We still don’t know how many MLPs you can run in a calendar year before the shine wears off and it is diminishing returns from a fan enjoyment perspective, but this was another fantastic event in Atlanta. When almost every match matters, it means that you wake up in the morning wanting to turn on the action right away. We understand that we don’t represent the views of everyone. This is just our feeling on MLP (that even we aren’t fully aligned on) and that feeling hasn’t changed by going to 6 events yet.
1. Win-Win Trade for Orlando and DC (Slim) – Orlando and DC made a trade at the draft and it seems to be a rare instance where the trade worked out for both teams, as they both made the finals of the first event in Atlanta. Heading into the draft, Orlando had the third pick, and knew they wanted to draft Anna Bright, and Bright wisely advised them that they should try and trade down if that was the case. Anna didn’t see herself as the number three pick, and thought it would be good to improve their second round draft pick. DC wisely jumped at the chance to move up to number three and grab Riley Newman, who you could argue was the second best player in the draft.
At the time, we really liked the move for DC and getting Newman was huge, but I would argue that the biggest win in the draft for DC was that teams allowed the Kawamoto sisters to fall to them in rounds 2 and 3. It almost doesn’t seem fair that a team was able to pair Riley with the Kawamoto sisters, who teamed up for the 2nd straight MLP season together.
Orlando was then able to grab Andrei Daescu in the second round, which was good value, because there was a huge run on women in the second, with Andrei and Tyson being the only men selected in the second round. I think that Andrei provides similar value to the late first round men who were selected, but being able to partner him with a better woman in Bright is a huge advantage. What really allowed the Squeeze to become a championship contender though was that they hit a home run with the Rachel Rohrbacher pick in the fourth round.
It is not often that we can look back on a trade and see it as a win-win for both teams involved. At the time of the draft, both Orlando and DC had major incentive to win big in season 2 with their Premier lives on the line following a sub-par season 1. The Orlando Squeeze ownership group was a late addition to the MLP fold and did not participate in the season 1 draft. DC made a wild move selecting Sam Querey as the number 1 overall pick in Challenger.
Clearly, both teams wanted to make things right for season 2 and had different approaches to doing so. DC hired a GM, Joshua Gartman, and a head coach, Kyle McKenzie. Orlando got someone with their first round selection who is doing more than most players to prepare for an MLP draft. There isn’t only one way to skin a cat and the two franchises were able to get it done in their own ways.
Frankly, DC probably looked like the more dangerous team on the weekend. After they took the first two gender double games in the finals against Orlando, it looked like it might be curtains. Christian Alshon had an overhead on match point in the first mixed match to seal things for DC and they couldn’t finish he point. It is always small margins at MLP so it will be fascinating to see if either team can make it back to the championship match in Thousand Oaks in November.
2. Challenger Female Scarcity (Gritty) – Draft philosophy has been one of the hot topics for MLP and it’s somewhat unfortunate that the drafting aspect of MLP will be gone in 2024. It makes for such interesting discussions on team building as there have been multiple shifts in philosophy in the short history of MLP. Something that I saw brought up by Jane Hollon on ‘X’ after Challenger Thursday was that 5 of the 6 teams making the playoffs drafted women in the first round, with the New Jersey 5’s the only team not to do so. Was this a sign that first round females reign supreme in MLP? .
In 2022, without any Challenger/Premier distinction, the prevailing wisdom became the importance of taking two strong females. However, that philosophy was based off the skewed reality that was created by Parris Todd getting drafted so late and Jackie Kawamoto getting traded to the Ranchers – representing all 3 MLP titles for 2022. It also was a philosophy that came about without the PPA contracted players in the fold like Ben Johns and Riley Newman. That wisdom carried into 2023 where Anna Leigh Waters was picked first overall in the draft and women were prioritized more than men in the first round. It left Ben Johns as the 2nd overall pick and a rather dominant season winning 2 of the 3 MLP events.
By the time the season 2 draft came around in 2023, there was another shift in philosophy where men were alpha men were suddenly being prioritized. Men impact the game more than women and, therefore, they should be valued to a greater degree. While the general statement is true to a certain extent, I think there was too much of a shift towards this philosophy, especially in Challenger, at the time of the draft. Men impact the game more than women but you need to have the right man to do that. Ben Johns, Riley Newman, JW Johnson have a higher level skillset than Rob Nunnery, Stefan Auvergne, DJ Young, Daniel De La Rosa and Brendon Long.
So much of draft philosophy is circumstantial. With how much the tides are constantly changing in pro pickleball, that means team building philosophies must shift, even if they can swing too far in one direction versus the other. It is so difficult to project these things. Part of it is going to be luck and part of it is going to be seeing the future for what it is. The other part of it is simply picking the right players regardless of what your philosophy is.
On the Premier side, one shift that we have seen beyond the philosophy change is that there was some real quality to be found later in that draft compared to the season 1 draft. Tyra Black, Rachel Rohrabacher and Vivian Glozman all proved to be worthy of being selected to Premier. Orlando was able to make it work building around Anna Bright while Miami made it work building around two men in Tyson McGuffin and Federico Staksrud. Regardless of how a team chose to build, it meant that there was potentially more female value to be found at the end of the draft.
However, at the Challenger level, there remained a serious scarcity of quality women. The miss of Allison Harris going undrafted aside, there was a noticeable drop off in quality at a certain point in the draft that wasn’t factored in by a number of teams when they drafted those hopefully “dominant” first round men. Teams could hope that they find a gem of a female later in the draft, but that was a big ‘if’. Alli Phillips played above her 4th round draft slot in the first event, but that was also a team that was inches away from not making the playoffs. There is a noticeable talent discrepancy between the teams that went women early compared to the ones that went men early. That’s not to say the teams that went men early could not be successful in Challenger, but it is an uphill battle with how few quality women there are for that level.
This stuff can’t be viewed as a one size fits all approach. While it seems clear that drafting women early in Challenger for season 2 was the right move, part of that approach being correct was due to the market inefficiency that resulted from the swing in perspective to prioritizing alpha males. We saw in both Premier drafts that male value slid in the draft because of the run on females in the late first through early 3rd round of the draft, and that same thing happened in Challenger. The difference between Premier and Challenger is that you don’t have the same level of relatively dominant men that can carry teams at that level. That’s why those guys aren’t playing in Premier, and that reality may have been lost on Challenger drafting teams.
Obviously, this is a one event sample size that we are basing this off of and teams like the St. Louis Shock with Rob Nunnery or Milwaukee Mashers with DJ Young could show out at the next MLP event. At the same time, I don’t think a shift in results will change my opinion on what the correct drafting process was for season 2 of Challenger. Team building philosophies will continue to evolve if the sport grows in this direction and those perspectives will be circumstance and timing dependent. Where we are 4 months from today given that free agency will be the topic du jour is a question for another day.
3. Upside Women Succeed (Slim) – Three teams in the Premier League took shots on relatively unproven upside women, and it paid off for all three teams at the first event. Those teams and players were the Miami Pickleball Club and Tyra Black, Arizona and Vivian Glozman and the Orlando Squeeze and Rachel Rohrabacher. With all three teams making at least the semi-finals, it was a big win for teams willing to take risks in the season 2 draft.
Of the three players noted above, Rohrbacher was the biggest unknown, and she made the biggest splash this weekend, winning the championship with the Squeeze. Despite having been impressed with her upside, we, among many others, questinoed Anna Bright going with Rohrbacher. With options like Susannah Barr out there, who had played a lot of mixed doubles with both of the Orlando men, and even Vivian Glozman, who had played a tournament with Anna, it seemed like a huge gamble. Fortunately for Orlando, Bright’s reasoning that the Squeeze needed to take a big swing if they wanted to win, proved to be true, and Rohrbacher delivered in a huge way for them.
Vivian Glozman was pretty much what we expected in this event, and that is a high upside women’s doubles player, who has yet to find her stride in mixed doubles. She won one match in mixed doubles this weekend with Dekel Bar and it is starting to become a little concerning with Glozman that there does not seem to be a ton of improvement in her game. It could just be that Glozman is still very new to pro pickleball and has hit a bit of a plateau before she jumps to the next level, but she does not seem to be improving at the same pace as Black and Rohrbacher. It is also unclear if Glozman is grinding the way some of the other pros like Tyra Black are grinding.
Tyra Black was the most well known of the three upside women selected in Premier heading into the event, and her game has only ascended since the draft. Tyra looked pretty dominant this weekend and she is showing that she may be able to take more court in women’s doubles than any player out there, except for maybe Anna Leigh.
It is also very notable that Miami paired Black this weekend with Allison Harris who went completely undrafted. It is hard to believe that teams let Harris go undrafted, and she is going to be a big pickup for someone in the Challenger League before the next event. What is even more interesting, is that Miami was apparently considering taking Rohrbacher to pair with Black, and if they had of done that it might have been a scary team, especially by the last event, as I can’t imagine a women’s team with more power than Black and Rohrbacher.
It was nice to see some teams take some shots on players in this draft, and not just take the established player, who offered little to no upside. In the first Premier season, we didn’t really see many teams take shots on upside players, so it was great to see a few teams do that this season and be rewarded.
4. Is Ben Johns a Terrible GM? (Gritty) – It’s easy to make grand conclusions following one event of an MLP season. However, we need to constantly remind ourselves that a small sample size of 3 matches in pool play and a playoff match or two can be fool’s gold when it comes to definitive statements that will carry through the rest of the season. So, is the Chicago Slice’s inability to get past the quarterfinal’s indicative of how bad a GM Ben Johns is? Probably not.
Ben did a really good job at the inaugural MLP event in 2021 and then followed that up with a masterclass performance in season 1, selecting Etta Wright, Meghan Dizon and Tyler Loong to surround him. In season 2, there were concerns about him drafting a team that didn’t seem to completely fit, which we outlined in both our draft grades and Premier group preview before the event. The infamous PB44444444 account on ‘X’/Twitter posted over the weekend that if Ben had picked Gabe Tardio, the Slice would have gone undefeated in season 2. That’s seems like an overreach but I get where the anonymous insider is coming from.
The selections the Slice made during the draft made sense for Ben Johns. Erik Lange fit seamlessly with Ben as a hard countering men’s doubles partner who can virtually guarantee him a win. Ben and Erik went 4-0 over the weekend with little credit given for Erik’s ability to do that in men’s, similarly to how Tyler Loong was viewed in season 1. Jessie Irvine also made sense as a pick for Ben Johns as Ben knew she wouldn’t have a problem letting Ben do his thing in mixed.
Ben selected two players in Irvine and Lange that close to guarantee 2 wins in every match. There is a lot of value in being guaranteed a volatile Dreambreaker rally scoring game to 21 in a worst case scenario. Ben went 8-0 on the weekend in his matches.
The problem with the construction of the Slice is that Irvine and Lange don’t fit all that well together on the same team when viewed as a whole. In event 1, Jessie Irvine was not able to do what Anna Bright did for Lacy Schneemann and Erik Lange is not a mixed player who can is lifting his partners up in the way someone like Tardio may be able to. Moreover, taking Erik Lange as a somewhat competent, but below average, singles player on the same team as the very limited in singles Jessie Irvine makes it very hard to win Dreambrekares when things don’t go as planned. The Slice were 1-2 in Dreambreakers on the weekend.
Ben is one of the few players who deserves the benefit of the doubt as a GM. No one is going to be perfect. His biggest “mistake” here may end up being banking on the growth of Schneemann just as he did in season 2 with Dizon. We’re only through 1 event but that bigger leap doesn’t appear to have happened yet for Schneemann. Still, you can understand Ben’s process for taking a talented, albeit inconsistent, player in Schneemann who had recently made the transition from Boeing engineer to full-time pickleball player.
Is Ben Johns a terrible GM? I don’t think this was his best work, but a lot of things could have gone differently in this first event that could turn the way of the Slice next time out. An extra women’s or Lange/Schneeemann mixed win here or there makes things look vastly different, especially the Lange/Schneemann loss in the quarterfinal where they had a match point on their side. The Slice were also in the toughest pool for Atlanta.
No one is going to be right 100% of the time and the lack of success in one event doesn’t mean that Ben shouldn’t havee been trusted by the Slice to make the right decisions, assuming it was Ben that made these decisions. If Ben can continue being virtually unbeatable at MLP, it won’t take much for perception of how flawed the Chicago team was constructed to look quite different the next time around.
5. Where You Are Drafted Matters (Gritty) – Yeah, no s*** Sherlock. An obvious concept this would seem to be, but one that has been lost on people when their MLP teams perform or don’t perform up to snuff. Zane Navratil is Exhibit A in this.
There were more than a few people online who opined that Zane Navratil was not a Premier level player following the horrendous performance from the Frisco Pandas in season 1. The Frisco team consisting of Zane Navratil, Matt Wright/DJ Young, Yana Newell and Lina Padegimaite didn’t win one match in season 1 and they were thoroughly outplayed by most of their opponents. The performance was the result of some terrible drafting, which included taking Zane Navratil with their 1st round pick at 12th overall.
The Navratil selection was the foundation for a house of cards that clouded the perception of how good each of those Frisco players was relative to the overall talent pool – it tanked the draft stock of all of its players and it left Yana Newell in a really good situation with the Hard Eights as their second-round female.
Fast forward to season 2 and Navratil was selected in the third round of Premier on a team with Anna Bright and Andrei Daescu as a much sturdier foundation. They took a risk on Rachel Rohrabacher and won the whole damn first event of season 2. In Atlanta, Navratil was a different person than I have seen at any MLP event, including at the 2 events he won in 2022. I’m not talking about his play. I’m talking about his persona. He was finger wagging, shimmy shaking and ensuring the interview mic was as hot as could be.
I think the Zane we saw in Atlanta was on a mission. This was a spotlight moment for a player who has seen his stock decline massively due to a poor MLP performance and middling PPA results. Zane is not a top player in pickleball, and he doesn’t find his way into podiums very much these days now that all the talent is in one place. It’s crazy how much Zane went from being overvalued to undervalued in the span of one MLP season and Orlando finding that value helped bring them a championship.
Zane wasn’t the only one on the weekend who was an example of this. Dekel Bar had a fantastic weekend with the Arizona Drive as they were a Dreambreaker away from reaching the finals. Dekel hasn’t had much success as a lead dog male outside of the first MLP event. His lack of MLP success combined with his disappointing 2023 PPA season caused his draft stock to fall significantly for season 2.
A falling draft stock probably doesn’t feel great for a player but it can leave them in a much better position than they otherwise would have been. Arizona took a chance that the square peg, round hole fit with Julian Arnold and Dekel could work as a men’s team, and it was a chance worth taking. We wrote in our draft grades that “Dekel Bar is good value in the third round of this draft.” Although Bar/Vivian Glozman only had one win together as a mixed team, Arnold and Bar excelled in men’s and it propelled this Arizona team to a semi-finals appearance.
On the flip side, Parris Todd is exhibit A on the other end of the spectrum. Her 10th overall selection has been widely criticized as an overdraft and the Bouncers went 0-3. They were close to better results in a couple of their matches, but building around a first round, right side female has proven to be a difficult proposition in MLP. Bobbi Oshiro is another one of these players that has been overdrafted in the last 3 MLPs. Bobbi is a very good player, but she keeps being asked by teams to be something that she is not. It led to Oshiro being dropped after the first event in 2022 and somehow not being picked up at all the rest of the year.
These things don’t always work out when you find perceived value either. Jay Devilliers and AJ Koller are two players that went from first and second round picks in season 1 to 4th round picks in season 2. For different reasons, I’m not sure what either of those guys is going to get you in MLP but it doesn’t feel like a miss for Dallas or Utah to have selected those players without having great success at the first event. It is such a difference when AJ Koller goes in the second-round last season and plays like, well, AJ Koller. Take these teams out of a group of death and we might have a different view of both players after the 2nd event.
Overvalued, undervalued or properly valued, where you are drafted matters. Understanding why poor performance happens, not just that it did happen, is crucial in evaluating players when it comes to MLP. No one demonstrated that more this weekend than Zane Navratil.
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