San Antonio Stars chasing chemistry to get over the win hump

Vickie Johnson is in her first year as head coach of the San Antonio Stars, after playing for the franchise and then serving as an assistant coach. Photo by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images.
Vickie Johnson is in her first year as head coach of the San Antonio Stars, after playing for the franchise and then serving as an assistant coach. Photo by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images.

Why can’t the San Antonio Stars win a game?

It is a question that has plagued the franchise through each of their ten losses so far this season, and one that has generated a lot of fan debate. The answer, according to the Stars’ most long-time players, is a simple yet complex one: they are getting used to one another.

The team includes No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Plum and No. 5 pick Nia Coffey; center Isabelle Harrison, who played sparingly for Phoenix last year; Erika de Souza, acquired in a trade over the winter; Sequoia Holmes, who hasn’t played in the league for several years;  and Kayla McBride, who missed all of training camp and San Antonio’s first two games to finish overseas play. Plum and guard Moriah Jefferson also missed several games due to injuries.

McBride, drafted by the Stars in 2014, and center Kayla Alexander, whom the franchise drafted in 2013, said the roster adjustments are taking time for everyone, as is cleaving to the style of first-year coach Vickie Johnson.

“Honestly, I think it’s a chemistry thing,” McBride said of the team’s performance. “I’m not saying the chemistry is bad – we just haven’t been together enough. Kayla and I are the only ones who have been here for a significant period of time, (as opposed to) a team like (the) LA (Sparks), where the core has been together for 4-5 years.”

San Antonio has seemed to lack offensive rhythm on the court this year, and they haven’t yet put together 40 minutes of consistent play. Alexander said team members don’t know each other well yet, and the entire team can lose focus.

“We have to keep trusting each other on the court, both offensively and defensively and have each other’s back no matter what,” she said. “And we have to understand that when other teams go on runs, we have to stay together. When things get rough, we have to stay together and play team ball, and stick with our schemes.”

De Souza and Monique Currie are each 11-year veterans. After that, guard/forward Alex Montgomery has the next-longest tenure in the league, with six years. Everyone else on the team has four years or less of professional playing experience.

McBride said a youthful roster comes with a cost.

“I think that’s the part we struggle with is being patient,” she said. “VJ pushes us so hard in practice, she expects a lot out of us. It’s just us gelling and having confidence in each other enough; trusting each other enough to win. That takes a lot.”

“Even in college….I knew all my teammates like the back of my hand. Now it’s just harder for all of us because we don’t know each other that well yet.”

McBride said team chemistry is an elusive animal.

“I think we have really good relationships off the court. We hang out, we watch games together,” she said. “But there’s so much more when you’re out there on the court. You have to be able to be competitive, be a leader, and you have to take and receive criticism. You have to trust each other.”

Johnson said that because of the youth of the team, she is in teaching mode most of the time. She has the team watch film, and spends plenty of time in practice on skill work.

“This is a young team, and we try to challenge them to think a little bit – don’t just play the game,” Johnson said. “This generation is just playing the game, not thinking the game. Imagine this generation with the athletic ability that they have, if they had the basketball IQ of the previous generation – it would change the game!”

Johnson also has her players watch WNBA games and study them.

“For us when we were growing up, we watched a lot of basketball,” she said. “Now they don’t watch basketball. They don’t watch their own league. You don’t watch the WNBA, but you want to be in the WNBA. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Johnson has seen glimpses of how good the Stars could be, like last night, when they almost beat the defending Champion Los Angeles Sparks.

“We have a men’s practice team that we (practice) against. Guys that have played overseas, very aggressive guys that play in the NBA D-league now,” Johnson said. “We fight against them and we win against them, so that same intensity that we have against the guys we have to carry over to the girls.”

“The second half (of the Sparks game) was a glimpse of how good we can be on both sides of the ball, and that’s the main thing: on both sides of the ball and not just on the offensive side, also on the defensive side.”

Johnson has been questioned as to why she doesn’t play Plum more. Johnson said Plum is coming along like most rookies do.

“This is the best league in the world, and everyone has to go through the process,” she said. “What we do is player development, its very key for (our players). Not only for Plum but also for Coffey – all our young players. I do a lot of teaching.”

“One thing that I’ve been taught through my playing career, from watching different coaches, is (to develop) basketball IQ. Once you get that, your game goes to a whole different level. I think Plum has to continue to work on her game and understand that this league is the best league in the world, the best athletes in the world. The way she was able to get shots in college, she may have to change some stuff up.”

Plum acknowledged she is growing.

“The speed is a lot different, there is a lot of physicality (in the WNBA),” she said. “Everyone is bigger, faster, and stronger. The average person has probably played five years (in the league), played a lot more games, so it’s definitely an adjustment. Even being professional, from college, you don’t get told what to do, where to go, and stuff like that, so it’s just different but it takes time.”

McBride takes a balanced approach to the team’s path.

“I think we’re better than our record, but then again we play in the best league in the world,” she said. “People come back from overseas, there have been injuries. VJ knows (that’s a lot to get together). She expects me to be a leader. She’s still figuring things out as a head coach.”

Alexander keeps it all in perspective.

“I’m always staying positive and enjoying the moment, remembering that I get the opportunity to play the sport I love every day,” she said. “I don’t take it for granted, and I come in to work hard every day”

Ultimately, Alexander believes the Stars will succeed.

“We have great players who are even better people,” she said.