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?

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.

2021 WNBA Draft Board 1.0

My draft board is going to focus on the ten players I think have the best chance to contribute in the WNBA. Why 10? That is roughly how many players contribute meaningfully in the WNBA out of a given draft class.

To get a sense of how many players in a given draft contribute in the WNBA, I looked at how many players drafted from 2007-2016 averaged 15 minutes per game for 3 seasons. I was generous with a couple of players from the 2016 class, who it is reasonable to assume will hit that marker over the coming years, like Julie Allemand. This worked out to 10 players per draft class.

10 is the average, and it varies by class, from a high of 14 in the deep 2008 draft to a low of 7 in the shallower 2012 draft. So far, the 2021 draft is looking more likely to be on the weaker side, more 2012 than 2008. The better players in the 2021 class already graduated in Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter. The better players from the 2022 class are not eligible to be drafted, namely Rhyne Howard.

Also important to note that every player in college basketball can return for another year, so none of these players are guaranteed to even be in this draft. I am including every player who could be eligible for the draft. All stats as of 1/18/21.

  1. Awak Kuier / Forward / 6’4” / Passalacqua Ragusa

Shooting Splits: 49/38/67

The Finnish forward is currently playing, and playing fairly well, in the top Italian division as 19 year old. She may take a little longer to develop than some of the other players on this list, as she is younger than most of them, her ceiling is the highest. She is the most likely to reach all-WNBA level.

Strengths:

Very mobile. Kuier is 6’4” with long arms which she uses well to challenge players at the rim and has the ability to defend in space. She has seen more on ball screens than a big playing in the NCAA and has shown the ability to defend.

Good passer. In games with the senior Finnish team, their most successful offensive plays were with her passing from the high post. 

Shooting: Kuier’s 38% from 3 in Italy is likely higher than her true ability, given her more pedestrian numbers from the free throw line, but she can shoot.  Much better shooter with her feet set.  Not a shooter off the dribble, though she has the confidence to try.

Weaknesses:

Lack of strength: She has the frame to get stronger, and it should come with age, but she really struggles to finish inside against stronger players and gets knocked out of position fairly easily when trying to rebound.

Decision making on the move: A good passer when standing still and surveying, she can run into issues in when to pass or look to score when on the move. Fixable with more high level experience.

  1. Natasha Mack / 6’4” / Forward / OK State 

Shooting Splits: 56/na/63

A player who was playing at the junior college 2 years ago, Mack is a relatively unheralded player, but has been playing extremely well this year. She has clearly defined skills that can translate to the next level. Will likely not have the offensive creation to be a star, but she should fit around other ball dominant players well. 

Strengths:

Athleticism: She leaps off the screen when one watches her and how fast she is. Can provide a rare combination of rim protection and defending in space. Shades of Natasha Howard, but taller, on defense.

Rebounding, both offensive and defensive. A good rebounder, in particular she should be able to use her athleticism and nose for the ball to punish teams that try to put a smaller player on her on the offensive glass. May not develop into a big who can punish smaller players in the post, but keeping her off the offensive glass with a guard will be tough.

Weaknesses:

Feel for the game on offense. This may already be going away, as she has a positive assist to turnover ratio, but Mack was playing at a junior college two years ago, and the transition to the pros might be rough on the offensive end. Should be able to finish plays as the roller, but still a question if she can make plays on the short roll.

Punishing switches. An acceptable post player at the college level, would offer more versatility if she shows that she can punish teams for defending her with a smaller player.

  1. Charli Collier / 6’5’ / Center / Texas 

Shooting splits: 56/33/82

Collier is the consensus number 1 pick on most other draft boards. In a vacuum, however, I might have her even lower lower than this. But other folks may be seeing things I am missing, so three it is. I will have more to say about Collier, and the challenge of scouting bigs, in the future.

Strengths:

Shooting: Good shooter and not just for a center. 33% from 3 is not spectacular, but has a good looking shot and is over 80% from 3, so should be fine there. She should benefit from coaching at the next level that encourage their bigs to shoot if they are good at it. The ability to pick and pop with confidence will be valuable.  

Posting up smaller players. She should be able to use her size to make it hard for teams to switch smaller players onto her, and she should face single coverage in the spaced out WNBA game, versus the constant triple teams she sees at Texas.

Rebounding: She is a good rebounder, both on offense and defense. Uses her long arms well and really pursues the ball.

Weaknesses:

Defending in space: She combines limited lateral quickness with also getting lost off ball too easily. Teams have had success back cutting her, and she reaches often, which puts her in foul trouble.

Passing: For a player who is consistently double and triple teamed, it is hard to believe that she has only 4 assists total on the season. 4 assists over 12 games is impressive, and not in a good way. Centers do not need to be exceptional passers, but for a top draft pick, that is really bad.

  1. Arella Guirantes / 5’11” / Wing / Rutgers

Shooting splits: 40/39/90

Guirantes is the player I have the least feel for in this group. Given the difficulties of watching women’s college basketball, I have seen her play the least on this list. In particular, I’m not sure what to make of her subpar two point percentage so far this season. She is shooting 40% from 2, in the 32nd percentile per Herhoopstats. How much of that is her carrying a team with limited offensive talent around her and how much is on her, is something I will be paying attention to as we go forward.

Strengths:

Shooting, particularly off ball. Guirantes is a 40% 3 point shooter and a 90% free throw shooter this year. In a role where she is not tasked with most of the shot creation, she should be able to improve her efficiency and be valuable. 

Off ball defense: While not the best athlete guarding on ball, she uses her long arms well to be disruptive, particularly off ball. She is averaging an impressive 3.1 steals and 2.2 blocks per game this year.

Weaknesses:

Finishing at the rim. She is a crafty player who uses her size and strength to attack, but it is concerning that she needs to use so much guile against other college defenders. May struggle to finish against wnba size and length.

Lateral quickness: May be a one or two position defender. May not have the lateral quickness to guard quicker, smaller guards. She also does not have the bulk to really guard up a position, though her intelligence and long arms may help there.

  1. Dana Evans 5’6″ / Guard / Louisville

Shooting Splits: 54/40/90

While I am high on Evans, it is important to note that she is in a better situation than some of her peers. Evans is surrounded by talented shot makers and ball handlers, which put her in position to succeed. She can turn it on and carry Louisville, but generally does not have to the way Aari McDonald does.

Strengths:

Shooting: Evans has shot 38% or better from 3 in each of her last three years. One aspect of her shooting to keep an eye on as the season progresses is her shooting off the dribble. If she shows the ability to shoot off the dribble, and force teams to not go under on the pick and roll, that would be big.

Scoring inside: She has made strides scoring inside the arc, hitting 55% from 2 this year. She shows craft and ability to score at the rim, but it is something to keep an eye on as she goes against bigger and more talented bigs as the college season stumbles along.

Passing: A good passer, if not an exceptional passer. While a score first guard, she can pass enough.

Weaknesses:

Size: At only 5’6”, she will struggle to guard bigger guards in certain situations. But she competes defensively and should not be a huge liability. Offense is more important for point guards, anyways. 

Finishing: Her 53% from 2 point range is a large jump from prior years. If she keeps that up, it will be a good sign, but she will have to prove she can finish at the next level.

6. Michaela Onyenwere / 5’11 / Wing / UCLA

Shooting Splits: 47/28/82

The UCLA wing has been successful playing as a small ball four in the college game, but the transition to the perimeter and the wing might be a challenge. Still, she offers enough upside to be worthy of a gamble if a team thinks they can help her continue to develop her shooting and handle.

Strengths:

Transition scoring: Onyenwere is likely the best pure athlete in this draft, with the possible exception of Mack. She is hard to stop in transition and that should translate to the next level.  

Scoring against mismatches: She should be able to bully smaller players. Teams will have to put at least a wing with decent size on her, or she will go through them to score. 

Weaknesses: 

Defense: For all her athletic gifts, they do not always translate into defense. At 5’11” and seemingly without exceptional length, she does not block many shots or get many steals. 

Halfcourt offense: A 5’11” forward whose only half court offensive move is to post up and shoot short fade away has work to do to play in the WNBA. Teams will not run their offense through her, and it becomes unclear what her role is off ball. Has worked to improve her 3 point shot, but is not a particularly good at it yet.

7. Aari McDonald / 5’6″ / Guard / Arizona

Another player, along with Collier, that I am lower on than others. Explosive guard who competes hard, but lacks offensive polish. Definitely a player who could make me look foolish, as she may be able to take advantage of the increased spacing at the next level to live at the rim, even as a point guard who has a shaky 3 point shot. 

Strengths:

Defense: While only 5’6”, so she is limited in how versatile a defender she can be, she is an excellent on ball defender and could likely guard quite a few shooting guards, given her strength and competitiveness.

Transition: A blur in transition, she puts pressure on the opposing team and can either finish or make the right pass.  

Weaknesses:

Shooting: McDonald thrives in transition on offense, but struggles more in the half court. Does not have blazing straight line speed or the level of craft that Jordin Canada for instance has to make up for a lack of shooting. And its not just shooting from 3. Lacks touch on midrange shots and floaters.

8. Rennia Davis / 6’2″ / Wing / Tennessee

Shooting Splits: 56/23/74

Rennia Davis looks like a prototypical wing in the modern WNBA, but does not show it often at Tennessee. For a top prospect, she is unusual in that she is third in usage on her team, and behind 2 other wings who Tennessee runs their offense through.

Strengths:

Size: At 6’2”, she is good at using her size to move her feet on defense and force opponents to take tough shots. She is also willing to crash the offensive glass and score over smaller players. 

Rebounding: Rebounds like a 4 and better than some 5s.

Weaknesses: 

Handle and shooting: Low usage would be less of an issue if she could shoot. She is shooting 23% from 3 on the year. She was in the low 30s before this year, and will likely need to be in the mid-30s to really be playable. She does not have a tight enough handle to attack off the dribble either, so would need to improve there to be a secondary creator.

9. Shyla Heal / 5’6″ / Guard / Townsville Fire

Shooting Splits: 43/31/86

Heal starred in the WNBL in Australia for the Townsville Fire at only 19. The Fire had a successful season, losing in the finals to the Liz Cambage and Leilani Mitchell led Southside Flyers. 

Strengths:

Scoring: Heal is a crafty scorer who has a good handle and is good at getting into the lane.

Passing: While a bit wild with the ball, as to be expected with a young point guard, she showed the ability to make all the passes expected of a point guard.

Weaknesses:

Athleticism: Might not have the athleticism to be a starting point guard for a playoff team, unless her skill level rises. Only 31% from 3, but 86% from free throw, is good, but not enough to make up for decent, but not great, athleticism.

10. Jasmine Walker / 6’2″ / Wing / Alabama

Shooting Splits: 44/39/79

Strengths:

Being tall and shooting: Walker is a versatile shooter. She can shoot off of screens, shoots even when heavily contested. She is shooting 39% from 3 on 8 attempts per game. She is in the 99th percentile in attempts per game in college basketball and 82% in accuracy, and she is a 6’2”. 

Weaknesses:

Athleticism: She is an ok athlete, but nothing special. She also is not particularly strong. This may cause issues on defense. May not be strong enough to defend 4s, but too slow to guard 3s. She does compete on defense. 

Playmaking: An assist to turnover ratio well below 1 is not good. If she gets the ball, she is most likely shooting. To be fair to her, Alabama does not surround her with many other offensive options, as the rest of the team struggles to score outside of the paint. Still, she is likely strictly a floor spacer, at least early in her career.

Players to watch for who did not make the cut:

Kysre Grondezick- West Virginia: Guard. Solid at all the things a shooting guard needs to do, but not exceptional at anything.

Shakira Austin – Ole Miss: Center. Oozing with talent, but is somewhat inconsistent in actually producing.

Evina Westbrook – UCONN: Big point guard. Still regaining her athleticism, has good numbers across the board, but can disappear for long stretches.

WNBA Tiers: Tier 1

Tier 1 is the two best players on the teams that have won the past 2 championships. Just as Maya Moore and Candace Parker traded championships in the middle of the 2010s, so Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart have been the best players on teams that won the past 3 championships. 

I value versatility in players on both offense and defense, maybe to a degree that is unwarranted. But part of the reason Stewart and Delle Donne are tier 1 is they can both function as the fulcrums of their offense, while also being dangerous off ball, against set playoff defenses, when scoring is toughest. Stewart could defer to Jewell Loyd if her matchup was more favorable, as could Stewart with Emma Meesseman or Kristi Toliver. 

In the next couple of years, I imagine we will have more than just the 2 players I list here as solo tier 1 players. A’ja Wilson is already close to making it me have a tier 1a with these two and her at tier 1b. Another year and definitely another 2 years of similarly high level play will put Wilson there. Of course, maybe she simply joins tier 1 with no qualifiers, as she is certainly capable of doing.

Breanna Stewart

The interesting thing about Breanna Stewart is that she is not truly exceptional at any one part of the game. You can point to someone in the league who is better at any isolated part of the game, whether it be passing, shooting, defending the rim, defending on the perimeter, scoring in the post against smaller players, or whatever discrete skill you want to point to.

What makes Stewart special is that she is very good at any discrete skill you want to point to as important in modern basketball. The flip side of their being nothing she is exceptional at is there are no holes in her game. She can be paired with almost any lineup configuration and fill in the holes in the lineup. There are far fewer fit concerns with the kinds of players that can be put next to her than with almost any other player.

Of course more shooting is good, and Seattle has done a great job spreading the floor, but she can work in tighter spaces, and has taken more 3s herself every year she is in the league. She can provide spacing next to a more dominant post player, something she does for her super team in Russia, where she plays with Jonquel Jones and Maria Vadeeva. 

Maybe the most impressive thing is she has not even really entered her prime yet. Really, this next season, her age 27 year, is her entering her prime. Stewart is on pace for entering her name in the GOAT conversations, alongside the likes of Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Tamika Catchings, and Dianna Taurasi. I am not that interested in finely deciding between various contenders, but I do like noting who has an resume to be included, and am excited to watch Breanna Stewart continue to play at a high level. 

Elena Delle Donne

Unlike Stewart, Delle Donne has one exceptional talent, shooting, and has diligently worked to round out the rest of her game. Her prime has come a bit later in her career, but is no less impressive for all of that. Her Mystics team in 2019 had one of the most dominant offenses of all time and I can not wait to see how the team looks in 2021, given the turnover of the roster.

Elena Delle Donne is on pace to be the greatest shooter in WNBA history, and she has done that while also being 6’5”. The only WNBA player so far to shoot 50/40/90, she is able to warp defenses by herself, as she can bury an opponent in threes both in the half court and as a transition shooter if they lose track of her.

Elena Delle Donne is not the defender, especially on the perimeter, that Stewart, or even A’ja Wilson, is. But she is a good defender. This was most notable in the finals against the Connecticut Sun in 2019. Game 2, the one that EDD missed after injuring her back, was not coincidentally, Jonquel Jones’ best game. 

Elene Delle Donne is not going to rack up highlight blocks, but she is adept at using her size to force tougher shots at the rim[1] , is strong enough to hold up in the post against big centers, and is a good rebounder. [2] She moves her feet fairly well on the perimeter, teams do not try to target her in the pick and roll.

The main factor that could lead to Elena Delle Donne falling down this list his health. Her two best attributes, shooting and being tall, won’t diminish with age. But she is someone who has a now well documented struggle with complications of lyme disease, as well as a history of nagging injuries. Otherwise, she should be able to remain effective well into her 30s.

The next step in her evolution as an offensive player may be to truly take advantage of shooting deep 3s, similar to how Diana Taurasi has used the that shot to extend her career. That might be wishful thinking on my part, as watching EDD shoot 3s from 30 feet sounds awesome, and like something she should be capable of doing.  Whatever she does, I do hope we get a playoff series at some point between Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart when both are healthy.

[1] I am going to become a broken record on that, but the biggest lack right now in data for the WNBA is tracking data. This would tell us, among other things, the percentage of shots which various rim protectors allow at the rim. I suspect EDD might be harder to score at the rim against than Brittney Griner, though Griner blocks a lot more shots, but I have no way to prove it, as I could with NBA defenders. 

[2] Initially I wrote that she improved her rebounding, because her rebounding jumped after her second year in the league. But in looking more at that Sky team, the real change seems to be going from playing with one of the best rebounders in WNBA history in Sylva Fowles in her first 2 years, to not playing with Fowles. Good reminder to make sure to look for alternate explanations, not just the obvious one.

WNBA Tiers: Tier 2

Tier 2 players are all good enough to lead a team to a championship. The reason these players are tier 2 and not tier 1 is that the necessary parts around them need to be a bit better to win a championship, and need to be tailor made to fit them a bit more. The differences at this level are the smallest yet, but those small differences matter when competing for a championship. Within tiers, as before, players are listed in alphabetical order.

Since there’s only four players, I can go through each one individually and walk through why I put them here.

Napheesa Collier

This is a bet on continued growth by one of the most exciting young players in the WNBA. Growth is not always linear for young players, but given the improvements Collier made from year 1 to 2, I am comfortable betting on continued growth into year 3. Collier has shown she can be one of the best players in the WNBA at either the 3 or the 4, going toe to toe with Breanna Stewart in the semifinals and holding her own.

If I had to bet on who would be a tier 1 player in the next 5 years, Collier and her fellow tier 2a player A’ja Wilson would be top of the list. There are other players with a chance, Satou Sabally is someone I am particularly high on. The future of the WNBA is bright.

Collier can simply do it all. A 4 who rarely shot from 3 in college, her ability to shoot the three has probably been the most pleasant surprise of her time in the WNBA so far, as she is currently shooting 38% from 3 and over 40 in her most recent season. Her volume is still relatively low, so there’s room for growth for her to shoot more from 3, but a key skill for a modern wing is there. 

Collier is a premier defender already who can guard perimeter players running off screens while also providing excellent rim protection with her 6’ 6” wingspan. Basketball is a game that rewards length more than height and Collier is a prime example of that, as she plays bigger than her listed 6’2″ height. 

The next step for Collier in reaching new heights is to work on her handle and her ability to create on ball. While a decent passer, her turnover rate is high, which is understandable for a post player moving onto the wing, but something for her to improve.  How much of her relatively low usage rate was coaching or Collier’s limitations is unclear, but she should not be behind Damiris Dantas in usage rate. Part of why I was so high on Crystal Dangerfield in the 2020 draft is she can thrive off ball with her shooting, and Collier should be able to take more responsibility running pick and rolls and being the Lynx’s main driver of offense.

A’ja Wilson

Does A’ja Wilson need a three pointer? No. As 2020 showed, Wilson in her third year was already good enough to win MVP and bring her team to the finals. The Aces could absolutely win a championship if Wilson never shoots 3s.

However, her lack of shooting does put a limit on how versatile she can be on offense, and the type of team that can be built around her. One of the most intriguing questions heading into the 2021 season is whether the Aces resign Liz Cambage and run back the double center lineup that they used in 2019.

While Wilson has the foot speed on defense to guard the 4, 2020 made it clear her best position is at the 5. If Dearica Hamby had not been injured, she would have been playing the key moments in the playoffs next to Wilson, allowing her to thrive inside. At 6’4” Wilson has the size and athleticism to play the five, and it is the position that maximizes her combination of strength and speed on offense, while in theory at least, allowing for more shooting to be played around her.

If she were to add a three point shot, it would make the fit between her and Liz Cambage much cleaner. Wilson is a career 78% free throw shooter who also shot 40% from long 2. She has a smooth stroke and good touch. All evidence we have points to her some day being able to add a 3 point shot.  Both of the players in tier 1 above Wilson would be much cleaner fits with a center like Cambage, while also bringing many of the same positive attributes Wilson brings.

Writing about Wilson’s 3 point shooting might seem nit picking, but it matters at this level. Wilson is already good at basically everything else. She is a dominant post up player, particularly against mismatches. She moves her feet as well as any center on defense, allowing the Aces to play any style of pick and roll defense. Wilson has room to improve as a passer, but then again, the Aces have never surrounded her with pristine spacing or shooting. She is a willing passer, certainly. Her ability to create her own shot is also hampered by her lack of spacing. It is much easier to double and triple team someone who has to catch teh ball closer to the rim to be effective.

Jonquel Jones

The main separator between Jonquel Jones and the players over her relative lack of shot creation for herself and her teammates. In the playoffs for the Sun in the biggest moments, the Connecticut Sun were not running plays for her. Everything else Jonquel Jones can do and do well, and is likely only going to improve on as she enters her age 27 season. 

Jonquel Jones is a 6’6” center who can protect the rim and move her feet reasonably well on defense. She may not be quite as airtight yet on defense as Sylvia Fowles in her prime, but she is not that far off, and bigs often improve into their early 30s, so her best years on defense are likely ahead. 

Jones is a career 38% shooter from 3, allowing her to pair with a variety of front court partners. She is the perfect complement to Alyssa Thomas, as she is able to help space the floor on offense while still providing good rim protection on the other end. While she is not as adept as some of her peers at mashing in the post on a mismatch, she makes up for it by hitting the offensive glass if she is being boxed out by a smaller player. 

To reach the next level, Jones will need to improve on both her ability to score facing up an improve on her passing. A negative assist to turnover ratio in 2019 is not a great sign that she will be able to take on more usage. Thankfully, the Sun are set up with other players who can take on that burden, and Jones can do everything else.

Courtney Vandersloot

Courtney Vandersloot is the best point guard in the WNBA. She combines passing and scoring more effectively that any other player. Her advanced stats are hurt by the Sky’s defensive limitations on their roster, but that is not Vandersloot’s responsibility.

Vandersloot’s assists get attention, and that is clearly necessary for a top guard, but it is her shooting and ability to attack the rim that sets her apart from her peers like Chelsea Gray. If anything, the one quibble with Vandersloot’s game is that she is sometimes too unselfish. While not the shooter that her wife, Allie Quigley, is, she is still a good 3 point shooter. As a comparison to another all time point guard, Sue Bird averaged 7 3PA per 36 minutes in 2020, while Vandersloot averaged 4. Vandersloot could likely stand to shoot a few more times per game.

While shot location stats can be a bit wonky, it is still notable that per stats.wnba.com Vandersloot this past year shot 74% on shot within the restricted area. That might be a bit of an outlier given that she shot 60% in 2019 and 67% in 2018, but those are all strong numbers. Vandersloot can do it all on the offensive end and entering her age 32 season should be able to maintain it for another couple of years. 

Vandersloot is mostly kept from the top tier by the lack of impact a point guard can have on defense. Vandersloot is a fine defender, who at times is asked to guard the better shooting guards in the league, when she shares the court with Allie Quigley, as she has decent size and good athleticism for a point guard. There is simply a ceiling on how impactful she can be as a defender. If she were able and willing to shoot from 3 like Diana Taurasi, maybe one could argue for her inclusion in a higher subtier or even tier 1, but as it is, this is where she is.

WNBA Tiers: Tier 3

Before I get to Tier 3, I need to return to a moment to Tier 4 and Tier 5. Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast helpfully pointed out that I had left Ariel Atkins off of my tier list. She should have been on it, so a brief explanation of where she would have gone. 

Ariel Atkins should have been a tier 4b player. Along with Alysha Clark, Atkins is the prototype for a super role player 3 and D player. While I had hoped to see more shot creation from her on a team starved of shot creation, particularly after Aerial Powers went down, Atkins was still an effective player.

Atkins would have knocked Courtney Williams to tier 5. A Courtney Williams who shot 5 3s per game would remain tier 4b, but that is not the player we have seen outside of a few Sun playoff games in 2019. Courtney Williams would have knocked Jordin Canada off of the tiers.

Canada is maybe the best backup pg in the league, and is good enough to start for the Storm. But the bar for a player who is a not a center and can not shoot 3s is very high, and Canada does not quite clear that bar. The Storm were noticeably less effective on offense without the shooting of Sue Bird.

Tier 3.

Now is when the differences in players become even finer. All of the players in this tier and up are capable of being the best player on a semifinal team. The players in this tier, as opposed to in tier 2 and tier 1, have certain weaknesses that make it a challenge for their teams to win said semifinals games without pairing with a similar or better teammate. 

Age related decline

The trickiest group in this section were the players who will be entering their year 35 or higher season. But age is the main reason Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, and Sylvia Fowles are where they are. Each has missed parts of a season the past 2 years due to injury and even when playing, have not quite been their prime.

Candace Parker is the player closest to the tier ahead. A Tier 1 player as recently as 2017, when she lost in the finals to the Lynx and the other Tier 1 player that year in Maya Moore, Parker showed in 2017 she is still very effective. The loss in the playoffs to the Sun was not her fault, as she was the Sparks player who played the best. If that had been a series, as it should be, and Nneka Ogwumike had returned healthy, the Sparks still had a chance to move on.

Still, Parker is not quite able to be the hub of a top offense anymore, as the Sparks were middle of the pack in offense at 6th. Her defense is still good, and the Sparks were smart to play her more at center this year, which is typical, as players age they often move up in positions.

Diana Taurasi, even at age 38, was the most effective shooting guard on offense in the entire WNBA, which is absurd. She combined efficiency and usage at levels no other player managed. Typically usage and efficiency are negatively correlated, but Taurasi has been able to be effective with a heavy burden into her late 30s by harnessing the power of the 3, both shooting deeper than anyone else and drawing more shooting fouls. But heading into her age 39 season, this is as high as one can reasonably put even an all time great.

Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard

Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard are both in a similar situation in that they are very good at everything that one expects of a player at their respective position, but they are not quite at the level of shot creation and impact to make it to 3a. This is as much based on their experience in 2019, when they were the best players on a team that lost in the second round of the playoffs. 

Jewell Loyd is the closest to the next group in this section, as she made major strides in her offense in 2020. While of course some of that was because she was playing with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart again, her ability to shoot 3s off the dribble, the single most valuable skill for a guard, was a real improvement and not dependant on teammates. 

Natasha Howard is one of the best defenders in the WNBA, but does not quite have the all around offensive game of the players above her. She is an adequate shooter, especially at the 5, but suffers more when played at the 4 as she was in 2019. The real separator from her and the players above her though is passing. A negative assist to turnover ratio in both 2019 and 2020 makes it hard her to even be the second option on a good playoff team on offense.

Alyssa Thomas

As I mentioned in the second on Jordin Canada above, to be on this list and not shoot from 3, one needs to be excellent at everything else. Hello Alyssa Thomas. Alyssa Thomas can guard in a pinch all 5 positions on defense, and she is as devastating in the halfocurt as they come. She is quintessential big in the pick and roll who can make all of the passes out of the short roll, while also being surprisingly effective attacking the basket even though her opponents know she won’t shoot.

She does require certain specific situation to succeed, however, which makes it trickier to build around her than the players above her. The Sun have done a good job of maximizing her by, in a non-pandemic year, pairing her with the only center who is both above her in tiers while also able to shoot the 3, thus allowing Thomas to be the one total non-shooter.

Liz Cambage

On the right night when Cambage’s shot is falling, she can look like a tier 1 player. Her 52 point explosion in 2019 was as exciting a game as they come. However, while Cambage is a willing shooter, she is not the most accurate of shooters. While she is a good post player, and a good passer, she is not necessarily exceptional enough at either to reach the higher bar needed to make it as a center. It is simply harder for one’s best player to be a center, as teams can double or triple team them.

Cambage has also not necessarily been put into position to maximize her talents in the WNBA. While individually productive on the Dallas Wings, she was caught up with the most poorly run team in the WNBA and barely squeaked into the playoffs in 2018. She was then traded to the Aces.

The Aces in 2019 were a much more successful team, but one that effectively was playing two centers. While A’ja Wilson can be a good 4, she is at her best when able to play at the center next to a more mobile 4, like Dearica Hamby. Cambage and Wilson together tend to suppress both their numbers.

The other aspect of Cambage’s game that keeps her from tier 2 is her defense. While she is a smart defender who uses her size well near the basket, she can struggle at the highest levels of playoff basketball having to defend in space. The other centers, including her teammate, who are above her, are all enough better than her to make a difference. 

WNBA Tiers: Tier 4

Last week I covered players 31-50 in the WNBA, in Tier 5. See there for explanation of the project. This week is players 15-30 in Tier 4. Next Monday will be 8 players in Tier 3. And on, until the final tier is released.

Tier 5 definitely involved some tricky choices, but the differences needed to differentiate the tiers only becomes more fine grained the higher one goes. This will become more true when we get to the top tiers, but even with tier 4 there are some choices that I am sure are controversial.

4a is a smidge ahead of 4b, but as with tier 5, within the subtier the players are simply in alphabetical order by last name. A tier 4b player might be tier 5 after next season, but is unlikely to reach tier 3. A tier 4a player will likely not follow out of tier 4, but could reach, or recently was, tier 3.

Super Role Players

Tier 4b is about as high as I am willing to put a super role player who can not create their own shot at all. This is why Alysha Clark is in this tier. A consummate 3 and D player, she is totally dependent on teammates in setting her up for her scoring. Her defense is excellent, but she mostly stays on the perimeter and isn’t going to guard the very best of the big wings. She is generally not going to draw the assignment on Elena Delle Donne, for instance. 

Alysha Clark is also on the wrong side of 30, so it will be interesting to see how long she can stay effective chasing around the smaller guards. Her offensive game should age gracefully, so she will stay effective, even if she begins to struggle a bit more to guard the Arike Ogunbowale’s of the world going forward.

Shot creation in playoff setting

Arike Ogunbowale has the worst advanced stats of this tier, so her inclusion is a bet on her continual growth. It is also a bet that she would be able to create and score against set playoff defenses. A bet that the things that made Kelsey Plum so valuable in the playoffs against the Mystics last year, is something that Ogunbowale will also be able to do. 

Especially encouraging this past year was her work off ball seeking her own shot. Especially as Satou Sabally continues to develop, the ability for Ogunbowale to be equally effective on and off ball will be important for the Dallas Wings. Her overall efficiency is what is keeping her from being in a higher tier. Her true shooting percentage is 53% compared to Diana Taurasi at 62.5% and Jewell Loyd at 58%. 

Another factor to keep in mind is that similar to Kelsey Mitchell in tier 5, Ogunbowale’s advanced numbers are hurt by her defensive metrics. While Ogunbowale is not a top defender, she has also yet to play with an even average starting center who can back her up on defense. Put Elizabeth Williams behind her for instance, and her numbers might improve. 

Reputation vs. results

Chelsea Gray was maybe the trickiest player to rank in this entire exercise. Based on reputation, she is a tier 3a, if not tier 2, player. The second best player on a team that lost in the 2017 finals, she has simply not been the same player the last few years. In particular, having Jasmine Thomas a full tier below Gray, when Thomas roundly outplayed her two years in a row, is an argument for Gray even lower, or Thomas higher. 

Chelsea Gray at this point in her career might benefit from being moved off ball more and basically playing as a wing. She has the size to defend wings, and her passing would still be beneficial there. She has not been able to attack the rim the last couple of years as point guard, especially if the opposing team has a guard who has the size to not be bullied by her, whether it be Jasmine Thomas, Natasha Cloud, or Jewell Loyd. To the Sparks credit, this was the idea behind signing Kristi Toliver, so we shall see how that works.

Thomas has the best argument for inclusion in this tier, likely over Kelsey Plum. Defense is important, but I ranked them as I did because Thomas is basically a 3 and d point guard. She can occasionally get her own offense, but is not a three level scorer, like Kelsey Plum is. Plum’s ability to shoot 3s off the dribble and attack the rim is a skill set that can force playoff defenses to change their entire approach in a way that Jasmine Thomas can not. Plum is also entering her age 26 season, while Thomas is entering her age 31 season. 

Outlier shooting seasons

Two players put up career best shooting years, one in her seventh season and the other in her eleventh season. Diggins-Smith put up excellent individual numbers this season with the Phoenix Mercury, but she shot much better than she ever had from the field, in what might be an outlier in terms of efficiency. If she does it again, then she will definitely move up a subtier. Better defense and an assist to turnover ratio that isn’t nearly even would also help.

Angel McCoughtry only played 20 minutes per game, and was not able to ramp those up in the playoffs, averaging only 5 minutes more per game. Within those minutes she was the most pleasant surprise of the 2020 season, shooting a career high from the field, with a true shooting % nearly 10 percentage points higher than her career average. She will remain effective so long as she can play defense and use her size on offense, but the shooting numbers will likely come down a bit, making it even harder for her as a player who can no longer justify having the entire offense run through her, and her team surround her with shooting. 

Offensive powerhouse at center

Brittney Griner has a reputation as a good defensive center who can also play well on offense. Some combination of Griner aging and the changing style of play within the WNBA, with an emphasis on spacing and three point shooting, has made Griner not nearly as effective on defense as she once was. 

What Griner can still do as well as anyone in the league, certainly better than any other center, is shoot the basketball. Typically over her career this has meant shooting from the low block over a shorter opponent and sometimes two or even three defenders. This is fairly effective, but it’s no accident that the Mercury were able to play well when she left the bubble for personal reasons. Brianna Turner is a better fit as a more mobile center in the current wnba, Turner is miscast as a power forward. 

One thing I would like to see in upcoming seasons is for Griner to truly see if she can expand her range. Someone who shoots as well from 18 feet and from the foul line should be able to shoot 3s. Without that, Griner is still good, but the replacement level of centers is simply much higher than with other positions, as the Mercury showed with sliding Brianna Turner and Kia Vaughn over and barely missing a beat.

Exercises like this are meant to be argued over. And while the number of players I have in each tier is somewhat arbitrary, I think it is useful to place a cutoff somewhere, in an effort to force us to think critically. I always welcome criticism. If you think a player is too low, let me know who you would bump to move them to a higher tier.

WNBA Player Tiers: Tier 5

Player rankings can be fun to argue about and get into discussions over who exactly is the best player in the WNBA. However, when it comes to understanding how teams approach building a championship contender, tiered rankings are more useful. In any given year there is more than one player who is a “championship winning” level player. So much depends on who is put around those superstar players.

Part of what makes the very best players the top is that having one of them makes gives a team more flexibility in who to put around them. Putting the players in tiers helps to give a sense of how various teams may look to build going forward.

Seth Partnow of the Athletic did a excellent series doing this very thing for the Athletic. I wanted to see something similar for the WNBA, so decided to do it myself. The way I went about making my tiers is similar to how Seth did his for the NBA. If you subscribe to the Athletic and are interested in the NBA, team building, or especially both, I recommend it. 

As Seth explains in his section on why tiers:

Player production and value are too contextual to feel really good about ordered rankings. When choosing between two players of similar ability, the preference for which player a team would rather have is usually “it depends.” Each tier and sub-tier is meant to reflect the group among which “it depends.” By comparison, players in higher tiers will almost always be preferred to players in lower, with some obvious positional caveats.”

Mine will be similar to Seth’s in that it is weighted towards winning a championship next year. So this will impact for instance where Arike Ogunbuwale places vs. Kristi Toliver. A tier that looked at value over the next 4 years would be different for each player. This is only looking at next year.  

Seth puts 125 players in the NBA into his tiers, a league in which there are roughly 450 spots for players. The WNBA in contrast has roughly 144 spots. For my tiers, I am going to count down the top 50 players in the WNBA for next season, similar to the percentage of the NBA that Seth puts into tiers. 

As a starting point, I used PIPM, Jacob Goldstein’s metric, and Estimated Contributions, from Positive Residual. PIPM is no longer publicly available because Jacob was hired by Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Mystics and Wizards, but I will use what I have. I am averaging the past three years worth of PIPM and Estimated Contributions, weighted by minutes played. Quite a few players have missed one season over the past three for a variety of reasons, in which case I use the 2 years we do have.

All in one stats are a better starting point than me somewhat randomly guessing. But all in one stats have their limitations, as both PIPM and estimated contributions tend to overvalue good role players on the best teams. For instance, Ariel Atkins’ PIPM went from 2.8 in 2019 to .6 in 2020, worse than her rookie year in 2018. Atkins did not regress at basketball, but rather, she went from playing with Elena Delle Donne and co. to not playing with Elena Delle Donne and co. Similarly, Alysha Clark had a 4.6 in Estimated Contribution in 2020, good for third in the entire WNBA, behind two of her teammates in Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd.  The year before with no Stewart or Sue Bird, she was at 1.5, tied for 25th in the WNBA. Clark did play better in 2020, but not that much better.

As Seth does in his piece, I try to make it so a team would prefer to have a player in a higher tier than in a lower tier. Positional overlap is the one exception. The Aces being the clear example of this potential issue, as we will get to, with their two best players being centers. Within a tier, players are listed in alphabetical order by last name. 

Playoff success matters here too. Players who have clear weaknesses in their games can be game planned more easily in the playoffs, and players who are versatile, and can get their own shots, are much more valuable in a playoff setting with defenses that are focused and can scout a specific opponent. 

Here is the fifth tier, with players 30-50 in the WNBA. I am not going to go through every player in this tier, but I will highlight a few to show my reasoning. 

Inclusion I changed my mind about:

An early draft did not include Kelsey Mitchell. In terms of players who were not rookies in 2020, her numbers are the lowest of those included. What ultimately swayed me into keeping her is that her advanced stats on offense are quite good. What is killing her advanced stats is her defensive numbers. Defensive stats for perimeter players in particular are not that good, and it is hard to blame her for the defensive woes of the Indiana Fever. Especially at a position, shooting guard, where it can be tough to find good contributors, she deserves to be in the top 50.

Based on stats only, biggest snub:

Chiney Ogwumike and LaToya Sanders both have a case to be in a higher tier based on their stats alone. Both have much higher PIPM than any of the other players here. My view is that the replacement level of production for bigs who can not shoot and generate their own offense from the outside. A’ja Wilson being a key example of that kind of center, is much higher than it is for other positions. (link to center pieces.) 

This upcoming season will be a good test for this proposition, as one of the exciting things about the upcoming season is that there is a decent chance that both Ogwumike and Sanders might be on the move from where they currently play, and we will see how they do in a different situation, with different, likely worse, teammates. 

Biggest name excluded entirely:

Tina Charles did not make my list. Charles was a great player for so many years, but her last couple of years in New York were simply not good enough to justify putting her in this list. Could she be added back in after playing well with the Mystics? Absolutely. But as it stands, I would rather have Sanders, Chiney Ogwumike or Brianna Turner as a small ball 5 than Charles in a playoff series against the very best. Charles seems to have lost a step, so I wonder how she would hold up on defense against the Storm for instance, compared to the other centers on this list.

Which is interesting, given that the Mystics seem to disagree. And needless to say, in a disagreement between Mike Thibault and myself, all of the relevant experience and track record says to listen to Thibault. 2021 WNBA season can’t come soon enough, to help us figure such questions.

For Tina Charles, or any other player as we go forward who I did not include, its more interesting if you think I am wrong for excluding them to include who you would take out instead of them.

The rookies:

One of the reasons I don’t vote for second year players for Most Improve Player is because second year players always improve. I included these 4 rookies, Satou Sabally, Crystal Dangerfield, Sabrina Ionescu, and Chennedy Carter, because all 4 held down starting spots in their rookie season, even Ionescu if only for a few games, and all 4 are highly likely to remain starters in year 2.

Ionescu is the most speculative, as she unfortunately had her season cut so short, but she showed enough to at least be a solid starter next year. And possibly more, given that the game before she went down with injury, she put up a 33 7 7 state line.

I will be releasing these every Monday until all 5 are up, so look back next Monday for Tier 4.