- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Nikki McCray, in desperately trying to meet a manufactured standard that is out of her range, is emblematic of where the WNBA is. Her predicament goes back to her college days at Tennessee.
The slick public relations machines that function underneath the NCAA umbrella push a perception from the sea of numbers and rah-rah victories. The perception, skewed though it may be, often becomes the reality, partly because peeling away the impeccably made image is considered bad form while a player is still employed with one of the NCAA's member institutions. The "student-athletes" are "kids," don't you know?
The peel inevitably occurs in men's basketball because of the staggering sums of money at stake in the NBA. It happened with Shane Battier, if you recall, in the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft in late June. No matter his achievements at Duke, they did not correlate into a slam-dunk endorsement. The debate was essential, reduced to this: What kind of player, absent the Duke logo and the hype of March, might Battier turn out to be in the NBA?
It is an inexact process, obviously, but it is one the hard-edged souls of the NBA are obliged to attempt. They have been burned too many times by a Naismith Player of the Year, which is the point. They have a foundation, a framework, a history. The next Naismith Player of the Year just might end up being the truth in the NBA. He also might end up being a role player. Either way, the NBA's personnel sleuths are determined to measure the potential of each outcome.
Understandably, the WNBA is not nearly as sophisticated as the NBA. It is a 5-year-old enterprise, led by mostly expatriates from college, underwritten by the NBA, featuring players with serious limitations. The WNBA is a work in process, and not usually a pretty work. Games are not often won. They usually are lost.
Yet the WNBA is inevitably compared, on some level, to the NBA, however unreasonable the comparison is. The NBA, in its fifth season, was almost minor league, playing in such small markets as Rochester, N.Y., Syracuse, N.Y., and Fort Wayne, Ind., existing paycheck to paycheck.
The WNBA, in effect, has the illusion of being top notch, thanks to the NBA's largesse and marketing efforts, but, in fact, is stuck in the uncertainty of childhood.
McCray reflects the ambiguity. She is both a shooting guard and a singing guard who was confirmed at Tennessee, one of the brand names of women's basketball. The bump, PR-wise, is not unimportant in her case, and now unfair. She has been miscast in the WNBA, elevated beyond her skill level, the fault not really hers.
McCray is dogged by hard questions after three seasons in the WNBA. A few should have been asked before the WNBA signed her to a personal-services contract and assigned her to the Mystics.
McCray is a superstar shooting guard with a gaping hole in her arsenal, which is: She is not an efficient shooter or ball-handler. Her career numbers from Tennessee, if anyone ever bothered to look, attest to these failings. She attempted only 25 3-pointers in four seasons at Tennessee, which was a good thing, because she made only four. She also finished with more turnovers than assists at Tennessee, 268 turnovers to 249 assists, which, to some, might be classified as a warning.
McCray certainly has worked on her shooting and ball-handling skills while on Fun Street, improving both since Knoxville, but not sufficiently enough to meet the expectations.
McCray is the product of a coach, Pat Summitt, who teaches in-your-face intensity, not the nuances or subtleties of basketball, and who has a roster stuffed with high school All-Americans to implement this one-way vision.
When the opposition has the wherewithal to fight back, to spread the floor and blunt Tennessee's superior size and athleticism with ball movement, Summitt responds with more fury. If that fails, as it did against Xavier in the NCAA tournament last season, she questions the resolve of her players.
McCray was ideal in the Tennessee environment. She is fast and quick, and she was tall enough to play the big wing on the perimeter who has limited ball-handling responsibilities. Fast forward to the WNBA: McCray remains fast and quick, but those physical gifts are tempered by the glut of fast and quick players around the league. She now plays the two guard instead of the three guard, which places a premium on draining shots and complementing the playmaking duties of the point guard.
McCray is hot and cold in these areas, to say the least, and Tom Maher, the Mystics coach, has been stuck between the two forces this season. He wants to believe in her. At other times, he can't allow himself to believe in her.
Maher is from Australia, where they, coaches and players alike, rely on the fundamentals of the game out of necessity. He was forced to adjust to the American game, not the other way around, and find the reality trapped in the perceptions, no small undertaking even for a native.
It was Tara VanDerveer, one of the best minds in the women's game, who was ordered by USA Basketball to coexist with Rebecca Lobo in 1996. The purist in VanDerveer resisted the prospect of Lobo being on the Olympic team because of marketing reasons after Lobo became something of a name following UConn's 35-0 season in 1995. VanDerveer bit her tongue, as best as a plain-spoken type could, and led the U.S. team to the gold medal in Atlanta.
McCray, incidentally, was a member of that team, in a perfectly suited role, as a defensive specialist who filled the fast break lanes on offense.
The Mystics, from general manager Melissa McFerrin to coach Maher to leading player Chamique Holdsclaw, are disappointed in their 32-game indictment. The glittering parts, as defined in the women's game, added up to only a lot of head-scratching, finger-pointing and upset tummies.
As for Coco Miller's unproductive rookie season, you wonder if it was a transitional or twins thing. You wonder if, in the pre-draft evaluations, the advantage of playing with a twin in college was factored into the projection.
What to do before next season? Try to find a balance between the league-wide obsession with athleticism and players who lack a step but knock down shots. Beth Morgan Cunningham, released in training camp, fit the latter category. Yeah, yeah, yeah. She couldn't guard her shadow or do this or that. But at Notre Dame, with screens and ball movement, she could hit shots.
And another thing: If you're going to lose, it is preferable to lose 80-75 instead of 55-50, and not just because offense is more fun to watch. A five-point difference in a free-flowing game is a whole lot less daunting to overcome than a five-point game in a black-and-blue affair.
This is not to suggest Cunningham should have made the 11-player roster, only that her one redeeming value, the ability to make shots, was sorely missing among the Mystics.
Basketball coaches, as if to sound smarter than they are, invariably emphasize the almost magical properties of defense and rebounding, despite the game also being about taking care of your possessions, making shots and getting to the free throw line.
The Mystics defended and rebounded well enough. Mostly, they just couldn't shoot the darn ball.
In the WNBA's first four seasons, one player, Cynthia Cooper, in the beginning a largely forgotten player from the Cheryl Miller-led USC teams in the '80s, was distinct from all the rest because of her scoring prowess. She was hardly the fastest or quickest or most physically imposing player. She just had an uncanny feel for the game and the skill level to finish what she started. So the Comets claimed the championship in each of Cooper's four seasons. It was, in a way, that simple.
It also was that simple with the Mystics, just at the opposite end of the spectrum.
The Mystics are not as anemic or lost as their record indicates. This is the women's game, after all, so much of which is waged in imperceptible degrees of modesty. The Mystics don't need to be gutted, either at the top or on the floor. They just need a shooter or three and less reliance on Allen Iverson's dribble-penetration infection, which, with women, too often leads to craziness.
Better shooting accuracy just might be the tonic.

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