Season 1 of MLP is officially in the books. It certainly appears after the 3rd event of the season that there are a lot of people still confused by the concept of MLP and that may be a reality MLP will have to accept for 2023. The complexity that resulted from the merger between MLP and the PPA has created a difficult format to follow as teams flip to Challenger or Premier halfway through the year. Having continuity in this team-based structure of MLP will be important for future growth, but the early growing pains are an unfortunate necessity at this stage. Keeping track of what is happening for 24 teams over the course of the weekend is too much soak in for most people and that is okay for now. The big question is whether you can get people invested to the point they are willing to monitor these teams throughout the course of a season where there is going to be more continuity.
1. Dominance Prevails (Gritty) – We were honored over here at NML to be entrusted with one of the six MVP votes for the Premier and Challenger divisions for the final event of season 1. After some questionable choices in the past (*cough* Lee Whitwell *cough*), it was a unique opportunity to have a say in an award that people care about, but ultimately has no bearing on anything. The votes were easy for this San Clemente event, though. Ben Johns and Jillian Braverman were the easy selections, in what we have to presume were both landslides. The best player on the winning team is often the right choice for any sport, but it was particularly easy this time around because of dominance demonstrated by both players.
Let’s start with Ben Johns. He is the best player in MLP and there should be zero doubt that whoever ends up with the 1st pick in Premier of season 2 will have a terrifying advantage over the rest of the field. Assuming he plays season 2, Ben is a cheat code of epic proportions. He didn’t lose a single game this past weekend before the Super Finals and he has only lost one game across three MLP main events this year, a men’s doubles loss to Federico Staksrud and Dylan Frazier in Daytona. That is simply absurd. Last week, I wrote about how Ben has somehow further separated himself from the rest of the pack through the first half of 2023, and MLP is another example of that. Riley Newman is the only other player that I thought could rival Ben Johns’ ability to single-handily win matches on his own, but Riley Newman was not able to bring that same level in San Clemente. Newman went 3-3 on the weekend, including a playoff clinching opportunity loss to Vivienne David and Kyle Yates.
Not only is Ben the best player with his ability to almost guarantee two game wins per match, but he is also one of the games most studious individuals. While Riley Newman relies on his athleticism to overwhelm opponents, Ben is maximizing his abilities by understanding the tendencies of his opponents and exploiting their weaknesses. There is supposed to be significant variance in this rally scoring format to 21 yet Ben Johns has proven to be relatively immune to that variance, albeit with some close calls sprinkled in and two losses in the Super Finals to the Mad Drops.
What is even more impressive about Ben’s dominance is that he has done it outside of his perfectly created structure with Collin Johns and Anna Leigh Waters. Irina has the most MLP titles but Ben has now won 3 of the 4 MLP’s that he has participated in. Another benefit of picking Ben Johns over anyone else is his knowledge of the player pool and ability to identify what is needed for him in the MLP drafting process. He banked on the rise of Etta Wright, took a shot on the upside of Meghan Dizon and understood that Tyler Loong could be an optimal men’s partner for him while still providing some more juice in the mixed game compared to Collin (which didn’t really happen in San Clemente). You know when you draft Ben that he is unlikely going to make an incorrect selection for your team.
On the Challenger side, we had questioned on this blog the fairness of allowing Jillian Braverman to join the Shuffle Draft player pool after the first event. Braverman commented on her MLP recap Instagram post that she only ever “played for fun” before quitting her corporate job, but she had played enough pro pickleball that we knew she had the potential to slant the entire Challenger season. We still don’t really know why Columbus traded Jillian Braverman for Megan Fudge, essentially giving away the biggest advantage that could be handed to them. Paul Olin went on the Inside Major League Pickleball podcast after the trade, discussing the move as a win-win for both teams. Well, the trade was definitely a major win for Dallas, who got to the finals of Daytona and won the Challenger championship in San Clemente on the back of Jillian Braverman. The fact is that Braverman is at a different level than most of the women in Challenger. She would have been a Premier pick if her name was in the player pool, and she proved that she is more than worthy of Premier with her performances in the last two events.
Braverman’s ability to form a #1 mixed team with Dallas’ #2 men at both events, Brandon French and Ben Newell, was a giant edge in addition to her alpha female qualities in women’s doubles. Braverman didn’t provide the same type of dominance as Ben in Premier, but the discrepancy in skill level that she exhibited proved to be a supreme difference maker for the Mark Cuban owned Dallas Pickleball Club. Dallas was a team that was in a difficult spot after the first event and was gifted a game changer.
In my view, it is clear that the draft is only so much of an equalizer. Dominant players matter whether it is at the Premier or Challenger level. Anna Leigh Waters may not have won her team a title, but they won a lot of matches in 3 events. They were also a Dreambreaker away from a title of their own. It is probably better to have a dominant players than not, even if the Mad Drops demonstrated that balance can rule the day as well. One of the many things I think I have learned from these past 3 MLP events is that having a dominant player can guarantee a lot of wins. It’s just that there appear to be only two of them at the Premier level currently.
Dominance prevailing was the theme of the weekend for me and it came across in our MVP votes. Ben Johns and Jillian Braverman were the obvious choices in their respective divisions. Let’s see if this theme continues into 2023.
2. Player Development (Slim) – After the first MLP stop in Mesa it looked like two of the biggest misses in the Premier League, at least on the men’s side were Gabe Tardio and Hayden Patriquin. Hayden seemed to struggle with the pressure of playing with Anna Leigh Waters in mixed and Gabe Tardio profiled as the weak link on ATX. ATX with JW Johnson and the Kawamotos as the core should have been in the mix on paper, but only won one match and failed to make the playoffs in Mesa.
While the player standings on the MLP site, are probably far from an accurate representation of how players performed at an event, they do give some indication of the success, or the lack thereof, that a player had at a specific event. At the Mesa event, Gabe ranked 44th and Hayden ranked 39th in the player standings, so there is some evidence that they didn’t have exactly strong showings.
Hayden, with the 48th pick, was the last pick of the Premier draft, and Gabe was the 46th pick so it was not shocking when both players, struggled a bit at the first event, but it was also hard not to wonder if both teams should have perhaps taken more veteran players, given that that the teams had elite players in Anna Leigh Waters and JW Johnson and solid second and third round picks as well. They are both still teenagers, and I thought it was reasonable to question if maybe the moment was a bit too big for them.
By Daytona, Hayden had gained more comfort in his role, and he actually finished second in the player standings, and he had another excellent weekend this weekend in San Clemente. Over the course of the season Patriquin has demonstrated that not only is he a player that belongs on the Premier division, but he is also a players that is ready for the big lights, and the big moments. It took Gabe a little longer, but over the past couple of months we have seen Gabe’s game continue to improve, as shown by his making PPA men’s doubles semi finals with different partners. This weekend, that tour success translated to MLP success as ATX had a strong semi-final performance, and Tardio looked every part of a premier player.
It serves as a strong reminder of how quickly players, especially younger or newer players are evolving, and that potential for in season development is something teams definitely have to account for.
Heading into the season two draft, it presents a real challenge for most teams. Former NFL GM, Mike Lombardi, has talked quite a lot about paying for past performance rather than future performance. AJ Koller is an example of a missed evaluation we had due to past performance. The delicate balance between betting on upside and taking the proven commodity, will most likely be seen in the late picks of the Premier Draft.
With no ability to add or drop players, at the Premier level, a complete miss on a player can be catastrophic for a team. There are going to be a number of men and particularly women available in those late picks, who are on the rise but not yet proven. If a team takes the risk, and hits on the right player who blossoms in the second half of the year, your team could be a juggernaut – think Parris Todd and BLQK in season two. Although that upside is enticing, it is becoming ever harder for players to break into the upper echelon of players and if a team takes a player who is too far away, or whose development plateaus at the wrong time, they could be in trouble. On the flip side, taking a player based on past performance, who the game may be passing by, could prove just as fatal.
3. Risers and Fallers (Gritty) – The benefit we get from this flip-flopping of teams is another draft in a few weeks. Drafts are my favorite part of MLP and one of the biggest storylines will be the players that move up to Premier and down to Challenger. It is such a massive difference for the players as the financial discrepancy between Premier and Challenger is substantial, especially when you consider that a selection into Premier guarantees 3 events for the season. The stakes are high in this zero-sum game where there are only 24 spots available for both the men and women. So, who is in the mix to rise and fall?
The most obvious riser on the men’s side is Pablo Tellez. He dominated MLP at the Challenger level and he has been a force in men’s doubles on the PPA tour along with getting some major singles results. As a guy that we questioned as a first-round pick at the time of the Challenger draft, Tellez is the biggest no brainer selection for Premier. The only question mark is how high Tellez will be picked.
Other names that have the potential to move up include Hunter Johnson, Christian Alshon, Connor Garnett, Brendon Long and Stefan Auvergne. Rob Nunnery said on his podcast that he feels he is a top 24 guy, but I don’t see it right now with his overall body of work in 2023. First on my list from those players to move up to Premier is Christian Alshon. His game continues to improve and the Anna Leigh Waters dating connection is a factor that can’t be overlooked. Anna Leigh will probably have the 2nd last pick of the draft and, if Alshon drops to a place where ALW’s team can pick him with their last selection, he could be the ideal fit for her team. This is not a comment intended to be gossipy, rather it is a real storyline that could influence the draft. Hunter Johnson is in the same Alshon-type mold of hard-hitting singles demon, except he has more experience on the right-side in men’s than either Alshon or Garnett. Brendon Long’s results have dipped since Daytona and Auvergne’s have mostly dipped since the first event in Mesa. Tellez and Alshon with Johnson and Garnett knocking on the door are the four most likely players that I can see moving up.
The difficulty in this exercise is figuring out who is going to drop. Hayden Patriquin and Gabe Tardio looked like prime candidates to be dropped after the first event, but both players now appear to be locks to stick in Premier. The fallers will depend on how much faith the new teams have in the old guard. DJ Young is dealing with what he called a “severe wrist injury”. Kyle Yates continues to perform admirably at MLP, but he has not been playing playing pro tournaments these days. Some unexpected weirdness could happen too as crazy people were floating on Twitter that Zane Navratil is not a Premier player. Travis Rettenmaier is a wild card due to his conflict of interest situation in the Florida Smash. Matt Wright may not have enough interest to play season 2 of MLP. Maybe someone like AJ Koller could have an epic freefall out of Premier altogether?
On the women’s side, Jillian Braverman is basically a lock to move up to Premier as she is too good for whatever chemistry concerns other players may have. After Braverman, there are a handful of players that could move up: Hurricane Tyra Black, Susannah Barr, Vivian Glozman, Ewa Radzikowska and Bobbi Oshiro are all in the mix. Recency bias can be a big factor and Black is the biggest recent beneficiary of the positive buzz. Susannah Barr has had a lot of exposure with success at this last MLP event as well and continues to demonstrate a higher level of competency in Dreambreakers. Conversely, Vivian Glozman did not help propel the Breakers to another Championship and lost 5 out of 8 points to Barr in the Super Final Dreambreaker, which brings questions regarding her ability to play a beta female role in Premier.
Who is in the falling category for the women? I expect Lina Padegimaite will drop. Lindsey Newman needs to get in the right situation to stay in Premier. Mary Brascia hasn’t had much success at MLP. Yana Grechkina was a more likely drop candidate after Daytona but she might be playing too well on the PPA Tour recently. Even someone like Lauren Stratman, who is a Premier player in my view, has the potential to drop if teams want to go with more of an unknown situation for upside. Keep in mind that some of these Challenger owners could have a special affinity for taking their own top player that provided them so much success in Challenger – Ewa Radzikowska, Susannah Barr and Tyra Black.
The Premier picks are extra high stakes because there is no fallback for teams that make a mistake. We saw in Challenger a lot of messes resolved quite quickly like with Dallas getting Braverman and Miami scooping up Brendon Long. Those quick fixes off the waiver wire aren’t available in Premier. It should be fun to see it all shake out.
4. Big Dink Energy (Slim) – There is always a lot of debate with MLP about how much potential variance it offers, and also about how much of an impact chemistry and energy can have. This season showed to me that, at the end of the day, the better teams with the better players generally came out on top.
The Seattle Pioneers won their second straight event in San Clemente this weekend, and they are the opposite of an energy team. They had the best and most consistent player in the world in Ben Johns, and no other weak links. In the finals, the Pioneers beat the 5’s, a team who it looked like might have chemistry issues, after their coach Leigh Water’s comments on Lea Jansen’s paddle, but the team was able to put that aside and perform this weekend. The 5’s had the best female player on the planet and three other very solid players, playing at a high level. Having an elite player, and no real weak spot, seems to be a much bigger part of MLP success than having ‘energy’ or ‘chemistry’.
This is not to say that chemistry and energy doesn’t matter at all, as we saw a completely different Matt Wright this weekend, playing along side his partner Lucy Kovalova with the Milwaukee Mashers, and the whole Mashers team, also had a different energy. However, the trade for Wright also just made the Mashers a better team, and a chance to actually win appeared to have energized Wright. Getting a 2nd round doubles talent for a 4th round doubles talent in a trade can be beneficial, apparently.
The Mad Drops are a prime energy team, but the initial evaluation on that team did not account for Catherine Parenteau somehow transforming into possibly the clear cut #2 female in the draft for season 2.
Energy and chemistry are a nice bonus for a team, but a team needs the players if they want any chance of having sustained success.
5. Super Final Letdown? (Gritty) – We put a poll on Twitter to get a gauge on how the hardcore pickleball fans felt about the Super Finals. The concept of a Super Finals is cool, but the event felt anti-climactic for me, even though the Mad Drops had the big upset. In Premier, $60K was on the line for each player on the winning team. Huge stakes.
But in a season where there is a flip between divisions at the end of the season and no continuity, a Super Final doesn’t really make sense. I texted Slim earlier in the day “hot take but is the super finals really dumb?” Really dumb is probably too strong but I think the Super Finals works better when teams are battling all year and it feels more like a playoffs situation.It just doesn’t really work for season 1 and kind of feels like a waste of prize money for MLP.
Both matches were actually really good. The Slice had some epic games against Bay Area and upsetting Bay Area in a Dreambreaker is what MLP is made for. The jury is still out on whether the Mad Drops were the beneficiary of an emotional letdown from Seattle, but seeing Ben Johns lose twice with $60,000 on the line is quality sports television programming. I still watched some of it, but I had a hard time caring as much as I did for the finals the day before.
The results of the Twitter poll slightly favored people caring about the event, 60% to 40%, which is obviously an official result. Again, the Super Finals is not a bad concept and more exposure on platforms like ESPN2 never hurts. However, it feels like a juice not worth the squeeze situation, as some might say.
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