Q+A: Lisa Leslie
The WNBA legend and L.A. Sparks co-owner talks analytics, Brittney Griner, the future of women’s basketball and more.
by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam
If you know me, you can attest that when it comes to sports, I’m prone to hyperbole. When I get excited about an athlete, or when I try to defend one from media criticism, I frequently throw around words such as “incredible,” or “best ever.” Not because I think, or am trying to convince anyone, that the athlete in discussion is actually the best ever, but I usually use such exaggerations to immediately flip the table and view them through an alternate, more favorable lens. While this approach—to focus on the positives and suppress the negatives—usually brings to light another way of judging an athlete, and while it always fosters fun conversation, two weeks ago something happened that changed my outlook on pronouncing such unearned praise. For the first time in my life, I was about to have a conversation with someone who, literally, was the best ever.
Lisa Leslie may be the greatest women’s basketball player of all time. As a high schooler, she once scored 101 points in the first half, forcing the other team to forfeit at halftime. After a stellar four-year career at USC, Leslie was the seventh pick in the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft. (Note: She wasn’t really the seventh “pick.” The WNBA was birthed through an Initial Player Allocation Draft, and Leslie was allocated to the Los Angeles Sparks in the seventh slot.) Twelve years later, the 6-5 center would finish her professional career as the most accomplished and influential WNBA player in history.
A rare combination of skill, grace, tenacity and plain just-bigger-and-better-than-you, Leslie was clearly miles ahead of her contemporaries. As a center, Leslie could handle the basketball, run the floor like a gazelle and often initiate fast breaks. Even for someone like me, who admittedly doesn’t watch a lot of women’s basketball, every time I watched Leslie it was like watching LeBron or Peyton Manning. It was obvious she was on a different playing field. She could score, rebound, pass, lock down the paint, sink shots in crunch time and somehow will her team to victory in what appeared to be effortless fashion. It was one of those situations where the only person who could stop Lisa Leslie was Lisa Leslie. At the end of her 12-year career, she finished with averages of 17.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 2.3 BPG and 1.4 SPG. She exited with a duffel bag around her shoulder, holding league records for points, rebounds and PRA (points + rebounds + assists), two WNBA Championships, four gold medals, eight combined MVPs, eight All-Star Game appearances, two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and the first dunk in WNBA history.
Since retiring in 2009, Leslie has done nothing but continue to expand her legacy and cement her status as a national icon. She pulled an MJ and is now co-owner of the L.A. Sparks, overseeing all aspects of the organization, from corporate sponsorships to basketball operations. She’s an actress, runway model, mother of two and TV analyst. Most recently, Lisa has partnered with UPS to introduce Team Performance Index, a data-driven ranking that measures overall efficiency for all 340 NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams (as well as all 345 NCAA Division I men’s teams). The index—based on six statistical components that indicate a team’s overall success—is designed to give fans an interesting and unbiased perspective to consider, especially when measuring how small or mid-size programs stack up to the more traditional hoops powers.
Although we only had a few minutes on the phone with Lisa, we still touched on a number of topics, including the value of TPI, the use of analytics in the WNBA, the impact of Brittney Griner, her position as co-owner of the Sparks and more. Speaking with Lisa, it hit me: For once, “best ever” wasn’t a stretch.
SLAM: Can you tell us a little about your work with UPS, and about Team Performance Index?
Lisa Leslie: Well, firstly, I give UPS a lot of credit for helping implement and market TPI, and I’m excited to be the brand ambassador for women’s college basketball. TPI deals with the logistics of the game. It takes a look at which teams are playing the smartest and fastest, and it’s based primarily on numbers. Right now, there’s a lot of advanced statistics available to evaluate players, but when you start looking at teams, it’s an entirely different animal. TPI takes into account all aspects of a team—scoring efficiency, rebounding, defense, etc.—and combines them into one metric to paint a complete picture of a team. It allows us to see who is actually the most efficient team in the country.
SLAM: How are coaches using this resource and implementing it into how they run their teams?
LL: Coaches are looking at these numbers, and breaking them down under a specific eye now. They can take a closer look at their team, and examine which areas they are strongest, and most efficient, in. For instance, if their team gets an offensive rebound, they can now see if they should go up for a put-back, or throw it back out and reset. When you start to think from an efficiency standpoint, you become more prudent and effective in your shot selection and approach.
SLAM: You can also cross compare men’s and women’s efficiencies, right?
LL: Yeah, definitely. A lot of times people ignore advanced stats, but they are huge. They can tell us a lot about both teams and players. And yeah, it’s fun to compare men’s and women’s teams under the same lens. Indiana could be a top-5 team in the men’s game, but they would rank #10 on the women’s list. Although they play different competition, from an efficiency standpoint, it’s the same game.
SLAM: Advanced statistics and sabermetrics have become increasing popular in the NBA. Has the advanced stats phenomenon reached the WNBA?
LL: Yeah, for sure. From a General Manager’s perspective, teams are using advanced stats as a resource and another tool to help with decision making. It’s not Moneyball yet, but GMs do the numbers game all the time.
SLAM: How has your post-basketball career been treating you?
LL: Everything has been a blast since I retired. I enjoy working with the team from the front office level, and lately my focus has been on corporate sponsors. I want the league to continue to live and survive. As the talent grows, I want the fan base to grow, too. I’m looking forward to Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins and other collegiate athletes to come into the WNBA. Maya Moore has done nice things and will continue to get better, and I think it all culminates in the evolution of the game. I’m also running the Lisa Leslie Basketball & Leadership Academy, providing skills and leadership training for girls and boys of all ages.
SLAM: Can you tell us a little bit about your Academy?
LL: We try to teach kids how to play the game, and introduce them to some new terminology. In today’s youth basketball leagues, I think a lot of times we bring kids along too slowly, in terms of terminology and the Xs and Os. We truly underestimate these kids; why do we have to wait until they’re in high school to tech them what help-side defense means and what a high-low offensive set is? There’s no reason we shouldn’t be teaching kids these things at a young age, because they can handle it. That information takes literally five minutes to teach, and yet coaches and instructors put it off until high school. Shoot, I wish someone had taught me all the terminology at a young age. I think it would’ve made me a better player.
SLAM: How was it teaching and playing alongside Candace Parker? She was your understudy in L.A., and it kind of seemed like you passed the torch to her when you retired.
LL: Candace is just a phenomenal person and player. She is sort of revolutionizing the game, because at 6-4 she moves like a guard, but she can also dunk. It’s pretty amazing. If you needed her to, she can play the 2 through 5, and the fact that she’s hungry and she wants to get better and she wants to win, at this level in the WNBA, she’s moving into her prime and the best is still yet to come. She can take over and dominate games, and you never know how she’s going to attack. She’s a triple-double waiting to happen. She was a great teammate, and obviously is a great player.
SLAM: You mentioned Brittney Griner. As I’m sure you know, she often gets compared to you, in terms of playing style and overall impact on the floor. What are your impressions of Brittney?
LL: When I think of Brittney Griner, I see the evolution of the game, and that’s amazing because I think, if you really take a look at it, evolution of the game has always been the driving force of our league. Women’s basketball has progressed through a series of evolution; every couple of years, a new girl comes along and elevates not only her game, but the entire sport. First it was Cheryl Miller, and her great enthusiasm for the game. Then I won’t say me, but…
SLAM: I know you’re humble, but let’s be honest, Mrs. Leslie — I think everybody would agree you elevated women’s basketball, and then some…
LL: (Laughs) Well, thanks. But after me, it was Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoops, and the list goes on. So in terms of taking her game—and, in turn, the entire women’s game—to another level, Brittney is really setting an example and raising the bar. Her scope of impacting the game is limitless. She’s impacting the WNBA, International and Olympics. Brittney has shown that girls can reverse dunk, drop-step and dunk, and play above the rim on both offense and defense.
SLAM: Did you ever complete a reverse dunk?
LL: I never attempted a reverse dunk in a game. I missed some in practice, but I’ve never made one. But see, that’s what I’m saying! The things she’s able to do are taking the game to another level. Also, when you just look at her ambition to get better, it’s unbelievable and admirable. Brittney is always trying to improve and add something to her game. I used to have the same approach. For example, when I first entered the league, I favored my right hand. But other teams quickly caught on, so I had to change it up and go left. Then after I perfected my left hand, I added a hook shot. You can’t settle for what you have; you need to work the aspects of the game that you don’t have.
SLAM: Where does the game go after Brittney Griner, though? What in the world can we possibly expect next?
LL: That’s the thing—we don’t know what to expect, and that’s fine because we shouldn’t. The next girl will be bigger, stronger, faster than the last one. In the men’s game, it went like, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and then Kevin Durant, and it’s like “DJ, keep the party rolling!” The progression of the women’s game is not going to stop until we start seeing girls in different packages. We still haven’t seen the girl who plays like Magic Johnson. But there’s room for her in our game, and we can’t wait for the next generation of girls to come in and impact the League.