The Most Underrated WNBA Player
Ticha Penicheiro earns respect.
by Clay Kallam
Ticha Penicheiro is the most underrated player in in WNBA history — and even in the twilight of her great career, another group of fans will soon discover for themselves just how good she really is.
Penicheiro rewards sustained examination. Though known in her younger days for her flash and sizzle, even then she was outstanding at both ends of the floor.
But she’s always been on the point guard periphery, from her birth in Portugal, to her college career at Old Dominion, to her WNBA home in Sacramento. She’s not as glamorous as Sue Bird (and didn’t grow up in New York and play for UConn). She didn’t win gold medals like Dawn Staley (and didn’t grow up in Philly and play for Virginia).
But when Penicheiro was at Old Dominion, the Monarchs knocked off Stanford in one of the most stunning NCAA tournament upsets ever. And she won a WNBA title with Sacramento, not to mention leading the Monarchs to seven straight playoff berths. The Olympics? Despite Penicheiro’s attempts to inspire the Portugese women’s basketball program, she’s never had a chance to play on the world’s biggest women’s basketball stage – or for that matter, even play in the World Championships. Or the European championships.
And it’s certainly true she’s not a good shooter, but her career average of 33.8 percent is not abysmal, just bad. (Of course, you can’t find her stats without some backchannel searching, because for no apparent reason the WNBA has pulled the player files of the now-folded Monarch franchise off its website. Hey, why let people find anything out about possible free agents? The league wouldn’t want anyone talking about player acquisitions in the offseason, would it?) But she did lead the league in assists her first six seasons, and her career assists (5.9 per game) and steals (1.9) are exceptional. And unlike many players who accumulate steals by playing poor fundamental defense, Penicheiro is a very sound defender, and her lack of flash on that end of the floor shouldn’t make people discount her ability to slow down the top wings in the league.
Speaking of flash, Penicheiro has toned down the wild child style that marked her early years in the league. While leading the league in assists, Penicheiro would also lead the league in spectacularly conceived, and wonderful to watch, turnovers. Sometimes, her teammates would be surprised by the arrival of the ball; just as often, a fan in the second row would be just as stunned – but that was all part of the fun.
As she matured, though, Penicheiro focused more on winning than on dazzle, and despite her inconsistent stroke, and heavy right-hand emphasis, she hit more than her share of big shots during the Monarchs’ long playoff run.
Of course, I’m a little biased. I watched her play in Sacramento since her arrival in 1998, and over the years I appreciated her more and more. I appreciated her mastery of the subtleties of point guard play, how she uses her size and strength to neutralize the quickness of smaller opponents, how she gets the ball to the right player at the right time, how she controls the game down the stretch.
And I also appreciate her toughness. She has been relatively healthy in the sense that she has avoided major injuries, but the grind of a long career, almost always year-round, and the wear and tear of handling the ball on every possession, and guarding an opponent’s top scorer, meant she was always nursing a bruised thigh, or a jammed thumb, or a bad wrist, or a tender shoulder.
But Penicheiro was difficult to dislodge from the lineup – only the most serious injuries would force her to sit. And when she did sit, the Monarchs almost always sputtered. She was the linchpin of the team, its focus and its leader. Sure, Yolanda Griffith and Nicole Powell and DeMya Walker and the rest were great players, but the Monarchs’ were Penicheiro’s team, from the day she arrived to the day the Maloof family folded the franchise.
Now some other fans will get to see Penicheiro night in and night out, but of course, they will see the 35-year-old Penicheiro, not the woman in full. Still, they will begin to understand, as they see her play regularly, just what she brings to the court every single night.
The magic Ticha of the ’90s may be gone, but the professional is still front and center – and she’s still one of the best point guards in the league, and the world.
And for whatever reason, she’s never got the credit she deserves.