In the days leading up to the 20th WNBA season, there’s been a great deal of talk about Breanna Stewart as the new face of the league. Much of the 2015 narrative centered around Elena Delle Donne and her historic season, and don’t expect her to recede in the public eye as she builds on it while playing for a gold medal in Rio this summer. Brittney Griner, too, always draws attention (and found herself in a recent ESPN SportsCenter ad), while Skyler Diggins is returning from a knee injury with a massive social media following and a new level of play she reached last year that she believes is a permanent new state.
All of these stars deserve attention. But any sober, clear-eyed analysis of where the WNBA stands at this moment, an evaluation of the current state of the league, only provides one conclusion.
This is the Maya Moore Era.
Imagine, if you will, any other league centering marketing efforts around someone other than a player who won a championship in her rookie season, has now won three in five years, while capturing the 2014 WNBA MVP, the 2015 All Star Game MVP, three straight All-WNBA first team honors and a 2012 gold medal in the Olympics she’s looking to double this summer in Rio.
I vividly remember a conversation this offseason with a WNBA talent evaluator, not with Moore’s Lynx, who almost angrily interjected her name when the subject turned to the best players in the league.
“It’s Maya, and there’s no good argument for anyone else,” the evaluator said.
For her coach, Cheryl Reeve, the lack of focus on Moore is puzzling, but it isn’t necessarily bad for Moore or the Lynx.
“It’s the world we live in,” Reeve told Excelle Sports following last week’s preseason game against the Liberty in New York. “The latest and greatest. The league has their things they like to do. And promotion of players—as a league, you try to please a lot of markets. But it’s what we do as a society—the latest and greatest. It’s a little bit unfortunate, but I kind of like it. It adds a little bit of fuel. A little bit of poking the bear. Because that’s the type of thing they should take personally.”
For her part, Moore said it isn’t what drives her—there are too many other aspects of life as the most accomplished 26-year-old basketball player on the planet to do that for her first.
“Basketball is a game that—you’re never done,” Moore said, speaking with Excelle Sports following a shootaround in New York last week. “There’s always something you can get better at. For me personally, my relationship with the game, that’s something that I think about—how can I continue to get better? Be a more complete, more efficient basketball player. Another motivation for me is my teammates, the coaching staff, the people that I work with every day—it’s such a special group that isn’t going to be together forever. So we have a limited time together do do as much as possible. I treasure every season that we have together, and want to make the most of it. And I know I’ve been given this gift—this platform to play, and to hopefully inspire. And that motivates me as well.”
What’s fascinating about Moore at this moment in her career is that what she’s already done exceeds the accomplishments of most players over a full career. The resume above speaks for itself, but even in stats that reward longevity, Moore is already competitive—for instance, despite playing just five seasons, she’s accumulated 35.3 win shares, good for 21st in the history of the league. Unless she drops below her rookie season win shares in 2016, the new campaign will catapult her to at least 15th.
I asked Moore, who seems to see all on the court as the action unfolds: was this all part of the plan?
“Absolutely not,” she said, laughing. “I could not have imagined all things that have unfolded so far coming true. I just try to do my best with what I was given in the moment. And looking up and realizing, we made history, or this was a great experience. It’s a lot of challenges—people don’t see a lot of the hard work that goes into what we do out on the floor—and even just the sacrifices and the relationship-building, they’ve made me a better player and person as well.”
There’s ample reason to believe that 2016 is going to be even better, both for Moore and the Lynx as a whole. This is a team that won a WNBA title in 2015 while undergoing a midseason transformation—the acquisitions of Sylvia Fowles and Renee Montgomery ultimately contributed to the title-winning mix, but Reeve had to make those adjustments on the fly. Fowles, in particular, is a 2016 Olympian whose skills are enormous, but differed from the way the Lynx had previously deployed their post players.
Even in a recent shootaround, just how much work the Lynx get to put in with Fowles before the games started was striking. To Reeve, that’s both an opportunity and a relief.
“I think Syl’s more comfortable, we’re all more comfortable with the situation,” Reeve said. “Renee, too. They can now see the building blocks, where we’re starting from. Whereas when you start halfway, you’re no longer drilling down into the details.”
All of this leaves Moore free to work on what she referred to often in our conversation, which is efficiency. Reeve set a goal of 50 percent shooting for Moore in 2016, something she’s reached once in her five-year career. For Moore, though, the idea of efficiency is more holistic than statistical.
“Efficiency can be measured in so many ways,” Moore said. “Sometimes it’s a feel. Sometimes it’s about relating to your team within competition. Sometimes it’s numbers. There’s definitely minutes played, ways of measuring efficiency. But it does come down to how I’m feeling for sure—and I’m in a good spot with my body, my routine. As the season goes on, we’ll see. For now, I’m in a good place to start the year.”
Accordingly, it’s up to Moore to conserve that energy, between a Lynx season and a pursuit of gold, something that does not come easily to her.
“I don’t really know any other way other than giving my all in the right moments,” Moore said. “Now I do think there’s areas of efficiency that you’re always learning. But then there are times where you’re going at it, and you’re playing—you’re playing the game that you’re not going to be able to play forever. So you’re just in the moment, and I can’t be nervous about playing hard in the season because of the Olympics. I just hope and I trust that I’ll be able to stay healthy. But that means more discipline, more rest, better nutrition, and trying to be effieicent in practice as well—get our things done, get in and get out.”
Sounds like the kind of player a league ought to spotlight. Moore’s normally sure answers became more of a puzzlement when I asked her why she thought she didn’t get as much attention as some of her fellow superstars.
“I don’t know if I can answer that,” she said. “I can do what I can do. When there’s a request made of me, I do my best to fill it. There’s different people in different positions of decision-making, who are in charge of promoting and marketing the league. I think a lot of us in the league do plenty to market the league just in the way we live our lives, taking the time to engage. And not to mention the first and most important way we promote—performance on the court. So I do all that I can to make it best for this league.”
The good news for the league is, they should have plenty of time to get this right. Moore squared off with Tamika Catchings last season in the WNBA Finals, and the gap in age between the two—Catchings is 36—doesn’t sound insurmountable to Moore. The consensus among those WNBA sources I polled rested between 6-8 titles for Moore by the time she retires, though Moore couldn’t put a number on it.
“I mean, I really don’t know what’s going to happen in ten years, because I couldn’t have told you when I was sixteen that I’d be standing right here with everything going on,” Moore said. “But at the same time, I love this game. And I’m definitely going to be playing it as long as I can, and as long as I feel like it’s where I want to be.”