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Riquna Williams morphs from scorer to defender with Aces

It’s not that Riquna Williams wasn’t capable of being one of the best perimeter defenders in the WNBA. It’s that she wasn’t asked to do so during the first nine years of her WNBA career.

“To be challenged and step up to the plate and actually see myself do it, I actually want to do it more,” said Williams, one of the league’s most combustible scorers. “It’s a great feeling to know that I’m called upon to guard the best offensive player, guard-wise.”

Williams has adapted to a new role during her first season with the Aces. It’s one that calls for her to defend some of the league’s best perimeter players on a nightly basis. Notable assignments have included All-Stars like Arike Ogunbowale, Jewell Loyd and Ariel Atkins.

It’s a role she’s come to relish on a team that sports the second-best defensive rating in the WNBA.

“I’ve had to completely change my mindset from knowing that I’m capable of being a dominant scorer to understanding that every night, I’m not needed to get 15, 20 points,” said the 31-year-old, who signed with the Aces during the offseason. “I’m more than just a scorer.”

Williams explained that she hadn’t been challenged to defend like that during a career that began in 2012. She was selected in the second round of the WNBA draft by the Tulsa Shock — now the Dallas Wings — after a standout career in college at Miami, but proved rather quickly that she could produce in the pros.

She averaged 10.5 points as a rookie and exploded for 51 during a game in 2013 against the Aces’ franchise. Her quick shooting release, tight handle and fearless demeanor helped her become one of the league’s best bench scorers.

But a knee injury to Angel McCoughtry this season thrust her into a starting lineup that featured plenty of scoring from LizCambage, A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young. “After a few games, it was clear that she was working her ass off on defense,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said.

With that in mind, the coaching staff began tasking Williams with checking the top perimeter scorer on opposing teams. Young will also spend time on top guards and wings, but those assignments mostly belong to Williams.

In two victories over the Seattle Storm, Loyd combined to shoot 11 of 35 from the field. In two victories over the Dallas Wings, Ogunbowale combined to shoot 6 of 31. Those kind of outings aren’t atypical for the players that Williams has guarded this season.

She helped hold Atlanta Dream All-Star guard Courtney Williams to six points Thursday on 3-of-11 shooting.

“(She) came in with that mindset. She came in and kind of included that and wanted that to be part of her game,” said Aces assistant Tanisha Wright. “She really put some attention to that. Some focus. She’s really intentional on the defensive end about what she’s doing.”

Williams said the most crucial part about preparing for an opposing player is understanding their tendencies. She’ll watch film from previous matchups to study how she guarded that player individually and what team tactics the Aces employed. At 5 feet, 7 inches, Williams is sturdy and quick, capable of mirroring and anticipating her opponents’ movements.

She’ll also works early in possessions to deny her opponent the ball or force her to catch it in spots that aren’t favorable. Offensively, she’s still averaging 8.8 points per game and shooting 38.7 percent from 3-point range to space the floor for her teammates.

“If I could exhaust whatever guard is my challenge that night, that’s my biggest thing,” she said. “If I can keep them below their average, I feel good going home — especially if we win.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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