Despite all the momentum of a new CBA and an historic influx of talent, the WNBA found itself at the mercy of COVID-19 just like every other sport (and industry) across the world.
And while many countries coalesce towards recovery, the United States has split its response to the pandemic down party lines.
Additionally, a protest movement sparked anew by the latest acts of violence committed by police (sworn to protect all but failing the Black community) has added another level of real-world urgency that transcends sports.
Now we’ve somehow made it to July, and sports are the next frontier of normalcy. Despite the steadily rising Coronavirus tolls—especially in the sports hub of Florida—athletic play is on track to resume.
This return need not be a distraction from the evils and challenges of the world, but rather a stage to amplify reform and recovery.
For example, New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon has decided to play, seeking to use the league’s platform to inspire real change.
“I won’t answer questions unless you’re also asking questions about the movement,” Clarendon said in the Liberty’s Juneteenth panel, Freedom, Justice, Equality, and the Power of Our Vote. “I’m making sure you cannot make this just about sports, just about basketball. We refuse to just be the Black bodies that entertain you.”
Here, she channels Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud and the media blackout she organized last summer to draw attention to gun violence around schools in D.C. Cloud is one of several players that have chosen to skip this year’s campaign to singularly focus on the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Each player is able to decide for herself—whether for health reasons, travel issues or activism—what to make of this unprecedented challenging year.
From here forward, this article will hone in on the on-court good we have to look forward to, though I would have been remiss in not giving full context.
Already, this week has seen the first team sport return via the NWSL’s Challenge Cup, and its first game—played on CBS, rather than the companion subscription app CBS All-Access which will stream most other matches—put up record numbers.
572K total viewers on CBS, 178K for the 18-49 age group.
(2019 Championship drew 166K via ESPN, for comparison.)
— Meg Linehan ???? (@itsmeglinehan) June 30, 2020
On July 24, the W returns. Though everything is still fluid in terms of opt-outs, each of the league’s dozen teams will theoretically be competition-ready in three weeks’ time to tip-off an abridged 22-game regular season.
There’s reason for excitement regardless of fanbase. So here are some positives for each squad before they take the court in 2020.
Despite the opt-outs of Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery, Atlanta Dream fans are in for an exciting summer. They’re led by a brand new backcourt that immediately projects as one of the league’s best.
Self-proclaimed walking bucket Courtney Williams, acquired in a trade with the Connecticut Sun, brings her on-court swagger and endless energy to her hometown team.
The 5’8″ guard’s midrange game is a thing of beauty, and she is one of the best pick-and-roll passers in the league.
She’ll be joined by Chennedy Carter, a rookie out of Texas A&M that has already generated buzz as a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. As a junior, Carter put up 21.3 points and a 27.1 assist rate, which ranked in the 95th percentile, according to Her Hoop Stats.
Defenses will struggle to keep both of these creative ball handlers on the perimeter, so look for Atlanta to run an up-tempo offense with these two leading the way.
Despite injuries, the Sky find themselves returning much of the roster that finished fifth last season at 20-14. Their three All-Stars—Diamond DeShields, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot—all return ready to build on that success.
Look for DeShields to make the jump to superstardom in Year 3. She is one of the most athletic players in the league, best exemplified by her ability to fill the lane and finish in the open court. Last summer, DeShields settled for too many midrange jumpers, but she now should be able to push herself into attack mode every night during the shortened season.
Quigs and Sloot epitomize consistency: The former has ranked in the top three for 3-point makes and attempts for three consecutive seasons while the latter has led the league in assists four of the last five years.
The highest profile name we’ve seen opt out so far is Connecticut Sun star Jonquel Jones. Though she’s one of the league’s best, the Sun still have Curt Miller at the helm and they’re coming off a runner-up finish.
Their prize free agency addition is forward DeWanna Bonner, who galloped out of the gate last season for the Phoenix Mercury. She garnered some early MVP talk when she averaged 24.2 points and 9.4 rebounds on 47 percent shooting during her first five contests.
Her usage rate should be off the charts now, and she’ll get some terrific looks from Alyssa Thomas, who took her passing game to a new level last postseason, dishing out 6.6 assists per game across eight contests.
Last season, the starting five of Jones, A. Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, Shekinna Stricklen and Courtney Williams was remarkably durable and productive: All five played—and started—all 34 games. and accounted for 59.5 of the team’s 80.8 ppg.
A pair of bench players, Bria Homes and Layshia Clarendon, led the second unit with 15 minutes per game. That ratio is likely unstainable, so the Sun made significant changes to improve their depth in 2020.
The additions of Bonner, Briann January, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Jacki Gemelos (who hasn’t played in the league since 2015!), along with rookies Kaila Charles (Maryland) and Beatrice Mompremier (Miami) turns over half the roster. January and Mosqueda-Lewis especially add shooting depth.
Despite injuries in 2019, I’m especially high on Mompremier. Nonetheless, she had a tumultuous offseason that saw the former first-round talent drop to the Los Angeles Sparks and get cut without ever seeing training camp. As a junior, she scored 16.7 ppg while securing 12.2 rpg (8th in the country, according to Her Hoop Stats).
Though she only played half a season as a senior, the 6’4″ forward still put up 16.8 ppg and 9.8 rpg. It won’t be long before she’s providing meaningful minutes for Connecticut.
2019 was the year of Arike Ogunbowale, but 2020 brings her some much-needed reinforcements. Dallas called three of the first seven names off the draft board in April: Satou Sabally, Bella Alarie and Tyasha Harris.
Could a young team—with several of its most talented players energized to be facing off against the world’s best for the first time—be well-suited for life inside a bubble?
Sure, there will be a steep learning curve, but this team will be fun to watch, especially stretching the floor in the half-court on the offensive end.
Teaira McCowan is going to be a problem for years to come.
The league glimpsed her tantalizing talent during a three-game stretch over the course of five days late last August. Despite facing off against three of the league’s largest front courts—Seattle, Las Vegas and Los Angeles—she put the W on notice.
During that stretch, she averaged 23.3 points while pulling down 15.3 boards:
Indiana landed Baylor’s Lauren Cox in the draft as a perfect complementary big to McCowan. She even has the high-low experience from playing alongside Atlanta’s recently acquired center, Kalani Brown.
“It’s gonna be a lot of fun being able to play the 4 position with another big inside,” Cox told ESPN’s Holly Rowe on draft night. “I showed that could be successful my junior year, so I’m hoping that will translate to the next level.”
Las Vegas Aces
Going into 2019, the Aces’ frontcourt was the talk of the league, especially after they acquired center Liz Cambage to play alongside Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson. While those two struggled to gel on offense at times, the duo was a force on the other end and Las Vegas led the league in defensive rating and rebounding.
The defense promises to be even stingier with the free agency addition of Angel McCoughtry.
The seven-time All-Defensive player has ranked top-five in steals in all but 2018 (when she was 12th) and last season, when she took the court for just a minute. McCoughtry’s career mark of 2.1 steals per game ranks second all-time to Tamika Catchings (2.35).
Sure, there’s some valid concern about the team’s inability to stretch the floor, but sharpshooter Kayla McBride was a weapon within the flow of the offense in 2019.
According to Synergy Sports, she put up 1.21 points per possession (PPP) on spot-ups (93rd percentile), 1.65 PPP on cuts (100th percentile) and 1.43 PPP on hand-offs (98th percentile). Her 42.8 percent shooting from downtown ranked her a career-best fifth in the W, and she was eighth in both makes and attempts.
Los Angeles Sparks
Though off-season addition Kristi Toliver and sixth-woman Chiney Ogwumike have opted out, the Sparks remain one of the league’s deepest teams.
A healthy Candace Parker will go a long way, especially if Nneka Ogwumike can continue to expand her range. Last season, the elder Ogwumike sister made 0.7 threes on 2.1 attempts—both career highs—while shooting a respectable 33.8 percent. If she continues to develop that part of her game, with point guard Chelsea Gray at the helm, this complete roster is built for a deep run.
Head coach Derek Fisher holds his breath whenever Gray executes one of her patented flashy passes.
“Successful no-look passes, whew that one made it,” Fisher told Winsidr’s John W. Davis last season. “Not successful no-look passes, what the [expletive] are we doing? Chelsea has a feel for the flair and a desire to create that moment…It makes us a fun team to watch. It’s entertaining, our fans enjoy it.”
Never count out a team coached by Cheryl Reeve.
Last season’s Lynx managed a respectable 18-16 record, despite losing Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson. That was in addition to also getting poor contributions from a limited Seimone Augustus, who struggled to career-lows in just a dozen games.
A lot of the team’s success can be attributed to Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier. The former No. 6 pick rarely sat, playing a league-leading 33.3 minutes per game; putting up all-around averages of 13.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 2.6 apg; and also notching 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks.
Collier made an immediate impact, scoring a career-high 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting against the Sky during opening night.
Can Coach Reeve strike gold again with the No. 6 pick? This year, the Lynx selected South Carolina’s Mikiah “Mad Miki” Herbert Harrigan at that slot, while also acquiring UConn guard Crystal Dangerfield midway through the second round after her stunning drop.
Dangerfield will have the opportunity to carve out court time immediately, as 2019 All-Star Odyssey Sims sits out the campaign. With Minnesota’s winning culture, expect this team to be prepared once the season begins.
— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 2, 2020
And, of course, we can’t overlook the off-court success for Maya Moore, which should make every fan proud.
On July 1, Jonathan Irons was released from prison. Moore’s pursuit of justice—which has finally broken through to gain notice nationally—has been an incredible and heroic journey. Her selfless convictions pulled her from the game in her prime to fulfill this higher calling.
New York Liberty
I can’t wait to see how this team plays under the new coaching staff and Coach Walt Hopkins’ offensive system.
“The teams that are the best offensively maximize their set 3-point shots,” Hopkins said at his opening press conference. “And, fortunately, we have a lot of great 3-point shooters.”
That didn’t quite ring true at the time, as New York performed in the mid-to-low range from long distance last season. The roster, however, is much more in line with that philosophy now:
Due to a variety of circumstances, New York returns only three players from 2019: Asia Durr, Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B. Two veterans, Layshia Clarendon and Kiah Stokes, join as vets.
The other seven spots are all filled by rookies, highlighted by top pick Sabrina Ionescu. Megan Walker and Jocelyn Willoughby will also have the potential to be high volume 3-point shooters in this offense.
And don’t think the players haven’t noticed that ESPN picked them to finish last.
On Wednesday’s season finale of Kickin’ It with Kia, Nurse and Zahui B both scoffed at the rankings. This team will likely come together quickly, knowing they have something to prove.
Expectations are soaring for the Mercury this year, especially after the acquisition of Skylar Diggins-Smith and a return to form for a now-healthy Diana Taurasi. Alongside Brittney Griner, this big three believes—and rightly so—that they can hang with anybody:
Last season, Phoenix shot just 32.5 percent from deep, besting only Atlanta in 3-point percentage and after averaging a fifth-place finish over the previous five seasons.
Expect a bounceback from beyond the arc. Taurasi is a career 36.7 percent shooter, and her 1,103 3-point makes pass second-place Katie Smith by nearly 200.
The addition of Bria Hartley will also significantly help in adding depth to a team that saw a staggering 66.3 percent of its points last season scored by three players: Griner, Bonner (now in Connecticut) and Leilani Mitchell (now in Washington).
Although they didn’t make many offseason moves, the 2020 roster is much more formidable than its 2019 counterpart. That, of course, is due to the returns of both Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, both of whom missed all of last season with injuries.
Add two stars to a team that saw significant growth from players like Natasha Howard, Jordin Canada and Jewell Loyd, and you’ve got a formidable foe.
In our TBW roundtable a few weeks back, both Huw Hopkins and I picked the Storm to win this year’s title. Since then, other teams have lost major pieces to opt-outs, but Seattle has not, which may help them leapfrog opponents like Los Angeles and Washington.
The defending champs are still celebrating last autumn’s victory, as they should be.
And though an odd fit on paper, the addition of Tina Charles gives them an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt while provideing insurance should Elena Delle Donne opt-out of the bubble.
Emma Meesseman’s return, even despite the uncertainty caused by COVID these last few months, is a huge win for the team. Many other international players have decided not to come stateside (or have had the decision made for them).
Losing Toliver and Cloud will hurt, but Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers are both talented players that could take leaps with the extra burn they’ll receive.
A year after breaking all kinds of offensive records, Coach Mike Thibault is ready to run it back.
As of right now, Vegas Insider has the Mystics and Aces tied at 7/2 odds to win the title, and I wouldn’t suggest betting against them.
Myles Ehrlich is a TBW staff writer from Brooklyn, NY. He has been writing since childhood when it passed the time better than rolling scenery and folk CDs on family road trips. He legitimized his passion at New York University and The Writer’s Foundry MFA. His work has been published with Castings, MASH Stories, and flashfictionmagazine.com. When not writing, Myles is usually playing, watching or reading about sports. His east coast WNBA fandom resides with the New York Liberty; his west coast with the Las Vegas Aces.