Don’t forget about these players during the WNBA stretch run

As the 2018 WNBA regular season comes to a close, fans of the league have been treated to historical performances on a near-nightly basis. Nevertheless, while the WNBA’s stars never fail to impress, the depth of talent in the league is as good – if not better – than it has ever been. In no particular order, here is a look at a few of the under-the-radar players who have achieved greatness this season, without the fanfare they deserve.

Jasmine Thomas' energy propels her in filling up the stats column in almost every game. Chris Poss photo.
Jasmine Thomas’ energy propels her in filling up the stats column in almost every game. Chris Poss photo.

Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut Sun point guard

Jasmine Thomas is the resident veteran on the youngest squad in the WNBA, the Connecticut Sun. The 2017 All-Star is the Sun’s lone player not born in the 1990’s, and thus the one head coach Curt Miller calls his team’s leader. Thomas had a career year last season, bolstered by shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc. Although her three-point shooting has come back down to its career normal this year, Thomas has still had her second-most effective season to date with a net rating of plus-2.3, helping Connecticut clinch a playoff spot despite a rash of injuries to the roster.

Thomas, now in her eighth season out of Duke University, somehow continues to improve each year. She tied a career high with 29 points versus Seattle on June 15 (Thomas seems to have a particular affinity for scoring against the Storm, having set her career high against them in 2017), and then set a new career high last week with 30 points in a win over the Las Vegas Aces. Her scoring came on just 15 shot attempts in 24 minutes, resulting in one of the most efficient scoring outbursts of the season. Miller said after the game, “She willed us. We’re tough to beat when we get that kind of play out of our leader.”

Even as the elder stateswoman of her team, Thomas still leads the Sun in minutes and usage rate, carrying a heavy burden as the team heads into the postseason. Connecticut may have bigger names on its roster, but the team would be lost without Thomas.

Courtney Vandersloot has been steadily breaking records all season long. Photo courtesy of Chicago Sky/NBAE via Getty Images.
Courtney Vandersloot has been steadily breaking records all season long. Photo courtesy of Chicago Sky/NBAE via Getty Images.

Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky point guard

Courtney Vandersloot has taken a backseat to her All-Star teammate Allie Quigley in the national consciousness this season. But while Quigley broke records during All-Star weekend, Vandersloot has been setting the record books on fire all year.

It’s an open secret that the Chicago Sky had an opportunity to set the mark for assists by a team in a regular season game last Friday, but the Sky were only in that position because of Vandersloot’s 15 assists. Her second game dishing that many dimes this season came in addition to 20 points, making her the first player in WNBA history to even have 15 points and 15 assists in one game.

Vandersloot was predictably deferential to her teammates after the win, crediting Chicago’s style of play for her gaudy stat totals.

“I get joy off of that, it’s fun to play that way, and I’m happy for my teammates that are just making the shots,” she said. “That’s when we’re at our best—when we’re really just pushing the pace, getting good wide open shots, and knocking them down.”

It was the eighth time this season that Vandersloot has recorded double-digit assists, as she leads the league with 8.6 assists per game. In those eight matchups, the Sky – who were just eliminated from playoff contention with a record of 11-20 – won seven times. When Vandersloot is dishing, Chicago’s offense is rolling. Their team field-goal percentage, at 44.6 percent for the season, jumps to 51.4 percent when Vandersloot logs 10 or more assists.

“When you move the ball and people are making shots, I think any team doing that is hard to guard,” she said.

The other time Vandersloot had 15 assists this season was another record-setting performance, as she added 13 points and 10 rebounds for just the eighth triple-double in WNBA history (including playoff games). That it came in a contest against Dallas, when the dynamic guard managed to double up Wings center Liz Cambage in rebounds, speaks to Vandersloot’s ability to fill role whatever her team needs.

The eight-year veteran is also scoring at a personal best this season, with 12.3 points per game. Vandersloot ranks third among guards in true shooting percentage, as she has figured out how to optimize her offensive production. Despite her small stature, at 5-8, she takes 35 percent of her shots in the restricted area (according to Positive Residual) and converts them at an above-average rate. Vandersloot also shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc, making her a nightmare cover for even the toughest defenders.

Seven years removed from her lone All-Star game appearance, Vandersloot is as productive as she has ever been.

Tamera Young has brought a much-needed veteran presence to one of the youngest teams in the league - as well as a lot of scoring. Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images.
Tamera Young has brought a much-needed veteran presence to one of the youngest teams in the league – as well as a lot of scoring. Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images.

Tamera Young, Las Vegas Aces forward/guard

When Bill Laimbeer took over the Las Vegas Aces as head coach and president of basketball operations this offseason, there would have to be some changes.

“They’ve been in last place for the last three years,” Laimbeer told the media after a July 13 victory over the Minnesota Lynx. “And I don’t do last place.”

In order to bring one of the youngest teams in the league into contention, Laimbeer sought out some veteran help.

Enter Tamera Young.

“There isn’t a harder working player in the WNBA than Tamera Young,” Laimbeer said when the franchise signed her last winter. “She leads by example in that category, and gives us a veteran to help with our young team.”

As the Aces have grown with each game this season, the outlines of a contender are beginning to take shape. Presumptive Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson just turned 22, fellow All-Star Kayla McBride is only 26, and 24-year-old Kelsey Plum – the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft – is hitting her stride now, with double-digit scoring in her last four games.

But talent alone doesn’t win games in this league. Experience matters, and Young – now in her 11th WNBA season – has embraced her role as a mentor to her younger teammates after spending much of her career on teams with more seasoned players.

“I try to talk to them collectively, but I also try to give different players individual input as well,” Young said. “It just comes in the moment, just as simple as bring the energy every day. Playing professional basketball, this is something that we should be grateful for and love to do.”

Young also noted how especially challenging this season has been with the compact schedule. The lack of practice time has forced Las Vegas to figure things out during games.

“We don’t have a lot of practice time this year, the schedule is so condensed. With having a young team and not having the practice time, the chemistry is not the same,” Young said. “For us, communication is key. We have to pay attention to details in the little practice and shootaround time we have.”

As the Aces make a push for the the final playoff spot, Young is not content to merely be a veteran leader; she still contributes on the court. She is second on the team in both rebounds and steals, as well as third in both points and assists.

Young has been listed as both a guard and a forward during her career, and has brought her cache of skills to her new team, after spending several seasons with the Chicago Sky. She grew up playing point guard, but hit a growth spurt in high school that pushed her out on the wing for her AAU team, where her coach encouraged her to play multiple positions to expand her skill set. In Las Vegas, Laimbeer has continued to allow Young to play the 1, 2, and 3 for the Aces.

“It’s just my will, my work ethic,” Young said. “In this league, the more versatile you are, the more valuable you are.”

No one would question the value Young brings to Las Vegas.

Teammate Brittney Sykes jumps on Elizabeth Williams' back in celebration after a win. Brian Savage photo.
Teammate Brittney Sykes jumps on Elizabeth Williams’ back in celebration after a win. Brian Savage photo.

Elizabeth Williams, Atlanta Dream center/forward

Nikki Collen only started coaching Elizabeth Williams this year, but her fondness for the starting center extends much longer than that.

“Atlanta was my scout when I was in Connecticut,” Collen said, referring to her time as an assistant coach to Curt Miller for the Sun. “So I was very familiar with [Williams]. We obviously liked her enough to sign her to a long-term (contract) extension before she even played a game for me.”

It has been a highly-successful debut season for Collen in Atlanta, but perhaps no preseason decision will prove as fruitful as securing Williams as a franchise cornerstone for the Dream for years to come.

Williams, in her fourth season, has started all but one game for Atlanta, which sits atop the Eastern Conference and second overall in the WNBA. The team added a ton of talent in the offseason, including Renee Montgomery, Alex Bentley, Jessica Breland, and Monique Billings, but Williams has been as crucial as any player in Atlanta’s rise.

“With Elizabeth, it’s the little things,” Collen said. “She’s a glue player.”

Williams’ value is most obvious on defense. The Dream boast the top defense in the WNBA, in no small part to the stifling frontcourt of Breland and Williams, a former National Defensive Player of the Year in college. Both players are in the top six of defensive rating and the top four of block rates in the league.

Collen installed new schemes on both sides of the ball for Atlanta, and while it took some time for Williams to acclimate herself on offense, the defense came more naturally.

“When you get a new coach and you’re playing in a new system that’s an adjustment,” Williams said. “We brought in a bunch of different pieces. It was literally like everybody trying to learn each other just get used to playing together. I wasn’t really finding a rhythm offensively, I was struggling a little bit. Defensively, that doesn’t really change as much.”

Collen said Williams fills many roles simultaneously.

“Elizabethshe’s got all our guards’ back,” Collen said. “On the defensive end, she’s just a great communicator. She doesn’t block a ton of shots when she’s guarding her player, she’s very much a rotate and block shots kind of player.”

The offense has also started to come around in the last six weeks for the Dream center. The coaching staff’s pick-and-roll heavy system required Williams to learn some new screening actions, which resulted in some difficulty at the start of the season. She started the year shooting 38 percent in the team’s first 17 games, including 40 percent from the free throw line. In the second half of the year, Williams has shot 75 percent from the field, thriving as a pick-and-roll finisher near the basket.

“Now that we’ve kind of understood how to we play, we’re understanding each other, we’re using the pick and roll a little better, it’s been easy to get some buckets on the offensive end,” Williams said. “We’re also screening in transition a lot more than we were the first part of the season.”

Williams’ offensive production was on full display when she scored a career-best 22 points on 11-of-12 shooting on Aug. 7 against the Las Vegas Aces. She has now scored in double digits in six of the last nine games, after hitting that mark just six times in all contests before that.

Collen and Williams both hope that she continues to expand her game offensively. Williams currently only takes 12.7 percent of her shots outside the paint (per Positive Residual), but Collen would like to see her extend her shooting range in order to provide her teammates more floor spacing, especially against shot-blocking centers like Phoenix’s Brittney Griner and Cambage.

Williams also wants to continue to improve her consistency and her communication in order to grow as a leader.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating in the beginning of the year if you’re not playing like you feel like you’re capable of,” Williams said. “Not letting that bother you as much mentally as it would have in the past, I think that’s been a big adjustment for me. I’ve been talking a bit more especially on the defensive end, just being a consistent voice.”

Collen said Williams’ consistency is her calling card.

“She never gets too high, never gets too low,” Collen said. “She competes on every possession. Whether she gets a lot of touches or not, she continues to play hard.”

Atlanta will need consistent play from Williams going into the playoffs, as star forward Angel McCoughtry sustained a season-ending injury last week. Even without her, the team has settled into a comfortable rhythm, their strong bench affording them the depth to replace most of the two-time Olympian’s production.

Williams believes that the Dream is well-suited to make a deep postseason run because of its ability to battle against adversity and maintain its composure when things aren’t going well. And she would know, as after a rough start to the year, Williams herself has fought back, reasserting herself as one of the best players in the league.

(All stats per the WNBA, unless otherwise noted)