More Pluses Than Minuses for Gearlds

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Kevin Pelton, | May 27, 2009
During last Thursday's Seattle Storm preseason opener, Katie Gearlds' line in the boxscore hardly leapt off the page. Gearlds had a tough time finding the range from beyond the three-point line, making one shot in five attempts, all of them from downtown. She finished with three points, two assists and a rebound in 19 minutes. Yet in one crucial category, Gearlds led all her teammates.

Gearlds' +11 plus-minus, as calculated by Patrick Sheehy in his Chasing the Title blog, was tops on the Storm. Four of the many lineups used by Head Coach Brian Agler as he tried out different combinations outscored the Sacramento Monarchs by at least three points while on the floor; all of them included Gearlds.

"I think it indicates I know where the ball is supposed to be when it's supposed to be there."
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Because plus-minus numbers can be so heavily influenced by which teammates and opponents are on the floor at the same time and tend to vary from game to game, Gearlds' plus-minus from a single preseason matchup isn't necessarily meaningful. However, the results mirror what plus-minus showed about Gearlds throughout the 2008 season.

Last year, plus-minus data compiled by Lynx statistics guru Paul Swanson showed that the Storm's regular starting lineup dominated opponents. Therefore, the team's top five players in net plus-minus, which compares the team's performance with the player on the floor and on the bench, were the five primary starters - Sue Bird (+15.3 points per 40 minutes when on the floor), Lauren Jackson (+10.0), Yolanda Griffith (+6.7), Swin Cash (+6.6) and Sheryl Swoopes (+4.5). Next up was Gearlds, at +4.3, despite not having the advantage of playing most of her minutes with the Storm's All-Stars.

Put more simply, the Storm plays better with Gearlds on the floor, a conclusion that could not necessarily be reached by looking at her individual statistics.

"I think it indicates I know where the ball is supposed to be when it's supposed to be there," said Gearlds, asked to explain her plus-minus. "I know when Sue needs the ball in her hands, I know when Lauren needs the ball in her hands, because I'm a thinker on the court."

Gearlds' greatest impact is at the offensive end of the floor. When she was on the court, the Storm averaged 76.3 points per 40 minutes, up from 71.8 with Gearlds on the bench. The mark with Gearlds on the floor tied for the best of anyone on the Storm. One reason for that is obvious - Gearlds' shooting ability. She shot 39.1 percent from three-point range last season, which ranked 10th in the WNBA. Gearlds also ranked eighth in the league by making 3.1 threes per 40 minutes. She was one of four players in the WNBA in the top 10 in both categories.

Another aspect of Gearlds' value on offense is more subtle - her ability to take care of the basketball. Gearlds was the league's second most sure-handed player, turning the ball over on 8.2 percent of the possessions she used.

"I try to be smart with the ball," Gearlds explained. "Obviously you can't be afraid to make mistakes, so if you see something, you see it. But other times you don't try to force so much and put the ball where it's supposed to be. When I'm on the court and the ball gets in Sue's hands or Lauren's hands, obviously good things are going to happen."

The other surprise in the plus-minus numbers is this: The Storm allows almost exactly as many points with Gearlds on the floor as with her on the bench - a difference of 0.2 points per 40 minutes. That doesn't square with Gearlds' reputation as something of a liability at the defensive end, one she bristles under while acknowledging that she has had to develop her defense since arriving in the WNBA and was challenged at that end by Agler last season.


Katie Gearlds is amongst the 24 nominees for the Seattle Storm All-Decade Team. Cast your vote today to help pick the players the Storm will honor on Aug. 1 during the 10th Anniversary celebration.
"I feel like I worked hard this offseason," said Gearlds, who played the role of defensive stopper on the wing for her team in Greece. "I feel like I've seen an improvement. I feel confident, and that's what it's all about - feeling confident. If they ask me to go stop anybody, I'm going to do what I have to do."

Agler admittedly isn't a heavy user of plus-minus numbers, but in this case his well-trained eye drew the same conclusion as the numbers. He maintained his confidence in Gearlds throughout the 2008 season, even when she started the year in a shooting slump, and saw it rewarded when she played a key role off the bench during the second half.

With heavy competition in training camp, nothing is guaranteed to Gearlds, but she figures to again be important to the Storm off the bench at small forward and potentially with more time at shooting guard this year, depending on the makeup of the rest of the roster. At media day, Gearlds downplayed the importance of the distinction between the two players, saying the most important thing was being on the court. According to the numbers, that's true of the Storm as a team as well. Having Gearlds on the floor helps the team, even if she's not producing big-time individual stats.

"My job is to go out there and help to win," Gearlds said. "Whether it's putting the ball in Sue's hands or Lauren's hands or setting a screen to get someone open, I know how to play basketball. Maybe I'm not the best athlete, but I'm a basketball player. I think it and I know how to play."