Versatile forwards including Stewart, Wilson in WNBA playoffs reflect growth of women’s game

NEW YORK (AP) — The WNBA game has changed and its evolution can be seen in the WNBA semifinals.

From Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson to Lauren Jackson, Candace Parker and Elena Delle Donne, there have always been one or two post players with the ability to step out and shoot the 3 or be a playmaker away from the basket. They changed the way the game has been played over the 27-year history of the league.

Today, WNBA rosters list those coveted forwards with versatile skillsets.

The top six finishers in the MVP race were forwards and the top three vote getters — Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Alyssa Thomas as well as fifth place finisher Satou Sabally — have led their teams to the semifinals that continue Friday night.

“You saw it on the men’s side. You go back to Tina Thompson and Lauren Jackson. Breanna Stewart fits in that slot where it’s just big and highly skilled,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “A’ja is big, athletic and highly skilled. Her efficiency has been off the charts. It’s crazy how efficient she’s been. I think the league as a whole kind of took a step forward with spacing, scoring.”

It’s more common now to see forwards bringing the ball up the court and shoot 3s to go along with their rebounding and scoring.

Wilson has expanded her game since she entered the league in 2018. She was always able to attack the basket on drives and finish on the break, running the floor well. Now she’s extended her shooting range. In her first four years she took just two 3-point attempts. She’s taken 112 combined over the past two seasons and made 40.

“The game grows every single year, so my influence is I’ve had to stay ahead of the game at all aspects of my game,” said the 6-foot-4 Wilson. “I’ve got to be prepared for pretty much anything because I’m going to see a lot of different things.”

The 6-4 Stewart, who was honored as the league’s MVP on Tuesday after being named the AP Player of the Year, credits her dad for getting her started at an early age to be more than just a post player.

“He made sure I wasn’t just a back to the basket player or a run to the block player because of my height,” Stewart said. “My height didn’t define what position I played, but only made it so I could play more. ... The ability to do multiple things.

“When you have multiple tools in your tool box it’s harder to defend.”

Stewart also is a strong playmaker, bringing the ball up the floor at times to help alleviate pressure defense that teams have thrown at New York. Her 6-6 Liberty teammate Jonquel Jones is another versatile post giving New York two threats, who can play inside or out.

The Liberty forward isn’t the only facilitator from the position. Thomas had a historic year, leading the league in the total number of assists (316) as well as rebounds (394).

“She does everything for us on both ends of the court,” Connecticut coach Stephanie White said of her 6-2 MVP candidate. “She can guard any position as well as run the offense as a point-forward.”

Dallas has it’s own “unicorn” forward in Sabally, who earned the league’s most improved player award. The 6-4 wing can play all over the court and recorded the team’s first triple-double in late July.

“I’m a huge Satou fan. That girl, I think she’s a phenomenal player. Just big, lengthy and skilled,” Hammon said.

The Wings also have the luxury of two traditional back-to-the-basket 6-7 posts in Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown,. The pair combined to score 96% of their field goals in the paint this season, giving first-year coach Latricia Trammell a multitude of options.

With so many “bigs” doing big things, 40-point games and triple-doubles are on the rise.

“It’s just evolution,” Hammon said.


AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson contributed to this story from Las Vegas