The 2022 WNBA season is approaching. Here is part 1 of 3 of my season previews. For each team I look at one key question and then run down some things to watch for for the top 7 players on each team. The top 7 get the bulk of the minutes and drive the success of a team, and frankly are unlikely to be waived between me writing and publishing these.
Who on this team will be on the next good Atlanta Dream team? Rhyne Howard, ideally, is the one definite answer as a starter. Aari McDonald, but more likely as a backup in my opinion, and maybe Nia Coffey, who is only 26, if the rebuild goes quickly. Otherwise, the Dream have not been using their bench to stock up on young players as much as I would have liked them to. This is a team that might win some games if their veterans play well. I wonder if they play too well will they look to trade any of those veterans to both get stuff back and to increase the odds of getting Aliyah Boston?
Kia Vaughn is a fine veteran, but does this team need her leadership, with other veterans already around? The Dream signed all of their free agents to one year deals, Parker is on the books for next year from the prior front office. In time Atlanta may be a place that can get free agents, but for now they should be building through the draft and through second drafts with players who did not make their initial team. They don’t seem to feel that way outside of Rhyne, so we shall see.
Aari McDonald: While the Dream may start Erica Wheeler, they should go with the future here. If Aari is not on the trajectory to be a starter, that is important information. If she comes off the bench for most of the season, well that will also tell us something, but getting to watch McDonald play would be the more interesting way to learn. Can she defend bigger shooting guards so can Atlanta play her and Wheeler together. Can she score efficiently from, well, anywhere in the half court. 30% from 3 and 34% from 2 will likely improve, but by how much?
Tiffany Hayes: Depending on where the Dream go at the 4, this might be the most space Hayes has played in. While that is not saying much given some of the shooting starved teams she has played on in Atlanta, it would still be very fun to see a bounce back season from Hayes. A very good slasher and solid defender, if Atlanta surprisingly pushes for a playoff spot it will likely happen because Hayes has a great year. Possible, if not especially likely.
Rhyne Howard: The clear #1 prospect in my view in the most recent draft, watching Howard play with W level talent is the thing I am most looking forward to. In terms of future stardom, I am very curious to see how the Dream use her this season. Does Atlanta ask her to score in the flow off the offense, or do they have her to run a decent amount of pick and rolls and shoot off movement? The latter would be more fun, but the former understandable as she has all the tools to be a 3 and D+ wing as a rookie and grow into more in time.
Nia Coffey: Coffey shot a very good 41% from 3 in LA last year and provided impressive rim protection from an undersized wing. She would be a great fit at the 4 this season in Atlanta. She should be encouraged to shoot even more from 3 than she did in LA, as any additional spacing she can offer to Mcdonald and Howard will benefit their development.
Cheyenne Parker: A Parker-Coffey front court might not be perfect defensively, but will be able to score. Parker should both be able to be a good pick and roll partner for any of the Dream bigs, while also being able to post up any mismatches. I do hope they limit how often they ask Parker to post up similar sized centers, but in a pinch she has the skill to do so.
Erica Wheeler: Wheeler should be the primary backup for both McDonald and Hayes. A McDonald-Wheeler back court might be too small, but it is the kind of thing worth experimenting with. Dream will hope for a good 3 point shooting season, as this team does not need Wheeler dribbling the air out of the ball every possession and would benefit from her playing off ball more as a veteran leader.
Monique Billings: Her ability to generate turnovers in a high pressure defense was impressive early in the Dream season in 2021. While overmatched as a starter given she isn’t much of a threat on the offensive end outside of offensive rebounding, she should pair fairly well with either of the front court starters against bench units. If the Dream can get out in transition, that would also benefit her, so she can use her speed against slower bigs.
How does this team maximize the chances that the veterans, and in Azurá Stevens’ case, injury plagued starters, make it to the playoffs healthy and rested? James Wade has made the big moves for the Sky successfully, but this season might test his ability to nail the margins. No general manager hits every signing to a minimum contract, but the Sky may be relying on their’s more than most teams. While there is no one on the roster likely to end up as overmatched as Shyla Heal was in 2021, who exactly is playing back 2 and 3 is as much a mystery with the season days away as it was months ago.
Two players for the Sky to either bring back or bring in if their current backups are not good enough are Kamiah Smalls and Kitja Laksa. Smalls was waived, so of course possible that Wade and co. have decided she is not good enough, but she has shown more in her overseas performances than the players they kept. Kaela Davis is long and athletic and looks good, but she is a career 36% shooter from 2 and not a good 3 point shooter. Laksa is a dead eye shooter who may not have the defense to be a starter in the W, but would fit nicely off the bench with the Sky.
Courtney Vandersloot: Going to quote what I said last year, because nothing has really changed other than trying to win another championship: “Best point guard in the W. For the Sky to win a championship, might need to look for her own offense a bit more. Too good a shooter while also able to put pressure on at the rim to not look to score.” Given prioritization, is this the last season we see her for a bit? If so, I am ready to enjoy every minute of it.
Allie Quigley: Can the Sky save her for the playoffs again? The Sky’s difficult choices at the back end of the roster may make it harder for Wade to limit Quigley’s minutes. She was incredibly important in the playoffs, but at age 35, almost 36, needs her minutes managed.
Kahleah Copper: The next step for Copper to raise her game and become an all-WNBA level player is to play make for others. A wonderful finisher and just good enough 3 point shooter, Copper fits well next to other playmakers. If she can even incrementally increase her playmaking, maybe run a few pick and rolls and get open shots for Allie Quigley, that would make the Sky even harder to guard.
Candace Parker: How much does she have left? Can she make it to the playoffs healthy? The Sky were two teams in 2021. A mediocre team without Parker and a championship caliber team with her. Similar to Quigley, the Sky’s loss of some depth might make it harder to sit her, but the Sky should be willing to lose some regular season games to hopefully keep her healthy and rested. My favorite part of her playoff run was her brilliance as a help defender who was able to muck up other teams’ offense when they played total non-shooters.
Azurá Stevens: Stevens being healthy for the playoff run and able to play fairly heavy minutes was key for the Sky. Knock on wood for another relatively healthy season. Stevens is valuable for her ability to guard bigger posts while on offense providing some shooting and ability to attack a closeout. She and the Sky will benefit from her continuing to improve her ability to finish plays.
Emma Meesseman: Meesseman has a history of coming off the bench and finishing games so may do the same. It may be matchup driven because for teams that don’t have Liz Cambage or Sylvia Fowles, a Meesseman-Parker front court might make sense, with Stevens in to guard the bigger centers. If she is a backup, Meesseman can shoot all the midrange 2s she wants as she keeps bench units afloat on offense. As a starter though, hopefully she will be a bit more modern in her approach and space the floor better.
Julie Allemand: The French league ends so late it is unclear when Allemand will come over, but the Sky should be hoping for sooner rather than later. She is the most proven of the backup guards and even wings for the Sky. If either Quigley or Vandersloot need to miss time, Allemand would be as good a replacement as possible. A weaker defender than either, she is a reasonable facsimile on offense for either Vanderquig. Not the movement shooter Quigley is nor does she put pressure on the rim like Vandersloot, but she is a good shooter and passer.
How do the Sun fix their half court offensive issues in the playoffs? This team has the talent and chemistry, pun intended, to be a top 2 team in the regular season again. The next step is to figure out how to score against high level opponents in the playoffs. Defensively 5 out offenses provide some challenge to the Sun, but they have the personal, especially with Alyssa Thomas back healthy, to defend that style.
Shooting guard is the one position that could be up for adjustments for the Sun. As I mention below in my section on Natisha Hiedeman, Curt Miller may need to sacrifice defense for some offensive burst from his guards. Either that or Jonquel Jones improves her midrange game to the point she can be a reliable option there. The fit of DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas on offense is going to be somewhat clunky against the best defenses given neither shoots from 3, either at all or well, so the Sun have to find solutions around that.
Jasmine Thomas: The best defensive guard in the W, can the Sun make up for her offensive limitations to win a championship? Functionally a 3 and D point guard, the Sun will need to find other places to generate offense in the half court against the best of the best. Thomas improving her shooting, particularly off the dribble, would also be helpful for the Sun.
Courtney Williams: 3>2. If the shot clock is running down or if it is the best shot possible, then a Williams midrange shot is much better than nothing. But the Sun and Williams should be trying for better where possible. But if she wants to play her same game, it might be time for Natisha Hiedeman to play with her fiance and for Williams to prop up bench units on offense.
DeWanna Bonner: To paraphrase Draymond Green, Bonner may be a 36 game player, not an 8 game player. Her high 3 point attempt rates cause teams to guard her in the regular season, but her inability to shoot hurts in the playoffs. Her foul drawing also dips in the playoffs against the best defenders and best refs. A very fun player in the regular season, but the playoffs await.
Alyssa Thomas: An incredibly fun player who is as good as one can get without shooting 3s. You name a skill a big wing should have other than shooting and she has it. Passing, ball handling, defense, rebounding all of it.
Jonquel Jones: A deserving MVP in 2021, the next step for her is the inverse of Courtney Williams in that Jones is very good at seeking out either 3s or attempts at the rim, but does not have as good an in between game. A reliable way to generate decent midrange jump shots in the playoffs would be a boon to both Jones and the Sun, when teams load up to stop her.
Brionna Jones: Overqualified as a backup center, she plays well next to either Thomas or Jones. Jones is the best possible development outcome for the undersized center who can’t shoot and aren’t particularly fast, she should be studied by all other such players with hopes of making it in the W.
Natisha Hiedeman: What does Hiedeman need to do to earn Kurt Miller’s trust in the playoffs? She isn’t as good at defense as the other options, but she isn’t a traffic cone either. And on offense, she is the only player on the team, except maybe Nia Clouden, who will take 3s off the dribble. She could improve her finishing and getting to the rim, but you aren’t getting those from Thomas or Williams either.
Why such a large contract for Arike Ogunbowale? Per herhoopstats, Arike will be making the supermax starting in 2023 for 3 seasons. Depending on a few free agents next year, she will be one of roughly 5 or so players who make that super max contract. More in her section below, but I am not convinced that paying Arike that high a percentage of the cap is sensible, especially given they have more young players coming off of rookie deals soon. Satou Sabally will likely get the same salary for the 2024 season and beyond. Dallas is quickly going to be priced into their team, so they should be seeing if this is a team that can go as far as they want to.
Money matters in a hard capped league. Ask Phoenix or Connecticut how it goes with 3 super max contracts, trying to churn the end of the roster. I have my concerns that Arike will be so good as to justify such a contract, given she is being paid along the lines of Jewell Loyd and Diana Taurasi. Will Dallas be able to match if Marina Mabrey gets a large offer? Dallas will also have to pay Teaira McCowan, one reason I did not like that trade for them.
Arike Ogunbowale: The improved 3 point shooting and volume was good. But unfortunately, nothing else really improved, except for the contract. 39% from 2 from such a high usage player is bad. The defense was among the worst for starters in the league. 3.3 assists was not good enough, especially given her assist to turnover ratio has been the exact same in all four years. And the quality of pass does not seem to be going up, too many drives into 3 defenders and not a good kick out.
Marina Mabrey: Likely not a star, as she does not have the first step or handle to get to the rim and appears to be a good 3 point shooter, not a great, so unlikely to be Diana Taurasi from deep. But Mabrey should be starting for this team over their bevy of point guards. Not a lock down defender, but she competes and can continue to improve, especially against bigger players who can’t drive right past her.
Allisha Gray: A weird season last year including coach Vicki Johnson suggesting Gray forgot how to play 5 on 5, but she should be starting for this team. The only player has shown the ability to both shoot 3s and defend at a high level. Without playmaking improvement similar to Kahleah Copper she isn’t a star. If Dallas won’t start her, they should
Satou Sabally: If the Wings win a championship with this core, it will be because Satou becomes a top 3 player in this league. Her assist numbers aren’t particularly impressive, but her ability to whip passes to the corner with either hand is. A fully healthy season from her, with more consistent defense, is how this Wings team makes it to the next level. WHile she should not start at center, the best playoff version of the Wings likely involved her playing the 5 in heavy doses.
Teaira McCowan: If Bella Alarie had not opted out of the season, she would have been my choice for starter. But I bet McCowan would have started anyways, given the Wings traded for her. McCowan is definitely a W level backup center given how dominant she can be on the offensive end. Great size, decent hands and draws lots of fouls. The defensive end is where the questions lie and we will get a season to see if outside of the mess of Indiana whether McCowan can be the anchor of a league average defense.
Charli Collier: The #1 pick from 2021 started 18 obligatory games as the #1 pick, but eventually the team realized to win they needed to play her less. Rebounds fairly well, but still unclear what else she does at a starting player level. Some evidence of stretch to the 3 point line and improvement defending in space would be welcome.
Veronica Burton: The theory with the Burton pick makes sense. A good defender who can play next to Arike or Marina and take the more difficult assignment. But I did not have her as a first round pick because of the questions on offense. But that means playing off ball. Can she shoot? Will teams guard her out there? Does she have the handle and athleticism to get to the paint when she has the ball?