W.N.B.A. Season Preview: Does a Ring Await Elena Delle Donne?
As the W.N.B.A. enters its 23rd season, there’s been plenty of focus about what’s missing.
Whether it’s the twin injury losses of Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird from the defending champion Seattle Storm, the time off for Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, or the less-severe-but-significant absences of Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury and Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks, much of the league’s off-season conversation has revolved around the players who won’t be there.
And yet: There is no shortage of big-time players, potential superteams and emerging stars in what may be the most wide-open road to a championship in quite some time.
Three players to watch
Las Vegas Aces
Thanks to a trade demand in January, the off-season was a series of stops and starts in Dallas’s pursuit of equal value for Cambage, the league’s most dominant center last season. After talks nearly produced a deal with the Los Angeles Sparks, Cambage went to Las Vegas last week in exchange for guard Moriah Jefferson, forward Isabelle Harrison and a pair of 2020 draft picks.
Cambage does it all: She led the W.N.B.A. in scoring last season, finishing second in rebounding percentage and sixth in block percentage, while expertly finding teammates to the tune of a 16.5 assist percentage — elite for a big. But she’s now in a Vegas lineup where double-teams aren’t a realistic option, given the surrounding talent.
Elena Delle Donne
Now entering her third season in Washington, Delle Donne looks poised to turn her Mystics into, at the very least, co-favorites for the league title. Her second season with the Mystics ended in the finals, where they lost to Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird’s Storm. But Delle Donne was not at full strength in that series, having suffered a bone bruise in Washington’s semifinal series win over the Atlanta Dream.
Delle Donne has been everything the optimists projected dating back to high school: a 6-foot-5 guard with the strength and shot-blocking of a post player, impossible to stop once she gets going downhill, and the best isolation player in the league by far.
In a season of change, Fowles is a constant in the middle for the Lynx, who will be without Maya Moore and the just-retired Lindsay Whalen. Fowles keeps rolling out seasons that few 5s have ever matched, finishing second in the W.N.B.A. in effective field goal percentage in 2018, first in total rebound percentage and second in defensive rating, all while posting the best assist percentage of her career.
Now she’ll be asked to take even more responsibility on the offensive end and face more double teams than before — but that’s nothing she hasn’t faced since committing to basketball in the ninth grade.
What to expect from every team
So how do the W.N.B.A. teams stack up? Here’s a brief look at each, in predicted order of finish.
There’s Elena Delle Donne, healthy and ready to avenge the way last season ended, but the Mystics are no one-woman team. Joining Delle Donne up front is the fellow stretch-big Emma Meesseman, a 6-foot-4 markswoman (39.1 percent career from 3-point range) and rim protector who missed last year with overseas commitments. The Mystics also feature Kristi Toliver, who can shoot them into games with her high-volume looks beyond the arc, and Ariel Atkins, the steal of last season’s draft and a deft two-way player in Mike Thibault’s positionless plan. Natasha Cloud has turned herself into a frontline point guard, and don’t sleep on wing Aerial Powers off the bench, a former first-round pick who appeared reborn after last season’s midyear trade sent her to Washington from Dallas.
Las Vegas Aces
Let’s say you want to double-team Liz Cambage — a reasonable idea. Who are you going to leave open? A’ja Wilson, the 2018 Rookie of the Year and star in her own right who can score from anywhere? Kelsey Plum, last season’s leader in three-point percentage and able penetrator? Is it Jackie Young, the top pick in this season’s draft out of Notre Dame? Or is it Kayla McBride, the two-time All-Star who is automatic from the free throw line? If you don’t have an answer here, you’re not alone: The league may not have an answer, either.
Few picked the Dream, coached by Nicki Collen, to finish anywhere near the top in 2018. But the Dream took the Mystics to five games in the league semifinals, and Collen won coach of the year honors. A similar, if not better, season is in reach this year as well. The Dream are without Angel McCoughtry, who is expected to miss most of the season with a knee injury. But Atlanta has ample offensive options among Renee Montgomery, the veteran sharpshooting point guard; Tiffany Hayes, an underrated two-way shooting guard; Brittney Sykes, an emerging wing; and Elizabeth Williams, who is an efficient post scorer.
For three years now, Curt Miller, the Sun head coach and general manager, has been pointing to 2019 as the season his team’s build would reach its apex. The Sun traded Chiney Ogwumike in the off-season after she asked to be sent to Los Angeles, opening up more time for Connecticut’s most efficient combination at the 4 and 5, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones. Thomas is effectively a second point guard out of the wing, while Jones is a 6-foot-6 rebounding machine who shot 46.7 percent from 3-point range last season. Courtney Williams soars through the air and creates her own shot at will, Jasmine Thomas runs the show, and there’s more depth here than on any other roster.
The preseason news that Diana Taurasi would miss 10 to 12 weeks with a back injury muted the expectations for the Mercury, but no one should count them out. Taurasi is expected back for much of the season, while the other two stars in Phoenix’s Big Three, center Brittney Griner and guard DeWanna Bonner, are ready to again be among the most unguardable post and wing players in the league. Griner continues to expand her range outward while blocking shots, and Bonner does a bit of everything. The Mercury also have a stockpile of shooters: Briann January and her 47 percent shooting from 3 and an infusion of young talent in this year’s draft, including Alanna Smith, a 6-foot-4 inside-outside threat from Stanford, and the intense guard Sophie Cunningham.
Los Angeles Sparks
On paper, this should be a dominant team. Just a year removed from a W.N.B.A. finals appearance and with significant additional talent, the Sparks are a fashionable pick to win it all. But there are still unanswered questions, from the status of Candace Parker (out three to 5 weeks with a hamstring strain) to how their group of bigs — Parker, Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka Ogwumike and the rookie Kalani Brown — can coexist. It’ll be up to first-year coach Derek Fisher to figure it out, and he’ll have plenty of help from Alana Beard, the defensive master guard, and Chelsea Gray, the league’s best all-around point guard.
With Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen gone, and Rebekkah Brunson still recovering from a concussion, Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve has assembled a younger, quicker team to try to maximize the continued peak of Sylvia Fowles in 2019. Reeve has two waves of players dedicated to the task. An active free agency brought in the wings Damiris Dantas, Karima Christmas-Kelly and Stephanie Talbot at the wings, while Danielle Robinson will run the point. There’s also a group of impressive young additions, like Napheesa Collier, who starred at Connecticut, Jessica Shepard out of Notre Dame and Lexie Brown, a combo guard in her second season who came over in a trade with the Sun.
New York Liberty
It’s a time of new beginnings for Liberty Coach Katie Smith’s crew. Asia Durr, the second overall pick in the 2019 draft, is a fearless penetrator set to be perimeter counterpoint to the best power forward in the league, Tina Charles. Kia Nurse, after a promising rookie campaign, can help the Liberty at multiple positions. The Liberty re-signed Amanda Zahui B., an effective stretch-5, and Rebecca Allen, a shooter at the wing who can block some shots, while Brittany Boyd is back to gather steals in bunches while holding down the point guard spot. Han Xu is a 6-foot-9 project, but her soft touch and size could provide meaningful contributions right away.
The Sky are starting over with a new head coach/general manager, James Wade, who was most recently an assistant with Cheryl Reeve and the Lynx. How he fits last year’s defensively-challenged group into a faster-paced squad capable of getting stops is still largely unknown. He’s working with plenty of talent, including last year’s lottery picks, wings Diamond DeShields (a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate) and Gabby Williams, along with this year’s fourth overall pick, the shooter extraordinaire Katie Lou Samuelson. The reigning 3-point contest winner, Allie Quigley, and last season’s leader in assist percentage, Courtney Vandersloot, return to hold down the backcourt.
It’s hard to think of a team that suffered more significant reversals in such a short time. First came an Achilles’ injury to Breanna Stewart that will cost the 2018 M.V.P. the season. Then Storm Coach Dan Hughes, who led Seattle to a championship last year, was diagnosed with cancer, putting him out indefinitely. On Tuesday, the team announced that Sue Bird will be out indefinitely as well, with arthroscopic surgery planned for her left knee. To be sure, there is talent in Seattle: Natasha Howard, last year’s most improved player, will be expected to assume front line scoring duties; Jewell Loyd has steadily improved her efficiency while creating her own shot, and Jordin Canada looks ready to assume play-calling duties. But it would be difficult for any team to weather one of these health crises, let alone all three in one season.
The long-sought rim protector is in town. With the third overall pick in this year’s draft, the Fever nabbed Teaira McCowan, who will immediately bring rebounding and blocking to a team that finished last in both in 2018. Shenise Johnson is back after missing last season, and she’ll be joined in the backcourt by Kelsey Mitchell, the second overall pick in 2018 who began harnessing her unstoppable speed and athleticism as a rookie last year. But the Fever were just 6-28 last season, and Victoria Vivians, another talented young player, got hurt playing in Israel and will miss the season. McCowan will help, but she likely won’t help enough to keep the Fever out of the lottery.
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