The Evolution of the WNBA Point Guard

The change came swiftly, so fast that while it did not go unnoticed, its sheer magnitude was difficult to comprehend.

In the 2002 WNBA Draft, Sue Bird was selected by the Seattle Storm and Nikki Teasley by the Portland Fire (and subsequently traded to the Los Angeles Sparks) and the WNBA would never be the same again.

Bird's WNBA arrival helped start a shift in how the league's point guards are expected to play.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
The year before Bird's and Teasley's arrival, the average WNBA point guard thought pass first, pass second, pass third, and shot only as a last resort. Of the 16 starting point guards in the league that season, only one, Orlando's Elaine Powell, averaged double-figures scoring (11.2 points per game). She was also the only point guard to rank amongst the league's leading scorers, showing up at the bottom of that 30-player list.

Just three years later, only 10 of the 16 starters even remain in the WNBA, with four (Coquese Washington, Ukari Figgs, Sonja Henning and Jennifer Azzi) retiring after last season. Of that group, only three - Powell, now in Detroit, and the two remaining archetypes of the traditional WNBA point guard, Charlotte's Dawn Staley and Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro - are still starters.

In their place have come players like Bird, Teasley and San Antonio's Shannon Johnson (who teamed with Powell in the backcourt in Orlando in 2001), point guards who can still pass - they finished two, three, four in the WNBA in assists per game last season behind Penicheiro - but score too. All three averaged double-figures scoring last season.

Now, the next incarnation of the WNBA point guard has made its appearance in the form of Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, the top pick in this April's Draft. Not only does the 5-11 Taurasi dwarf traditional point guards like Connecticut's 5-3 Debbie Black, her scoring ability is virtually unprecedented at the position. Through her first six WNBA games, Taurasi racked up 102 points, surpassing the season total posted by Minnesota's Kate Paye (91) in 2001.

"Her versatility is special," says Taurasi's coach, Carrie Graf. "She's a big guard, she can play the point and swing into the two. It's big for us. We don't want to milk her too much at the one spot, we like to shift her to the two, but that's the nature of our team right now. Our team handles, and she handles, the flexibility and the role changes well."

Other coaches have noticed have also noticed how different Taurasi is at the position.

"She is a unique point guard in her size," says Storm Coach Anne Donovan, who has faced Taurasi twice in the regular season and twice in preseason already. "Teasley's a big point guard, but she's not a strong point guard. Diana, she can literally do it from the NBA three-point line or go right down and post you up. It makes her a very unique point guard in this league. You've got other point guards who are very special. Teresa Edwards, one of my all-time favorites, Shannon Johnson, one of the quickest point guards in the league, but Diana is truly unique. That's what will set her apart in the game."

Both averaging more than 14 points per game so far this season, former UConn teammates Taurasi and Bird are the leading scorers amongst point guards. Still, experts agree that there is a difference in style between the two. While they have similar assist averages this season, Bird averaged an assist more per game during her senior year of college and was second in the WNBA in assists last season.

"I think they're different as point guards," says Graf, who coached Bird during her rookie season in Seattle. "I think Sue's more of a true point guard but she can score. I think Dee's more of a scorer that can swing into the one."

Bird protests that the difference isn't an intentional one.

"These questions are funny, because it's not something you consciously think about," says Bird, asked how she balances passing and scoring. "You're just out there playing. If you're open, shoot it. If you're not, pass it. Simple as that."

Taurasi is running the show here, but she might be the best scorer the WNBA has ever seen at the point.
Jesse D. Garrabant/NBAE/Getty
The WNBA's transition away from the traditional point guard has been equally simple, and, in more ways than Taurasi, 2004 has been a tipping point. The New York Liberty can be seen as a microcosm for the league as a whole, choosing this off-season not to re-sign veteran point guard Teresa Weatherspoon, the WNBA's all-time assist leader entering the year. In Weatherspoon's place, the Liberty promoted Becky Hammon, a shooting guard in a point guard's body who had never averaged even two assists per game entering this season. Despite that fact, Hammon, who made the Eastern Conference All-Star team last year as a reserve, was too good to keep out of the lineup.

Result? New York's 6-1 record tops the WNBA.

Similar stories, albeit with less dramatic results, have played out in Indiana and Washington, where non-scorers Niele Ivey and Annie Burgess have been replaced. Because of recent injuries, Mystics Coach Michael Adams has used a lineup without a true point guard, with rookie Alana Beard and Stacey Dales-Schuman sharing ballhandling duties.

That Adams is involved illustrates one possible underlying cause for the move towards scoring points, the increase in male coaches with NBA experience in the WNBA. Adams himself averaged 14.5 points per game during his 11-year career as a point guard, and point guards who cannot score are a rarity in the modern NBA. New coaches like Adams and Indiana's Brian Winters (whose Fever acquired sharpshooter Kelly Miller from Charlotte to play the point) may be more comfortable with point guards who look to score.

At the same time, the transition could merely be a natural one. The WNBA's point guards, led by Taurasi, are becoming bigger and more physical all the time. And the ability to score makes the league's modern point guards much more dangerous on offense - even as passers, suggests Bird.

"The rule is, you always want to look for your own shot, because that's the only way people will guard you," she explains. "I always want to be a threat out there. Even when I'm driving, I want to look like I'm going to score, because then Lauren (Jackson)'s man will come to me, and I'll be able to dish to Lauren. You're not going to be able to pass the ball unless you make people guard you."

That attitude is justified by a statistic cited earlier - scoring point guards Bird, Teasley and Johnson all ranked in the WNBA's top four in assists per game last season. This year, Teasley and Johnson top the league. (In a note worthy of its own discussion, Penicheiro and Bird, 1-2 in the league in assists last year, are tied for 10th and ninth this year, respectively.) That's partially because those players have the ball in their hands more, but scoring hasn't kept them from setting up their teammates as well.

At the same time, traditional point guards are hardly extinct just yet. Penicheiro and Staley remain two of the league's most respected players at the position. And while the majority of point guards entering the WNBA, like this year's first round picks (Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen), fall toward the scoring end of the spectrum, there will surely be a lot of interest next year in Louisiana State's 5-3 Temeka Johnson. Johnson is a throwback point guard who averaged 8.3 assists per game in 2003-04 and was a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award (given to the nation's best college point guard) each of the last two years.

To Donovan, the choice comes down to a coach's preference.

"There's no doubt that it's changed, times have changed," she says. "Really, it's a matter of style. You talk about a point guard scoring 20 points per game, obviously Carrie Graf's liking that. In Connecticut, it didn't work for Shannon Johnson to take that many shots, but it's sure working in San Antonio. It's a match of coach's style and player's style."

"I think there will always be a place for your true little point guards," adds Graf.

For the moment, however, they're going to have to move aside. The scoring point guards have arrived, and while the transition may have been quiet, the players themselves are as quiet as Taurasi's WNBA debut, which is to say not very. Get used to it.