The playing style of basketball across all levels has dramatically transformed, as half-court offenses built upon post play have given way to fast-paced transition play built upon more outside shooting. As a result, strong guard play has become a premium in the WNBA. But it’s the evolution of frontcourt players that has now led to forwards and centers dominating the league.
Frontcourt players are no longer one-trick ponies playing strictly in the post and controlling the paint. Now, forwards and centers are spacing the floor and taking more mid-range and three-point shots. Along with shooting well away from the basket, many of these versatile frontcourt players are now able to put the ball on the deck and drive to the hoop. For some teams, a frontcourt player is the primary ballhandler and facilitator on offense. Needless to say, it’s creating matchup nightmares for players and coaches around the league.
The numbers back this trend up, too. Seven of the top 10 scorers in the league are forwards or centers, with seven of the top eight teams’ leading scorers being forwards or centers. The heights range from Los Angeles Sparks forward and reigning league MVP Nneka Ogwumike at 6’2″ to Phoenix Mercury All-Star center Brittney Griner at 6’8″. Griner leads the league in scoring at 21.9 points per game and Ogwumike, who ranks sixth in the league, leads the Sparks in scoring at just under 19 points per game. The top eight in field goal percentage are forwards or centers, too.
But the numbers beyond the traditional box score reflect this evolution in the WNBA as well. The top nine players in player efficiency are forwards or centers, while eight of the top 10 players in true shooting percentage are forwards or centers as well. Seven of the top 10 players in offensive rating and offensive win shares are forwards or centers, and the top eight players in overall win shares are also forwards or centers. The stats show that these new-age frontcourt players are impacting their teams in a profound and efficient manner.
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“I think it makes a lot of sense because we have a lot of talented players in the league,” Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello told Excelle Sports. “You have Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart and the list goes on. There’s just a really good influx of really good frontcourt players and it’s as simple as that.”
Having coached Griner and the Mercury to the 2014 WNBA title, Brondello can speak to how important frontcourt play is to winning in the league. Like Phoenix, other teams are not shying away from focusing their gameplans around their frontcourt players.
“I think it has a lot to do with playing to the strength of your team,” Brondello said. “If you have a dominant frontcourt, you’re going to want to play to that. We’re obviously no exception. We like to get the ball to Brittney Griner as much as we can, as it’s been a successful ploy for us. She’s playing so well, so why wouldn’t you want to get the ball into the hands of a player like that? I think it’s just coaches making the decisions for what’s best for their team at the time.”
“It’s definitely been a big change for the league and the game,” Dallas Wings head coach Fred Williams said. “They’re not just posting up anymore and defensively you can’t just clog up the lane against them. They’re more versatile now and are creating more space on the court.”
Many WNBA players play overseas during the offseason, which Williams believes has contributed to this phenomena. “They’re playing two seasons now,” Williams said. “Playing overseas has really helped out a lot of these frontcourt players.”
Williams also cites a change in both how the game is played and what coaches are looking for now.
“It’s more of an inside-outside game now rather than outside-inside. Coaches are running more things through their post players now. Post players have to touch the ball on offense. And teams are looking for that player who can play the 4 or 5 spot and run the offense. You need them to rebound, defend, and run the floor now.”
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Having made her first All-Star appearance this season, Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams goes up against these talented bigs every game.
“The dominance of forwards and centers in the WNBA right now is a testament to the talent of frontcourt players we have in this league,” the 6’3″ Duke product said. “It also shows the high level of team basketball being played. It really keeps teams honest when they have a true offensive and defensive presence in the paint.”
When Williams is out on the floor, she says that teams like the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles are great at running their offenses through their dominant bigs.
“Minnesota wants to have touches from Sylvia Fowles on each possession”, Williams said. “She can consistently bang and finish down low. On the other side, Nneka and Candace Parker are an incredible scoring and passing duo, and they’re so difficult to stop because they’re constantly moving and do a good job of balancing playing inside and outside. Even more up tempo teams can play through their bigs who run the floor and are more versatile. Again this is all a testament to a higher level of basketball being played.”
One of these bigs who Williams is tasked with trying to defend is Parker, who can do a little bit of everything on the floor for the Sparks. She can score by either driving to the basket or shooting from the outside, while also serving as one of Los Angeles’ primary ballhandlers and facilitators on offense. Not to mention, Parker is a strong defender. Watch here as she does it all, including her spectacular passing.
— WNBA (@WNBA) August 28, 2017
Seattle Storm interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg believes that the league’s rule changes favor offenses, thus giving frontcourt players an advantage.
“The emphasis on less physical play has had a big impact,” Kloppenburg said. “It helps these bigs a lot and gives them an opportunity to put it on the deck. It depends team by team, but a lot of offenses are run through these players. We’ve got some excellent forwards and every team seems to have one of these difficult matchups.”
In Seattle, Kloppenburg and the Storm have one of their own in Breanna Stewart, who made her first All-Star team this season after winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2016. But Seattle also has great guard play in 10-time All-Star Sue Bird and 2015 Rookie of the Year Jewell Lloyd. Kloppenburg says you can’t forget about the important role that guards play in helping forwards and centers get the ball.
“You win in this league with guards,” Kloppenburg said. “Skilled guards give you a great chance to win, and you’ve got a really volatile offense when you add in one of those versatile 4’s or 5’s.”
One of the bigs Brondello mentioned was Tina Charles, who can do it all and fill up the stat sheet in a hurry. The Liberty finished the season on a 10-game winning streak, and a big reason for that is Charles’ ability to score from outside and in the paint, as well as her ability to dominate the glass. Like Parker, Charles can facilitate and initiate the offense for New York.
— WNBA (@WNBA) August 28, 2017
One of Charles’ coaches in New York is Katie Smith, who was a two-time WNBA champion and seven-time WNBA All-Star. Smith says that she sees a lot of similarities in how forwards and centers play now compared to her playing days, expect for one big difference.
“These bigs are able to shoot more consistently now,” Smith said. “You have to go out and guard them outside the paint now. It’s really opened things up on the perimeter now.”