2021 WNBA Season Awards

The end of the 2021 season is upon us and that means awards for the 2021 season. I did not do every award possible, just a selection I thought worth noting. MVP, DPOY, ROY, MIP, and the All-WNBA teams. 

MVP:

Jonquel Jones

One of two easy choices along with rookie of the year. Jonquel Jones started the year on fire from 3 and made her case as MVP front runner early. Her 3 point shooting did not stay at 50% but 37% on healthy volume from your 6’6” big is still incredible. Jonquel is also the best defender among the MVP candidates. Jonquel replaced an All-Star and top 15 player in Alyssa Thomas and helped drive the Sun to new heights and favorites for the championship. There is basically nothing at the 4 or the 5 that Jonquel can’t do.  One incredible stat to sum up her year is that from 2019 to 2021 her usage jumped from 22% to 27% and yet she set a career high in TS% this season.

Defensive Player of the Year

Jonquel Jones

Since bigs tend to have a larger impact on team defense I tend to think this award should go to a big over a wing. So apologies to Brittney Sykes who had a great year, but this came down to Sylvia Fowles, Jonquel Jones, or A’ja Wilson. Fowles was great near the basket and remained among the best centers at defending the pick and roll. Jones gets the edge for her versatility. Her ability to shift between functioning as the 4 or the 5 in different lineups was elite, though Wilson could also do that.

What set Jones apart from Wilson was just how great the Sun were as a defensive team. The gap in defensive rating between the Sun and the 2nd place Aces was the same as the gap between the Aces and the Mercury in 7th. Of course Jones was surrounded by strong defenders, but this Sun team had the same good defenders last season just with Alyssa Thomas and not Jones. The Sun in 2020 had a defensive rating of 99.5 and in 2021 91.7. I’m not saying Jones is that much better a defender than Thomas, confounding factors like most of a year of Briann January this year contributed, but Jones is deserving of the DPOY.

Rookie of the Year

Michaela Onyenwere

Onyenwere averaged the most minutes per game at 22.5 of any rookie. On a per minute basis her numbers were not that much better than Aari McDonald, but Onyenwere’s ability to be an ok starter as a rookie sets her apart. She came off the bench at the end of the season, but still contributed. Her main statistical advantage over McDonald was her true shooting, where she was at 54% and McDonald was at 50%. McDonald did have a higher usage rate, which tends to hurt efficiency, but Onyenwere still gets the edge for me.

Most Improved Player

Jonquel Jones

So if I had an actual vote I’d strongly consider Kelsey Plum. Plum was not nearly this good last we saw her play in 2019 and managed to play this well after coming off a serious injury. Marina Mabrey and Brionna Jones are hurt by the vagaries of this award, as in my view both of them were quite good in 2020. Jonquel Jones, on the other and, made a real leap. Differences at the highest heights of basketball are magnified as they are often the difference between a good team and a favorite for a championship. In 2019 Jones was one all-star among a strong squad that pushed the Mystics to 5 games. This year, on another good team, Jones was the undisputed star of the team. Her ability to generate more offense for herself. As stated in her MVP case, her usage jumped from 22% to 27% and yet she set a career high in TS%.

6th Women of the Year

Natisha Hiedeman

Kelsey Plum would likely be my choice if I had an actual vote, but I resent this award going to Bill Laimbeer players because he refuses to start his best players for no apparent reason. Laimbeer is a good coach, but this tendency irrationally irks me. 

I also get to highlight how good Natisha Hiedeman was. She was the best offensive guard for the Sun and a key part of them surviving when either Briann January or Jasmine Thomas were out. Hiedeman shot 40% from 3 on 7.2 attempts per 36 minutes. 40% from 2 was not great, but good enough. She showed she could run the Sun offense with a more than 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. As we move towards the playoffs it will be interesting to see if Curt Miller will turn to more Hiedeman instead of January if the Sun struggle to score. Hiedeman has been good enough to make it worth at least considering.

Brittney Griner

First team All-WNBA

Jonquel Jones

Breanna Stewart

Jewell Loyd

Skylar Diggins-Smith

Second team All-WNBA

Sylvia Fowles

Tina Charles

A’ja Wilson

Kayla McBride

Courtney Vandersloot

Quick thoughts on All-WNBA teams:

Sylvia Fowles vs. Brittney Griner was a coin flip for me. I think Griner was just a bit more responsible for her team’s success and as the best offensive center in basketball she did enough to earn the spot. Fowles requires her teammates to get her the ball closer to the basket and is a bit more dependent on the team around her than Griner. Then again, even in a year where Griner looked better defensively, Fowles is better. Tough choices. If I had an actual vote and the positions rules were strict I might have had trouble since sneaking Wilson in as a small forward is definitely cheating, but whatever. She was clearly deserving of a spot.

The hardest choice was for the non-Courtney Vandersloot guard spot on second team. I considered players who spent a lot of time at the 3 like Kaleah Copper. If Copper had been closer to the 35% from 3 of 2020 she likely would have gotten it, but 30% was not good enough. Originally I had Arike Ogunbowale, but her lack of defense and relatively poor efficiency, 51% true shooting, made me reconsider. Jasmine Thomas was as great on defense as normal, but other than hitting the spot up 3s did not do enough on offense. Ariel Atkins defended and shot well and showed some growth as an on ball shot creator, but did not get to the rim much and had an even assist to turnover ratio as she did not make plays for others at the rate of others contending for this spot.

In the end, the efficiency of Kayla McBride paired with her decent defense got the spot for me. McBride did benefit from having the lowest usage rate of the players considered, but even then she had a pretty good assist rate. The ability to be as effective off ball as she was is a skill in its own right as she played next to Layshia Clarendon and Aerial Powers, two guards better with the ball in their hands. 

Checking in on the 2021 WNBA Draft Class

This year’s rookie class has not made much of an impression yet on the WNBA. This was expected before the draft and has so far proven out. This is no grand statement on the overall state of young talent in basketball, just a quirk of birthdays. The best players in the class of 2021 could and did leave as juniors, Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter. The best players in the class of 2022, NaLyssa Smith and Rhyne Howard, were not old enough to leave early. While the W should lower the age for players to join the W, there would still be drafts of differing quality.

Still there will be some players from this class who contribute in the W. Below I look at the players who have actually played and thus have given us a read on their games. I tend to think without strong evidence otherwise a player who has not earned playing time is simply not good enough to do so. More often than not as an outside observer trusting coaches whose livelihood is on the line makes sense. Questioning judgements on the margins is where the fun is but a player who never plays is generally not playing for good reasons.

Players can and do develop while not getting playing time, of course. Myisha Hines-Allen is a good example of a player who developed on the bench and overseas and turned out to be quite good, so there is hope for the rookies who have not played yet. More for the ones who are stuck behind good players as MHA was, than those like Kysre Gondrezick who can’t crack a rotation on a team going nowhere. To be fair maybe Gondrezick would have played had she not disappeared from the Fever after the Olympic break, but who knows.

Then some accountability at the end on a couple of players I was too high on in my draft board to see what can be learned for future drafts. All stats per Basketball Reference.

Michaela Onyenwere

The 6th pick and favorite for rookie of the year, she is the only rookie to get significant playing time throughout the entire season, even as she did not start the Liberty’s most recent game. My concerns going into the season were she was stuck between the 3 and 4, without the size to be a 4 nor the shooting or passing to play the 3. After a hot start from 3, her percentages have fallen, but she has been able to remain fairly productive on offense.

She is at 32% from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game, so not terrible and definitely promising given she hardly shot at all in college. Getting it up to 35% is definitely a possibility. Rounding out the rest of per perimeter skills is the next step. For example, she has nearly twice as many turnovers as assists

Defense has been a struggle at the 4 and even with the inevitable defensive improvements that young players make it is unlikely she will be a plus on that end at the 4, given her lack of height and length. Even with her explosive athleticism, she gets relatively few steals and blocks. But she is not a disaster either on defense. If she can improve her perimeter skills to play some 3 that would help her on defense as well. All in all, a promising rookie year and if we were to do a redraft she undoubtedly would go higher than 6, maybe as high as 2 or 3. 

Aari McDonald:

McDonald has had a solid rookie year at point guard, the hardest position on offense to learn in the pros. Her defense has been as advertised as a point guard defender. Something to watch will be if she can use her strength and speed to guard bigger guards. Her ability to guard point guards is valuable, but if she is only a one position defender, the impact will be somewhat limited. Being able to guard shooting guards will be especially helpful if she is next to Chennedy Carter, who has the tools to be a decent defender but has not been particularly good at that end yet.

On offense the story has been a lot more uneven for McDonald. 33% from 3 on 3 attempts per game is fine, if not the kind of shooting we saw in the NCAA tournament. Concerns that she was drafted high off a small stretch of hot shooting were not unwarranted, but so far her shooting from 3 has been good enough, if not to the level it was in that tournament run.  An assist turnover ratio of nearly 2 to 1 is good as well.

Where McDonald has lots of work to do is her ability to finish inside the arc. Having a 2 point percentage, 32%, that is lower than your 3 point percentage is not good. Her lack of touch on floaters and runners coming out of Arizona concerned me and has been an issue. To be a starter in the W, she will need to be able to figure out how to finish against W size and length. Kelsey Plum should be the role model. Plum was a more accomplished scorer coming into the W, but she also had to work to improve her finishes and McDonald can absolutely do the same.

The folks who had Aari McDonald as the better prospect than Dana Evans, like the Dream, are looking good. A lot of the Dream season has not gone to plan, but McDonald as the third pick has looked perfectly reasonable. Evans has been ok and I will get to her later, but McDonald has been better.

Charli Collier

Nothing that we have seen from Collier has convinced me that I was wrong to be skeptical of her as the number 1 pick in this draft. She can still be a solid W player in time. I had her fifth on my board so it is not like I expected her to be out of the league quickly. While I mentioned that rookies getting playing time correlates to their quality often, Collier is the exception. She seemed to get a lot of playing time as the #1 pick, even if the team was better with Bella Alarie, Izzy Harrison, and even Awak Kuier instead.

Her shooting on offense was always more theoretical than actual and so far has remained so. She has yet to take a 3 in the W and her ability to occasionally hit a midrange 2 is not going to make up for her middling finishing in the paint. She still has time to adjust to the size in the W, but Sylvia Fowles she likely is not in the paint. More likely to be Elizabeth Williams level around the rim.

However, unlike Elizabeth Williams, Collier has not been able to make much of an impact defensively. Defense, particularly defending in space, is the hardest thing for young bigs to learn and Collier will improve. But she is so out of position as a help defender and lacks the lateral speed to make up for it that the odds of her anchoring a top 4 defense seem long.

To get back to offense, passing for a center is not the most important skill, however for a number one pick with hopes of stardom, it does matter. Her lack of passing in college has improved minutely in the pros, but is still a concern. She has 6 assists on the season for a rate of .6 per 36 minutes. That is similar to the assist rates for both Williams and Fowles as rookies. Both of them made a real leap in their second year, so Collier’s passing will be something to watch in year 2.

Awak Kuier

Nothing I have seen has dissuaded me from the view from before the season that Awak’s ceiling is the highest of any of the players in this draft. Taken second by the Wings after her teammate Collier, Awak has earned more playing time than Collier as the season has gone on. While she is more flashes of potential than actual production at the moment, there are have been sufficient flashes to dream big going forward.

To compare her to her teammate Collier, Awak has more assists in half as many minutes. She has twice as many blocks and the same number of steals. She has struggled to score compared to Collier.

Her scoring has been an adventure, with atrocious shooting percentages from everywhere except the free throw line. The optimistic take is that her 3 point shot looks confident and finishing inside should come with added strength and experience. She has decent touch. She just needs to not be able to be knocked over by a strong breeze.

The biggest thing going for Awak is that she is still very young. She turned 20 a month ago. For perspective, she is 2 months older than Paige Bueckers and 3 months younger than Haley Jones. To already be able to play in the W with some success is a great sign for her going forward.

Revisiting my 2021 Draft Board:

Three players, Natasha Mack, Dana Evans, and Arella Guirantes, who I was high on went in the second round of the draft, so it is worth looking at how they have fared and what to takeaway from teams differing in their evaluations from me. I am basing this on what limited playing time these players have received and so understandably my perspective is inherently limited. But I still think it worth walking through.

Natasha Mack I had as the best center prospect in college. She went 16th to the Sky and is now out of the W after getting some looks from the Sky and the Lynx. She seems to have been hurt by one factor I discounted too much, her lack of offensive polish, and one factor I did not consider before the draft, the increased difficulty of non-star centers making teams. I wrote about the challenges of non-star centers earlier this season. I still think Mack has a chance to make it back into the league as she figures out how to turn her length and speed into consistent defensive impact, but she will also need some luck as her lack of offensive feel will make her fit tricky.

Dana Evans I had top 5 and she went 12th to the Wings. She was then traded to the Sky. While I was likely a bit too high on her, as stated before McDonald has shown herself to be the better prospect so far in the W, I was closer with her than either Mack or Guirantes. In many ways her rookie year has looked like McDonald’s, but with more extremes. Her 3 point shooting has been better than McDonald’s and a legitimate asset for the Sky at 41% on the season. She can actually dribble and pass in the W, no guarantee given some of the other choices the Sky have used as backup point guard. On the other hand she has struggled even more than McDonald inside the arc with a ghastly 23% from 2. Her shooting may cool off a bit from 3, but she has enough craft I think she can get that 2 point percentage to at least respectable for a backup.

Arella Guirantes’ draft position differed the most between my board and the draft itself as I had her as a top 5 pick and she ended up going to the Sparks with the 22nd pick. On the one hand she has not done that much with her time on the Sparks but the fact that as 22nd pick she is still on the Sparks and receiving playing time means she is doing something right. Stephanie Watts was selected 10th by the Sparks, then was cut by the Sky after a trade, and has not been heard from since. The issue for Guirantes in the W is her lack of athleticism. She struggles to create separation on offense and is vulnerable to being blown by on defense. I thought she had the skill, strength, and length to overcome that. Defensively she has not been a disaster, but offensively it has not worked so far. Shooting 27% from the field is not going to get it done. In particular looking to shoot 3s quicker and not stop the ball and let the defense recover would be one adjustment for her as she adapts from college star to W role player.

The Center Squeeze

For a few years when looking at the NBA and the WNBA, the impact and value of centers appeared to be an area of difference. Centers maintained their impact in the W, with Sylvia Fowles, Britney Griner, and Nneka Ogwumike all impacting winning and championships over the same period of time that the Warriors were rising in the NBA to challenge the value of centers, with undersized Draymond Green thriving in the lineup of death. 

However, recently, the WNBA and NBA seem to be converging in how best to approach the center position. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid went 1 and 2 in MVP voting. Deandre Ayton is playing well and holding his own in the Western Conference finals. So in the NBA, star centers still have value. However, smarter NBA teams are better off not overly focusing on center outside of the very best. Wing depth matters more and decent contributors at center can be found later in the draft or even undrafted. Centers who can lead an offense have value, but those are relatively rare. 

This is basically how this WNBA season is also going. Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, and Liz Cambage are all important parts of their team’s success this year. Jonquel Jones and A’ja Wilson could be on this list for different teams, as both can excel as centers, but they have the versatility to make it work next to more traditional centers. 

However, after the top tier centers, the W has become a tougher place. A look at recent drafts gives us a snapshot of the struggles of non-star centers. The 2018 draft had two traditional centers in Maria Vadeeva, who may have a place in the league, but has not been over from Russia lately, and Mercedes Russell, a late second round pick. The only true center left in the league from the 2019 draft on a regular contract is Teaira McCowan, and her struggles have kept her coming off the bench for a 1 win team and her future in the league as more than a situational offensive player up in the air. 

The 2020 draft had more centers taken in the first round. Returns have been decidedly mixed. Lauren Cox was taken at 3 and was shockingly waived this past weekend. The Sparks have already signed her, but still, not great. Bella Alarie was taken at 5. She has been good defensively this season with the Wings, but may struggle to stick if her offense does not come around, and then none until Beatrice Mompromier in the middle of the second round. Ruthy Hebard plays the 4 for the Sky, but is more of a 5 on offense given her lack of range, and may end up squeezed for a role if she can not either prove she can defend like a 5 or shoot like a 4.

The 2021 continued the trend of a bifurcation for centers, with Charli Collier drafted #1 on the hope of star potential, and no other centers who planned on playing in the W this year drafted until 16 with Natasha Mack. Mack is out of the league at the moment, after a few hardship contracts with the Sky. 

Similar trend holds this year with teams and how they have used their centers. The Sparks have been able to claw their way close to .500 playing one big at a time in either Amanda Zahui B. or Kristine Anigwe next to a wing in either Nia Coffey or even smaller with Karlie Samuelson. Clearly the Sparks would be better with Nneka Ogwumike back, but having wing depth has been key. 

The aforementioned Bella Alarie and Charli Collier have been sharing the center position with the Wings recognizing that they are at their best with Kayla Thornton and Satou Sabally at the 4, players who played the 3 in recent seasons. Long term, it might make sense for the Wings to try Satou Sabally at the center as their best lineups to go small in key moments and stretch opposing defenses. 

Tina Charles has answered questions about her fit with the Mystics by embracing a move to center full time and playing next to a more mobile 4 who can shoot 3s. Gone are the days of playing Tina Charles at power forward and living with her taking 15 footers next to a traditional center like Kiah Stokes. Speaking of Stokes, she was waived by the Liberty though she was on a protected contract and will now be deep on the Aces bench. Howard is a good example of a player who might have been a 4 in years past, but is now best suited for the 5.

Looking forward, the next couple of W drafts have a mix of both high end center talent with NaLyssa Smith in 2022 and Aliyah Boston in 2023, as well as good but not great center prospects, like Elissa Cunane and Shakira Austin in 2022. Smith and Boston are almost certainly going to be the first or second picks in their respective drafts. Smith has the athleticism to play at the 4 at least some of the time, especially if her shooting continues to improve, and Boston has the skill to face up from the perimeter while also posting up, and joining the group of star centers. 

Where Cunane and Austin go in the draft will be something to watch. Both, but more Cunane, can space the floor, but whether teams view them as more mid-first round picks, or if they slip into the second round, will be telling on how teams view centers. The smarter teams will likely focus on trying to find the best talent at the wing and guard in the draft, as decent center prospects have been able to be found later. 

Same questions will arise in free agency. While paying top dollar for the best centers will continue to make sense, contracts like those that Indiana gave to Jantel Lavender, 3 years protected at 175,000 and Minnesota gave to Natalie Achonwa, 3 years protected descending from 164,000 in the first year, should likely be stayed away from. Lavender is functionally a center at this point, as the Fever struggle to score as they rotate through a collection of centers and shoehorn them into the power forward position.

While there is value in having a solid backup big on the bench like Achonwa, Bridget Carleton at 58,000 is at a more important position and it will be interesting to see if Minnesota can retain Carleton going forward while also paying Napheesa Collier in two years. Centers will still be drafted and signed in the hopes of finding the next Sylvia Fowles, but not like they were in the past.

2021 Season Preview: Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington

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. 

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

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.

2021 Season Preview: Dallas, Indiana, and Las Vegas

Here are three more team previews in preparation for the upcoming season. The team that for the past few years has been the most confusingly run, the Dallas Wings, the current team that is the most confusingly run, the Indiana Fever, and my tentative pick to win the title this year, the Las Vegas Aces.

Dallas Wings

Arike Ogunbowale: An all-WNBA player a year ago, now comes seeing just how high her ceiling is. I’ll be looking for more consistent defense, improving her 3 point shooting, particularly off ball, and continuing to improve her true shooting %, which accounts for the value of 3s and free throws. Her TS% was 10 points lower than Diana Taurasi, 53% to 63%, in 2020. Ogunbowale can close that gap, but by how much will be the test.

Marina Mabrey: Showing that she can shoot from 3 and pass is a good first step. Now, can she earn free throws after hardly earning any trips to the line? Put pressure on the rim off of the pick and roll? Shot a fine percentage in the paint, but did not get there much. Not a bad defender, but is she the best fit on that end next to Ogunbowale, someone who may never be better than average?

Kayla Thornton: Should benefit from being slotted into a lower usage role. Needs to shoot 3s even if they do not go in. Good multi-position defender whose versatility works well with the various young pieces Dallas has. 

Satou Sabally: Extremely promising rookie year. Hopefully her 3 point shooting from Turkey comes with her to the W, as that was one part of her college game that abandoned her in 2020, shooting only 20% from 3. The sky is the limit for her.

Bella Alarie: Defensively had a strong rookie year. And on a team that could use more defense and does not need offense as much, could earn a starting nod. But her offense will hopefully come, as someone who can likely shoot 3s and make some plays off the dribble. 

Key Reserves

Isabelle Harrison: Over matched as a starting center, but she might end up in that role again if none of the young bigs are quite ready. But she is a good backup center, so long as she focuses on defending and only scoring off of passes from teammates. No more Harrison post ups when either Ogunbowale or Sabally are on the court, please. 

Allisha Gray: Signed a good contract for the Wings this off season. A good sign that she was willing to stay. Not a bad contract for Gray, but thought she could have gotten more if she had tested restricted free agency. On the court she is solid at everything but does not really stand out in any area. If Dallas goes small more, she can definitely play the 3, as she has good size. Last two seasons her 3 point shooting has improved, a key for her to play next to Ogunbowale and Sabally.

Tyasha Harris: Same question as her rookie year. How is her off ball shooting from 3? Can she be the ideal pairing with Ogunbowale, or is she more likely a backup point guard who needs the ball in her hand to be effective. Played well in limited minutes as a rookie. Her good size for her position and thus ability to guard either guard position does pair well with Ogunbowale.

2 Key Questions

  1. This year and next the Wings do not have to worry that much about the cap given the number of rookie contracts they have. But 2022 is coming and decisions will need to be made eventually. Arike is a max player, as is Sabally if she lives up to her potential, but the clock is ticking on the rest of the roster. The hardest part of a rebuild is done, with two players who could be the best players on a semifinal team, but the next step of who to put around them is tricky. Which young players can be kept? Will any free agents choose to come to Dallas who are worth it? Especially important for the Wings to be careful handing out protected contracts to veterans, as the Astou Ndour and Moriah Jefferson contracts have not been successes.
  1. In a high leverage playoff game, Satou Sabally and Awak Kuier’s best positions seem likely to be the 4 and the 5. Both eventually will have the size and length to play there, while providing elite shooting and skill at those positions. The question becomes where does that leave the team’s more traditional bigs in Bella Alarie and Charli Collier. Having one as a nominal starter who plays lots of minutes, but is benched in high impact moments, may make sense, but ought to be reflected in their eventual second contracts.  

Indiana Fever

Danielle Robinson: Surprised me with how good she was for the Aces in 2020, so it’s possible she does it again, but who were the Fever outbidding when they offered her a 3 year guaranteed contract at $155,000? How many other teams needed a starting point guard at all, much less one who does not shoot 3s, relies on athleticism, and is heading into her age 32 season?

Kelsey Mitchell: The best player on the Fever. The one player who could definitely be a good player on a team that makes some noise  in the playoffs. The 3 point shot is the foundation of her game and she should be trying to get to 10 attempts per game, but it was the jump in her 2 point percentage in 2020 that was really promising. After 2 season below 40% she hit 50% in 2020. Continuing that is key to maximizing her offense. Some defense would be nice, but she is at the bottom of the reasons the Fever struggled there.

Tiffany Mitchell: Among the more confounding offensive players in the W. Generally good 3 point shooting and good free throw shooting go hand in hand, but not here. A player who shot 23% from 3 and 95% from the free throw line in 2020, she is a shooting guard who is better with the ball in her hand miscast as a 3 and D wing. But the team traded Kennedy Burke, who is actually the right size and shoots 3s, for a rookie. So T. Mitchell it likely is at this spot.

Lauren Cox: What is her best position long term? The Fever want to play her at the 4 and it is plausible that she will have enough passing and shooting to make it work on offense. However, I still suspect long term she is a center. Will the Fever play her there? Can she chase around quicker 4s?

Jantel Lavender: Lavender is a consummate professional, but easily the most confusing contract of free agency. A 3 year guaranteed contract for $175,000 for a 32 year old player at a position that contributors can be found later in the draft or after training camp cuts, if the ones the team has drafted in back to back drafts are not the answers. 

Key Reserves:

Teaira McCowan: McCowan has so far to go to be a starting center defensively in the W, but some progress is a hope this year. Offensively she is impactful, but the Fever were one of the worst defenses in WNBA history in 2020, and got worse with McCowan. 

Kysre Gondrezick: The most surprising draft pick in 2021, she has as good a chance to earn minutes as any player in this draft. She does play the same position as Kelsey Mitchell, but the Fever should be trying to see if they can play together. 

Kathleen Doyle: Unclear if she is a W player but there will be opportunities to be had to show that she is. With Julie Allemand in Europe with Belgium responsibilities, now is the time for Doyle to show what she can do. Even in limited minutes as a rookie, hard to have as limited an impact as she did, but this year should be a more true test of her abilities. A TS% of 32 is hard to do.

2 Key Questions:

  1. Other than Kelsey Mitchell, who on this team is good enough to start in the WNBA semifinals? The 2020 Aces or Sun could have really used Kelsey Mitchell’s shooting and shot creation, but who else would have been playing in either series? Danielle Robinson started for the Aces, but is not getting younger and has a game built on speed, which tends to age poorly. 

Julie Allemand is turning 25 this year and is at a position that players tend to peak later, so she has a chance. But I’m hard pressed to see anyone else on this team reaching that standard. Championship or bust is an unrealistic standard in sports, but being one of the best 4 teams, in my view, should be the goal. Instead, the Fever seem to be scrambling to be the worst team in the playoffs.

  1. Rhyne Howard time? The lottery has not been kind to the Fever recently, but this is not the year to be giving up on the draft. If once again the Fever do not get the #1 pick, there are other players who would have gone #1 in the 2021 draft. NaLyssa Smith’s position in the W is less clear than Howard, but she would immediately be the best athlete and the only true 3/4 on the roster.  

Las Vegas Aces

Projected Starters:

Kelsey Plum: Coming off of a devastating injury, how Plum plays may be the driving factor in whether the Aces are a good playoff team or a championship team. In 2019 she showed against the Mystics that she could get her own shot even against a locked in, experienced defense, something the Aces sorely lacked in 2020. Might be a year away from full recovery, but here’s hoping she can regain enough to make an impact this year.

Chelsea Gray: For a player who has been considered in the conversation for best point guard in the W, her last 3 playoffs have been underwhelming. Gray is good at using her size and savvy in the regular season, but appears to be overtaxed as the primary shot creator against the best defenders in the playoffs. If the Aces use her as an off ball threat, and she can hit enough open 3s, she should be a good fit. But she may be better as an of ball guard now than point guard.

Angel McCoughtry: How real was her shooting improvements? Career splits of 46/29/80 shooter, she shot 52/47/88 in 2020. Assuming she stays healthy and her minutes limit continues, she will hopefully maintain her impact as a smart, big wing with good athleticism, but the shooting in 2020 might be an outlier. Even if her 3 point shooting percentage falls, the team could benefit from her taking more attempts.

A’ja Wilson: A deserving MVP candidate, can she change her game to play next to Cambage? Her best position is likely center, especially if she continues to not shoot 3s. In the regular season the fit between her and Liz Cambage should not be an issue, but this is a team with championship aspirations. Continuing to improve her passing in the post and when facing up would be helpful.

Liz Cambage: A dominant post player, she still has room to subtly improve basically everywhere. A good passer, but could improve there. A good defender, but someone who playoff offenses can sometimes take advantage of in space.

Key Reserves

Dearica Hamby: A super sub, who is she better next to, Wilson or Cambage? And does Laimbeer ever go small in the playoffs in key moments. And if he does, who plays next to Hamby? Wilson, for more mobility on defense? Or Cambage, as the player more adept at passing out of doubles and keeping a 4 out offense humming?

Riquna Williams: We have seen the limitations of the back court of Chelsea Gray and Williams, but for all the talent of the Sparks front court of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, they did not have the post up skills off Wilson and Cambage. Williams should be able to feast on open 3s. And even playing for Laimbeer it is hard to see her not getting her shots up.

Jackie Young: A solid regular season player in 2020, she really struggled in the playoffs. In the playoffs, when starters play more and teams are better, she no longer had the same size and athleticism advantage, and her lack of shooting was even more glaring. An issue for the Aces team wide, but Young went from 26 minutes in the regular season to 20 minutes in the playoffs, with a low of 9 in games 4 and 5 against the Sun.

2 Key Questions:

  1. This version of the Aces has to try to win the championship this year. If Kelsey Plum is not back in shape, does this team have any moves to bolster their back court? What could the Aces get for Jackie Young and a couple of picks? With Angel McCoughtry, Liz Cambage, and A’ja Wilson entering free agency, the Aces will not be able to keep all 3, without McCoughtry taking a steep discount. Now or never for this group.
  1. Why did the Aces offense fall off so badly in the playoffs last season? In the regular season in 2020, the Aces were second in the league with an offensive rating of 107.3. That tumbled all the way to 93.4 in the playoffs. Dearica Hamby being hurt certainly played a role, but the Aces should be asking themselves if all the clever sets they run to mask their lack of shooting in the regular season, as well as relying on transition offense, are simply less valuable in the playoffs. When teams could scout and lock in, they did not have any counters to teams loading up on their best player.

    While the returning players will help, as the team did not face this same drop off in 2019, notably Plum who won the starting spot in the 2019 playoffs, this team is still not exactly overflowing with shooting relative to their competition. Depth has been a strength, but that matters less in the playoffs, as starters play more minutes. While my pick tentatively for the championship, definite the whole is less than the sum of its parts potential here.

2021 Season Preview: Atlanta, Chicago, and Connecticut

The 2021 season is finally upon us. For this year’s previews, I am going to focus on who I project as 8 of the teams’ top players for each team and then 2 big questions I have about the team this upcoming season. I am going to not include European players who may come over late in the season, given the unknowns about their commitments. Each week will cover 3 teams.

Atlanta Dream:

Projected Starters:

Chennedy Carter: The difference between Carte who is a good starter and Carter who is the best point guard in the league is her shooting from 3. Both off the dribble and catch and shoot. This is especially true as the Dream continue to surround her with other ball dominant guards. She shot 37.5% on relatively few attempts last season, so a promising start.

Courtney Williams: Williams likely is who she is. A good, if not great, starter. This will likely not be the year she shoots more 3s and fewer long 2s, but it would be nice. She can play off ball, but stepping into long 2s is an inefficient way to play without the ball in one’s hands.

Tiffany Hayes: Hayes is a good starter. But benching one of Hayes or Williams and letting them run the second unit in favor of Shekinna Stricklen might make sense. Stricklen is not as good a player as them, but she can shoot open 3s and is not a player who can create shots even against second units. Hayes might be the choice, given she is more dependent on having the ball than Williams.

Cheyenne Parker: Asking her to be the starting power forward and stretch big is asking quite a bit. While she showed some stretch last season, she only shot 1.6 3s per game. However, this team does not seem to have a better option at the 4 that would allow Parker to play the center. Something for them to address going forward. 

Elizabeth Williams: A solid starting center. All-defense first team was a bit much last season, but ideally she can keep providing solid rim protection and a good pick and roll partner for Chennedy Carter.

Key Reserves:

Aari McDonald: What level of shooter are we getting in the W. And she struggles with her shot, how does she find minutes in a crowded back court? First year struggles are to be expected for most young point guards, but still important questions to monitor.

Shekinna Stricklen: Stricklen struggled last season but she is the only player on this entire team who is a proven plus shooter. She was brought in for a reason and should earn a chance to show what she can do. 

Tianna Hawkins: A very solid backup big. If she can get her shooting on track could finish some games depending on the matchup. This team can almost play 5 out with a front line of her and Parker and really space the floor for Carter and Hayes.

2 Key questions:

  1. Why so many ball dominant guards? I mentioned it above, but to reiterate, there are diminishing returns to players whose best attribute is creating with the ball in their hands. The opposite of shooting, which has no diminishing returns, as shooters can be just as valuable off ball as they are on. So the big question will be who on this team can shoot the open shots their talented guards create.
  1. Who is their 4 of the future? Cheyenne Parker can play there temporarily, but her best position is as a center. This team has guards and centers, but it is very unclear who exactly is supposed to guard the Napheesa Collier’s of the world. She seems too big and/or too fast for this team. To be fair, Collier does that to most teams. But it is a question worth trying to answer. That is likely the next position to try to upgrade. Maybe if the team disappoints, Rhyne Howard or NaLyssa Smith will be available in next year’s draft.

Chicago Sky

Projected Starters:

Courtney Vandersloot: Best point guard in the W. For the Sky to win a championship, might need to look for her own offense more. Too good a shooter while also able to put pressure on at the rim to not look to score.

Allie Quigley: Offensively is still be among the best shooters in the W, but with the improvements of Kahleah Copper, will be interesting to see who finishes big games. Competes on defense, but is limited there compared so other options the Sky has.

Diamond DeShields: After a lost year to injury in 2020, has the tools to be one of the 2 or 3 best small forwards in the league. Particularly interested to see her ability to create offense for others as well as herself and improve on her even assist to turnover ratio.

Candace Parker: Does Wade stagger Parker and Vandersloot’s minutes to have someone who can create offense on the floor at all times? While they should be a good tandem, they can also play separately and hopefully mitigate the issues the Sky have faced without Vandersloot on the floor.

Azurá Stevens: A healthy season for Stevens would be wonderful. If she can force teams to guard her at the three point line, this Sky offense may be close to unguardable.

Key Reserves:

Kahleah Copper: What does she need to do to be a starter on this team? Hard to imagine either Quigley or DeShields coming off the bench, but Copper played really well last year. Copper is enough taller and more athletic than Quigley, it might make sense to start her in some match ups. 

Gabby Williams: What is her position? Entering a contract year, some clarity would help her market. Shows abroad that with the ball in her hands is her best role, but so far has not justified that much responsibility in her time in the W.

Shyla Heal: Heal was one of the few player selections in the draft that made me look smart, as I had her about where she was drafted. I am a bit concerned at her youth and the role she is stepping into. Back up point guard at 19 on a team with championship goals is asking a lot. But Heal is nothing if not confident. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. Who finishes games? The Sky have done a good job putting together a flexible team with quite a few options. Vandersloot and Parker have to be on the court, but other than them, this seems like a team that can mix and match based on who is playing well and the opposing team. Wade is a good coach but even good coaches can prove to be stubborn in the playoffs. This is a team with the ability to play different styles and should take advantage of that. 
  1. Now or never with Candace Parker not getting any younger. Are there any in season trades to put this team closer to a championship, even on the margins. Gabby Williams is a restricted free agent and there have already been rumors of her being moved. A sign and trade after the season would be fine, but worth exploring something in season too.

Connecticut Sun

Projected Starters:

Jasmine Thomas: Continues to slowly but surely add to her offensive game. This team will need her to be a bit more aggressive offensively to be respectable without Alyssa Thomas. 

Briann January: Defensively January put on a clinic in the playoffs with the Sun last year. When she is locked in, she is as fun to watch on that end as any guard in the league. Offensively, she is fine, but does have her limitations.

DeWanna Bonner: Her 3 point attempts cause teams to guard her in the regular season, but her inability to shoot hurts in the playoffs. 25% from 3 is tough to overcome even given her well rounded skill set. Any improvement in that area is maybe not likely, but would be beneficial for a team looking to compete next year with a healthy Alyssa Thomas.

Kaila Charles: The least secure of the projected starters, can she match up with other 3s and 4s in the W? 37% from 3 on limited attempts from 3 is promising, especially combined with her good size and athleticism. Good year for her to really show what she can do.

Jonquel Jones: My pick for best player who only plays center in the W, especially if she can continue to shoot in the high 30s from 3. Though this is a year she my end up playing some 4, given injuries and limited bench options. Entering her age 27 season, should be able to contend for first team All-WNBA center. Liz Cambage is great, but Jones should be able to give her a run for the spot.

Key Reserves:

Brionna Jones: If Charles does not start, will likely be Jones. Jones outplayed my expectations in 2020, but playing two centers might be tough sledding in the more spaced out W each year.

Natisha Hideman: Solid backup point guard in the limited minutes Jasmine Thomas does not play. This is the year to show if there is anything more than that. Improving on her 35% from 2 is key to that. 

DiJonai Carrington: Not a great sign when a player does not start for their college team and shot under 30% from 3 for her college career, but will get the opportunity to show what she can do on a thin team at the guard/wing position. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. Are any of the young guards on this team going to challenge Briann January? For as good as January is defensively, this Sun team needs more help on offense than they do defense. The inability to create offense hurt them in the series against the Aces.
  1. Jonquel Jones is an unrestricted free agent next year. Can this team pay her the super max? And if they do, they will need to hit on a couple of the young players as this is only going to become even more of an experiment in stars and young players. Beatrice Mompromier was a great pickup last year after being cut by the Sparks, can the Sun do that again?

2021 Final WNBA Draft Board

As before, for my draft board I focus on ten players I feel have the best chance of making a substantial contribution to the WNBA. Why 10? From 2007-2017, that is the average number of players from those draft classes who played at least 15 minutes per game for 3 seasons. For a team with a top 10 first round draft pick, it is a reasonable hope that they will reach that bar. 

This is a ranking of how good these players will be roughly in their age 25 season. This is particularly worth noting when comparing someone like Shyla Heal, who will not be 23 until 2024, and Aari McDonald, who will be 23 this year. 

I will use what I think the players’ most likely best outcome to put the players in tiers. My draft philosophy is that teams should draft first for talent, but if a team tiers a draft and there are similar options available, then taking fit into account makes sense. This is not a mock draft so team needs have no bearing on my order.

First Team All WNBA potential

  1. Awak Kuier F/C  6’4”  Virtus Eirene Raguse 

Since putting the Finnish Kuier as my #1 overall prospect in January, Kuier showed at the qualifications for Eurobasket why I, and to be clear lots of others for longer than me, have been high on her. Kuier has all the attributes necessary to potentially be a top 5 player in the WNBA. While that is not the most likely outcome, it is a testament to just how skilled she is. She can provide rim protection like a center, but has the foot speed to defend on the perimeter. She can shoot 3s and is a good passer for a young big. A bit wild shooting off the dribble, but shows flashes of potential there as well.

Her main issue right now is lack of strength and youth. While her playing so well at 19 is a great sign for the future, it does mean that she is less likely to step in right away and contribute than her peers who are anywhere from 3 to 4 years older. Her lack of strength will likely lead to foul trouble as will her youth. It also means that she will likely mostly play the 4. Eventually she should be able to at least play high leverage minutes at the 5 and provide a match up nightmare, but that will be unlikely as a rookie.

Defensive Player of the Year potential

  1. Natasha Mack 6’4″ Oklahoma State

Another player who played well to end the year and solidify her place in the top of the draft. Much was made of Mack’s shot blocking at over 4 a game. But if anything, her steal rate at 2 steals per game was even more impressive. Blocks are not a great measure of defensive ability, but her stock rate, steals + blocks, is outrageous. Here is her compared to Collier and the college numbers for a few other bigs in the W.

Offensively it will be an adjustment for her to have to shift from someone who can take as many shots as they want to someone who will be relied on to set solid screens and dive to the rim. But her speed and decent passing ability will be an asset as a roll player in the pick and roll. Think a better more explosive Elizabeth Williams as a possible outcome.

Starter on playoff team potential:

  1. Arella Guirantes G/F 5’11 Rutgers

Guirantes will benefit from being the second or third creator on a team. It is possible her strength and savvy will allow her to be a primary scoring option at the next level, but she will no longer have the same edge in strength she did against younger college opponents. She lacks the burst to really puncture defenses. Her pull up game is good, but she relied on it heavily in part because she struggled to make it all the way to the rim.

While not a primary wing scoring option, she has all the tools to be a 3 and d plus wing, someone who can knock down open 3s, run a functional pick and roll, and defend other wings. As a secondary creator who can guard tough opponents, she can be really good.

Solid regular season starter potential

  1. Dana Evans G 5’6” Louisville

A cold shooting stretch towards the end of the season brought Evans’ 3 point percentage down to 35% from the high 30s it had been. While a mild concern, her track record the prior two years, where she was at 39% and 43% is why I am optimistic about her shooting. She will also likely not be asked to take such difficult attempt as the main offensive threat in the W, which should help her shooting numbers. Her ability to get into the paint is also valuable and should translate to the W.

Evans is merely a good athlete, not a great one, so her shot does need to be good to have success. She competes defensively but is a bit on the small side, so another way in which her presence as a starter in the W will be dependent on her being able to score. 

  1. Charli Collier C 6’5” Texas

Every write up of Charli Collier after the NCAA tournament but before the upcoming draft has followed the same pattern. Acknowledged that Collier struggled when facing WNBA level talent in the front court, but pointing to how well she played when she was significantly bigger than her opponents. Now in Collier’s favor it was clear that while Vic Schaefer may have designed an offense effective enough to pull off a couple of upsets in the tournament, it was not designed to highlight Collier’s offensive game. 

On the flip side though, nothing I saw fully assuaged the concerns about her ability to be good enough on offense when facing WNBA level centers to make up for her defensive struggles, particularly defending in space. To recycle a line I used in this piece comparing Mack and Collier, using a #1 draft pick on a player with the distinct feel of Alaina Coates but who can occasionally hit a 3 and never ever passes, is a risky move. 

Solid backup/ spot starter potential

  1. Aari McDonald G 5’6” Arizona

Based on McDonald’s NCAA tournament performance, she looks like a top 3 pick in this draft. Someone who could start on a team competing deep into the playoffs. Shooting over 40% from 3 on a difficult diet of step back 3s, she could then use her explosiveness to get anywhere she wanted. However, WNBA teams ought to be wary of relying on how a player plays in a handful of games in March versus the entirety of their body of work. 

McDonald is not a 40+% shooter from 3. She is likely somewhere between the 34% from 3 shooter she ended the year and the 27% she shot her junior year. Her upside, if she can actually get her shot to go in enough to force teams to guard her at the 3 point line in the more wide open WNBA is so tantalizing a 6th pick is worth it. But downside risk exists that she tops out at a change of pace backup guard who can not score enough in the half court to be more. Her relative lack of touch on floaters and midrange shots is almost as concerning as her 3 point shooting. And at 5’6” her defense has utility, but she isn’t guarding 3 positions in the W.

  1. Renna Davis F 6’2” Tennessee

While Davis and McDonald are completely different players, they share the fact that their WNBA ceilings will be dictated by their 3 point shooting. Davis is tall and long enough to potentially play some small ball 5. She also has quick feet and can hold her own guarding quicker guards. She may not be big enough to battle the Liz Cambage, but will be able to guard almost any other player.

But her lack of shooting will make it hard to play her in a playoff setting. She does not yet have the ball handling or passing to make up for a lack of shooting the way Alyssa Thomas does.

  1. Shyla Heal G 5’6” Townsend Fire

Of the players in this draft, Kuier has faced the highest level of competition, going against Natasha Howard in a recent game. After her, the Australian Heal is probably next. For anyone curious in watching her play, her games with the Townsend Fire are available on the FIBA youtube channel and quite fun. Heal is a decent athlete who is a good passe and a confident shooter. She shot in the low 30s from 3, but I am confident that with time and better shot selection as she gains experience more of her shots will go in.

While comparing her to her fellow Aussie Leilani Mitchell is maybe too easy, it is also fairly accurate. If Heal can develop her shooting like Mitchell, she could be a starter in the W.

  1. Jasmine Walker F 6’2” Alabama

Walker’s WNBA future rests on two things. She is 6’’2” and shot 40% from 3 on 7 attempts from game even though the opponent knew she was going to shoot every time she got the ball. Bridget Carleton type contributor would be the best case, a low usage wing who can slot in and play off of more ball dominant players. Will need to focus on her defense, as she may struggle to defend quicker wings and guards.

  1. Kysre Gondrezick G 5’9” West Virginia

Gondrezick is the player I am most out on a limb on. Other people have her going in the third round. But solid shooting guards with well rounded games can be tough to find. She is the only one really available in this year’s draft. She is unlikely to be an Arike Ogunbowale ball dominant guard, but she can hit open shots and is a decent defender. Not exceptional in any one part of the game, but is solid in every area.

Quick thoughts on a few other players who have a shot at the top 10:

Michaela Onyenwere: The one player who was on my draft board in January but is now not. This is not because of how she played since then. It is more based on my growing more concerned about the limitations I mentioned at the time. She ended the season at 33% from 3, which is ok, but she still has work to do to show she can play the 3 full time at the next level.

Chelsea Dungee: A very effective college player at drawing fouls and shot well from 3, but I’m not convinced that she can do enough to make it. Nearly twice as many turnovers per game as assists, in a system at Arkansas designed for guards to put up gaudy numbers, is not good. 

Kiana Williams: Really struggles to get in the paint and while she competes hard on defense, is slight and will struggle against bigger guards and wings. In particular on offense, if her step back is not going in, she does not really have another move. And unlike other players on teams with no shooting, Stanford played with good spacing and so the paint was open, she just could not get there.

Draft Prospects to Watch in the 2021 NCAAW Tournament

With the upcoming tournament, it is a great time to watch some players who could be playing in the WNBA in the next few years. Rather than solely focus on players eligible for this year’s draft, I am going to take a slightly different tack and focus on two players from each class who it is worth watching. The relative strength of different draft classes plays a role in team building, as a first round pick in 2022 might be worth more than one in 2023 and so forth. 2021 is a weak draft, particularly with Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter already in the W. But there are players in each class worth paying attention to. 

The goal is to focus on players who there are questions about and who do not get a lot of attention, so apologies to Rhyne Howard, Paige Bueckers, and Aliyah Boston, but I am trying to spread the attention around. Other than Evina Westbrook, who I know is eligible this year, I am including players in their draft class if they stay until their senior year. 

2021 Draft:

Jasmine Walker F Alabama

Walker was the last spot on my draft board and is the player most likely to fall out of the top 10. Her main skill that will get her drafted is her shooting. Shooting is only becoming more valuable in the WNBA and a player who takes over 7 threes a game and makes 40% of them has value. 

While I would not have traded the #1 pick for Katie Lou Samuelson, there’s a reason Seattle did it. Walker is a similar level shooter and better rebounder. If Alabama can beat UNC, a second round matchup with Maryland would be an excellent test of Walker’s all around game. Alabama would also need her to shoot until her arms fell off to keep up with Maryland’s high powered offense.

Evina Westbrook G UConn

Westbrook is only a junior, but she is draft eligible this year, so I am going to include her here. Westbrook on the right night looks like a surefire WNBA prospect. While she has slipped to 31% from 3, she has shot better in prior years and has a well rounded game, with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals per game.

The issue for her has been showing up in the biggest games against the best talent. For UConn to win the championship they will likely need at least one other player to show up on the offensive end and be able to score against a set defense. Paige Bueckers is unable to do it all herself. Westbrook in theory has the size and skill, but has not shown it this year. 

A good tournament could vault her into the first round, and with a much stronger class coming out next year, it would make sense for her to at least consider leaving, like Megan Walker did last year.

2022 Draft

NaLyssa Smith  F Baylor

There is no question if Smith is a WNBA level talent. The question becomes where she fits in the first round. As high as 2, right after Rhyne Howard? Or more towards the middle? Going for Smith is she may be the most explosive athlete in all of college basketball, with a developing skill level to match. The player she is today is very good, but it’s who she might be in three or four years that would get her drafted second overall.

The flip side of so much potential is that it is unclear what her position will be in the WNBA. A 6’2” forward who does not shoot 3s, at least not yet, who does not playmake for others, nor blocks many shots, might be a tricky fit at the next level. Keeping an eye on how she matches up when/if she goes against players who can at least almost match her in size and athleticism will be instructive. As would any hints at developing shooting range, even if only from long 2. 81% from the free throw line as a junior is a very good sign.

Rae Burrell G Tennessee

While Rennia Davis will get the attention as a likely first round pick in this draft from Tennessee, Burrell also deserves attention as a potential WNBA player. The big part of her game that she could improve on, and Tennessee could use from her, is her playmaking. She has a good handle, and looks like she knows what to do, but a negative assist to turnover ratio is not a good sign. 

Her shooting, on the other hand, is a good sign. She has improved from every area of the floor each year at Tennessee, and assuming that is real, should be able to give her a chance to make the end of the first round in next year’s draft. Wings who defend and shoot 3s are among the hardest position to come by in the W. 

2023 Draft

Kierstan Bell G 

Probably the player I am most excited to watch. FGCU’s matchup with Michigan will be the first time Bell has played a Power 5 team this year.  She is someone who overwhelms mid-major opponents with her size and athleticism. How will she match up with a team with much better size? A 35% shooter from 3, she is clearly more than just size and athleticism, but this will be a good test to see where she should be considered going forward.

Charisma Osborne

While Michaela Onyenwere has been the engine of UCLA this season, Osborne is clearly the team’s second best player. At 5’9” she is borderline between the one and the two. There is a good chance she ends up the best of both worlds, someone who can run point when needed, but also shoots well enough from 3 to play off ball. 36% from 2 is concerning, so her finishing in the paint will be something to watch.

2024 Draft

Cameron Brink C Stanford

A thought experiment I like to consider is where would various players be drafted if every player in college basketball could be drafted. For Brink, the question is other than Aliyah Boston, how many other centers in college basketball would you definitely take over Brink? It took her less than half the season to beat out Fran Belibi for the starting center spot, no small feat.

Brink can shoot 3s, pass from the high post, defend down low, and move her feet on the perimeter. Her major weaknesses are the most fixable for young bigs, a lack of strength and sky foul rate. The lack of strength partially explains the foul rate. Stanford has good centers behind Brink in both Belibi and Ashton Prechtel, but for Stanford to in the championship, they will need Brink to bring her best.

Diamond Johnson PG Rutgers

Two other freshman point guards who are knock down shooters get all the attention, but Johnson at 45% from 3 on 6 attempts per game is a heck of a shooter already. Two questions to watch for her going forward. Why is she only averaging 2.5 assists per game? Yes the team  runs a lot of their offense through senior Arella Guirantes, but it is still something to watch. And at 56% from 2 she seems to be able to follow in Crystal Dangerfield’s steps of small guards who can still finish in the paint, but worth keeping an eye on.

The Potential of Rennia Davis’s and What to do With a Wing Who Can’t (yet) Shoot?

The 2020 draft is a weak one. The next three after 2021 should all include players who have superstar potential, depending on early opt outs, but with Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter already in the W, 2021 does not have such top end talent. With the draft short on potential best player on a team in the WNBA finals, outside of maybe Awak Kuier, the next step for teams is finding players who can fit around their stars to help them reach the finals.

Rennia Davis, a 6’2” wing for Tennessee Lady Volunteers, is a long athlete who can guard multiple positions. Tennessee has been able to use her to guard any position 1-4. She rebounds well, better than some centers, on both the defensive and offensive glass. Part of how Tennessee upset South Carolina in one of their meetings was Davis is the rare wing who can play at the 4 against the front line of South Carolina and hold her own. 

Her two main limitations, shooting and ball handling, keep her from likely being a top 3 pick in this upcoming draft. She is a career 32% shooter from 3 who has trended downward since her sophomore year and is at 27% this season. She is the third option when it comes to initiating offense on the wing for Tennessee, and her assist to turnover rate is close to 1 to 1 as a senior. She has improved her assist to turnover rate ever year at Tennessee, so continued improvement is possible, but it is a weakness for now at the next level.

It is possible that Davis can improve her 3 point shooting. Her shot is not broken, with decent footwork and no obvious hitches or other issues. She shows good touch around the rim. She’s an 84% free throw shooter, and free throw shooting is a better predictor of shooting ability than threes. 

But some players who shoot three throws well do not figure it out from 3. Tiffany Mitchell of the Indiana Fever is a prime example. She is at 27% from three for her career while shooting 90% from the free throw line over five seasons.

But lack of shooting does not mean Davis can not be helpful to a team in the right situation. For a team who drafts Rennia Davis, one way to take advantage of the things she does do well is to use her as a small ball center. While this would likely only be effective in certain situations, as she is likely not quite big enough to defend the biggest centers like Liz Cambage, even with help, Davis is a strong, long, athlete who rebounds well.

Take the Dallas Wings for instance, if Dallas were to use either the fifth or seventh pick in the upcoming draft on her. A lineup of Satou Sabally, Kayla Thornton, Rennia Davis, Arike Ogunbowale and another guard, Marina Mabrey or Ty Harris, would be a switchable lineup with shooting at 4 positions.

Davis’ lack of shooting and ball handling would be less of an issue given the alternatives around her. Dallas already experimented with Sabally and Thornton at the 4 and the 5. Adding Rennia Davis’ length, defensive savvy, and rebounding could improve such an approach.

Thornton, Davis, and Sabally can all switch onto smaller players on defense, and fly around the court providing help. None of the players are likely to provide much rim protection outside of Sabally a bit, it could still be an effective combination in the right match up. 

The flip side is that if a team like the Indiana Fever at 4 ended up with Davis, things could be much more difficult. A team who has taken centers in two straight drafts would likely pigeon hole Davis into the small forward role. Lauren Cox can nominally play power forward, but is unlikely to be her best position long term. While Davis’ defense would be valuable there, the lack of shooting on a team planning on playing Danielle Robinson at the point guard and two centers up front would be unlikely to work. 

For Davis to succeed, either a team will need to be creative in using her and/or she will need to improve her shot. Both are possible, but neither guaranteed.