With just under three and a half minutes to go in Game 1 of the New York Liberty’s opening-round playoff series against the Chicago Sky, Marine Johannès dribbled left off of a ball screen, drew two defenders and, using her off hand, whipped a perfect behind-the-head pass to Natasha Howard for an easy layup to trim New York’s deficit to 4 points.
It was a pass so brilliant that, for Howard, it “brought flashbacks” of her time playing alongside the WNBA’s all-time assists leader, Sue Bird.
More importantly for the Liberty, the pass jump-started their momentum. The Sky never scored again, as seventh-seeded New York closed the game on a 13-0 run to complete the upset of the No. 2 seed and win its first playoff game since 2015.
That assist was one of seven for Johannès, who also added 8 points and two steals in 27 minutes. It’s the type of production the Liberty have come to expect from their French combo guard, who returned to the WNBA in 2022 after spending last season focusing on international commitments.
Johannès left her fingerprints all over the first game, but there are plenty of other international talents that could make their mark on the rest of this series. There’s Han Xu, New York’s 6-foot-10 center with an unprecedented skillset. There’s Rebecca Allen, Johannès and Han’s Australian teammate whose length has earned her the nickname “Spida.”
And on the other side, there’s the Belgian connection — Sky teammates Emma Meesseman and Julie Allemand — who developed their chemistry playing together on the national team and in their first season together in the WNBA helped lift Chicago to its best regular-season winning percentage in franchise history.1
All of these players are part of a resurgence for international production in the WNBA. Leaguewide, there are 15 international players2 (the most in more than a half-decade), 12 of whom are in the playoffs. Chances are, at least one international player will have a big impact on which team wins a championship in 2022.
“Championship teams have a lot of international talent on them, if you think about the past teams that have gone through this league,” Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn told reporters on July 30. “… To have the best of the best international players come in and make our league great, I think it’s powerful.”
As Quinn alluded to, the large number of international players in the WNBA this season isn’t new. They have raised the league’s level of play since its inception in 1997, when Brazil’s Janeth Arcain helped the Houston Comets win the first-ever WNBA title. Four years later, Australia’s Lauren Jackson entered the league and dominated, winning three MVP awards and two championships.
But the number of international players in the WNBA peaked in Jackson’s rookie year, as she was one of 39 such players to appear in at least one game in 2001. While the league had 16 teams at the time — four more than it does now — the average of 2.4 international players per team would still work out to a total of 29 today. Only one season outside of 2001 featured that many international players, and only one season since 2006 has even seen 20 internationals make an appearance.3
In terms of the share of total league production from international players, as measured by Her Hoop Stats’s win shares, the 2022 regular season ranks just 15th in WNBA history at 8.6 percent, and just 12th in WS per 40 minutes (.121) by internationals. But seven of the 11 seasons ahead of it on the per-minute list came during Jackson’s 12-year Hall-of-Fame career, and another was the league’s inaugural season in 1997. This season ranks fourth among the 10 post-Jackson seasons in WS per 40, and second in the share of total WS from internationals during that span.
|Season||% of League Win Shares||Season||Win Shares per 40 Min|
Jackson had arguably the greatest impact on the league of any international player, so it’s no surprise that overall production from internationals dropped off once she retired. However, thanks to players such as Meesseman and Allemand on the Sky, Johannès and her Liberty teammates Han and Allen, Seattle’s Ezi Magbegor and Washington’s Rui Machida, international players are having one of the best collective seasons in recent history.
“It seems like every team has a couple foreigners and they’re people you have to game plan for,” Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon said on Aug. 2. “So that means that they impact the game in a positive way.”
This year’s group produced 12.6 offensive win shares, the most since 2011, and its mark of 8.5 defensive win shares is the most since the 2014 season, when Meesseman and Brazil’s Erika de Souza combined to average 2.5 steals and 2.5 blocks.
“I think one of the things that stands out is how many of them come with multiple offensive skills,” Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on July 30, referring to international players over the years. “They aren’t just a shooter or aren’t just a passer. They have all of those things.”
It’s tough to fully measure whether international players have more pure offensive skill, but in aggregate, they appear to be more efficient scorers. Internationals finished with a true shooting percentage higher than league average in 22 of the 26 seasons in WNBA history. Altogether, internationals have compiled a true shooting percentage of 52.7 percent, while the league average across its history sits at 51.7 percent.
This season, only four teams — the Atlanta Dream, Connecticut Sun, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury — had no international representation. Meanwhile, eight of the league’s 15 international players play for one of the top five teams, which are generally considered the championship contenders. And no team got more win shares out of its international stars than No. 2 seed Chicago, led by Meesseman and Allemand.
|New York Liberty||3.1||1.5||4.5||
|Los Angeles Sparks||1.5||0.7||2.2||
|Las Vegas Aces||0.4||0.0||0.4||
In 2013, Meesseman was drafted by the Washington Mystics in the second round as a 19-year-old. Now, after seven seasons with the Mystics, Meesseman is a legitimate All-WNBA candidate in her first season with Chicago. She has been a jack-of-all-trades, averaging 12.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks per game while shooting over 57 percent from the field. She leads all international players in total win shares (5.9), win shares per 40 minutes (0.23), player efficiency rating (21.7) and offensive rating (121.7). And we already know that Meesseman shines most when the lights are brightest — in 2019, she became only the second international player (after Jackson in 2010) to win WNBA Finals MVP.
When the Sky traded for Allemand before the 2022 season, the hope was that she would replicate her rookie season in 2020, when she became the only rookie in WNBA history to average at least 8 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game. Her minutes have dropped playing behind star point guard Courtney Vandersloot, but the 2016 third-round draft pick remains an impressive playmaker, averaging 1.4 more assists per 40 minutes than she did as a rookie. She gives Chicago crucial depth behind Vandersloot, which could be a difference-maker in a playoff series.
But Chicago isn’t the only team whose championship hopes are riding on international players. Fourth-seeded Seattle has gotten plenty of production this season from Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot, helping the Storm rank second in total international win shares.
It’s easy to forget that Magbegor just turned 23 because the 6-foot-4 Australian center has played like a much more experienced player. In her third WNBA season, Magbegor is averaging a career-high 9.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game and ranks second among international players in total win shares (3.5) and win shares per 40 minutes (0.17). She also ranks first in defensive rating (94.5) among international players who have played more than five minutes. Magbegor began the season as a starter before coming off the bench for the past 10 games, and she could provide a spark in the playoffs reminiscent of Meesseman in 2019.
Talbot makes it two Australians on Quinn’s bench, and the former third-round pick contributes 5.0 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting from behind the arc. But Talbot’s impact is primarily on the defensive end: She has 1.0 defensive win shares this season compared to 0.6 on the offensive end, and her defensive rating of 96.7 isn’t far behind Magbegor’s. That defense from Down Under will be important as the Storm chase their third title in five seasons.
And while No. 1 seed Las Vegas and No. 5 Washington received less total production from their international players, each has a potential postseason difference-maker in the form of the Aces’ Iliana Rupert and the Mystics’ Rui Machida.
The 12th overall pick in 2021, Rupert began her WNBA career this season, before she even turned 21, and she has already shown flashes of what she can become. Her impact has been limited in just 13.1 minutes per game on a talented Las Vegas squad, but she’s seen the court enough to qualify for the player offensive rating leaderboard on Her Hoop Stats, where she ranks 22nd in the league thanks to almost 37 percent shooting from deep. That shooting stroke as a 6-foot-4 frontcourt player is one reason Hammon says her rookie from France “has all the talent in the world,” and it could be crucial for an Aces team that enters the playoffs without its All-Star stretch four in Dearica Hamby.
Machida, a 2021 Olympic silver medalist, was signed by Washington this offseason as an undrafted free agent. The 5-foot-4 point guard has quickly become a fan favorite and is well-known for her speed and highlight-reel passes, averaging 2.6 assists in just under 13 minutes per game. Similar to Allemand, Machida can provide vital depth and ball-handling in a playoff series — especially if WNBA assists leader Natasha Cloud isn’t 100 percent after injuring her knee in the regular-season finale.
Given how big of an impact international players have had over more than two decades (and their 2022 resurgence), it’s not surprising that some coaches would like to expand their WNBA presence even more in the future. But as Thibault pointed out, that’s asking a lot — both logistically and physically — because national teams often train together in the summers for continental and international championships in the summer and fall.4
“I like the international players,” Chicago head coach and general manager James Wade said on Aug. 5. “I think one of the things that does come into question is when and if they have so many international commitments that hamper their growth within the WNBA team or collective, and that can be something that dissuades coaches from taking a chance on international players.”
But as the game expands, more players around the world are dreaming of making the WNBA, and every coach is scouting globally. This creates even more competition for roster spots — and raises the WNBA’s level of play even higher.
“It’s great to have, obviously, so many different players from different countries,” said New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello, who is Australian and played in the WNBA from 1998 to 2003. “We’ve got a few on our team. And I think … this is about being the best league in the world, so having the best players in the world. So I think it’s a great opportunity for them, and it puts eyes on those countries as well so we can continue to develop the women’s game over there. It’s quite big, but we want to go global.”
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