What a start to Season Two of Major League Pickleball (MLP). The players were a lot different than last year but, by the end, none of that seemed to matter. Drew Brees was watching the semi-finals in Dreamland. Sergio Garcia was playing in an exhibition. Most importantly, we got to see some damn fun pickleball. Also, that is $100,000 getting split between the winning BLQK team members – Zane Navratil, Rafa Hewett, Irina Tereschenko and Parris Todd. Irina holds onto the MLP crown after winning the title with BLQK last year. The storylines are plentiful after 3 days of pickleball that somehow felt like far more. Bigger Rafa win yesterday, French Open or MLP? We’ll answer that big question and many more in our 5 takeaways from an exhilarating weekend from Dreamland.
1. Format Experimentation (Gritty) – You could colour us more than skeptical going into MLP. We were not fans when we found out that MLP was going to adopt the scoring system they had been using for their Pickleball Night in America series. We felt somewhat validates when comments across pickleball social media at the start of the event were vehemently against the rally scoring to 21 but needing to score on your serve to win once you got to 20. There are a couple of obvious downsides to the format. The games are short leading to a wide range of possible results and the score on your serve to win makes comebacks far more commonplace.
Now, if I am a player who wasn’t successful in this format, I may not be a fan still. It gives more opportunities to the underdog team to win. If I’m the best team and/or player, I want a format that gives me the best chance to win. Push that 3 out of 5 traditional scoring! But once this event got going again, it became apparent that getting the best team to win isn’t the point of this. Fairness to the winners is not really what sports are all about in general. Sports are about creating entertainment for the fans at the end of the day.
Boy, this format sure created entertainment. There were a zillion close matches throughout the weekend as made apparent by the number of total Dreambreakers that were played. Every point matters so much and you could feel that tension in the players when watching the matches. It seemed pretty clear by the end of the weekend that the comments from fans had shifted from being generally negative to overwhelmingly positive. How could it not? I’d be surprised if there is more than a small minority of viewers who weren’t fans of the way MLP changed it up this year.
Moreover, this type of rally scoring is easier to keep track of for newbie or more casual fans. It makes the match times relatively predictable. And, once again, it makes for fantastic drama. Big kudos to MLP for sticking to their guns with what seemed like a whacky format. Humans are usually resistant to any sort of change and it takes creative innovators to push the envelope even when there is vehement opposition. Experimentation needs to happen and MLP is willing to take the risk.
p.s. please no more Dreamview overhead camera during actual points. Not all experiments are successful.
2. All She Does is Lin-A (Slim) – Lina Padegimaite was an unproven commodity at the time they did the MLP draft at the US Open. And heading into this weekend, she was probably still a relative unknown to all but the most dedicated pickleball fan (or NML reader) heading into this weekend. However, Lina going 21st overall was arguably the steal of the draft. The other real steal in the draft we identified in our Draft Grades that cane to fruition was Parris Todd going 19th to BLQK. Rafa Hewett was deemed an “odd” pick by us but him performing the way he did was not a draft steal. Good pick identified by BLQK, but not a steal.
In any event, it is not a coincidence that 2 of the final 4 teams featured these players. Getting players that proved themselves worthy of top half status at the bottom of the draft especially, in the relatively shallow women’s pool, was a huge edge.
While Parris, with her singles success in particular had already put herself on the map with the average fan, this was Lina’s real coming out party as literally all she did was win this weekend, helping take a 5’s team that was playing without Rob Nunnery to the semi-finals. Pablo Tellez played well with Lina, but we feel Pablo’s ability to step in pretty seamlessly to the 5s largely had to do with the dynamite draft the 5s had – Lange is easily a top 5 men’s doubles player in this field too. Back to Lina, who has all the tools to be high end player. The results are already coming despite just having started playing pro events less than a year ago. The 5s are a scary team going forward at these MLP events assuming Nunnery can get back to health.
3. JW Johnson. The Real MVP (Gritty) – Lee Whitwell was MLP’s first MVP and she won the fan vote again this time around. Let’s take it for what it is though. It’s a fan vote. JW Johnson was the real MVP of this tournament and I don’t think it was all that close. The MVP talk at MLP was kind of like Coach of the Year in the NFL – people love to give the award to the lesser known name who outperforms relative to expectations. Rafa Hewett. Lina Padegimaite. Parris Todd. Travis Rettenmaier. These players all played great but we shouldn’t lose sight of what Most Valuable Player means. It means a player who is so essential to their team’s success that removing them from the equation would cause the most detriment to that team.
Let’s play out a little hypothetical here. Try to imagine any other player in JW Johnson’s shoes. Where do the Florida Smash end up? I think the only two other guys in all of pickleball who could do what JW did at MLP this past weekend are Ben Johns and Riley Newman (maybe), and they were not in the player pool. JW Johnson didn’t go undefeated like Padegimaite or win the Championship like Rafa Hewett and Parris Todd. However, what he did was carry his team through to the finals in a way no other player in this field could have.
JW played all weekend with Lee Whitwell and Travis Rettenmaier. While Whitwell and Rettenmaier more than held their own beside JW, it was JW being able to takeover at exactly the right times to find victories where there shouldn’t have been. In the semi-final Dreambreaker, the Florida Smash were down 18-14 when JW took 4 straight points off of John Cincola to tie it up 18-18. Big time players make big time plays in big time games. That was JW all weekend. He may have lost both matches in the final, including being up 20-12 in the men’s game, but they aren’t even in that position without JW. You can’t hold that against him.
You can discuss a lot about what the best draft slot is, but I think it is apparent when there is a male of JW’s calibre you want the #1 slot. The other draft positions depend on other team owners making mistakes and having players slip to you like Parris and Lina, or making the perfect evaluation for your team. No one slipped to the Florida Smash. They got Whitwell and Remynse right around where they should, and they were fine together. The Smash took Rettenmaier when he normally wouldn’t have been picked because he’s also a team owner. When you have someone who can take over the game like JW, you have to prioritize that over anything else. It affords your team margin for error. It’s quite the thing to reflect that JW and Dylan only won one game together MLP last year. He’s a different guy from last November though.
We use a lot of this blog space to talk about JW but it cannot be avoided. He’s a true force out there. The Florida Smash may not win it all next time around. Regardless, they will always be in the mix for as long as JW is leading their team.
4. Supplemental Draft and New Additions to the Player Pool (Slim) – We are still a bit unclear on exactly how the supplementary draft will work, but there is going to be one and I think it is definitely something pickleball fans are going to want to try and keep an eye on.
Our understanding is that the draft is going to feature players who may not have previously been in the draft pool, along with undrafted players. It will give teams the option to potentially drop players, or replace players unable to compete going forward. We are not sure how the order of the supplemental draft will be determined.
One would have to think that with the prize money and payouts that MLP is now offering, there has to be more than a few of the PPA contracted players looking to put themselves in the mix. Imagine you’re Yana Grechkina or Calln Dawson, and you see the lowest drafted player on the worst team is guaranteed $8,250 over 3 weekends. MLP bring these unprecedented payouts to the table is exactly why you don’t lock yourself into an exclusive 3-year deal in the first place
How a possible PPA player uproar may play out both in terms of contract disputes and how that could change the landscape in terms of MLP teams, heading into the next two events will be fascinating to watch. There were a number of teams, who seemed to be one player a way this weekend, so if a few higher end options appear in the draft, it will be interesting to see how MLP deals with that. On the one hand, it’s potentially pubitibe to the teams that drafted really well from the available player pool like the 5s. On the other hand, MLP needs to welcome with open arms any players who may be disgruntled with their previous decision.
There’s always drama brewing in pickleball. We’ll have to wait and see if the second event in Newport brings more questions to the surface.
5. Team Clean (Gritty) – Hey, what are we doing writing about a team that didn’t even make the top 6? Why don’t you talk about Rafa or Parris’ great weekend? Or Pablo Tellez? Well, we’re using Clean to highlight an example of less than ideal team building that plagued a number of teams at MLP’s first event. We did give Team Clean a B- draft grade after the reveal so it’s not like we were fully out on this team from the beginning. This is 20/20 hindsight stuff to an extent.
It’s also unclear who is making the ultimate decisions on the construction of these teams during the draft. Nevertheless, one of the bigger errors we have seen in team building are the legacy draft picks. Dekel Bar was a solid pick for #2 overall but what was built around him were 3 legacy type picks that didn’t complement one another. When I use the term “legacy” picks, I’m talking about players who have been around the game a little longer and who might be known to someone who has been in this sport for a few years.
Michelle Esquivel went at the #11 female spot to this team followed by Regina Franco as the #14 female. I didn’t hate the picks but it’s not shocking it didn’t work out well either, especially since neither player fits too well with Dekel – Michelle is not consistent enough and Regina is all reset at this point in time. LJoey Farias as the #23 male was not egregious but his lack of consistency paired with Dekel was possibly problematic when there were a number of players who would have been a better fit for both men’s and mixed.
When you take these legacy players who aren’t getting the results they got pre-pandemic, you need to make sure they at least fit your team’s construction. I had Corrine Carr at #18 on my board and she went #17, but she was an obviouslynterrible fit next to Bobbi Oshiro. Frankly, I thought ATX’s results were over their head putting legacy players Ansboury and Merchant together – at least they separately fit not too badly with their gender doubles partners, which did mask their fit as a partnership together.
Again, I don’t know who is making these drafting decisions but it seems like not enough thought went into more recent results and fit for some. Joey and Michelle played together during their 3 matches, and you wonder if that Farias pick resulted from their real life friendship. I don’t want to discount chemistry because it matters at MLP more than anywhere else in pickleball. Players like JW and Dylan Frazier seem to work best when they have energy players as part of their team. However, chemistry alone cannot be prioritized above ability and stylistic fit.
I’ll be curious to see what some of these teams, including Team Clean, are able to do with this supplemental draft process. There are undrafted players out there, both men and women, who could shift the dynamic for a number of these teams (*cough* *Ranchers* *cough*). There won’t be another MLP draft until 2023 but it will be fun to see if any lessons are learned by some of these teams when they have another kick at the draft can, so to speak.
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