November has been a time for coach Keitha Adams to experiment with a roster of nine freshmen on the Wichita State women’s basketball team.
The Shockers (5-2) ended the month with a 60-47 loss to Oklahoma State at Koch Arena on Tuesday, but the rapid development of freshman Dawnyel Lair has been a revelation.
The 5-foot-8 guard from Los Angeles scored a career-high in points (15) for a third straight game and tracked down a career-high six rebounds against Oklahoma State to go along with three steals.
After hardly getting off the bench in WSU’s first four games, Lair has become an increasing factor for the Shockers in the last three games. On Tuesday, Lair came off the bench and played 28 minutes.
“The biggest thing for me is that she’s becoming a better practice player,” Adams said. “At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t playing her and it was stemming from practice. I’m proud of her becoming a better practice player and that’s why she’s seeing the floor and it’s helping us.”
Where Lair helps WSU the most is on the defensive end, where her instincts and athleticism have already made her a force.
Through seven games, Lair has 13 steals for a 1.9 per game average. That number doesn’t stand out until you realize she’s accomplished it playing 12 minutes per game. Say Lair played 30 minutes her game, her current rate would translate to 4.5 steals per game.
“I enjoy playing the passing lanes and being the spark plug on defense,” Lair said. “It generates a lot of energy with my teammates, so that’s something I try to do.”
Even though Lair had only played over 13 minutes once before Tuesday’s game, Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell made sure to warn his players about No. 1 in white. That’s how much of an impression Lair made on Littell in his film study.
“That’s a Big 12 athlete, there’s no question about it,” Littell said. “The bounce she has in her step and just her athleticism. She anticipates so well. We talked about her in our scout before. I told our girls, ‘You’ve got to be careful about throwing that cross-court pass because she’ll get it and be gone with a layup.’”
Even with the advanced warning, OSU still fell victim to Lair on one occasion in which she broke for a pass before it was made.
It’s that next-level anticipation combined with explosive quickness that give Lair the ability to turn what look like safe passes for opponents into steals and two points the other way.
“She’s got another gear and another elevator (level) that a lot of players don’t have and that comes out,” Adams said.
Lair’s athleticism certainly explains some of her steals, but how does she see the game on defense? Like how can she explain one of her steals against Louisiana Tech?
“I read people’s shoulders a lot,” Lair said. “They tell you where they’re going to throw the ball with their eyes.”
Sure enough, on this play, the Louisiana Tech player turned her shoulders and looked to the wing to make a 10-foot pass. Even though she did this quickly, Lair was locked in enough to make the read and jump the passing lane.
But just as important is Lair’s defensive positioning. Her head is at an angle. She’s in a guarding position where she’s not so consumed by her mark that she isn’t aware of the ball and she’s not ball-watching, where she could lose track of her mark.
“Playing in the passing lane, you’ve got to see both,” Lair explained. “So I tend to look at my man and the ball. If I see they’re getting ready to throw it and my man is about to step out, I’ve got to beat them to the spot.”
Lair is still an extremely raw prospect. Her jump shot is a work in progress and she is still figuring out how to harness that athleticism to help WSU’s offense in the halfcourt.
But it’s becoming more clear after each game that Lair can be a force for WSU this season and it starts with her defense.
“Every day I feel like I’m getting a little bit better,” Lair said. “I’m a freshman, so I’m not really used to playing on a big floor college basketball. So I feel like every game I’m learning a lot more and learning a lot more about my game.”