The last month of the regular season is finally here as we hit the dog days of the schedule and the summer. I’m simultaneously not ready for the season to end but need time to pass because, good lord, this humidity is not it.
There are numerous marquee match-ups remaining, and the race for the last three playoff spots is absurd; Two games separate the 6 and 11 seeds.
The process of the game is something I continually find so enticing. Basketball is predicated upon scoring, and how buckets are dropped draws attention in droves. But basketball is also variable and unpredictable, and there’s a staunch imprint of human influence that isn’t felt in a box score.
Sure, steals and blocks are part of the algorithm appreciating defensive impact. Rebounds can point to energy on the glass. However, you miss out on the minutiae that don’t always directly contribute to the start or finish of a possession. That thudding screen that toes the line of legality and paves the way for a ball-handler to drive to the rim or an immaculate seal to secure an offensive board. How about the positioning to keep the opposition’s best rebounder off the glass and the eight seconds of defensive slides and laser-focused lateral movements shut down a set’s first two actions? I could go on and on (and WILL), but you get the idea, so much that gets lost in the sauce of a possession. So much more happens than just a shot going up and a board being brought down.
So as the season rounds out and with August upon us, who are those players that have most shone in the consistency of those in-between moments? Deducing down who would be on this list was extremely difficult, starting with a list of about 25 players… yeahhhh, I struggle with simplicity! That’s not to say anyone left off was undeserving, but I have limited writing space, and I can’t highlight every player in the league in one article. After rewatching the film, pouring back over my notes, and racking my brain, I’ve whittled my list down to ten; Two teams of five comprising our Hustle Stat All-Stars.
Natasha Cloud: Washington Mystics, Guard
The Washington Mystics sit atop the league in defense with a 92.7 defensive rating per Her Hoop Stats. When searching for who sets the table for a stingy unit, look no further than Washington’s starting backcourt. Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins are both in heavy consideration and likely nominees for All-Defense this season, excelling as a point of attack defenders, shutting down screens, clamping drives at the nail, and darting into passing lanes.
If I could only use one word to describe Cloud, it would be kinetic. Cloud is constantly moving and active and brings vocal energy in droves.
She embodies so much of what I find enjoyable about the game within the game. The way she drives to the rim and utilizes every millimeter of the court to create passing angles has led to a career season as a playmaker, leading the W in assists per game. Cloud attacks the rim voraciously, something the Mystics offense lacks outside of her, with few players who can generate self-created paint touches.
She simply is the heart of the Mystics. She sets the tone on defense, stirs the offense into motion, and can be seen diving for loose balls or closing out to a shooter at an arena near you.
Rebekah Gardner: Chicago Sky, Guard
Rebekah Gardner is an absolute delight to watch play during the games. Everything the Sky does as a team is about motion, quick decisions, and proper spacing on the offensive end, and Gardner has been a seamless fit since her first second with the team.
She’s one of the most professional cutters in the league, exploding out of quick cuts with a smoothness and fluidity that few can replicate. Prime Reggie Bush wishes.
The Sky employs three of the best passers in the league. Still, their whole roster’s intuitive off-ball play amplifies the offense’s overall effectiveness and spacing, and Gardner fits that off-ball wing archetype to a T. She makes quality connective passes and relocates swiftly. She sells out to box out much larger opponents, flying in to embrace contact upon shot release.
The defense is what makes Gardner special. For my money, there has not been a better off-screen defender in basketball this season, and I’ll stand on that. Find some time to watch Gardner and Gardner alone in a game or at least for a string of possessions, and you’ll find yourself warmed by the intensity of incredible defensive footwork and timing.
Her hand play is fantastic, 3rd in the W in steals per 40 minutes and 28th in blocks per 40, highly impressive considering she’s not a frontcourt player. She has blinding lateral quickness, able to change and shift East/West without energy loss. It is so so hard to catch her lacking.
Whether she stunts off the ball or mirrors on the ball, Gardner’s impact is felt. She neutralizes off-screen actions on her own. The way she sheds screens is remarkable, perhaps her best attribute as a defender. Gardner gave Sabrina Ionescu and Rhyne Howard what I’d consider the most difficult defensive hurdles they’ve faced all season, two players who thrive setting themselves up off of screens.
It’s been a long time coming for Gardner, having spent a great deal of time overseas before her rookie year in the W this season. Watching her imprint herself on the game every night is nothing short of remarkable.
For more on Gardner’s background and life story, watch this episode of Bird’s Eye View!
Allisha Gray: Dallas Wings, Wing
I’m not sure we deserve Allisha Gray. I profiled her in June, and my affection for her game and personality has only grown since then. She should’ve been an All-Star, and YES, I’m still hot about it!
If you hadn’t seen her recent mic’d up that the Wings’ social team put together when she refereed the Special Olympics, please drop what you’re doing and go watch (and then come back and finish reading). You’ll thank me for it.
She may not have gotten her Donuts, but she definitely deserves her flowers for a fantastic season.
Gray has asserted herself as one of the best shooters in the league this season, upping her volume, improving her accuracy, and hitting off a wide variety of actions and motions.
Another player up for All-Defense (a theme), Gray’s activity, is infectious. While the Wings have wrangled with their defensive identity and what exactly it is all season, Gray has been a steady and consistent presence all season. She’s adept at keeping ball-handlers in front and using her length to make everything difficult, culminating in more than a few blocks in the paint. Her recovery abilities give her that extra oomph, but it’s that consistency again.
Gray is always genuine in her approach on and off the court, and on the hardwood, that means stopping dribble penetration, blowing up passing lanes, and rotating into the paint from the weak corner regardless of the score. Is there another player with more mid-air collisions in the league? It’s not tracked, so possibly, but the point remains; if the ball is lost, Gray is heat-seeking towards it. She covers the ground incredibly well and takes excellent angles to the ball, always fighting back into the play. Gray is a no-brainer first-ballot Hustle Stat All-Star.
Gabby Williams: Seattle Storm, Forward
After a contract suspension in Chicago last season due to national team commitments in France, we didn’t get to see Williams in the W for a year. She’s fit in brilliantly with the Seattle Storm, and their highly aggressive and active defense suits her. She can fly across the court in ground coverage and contain ball-handlers at the point of attack with deft quickness around screens at her size and the ability to remain steadfast on the perimeter, where the Storm struggled last season.
She’s a defensive Swiss army knife, except every tool she brings to the table is useful. Need to defend a larger big on the block in a pinch? Williams has you covered. Need to chase a big shooter off a pin-downs? Why not? Let’s do it. Cover the primary scorer in isolation during a late-game setting? She’s more than a game.
While Seattle has started to tinker with their defense of late after moving Tina Charles into the starting lineup, opting to play more zone, Williams has also fit into that ethos.
Often, a player this active struggles with foul trouble, but not Williams, only 22nd in foul percentage in the league, which stands out when factoring in match-ups’ difficulty. She just does everything well on that end.
However, her fit on the offensive end has been a little bit less clean, which has made her success all the more impressive. Not really a threat from deep (career 24.4% three-point shooter), Williams is often helped off of and left alone spotted up, which can cramp halfcourt sets.
Noelle Quinn has empowered Williams to grab and often go on the defensive end, which changes the calculus. While Williams isn’t going to draw overs on ball screens, she has a pretty solid handle for her size and fantastic court vision and passing ability.
Her activity and ability to push the pace, make quick decisions and kick the offense into gear as a quasi-point guard has been pivotal in keeping the Storm’s offense afloat.
When left alone on the weak side, she’s always seeking opportunities to cut, relocate, or screen for a teammate to decongest the offense.
No, it’s not perfect basketball, but it’s my kind of basketball. Watching players work through their limitations to be the most impactful player they can be is a joy like no other.
Cheyenne Parker: Atlanta Dream, Forward
The Dream has struggled a bit over the past month after a really hot start, understandable given their youth and multiple injuries. They’re not here and in their current position, primed for more, without the presence of Cheyenne Parker.
Enjoying a career year this season with the Dream, her first season as a full-time starter, Parker impacts the game at a remarkably high level.
That first-ranked defense the Dream maintained much of the early season? Yeah, Parker was central in that. She’s more of a four than a five but have played up and impressed as the full-time starting center in Atlanta. I will be talking about the four-block four-steal game against Chicago in mid-June for a long time.
Parker is employed closer to the level of the screen, using her mobility and activity as a weapon to help deter dribble penetration along with Atlanta’s plethora of point of attack defenders.
More importantly than her defense outright is her connectivity. If mitochondria are the powerhouse of a cell, Cheyenne Parker is the mitochondria of the Dream. The way they play isn’t possible without her.
Plays often finish with Parker forcing a turnover because the Dream have needed it. Sports often finish with a Parker post-up or put-back on the other end because the Dream have needed it. If the Dream needs it, Parker will bring it to the table. Watching her post-game blossom to where it is now has been truly remarkable, routinely dazzling with excellent footwork and counters in the paint.
She brings that gumption that a plucky young team is carving out a new culture needs.
Aari McDonald: Atlanta Dream, Guard
As just mentioned, the Dream is on a bigger and brighter trajectory than the last few years in Atlanta signaled. Rhyne Howard has rightfully snagged headlines, as the number one overall pick in the 2022 Draft made the All-Star team, has flashed higher levels as a shot creator, and is already an impactful two-way wing. Her stardom is impending.
McDonald’s ascension this season has gone a bit under the radar, as she’s made significant strides across the board. Her three-point shooting has stabilized, her finishing inside the arc has improved notably, she’s making more routine playmaking reads, and her defense…. man, her defense.
McDonald is 8th in the WNBA in steals per game and 4th in steals per 40 minutes; she is stellar at the point of attack, with lightning-quick hands, nimble feet, and the ability to outright halt drives and stop them from happening with her quickness and short-area burstiness.
She picks up opposing guards three-quarters court more often than not, getting into their grill and causing irritation.
I can only commend her for how often she draws fouls. I can’t blame offensive players either! Having an airtight compression on your handle when you’re trying to dribble up the court? Not fun.
McDonald might be the single fastest player in the league as well. She has a tornadic rhythm handling in transition and the half-court, but rarely in an out-of-control manner. Her ability to start and stop regardless of how fast she’s going is absurd, and the quick on-the-nose starts and stops make her a prolific paint touch generator. She throws absolute darts to the shooting pocket when she gets to her spots and then makes herself a threat off the ball.
Her movement is an art and a skill in and of itself. Does anyone travel more miles per minute of play than Aari McDonald?
DiJonai Carrington: Connecticut Sun, Wing
Carrington is another success of the Athletes Unlimited group that we’ve seen thrive this season in the W. As talented as the Sun are, they have a really funky roster construction considering how many of their best players are frontcourt players, most ideally.
Carrington adds much-needed lineup flexibility on the wing while also showing some improvement as a shooter this season with added volume, vital to improving Connecticut’s spacing. There is nothing quite like a DiJonai Carrington rim run, as I’m never exactly sure what’s going to happen! The ball might go in, and she might draw a foul or give a one herself!
Finding more rhythm on drives and with the ball in her hands is certainly in the cards moving forward, but it can’t be overstated how important the strides she’s made between her rookie and sophomore year have been for Connecticut. I don’t have a stat to back this up, nor do I feel like checking, but it feels like Carrington scores at least half her points in transition after forcing a turnover on the other end.
The Sun’s pace has substantially increased this year, in large part due to Alyssa Thomas shouldering so much of the ball-handling but also due to Carrington’s freneticism on the defensive end. I’m really excited for her growth, as I imagine the Sun are as well, and the leap she’s made this year has been integral in kick-starting their offensive output when they struggle with stagnancy.
Connecticut needs as much on-court chaos and creativity as possible, and Carrington’s energy, effort, and intensity ratchet the Sun up another notch.
Brianna Turner and Shey Peddy: Phoenix Mercury, Forward, and Guard
This has been an understandably rough season for the Mercury. Free Brittney Griner until it’s backward.
Skylar Diggins-Smith has had an incredible season. Diana Taurasi has found her offensive groove lately, and Sophie Cunningham has been absolutely gunning from behind the arc after sliding in as the starting four.
I routinely come back to Brianna Turner on this team, though, as far as the bellwether for who makes this award matter.
Turner has had a tough year offensively, utilized differently, employed more at the full-time five, running a heavy dose of dribble hand-offs, and dishing out on the short roll with quality playmaking chops. She’s struggled a bit with her individual offense, scoring her lowest points per game since her rookie season, partially due to playing more at the five, in my opinion, but the counterweight has been what she’s doing on the other end.
Watching her battle night in and night out against the great post players in the league has been one of my favorite parts of the in-season minutiae. I simply don’t want to miss the 10-12 possessions that Nneka Ogwumike and Bri Turner face off.
She’s excellent at playing in space and can hold her own in a 2-on-1 situation. She has some of the best recovery skills in the league, along with impressive know-how and an acute sense of where she needs to be. I really don’t want to think about what the Mercury defense would look like without her!
Returning to Shey Peddy, just a few quick notes as I had to make room for her. 8.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per game is nothing to scoff at, but again, the box score is mixing the story for me. Peddy was rushed into a starting role late in the playoffs after the Mercury went through the wringer with injuries, and I thought she showed her mettle. She played well in an albeit overtaxed role/
While I’m not sure she’s a full-time starter when this team is back at full strength, she’s blossomed from mid-bench to bonafide rotation player in quick succession. That’s no small task. Her secondary playmaking is a necessary outlet in the offense, she’s a good finisher on the inside in spite of her smaller stature, and she’s incredibly pesky on the defensive end.
The unexpected developments tend to be the ones I enjoy watching the most, and Peddy’s continued trend has been so fun to take in.
Shakira Austin: Washington Mystics, Center
When I went back and watched Shakira Austin play at Ole Miss, I really wasn’t sure what to expect of her in her rookie year. The flashes of potential and upside were amazing in Oxford; the defensive floor stood was apparent off rip, and the feel for the game was easy to see. How she translated as a top pick on a team trying to assert themselves back into the WNBA title contention, well, that was harder to project.
Austin absolutely dashed those thoughts of wonder early in the year, punctuated by her first game against Sylvia Fowles, her second game in the league, a Mystics victory, and a 13 & 10 double-double.
Austin has started every game since May 20th (the second week of the season) and has been central to the best defense in basketball. As mentioned earlier, with how Cloud and Atkins set the table with their perimeter defense, now is a great time to note how essential Austin has been to keep the Mystics aggressive on defense.
Her feel as a defender as a rookie is wildly impressive. She already can play multiple coverages and play them well, capable of sitting back and lurking in a deeper drop, but comfortable playing close to the level of the screen and recovering to the roller after the chasing defender gets back in front. Austin has even shown some switch ability, and there’s a wealth of room for her to develop in that regard as she hones her footwork.
More so, though, the energy of Austin has been ridiculous, frankly. She sets good screens and rolls incredibly hard, which seems minute, but I love it. If you’re going to get the most out of yourself as a screen and roll role player to get started in the league, you have to do those marginal things at an outlier level to have the highest impact, and Austin has done that this year.
Her roll gravity, and ability to drag a defender along with her due to how much of a threat she is rolling to the rim provides Washington with some of that rim pressure they struggle to routinely find.
She crashes the glasses relentlessly, in the top 10 in total rebounds per 40 minutes according to Her Hoop Stats. She roams the dunker spot and squeezes herself in to put back misses or open herself for a quick face-up shot. A minimized role has given her more opportunities to maximize herself and still develop key areas of her game.
The Mystics are a better team because of Shakira Austin and her unabated intensity.
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.