2021 Season Preview: Los Angeles, Minnesota, and New York

Nneka Ogwumike playing.

Here is my third of four preview pieces in preparation for the WNBA season. the Los Angeles Sparks, a team trying to hold onto relevance but might just be delaying the inevitable need to rebuild, the Minnesota Lynx, a team that may be a year or two away from contention, but is going for it, and the New York Liberty, an interesting mishmash of veterans and young players. 

Los Angeles Sparks

Projected Starters

Erica Wheeler: Wheeler was good, not great, in 2019 for the Fever in her age 28 season. The Sparks paid her as if she will continue to shoot so well from both 3 and 2. Possible, but real downside risk with this contract. And even if she does shoot well, she is still an interesting choice next to another 5’7″ guard in Kristi Toliver.

Kristi Toliver: The most dangerous guard with the ball in her hands behind the three point line not named Diana Taurasi, with the best step back 3 in the league, the main question is how long can she play at a high level going into her age 34 season. Hopefully she can be like Taurasi and stay effective into her late 30s, but no guarantees, given even in the Mystics’ championship winning season in 2019, she missed time with injuries. 

Brittney Sykes: The 33% she shot from 3 in 2020 is acceptable, especially if she gets the attempts back up to what they were earlier in her career, 7 or so per 36 minutes. A slasher who does not finish at the rim nor make plays for others at the rate one might hope, however there were signs of growth in her first year in LA of growth. Even only small improvements in her various skills could have big benefits, as Sykes could better harness her athleticism.

Nneka Ogwumike: A star in every way except for her usage rate, this team might need her to try to step up and provide scoring and create for herself. Her excellent efficiency will likely fall if she is taking on more of an offensive burden without Candace Parker. If she proves unable, this team outside of Toliver might struggle to score.

Amanda Zahui B: Sort of a 3 and D center, hopefully her woeful scoring inside of the arc with the Liberty was due to a weird situation with a mostly young team. A career 32% shooter from 3, her willingness to fire away does provide benefits but it would nice if a few more went in. Defensively she is more competent than stellar, but Nneka Ogwumike is a good fit next to her on that end. 

Key Reserves

Sidney Wiese: If the Sparks do struggle to score, she is the option in place of Sykes to juice the offense. A career 40% 3 point shooter who will shoot off the dribble, she can provide some shot creation next to Toliver. Next step for her is improving her passing, as she went from  2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio in 2019 to an even one in 2020. Not a turnstile on defense, either, if not the athlete Sykes is. 

Chiney Ogwumike: Rumors of her shooting some 3s which would be welcome, as it would ease the fit with her older sister. Her career has been mostly stalled by injury, but she is somewhat caught between being a 4 or a 5. A good backup big.

Te’a Cooper: Earned minutes with her defense, but did shoot 34% from 3. Shot relatively few attempts though, so upping that would be good. Something to watch for is if she can guard shooting guards because that would help earn her playing time next to either Wheeler or Toliver. 

2 Key Questions

  1. The Sparks traded their 2022 first round pick for the 7th pick in the 2021 draft and a 2022 second rounder from the Wings. This was not a trade I liked for the Sparks as the odds are too high that this Sparks team ends up in the lottery. The 2022 draft is deeper than the 2021 draft, so a top 4 pick in next year’s draft is even more valuable than a top 4 pick in the most recent draft, never mind the 7 pick. Jasmine Walker should be a decent player, but the downside risk is that she is out of the league in a couple of years and the Sparks 2022 pick is a top 2 pick and turns into Rhyne Howard or NaLyssa Smith. Odds of that are not high, but still too likely, especially given the best case scenario with Walker is that she is a starter level player. The odds seem remote of her becoming a star. 
  1. Building off the draft talk above, it would be really helpful for this team if one of their just drafted wings pops and pushes for a starting role. The Sparks drafted Jasmine Walker with the 7th pick, Stephanie Watts with the 10th, and Arella Guirantes with the 22nd. Sykes might be the answer, but in the current W, one can never have too many good wings.

Minnesota Lynx

Projected Starters:

Crystal Dangerfield: A player I thought last year was a first round talent who fell all the way to 16th, she showed in the first game in 2020 that she was the team’s best option at the point. I was high on her because of her shooting from 3, an area she was merely adequate in 2020. Now on a team with more shot creation around her, hopefully she can show her ability to shoot off movement and space the floor as well as being an effective on ball option.

Kayla McBride: 3.3 threes per game is too few for such a talented shooter. Even in a down year still she shot 34% from 3 and is a career 37% shooter. An underrated defender, she did an impressive job guarding the much taller DeWanna Bonner in the playoffs in 2020.

Napheesa Collier: Collier has the potential to be one of the top 2 or 3 players in the W at some point. The next step in her growth is seeing what she can do with the ball in her hands more. Would especially like to see the Lynx use their guards to screen for Collier. Teams will  be loath to switch, but not switching risks Collier having an open lane to the rim or McBride or Dangerfield popping for open threes. A switch leaves a small guard on Collier, and she can use her post up skills. She is good at basically everything else already needed for a prototypical big wing.

Damiris Dantas: An excellent complimentary player, she should be the backup 5 on this team as well as the starting 4. Staggering her with Fowles so they keep one on the floor at all times makes sense as the Dantas + Collier front court was very effective last year.

Sylvia Fowles: The best defensive center in the W, question is whether she can make it through the season healthy. Likely to have her minutes limited, but while playing should remain effective on both ends.  

Key Reserves:

Aerial Powers: Tied with McBride for the highest paid player on the team, the Lynx are betting a lot on a 6 game sample in 2020. But Powers is an excellent player to have off the bench. While she does not create much for others, an even assist to turnover ratio, she can score both on and off ball and should pair well with any of the Lynx other back court options.

Natalie Achonwa: If only Achonwa would turn her long 2s into 3s, this contract would make more sense. Achonwa is a fine player, but it is odd that she is earning more than either Dantas or Fowles. Fine as a third big, but the Lynx defense will suffer if she is pressed into more minutes because of injuries. 

Rachel Banham: While she will probably not shoot nearly 50% from 3 this season, she should be a fine backup point guard. Point guards tend to take longer to develop than other positions and she should be a fine option. Can also play off ball, depending on the match up.

2 Key Questions:

  1. Who is their go to player to score in a tight playoff game? I would argue it should be Napheesa Collier, but she did not really play that role last year against the Storm. Was that because Cheryl Reeve preferred to involve other players, was it because Collier does not quite have the handle yet be an on ball creator, or some of both? Collier with the ball in her hands should be the goal and it would be nice to see that leaned on at least some this year.
  2. Continuing with the Collier theme, what is her best position in the playoffs in key moments? The decision on whether to play her at the 3 or the 4 matters for how the team should build as she enters her prime and especially how the team will build for a post Sylvia Fowles world. If Rennia Davis can return healthy and show growth in her 3 point shooting, she might be a perfect fit next to Collier in that then you have two players who are interchangeable between the 3 and the 4.

New York Liberty

Projected Starters:

Sabrina Ionescu: The W has not had the same trend towards super high usage players as the NBA has with players like Luka Doncic and Trae Young having usage rates of 35%+. But if any player in the W were to approach that, it might be Ionescu. I am not recommending that, as Ionescu can and should be used off ball, but young stars who have been successful at every level often prefer to have the ball in their hands. Ionescu was third in her limited minutes in usage in 2020 to Arike Ogunbowale and Chennedy Carter, two other young star guards.

Betnijah Laney: The shooting improvement Laney showed last year seemed real. New York paid her as if it was and will continue. In a lower usage role, she should be able to cut down on the turnovers and still make plays in the pick and roll occasionally. Solid defender across multiple positions as well.

Rebecca Allen: Hopefully even given all the talk of defense from the Liberty, they still play some small ball. A front line of Allen and Howard  should be good enough defensively and very good offensively, with Allen a threat to shoot from anywhere and Howard able to make plays with the ball in her hands against slower centers.

Natasha Howard: Howard played well in 2019, her one year where she was a go to offensive player, but she was not especially efficient. How well she gels with Ionescu will decide whether this team can make it to the playoffs, as they are the best bet at a pick and roll tandem that can really give teams fits. Also will be interesting to see how and how much this team runs their offense through Howard. Do they try her in the post, faving up when facing a slower big, or use her as a ball handler and really let her stretch her game.

Kiah Stokes: Keep shooting, Kiah! While the 3s did not go in in her first season attempting 3s, her stroke did not look broken and the experiment should continue. Especially since it is unclear what her other role on offense would be if she tries to hang around by the basket, her defender will gum things up for the Liberty. She was a big reason this team was not a disaster on defense even given the youth up an down the roster, that should continue.

Key Reserves:

Layshia Clarendon: Played admirably in 2020 as a starter, but third guard off the bench is a much more natural fit for them. She is capable at either back court spot and should be good at filling wherever the Liberty need. High turnover rate will come down too in this scenario, their main flaw in 2020. 

Jazmine Jones: Miscast as a lead guard in 2020 because of injuries and opt outs, Jones played hard and impressively her shooting percentages were not terrible with a TS% over 50. But a negative assist to turnover ratio was not good and should improve in 2021 as she moves to a more natural off ball role and has another year of experience under her belt. 

Sami Whitcomb: Whitcomb could start for this team, with Laney at the 3 and Allen off the bench. But either way, she is going to help this offense as much as any player as someone who can actually make threes. A good example of how valuable shooting is, relative to other skills, as she was undrafted out of college but has carved a very good career for herself. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. In 2020 the Liberty defended ok, if not great, finishing 9th in defense, while struggling to score from anywhere on the floor, finishing last in offense by a mile. They put up one of the worst offensive performances in league history. Yet the talk in 2021 so far has been all about improving the defense. The team did add players who can actually shoot and make plays, but then drafted defense first players. Will be very interesting to see whether this team ends the season better on the defensive or offensive end.
  1. Natasha Howard made sense for this team, but trading the #1 overall pick was a risk. While overall this was not a deep draft, I remain high on Awak Kuier. Kuier will not be as good as Howard in the next couple of years, and possibly ever, but would be able to grow with Ionescu. I am curious how/if this team can get a second star to pair with Ionescu who is closer in age to her. This team clearly does not want to tank again, but another trip to the lottery in 2022 would not be the worst thing.  If Ionescu lives up to her potential, the Liberty have to hope to avoid a situation where they finish somewhere between 5th and 8th each season and struggle to add another star to play next to Ionescu.