The sixth man in basketball holds one of the most revered yet challenging roles in sports. The player generally receives significant playing time, but starts the game on the bench and waits until the starting lineup is in need of a boost. To start a game away from the action and then be asked to make an immediate impact at a moment’s notice requires incredible concentration and a natural feel for the game. If executed well, the sixth man can provide an invaluable spark that often makes the difference in a close game.
What is better than having a game-changer off the bench? Having two — a luxury that the Emory women’s basketball team shares with very few teams across all of basketball.
Filling that role for the Eagles are junior guard Molly Weiss and junior center Blair Ripley, the bench tandem that is taking the University Athletic Association (UAA) by storm.
“It doesn’t matter when your name is called,” Head Coach Misha Jackson (13C) said. “[Weiss and Ripley] make sure they’re ready.”
Simply put, scoring prowess is what makes this duo so impactful.
Since Dec. 7, the first game in which Weiss and Ripley came off the bench together, Emory’s bench outscored the opposition’s in 10 of 11 games. In nine of those games, Weiss and Ripley alone outscored the opposing bench.
Simply comparing Ripley’s 10.6 points per game (ppg) and Weiss’ 7.8 ppg to other collegiate benches doesn’t sufficiently speak to their performance so far. Rather, the pair merits comparison to some of the NBA’s best bench players.
The NBA has a longstanding history of great sixth men, with legends like Kevin McHale, Manu Ginóbili and Jamal Crawford. More recently, the Los Angeles Clippers’ duo of guard Lou Williams and power forward Montrezl Harrell caught the attention of basketball fans after they led the Clippers to the playoffs last year and redefined the limits to just how much a team’s bench can produce. Williams and Harrell’s combined 36.6 ppg broke the NBA record for the highest scoring non-starting duo.
Comparing Ripley and Weiss’ combined 18.4 ppg to Williams and Harrell’s 36.6 ppg seems like a stretch. But the NBA’s faster pace and longer game duration allowed the Clippers to score over 115 ppg last year — much more than the Eagles’ current season average of 70.6.
Removing the disparity in total team points, Ripley and Weiss’ contribution of 26.1 percent of the team’s points is not too far off Williams and Harrell’s record-breaking 31.8 percent. In fact, excluding Williams and Harrell, no NBA bench duo, this season, has combined for a higher percentage of their team’s points than Ripley and Weiss.
According to Ripley, volume scoring is a product of self-belief more than anything else.
“Confidence is everything,” Ripley said. “You have to trust that when you’re taking good shots, you will be rewarded.”
Weiss added that the support from teammates and coaches has been a crucial contributing force in building this confidence.
“It’s important for me to trust the fact that everyone trusts me to shoot,” Weiss said.
The duo’s success lies not just in sheer numbers, but also in their efficient scoring.
Ripley’s 47.5 field goal percentage (fg), 37.5 three-point percentage and 82.9 free-throw percentage shooting are efficient no matter how you look at them.
While Weiss’ 40.2 fg percentage appears sub-par to the untrained eye, it doesn’t tell the three-point specialist’s full story. 94 of Weiss’ 122 shot attempts are threes, so she can shoot a much lower percentage and be as efficient as someone taking more two-point shots. To accurately combat this bias against the three, basketball analysts use true shooting percentage as a metric to properly quantify a scorer’s efficiency.
Weiss’ true shooting percentage is 56.8 percent. To put that into perspective, four of the recently announced 2020 NBA All-Stars were less efficient. The closest All-Star comparison is none other than Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, who boasts a 57 true shooting percentage.
Jackson attributes the pair’s efficiency to work ethic and taking smart shots.
“[Ripley and Weiss] are big gym rats and have put in the time getting up shots,” Jackson said. “They are taking good shots within the offense and have a green light.”
Clearly, Ripley and Weiss are putting up substantial numbers. But the age-old question regarding individual stats still remains: do these stats contribute to winning basketball?
Yes, they do.
The Eagles went on a nine-game winning streak when Ripley was moved to the bench, a streak which ended this past weekend with two narrow defeats on the road to the University of Chicago (UChicago) (80-71) and Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) (85-83). Emory is sitting pretty with a 14-4 overall record that places them at the No. 2 position in the UAA.
Ripley is pleased with the start of the season but acknowledges there is more work to be done.
“I’m proud of how we started, but nobody is satisfied,” Ripley said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Sophomore forward Tori Huggins, who took Ripley’s place in the starting lineup, is flourishing in her new role, averaging 11.7 ppg to accompany a team-high 8.6 rebounds per game.
Despite their stellar play, neither Ripley nor Weiss seem eager to fight for a starting spot, with Ripley admitting that she would be content coming off the bench if it would help the team win.
“I ultimately care about the team winning,” Ripley said. “My priority is contributing to a championship in any way I can.”
Weiss expressed a similar sentiment regarding the matter of starting.
“I’ve grown to embrace the bench role,” Weiss said. “Starting a game is not on my mind.”
Among the rest of the starters, the Eagles have an additional two double-digit ppg scorers in senior guard Allison Chernow and senior forward Erin Lindahl. So far, six different players have recorded at least 15 points in a game, a record that exceeds that of any other UAA team.
Jackson believes having more scoring threats than the opposition puts them at an advantage.
“I could go down the roster and tell you the different ways each player can score,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, it’s about scoring more than the other team.”
With a roster littered with capable scorers, it is difficult for opponents to predict which Eagle will hurt them the most on any given night. There’s a good chance the player won’t even be a starter.
Emory looks to avenge the loss suffered on the road to UChicago in a home rematch Feb. 7.