How Vickie Johnson can lead the Wings to their full potential

San Antonio Stars v Los Angeles Sparks
Vickie Johnson was the Stars’ head coach in 2017, the franchise’s final season in San Antonio. | Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

The Dallas Wings have a new head coach in former WNBA player Vickie Johnson. With the Wings still very much a work in progress, Johnson will have a lot on her plate in 2021.

The Dallas Wings announced the hiring of Vickie Johnson as head coach on Wednesday, filling the void left by Brian Agler, whose tenure ended when he and the team mutually parted ways in October.

Johnson, who coached the San Antonio Stars in 2017 and has served as an assistant for the Las Vegas Aces since then, inherits a young Wings team that barely missed the WNBA playoffs in 2020. While Dallas seems to be on the upswing, Johnson nevertheless will have plenty on her to-do list as the team tries to break a series of bad on-court (and off-court) results.

Develop the Wings’ young core

Dallas Wings v Seattle Storm Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
Satou Sabally will head into her sophomore season as one of the WNBA’s brightest young stars.

For much of the past two seasons, the main topic surrounding the Wings has been their group of young players — specifically, how talented it is and how good Dallas will be if the team can adequately develop that core.

So far, we haven’t seen those results. 2019 Rookie of the Year runner-up Arike Ogunbowale led the WNBA in scoring last season, yes, and forward Satou Sabally oozes potential as one of the league’s most skilled players at her height (6’4”).

Both players are far from finished products, however, and the Wings have plenty more young players who are still trying to find their footing. Is Tyasha Harris a starting-caliber WNBA point guard? Can Bella Alarie defend consistently enough to start at center — or is she more of a power forward? Can highly-decorated NCAA stars Katie Lou Samuelson and Megan Gustafson find a way to stick in the WNBA?

All are questions that Johnson will be expected to help answer as the Wings’ head coach. The talent is there, without question, but there’s a big difference between simply assembling a roster with potential and getting that roster to fulfill it. Johnson needs to lead the Wings’ youth to that next step.

Improve Dallas’ team defense

Dallas Wings v Washington Mystics Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
The Wings had one of the WNBA’s least efficient defenses in 2020, due partly to poor paint and rim protection.

One of the major drawbacks of recent Wings teams has been their aversion to defense, which Johnson will need to get corrected if the team is going to make any sort of noise as a contender.

In 2020, Dallas’ defensive numbers were near the bottom of the WNBA across the board. The team ranked 11th in both points allowed per 100 possessions (DRtg) and opponent effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and allowed an opponent free throw rate (FTr) of 0.315 — last in the league.

The Wings don’t have a true paint anchor and, with veteran wing Kayla Thornton being one exception, they don’t have many players considered to be perimeter stoppers either. Dallas lacks defensive-minded players, but Johnson will need to work with what she’s given. Perhaps the Wings will make a big offseason move or two to shore up their individual defensive talent, but for the most part, they’ll have to improve from within.

Establish a winning culture

Dallas Wings v New York Liberty Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images
Marina Mabrey (left) and Arike Ogunbowale won a championship together at Notre Dame. Can they reach a similar level in the pros?

Let’s tell it like it is: since moving to Dallas, the Wings have not been a very successful franchise.

Over the past five seasons, Dallas has gone a combined 60-98. The Wings have had zero winning seasons during that span and have made the playoffs only twice — both first-round exits.

Then you have the persistent and well-documented off-court issues, ranging from an altercation between former head coach Fred Williams and CEO Greg Bibb (resulting in Williams’ dismissal) and forced trades from disgruntled stars Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

In a small league like the WNBA, word gets out fast, and reputations can be hard to overcome. Right now, Dallas is simply not an attractive place to play basketball, and an overhaul of the Wings’ culture is needed in order to change that. It will be up to Johnson — through both on- and off-court processes — to bring about that change.