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Leonsis holds analytic scrimmage as way to increase WNBA popularity

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Leonsis holds analytic scrimmage as way to increase WNBA popularity

By BENJAMIN STANDIG, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ted Leonsis has turned to analytics in his search for ways to broaden the appeal of the WNBA.

Analytics are a growing trend that has had an impact on the NBA, look no further than the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.

So Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards, Mystics and the NHL's Capitals, figured a WNBA scrimmage would work as a good testing ground.

"There is a lot of theory that's talked about regarding analytics," Leonsis said, "but there really is not a lot of real-life labs where you can really see it. You can report and analyze what happened in the past, but it's difficult to see how some of these plans that you can implement only in a scrimmage format for now ... really mean."

In addition to a standard scrimmage, the Mystics and Minnesota Lynx participated in a controlled "analytic" version broken into 10-minute sections on Tuesday.

No fans attended, but members of the Wizards organization, including head coach Randy Wittman, team president Ernie Grunfeld and Leonsis, watched from the Verizon Center stands.

Sport VU cameras were used to record the scrimmage. NBA teams deploy these cameras during the season to gather possession-by-possession data used for game planning.

Leonsis said he came up with the initial scrimmage idea before discussing it further with WNBA officials and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

On the surface, all looked similar, but with subtle changes.

In one session, only shots from 3-point range, in the paint and extended low block counted. Mid-range shots resulted in turnovers.

When news of the scrimmage surfaced last week that no mid-range shots aspect drew the attention of Phil Jackson. The former NBA player and current New York Knicks president who coached the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to 11 NBA championships isn't a huge fan of analytics that put more emphasis on 3-pointers.

As part of series of tweets Saturday, Jackson said, "the 3pt shot is not the be all end all of basketball. WNBA is taking their exhibition game to extremes-do not disvalue the 2pt shot."

Jackson's reaction was not lost on Leonsis.

"When I saw and read his tweets the other day, I said 'This worked. We've gotten people's attention," Leonsis said. "But we're not doing (this) to not pay respect to the game of basketball. We're trying to see for the women's game, are there things that we can do to make it more popular and are there lessons that can be learned from this scrimmage that can be applied" elsewhere.

Among the adjustments during the final 10 minutes, teams played with a 20-second shot clock that reset to 14 following offensive rebounds.

The players and coaches largely treated the scenario as they would when they practice running a specific play following a timeout or target a specific section of the offense. They just did so longer. Over the 20 minutes of controlled scrimmages, the Mystics outscored the Lynx 48-41.

"We scored 48 points in two quarters," said Washington guard Kara Lawson. "You can probably count on one hand the amount of halves that prolific in the last couple of years. Small sample size, but it did increase the scoring."

Analytics have become a big part of basketball and don't seem to be going away.

However, as Mystics coach Mike Thibault noted, numbers and analysis are one thing, talent is another.

"I had a reporter one time say you have a lot of shooters," Thibault recalled. "I said that's not the issue. I need a lot of makers."

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A revitalized DeMarcus Cousins poses the most unique challenge of Thomas Bryant’s young career

A revitalized DeMarcus Cousins poses the most unique challenge of Thomas Bryant’s young career

The Golden State Warriors, it's probably safe to say, present a unique challenge defensively. They have two MVPs and five All-NBA selections. If you ask Scott Brooks, they have six future Hall of Famers, including Andre Iguodala off the bench.

With DeMarcus Cousins now in the fold, the Warriors can roll out a five-man lineup of guys who can put the ball on the floor and shoot from the outside. Long range shooting for them, of course, has a different meaning than other teams. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant are deadly from 30 feet, and sometimes beyond. 

As a team, the Warriors shoot 39 percent from the perimeter on 33.5 attempts per game. Stopping them is a gargantuan task, but the Wizards will give it a shot on Thursday night with an 8 p.m. tipoff set for national TV on TNT.

The Warriors' ability to spread the floor and move the ball from shooter to shooter with unrivaled range is difficult to keep up with, not only for the wing defenders chasing them around. It will also present a unique challenge for Wizards center Thomas Bryant, who at 21 years old and in his second season will be new to it all.

Bryant has only played the Warriors once in his career. That was earlier this season, with the Wizards on Oct. 24. He logged nine minutes, but those were late in a 22-point blowout loss. The game occurred about a month before he was promoted to the starting lineup.

It may seem counterintuitive that Bryant, a big man, will be one to watch as the Wizards battle a team tailored for the perimeter. But he will have plenty of responsibility on the backline of Washington's defense. 

"He has to be a quarterback," Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. "He has to talk. Their bigs, they hand the ball off a lot and we'll be switching tomorrow. He has to make sure he's able to guard Steph, Klay, K.D. at times. He's going to be switched out to guys. Making it difficult for them with his length and playing with energy, that's what we need."

Bryant, indeed, could very easily find himself on an island at the three-point line, tasked momentarily to stay in front of Curry, for instance. The Warriors will do their best to find mismatches, and they are good at getting them.

Bryant has quick feet and long arms that suggest he can guard in space, but doesn't do a ton of perimeter duty for the Wizards. He is 85th among centers in contested threes per 36 minutes. Usually, he stays home around the rim.

However, he'll almost certainly have to venture out against Golden State, even if he is trailing Cousins. Last season, when he was healthy, Cousins averaged 6.1 three-point attempts per game. This season, through two games back from Achilles surgery, he has taken 40 percent of his shots beyond 16 feet.

"They put so much pressure on you defensively that all five guys need to be on-point," Brooks said. "A lot of times in transition, Thomas is going to be guarding smaller guys because they're coming at you all over the floor. You have to be able to manage that and guard that."

Bryant will get his chance against the Warriors, but the leash could end up being short. Brooks has the option to go small with Jeff Green at center. He could favor a lineup with Green in the middle alongside Trevor Ariza and Otto Porter Jr. at forward and Beal and Tomas Satoransky at guard. That would maximize their ability to switch.

Bryant, though, will start. Whether he stays on the floor could depend on how he fares defending outside shots, which he hasn't done a whole of this season.

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John Legend, Lil Jon and other factors weighing on Redskins' decision with free agent Preston Smith

John Legend, Lil Jon and other factors weighing on Redskins' decision with free agent Preston Smith

Edgy describes Ryan Anderson’s demeanor, playing style and music choices.

The Washington Redskins’ outside linebacker and Preston Smith's primary backup desires “hard (expletive)” rap before games while working up a physical and mental lather. Tracks from Mystikal, Lil Jon and “any Young Jeezy” crank through Anderson’s headphones. R&B crooners need not apply.

During this season, one of Anderson’s position coaches offered a musical example of why the second-year defender must modify his habits for a more harmonious future.

“[The coach] told me at one practice this year to stop trying to do so much (on the field),” Anderson told NBC Sports Washington. “Just be John Legend instead of Mystikal or Lil Jon. When you think about that, it makes sense. Be smooth, calm down, be John Legend.”

If the organization believes an Anderson transformation from supporting cast to starter is possible, call it a rap on Smith’s career with the Redskins.

Smith ranks among Washington’s most prominent free agents. The organization showed little initiative in signing the edge rusher to an extension before or during the 2018 campaign.

“I'd love to have [Preston] back for sure, but obviously free agency is what it is,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said late in the regular season. “He's earned the right to go out and shop himself around, but I'm hopeful that we can get him back."

Slot receiver Jamison Crowder, running back Adrian Peterson and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix also hit open waters once their contracts expire at the end of the current business year.

From the Redskins' perspective, whether any return depends on salary cap scenarios and perception of replacement options.

Washington has $15.5 million in salary cap space available for 2019 according to Spotrac.com, and a lengthy list of roster needs. Letting Crowder and Clinton-Dix escape creates more holes. The Redskins have a backup option at running back with Derrius Guice returning from injury.

The outside linebacker scenario falls somewhere in between, though no direct battle exists between Smith, a second-round in selection in 2015, and Anderson.

Smith, a three-year starter, played in 81 percent of all defensive snaps last season. He has not missed a game in four seasons.

His backup took the field on 16 percent of snaps last season. Injuries sidelined Anderson for five of 32 career games.

Smith’s four sacks in 2019 set a career-low, yet doubles Anderson’s overall total.   

Despite the limited sack total, Pro Football Focus rated Smith eighth among all NFL outside linebackers last season.

“I still think his future is very bright in the National Football League,” Gruden said.  “He is young, he is strong, he is long, he is smart. Obviously, from a production standpoint, he only had four sacks this year and that's low for a guy like that. But, I think he will get more and more the more he plays."

Anderson’s primary advantage is financial.

NFL.com considers the 26-year-old Smith the 17th best free agent this off-season, meaning a sizable pay raise in his future after concluding a four-year, $5.8 rookie contract.

Anderson, whose rookie contract extends through 2020, is on the books for a $1.7 million cap hit next season.

The Redskins do not need exemplary production from the burly 2017 second-round selection. Receiving a steady and forceful effort as a run stuffer and pocket-collapser works.

“Ryan Anderson has been in and out with the injuries, but he's done solid (work) with his assignments,” Gruden said.

An unwillingly participant in media sessions during his rookie season, Anderson turned engaging with reporters in Year 2. Chatting while seated in front of his locker at Redskins Park, he labeled his sophomore season “up and down,” but also recognized growth with his mental game.

“This year [the game] finally started to slow down for me. (Unlike) last year, everything wasn't a blur,” Anderson told NBC Sports Washington.

Washington often uses its outside linebackers to create a perimeter edge, forcing opposing ball carriers inside where teammates await. That is a good use of the powerful 253-pound Anderson.

Whether the Redskins use him as the 2019 starter is beyond his control.

“I’m just trying to get myself together so I’m in the best shape, so there’s no question about the position when I’m playing," the University of Alabama product said. “I don’t want to go out there and get the snaps I’ve been asking for and then I’m not producing.”

Anderson also plans on letting the assistant coach’s Legend-ary advice sink in.

“I’m a guy that doesn't even really listen to that kind of music,' Anderson said of Legend's soulful fare, "but at that the end of the day it makes sense.”

As does going with the flow until the Redskins sort out their off-season strategy at outside linebacker. 

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