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The Oregon Ducks Lost Three Stars To The WNBA, But They Haven’t Lost A Step

At Oregon, Kelly Graves’s teams are no stranger to putting up obscenely efficient offensive numbers.

The Ducks led the nation in points per 100 possessions last season and the season before that. But surely, the loss of Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally — a generational point guard, a ruthless finisher in the paint and a dynamic, versatile big wing, respectively — would lead to some drop-off in how devastating the Ducks are on the offensive end, right?

Well, the answer through five games is: not so much. The Oregon points per 100 possessions in 2019-20? 123.5. So far in 2020-21? 123.1.

After walking into Corvallis and destroying archrival Oregon State 79-59 on Sunday night — a score that understates the level of dominance by Oregon, honestly — Graves wasn’t shying away from the idea that this might be his best team yet.

“I keep saying this is one of the best shooting, if not the best shooting, team I’ve ever had,” Graves said to reporters following the game. “… We showed it, I think, tonight. You saw a lot of why I’m so excited about that.”

This Oregon team dismantles opponents in waves rather than through a trio of mismatches, the way the Ionescu/Hebard/Sabally group did. At least 10 different Ducks have scored in each of the team’s first five games, a reflection of the lopsided scores that allow Graves to empty his bench and the level of talent that enters the game when he does.

Five Oregon Ducks are averaging double figures so far this year, and each has a different offensive game. Te-Hina Paopao has picked up Ionescu’s offense-leading duties, fearlessly penetrating and hitting her pullup jumpers in about equal measure, with a field-goal percentage at 50 percent from three and 54.2 percent from inside the arc. Her assist percentage of 29.9 is solid, and she’s not turning the ball over much (at 14.8 percent) despite having it in her hands often. For reference, Ionescu’s turnover percentage in her last Oregon season was 17.6 percent.

But part of what makes Paopao so dangerous is she’s playing next to Taylor Mikesell, a Maryland transfer who shot the ball well during her two years as a Terrapin but has found another level in Eugene. She entered Sunday’s game shooting 59.1 percent on 3-pointers, a seemingly unsustainable rate. Well, she surpassed it against one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12, hitting 5-of-8 from deep. Now she’s up to an even 60 percent on threes and 70 percent on twos — a number usually out of reach for all but the most rim-centric interior scorers.

Mikesell said she’s never gotten better looks at the basket in her career. The ensemble forces defenses to choose.

“I think it speaks to our depth, to just the fact that every single person on our team can shoot the ball,” Mikesell said Sunday night. “You have to just guard everybody. Honestly, you have to put a hand up, you have to guard them. So there’s less time to be focused on just one person.”

Here’s an example of what happens when a defense tries to double off of Mikesell.

But that takes us to the player who drew that double, 6-foot-7 Sedona Prince, who’s averaging 10 points per game even as she’s navigating some early-season injuries. She’s not just hard to contain at the rim, either — she’s capable of extending out to the foul line too, like this:

That combination of skills can push teams to double Prince, sure. But it also means you have to make sure your big stays home on her defensively. And that is a problem, too — guarding most of Oregon’s talented bigs — because Paopao is a capable scorer from all three levels. Here’s what that looks like in practice, with a defense forced to give Paopao a wide-open midrange.

Oregon does have continuity of sorts in its starting lineup relative to last year. No, the Ducks don’t have Satou Sabally, but they do have a Sabally: Satou’s sister Nyara, who is putting up a superficially similar debut season for the Ducks to her sister, though Nyara is a redshirt sophomore after knee injuries cost her the past two campaigns. Satou averaged 10.7 points per game in her first year, Nyara checks in at 10.6 so far. But Nyara is far more efficient already, at 65.7 percent from the field, while Satou shot 46.1 percent, and Nyara’s 7.4 rebounds per game is about twice Satou’s 3.8 per game in 2017-18.

And we haven’t even gotten to the addendum Graves tacked on to the end of his comment about the deepest shooting team he’s ever had: “And Boley didn’t even have one of her normal nights!”

That would be Erin Boley, the leading scorer for Oregon so far this season, checking in at 14.2 points per game. She’s an inherent mismatch for opposing wings, at a strong 6-foot-2, and she’s had pro-ready capacity from 3-point range since high school, hitting 39.5 percent of her threes as a freshman at Notre Dame and at or above 40 percent in each of her three years at Oregon since transferring.

The Ducks are putting up all of this production without having to log starters’ minutes, either. Paopao is at 23.2 minutes per game, leading her team while playing just over half the allotted time.

“The nice thing is we, we have a good bench that can come in and give her some rest,” Graves said of Paopao. “You know, we don’t drop off a lot.”

For comparison: Ionescu averaged 33.7 minutes per game last year, Sabally 28.8, Hebard 28.7. All five starters were above 24.

The resulting fresh legs may account for this, too: Oregon allowed 84.2 points per 100 possessions last year, good for 47th in the country. So far this season, they are at 71.1 — 10th in the country — though that is likely to rise once the Ducks play deeper in the Pac-12. But three of their five opponents already have been conference foes, so this isn’t just a question of beating up on nonconference teams.

Again, this is an Oregon team that is likely to get even better. Graves noted that Prince and Sabally didn’t practice much this past week. As the team coalesces, the torrid start may serve as a floor for what they are capable of.

“We have a lot of different ways we can get different people shots when they’re feeling it, when they’re having those kind of nights — you know, both inside and outside,” Graves said. ”So I just think we have a pretty well-rounded team.”

He’s not wrong.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.