Now less than two weeks away from tipping off, Northwestern women’s basketball has a number of newcomers who can play high-impact roles right away. One of them is Crystal Wang, a forward out of Sierra Canyon in California whose versatility could jump off the page right away.
Who she is
First-year; forward; 6-foot-2; from Beijing, China; attended Sierra Canyon HS in Chatsworth, California
High School Stats
10.2 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game (per Northwestern Athletics)
Playing a critical role on an absolutely loaded Sierra Canyon team led by USC-bound Juju Watkins, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2023, Wang enjoyed a stellar senior year. She was the starting small forward of a core that was a consensus top-five team in the nation from wire to wire. The Trailblazers won their first 31 games before losing to Etiwanda in the Southern California Regional Open Division title game by one point.
While Watkins and rising senior Mackenly Randolph starred, Wang was a two-way player who proved she could step up as a top offensive option against quality competition. Last January, Sierra Canyon’s undefeated run appeared to be in jeopardy when Watkins suffered an injury that forced her to miss the team’s opening game in the Mission League, an uber-talented conference of Southern California private schools. That didn’t faze Wang, who led the Trailblazers with 21 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals in a 70-50 win at Harvard-Westlake.
She routinely put up multiple-steal games, and was a great facilitator from the wing. Because Sierra Canyon had immense offensive talent in Watkins, Randolph and Izela Arenas, Wang’s primary role was to provide defensive versatility, and she did just that.
It’s tough to make a concrete assessment from the sliver of info and film out there, but Wang seems to possess a unique set of defensive skills for a 6-foot-2 player. Four of Sierra Canyon’s starters were over six feet tall: Wang, Watkins (6-foot-2), Randolph (6-foot) and rising sophomore Emilia Krstevski (6-foot-5). Because of that, head coach Alicia Komaki had so much length at her disposal that she often needed Wang to defend wings and guards. The Beijing native really stood out as an off-ball defender with her ability to clog passing lanes.
Like Joe McKeown, Komaki threw out lots of zone defense. Of course, both schemes differ in their intricacies, but that similarity could make Wang’s transition to Northwestern smooth. She has experience flying around in rotation to guard both post and perimeter players on the same possession, which gives Northwestern a defensive weapon in its frontcourt. Wang’s one inch smaller than Caileigh Walsh, but also has the potential to match up with the same players Sydney Wood guarded last year. It’ll be interesting to see how Wang can hold up in isolation, but McKeown has a ton to work with.
Now, on the other end:
Again, Paige Mott is 6-foot-1, and Walsh is 6-foot-3. Wang is doing this at 6-foot-2. By centering the offense around Walsh’s perimeter scoring last year, Northwestern has already taken a big step toward establishing its identity as a team that wants to stretch defenses as much as possible. Wang consistently shot corner-threes and thrived at facilitating off the dribble in Sierra Canyon’s offense. If she can do all that even somewhat consistently in the Big Ten, then she will add a new dimension to NU’s offense.
McKeown can already play Wang at three or four positions on defense, and this amount of offensive versatility would unlock a treasure chest of lineup combinations and sets that he could tinker with. With three players over 6-foot-1 who can play big frontcourt minutes in Wang, Walsh and Mott, Northwestern can throw out different looks every possession. Maybe those first two players function as perimeter players without the entire defense keying in on them. Maybe they could alternate possessions with a set where one of them forms a duo with Mott in the post while the other stretches the defense off the ball. Who knows?
In other words, Wang’s ability to stretch the floor and guard wings doesn’t just give the Wildcats a good two-way player. It also gives McKeown a prime opportunity to deploy Walsh in a myriad of ways to tap into her inside-out scoring prowess with greater efficiency. If everyone’s shooting numbers see some positive regression to stretch the defense even further, that could pay off in a huge way for Wang and the entire team.
If McKeown does choose to occasionally deploy her as a wing, Wang has room to improve as an isolation defender. She isn’t that quick on the ball, which is something that Sierra Canyon’s zone and its talented core may have hid. For Northwestern to play Wang at the three defensively — even if it’s just situationally in in the middle quarters — that has to improve. It’s nitpicking, especially considering that may not even be her role, but developing more on-ball skills could go a long way.
Additionally, it’ll be interesting to see how Wang’s pace as a creator translates to the Big Ten. Obviously, she’s a crafty finisher who confidently commits to her move off the dribble (just watch that clip above again, and these highlights). However, Wang heavily relies on her finesse and less on her speed to work inside, and has benefited from an unclogged paint thanks to the dangerous perimeter scorers around her spacing the floor. Given Northwestern’s top-two returning scorers are paint players, Wang could run into some trouble if she needs to create for herself while they’re on the floor.
It’s important to note that this is a 6-foot-2 player we’re talking about. These may not even be noticeable weaknesses if McKeown chooses to utilize Wang as a stretch-four who sits in the corner; they would just make it really tough to play her while Mott and Walsh are both on the court.
It didn’t happen last year, but McKeown is not afraid to start true first-years. In 2021-22, he penciled in Walsh and Jillian Brown to start immediately. Wang is capable of becoming the next one to do that. Besides Abi Scheid, no Northwestern big nor wing in recent memory has possessed Wang’s positional versatility (or at least this much potential to provide it) in both phases. There’s a non-zero chance that she starts at the three in place of Jasmine McWilliams if NU wants to run with a bigger lineup.
However, because Mott and Walsh are the two best offensive players on the team who should take on the bulk of the frontcourt minutes, Wang might begin the season with a lower minute total before gradually working her way up the rotation. Regardless, she has the potential to become a crucial piece for the ‘Cats down the stretch. Northwestern, a team that struggled mightily with floor-spacing in 2022-23, will rely on Wang’s three-point shooting and playmaking ability to do so.