The Minnesota Lynx were back in action on Friday night at Target Center against the Washington Mystics to open their preseason play after a weeklong training camp in Downtown Minneapolis this past week.
Despite trailing by as much as eight early in the fourth quarter, the Lynx turned it around behind a smaller than normal, but impactful home crowd eager to support the debuts of Minnesota rookies Diamond Miller (No. 2 pick), Dorka Juhász (No. 16 pick), Brea Beal (No. 24 pick) and Taylor Soule (No. 28 pick). Given that Aerial Powers, Jess Shepard and Damiris Dantas all sat out the game for rest purposes, and that Kayla McBride and Bridget Carleton haven’t yet rejoined the team after their overseas seasons, fans got an extended look at each rookie.
Head Coach Cheryl Reeve played Beal and Soule the entire fourth, while Miller and Juhász played key roles down the stretch, too. All made key plays that ignited Lynx faithful, got their teammates fired up, and highlighted the value they provide the team en route to a hard-fought 72-69 victory.
“What I’m hopeful of is that the people who came to the arena tonight saw it, and saw just the connectedness even though they don’t really know each other that well. There’s a lot of things still to learn, but this team has that part, which is fun to be around,” Reeve said postgame, adding this group is ‘two months’ ahead of where last team was.
“Obviously when you get into the throes of the season and you get beat up a little bit, you lose some, you know that’s when you really find out. ... This is just a preseason game, but we’ve been pretty consistent as far as the type of people we have and the ways that they’re giving to each other.”
Reeve did a great job of mixing rookies in with vets throughout the night, but especially in the fourth quarter, when she both gave her four draft picks a taste of a competitive closing stretch at Target Center and empowered them make a seismic impact on the final result.
Final rotation from tonight's 72-69 Lynx win over the Mystics:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) May 6, 2023
• Reeve goes 8-woman rotation in 1H
• Heavy Miller, Soule, and Beal minutes to close
• Phee played some backup center w/ DD, Jess out
• No Aerial Powers or Kayla McBride, both out (rest) pic.twitter.com/KBUUKotvzi
Napheesa Collier was a +12 in 24 minutes, while Tiffany Mitchell turned in a game-high +16 mark in 31 terrific minutes in the off-guard spot, and Rachel Banham added 13 points in 17 minutes off the bench. All three played important stabilizing roles in lineups around rookies that will experience some growing pains, especially offensively. It all came together in the fourth quarter, beginning with a Banham/Mitchell/Beal/Soule/Collier quintet that got after it defensively.
They helped force eight Washington turnovers in the fourth alone, which the Lynx turned into 11 points that got them not only back in the game, but fueled an 18-4 run over seven minutes of game time that secured full control of the game by the midway point of the fourth. Collier got it started by deflecting passes off the ball, but Soule turned her defensive intensity up to 10 and inspired her teammates to do the same.
.@taylorsoule14 bringing the energy. ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/h0VlYIPxo7— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) May 6, 2023
“That’s the definition of Taylor Soule. She found her identity in today’s game and how she can impact it,” Reeve said. “I likened her to Rebekkah Brunson, who sets a really, really high bar, but the ability to fly in and get extra possessions. If you know what your value is, do it all the time. So we’re gonna hold her to that.”
Can’t be too bad of a day at the office if you’re drawing comparison to a player who not only earned the nickname “The Machine,” but also is the only player in league history with five championship rings.
Let’s get into some takeaways from tonight’s big win.
Rookies Showing Their Value
Not only is it rare for rookies to find their footing in their first preseason game, but what’s crazier is that all four did so by playing to their strengths individually, and then put it all together while they all shared the floor to close the game and come out with a victory.
Miller was fantastic in this game. The No. 2 overall pick quickly laid the foundation with her impact in transition as a scorer. Early in the first quarter she drilled a 3 as a trailer, then sprinted up the floor to force a crossmatch and subsequently posted up a guard to draw a foul, and also got to the free throw line as a driver. Encouragingly, she didn’t let a pair of turnovers dispel her aggression.
“Diamond’s really competitive. Diamond, man, wants to win every possession, and it’s really endearing. She makes a ton of mistakes, but that’s expected. She will listen, so that’s important. This is her floor, and we’re going to work really hard,” Reeve said postgame. “She’ll want to get in the gym and figure it out. She’ll want to watch video and figure it out.”
On top of her early attacking, she displayed the defensive versatility that complements not only her offensive skills, but Collier’s two-way play as well. Miller switched onto two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne several times and held her own, as evidenced by impressively blocking one of EDD’s jumpers — a rare feat.
The best part of Miller’s game Friday was her free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 1.00 — an incredible mark. Last season, the league average was 0.19, and the Lynx’s most prolific foul drawer, Powers, turned in a mark of 0.37. Obviously, Miller won’t replicate that performance on a consistent basis, but her athleticism leaps off the court, as does the fact that it will be very difficult for WNBA defenders to stay in front of her in a five-out system.
Diamond Miller turned 2 premier perimeter defenders into human dominos pic.twitter.com/ykdbAIb93z— Leo S (@Y0Leo) May 6, 2023
“I feel like I’m very versatile and I feel like I could do a lot of things, but I’m just making game reads at the end of the day. If I feel like I have it, I’m going to try to take it,” Miller said postgame. “I’m just trying to help my team win by any means necessary. So if I gotta bang, I’ll bang.”
Juhász looked right at home in a Lynx system that is very similar to the one she played in under Geno Auriemma at UCONN alongside dynamic perimeter players. She moved very well without the ball on cuts from the corner and slot after making passes or hand-offs, and played with the evident maturity that made her a coveted WNBA prospect.
“She’s a very steady, mature player. Never too high, never too low. She’s the definition of that. You rarely see if she gets rattled. I don’t know if she’s been nervous yet. She might be really nervous. I have no idea. She doesn’t show it,” Reeve said. “She’s big, she’s still learning. Learning about personnel, learning about schemes. These players just played for years in college a certain way, then you get a brand new team and Dorka has been really receptive to the information and able to apply it.”
The Pécs, Hungary native turned in a double-double of 11 points on 4/7 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and zero fouls while defending on the interior. While she got beat to the basket at times, she made up for it by securing several tough, contested rebounds in the second half that were pivotal to the Lynx getting the win across the finish line. Juhász credited the work she’s put in over the last couple weeks for putting her in position to succeed in game action.
“Just coming here a week earlier was huge for me, I think. I was able to get some extra work in with Phee, Rachel, a lot of the vets and the coaching staff, so I think that was great for me,” she told Canis Hoopus postgame. “There’s still time to adjust, but I think it was a good first, I guess, test and just to get a feel of it, especially for the rookies. ... We wanted to win this game and I’m happy that this turned out and we’re gonna build on that.”
Beal was the best perimeter defender in women’s college basketball last year and her skills on that end of the floor will without question immediately translate to the WNBA.
One of my favorite aspects of the viewing experience was to simply watch Beal play defense for an entire possession instead of watching the ball. The way she denies the ball, plays up the line, fights over screens, blows up hand-offs and then digs in and fights on the ball is truly impressive.
She combined with Soule to form a two-player wrecking ball on the defensive end of the floor in incredibly devastating fashion. They perfectly communicated switches, seamlessly handed off ball-handlers to one another, and made every Mystic think twice before making a pass or putting the ball on the deck.
“Anybody who watched us defensively last year knows that we need Brea Beal. That’ll be refreshing,” Reeve said during the team’s introductory press conference. “In terms of Brea’s competitive fire, I’ve been around the South Carolina program a while and I’ve watched Brea since she was a freshman doing what she does. I’m excited to get in the trenches and dive into all of Brea’s skillset.”
Part of Reeve’s diving into Brea’s skillset will be to unlock more of the former South Carolina star’s offensive game, which was the more highly touted aspect of her two-way play coming out of high school as a five-star prospect. Beal didn’t look comfortable on offense, but that’s totally normal for a rookie trying to find her way on a team, especially for which she’d play the role of a defensive stopper. Her roster status is more in flux than either Miller or Juhász, but if she can attack close-outs and knock down open 3s at a league average rate, she’ll have a spot on this team.
Soule broke out in a major way during Friday night’s fourth quarter after struggling in the third. The former Boston College and Virginia Tech star was everywhere defensively: in the passing lanes, taking charges, flying in for defensive rebounds, diving on the floor for loose balls, and boxing out underneath the hoop. Soule’s play inspired high-level collective defense from the unit she played with, and Reeve took notice.
“I thought that group out there was led by Taylor’s energy. If you’re around our team for about five minutes, you’ll know that Taylor’s the loudest player on the team and that she’s always talking and always sort of building them up,” Reeve said, calling Soule’s energy ‘contagious.’ “I thought you saw that, where you get to that point where you’re not thinking about ‘Hey, I’m a rookie and I really don’t know what I’m doing.’ Now you’re just competing and that’s what I thought kicked in in the fourth quarter.”
It was important for Soule to be in an environment where she could do just that, because it’s where she feels most at home. Reeve said that Soule’s early struggles in the game were reflective of her performance in practice, during which she has been at times indecisive offensively and prone to turn the ball over. But Soule can cause chaos in the best of ways and that comes out best in game action like we saw Friday, and her teammates appreciated it.
“Brea and Soule, phew. One thing about Taylor, she’s athletic and she can do things that nobody can do, and she really stood out tonight, just the extra plays. She really helped us in that fourth to get that dub, for sure,” Miller said.
“Shout out to Taylor because you know, she came in there, got charges, I mean, hustle plays. That’s what she does,” she said. “That’s how you get the energy from somebody, and she really brought that. She had amazing moments in there and she helped us come back and get the lead.”
The next step for Soule will be to meet in practice the bar she set with her play in the opener.
“We’re gonna hold her to that,” Reeve said. “We’re gonna talk about that, we should see it every day in practice.”
The Lynx will take on the Chicago Sky in the WNBA’s first ever game in Canada next Saturday, May 13 at 4 PM CT. It will be a homecoming for Bridget Carleton, who is a native of Chatham-Kent, Ontario, a Canadian suburb of Detroit that is about three hours southwest of Toronto.