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The Wings Have Arrived Sooner Than Expected

With a young core led by Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas could be playoff-bound ahead of schedule.
Arike Ogunbowale and the Dallas Wings smile on the court

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

With 4.5 seconds to play in the Wings’ second consecutive road game against the Storm this past Sunday, Dallas guard Arike Ogunbowale received an inbounds pass on the left wing with her back toward the basket. Trailing by two, the 24-year-old—who last year, in only her second season, led the WNBA in scoring—remained calm, well aware of both where she was on the floor and how much time she had to create her own shot. She spun toward the middle of the court and used just two dribbles to collect herself and clear space from her defender. She fired from the top of the arc with just under three seconds to play.

The result, to those both in Dallas and around the league, was not surprising.

In less than three full seasons, Ogunbowale has emerged as a bona fide WNBA star. Her game-winner, which secured a victory over the league’s reigning champions, is just one example of what she’s capable of.

What’s brewing in Dallas, though, extends beyond the rise of its leading scorer. The roster is overflowing with talent. It is loaded with top picks—six taken in the top five of the past three drafts—and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it is the league’s youngest team (25.2) in terms of weighted playing time. But those around the organization dispel any notions that they’re too inexperienced to be successful. Instead, while there is a newness to the team’s core and an acknowledgement that the franchise is looking to have a lengthy window of title contention, Dallas is poised to be a threat not only in the future, but also in the present. They might be 4–5, but they shouldn’t be overlooked.

“At some point, you look around and you realize we’re very talented. And I think that’s where we are,” team president Greg Bibb says of the continued growth. “I’m not surprised by the fact that it’s happening. But I am surprised at how quickly and by what measure it’s happening.”

Bibb has been with the franchise since November 2015, first as general manager before transitioning into a role as the team’s president and CEO as well as a managing partner. He took over as the franchise moved from Tulsa to Dallas and later oversaw blockbuster trades that sent Skylar Diggins-Smith to Phoenix and Liz Cambage to Las Vegas. He’s eager to give Dallas fans the chance to watch their WNBA team host a home playoff game for the first time, and ideally, one day, bring a championship back to the city.

Road victories like the one they notched over Seattle on Sunday and over the Mercury on Tuesday make such aspirations feel more realistic. Coach Vickie Johnson, who is in her first year with the organization, called the team’s recent win over the Storm a “building block.”

“They know the blueprint,” Johnson said.

Bibb says the organization is “seeing the growth before our eyes.”

“Those are the kinds of wins that you can point back to down the road and say, ‘That’s where it really started. That’s where it got going for us in a big way.’ ”

Dallas has lost its five contests by a combined 23 points. All five defeats have come by single digits, and two of them, by nature of wonky scheduling, have come in overtime to the Storm.

Thus far, Dallas is No. 4 in net rating, behind the league’s three title favorites, Las Vegas, Connecticut and Seattle.

“I think the positive energy we have is really amazing,” says Satou Sabally, who starred at Oregon and was last year’s No. 2 pick. “We really came together as a team this year, and I think that has been the biggest thing that stands out to me. We were a good team last year, but I think this year we all know what we can fight for. And I feel like that common determination translates to the court.”

Wings guard Marina Mabrey is not surprised by her growth or the growth of the team. The 24-year-old guard who was college teammates at Notre Dame with Ogunbowale entered this season “determined to earn every second and every opportunity that I get.”

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Through nine games, Mabrey is the favorite to win the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award. Having used the winter to improve her ballhandling, midrange game and finishing ability around the rim, Mabrey has upped her scoring by nearly nine points from last year (18.8 per game up from 10), nearly doubled her rebounding output (6.1 per game up from 3.1) and improved her assist numbers (3.6 per game up from 2.3).

After shooting just 34.4% from the field in her rookie season with Los Angeles, Mabrey, who was traded to Dallas before last season, is shooting a career-high 49.2% from the field and a career-high 42.9% from three. She’s also shooting above an 85% clip from the free throw line. While still early, it’s quite possible she could be a 50-40-90 player by season’s end. If she does that, she would become just the second player in WNBA history, according to Elias, to finish a year with those benchmarks after taking a minimum of 50 attempts each from the field, three and free throw line.

Ask Mabrey about possible personal recognition, though, and she prefers not to dwell on it.

“Individual accomplishments are cool,” she says. “It kind of helps you recognize the work you’re putting in, and the outside world is recognizing those things, too. But I really want to see this team get to the playoffs.”

Key to that push is how the Wings’ young core continues jelling. Mabrey says that with every game the group plays better off each other. Sabally agrees, noting the continuity will make a major difference both in the short and long term.

“We’ll grow up together,” she says. “We’ll learn our weaknesses. We’ll learn our strengths and I think that will be a great advantage for us. I think Connecticut, they have played together for so long and you can see they pass the ball with closed eyes. Seattle has played together for a long time. We will be there and I think we’re already doing a great job this year. And in the future, it will be just like that.”

While Dallas, led by the scoring machine that is Ogunbowale, has never had any trouble generating offense, the added familiarity will also pay dividends on the defensive end of the floor. Johnson installed a new system that involves playing more help and relies, in Sabally’s words, on “a lot of trust and a lot of communication.” Thus far, the returns are promising, as Dallas is allowing five fewer points per 100 possessions than it did last year.

As a function of their newness, the Wings haven shown major improvement in short periods of time. Mabrey notes that a number of the team’s losses have been a function of the group’s beating themselves, whether it be in the form of late-game turnovers, missed free throws or not executing offensive sets. She sees a continued commitment, though, to correcting those mistakes and ensuring they don’t repeat again.

“It’s not a year-by-year basis, where we’re getting better,” she says. “Since we’re all pretty new to this league, there’s so much room for growth that we can make big jumps game by game.”

In addition to improving its defense, Dallas is trying to regain its flow. 2021 No. 1 and No. 2 picks, Charli Collier and Awak Kuier—who at 19 is the league’s youngest player and elected to enter the WNBA in lieu of playing at a U.S. college—are still getting acclimated. Kuier, who is from Finland, joined the team late due to visa issues. Both Sabally and guard Allisha Gray, who in her fifth season on the team is among the group’s veterans, also missed recent time due to Olympic three-on-three qualifying commitments. But in their absence, veteran forwards Isabelle Harrison, Kayla Thornton and Moriah Jefferson and second-year guard Tyasha Harris have stepped up.

While Sabally didn’t make her season debut until this past Friday, the former Oregon star who herself is a unicorn, says she was struck from afar at how improved the team looked from one season to the next.

“The playoffs for me, that’s a no-brainer,” she says. “We should be in there. There’s no room for discussion for that. And I think we can even be up there in the playoffs, too.”

Adds Bibb, the team president: “I knew we had the ingredients and the potential, but I just feel like this year is going to be different. By the time we roll around to September we’re going to be in a different place to where we’ve been in the past. And I’m excited to see that unfold.”

But no matter how this season turns out, don’t forget that Dallas is still planning for its future; it holds two first-round picks in next year’s draft and the rights to swap first-round selections with Chicago, if need be.

“I’m really excited about where we are and where we’re heading,” Bibb says. And I just think it’s coming, and it’s coming soon.”

Notes from around the WNBA

In Jewell Loyd’s first six seasons with Seattle, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft had already built one of the league’s most impressive résumés: two titles, two All-Star Game appearances, an All-WNBA team recognition, a Rookie of the Year award. But Loyd, who is also the face of Nike’s Kobe Bryant line of sneakers, has catapulted her play to the next level this season, becoming an even more dynamic scorer and playmaker. Through 10 games, Loyd is averaging career highs in points (20.4), assists (4.7), rebounds (4.2), field goal percentage (47.7%) and three-point percentage (41.7%).

“You watch her for two seconds and you know she’s a special player,” Storm teammate Sue Bird told me last fall, in the wake of Seattle’s second title in three years.

In recent seasons Loyd has worked to become more consistent. She’s trained with Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy, who also worked closely with Bryant toward the end of his career. She’s also sought to improve the mental component of her game: Among other strategies, she’s adopted an emotional support goldendoodle named Mikey Cristo and consulted with George Mumford, a mindfulness and performance specialist who has also worked with Bryant. Her continued dedication to improving her play has paid off early on this season. It’s part of why Seattle, yet again, is a title favorite.

Last week’s weekly WNBA column was about the rise of the Sun and the continued development of their star forward, Jonquel Jones. However, news broke this week that Jones, who has emerged as the MVP front-runner this year, will miss much of the rest of the month due to international commitments. She’s set to compete for Bosnia and Herzegovina at the FIBA European women’s basketball championships, which run from June 17 to 27. Jones, who was born in the Bahamas but has Bosnian citizenship, will miss at least four games and potentially six. Connecticut has enough talent to withstand her absence in the short term, but the effect of her hiatus also can’t be overstated.

This season, the Sun’s offense is just more than 31 points per 100 possessions better with Jones on the floor than off of it. Their defense is also, not surprisingly, better with Jones. As I detailed, the Sun are legitimate title contenders if Jones maintains her current level of play. But her absence, even if it is brief, could loom large if Connecticut fails to obtain a double bye in the postseason and gets stuck in a single-elimination playoff game.

After dealing with an ankle injury, Candace Parker returned to the Sky lineup Wednesday night, pulling in five rebounds and scoring three points in 18 minutes of action. Her comeback was much-needed, as the Sky, now 3–7, had gone 1–7 in her absence, losing seven straight games. While all but one of those losses came by single digits, Chicago, through seven games, had the league’s worst offense, scoring just 90.6 points per 100 possessions. Parker’s move to the Sky was among the biggest of the offseason and led many, myself included, to think Chicago was a legitimate threat to win the title. It’s looked far from that thus far this season, but as the roster gets healthier—veteran guard Allie Quigley returned June 3 from a hamstring injury that cost her six games—the Sky still have a talented enough roster to turn things around in a big way.

Speaking of Parker, her last team has remained competitive in large part due to its stout defense. While the Sparks lost the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in free agency this offseason, Los Angeles leads the WNBA in defensive rating and is allowing more than five fewer points per 100 possessions than it did last season. As a unit, the Sparks, who enter Thursday’s game with the Mystics 4–3 on the season, give up a league-low 11.3 points off turnovers per game and the third-fewest fast break points.

Guard Brittney Sykes, who is averaging 25 minutes per game off the Sparks’ bench, remains a key part of Los Angeles’s defense, with the team currently giving up nearly 20 fewer points per 100 possessions with her on the floor. The offseason acquisition of center Amanda Zahui B is also paying dividends on defense, as the Sparks surrender only 82 points per 100 possessions with her on the floor, compared with just more than 99 with her off of it. Despite both Ogwumike sisters missing time due to injury, L.A.’s defense should keep it in the playoff hunt. 

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