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ELITE is ELITE: Dropping Dimes

In an all-new bi-weekly written series, in preparation and excitement for the 2022 WNBA AT&T All-Star Weekend in Chicago, I’ll be decoding different skillsets and amplifying which players stand out the most in such categories through “ELITE is ELITE”. This week we debut with the art of passing in the W, which also happens to be my favorite facet in the game of basketball. 

The beauty of basketball is in its organics. Possessions end with made or missed baskets, of course, but the journey throughout a play, the actions fulfilled or denied, the continual shifting of court dimensions, and the changing dynamics of reads and openings; that’s a large part of what makes basketball so unique. 

It can be deduced down to so many minute parts, but the way the puzzle fits together is never as simple. Basketball is much more M.C. Escher’s Relativity rather than your typical Hallmark thousand-piece jigsaw.

Passing, ball-handling, decision-making, feel, and tempo; all fall under the branch and amalgamate into the overall concept of playmaking. Bending defenses, manipulating them, setting up teammates, crafting offense like a hardwood blacksmith, forging open looks; playmaking is a nebulous term that’s hard to pin down due to how all-encompassing it can be. 

That’s part of the point!

The greatest playmakers in the sport blur the lines to the highest degree, really driving home the Escher in basketball.

Schroeder’s Stairs is just a print-to-the-paper version of what Courtney Vandersloot does to defenses on a nightly basis if you think about it!

Who are the best playmakers in the W? What sets them apart and makes their craft special? Elite is elite. When splitting hairs to decipher what makes the best THE best, it’s remarkable to note the subtle and significant differences between each player. Many knock on the door of this group, but a few clearly cement themselves above the rest (Although it’s quickly changing!!!).

Courtney Vandersloot

Since Vandersloot took over as the full-time starting point in Chicago in 2013, the Sky have never ranked lower than fourth in pace of play according to HerHoopStats. Sloot sets the table with her pacing, how she adapts her tempo and speed of play. It just never seems that she stops moving. Even if she does take a half-beat to pause and scan, it’s to open up something else.

Just watch this possession from the finals.

Bri Turner throws the quick hedge to try and slow down Vandersloot; a quick shoulder dip into a return to her North/South probe.

An immediate ball-screen from Azura Stevens to shed Shey Peddy, then deceleration into an up fake for a jumper. Brittney Griner bites, Stevens is now open on the roll, and Vandersloot throws her open due to the space she just created by manipulating the defense through her speed and tempo.

Stevens is laying the ball in before the 16-second mark! 

Vandersloot makes four decisions in five seconds; skirt the hedge, accept the screen, shot fake, find Stevens underneath. As we saw throughout the Finals, her speed was so difficult for the Mercury defense to keep up with, not just physically, but as a decision-maker.

She has every pass in her bag, a tight and inventive handle, and the scoring gravity to make the most of it. The speed of processing the court is what solidifies her as the pound for pound, bar for bar best playmaker in the league.

Candace Parker

Parker is such a great example of what we opened with; playmaking is loosely defined. It can look extremely different depending on who is operating with the ball and the differences between Parker and her teammate are stark. 

Parker pushes off opposing misses, runs the break, and generates early offense with well-placed and time-kicked-ahead passes. Much like with Vandersloot, the transition play stirs the drink. Where they really differ is in the halfcourt.

Is there anyone in the league that’s as dynamic as a dribble handoff threat? 

Candace is adept at initiating perimeter offense from the key, throwing dimes on split cuts, attacking face-up opportunities and drawing two to kick the defense into rotation, and carving up on the short roll. 

Her versatility is due to her scoring ability, one of the greatest scorers the league has seen. She has the three to draw the defense out to the perimeter. She’s so athletic and dynamic as a finisher on the roll that it’s difficult to not send help. If she finds a mismatch in the post, she’s getting fouls, scoring, or both, which leads to drawing two to the ball.

Parker’s court vision and mix of ball-fakes, eye manipulation, and velocity on her passes make her still one of the toughest guards in the league in year fifteen. You just can’t leave her alone in any circumstance. 

The plethora of plus playmakers that flow within the Sky offense is absurd. Their synergy was finally hit in stride late last season on the way to a championship and the early returns for this offense have been impressive. 

Sabrina Ionescu

Ionescu is the youngest player to solidify herself among this upper tier. She’s precise with the ball, using a wide array of passes and some contortion to create better windows, a really fun aspect of her game! It sounds minute, but if you’ve already jump-stopped and can’t pick up your pivot foot, a quick bend at the waist to your right might open up a small space to slip the ball through. Ionescu is so good at finding and crafting those windows.

She’s finding more of her balance as a scorer and passer to bolster what she can do as a playmaker. If the scoring aggression isn’t at a level to fully force the defense to care, it hinders the ability to bend and manipulate a defense. We’ve seen significant strides through the first few games of the 2022 season that lend credence to a shift in her offensive game.

While she often turns over the ball, that’s part of the brightness in her game! I’d argue that it’s better to be aggressive and make mistakes than not to try and hit the homerun reads.

The pick-and-roll passing is what sets her game apart from the rest. Aside from Vandersloot, Ionescu has a claim to being the best pick and roll passer in the league.

Her two-player game with Natasha Howard had brilliant flashes last season when Howard was healthy and continues to be a budding reason for enthusiasm in New York. The pocket pass is money. She’s excellent at taking a half-step to wait for lanes to open for cutters when she generates paint touches. Ionescu has such a superb feel for the game and her burgeoning craft as an offensive player is a joy to watch as the Liberty try to find their way.

Natasha Cloud

Imagine not having Natasha Cloud on this list? I certainly can’t! Cloud has finished top ten in the W in assists per game every season since 2018 (did not play in the Bubble) and is well on her way to doing it again.

Cloud plays with a controlled chaos that exudes charisma. She’s one of the very best drivers in the game and has a flair in her handle and passing game that’s just joyous and incredibly effective!

She rips in these vicious stutters and hesitations, probing in and out of East/West movements. Cloud floats on the hardwood, unimpeded by any physical or technical limitations in her game. It’s not often that a player commands and can use the entire court like she does. There are straight-line drivers, and there’s Cloud, who almost dances in the halfcourt with her footwork constantly shifting directions and keeping defenders guessing.

She loves a jump pass (I also love a jump pass!) and her crosscourt one-handed whips are the stuff of wizardry.

Seriously, that looks simple because it’s an open pass, but an across-the-body skip to the opposite corner is much easier said than done. That takes an absurd amount of coordination and core strength.

Cloud is a phenomenal connective passer, linking plays either as a cutter or stationed on the wing and whipping initial kicks to more open shooters or finishers. Her transition playmaking is a boon for the Mystics as well. Her refined aggression as a scorer and shooter this season makes her court vision even better optimized. Washington looks dynamic early in the year, and Cloud’s tip of the spear mentality has played a significant factor in that.

Sue Bird

You thought we were going to get through this without mentioning Sue Bird? The best way to describe Bird’s ability as a playmaker is “activity” for me. Constantly moving, constantly shifting, always scanning and looking for a new avenue, like Google Maps, but actually finding the best and shortest route!

New camera angles can sometimes be bothersome, especially when you’re in the middle of the game and in a good rhythm of watching and understanding. Yet, new angles provide new sightlines and opportunities for appreciating what is happening! Look at this! 

You get such a great view of how Sue sees the court, scanning what’s happening, and finding ways to attack.

Bird isn’t the scorer she once was, understandable given the stage of her career she’s in, but the court vision, velocity on passes, and ball placement are still the cream of the crop. Her ability to initiate the offense, kick things into gear, make the right play, and shift off the ball is huge for one of the more dynamic offenses in the league. 

What she does makes life easier for the All-League performers in Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, who operate so well off the catch or coming off of an action into an easier shot. 

Even if it’s not a direct assist, again, it’s about those initial kicks and quick actions to start sets. With Bird bringing the ball up-court, it allows the best scorers to set up off the ball while forcing the defense to still need to pressure out to halfcourt. Her quick decisions are a staple of the Storm offense and are vital to bolstering efficient play.

Another part of what makes basketball incredible is its subjectivity of it! This is an organic list, even if some players are rather set in stone. Depending on viewpoint and the shifting of the game, who you count among the elite could change with ease. Chelsea Gray is deserving of mention and Kelsey Plum appears ripe to vie for placement amongst the elite this season. Betnijah Laney brings some of that same funkiness and functionality as a point forward that Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman bring to the table. I still have no idea what to make of the Los Angeles Sparks, but man, Jordin Canada is on her way if the first few games are any indicator. The league is full of promising young playmakers and watching them develop throughout the course of the year as the league landscape shifts is an enticing storyline to follow as the season unfolds.

Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on 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.