’s all-time career assists record and was the No. 2 pick in 2016 for a reason.
In the first play, Chiney Ogwumike comes all the way across the paint to try and prevent a Jefferson, who is occupying three defenders at once, from driving, but Mo still creates a wide open K-Mac 3. Next, Marina Mabrey has to close-out on Jefferson after Aerial Powers’ pass-fake, leaving McBuckets wide open for a splash from 3. Then last, I love how Jefferson stays on the weak side while the play develops, before crossing over to get momentum behind her spot-on pass to McBride after K-Mac gets out of the elevator.
Both players are also excellent in transition because they each possess a terrific understanding of spacing, keep a balanced floor as often as possible, are very athletic, and can score at all three levels.
Perhaps their most important fit is the perfect harmony created by their respective competitive fires.
“We both want to win. We both have passion. We both love to compete. We don’t like to get it wrong. We come from winning environments. ... We love being the one,” McBride said, getting progressively more and more fired up.
There is no love lost between those winning environments, either.
“Like for me when I first came into San Antonio, being from UConn and she was from Notre Dame, obviously we didn’t know anything about each other. We didn’t really like each other because we’re from two different programs,” Jefferson admitted, before seeing McBride’s reaction, which prompted them to laugh. “But we connected instantly. ... It’s just something about our connection and our bond and the chemistry that we had that just kind of came and has never gone away.”
Because they share that bond through spirit, it was easy for them to keep that connection alive when one was injured and the other was healthy throughout their previous time together as teammates; it never died, as evidenced by their cohesiveness as teammates again this season.
“I know Mo, I know how she plays. I know how she operates and what she’s thinking about and I know she wants to win. And she knows I want to win,” McBride added. “I think that when you have that in your back-court and knowing that we’re going to do whatever it takes to win, that’s usually when you find success.”
Living the Dream
“It’s just crazy to hear that still,” Jefferson told me, wearing a big smile, when I asked if she feels different or if it’s more gratifying be Lynx starting point guard Moriah Jefferson. “Just knowing the culture that they have here. The championships, how hard everybody plays on every single possession is big for me.”
It is clear that Jefferson, who is enjoying the best season of her career to this point, has always looked up to and respected the Lynx. Whenever she has spoken about the opportunity to play in Minnesota since her arrival, there has been an evident glow and joy behind her words. But, she still understands that now it’s all business.
“It’s not about my name,” Jefferson said. “It’s just about the fact that I have Minnesota Lynx across my jersey and I have to make sure I represent that well.”
Even though McBride has one of her favorite running mates beside her again — this time in their dreamed-about Lynx jerseys — it doesn’t feel any different to her, because the coaching staff and the ultimate goal is the same as it was last season.
“For me, it’s just more about picking up where we left off, but understanding that we’re in a situation, in a culture that’s all about winning,” McBride said while confidently nodding. “It always comes back down to that.”
It will be a tough, uphill climb for the Lynx to chase a championship this season given the team’s start, but McBride and Jefferson feel well-equipped to achieve it because of the culture they’re part of.
“Obviously. But as a player, you have to go out there and you have to achieve those goals. It’s not just gonna come because you walk in the gym and you have a Lynx jersey on,” Jefferson said. “You have to come in every single day having your A game. ... I think the coaching staff and everybody here does a good job of putting us in position to be successful. As players, we have to go out and execute.”
That goal, of course, has added significance this season — Fowles’ 15th and final one in the WNBA.
“It would mean everything for me to get Syl a championship on her way out,” McBride said wearing a huge smile, just thinking about it. “She’s done so much for this culture, this organization. Finals MVP, MVP. She’s done amazing things and it’s all with such a gentle heart and gentle soul.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Jefferson said looking at McBride, before the two burst out laughing, citing their connection. “As a point guard... it’s your dream job to have a post that sets screens and rolls the way [Fowles] does... For me, getting a chance to know her as a human being now is even better. I love her even more than I did before I got here. I’m just excited to get a chance to play with her in her last year.”
Despite the common perception that the pursuit of sending Fowles out with another ring in a Lynx jersey could bring significant pressure, McBride views it differently.
“It’s not necessarily pressure. It’s more so stepping up and rising to the challenge of what it means to put this Lynx jersey on and what it stands for,” she said proudly. “It’s just showing up for your teammates and showing up for the organization.”
Predictably, Jefferson had something similar in mind: “Exact same way. Quote me on that,” she said as the two smiled and McBride threw an arm around her.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s obviously something we’re really, really proud of. You know, we want to be a destination where people want to play,” Reeve said about the long-shared dream of her starting back-court. “We’re standing on the culture that that group built starting in 2011, and that’s something we’re really proud of. Even though those players aren’t here, besides Syl, the culture lives on. K-Mac and Moriah are active participants in it now.”
McBride and Jefferson represent the first wave of players who grew up idolizing the legends that created this culture. Tonight, they will watch Seimone Augustus — the original member of the legendary Lynx title squads (whose arrival even predated Reeve’s) — see her jersey lifted into the rafters at Target Center. And beyond this fall, they will have the opportunity to carry the torch after the last active member of the 2017 title team, Fowles, calls it a career.
“The goal is always going to be the same. It might look a little different, but it’s always going to be the same. It’s to bring a championship here to Minnesota and continue that legacy,” McBride said. “It’s about showing up every night for each other, for this culture, and for this organization.”
But, it would mean a lot to McBride to be able to do that alongside someone with whom she has long shared a connection and the dream of being a Minnesota Lynx.
“We’ve always had that good connection on the court and we want to win, we want to win bad,” McBride said, smiling. “Everything happens for a reason, so we’re just taking a moment and giving it everything we got.”