Women’s basketball roster breakdown: Backcourt

Ashley Joens tries to get past her defender in Iowa State’s win over Texas A&M University in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament on Wednesday. 

Aaron Hickman

Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Iowa State women’s basketball program has a pretty good idea of where they stand with their backcourt production.

“I think it always starts with your backcourt and a great player, and we have that,” Head Coach Bill Fennelly said.

That great player is of course Ashley Joens, the senior star for the Cyclones who returns for her senior year as one of the nation’s best players.

Let’s dive into the Cyclones’ backcourt and see where each player fits into the plans for the 2021 season.

The Known Commodities

Starting with the obvious names, Lexi Donarski and Emily Ryan return after impressive, and somewhat surprising, freshman seasons.

But they won’t be catching anyone by surprise this year.

As the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year, expectations will be high for Donarski. Fennelly talked about how if winning that award is the best moment of her career, neither one of them did their job. The sophomore averaged 13 points per game (ppg) and was a sniper from beyond the arc, shooting at a 41 percent clip, but a repeat of last season will be considered a disappointment.

One area of skill Donarski can improve is her ball distribution. She averaged nearly as many turnovers as assists, and that is because she only averaged two assists-per-game. As a guard, that number should go up this year.

Ryan is the opposite of her backcourt partner. She averaged nearly six assists per game last season, but she can be expected to shoulder more of the scoring load after averaging just over eight ppg her freshman year.

She should also get even more playing time this season. After averaging around 30 minutes per game last year, she will most likely spend just a little more time on the court this season, which will lead to more scoring opportunities.

The ultimate creator of scoring opportunities is senior Ashley Joens. Officially listed as a guard/forward on the roster, Joens has been the ultimate Swiss Army knife for the Cyclones.

With the ability to play every position on the court, the fact remains that Joens has the ball in her hands more than anyone on the team. 

The two-time unanimous All-Big 12 First Team pick and reigning Cheryl Miller Award winner led the Big 12 in scoring for a second consecutive year last season while averaging a school record 24.2 ppg. She also averaged over nine rebounds per game after averaging 10.9 the year before.

Donarski and Ryan will handle most of the point guard minutes this season, but Joens is someone who can also bring the ball up the floor. Known for being able to find her own shot, Fennelly believes that Joens can still learn to trust her teammates even more.

With great players in Donarski, Joens and Ryan, Iowa State has a great starting point for production. Where the rest of the backcourt’s production will come from is where things become more interesting.

The Wild Cards

A player who has been listed as a potential X-factor by Fennelly is the younger of the two Joens sisters on the roster, Aubrey Joens.

Also a sophomore, Joens averaged five points per game and shot over 36 percent from three point range last season.

“When we recruited her, somebody called me and said: ‘Why would you recruit her? All she can do is shoot.’ Give me 12 of them!” Fennelly said.

With the three-point line nine inches farther back this season, Fennelly sees Aubrey as someone who gives the Cyclones an advantage. Known for her Steph Curry-esque range in practice, look for Joens to be a potential game-changer.

Someone who was a game-changer early in their career is junior Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw. She started 23 out of 29 games her freshman year, averaging 8.6 points per game and shooting over 36 percent from beyond the arc.

That wasn’t the case last season.

An injury sidelined Espenmiller-McGraw for much of the season, and she only averaged 16 minutes per game in the nine games she was able to compete in.

That injury, characterized as “lower-body,” is still causing problems for Espenmiller-McGraw, and she is expected to be out for at least six weeks as she rehabs it.

Despite the injury setback, reaching the level she was at a couple years ago is still the goal. More importantly, she wants to be a good leader and teammate.

“Just try to get back to where I was,” Espenmiller-McGraw said. “I did play a lot my freshman year, and I miss that a lot. I just want to stay healthy and impact the team, however that may be.”

Impacting the team however she can is what redshirt junior Maddie Frederick is known for.

Fennelly has talked glowingly about Frederick’s impact on the team. Although she is not expected to see the court very much, her importance cannot be overstated. She is a vocal leader and helps to keep things light and fun in an environment that is pressure-packed.

Frederick’s value comes in what she does on the sideline and off the court. That should be no different this season.

The New Faces

In a sense, freshman Denae Fritz has returned home.

Both of her parents attended Iowa State, and she was born in Ames. However, how she performed down South in Tennessee is what brought her back to her birthplace.

Fritz was the 2021 Tennessee Miss Basketball winner, and she finished runner-up for the award her junior year. She holds the record for career rebounds at Maryville High School, and she earned both District MVP and Region MVP in her final two seasons.

Holding offers from other notable schools like Alabama, Boston College, BYU, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and South Florida, Fritz committed to Iowa State in October of 2020.

Almost a month ago Fennelly said if they had a game that night, Fritz would be in the starting lineup. Regardless of whether or not that is still true, she still figures to get plenty of playing time, and the team appears to have great faith in her.

The newest addition to the team is walk-on freshman Mary Kate King. From Dubuque, Iowa, King averaged over 12 points per game for Wahlert Catholic High School, earning second team All-Conference honors her senior year.

The first test for the Cyclones’ backcourt will come in an exhibition against Wisconsin-River Falls that is open to the public. The friendly is scheduled to be played at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State’s season officially begins against Omaha on Nov. 9th.