2021 Season Preview: Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington

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The fourth and final season preview is here, just in time for the season starting Friday night. Finishing the previews with the Phoenix Mercury, a team with individual talent who have to answer a few questions to be successful, the defending champion Seattle Storm and the other defending champion because of the pandemic, the Washington Mystics.

Phoenix Mercury

Projected Starters

Skylar Diggins-Smith: Offensively had her best season in the W in 2020. Her shooting from 3 has bounced around from under 30% two 2x near or over 40, so how effective she will depend on that. Though given her past success at times, teams may still guard her like a shooter, even if she goes cold again from 3. Defense not a strong suit, would be nice to see that more locked in.

Diana Taurasi: At 38 was the best shooting guard in the W in 2020 with a propensity for hitting deep 3s off the dribble. Hopefully she can keep it up, as there are few players as exciting as DT when she has it going from deep. But a question given her age how many games she can bring it and for how many minutes per game.

Kia Nurse: Shot horribly during the 2020 season on a bad, weird, Liberty team. Phoenix is hoping that was an aberration, which is a reasonable hope. Another concern is that while she is an ok defender at the 3, she might be a bit over matched against the best 3s. While an upgrade on last season’s  options, is she good enough to hang with Napheesa Collier or the other better, bigger 3s?

Brianna Turner: Best as a small ball 5, will be interesting to see how the Mercury use her this season at the four. Her lack of range and limited play making make her a questionable fit next to Griner, but she is the Mercury’s best option here. 

Brittney Griner: The best offensive center in the W, can the Mercury cover for her on the defensive end? Also, will they ever encourage her to take a three here and there? I don’t expect her to turn into a real stretch 5, of course, but she is too good a shooter not to try a couple a game. 

Key reserves:

Kia Vaughn: Good as a backup, but even with her hitting a surprising number of midrange jumpers she just is not efficient enough on offense to be a starter. Tough to be if you don’t get fouled much, shoot 3s, or get to the rim. Solid positional defender who knows where to be. 

Bria Hartley: Unclear if she will even be able to return in 2021 from her knee injury, but the Mercury certainly hope she can. The guard situation behind Taurasi and SDS gets mighty thin until Hartley can go. 

Megan Walker: I questioned if she had the athleticism to play the 3 or the size to play the 4 in the W before the 2020 draft. Should have chances to prove she can for the Mercury. The shot is real, even if she struggled badly in 2020. It’s the rest of her game that is an open question.

2 Key Questions:

  1. For the second year in a row, questions mostly revolve around who plays the 3 and 4 for this team. Turner had a good year, but mostly after Griner left, and is more of a 5 than a 4. And while Nurse should be an upgrade over last year’s options, the team is still betting she does not repeat her woeful shooting from a year ago. Hard to see this team challenging for the semifinals without answers at the most valuable position. Turner can at least likely guard the best bigs/wings like Elena Delle Donne, A’ja Wilson, and Breanna Stewart, which is something.
  2. Skylar Diggins-Smith is the only player on the roster with a contract for next year. Mercury has a team option for Megan Walker as well. Presumably Griner and Taurasi stay, if both continue playing another year. Hartley and Nurse are the big questions. Hartley is earning 196,000 this year and Nurse 110,000. It will be impossible to pay both of them, so the Mercury may need to pick one. Who to pick will be interesting, assuming both want to stay in Phoenix. Hartley may be better, but Nurse more at a position of need.

Seattle Storm

Projected Starters:

Sue Bird: Bird rarely gets to the rim anymore, but if you can pass and shoot like her, it does not matter. Amazing that she played as well as she did even with missing time with injury. Hopefully she has at least one more run in her in her age 40 season. 

Jewell Loyd: Had her best season in 2020, a key to her season in 2021 and forward will be if she can keep consistently hitting the 3 off the dribble. This current roster may not be able to space the floor like past teams, so Loyd’s ability to generate decent offense for herself will be key. Career best 58 TS% in 2020.

Katie Lou Samuelson: Maybe the least secure starter in the entire W, there are multiple players who could get an opportunity at this spot. Still, Seattle did trade a #1 pick for Samuelson. Hopefully her shot shows up, as a 3 point shooter shooting 30% from 3 is not going to cut it, as she has for her career.

Breanna Stewart: The best player in the W, but really only now entering her prime. Two things to watch are if she can figure out ways to punish teams who switch smaller players onto her and get her shooting numbers back up to their career norms. Even without those, the Storm will be a favorite to make the semifinals so long as she is healthy and playing.

Mercedes Russell: Depending on the Storm’s postseason match ups and development of young players, she may not remain the starter. But as she is a solid center who does everything the Storm ask of her well enough, she likely gets at least some of the starts. Good passer from the high post, good for a few surprising passes.

Key Reserves:

edited 5/13: Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast pointed out that I overlooked Candice Dupree. So 9 Storm players will be mentioned

Candice Dupree: While Dupree is still a solid all around player, I do wonder if she is less effective than she seems. She is not a great one on one defender, but nor does she accumulate many blocks or steals. And on offense, she prefers to shoot long 2s, which are both inefficient and cramp the spacing for her teammates. For the Storm to be a championship team, one of the young bigs will likely need to outplay Dupree.

Ezi Magbegor: Is she ready in her age 22 season to start on a championship level team? She has the highest upside of the non-Stewart front court players, but is still young. Shows hints of an outside game and has the speed and length to defend in the Storm’s high pressure defense. However this year goes, the future is bright for Magbegor as a versatile modern big.

Jordin Canada: Can a starting caliber point guard not shoot 3s at all in 2021? This will be the question both this year but especially going forward as the Storm will have to think about who replaces Sue Bird and if Canada can do it. While she makes plays while on ball, watch what happens when she gives the ball up and how far her defender strays from her.

Kennedy Burke: Burke should let the 3s fly. Volume is as important if not more than percentage for a role player. 2.2 is not enough.  Even if her percentages fall from the 33% range, teams often respond more to how likely a player is to shoot 3s than their percentages anyways. Burke is the best defender of the options at the 3, but needs to at least try to provide the 3 part of the 3 and D role. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. Is Katie Lou Samuelson ready enough to compete right away to justify passing on Awak Kuier? Building around Loyd and Stewart should be the Storm’s plan going forward, but I still have questions over the Storm’s decision to punt on the first round in this latest draft for a player that in theory better matches the Storm’s needs, but without nearly the same upside..
  2. What position does Breanna Stewart play in pivotal playoff games? The Storm have the luxury of playing Stewart anywhere from the 3 to the 5 in the regular season, but how they feel it is best to maximize Stewart in the playoffs will dictate rotations this year and roster decisions down the road. I prefer Stewart at the 5 in key moments, though her and Magbegor could eventually form quite a duo that can do a bit of everything on both ends.

Washington Mystics

Projected Starters:

Leilani Mitchell: Should be able to remain effective in a lower usage role with more talent around her this year. 3 point shooting should rebound after a tough season in 2020. Some concern about her ability to provide enough offense at the highest levels in the playoffs, but the Mystics will likely not have a better option.

Natasha Cloud: Even in the championship year in 2019, in the greatest offense in W history, Cloud was not especially efficient, with a true shooting % of 48, ten points lower than Loyd in 2020 by comparison. Without Kristi Toliver, any improvements in Cloud’s shooting from 3 and overall efficiency would be welcome if the Mystics want to make a championship run. But her play making and size on defense will be welcome.

Ariel Atkins: Was not quite able to take on the shot creation load in 2020 that I had hoped she could. Still, she is among the best 3 and D players in the league and this Mystics team will not need her to create for others so much. She will turn 25 this summer and still has time to improve her handle and passing, even if it was a struggle at times last season.

Elena Delle Donne: Health is the biggest question for EDD. When healthy, she is the second best player in the league, in her own tier with Breanna Stewart. But a second back surgery is a concern and she will not be back for the start of the season. Hope she can return and play most of the season. An amazing shooter who has become a fine defender and rebounder, she warps defenses just standing on the court.

Tina Charles: A lot of focus has understandably been on Tina at the offensive end. I think that can work as she will play in better spacing than she ever did in New York. My questions are on the defensive end. Center is the most important position on defense and I have my doubts if a 32 year old Charles can anchor a top 4 defense in 2021.

Key Reserves

Myisha Hines-Allen: Now we know what she can do on offense after her breakout in 2020. Now the question is how can she overcome not being the longest or biggest front court player to be an effective defender. That will decide if she is a long term starter or more suited to being a third big who brings scoring off the bench.

Kiara Leslie: Given her athleticism and size, surprising that it was her shooting from 2 that she struggled with, not her 3 point shot. 34% from 2 will not cut it. Should be better in year 2 as she gets used to finishing against W size and length.

Stella Johnson: Johnson performed well in her limited games with the Mystics in 2020. This team could use some scoring punch off the bench after losing Aerial Powers. Johnson showed some promise in that role. If she can do that, would be a help to a Mystics team not as deep as recent versions. 

Key Questions:

  1. Does Emma Meesseman show up an if so, when? Meesseman is focusing on Eurobasket and the Olympics first this summer, but if the Mystics are in good position entering the playoffs, Meesseman is one European player in the W with other commitments who could make a big difference come playoffs. Overtaxed in 2020 as a primary option, she is still a great player who pairs wonderfully with EDD.
  2. Who is is this team’s center behind Tina Charles? Mike Thibault has shown a willingness to cut and  pick up players in season. Erica McCall is fine, but there might be better options out there once teams make cuts. If Natasha Mack does not make the Sky roster, she’d be a high upside option, if an inexperienced one. Centers can be found, so something to keep an eye on.