Column: The Lynx Have A Present And A Future

The Lynx are a veteran team. They don’t hide from this fact, and it is the very fact of their experience that has helped them build such an unprecedented run of success over the course of the last eight years.

This year, things haven’t started as planned. Minnesota is 3-6, mostly due to the fact that the team is struggling to put together complete games. There are those who look at the beginning of this season and say that it indicates that the Lynx simply don’t have what it takes to be the dominant team we’ve seen in the past. I am not one of those people.

First, let’s not forget that Maya Moore only just yesterday turned 29 (happy birthday Maya!), and Sylvia Fowles is still well in her prime at 32. Moore and Fowles are the Lynx’s two best players, and there’s no reason to believe that the two of them won’t keep playing at a very high level for many years. Second, if you look a little farther down on the Lynx’s roster, you see the beginnings of a new team, one with the potential to do some serious damage.

One of the hardest things in sports is to gracefully transition from being a historically great team into being a championship contender with a new set of players, but the Lynx are fairly well-positioned to do just that. Let’s clear something up before I continue—I’m not saying the Lynx are there yet. Minnesota has a very good team this year and the people panicking now need to calm down and see how the Lynx adjust. However, if you don’t think the Lynx are going to be able to transform on the fly as their legends get older, you are seriously underestimating Cheryl Reeve and not paying attention to two potential future backcourt stars who have been forcing their way into more minutes, even on this All-Star-filled squad.

Let’s talk about Alexis Jones. Jones, the Lynx’s second-year guard out of Duke University, is mainly known for one, very important thing—shooting. She’s a gunner. Watch her in practice and you start to understand why, too. Jones is relentless in her rehearsal of that ever-important three-point shot. She takes hundreds of them once practice ends, often working with coach Shelly Patterson, and when she catches fire, it’s a thing of beauty.

Here’s the thing though: in games, Jones hasn’t been hitting her threes. On the season, she’s only 3-for-16. Not great. But here’s another thing: that hasn’t kept her off the floor. In addition to her three-point work, Jones has been practicing her midrange work off the dribble, and that has certainly translated to in-game action. She has a midrange ability and a finishing touch at the rim that seriously reminds me of the NBA’s James Harden. She’s not at the point yet where she can score consistently, but some of the tricks she’s pulled out are very impressive. Despite her horrible three-point shooting so far, Jones is shooting 37.8 percent from the field overall. There’s no question that given the amount of work Jones puts in, those three-pointers are going to start falling, and when they do, those other looks aren’t going away either. She’s a serious offensive threat.

It’s clear from watching Jones play that she has begun to earn Reeve’s trust. Jones is averaging 12.7 minutes per game, and she played 25 minutes at Connecticut and 28 against the Sparks last week. The likely reason Jones is seeing the floor more has nothing to do with her shooting. Spend a little time watching Jones, and you’ll see a player who has grown in leaps and bounds from last year in both her decision-making and her defense.

It’s really hard to stay on the floor if you can’t defend, and for rookies making the transition to the pro game, defense is one of the most difficult skills to develop. Defense requires an understanding of a game plan and the ability to constantly adjust and make decisions based on the other teams’ actions that are both grounded in your own instincts and in your team’s strategy. Jones is not a lockdown one-on-one defender just yet, but she doesn’t give up any ground on the defensive end. She has quick feet, and with a full year in the Lynx’s system under her belt, she’s doing an admirable job.

Jones has also grown as a passer. When she’s played this season, she’s often acted as the Lynx’s primary ball handler. While the responsibility may make it harder for Jones to find her own shots, her court vision shows some serious promise. She had four assists against the Sun on Saturday including a few absolute dimes, and zero turnovers. That’s music to a coach’s ears.

Another player who seems like she’ll be playing a big role with the team going forward is Cecilia Zandalasini. She’s a little farther away from being a regular contributor than Jones, but what we’ve seen from Zandalasini on the court this season is very encouraging.

In 13 minutes against the Sun, Zandalasini finished with 11 points, three rebounds, and an assist on 1-for-3 shooting. When I saw those numbers I did a double take. Wait a minute, 11 points on three shots? Turns out Zandalasini was a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line. That’s very exciting. Zandalasini is a 6-2 shooting guard/small forward combo who has real strength and length. She’s obviously great at getting inside and drawing contact, but when her finishing improves? Look out. A lot of those trips to the line are going to turn into three-point plays. She’s also improving her off-ball movement, and her athleticism makes it really hard for defenders to stay with her. When Zandalasini gets more time in the Lynx offense under her belt, she could be a monster.

Zandalasini also has perfect shooting form. Seriously, if you have a child who you’re trying to teach how to shoot a basketball, make them watch Zandalasini. Her go-to shot isn’t her three-pointer, but she’s been developing her range more and more.

Zandalasini is also a high-upside defender. If you watch her tape, you’ll see a lot of chase-down blocks. She projects as a great one-on-one defender with the ability to jump into passing lanes and create turnovers. Here’s the best thing about Zandalasini, though: she’s only 22. At her young age, Zandalasini is already one of the best players on the Italian national team, and well on her way to becoming a fixture of the Lynx roster. At the very least, she’ll be a capable backup for Moore. At most, she could be a star in her own right. 

There might be a time in the future when Jones and Zandalasini hear their names announced at Target Center with Minnesota’s starters, but for now, the young duo will have to be content with making an impact in any way they can off the bench. Things can change quickly—developing players isn’t an exact science, and it isn’t a process that only takes steps forward. We could easily see a stretch of games where Zandalasini and Jones barely play, or one where they play 20+ minutes a night. However, you can be confident that coach Reeve is keeping a close eye on this duo—an eye that looks towards the future.

The players that have helped the Lynx become great have not yet played their last game. They’re a dangerous team on any given night, and they will not let their dynasty fade quietly. However, when the time does come for some of the Lynx’s veterans to take a step back, they can do so confident that there are a few young players more than ready for the challenge of filling their very, very big shoes.

Highlight Reel:

The highlight of the Lynx’s week didn’t come on the court. Last Wednesday, they celebrated their 2017 Championship with a community service event in D.C. Whatever happens on the court, the Lynx are a group that is very easy to root for. They’re genuinely committed to bettering the world in whatever way they can, and they continue to build meaningful partnerships and do some really amazing work.

Theme of the Week:

Flexibility. In the past week, we’ve seen Reeve play the matchup game quite liberally. Reeve has put many different combinations of players on the floor, and it’s helping the Lynx develop some super interesting looks. Against the Sun, Reeve went early to a lineup of: Jones, Tanisha Wright, Zandalasini, Moore and Fowles. That group created some serious problems for the Sun. They played great defense, and the presence of four players who can shoot consistently gave Fowles a lot of room to operate in the paint. There have been times in the past where Reeve hasn’t had to be all that creative. Now, with the Lynx struggling a bit in the early-going of the season, she’s starting to go deeper into her playbook. Reeve is a great coach with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. She doesn’t miss any plays and she doesn’t take anything for granted, so look for her to continue to break out new tricks to help the Lynx get wins.

Quote Corner: 

“Obviously we were pretty desperate. We had dropped four in a row. The most in this team’s time together, the four or five who have been together. We had a level of desperation. We had a level of want to which was necessary. These guys are hard to guard. Washington is hard to guard. I thought we were pretty gritty, we held them to 11 in the fourth quarter. That was obviously the key to the game.” –Coach Reeve on the Lynx’s win over the Mystics last Thursday.

“Every year is new, every season is different so we did not really [think] about any other time other than just getting a win tonight. I felt like the last couple of days of practice and the last week or so even in the games, I felt like we were getting close. You could feel like the momentum was shifting for us, and at some point we knew that we were going to break through and have a really good game together and now it is building on it and making sure we are staying focused, and it was a really good road win for us, tough environment, great team and just happy we were able to come out with the victory.” –Lindsay Whalen on things starting to come together for the team.

“Yeah, we can’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We had Connecticut right where we wanted them, had a couple turnovers to let them get shots up and had a couple of missed assignments. That happened in the last couple of games. We’re just going to have to make sure we lock in and just refocus and regroup.” –Sylvia Fowles on letting the game slip away against the Sun.

“It’s always a combination of one team’s will and the other team increasing focus and will. It’s a game of wills. We have to control what we can control and I have to continue to take care of the ball and not set ourselves up. We missed a lot of shots we normally make, combined with not willing ourselves to be better in the fourth. It’s disappointing, but we’re going to keep pushing to fix the things that we can.” –Maya Moore on the Lynx’s second half against the Sun.

What’s Next:

The Lynx (finally) get to play a few at home. Former Lynx star Katie Smith will be back in the building on the sidelines as Minnesota hosts the Liberty on Saturday, then next Tuesday the Wings are in town. Both these teams are ones that the Lynx beat in their first matchup of the season, so the visitors will be looking for revenge while the Lynx try to maintain their dominance. Hopefully with a few days to rest and practice beforehand, the Lynx will be ready to put their foot down on two teams they know they can beat.