Part 2 of 3 of my WNBA previews. Click here for part 1. Here is Indiana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Minnesota. As before, this will cover a key question for each team and the top 7 most interesting rotation players.
What does this team look like in 2025? More than Atlanta, Indiana has a realistic sense, finally, of where their roster is at. Indiana has to nail and be lucky with their draft picks since free agents are not signing in Indiana. And while the Fever know more than I do, there was some very confusing picks made by them in the most recent draft. If one of Lexie Hull or Queen Egbo turn into borderline starter quality players, then the picks worked. The main concern I have with both drafting both is the lack of upside. It is possible to see how either could be decent W players, but the odds of either becoming even above average starters seems low. NaLyssa Smith was a good pick, but whether she is a star or merely a good W player will be fun to watch as well.
The decision to trade Teaira McCowan showed the Fever are not going to try for the 8th seed at all costs. A step back this season for a chance at Aliyah Boston and better days in the future is smart. This year will be one of evaluating the draft picks they have as well as hiring a new general manager, who will then have to decide whether Marianne Stanley is the right coach to move forward with. Stanley is a Hall of Famer, but unlikely she is coaching this team for much longer.
Danielle Robinson: The contract was too much and for too long, but Robinson is a fine player and the fact that this team in theory has more shooting than last year’s should be to her benefit. Too soon probably to cut her salary and not the worst idea to have a solid veteran point guard to help the rookies become acclimated to the league. If she ever could shoot it from 3 it would be nice, but probably not at this point going to happen.
Kelsey Mitchell: One of the better scorers in the W, now that she is on a max contract, should be looking to up her playmaking and defense. She’s unlikely going to be as good as Jewell Loyd in those areas, but the gap does not have to be as big as it is now. Her 3 point rate has also gone down every year of her career, which for such a good shooter is not ideal.
Lexie Hull: Hull may not start right away, but she in theory provides the shooting and defense this team has been lacking from the 3 position the last few years. She will not be as good as a rookie as Tiffany Mitchell, but teams might actually guard Hull at the 3 point line, which would benefit the rest of the starting lineup. Does Hull have the foot speed to defend quicker 3s and 2s? Something to watch.
NaLyssa Smith: Should walk into the W as one of the best athletes in the league. How will that translate? Will they show up in block and steals and how is her finishing going to be at the W level? Stretching her game out will be important long term, but not something to worry about as a rookie.
Queen Egbo: This team has no good centers with W experience. I don’t know if this team could be worse defensively than the last few, but if they end up with 2 rookies in the front court, it could get ugly. Long term my questions about Egbo are on the offensive end far more than the defensive, but she may take her lumps as a rookie on both ends.
Tiffany Mitchell: As unusual as it is, once again Mitchell shot nearly 90% from 3 and under 30% from 3. Usually those go hand in hand, but not with her. She is best with the ball in her hands given her lack of shooting, but is not a great finisher in the paint even given her athleticism, nor much of a playmaker with an even assist to turnover ratio. Big year as an unrestricted free agent to see what her next contract will be.
Emily Engstler: Does her high level feel allow her to defend multiple positions? How does her elite help defense translate? The offensive concerns are there, but she will have the time to figure those out if she can defend at the W level. Showing she can play some 3 and not only the 4 would be helpful as well.
What is A’ja Wilson’s best position in the playoff, at the highest levels? And if the answer is at center, does this team have enough quality perimeter play to be able to play her there? And if it is at power forward, who is that center that can help the team defend and not get in the way of Wilson on offense?
My suspicion is the answer is center. If you have a Liz Cambage level center, you make do, but this iteration of the Aces does not. Here is where the selection of Mya Hollingshed made sense and her subsequent waiving so surprising. This team needs a few of the 3/4 types who can shoot 3s. They don’t need offensive creation from those spots, which makes it slightly easier to find, but that archetype is still hard to find. If Hollingshed simply was not good enough ok, but she should have been kept if there was any chance of her growing into a contributing player.
In a playoff series, Dearica Hamby should be starting and if she is ready Kierstan Bell behind her. The centers on the roster can take the minutes when A’ja has to rest, as few as possible. Given Kiah Stokes and Theresa Plaisance are the only centers on the roster after cuts, signs are looking good.
Kelsey Plum: Speaking of players who should be starting. Kelsey should also be encouraged to fire away from 3 off the dribble whenever she feels comfortable. Outside of Diana Taurasi, no one in the W can bend defenses the way Plum can beyond the arc. Her improvement finishing in the paint has made her ability to shoot from 3 even more deadly, since she can better drive a hard close out.
Riquna Williams: Quietly had the best season of her career in 2021. Even in the Aces system under Laimbeer, she got up nearly 5 3PA attempts per game. That can and should go up under Hammon, to the 6 she shot in LA, or even 7. Even if her 3 point percentage dips a bit with harder attempts, teams will guard her more closely if she firing away out there.
Chelsea Gray: Gray at this point is best used as a wing who can pass like a point guard. She can guard other teams wings using her strength, and not forced to guard speedy point guards. On offense, something the Aces could try are small-small pick and rolls with Gray and Plum. If the opposing point guard switches onto Gray, let her get to work in the post. If they don’t switch, let Plum attack the advantage.
Dearica Hamby: Hamby can often take the more difficult front court matchup, even if she is giving up quite a bit of size, and she offers just enough stretch to help out Wilson. More willingness to shoot would be nice, but not necessary. Assuming health, if she still comes off the bench she should still be getting closer to 32 minutes per game, not 24 she got in 2021.
A’ja Wilson: My pick for MVP this year, because she should be continuing to improve and her raw numbers will be back up as she will be the focal point of this team. W MVP voters tend to prefer players on a top 2 team, but might as well start pushing for a player who drags a somewhat lesser roster to 3 or 4, where It hink the Aces will finish. 3 point shooting is the obvious thing Wilson could add, but passing is more important and should continue to improve. Last year was Wilson’s best passing season and this one could be even better.
Jackie Young: A 36 game player, not an 8 game player so far in her career. Jackie Young and the Aces need to try to figure out what to do with her when playoff defenses sag off of her and she stops having such a dramatic advantage in size and strength. Either play her at point in bench units with shooting around her or she needs to shoot 3s herself. Otherwise we may be on year 4 of her minutes being cut in the playoffs. Would also help see what her next contract will be, as she enters restricted free agency.
Theresa Plaisance: I subscribe to the idea that gravity is what the defense gives to an offensive player. This is a product of the actual effectiveness of a player and their willingness to shoot. More attempts at mediocre percentage will lead to more spacing than a 40% shooter who only shoots once in a blue moon. Plaisance may not be the most effective 3 point shooting big at 30%, but her willingness to fire is worth something, at nearly 8 attempts per 40 minutes. If Wilson is going to play the 4, she may an answer at the 5, though defensively that would not be ideal.
Just how good are Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter? Both players for different reasons are hard to place in proper tiers. Carter due to lack of playing time for ~reasons and Cambage because of playing on deep Aces teams and a possibly underperforming Wings team. I have questions about how a team with Skyler Diggins-Smith and Cambage barely made the playoffs in 2018. If Cambage is closer to top 5 than I think, this Sparks team may be able to make it far in the playoffs. If Carter would have challenged for the All-Star team, maybe this team even makes noise in the semifinals and challenged for the finals if both players play up to their considerable potential.
If Cambage is closer to 15, Tina Charles like, and Carter is more solid starter, this Sparks team could be closer to another lottery trip. Assuming health of the veterans, something that did not occur in 2021, I think this team will be closer to 4th than 9th, but the downside risk is real, given the Sparks gave up their 2023 pick to Atlanta in the Carter trade. There is a reason my first W game of the year will be Sparks at Fever. This is my most interesting team of 2022.
Chennedy Carter: Devastating first step and the ability to finish around and through contact. Inconsistent shooter and defender, but has the tools to be good at both. Hopefully the Sparks put the ball in her hand let her get to work, since this is a team that could not score in 2022. This is a team that does not need to get cute on offense. Post ups for Cambage and high pick and rolls for Carter until other teams show they can stop it.
Kristi Toliver: Hopefully with a better roster and better health, Toliver can have a bounce back year. A back court of Carter and Toliver may not offer much defense, but Toliver is such a good fit on offense next to Carter I want to see it. Toliver can provide second side ball handling once Carter has kicked out a pass and Toliver could feast on open 3s from both Cambage and Carter.
Brittney Sykes: Teams won’t guard Sykes outside of the paint, but someone needs to play perimeter defense. While DPOY level defense is unlikely, Sykes is a good defender. Hopefully she can effectively cut when off ball and use that athleticism to finish, something that she has not been as good as one might hope.
Nneka Ogwumike: I would like to see Fisher stagger Cambage and Nneka so that both can play the vast majority of available minutes at the 5. The Sparks should try to limit as much as possible how much they play with neither Nneka nor Cambage on the floor. Nneka is such a crafty cutter and just enough of a shooter to make the pairing work, but she is clearly also this team’s second best center.
Liz Cambage: Can she be put in position to play 30+ minutes in the playoffs? And what kind of roster needs to be constructed to help her defend well enough to win a championship? Two questions to watch for this year. Keeping her minutes down in the regular season is good, but for a Cambage lead team to win in the playoffs, she needs to play more. The offense in time with Cambage can be elite, but the question is how does LA build a good enough defense moving forward. Cambage is a fine defender, but at the highest levels can be forced to guard in space in ways that is just hard for any 6’8” center.
Jasmine Walker: Is Walker, drafted in 2o21 but hurt last season, ready to be the backup stretch 4 this team could use with Nia Coffey gone? She would be able to play 4 out around either star front court player, allowing Carter to also play in even more space. Walker seemed in college to be a decent, not great athlete, and will have to have good technique to hold her own on defense.
Katie Lou Samuelson: There is a world where Samuelson has improved her defense and is able to shoot the lights out, where she ends up the starting 3 over Sykes. I don’t know that she has the strength to play the 4, but I would like to see her and Sykes together. A lineup of Carter-Toliver-Samuelson-Walker-Cambage would be fun. Might score 110 in 40 minutes and give up 100.
Other than whether Napheesa Collier will play this season and how much, the other question is did Cheryl Reeve fail to anticipate the new salary cap system and overpay, relative to the cap, Natalia Achonwa and Aerial Powers? Achonwa was the more notable miss in free agency, but Powers has the bigger contract to live up to. The Achonwa contract likely cost them both Crystal Dangerfield and their 2021 first round pick Rennia Davis. Reeve is a great coach, but as a GM the last few years has not done as well.
Powers was the more defensible contract, but still may be overpaid relative to the cap. A back court of Powers and Kayla McBride did not have enough passing or ball handling, hence the scramble for Laysha Clarendon last year and the last minute signing of Odyssey Sims this year. But it is still a question if Powers have the size and strength to play the 3. She may, but will be interesting to watch. Reeve may have paid top dollar to two players who play the same position in McBride and Powers, who are both signed through next season also.
Odyssey Sims: Sims, the surprise signing on 5/3 by the Lynx to presumably start at point guard, can be a decent player, though 2021 with the Dream was rough. She only sort of does the things necessary to be a point guard. She generates low efficiency shots for herself and can make the basic passes. One outlier season in 2019 with the Lynx she had an above average passing season. But coming off a year with a sub 43% TS is tough. By comparison, Jasmine Thomas has had a TS ever year since 2016 right around 50%. And Sims is not nearly the defender Thomas is.
Kayla McBride: A wonderful catch and shoot player, McBride is also a fine defender, particularly using her strength against bigger players. A tick below star level because she isn’t generally going to create shots for herself or others, she is still very effective.
Aerial Powers: A somewhat tough season in 2021, but could bounce back. Her 3 point shooting was below the 33% where it really needs to be to be a positive and her turnover rate spiked. Starting year 2 with a new point guard signed 3 days before the season and a converted 2 guard as backup and both true point guards waived from the roster is not ideal, but here is hoping.
Natalie Achonwa: Achonwa is not who I would start, I would prefer to see if Angel was ok to try out playing the 4 in a smaller lineup with Achonwa backing her up to limit Angel’s minutes. But I bet Cheryl Reeve will go with the big she signed to a large contract. Achonwa does not provide any stretch as 4, nor is she particularly adept at chasing the faster 4s in the league. But then again, she also gets overwhelmed by the bigger centers. She is a W level player, but will be curious how Reeve uses her this year with better options in Napheesa and Damiris Dantas out to start the season.
Sylvia Fowles: Enjoy her final year. The best defensive center in W history, someone who thrived both in the more interior oriented game during her early days but has been able to stay just as effective in the pace and space era by impeccable defensive positioning and understanding. Watching her stymie guards who are 15 years younger and more athletic is a joy.
Bridget Carleton: Though some of the other cuts by the Lynx were ones I do not agree with, Carleton being on the team is good. If not Angel, Carleton could also start at the 4 instead of Achonwa. Thanks to Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast for pointing out that would be worth trying.
Rachel Banham: I would not have kept Banham. While a good shooter, I don’t think she offers sufficient playmaking to be a point guard, even a backup one, nor does she offer enough on defense. I look forward to being wrong though and if she has a career year, I will enjoy every moment of it if she performs well, even if i I would have kept Crystal Dangerfield.