The goal for most players as they establish themselves in the league is to work their way into the starting lineup. It’s a sign that they’re among the top players on their team and that their coach trusts them to get games started off on the right foot.
Then there’s Riquna Williams. As the Los Angeles Sparks super sub says, “Well I’m not most people.”
The Sparks got off to an inconsistent start to the season, alternating wins and losses in their first seven games and repeatedly falling behind in the first quarter. After a loss to the Seattle Storm, when L.A.’s furious second-half comeback wasn’t enough to erase a 16-point halftime deficit, head coach Derek Fisher decided a change of the starting lineup was in order. That meant moving the team’s starting shooting guard, Williams, to the bench.
On the surface, it was an interesting choice considering the Sparks were the only team in the WNBA to return their starting lineup from the end of the 2019 season, and continuity would seem to be an asset in this shortened 2020 calendar. But something was off at the start of games, and with Williams willing and able to make the switch, this was the most logical move.
The adjustment has been dramatically successful. The Sparks are 4-1 since replacing Williams with Sydney Wiese in the starting lineup, their only loss coming by four points when Nneka Ogwumike and Seimone Augustus were both sitting out. The team’s overall net rating in that stretch is +13.0 (compared to +0.6 before), and Williams’ play is a significant catalyst for the improvement. She’s averaging 13.4 points per game while shooting 54.2% from 3-point range and has led the team in scoring each of the last three games coming off the bench.
“I’m just in my comfort zone, honestly,” Williams said after L.A. beat New York on Tuesday. “Everybody that knows me knows I enjoy coming off the bench. It’s always been one of my favorites, but I’m also a team player. I’m gonna do whatever the Sparks need me to do to get the job done.
“I get so much joy at changing the tempo of the game, bringing the energy. If the energy is low, pick it up, and if it’s high, keep it there.”
Williams is a more complete offensive player than Wiese, but she was often overshadowed in the starting lineup. With Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker, and Ogwumike all demanding touches in the offense, it could be hard for her to find a rhythm. That was less of an issue last season when Parker was limited physically, but Parker’s resurgence has pushed Williams further down the pecking order.
That’s not a problem for Wiese, who has a low usage rate and likes to finish plays as a spot-up shooter. But Williams works best with the ball in her hands, and those opportunities can be hard to come by next to two future Hall of Famers and last year’s all-WNBA first-team point guard.
“Riquna is such an amazing offensive player and basketball player, and sometimes when you’re on the court with All-Stars and Hall of Famers when she’s been an All-Star herself, it’s just not as much room to operate,” Fisher said. “It’s not a negative towards anybody, but it just is what it is. And I think in that second group, it gives her a little bit more space to be aggressive offensively, without taking opportunities away from Chelsea or Candace or Nneka. And I think for Riquna that’s a good place for her to be.”
As the scoring hub of the second unit — a strange sentence to write considering Augustus also comes off the bench — Williams has more freedom to hunt for her individual offense. She can take pull-up jumpers in transition without worrying about getting others involved, and her efficiency on those shots has never been better.
Williams can also function as a secondary ball-handler because she draws so much attention as a scorer. She may not be at her best running scripted actions, but Williams reads the defense well to find lapses, and the Sparks do a great job of cutting in the half court.
Williams has found a perfect backcourt partner in the second unit in rookie Te’a Cooper, who likes to push the pace more than Gray does with the starters. Williams is often referred to as the most athletic player in the league; Gray says most people only dream of having Willams’ speed. As result, Williams told SB Nation that she worked on her rebounding during the offseason so that she could grab-and-go more often.
The new L.A. bench backcourt is also wreaking havoc on opponents defensively. The Williams/Cooper lineup currently has a defensive rating of 86.3, which is miles better than the league-leading Seattle Storm (91.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). They run hard off of turnovers, and the two have developed a nice chemistry finding each other in transition.
“Everybody knows what Bay Bay can do,” Brittney Sykes said on Tuesday. “That’s somebody who can hold her own weight, she can shoot that ball, shoot the lights out of the ball, she can get to the basket. You know, she can be that two-way player for us as well. And having her come off the bench, if that’s what she likes and that’s what’s working for her, then so be it. We’re just trying to make sure we find the niche for everybody on this team.”
The Williams bench experiment only makes sense so long as Wiese is also working in the starting lineup, and the fourth-year guard has excelled in her new role. Wiese started 16 of her 32 games last season, and actually posted a net rating of +17.83 in the present starting five (with Parker, Ogwumike, Gray, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt). However, the L.A. coaching staff decided they needed her as a backup point guard instead.
Now, Wiese still gets to handle the ball, but in lighter doses, and she provides so much more movement in the Sparks halfcourt offense than Williams did, making her a natural fit alongside gifted passers like Parker and Gray and post-up threats like Ogwumike. After a slow start to her season — Wiese only scored 13 points in the first four games — the fourth-year Spark put up double figures in three straight contests and is shooting 50% on threes.
Williams is happy to see everyone thriving, even if it means fewer minutes. Both guards have been more effective, and it has resulted in wins.
“Coach Fisher, he always tells us he’s gonna put us in the best situation possible to help us and help the team, so me and Syd flipping roles has definitely been a positive for us,” Williams said.
The Sparks needed a jolt, and Williams has provided it. By sacrificing her starting spot for the betterment of the team, she has found herself exactly where she wants to be.