Gifted Azura Stevens, can the Dallas Wings Take the Next Step?
By Eli Horowitz
It was no surprise Azura Stevens didn’t hear her name called first in the 2018 WNBA Draft with a talent like A’ja Wilson available. But no analysts predicted that the Indiana Fever, Chicago Sky (with two picks) and the Seattle Storm would all pass on a 6-foot-6 forward with the rare, unicorn profile only the likes of Candace Parker and Elena Delle Donne possess. She didn’t dominate the college game like Wilson or second pick Kelsey Mitchell. In fact, she came off the bench for Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut, backing up Gabby Williams, who went ahead of her to Chicago.
But Stevens is seven inches taller than Williams, has the mechanics to be a 3-point shooter, and showed in the Final Four she can score inside, rebound and defend multiple positions.
The potential is there for her to be the best player in this draft, but can the Dallas Wings and coach Fred Williams get the best out of her and this roster to make a deeper playoff push in 2018?
The Wings finished the 2017 season 16-18 and limped into the seventh seed where they were handled easily by the Washington Mystics. Their core of Skylar Diggins-Smith, Glory Johnson, Karima Christmas-Kelly and rookie of the year Allisha Gray excited last season, but the number were concerning. The Wings were just 8th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency, per Synergy Sports, but scraped together just enough opportunities by leading the league in offensive rebounding, free throw makes and free throw attempts.
Stylistically, the Wings want to run and be aggressive. In 2017, they were third in pace and second in 3-point attempts. It wasn’t efficient, as they finished 10th in transition offense efficiency, but it’s an approach with potential in the modern era: run, shoot from distance and attack the basket. They will need more structure though as one coach and general manager said they are the easiest team to scout because they don’t run a lot of plays. Reckless abandon won’t win in the playoffs, and the Wings will need to have a more diverse offensive attack. That’s where Liz Cambage comes in as she gives the Wings a different look and the opportunity to play in the half-court. Stevens could help in that regard as well, though initially she should help more in transition and on the glass.
Defensively, the Wings were aggressive last year, hedging and trapping pick and rolls and playing frenetically. It didn’t work well with Courtney Paris as the center, but maybe with Stevens and Cambage it can be better. At the same time, when you send two defenders to the ball-handler on a pick and roll, you leave the rim open. If you bump the roller and help at the rim, you leave a shooter open. With the length and athleticism the Wings have, they might be better playing a drop back scheme, allowing Johnson, Stevens and Cambage to protect the rim, and allowing their perimeter players to pressure the ball and force teams to play isolation against them. This is also a team that should be able to switch positions one to four.
Can Fred Williams Deliver?
Fred Williams has a career record of 117-136 as a head coach. He’s coached in four playoffs in nine seasons, taking the Atlanta Dream to the 2013 WNBA Finals before getting swept by the Minnesota Lynx. His resume has highs and lows, and it feels like this season will be a big test as he has arguably the most versatile and athletic team in the league. If this team finishes below five hundred and doesn’t win a playoff game, it will be fair to ask if he’s the right leader for the future. A full season of Aerial Powers, Liz Cambage and Azura Stevens will make his schemes look better, but he’ll need to adapt and adjust to the nuanced styles these new additions bring. He also played Diggins-Smith the most minutes of any player in the league in 2017, not a good sign for a player coming off a knee injury.
Diggins-Smith has more help than ever, but the Wings might be relying on second round pick Loryn Goodwin to back her up. She’s more than capable, but she doesn’t fit the original plan of bringing in Jordin Canada or Lexie Brown to help shoulder the load.
The Wings have the personnel to be the third best team in the WNBA this year. They could also miss the playoffs if they don’t gel. Fred Williams has a roster that any coach would yearn for: switchable, talented, long, aggressive and with a star in Diggins-Smith. But winning won’t come easy in one of the deepest WNBA fields in recent memory, and the Wings will need to prove they belong amongst the upper echelon of the WNBA.