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The Sun’s Courtney Williams Is Playing An Old-School Midrange Game — And It’s Working

Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller has an offensive philosophy built around making his players take the most efficient shot — typically chances around the rim or threes. The Sun, who face the Los Angeles Sparks in a best-of-five playoff semifinal matchup starting Tuesday, finished this season with the third-most efficient offense in the league after finishing atop the WNBA in 2018.

Even so, Miller realized that it was a mistake to try to turn his energy ball of a combo guard, Courtney Williams, into a model of the efficiency revolution that has altered the league’s offensive topography. “When we first got her, we tried to have her drive it more,” Miller said. “But she’s so good at getting those, what we call tough twos, we have just let her be what she’s going to be.”

In that way, Williams’s journey in Connecticut echoed the lessons she taught her college coach, Jose Fernandez of South Florida. “We told her, ‘Hey, get to the free-throw line more. You need to drive it more,’ Fernandez recalled. “But then, it was like … she just got where she got.”

That’s the deceptive simplicity of Williams’s game. She lets it fly from the dreaded midrange more than anyone in the WNBA — a combined 249 attempts from 10 to 19 feet, including a league-high 145 from 15 to 19 feet out. Williams also led the league in attempts from 15 to 19 feet in 2018 and finished second in 2017 to Indiana Fever forward Candice Dupree.

“I just do what I do,” Williams said. “I do what got me here. I feel like that midrange makes me stand out from other players.”

The other team with a double-bye in the playoffs, the Washington Mystics, is led by Elena Delle Donne and her three- and rim-heavy 50-40-90 season. So it may seem quixotic that the Sun are trusting a 5-foot-8 volume shooter from a spot on the floor considered inefficient. But to this point, both her methods and her path are anything but haphazard.

There’s an obvious WNBA comparison for what Williams is doing, and it’s one that she’s consciously tried to emulate: all-time great Cappie Pondexter.

“Cappie is my favorite player because I see so much of myself in her,” Williams said. “Being our size, pull-ups, being a scorer, being able to score at all levels anywhere on the floor, tattoos, don’t really care what nobody got to say about us. That’s how we look.”

The numbers reflect a close parallel between the two. Pondexter finished second in attempts from 15 to 19 feet in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and led the WNBA in 2013. Her teammates see Pondexter in Williams, too.

“They’re really difficult to guard because they can score in all types of ways,” Sun point guard Jasmine Thomas said. “And they’re athletic. I think that’s the similarity that I see, that explosiveness, that confidence. I feel like most of us, we’ve got confidence, we didn’t get here by not being confident — but, it’s just like that swagger. Even if you miss four, five shots in a row, you know you got to make this sixth one.”

All the long twos, incidentally, haven’t kept Connecticut from getting a disproportionate amount of its points from beyond the arc — 27.7 percent of them, good for third-best in the league in 2019, up slightly from last season’s 26.0 percent, which was fourth in the league. Instead, Thomas sees the Connecticut attack as improved by Williams’s ability to rise and fire from a spot that defenses might ignore.

“There are shots to take that are hard shots to make consistently,” Thomas said. “And that is her game. If we can’t get layups, or if our three-ball isn’t falling down, we know that we can count on her to really take over a game and string together some shots. Even when you think she can’t get a shot off, she rises up over anybody and can shoot it.”

That’s another aspect to her game that isn’t accidental. While her jump-shot form can seem like a cross between natural athleticism and an almost supernatural motion, it really comes from hundreds of hours in the South Florida gym, getting off shot attempts with then-assistant coach Wil Bateast.

“He really just molded me,” Williams said. “He told me, ‘You just need to be great at one thing because when you get to that professional level, people are great at what they do. You need to be great at what you do.’”

So the drills would commence, with Bateast — who Williams said is “6-5, maybe 6-6” — with a hand in her face. She had to make 10 in a row, or she had to run sprints, halfcourt and back, and start over.

“Coming from the baseline and coming from halfcourt, coming from the sidelines,” Williams said. “Just anywhere on the court. You need to be able to get the shot off, it don’t matter where the defender is at. No matter how big, how tall, how small, how fast — you need to be able to get your shot off.”

Williams continues to evolve as a player. This season, she posted an assist rate of 23.2 percent, the best of her career, along with a steal rate of 2.4 percent, good enough for 16th among 60 qualified WNBA guards. And she’s anything but a one-dimensional scorer, either, hitting 56.5 percent of her shots inside of 5 feet, more efficient than bigs like Crystal Langhorne of the Seattle Storm and Reshanda Gray of the New York Liberty. She’s also continued to improve her 3-point shooting, hitting 45.7 percent from beyond the arc this year.

“There is still room for growth,” Miller said of Williams. “There are a lot of areas where she can continue to take that next step. And if she does that, she’s already one of the elite players in the league, [but] she truly has the potential to be a first-team All-WNBA-caliber player.”

But Miller doesn’t intend to change that trajectory. He’s learned, just as Fernandez did before him and just as defenders all over the league have since: When she rises, Courtney Williams is going to do what she does.

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