Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Like Steph Curry? Or Katie Smith? On comparing women’s players to NBA vs. WNBA stars


By Richard Deitsch

Jun 5, 2023

Diana Taurasi is an impassioned and opinionated person, and when a person offering opinions also has the gravitas of being on the short list of the greatest players in the history of her sport, which is where Taurasi sits, there is a bit of an E.F. Hutton impact: People listen.

Last Thursday, during a Phoenix Mercury post-practice media availability, Taurasi offered her thoughts on a variety of topics, including a really interesting answer about broadcasters making comparisons when it comes to women’s college basketball and WNBA players. After watching a recording of Taurasi’s five-minute session, I transcribed the media-centric part and sent out the following on Twitter:

The tweet as of this writing has 750,000 impressions and produced a lot of thoughtful answers (a rare moment on Twitter these days). I wanted to explore Taurasi’s thoughts further because I thought she made a really astute observation and one worth thinking about. As someone who has covered women’s basketball and is a huge consumer and admirer of the game, I am positive in some past pieces I made a comparison of a women’s player to a men’s player, and I definitely recall one story I wrote for Sports Illustrated where I quoted Maya Moore comparing Breanna Stewart to Kevin Durant.

Both the WNBA and women’s college basketball are at places in their evolution where comparisons of today’s players can certainly be made to other players or players from the past. So over the weekend, I reached out to Rebecca Lobo, the Hall of Famer who has called women’s basketball for ESPN since 2004, and showed her Taurasi’s comments.

“I think Diana’s point is fair,” Lobo said. “There’s now 27 years of WNBA players to use as comparison for the current crop. This is something I think about every year when preparing for the WNBA Draft. We always want to find a player’s comp to someone who has had success already in the league. I can usually come up with a former WNBA player or a mash-up of a few players. That being said, there are players like Caitlin (Clark) who have traits that might compare better to an NBA player. This season, Ryan Ruocco and I talked a lot about Caitlin’s get-ahead passes being the best since Sue Bird. Holly Rowe talked about Caitlin’s fire and competitiveness resembling Diana’s. But her range? We haven’t seen anything like that consistently in the women’s game. I’ve been in it (WNBA) since the beginning, and what Caitlin is consistently doing in that regard has not been done before. So I think Steph (Curry) is the fair comparison point on that.

“Who is the comparison for Alyssa Thomas?” Lobo continued. “The way she rebounds and leads the break, LeBron (James) might be the best comp. Who is the best for (Stewart)? It might be KD. Or is it Lauren Jackson? Maybe both should be mentioned? But should broadcasters of the women’s game try to make comparisons to other women? Yes. Just like current college players, when asked who their favorite team or pro player is, should probably say a WNBA player or W team. That will happen as the game continues to grow. There is a responsibility on broadcasters to know the history of the game in order to make those comparisons. And to know when there isn’t one.”

One person on Twitter to respond earliest to my post was a user named Nick Davies based in the Portland area. He offered a thought that echoed many of the good-faith comments. “I understand what she’s saying, but in order to grow the audience, I think you need to make references a casual fan would understand,” Davies wrote. “But maybe it’s about mentioning both. She rebounds like (Dennis) Rodman and (Rebekkah) Brunson.”

There were readers who followed up on Davies’ comment and suggested the comparison to a popular NBA player might prompt someone who doesn’t watch much WNBA or women’s college basketball to look up the women’s player as a result of a men’s player being mentioned. Monica McNutt is part of the post-Lobo generation of former women’s basketball players who now seamlessly switch between calling WNBA and women’s college basketball to the NBA. McNutt is a big part of ESPN’s women’s basketball coverage as well as a studio analyst for the Knicks on MSG Networks. She also covers the NBA Draft for ESPN.

“I think (Taurasi) is on to something, and it’s a challenge I’m personally down to accept,” said McNutt, a captain at Georgetown who led the Hoyas to a Sweet 16 appearance as a senior in 2011. “The recent boom in women’s sports consumption makes her comments timely. As little as three to five years ago, frankly, I don’t think her comments track as well or create the same dialogue. Caitlin Clark being compared to Steph Curry is pretty self-explanatory, as is Angel Reese rebounding like Dennis Rodman. It’s an easy conversation starter that a casual fan would pick up. I know during our women’s Final Four coverage, we also made comparisons of aspects of Caitlin’s game to (Taurasi) and Sue Bird and Angel’s rebounding to Sylvia Fowles or Teresa Weatherspoon with the attitude and flair.”

Cindy Brunson is the play-by-play voice of the Mercury with a long and distinguished career calling women’s basketball for the Pac-12 Networks and FS1 among other entities. She was a studio host with ESPN for 13 years, with hundreds of hours as a SportsCenter anchor. She said the women’s game has evolved enough to invite its own comparisons.

“The level of competition has increased to the point where the women’s game can easily celebrate its own history,” Brunson said. “Let’s embrace that. I’m so lucky. I sit alongside Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale, a pioneer who is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to all of the greats in women’s basketball. We’re intentional about tying the legacies of amazing hoopers from previous generations to the incredible product in front of us today. When we see Caitlin Clark, we compare her to Diana Taurasi. The swagger, the lethal range from 3, and the court vision is vintage DT. Not to say we ignore the NBA. We shouldn’t. Mercury players serve as broadcasters on Suns games and as a result, find themselves wanting to bring elements of Devin Booker’s or Kevin Durant’s game into their own. They’re fun to watch and our players are too —we talk about that connectivity on our telecasts.”

Something I wonder about is whether the time will come in my lifetime when NBA players are compared to women’s players during a men’s college game or an NBA game when it comes to style of play, competitive drive or something similar. That’s not something I can remember hearing on a men’s basketball broadcast. McNutt, who crosses into each world, believes it will happen in time.

“As recently as last year, when Jaden Ivey (whose mother, Niele Ivey, coaches Notre Dame and was a great college point guard) was drafted to the Pistons, his very unique relationship with women’s basketball was part of the fabric of his story,” McNutt said. “He’s said he emulated parts of his game after Arike Ogunbowale and Skylar Diggins. Paolo Banchero, last year’s No. 1 pick has talked about the influence of his mom as a hooper. Tyrese Haliburton has talked about growing up loving women’s ball because his dad coached girls. This can happen especially as more women’s hoopers are becoming cultural icons like this major hits tour Angel Reese is on. So even folks that don’t work in both men’s and women’s sports can’t miss it.

“I don’t think not comparing guys to women is a slight, though. Historically, there’s 50 more years’ worth of NBA players to compare a guy to. But it can be done and will, and I think this generation of hooper and hoop fan is more into just ball no matter who’s playing than their predecessors. So they’ll be even more receptive.”

Brunson pointed out something that’s really important on this issue — representation. The NBA has seen an influx of play-by-play and game analysts with deep ties to women’s basketball including Lisa Byington (Bucks), Kayte Christensen (Kings), Sarah Kustok (Nets), Rowe (Jazz), Kate Scott (Sixers) and Katy Winge (Nuggets), among others. Candace Parker and Chiney Ogwumike are current WNBA analysts who have major NBA broadcasting gigs nationally.

“As for seeing a men’s player compared to a women’s player, it’s coming,” Brunson said. “As new voices are invited to bigger platforms, it’s my hope we’ll see those informed gender comps happen organically. If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I thought a woman would be the TV voice for an NBA team, I would’ve thought that was a pipe dream and now there are two in Kate Scott and Lisa Byington. I’m a big believer that anything is possible and can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

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