Tina Charles has started the 2016 season better than ever.
Through four games, the 2012 MVP is averaging career highs in points (23.5, second in the WNBA), rebounds (12.0, leading WNBA), assists (4.0), and steals (2.7). Her status among the WNBA elite is undeniable, with a gold medal and four All-Star selections further decorating her resume. Expectations in New York have grown after last season’s team-record 23 wins, and Charles is standing taller than ever through the team’s 2-2 start.
Behind the numbers and accolades, Charles’ approach to the game has grown over the past two seasons.
“Every year you know you’re going to get 17 or 18 points and 10 rebounds. As a coach, to rely on that every night, that’s a huge bonus,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said before the season. “She also went through a Playoffs series or two that really showed what she’s capable of doing. Everybody else knew it already, but in her own mind she took that next towards realizing she can be a great player.”
That realization was best evidenced during New York’s matinee against the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday, though the Liberty dropped the game in overtime. Charles impacted the action in every way possible, finishing with 29 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks, adding a career-high 7 steals for good measure.
“As a team?” a surprised Charles asked when told of her swipe total. “That’s crazy. I really had no clue. Improving on defense has been about just paying attention to detail for scouting reports, knowing their tendencies on offense and staying active. I think these past two seasons have been the most I’ve been concentrating on defense.”
Despite consecutive overtime losses, the Liberty are undeniably better off with a defensively engaged Charles giving offenses fits. In the losses, they allowed the Sparks and Dream to shoot a combined 33 percent (54/164), bolstering their league-best 34 percent opponent shooting.
Charles’ athleticism adds another dimension to New York’s defense; she has a knack for containing pick-and-rolls when hedging and recovering for rebound opportunities. When center Carolyn Swords is commanding the boards (career-best 11 rebounds vs. Atlanta), Charles is running the break for the buckets that come all too easy for her.
“It helps big because I love to run,” Charles told WNBA.com about playing with Swords. “Knowing she’s securing the ball, in my mind, I’m able to get out on the offensive end and be aggressive.”
Charles has balanced that aggression with patience, whether creating shots for herself or teammates. Depending on the coverage, she can unleash a quick turnaround hook over her right shoulder or whip a crosscourt pass for an open teammate to splash a three-pointer.
“I’ve always drawn a double-team, so I’ve been trusting my teammates more,” she explained. “Knowing my role and how much I’m depended on helps me decide when to attack. I play the most minutes on the team, so I know I have to play smart.”
The results speak for themselves: Charles enters the weekend as one of only two players currently averaging a double-double (Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles is the other). Building on last season’s success begins and ends with the seventh-year forward, who Laimbeer praises for growing her game and approach.
“I think the intense peer pressure of the team is one factor,” Laimbeer said of her improvement. “I think that she conformed and followed along. She always had it in her talent-wise; it’s just a matter of applying that talent and last year she did and she saw the results.”
With the numbers supporting another impressive step forward, Charles continues to establish herself as one of the WNBA’s elite. Liberty, buckets and boards. In repeating last season’s success, New York couldn’t ask for a better combination.