Here is part 3 of 3 of my season previews. If you missed them, here are part 1 and part 2. New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington. Key questions and 7 interesting roster spots.
Brittney Griner will not be a part of the Phoenix section. Here is the latest news concerning her detention in Russia. And because the WNBA and the people close to Griner are encouraging folks to make more noise about her detention, I wanted to note it here. I am hoping that Griner is able to make it home and focus on her health and well being soon.
New York Liberty
How far in the playoffs does New York need to go to not have put themselves on the proverbial treadmill of mediocrity? A hybrid rebuild without any top 15 players is a tough outcome and doesn’t lead to winning many playoff rounds typically. Other than Sabrina Ionescu if everything goes perfectly in her development, who is likely to be a top 15 player on this roster? Maybe Natasha Howard with a full, healthy season, but certainly no guarantees.
I am not a championship or bust kind of person, but all of this for the Liberty to once again be fighting for the 8th seed does not seem like sustainable team building. Maybe if Nyara Sabally comes back fully healthy in 2023 her and Sabrina can lead this team into the future, but we shall see. Then again, maybe they sign Breanna Stewart and/or Jewell Loyd in the next couple of years and this is all academic because a New York team that is willing to spend money will attract top free agents.
Sami Whitcomb: Who counts as pg between Whitcomb and Sabrina Ionescu is an interesting question and I lean Whitcomb for now. Whitcomb is a solid starter who can shoot and play make and is not terrible on defense. Too many turnovers and not as good assist rate as one would like, so hopefully she settles in if NY uses her as their main point guard.
Sabrina Ionescu: Needs to be the shooter from 3 off the dribble she looked like to unlock her full star potential, but even without that is a solid player. Likely won’t be as good as her college teammate Satou Sabally, but that is no shame given how good Sabally is. She is still the highest upside player on the team, so will be worth watching. If she can take over lead ball handling duties from Whitcomb this team will go farther.
Betnijah Laney: Can Laney be efficient if it makes sense for her to take a step back if any of the other Liberty players step up? Her shooting numbers in 2021 were still up from her career average, but not nearly as good as in 2020. Her penchant for long 2s also hurt her TS% where she shot 53%. Especially if she plays more off ball, more 3s and fewer long 2s would be good.
Natasha Howard: I would play Howard, especially in the playoffs, at center as much as possible. I suspect Sandy Brondello does not agree with me and so it will be interesting to see how Howard does at the 4. Two main things to watch with Howard is can she stay out of foul trouble and still be a disruptive defender and can she be effective from the perimeter as a 4.
Stefanie Dolson: Also a big who needs to watch for foul trouble. Fouling could be an issue for this Liberty team but especially for the bigs. Should be a serious upgrade on offense when she can play as someone who can pass, shoot and set quality screens. But there is a ceiling on how effective she can be given defensive concerns, which is why she was the perfect third big for the Sky and might be overmatched starting for the Liberty if they make the playoffs.
Micheala Onyenwere: An enjoyable surprise in 2021, she certainly outperformed my expectations in winning rookie of the year. Though deserved, she was out of the rotation mostly by the end of the year as her hot start from 3 did not continue. Did she add to her perimeter game? Will she be able to convince teams to guard her out there? Or can she play at the 3 for this now pretty big heavy team.
Han Xu: The most unknown of the players I have written about for this series, but the now 6’10” Han Xu is a skilled center. Still may not have the strength to really bang in the W, but I hope we get to see how her skill level at her height translates in the W. A matchup with her national team teammate Li Yueru, who is looking to play for the Sky, would be particularly fun.
How many players on this team are both good on offense and defense? Skylar Diggins-Smith could be if she improves her focus and effort on the defensive end. Brianna Turner could be if she is played with four shooters on offense and just has to finish. Other than that, it is unclear how this team is going to play both ends consistently at the level they aspire to.
Trying to maximize the end of Diana Taurasi’s career is good. However, this is also a year where Phoenix repeatedly punting on the draft might come to hurt .0
them. Even with BG, this is a team that has some depth in the front court, but not much less elsewhere.
Skylar Diggins-Smith: Two straight seasons of good numbers from 3 mean her shooting improvement is looking real. That is huge as she is still fast and strong for a point guard. Now improving her defense would benefit Phoenix, as Diana Tuarasi certainly isn’t taking the tougher back court assignments.
Diana Taurasi: When healthy showed that she can still get buckets, so this will be a season of hoping she is healthy when it matters most. Hope she feels up for some of her 30 foot shots early in the clock, as those are always a joy.
Diamond DeShields: Still has the outline of a productive and effective wing, but her TS% has gone down since her rookie year and has been under 50% the last two years, which is not good. Health has played a role, so hope for her being fully healthy. It is also missing shots and just not being effective in a half court offense. Phoenix may be better, but I would not have signed her to that contract.
Brianna Turner: Some ability to do something with the ball in her hands more than a foot from the basket would be nice if she is going to be played at the 4 instead of a smaller 5. As a smaller 5, her speed and defensive playmaking would be very useful and her lack of offensive game less of an issue. Maybe with Tina Charles’ ability to space the floor this pairing can work.
Tina Charles: In 2021 she was a very good offensive force and a not good defensive presence. This Phoenix team has more offensive talent than that Washington team did not but fewer good defenders, so this might be an even more extreme case of good offense and bad defense.
Kia Nurse: If Nurse is healthy and able to play this year, she should be able to challenge for the starting small forward role. DeShields did not come to Phoenix to come off the bench, but Nurse may be a better fit next to the other Phoenix starters with her ability to hit open shots. 36% from 2 shows she has much less upside than DeShields, but 35% from 3 is better than DeShields has ever shot.
Sam Thomas: If Thomas makes the team, it will be a test of the utility of a strictly 3 and D college player transitioning to the pros. This was one of the reasons I did not have Lexie Hull as a first round pick. But Thomas and Hull may show that this archetype can work.
Who is the fifth player on this team in crunch time, assuming Mercedes Russell plays at center. Not being able to go 5 out does limit this teams offense to a degree, but they don’t really have a good option next to Stewart to go 5 out, so Russell it is. That other spot though seems far more up for grabs. I’d bet the competition is between Briann January and Gabby Williams. Both are good defenders, but January is the better shooter while Williams offers more versatility with her size and passing.
I’d give the edge to January, if Loyd can handle guarding Kahleah Copper and other taller players without being killed. January can then guard the tougher guard option and allow Sue Bird and easier assignment. January can then hit open 3s and will be guarded in a way that Gabby Williams won’t be. Even if Williams has a good year from 3, teams probably will still dare her to shoot to take away the Storm’s much more dangerous options.
Sue Bird: If Bird is healthy for the playoffs, she will be able to use her smarts to be a fine help defender and her shooting and passing to lead the Storm. For a player who never goes into the paint on either side of the ball, she is still at her age very effective.
Jewell Loyd: Made strides in creating her own shot and creating shots for others in 2021. This should continue to grow. While her shooting percentages fell a bit under a heavier load, they were still quite good. A career high in assists with only a small jump in turnovers helped as well. A good, if not great, defender and all told Loyd is the best shooting guard in the W.
Gabby Williams: I anticipate January finishing games, but think Williams starts to allow Jewell Loyd to play her more natural position. Williams excels with the ball in her hands, as a decent passer and finisher but not a shooter. How much will Seattle play her on ball, given they have better options, but those options are also better off ball players than Williams?
Breanna Stewart: The best player in the world. Hopefully she can be healthy all year as Seattle is my choice to win the championship. Their best players, other than Bird, are in their prime and Stewart is key to this. On the court, it is looking like 2018 was an outlier of a season shooting wise. If she can get closer to those shooting numbers that would obviously benefit her and the Storm. But she is amazing at everything even if she isn’t that level of shooter.
Mercedes Russell: Hopefully she is healthy, as the W is as always not forthcoming with any medical information so we have no idea what her injury is or any kind of timeline for when she might be back. Doesn’t space the floor, nor is she a center who can switch, but she is perfectly acceptable at everything else a 6’6” center should be good at.
Briann January: Her fit on Seattle should be great. Her major limitation is reluctance to fire from 3 unless wide open and inability to create her own shot, but neither are thing she will be needed to do in Seattle. She can take her open 3s and defend at an elite level and nothing more on Seattle.
Ezi Magbegor: Her outside game has not developed, but if anyone on this roster can offer lineup versatility to alternate with Russell, it will be Magbegor. Seattle doesn’t seem to trust her yet, but she is still only 22 and is still improving. Her 3 point shooting
The key question is the health of Elena Delle Donne and to a lesser but still important degree, Alysha Clark. But that is not something I can know about and we can just hope for good health for both. My question is about the decision to trade down from 1 to 3 and draft Shakira Austin. Unfortunately, the Christyn Williams, the 14th pick who the Mystics also got in the trade with Atlanta, is out for the year with an injury. So even more than most trades this one will be incomplete. Thibault may have also been counting on the swap pick they got next year being good, if the Sparks do not live up to their potential.
Thibault knows basketballl far more than me, but I am all in on Rhyne Howard and especially given Alysha Clark’s health concerns, I think she would have been a better fit on this Mystics team. Austin has to really develop her offensive game, especially given wings who shoot like Howard and can defend are harder to find than centers like Austin. There’s a reason Clark is being paid more than Elizabeth Williams. Thibault is an excellent gm though, so I look forward to seeing if and how I was wrong in my evaluation of both.
Natasha Cloud: Cloud is good at either guard spot and thus it will be interesting to see how much of the season she plays at point guard and how often she plays next to Rui Machida or another point guard. Particularly given she is also going to be playing some with non-shooters in Elizabeth Williams and Shakira Austin, if she can have a good season shooting from 3, that would help the Mystics.
Ariel Atkins: Made incremental progress as a shot creator and passer. To be more than an elite role player will need to continue to improve. As is though, she is a very effective player. An excellent on and off ball defender.
Alysha Clark: A 34 almost 35 year old wing who relies on her lateral quickness dealing with a foot injury is tough. If Clark comes back healthy and is still a good defender, great. But if not, one wonders if the Mystics will regret passing on Rhyne Howard.
Elena Delle Donne: The best offensive player in basketball when healthy. One of the greatest shooters in W history and at 6’5” has learned to use her size effectively. Hopefully we get at least a couple more healthy seasons out of her.
Elizabeth Williams: A common theme with former and even maybe current Dream players, she has not played in this kind of space. Should be able to pressure the rim as a roller in pick and rolls. Will be interesting to see if Washington plays a switching style with her, as she is fairly athletic for a center but has not traditionally been asked to switch out onto guards.
Rui Machida: I don’t tend to root for one player over others, but I do hope Machida’s brilliance translates to the W. A brilliant passer, I think she can hit enough shots and defend just enough to be an effective backup point guard.
Shakira Austin: To be clear, Austin is a good player and I was high on her before the draft. I may criticize the Mystics front office, but she was not able to control where she was drafted or the circumstances. I hope for nothing but the best for her. Her defense should be good, if not right away as a rookie. She will be a star if she can shoot efficiently and gain advantages against other starting centers with her face up game.