2022 WNBA Draft Board 1.0

With a healthy number of conference games having been played, here is a snapshot of my draft board. As a reminder, I look at the top 10, as 10 is roughly how many players in any given W draft are likely to meaningfully contribute. The top 2 will not change their order on my board. The next two will almost certainly stay in the top 10, but may not stay 3 and 4. This draft will really get going once that third pick comes up with the Atlanta Dream.

  1. Rhyne Howard Wing 6’2” Kentucky

    Howard has by far the highest floor of any player in this draft. A 6’2” good athlete who before this year has shot in the highs 30s from 3 is going to find a place in the W. Every team could use a player like that. Her shot has been a bit down this year, but the body of work is such I bet her percentages will come up. Not to mention she will likely not be taking as many difficult double teamed pull up 2s in the more open W game. Especially since she will likely not end up on the Indiana Fever. 

    The reason some people have NaLyssa Smith over Howard is because of questions about if Howard can ever be the primary driver of offense on a good team. I think the chances are she becomes that are lower than other #1 picks. This year’s draft is not as strong at the top as the next two. But I think she can at least be the number 2 on offense. If all goes well, a 6’2” Jewell Loyd would be quite a player to get. 

Concerns about her motor and attitude are overblown to me. Much of the time when she does not have the ball it is because Kentucky is trying to leverage the attention she gets to open opportunities for others. Howard going 1 on 3 and demanding the ball might look better, but inefficient chucking is not going to help Howard drag her over matched team to wins in a tough conference. Her steal and block rate are the highest of her career. She is defensive rebounding as well as ever. Her value off ball should be a point in her favor, not a demerit.

  1. NaLyssa Smith Big 6’4” Baylor

    The very best outcome for Smith as a pro could absolutely be better than Howard. Smith has another gear athletically even compared to many players in the W. The flashes of a perimeter game are there, which could make her a matchup nightmare. A very optimistic comparison might be a taller, more explosive Napheesa Collier. However, the chance that she settles in as an energy big off the bench a la Monique Billings at the next level is why I have her second. While she shows more perimeter flashes than Billings did as a senior, they are not consistent enough to project with confidence forward. 33% from 3 is decent, but only on 1 attempt per game. 

    While it came with foul trouble risks, the fact that she was able to do a decent job guarding Ayoka Lee of Kansas State is a good sign. If Lee left this year she might be a top 5 pick in this year’s draft as a 6’6” strong low post scorer. If Smith can play at least some minutes at the 5, her speed and athleticism become even more valuable, and her lack of shooting less limiting.

  1. Ashley Joens Wing 6’ Iowa State

    Joens has two key things going for her as a player at the next level. Good size, decent athleticism makes it hopeful she can play on the wing, though she does play in the post a fair amount for Iowa St. She is also a decent 3 point shooter, at mid-30s for her career, on over 7 attempts per game as a senior.

    Reasons this may end up too high for Joens are that she may struggle to finish inside the 3 point line, as she relies on being bigger and stronger than her opponents. These advantages will not be there at the next level. Then again, it is easier to see how she can move to the outside than many other undersized fours. She plays in the paint because of the roster construction at Iowa St, but she shows the ability to do the things expected of a 3 at a reasonable level. While unlikely to be a defensive stopper, she does not seem overmatched at that end either.

  1. Kierstan Bell Wing 6’1” FGCU

If Bell had played more games against W level talent while at FGCU she could be third on this list without a doubt. Players with her combination of size and skill are the most valuable type of player in the pros. She does everything, with good rebounding, block, steal, scoring and assist rates. High turnover rate, but paradoxically that can be good if the player is otherwise effective as it can be cleaned up. Best case scenario might be Myisha Hines-Allen with better defense.

The major question surrounding scouting Bell is the weakness of her opposition. If she was consistently facing W size and length, how far would her excellent 2 point shooting drop from 65%, as she is shooting now? Her willingness to shoot from 3 is a positive, though it would be nice if a few more of them went in as she is under 30% on the year and low 30s for her college career.

Unfortunately for Bell and anyone hoping to watch her play against better competition, she hurt her knee and is out for a while, if not the whole rest of the year. Hopefully she is able to return for the NCAA tournament, her team makes it, and she gets a good matchup. Bell is the player on this list I have seen the least in the types of matchups I like, against other players who at least have a chance to play professionally, if not in the W.

  1. Shakira Austin Big 6’5” Ole Miss

    Austin looks the part of an excellent defensive prospect at either front court position. She has a good steal and block rate and she moves her feet well when switched onto guards. Her Ole Miss team thrives on defense with her as the anchor. During last year’s draft I overestimated the importance of such defensive ability to W teams with Natasha Mack, so it is possible I am doing the same this year.

    The difference between Mack and Austin is that it is easier to see how Austin can contribute on the offensive end. She can handle and face up in a way that Mack was not comfortable doing. Austin’s shooting numbers are not great, but her shot looks decent and may improve with time. For all her Ole Miss team helps her look good defensively, they struggle on offense and so Austin is often playing with zero spacing around her. Frankly, an only somewhat negative assist to turnover ratio in this case is impressive.

  1. Rae Burrell Wing 6’ Tennessee

    What is Burrell’s actual shooting ability? That is the big open question in regards to her prospects in the W. If she is closer to who she was as a junior, who shot 40% from 3 and 82% from the line, she deserves to be considered for a top 10 pick. If she is more like she was before that, 30% from 3 and 60% from the free throw line, she does not. Injuries have hampered her senior year and so far she is splitting the difference between those two shooting levels, shooting well from 3, 38%, but poorly from the free throw line 66%. 

Defensively Burrell is merely solid, not exceptional. She is not going to stick because she is hounding the opponent’s best perimeter player. A negative assist to turnover ratio is also not great, though not the killer it would be  for a guard. She is a player who is capable in every area, but if she turns out not to be a shooter, she very well may slide out of the top 10. She does benefit from the relative positional scarcity at wing vs. other positions.

  1. Destanni Henderson Guard 5’7” South Carolina

If I had finished writing this a month ago as I intended to, I would not have had Henderson in my top 10. My major concern with her is how effective she will be offensively at the next level. Dana Evans was much craftier at finishing in the paint and she really struggled in her rookie year getting anything to go in inside the arc. A solid floater would be a great addition for her.

    However, Henderson excels in so many other areas that she is at least a good candidate to be a backup point guard at the next level. Think of her as a lower ceiling pick than some I have after her, but more of a sure thing. She is a good passer, an excellent point guard defender, and a good 3 point shooter. Her speed will also serve her well as her W team will almost certainly have better spacing than her South Carolina teams.

  1. Jade Melbourne Guard 5’9” UC Capitals (Australia) 

    Last year, a young Australian guard was taken with the 8th pick in the draft and it did not go well during the season. However, the Shyla Heal experience is unlikely to repeat with Melbourne. The most notable difference is that Heal is a point guard, whereas Melbourne has spent her entire career as an off guard. The transition to the W is rough for any position, but is especially tough for point guards. And hopefully Melbourne will not be drafted by a team expecting her to immediately run the second unit.

Melbourne ideally will be who Chelsea Dungee was supposed to be when the Wings drafted her at 5. A good scoring off guard with athleticism. Especially promising for Melbourne is that her three point shot is starting to come around this year in the WNBL, as she pairs with Brittney Sykes. At only 20, Melbourne will be a bit of a longer term project. A good option for a team that is already good, but wants to keep one eye on the future like the Minnesota Lynx or Seattle Storm.

  1. Christyn Williams Guard 5’11” UConn

Williams has had a tough senior year, including covid issues. She is back playing, a hopefully good sign. But the athleticism and talent is undeniable and might get her drafted in the first round regardless of how she plays. A strong, powerful guard, she has shot over 50% from 2 for her career, an impressive feat for a (generously listed) 5’11” 2 guard. 

    Williams is an interesting case of being pretty good at the ancillary skills that separate prospects. Decent three point shooter, but not particularly good. Positive assist to turnover ratio, but barely. In her favor, she is not like Evina Westbrook, who tends to dominate the lesser competition UConn plays in conference and but not show up to the same degree against tougher opponents. 

    By the end of the first round, a bet on pedigree might be worth it. And while this is*not* a mock draft, another UConn player to Seattle would be fitting. 

  1. Nia Clouden Guard 5’8” Michigan St.

How real is a jump in shooting that happens in a player’s senior year? That is an important question for Clouden. She is shooting 41% as a senior from 3, after shooting 27% her sophomore year and 32 last year. The rise in free throw shooting is a good sign, as those going up in tandem can reflect real improvement. Clouden is a shifty and fast scoring guard. While she may not be the perfect lead guard, she has the size and athleticism to play off ball in the right matchups, so does offer some versatility off the bench.

Quick Notes on players who could be in the top 10 by my next update in no particular order:

Nyara Sabally: Just based on talent and production when healthy, Sabally would likely be the second big on this list for me after NaLyssa Smith. Unfortunately, she has dealt with knee injuries and has only recently been playing this year. If teams are confident in her health she could absolutely be a first round talent.

Veronica Burton: Superficially Burton looks good, with an ok three point shot, good assist numbers, and one of the best defenders in college. I still have questions about what she will do on offense at the next level, but she is #1 in players I need to watch more of this year.

Elissa Cunane: It’s possible I am missing on Cunane because I have seen her struggle in high profile matchups where it is unfair to expect her to dominate. I definitely think she has W potential, I’m just not sure she has the upside I’d hope for in a top 10 pick.  

Naz Hillmon: A’ja Wilson/ Ben Simmons-like with the early 3 point attempts and then not attempting them again. Alas, unlike Wilson or Simmons, Hillmon is not especially long nor effective defensively for her position. Hillmon is a good college player. I do not see it at the next level.

Players to Watch for the 2022 WNBA Draft

With international basketball in full swing and college basketball starting, here some players to watch as we get ready for the 2022 WNBA draft. The W has not announced when the draft lottery will be, but you can play the lottery yourself at Across the Timeline to see how it might shake out.

In preparation for the 2022 draft, here are ten players I am going to be watching this year who have, I believe, a chance at being first round picks. This is not my current top 10 for the 2022 draft, though I am still writing about only ten. A couple of these players are admittedly long shots. But all are worth watching and trying to envision how they might play at the professional level. Players are not in any particular order, though Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith would be 1 and 2 on my draft board.

  1. Rhyne Howard – wing – 6’2” – Kentucky

While last season’s discussions of the WNBA’s rules on eligibility focused on Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers, it was Howard who was the most pro ready player who was not eligible to play in the W this past season. There is nothing left for Howard to do in college to show that she is a potential top pick. She has excellent size for her position, is a good shooter, and is on a team that is likely not going to do that much in a competitive SEC. She is not the athlete that NaLyssa Smith is, cause very very few are, but Howard has the highest floor of any player in this class. A big wing who shoots high 30s from 3 on a difficult shot diet, who can pass and defend will always have a place in the W. Phoenix certainly could have used her after Kia Nurse got injured. Possibly even before, even at age 21. 

  1. NaLyssa Smith – Big – 6’4” – Baylor

    As I said, Rhyne Howard has the higher floor, given her shooting. But NaLyssa Smith has the talent to be the #1 pick. Smith will be able to be effective in the W with her athleticism and high motor. The big question that will determine if she ought to be the #1 overall pick is just how skilled she is. Can she function as a wing on offense, like Satou Sabally, or is she closer to a more athletic Monique Billings? While playing for Kim Mulkey, she was not asked nor expected to shoot lots of 3s or make plays off the dribble, but there is a good chance she shows this year under Nicki Collin that she in fact can play on the outside. If so, the debate over who should be the #1 pick will be fun all season. While she only shot 20% from 3 her junior season, she shot almost 80% from the line and had a good looking shooting stroke from long 2. A negative assist to turnover ratio is not great, but then again, playing without any spacing at Baylor did not help. Baylor is one of my least favorite schools for their homophobia and other issues, but Smith will be worth watching.

  1. Jade Melbourne – guard – 5’8″ – UC Capitals (WNBL in Australia)

    The Shyla Heal draft experience may not have worked out great, but Melbourne is a different player. She is a good athlete who was one of the few international players at the U19 tournament this past summer who could hang with the US. Like many athletic guards and wings, her major swing skill will be her shooting. As of now, it seems unlikely she can be a primary on ball creator, so will need to be able to do something off ball in the W, hence the need for her to shoot. As an 18 year old in the WNBL she was impressive, willing to challenge even Liz Cambage in the paint. WNBL games are quite fun and I will be tuning into Melbourne’s games at least.

  1. Ashley Joens wing- 6’1″- Iowa St

A smart, strong player who is similar to Rhyne Howard, just not quite as big or athletic, nor as good a 3 point shooter. If she can get her 3 point shot up closer to 40%, could be a candidate as a lottery pick. Her negative assist/turnover ratio limits is something to watch as well.  Even with that though, she is a good player at a position where it is hard to find contributors.  Hope is she can be a more athletic Megan Walker or Bridget Carleton with more off the dribble juice.

  1. Shakira Austin – big – 6’5″ – Ole Miss

The US player I have watched the least on this list, especially against high level talent, but worth keeping an eye on. Good athlete, prototypical size for a big. Given how many wings ans guards went in the first round of the 2021 draft compared to centers, seems like centers who are not likely to be superstars are less valuable in the today’s game, which is worth keeping in mind. Austin would have to show a leap in on ball shot creation to justify a lottery pick, but could definitely still go in the top 10.

  1. Elissa Cunane – big – 6’5″ – NC State

Good offensive center who can stretch the floor. Low block and steal rates a bit concerning, though she is a decent positional defender. Will be important to try to see how she defends in space. Always challenging with college centers as they often just hang out in the paint and be big, but important. Her passing is more acceptable than good, which hurts in comparison to Stefanie Dolson, for instance.

  1. Sika Kone – big – 6’3″ Spar Gran Canaria

    Sika Kone impressed at the FIBA U19 tournament this past summer. She would be the most surprising player to make the first round on this list. But I think she has a chance. An energetic big out of Mali who plays in Spain for Gran Canaria, she was one of the best players at the u19 tournament this past summer. Unfortunately, she did not end up playing the US, as seeing her against the US bigs like Lauren Betts, but Kone still impressed. Might be a bit of a tweener at only 6’3”, but with her size and motor, could play some center potentially. Very few players develop like Natasha Howard, but that would be the model.

  1. Naz Hillmon – big – 6’2″ – Michigan

The bar for a non-center who does not shoots 3s to be effective in the W is so high that at this point I think she would be outside of my top 10. Definitely a player it would be great to have her wingspan on to see if she could play as an undersized center, but averaging only .5 blocks per game as a junior, and that being a high for her time in college, is not a great sign. She is a very good scorer inside and rebounder, but Stephanie Mavunga was also a killer in the B1G, but did not make the same impact in the W. Has shown that she might be expanding her game to the 3 point line.

  1. Rae Burrell – wing – 6’1″ – Tennessee   

    How real is her 3 point shot improvement? From 20% her first year, 32% as a sophomore, to 40% as a junior. Because if that is real, she has a good shot at contributing in the W as a wing with size who can also handle. More of a jack of all trades than exceptionally good at any one thing. If the shooting is real, could be a 3 and D+ player, with some handling and passing. Not an amazing athlete, but seems good enough. Worth watching if she matches up with some of the better athletes at her position. The Stanford matchup will be a fun early test against a likely  top 2 pick in the 2023 draft in Haley Jones. 

  1. Christyn Williams – guard – 5’11” – Uconn

One lesson from the 2021 draft was how teams valued athleticism at least as much as skill. It worked with Michaela Onyenwere, though not so well with Stephanie Watts. While Williams does have skill and she produces, drafting her in the top 5 would be largely because of her combination of size and strength at guard. Williams does have skill, to be clear as a decent 3 point shooter at 35% for her career and a solid, if not spectacular, passer with a positive assist to turnover ratio. But her athleticism and strength is what separates her from some other guards in this class. 69% from the free throw line is concerning, but hopefully a blip and she can get it up closer to 80%. 

What do the Aces do now?

Bill Laimbeer has won championships as a coach. But is has been 13 years since the Detroit Shock won their last championship. The Aces have not performed as well in the playoffs as their regular season record and net rating would indicate recently. Laimbeer has his work cut out for him. As a coach with a particular style who does not always make adjustments quickly, I have my doubts about his ability to lead the Aces back from down 2-1.

Basically nothing went well in game 3. Liz Cambage was the only player to be even somewhat efficient on offense and her one on one defense was ok Unfortunately for the Aces Cambage was outplayed by Griner and she is coming back from Covid-19 and can’t play heavy minutes. The rest of the team was a mess.

Going forward, the main question Laimbeer has to answer is what is the Aces are doing at the 3 and the 4. I mentioned Cambage playing ok at center. At guard, Riquna Williams, Chelsea Gray, and Kelsey Plum combined to go 7 for 26 overall, including 1 for 10 from 3. Not good. However, the Aces can hope on better shooting from those 3 without dramatic adjustments. What is happening with their small forwards and power forwards is another question.

The first thing to note is that the Aces really only have one player who fits the bill in what a modern 4 is expected to be able to do and that is Dearica Hamby. A’ja Wilson is one of the best players in the league, but she is a center on offense at this point in her career. She does not shoot 3s, nor is she a Griner level shooter from the midrange. Wilson has the skill and smarts to succeed against most teams at the 4, but here we are seeing the limits of that approach.

At the three, the team has gone with Jackie Young this year since Angel McCoughtry got hurt. Young had a good regular season, but this is looking like it will be the second straight post season where her inability and unwillingness to shoot from 3 might force Laimbeer to cut her minutes. She has had moments in transition, but in the half court the Aces need more than the occasional low percentage midrange 2. Especially if the Mercury are going to hide Diana Tauriasi on her.

Playing A’ja and Liz together is necessary given the construction of the Aces. So those minutes at the 4 are spoken for. And while Cambage is by no means a stretch 5, she is willing to spend some time on the perimeter and she requires attention so the fit can be managed between Wilson and Cambage. Well, at least for this series. The Aces have some decisions to make going forward. But that is for another day. The question becomes what happens with all other minutes at both the 3 and the 4. I am going to take them each separately.

At the 3:

Chelsea Gray should be the Aces starting small forward with Kelsey Plum moved into the starting lineup. While Gray isn’t likely to light up the Mercury from 3, she is at least somewhat respected out there. She is also more capable as a passer and can keep plays moving when the ball is swung to her. 

Gray struggled in Game 3 and has really only played well in Game 1, the third playoffs in a row she has underwhelmed. Still, she is a better option than Jackie Young. And with Plum able to take the primary play making and offensive creation, Gray should be better off as a secondary creator.

The other benefit to this move is that Kelsey Plum is the one Aces guard who can puncture the Mercury defense. Finishing at the rim against Griner is not going to be easy, but if other adjustments can bring Griner a few steps out onto the floor, Plum has the speed to get by Griner. Plum is also a good 3 point shooter and will be guarded off ball. With Riqna Williams and Plum playing, the Aces will approach actual spacing on the court.

Playing Williams, Gray and Plum also gives Diana Taurasi nowhere comfortable to hide out on defense. Whichever player she is guarding should be attacking her. Running off of screens if it is Williams, pick and roll or one on one attack if it is Plum or Gray.

If Gray is moved to the three, the Aces will have to work with her and Williams to clean up their off ball help. If you are going to double Griner with Brianna Turner’s defender, whoever is guarding Kia Nurse has to be ready to crash down. Nurse might beat you with 3s, as she shot 35% from 3 this year, but you have to give something up to the Mercury. Better Nurse 3s than Turner layups.

This play below shows how the Aces were likely trying to guard the Mercury. Too often when it was Brianna Turner in the game she found space for open layups. Jackie Young is abandoning a decent in 3 point shooter in Sophie Cunningham, but that is better than giving up a Kia Vaughn or Brianna Turner layup. Gray may not be quite as big nor as athletic as Young, but she can still play this role.

At the 4:

A’ja Wilson should be spending as much time at the 5 as possible. Kiah Stokes offers so little on offense and if the Aces plan on doubling Griner every possession anyways, what purpose is there for Stokes to be playing at the 5 over Wilson? Have A’ja guard Griner and Hamby next to her run to double. Laimbeer went the opposite with Hamby on Griner, but as hard as Hamby works that is quite the ask. This would also mean less time for Hamby at the 3. The three bigs lineup is too creaky with shooting to work against the Mercury.

Hamby is a good help defender and she can figure out where to be next as the Aces rotate better than the other options for the Aces. The limiting factor here is Hamby’s health. But if she is good to play 30+ minutes, she should at the 4. This was maybe the best defensive play of the game for the Aces with Hamby smartly timing her double on Griner and Chelsea Gray crashing down on Turner.

Wilson guarding Griner might lead to Wilson foul trouble, but that is a risk that is worth taking. Better than losing by 20. And then on offense, when Hamby is in the game, she should be spotting up at the 3 point line as much as she can if she is not actively involved in a play. Like this serves nothing. Why is she there? Also note how far away the Mercury defenders are from Young. Cunningham is hiding behind A’ja Wilson and forces Young into a tough long 2.

Anything the Aces can do to get Griner away from the paint they should be trying. Griner is willing to move her feet on the perimeter. She is nimble for a 6’9” player, but obviously she is less effective out there than she is camped in the paint using her wingspan to erase shots. This positioning from Stokes is not going to get it done.

Bill Laimbeer has had success in the regular season swimming against the 3 point shooting trend of modern basketball. But in the playoffs when the margins are thinner and teams scout better, adjustments must be made. Time to see what the Aces can do to stave off elimination.

Game 3 Adjustments for the Chicago Sky

A tied series entering game 3 is often the best game in a best of 5 series. Game 5s are great, but winning game 3 is such an advantage for the winning team. This is the first game that both teams have a real chance to adjust as well and pick at what they do well and other team struggles to do.

Going into game 3, the Sky are the team who will have to show they can beat the Sun. The Sky won game 1 in a double OT game, which can be chalked up to luck as either team could have won that game. Game 2 on the other hand was a more convincing win by the #1 seed Sun as they ran away with the game in the fourth quarter to win by 11. And it was a 15 point lead when garbage time began. 

Before getting into the adjustments the Sky can control, the main adjustment for the Sky to make will be to get some better shooting luck. In a make or miss sport like basketball, shooting luck decides quite a bit. In game 1 the Sky shot 36% from 3, a tick above their regular season mark of 34%. In Game 2, however, the Sky fell to 27% from 3. Allie Quigley went 1 for 5 and Courtney Vandersloot missed both her 3 point attempts. Pair this with the Sun hitting an unsustainable number of long 2s and the Sky faced an uphill battle.  Should either of those, and possibly both, of those factors normalize, the Sky should be in better shape. But here are two other ideas.

Tighten Rotations:

The Sky should consider relying less on their bench and tightening the rotation. James Wade has already begun the process, as Ruthy Hebard has only seen the court in garbage time. Next step will be to decide if Astou Ndour is really offering enough to play her over extending Stefanie Dolson and Azurá Stevens. While Ndour had good moments in game 1, I would like to see Wade rely on his best players over the course of the season instead of trying to guess which non-Candace Parker big has it going in the moment. 

Dana Evans may have reached the limits of her ability to contribute. I am still bullish on her future as a W player, but playing a rookie pg against Jasmine Thomas and Briann January in the playoffs is asking a lot. Wade should consider if he can stagger his minutes to play Lexie Brown with Candace Parker and have Parker initiate the offense. Lexie Brown is not a point guard but she can shoot off ball, at least in theory, though the results have not been there this season in a small number of attempts. She is definitely a much better defender than Evans.

Curt Miller has no trouble cutting his rotation as much as he can which Wade will need to match. Alyssa Thomas may not be able to play a full 40 minutes, and because of the rise of Brionna Jones she would not have to even if she could, but it is unlikely we see more than token minutes for Sun bench players except for Natisha Hiedeman and AT.

Pick and Roll coverage: More Drop Coverage

It is possible that the Sky can execute their coverage better that they have used most of the season, rather than changing it entirely. Just because something is not working does not mean a coach needs to change it. Better execution is possible. But in this case, I don’t think the coverage makes sense given the Sun’s strengths and weaknesses on offense.

The Sky were doing two things when defending the Sun in pick and roll defense worth reconsidering. They were fighting over the top of picks and bringing the big up to the ball handler and doubling the ball. Neither makes much sense to me given who the Sun have as ball handlers.

Fighting over picks when the other team has good 3 point shooters, particularly off the dribble, is necessary. The Aces are not going to start going under on Diana Taurasi pick and rolls, as they and anyone who has ever watched the Mercury know how poorly that can go. Even with going over on picks and sending the big to help, DT can still drop 37 on 13 shots. The Sun, on the other hand, do not have that kind of dangerous 3 point shooting, particularly off the bounce. 

DeWanna Bonner is unafraid to let it fly off the dribble, but she has shot below 30% from 3 for her career and worse on off the dribble 3s. Jasmine Thomas is a fine shooter with her feet set, but off the dribble she is not going to hurt you. Briann January is the best 3 point shooter of the bunch at 38% for her career, but on low volume. If the Sky go under on her January might hit a couple of 3s, but that is a trade off worth making to keep the Sun guards in front of the Sky defenders.

The other aspect is how the Sky can keep out of rotations against the Sun bigs. Alyssa Thomas in particular is at her best in the half court when she has a 4 on 3 advantage and can attack in space. This play is a good example. Candace actually stays further back than the Sky did for most of the game, but still ends up doubling January and eventually gives up a layup to Jonquel Jones.

Alyssa Thomas was effective at mixing up when she set a screen and when she slipped them. Slipping a screen is when the screen setter cuts to the basket without actually screening anyone. This pass after AT slipped the screen leads to a turnover, but if the pass connects, Alyssa Thoma has a wide open lane to the basket and multiple options to pass as the Sky rotate.

The Sky should consider at least mixing in some drop defense in the pick and roll. Here is an example of the kind of drop defense I mean. Even against Allie Quigley, the Aces have Kiah Stokes stay in the paint. Enjoy the quick yellow line showing just how far off Stokes is.

To be fair to James Wade, there are reasons he does not use drop defense like this. The Sky have bigs who can defend, but none are exactly the traditional rim protector who blocks shots like a Kiah Stokes. Parker is good at using verticality and her size at the rim, but it is possible she prefers this more active style of defense as well.

Drop defense like this is also not ideal against the best guards. It can give a dangerous attacking point guard a runway to beat even good rim protectors like Stokes at the basket. Skylar Diggins-Smith is particularly adept at this. The other is even with the defender fighting over the screen, it can allow for far too much space for good shooters. The Aces do not play this way against Diana Taurasi, needless to say.

However, the Sun do not really have a guard who is particularly adept at either attacking size at the rim or shooting 3s off the dribble. Certainly not to the degree they do bigs who thrive playing against rotations. Keeping the Sky bigs nearer to the paint and doing their best to defend pick and rolls with only 2 defenders will help. The Sky will have to watch for Jonquel Jones popping out to the three point line but that is not a concern with any of the other Sun bigs. 

At best the Sky should probably mix up their pick and roll defenses. The Sun found a comfort against the Sky’s defense that paired with the Sun’s defense is going to be hard for the Sky to overcome. Sky have work to do. This is when series are at their best in basketball. Adjustments come and the stakes only go up.

2021 WNBA Season Awards

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


Jonquel Jones

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

Defensive Player of the Year

Jonquel Jones

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

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

Rookie of the Year

Michaela Onyenwere

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

Most Improved Player

Jonquel Jones

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

6th Women of the Year

Natisha Hiedeman

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

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

Brittney Griner

First team All-WNBA

Jonquel Jones

Breanna Stewart

Jewell Loyd

Skylar Diggins-Smith

Second team All-WNBA

Sylvia Fowles

Tina Charles

A’ja Wilson

Kayla McBride

Courtney Vandersloot

Quick thoughts on All-WNBA teams:

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

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

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

Checking in on the 2021 WNBA Draft Class

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

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

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

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

Michaela Onyenwere

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

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

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

Aari McDonald:

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

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

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

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

Charli Collier

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

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

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

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

Awak Kuier

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

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

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

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

Revisiting my 2021 Draft Board:

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

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

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

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

The Center Squeeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Season Preview: Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington

The fourth and final season preview is here, just in time for the season starting Friday night. Finishing the previews with the Phoenix Mercury, a team with individual talent who have to answer a few questions to be successful, the defending champion Seattle Storm and the other defending champion because of the pandemic, the Washington Mystics.

Phoenix Mercury

Projected Starters

Skylar Diggins-Smith: Offensively had her best season in the W in 2020. Her shooting from 3 has bounced around from under 30% two 2x near or over 40, so how effective she will depend on that. Though given her past success at times, teams may still guard her like a shooter, even if she goes cold again from 3. Defense not a strong suit, would be nice to see that more locked in.

Diana Taurasi: At 38 was the best shooting guard in the W in 2020 with a propensity for hitting deep 3s off the dribble. Hopefully she can keep it up, as there are few players as exciting as DT when she has it going from deep. But a question given her age how many games she can bring it and for how many minutes per game.

Kia Nurse: Shot horribly during the 2020 season on a bad, weird, Liberty team. Phoenix is hoping that was an aberration, which is a reasonable hope. Another concern is that while she is an ok defender at the 3, she might be a bit over matched against the best 3s. While an upgrade on last season’s  options, is she good enough to hang with Napheesa Collier or the other better, bigger 3s?

Brianna Turner: Best as a small ball 5, will be interesting to see how the Mercury use her this season at the four. Her lack of range and limited play making make her a questionable fit next to Griner, but she is the Mercury’s best option here. 

Brittney Griner: The best offensive center in the W, can the Mercury cover for her on the defensive end? Also, will they ever encourage her to take a three here and there? I don’t expect her to turn into a real stretch 5, of course, but she is too good a shooter not to try a couple a game. 

Key reserves:

Kia Vaughn: Good as a backup, but even with her hitting a surprising number of midrange jumpers she just is not efficient enough on offense to be a starter. Tough to be if you don’t get fouled much, shoot 3s, or get to the rim. Solid positional defender who knows where to be. 

Bria Hartley: Unclear if she will even be able to return in 2021 from her knee injury, but the Mercury certainly hope she can. The guard situation behind Taurasi and SDS gets mighty thin until Hartley can go. 

Megan Walker: I questioned if she had the athleticism to play the 3 or the size to play the 4 in the W before the 2020 draft. Should have chances to prove she can for the Mercury. The shot is real, even if she struggled badly in 2020. It’s the rest of her game that is an open question.

2 Key Questions:

  1. For the second year in a row, questions mostly revolve around who plays the 3 and 4 for this team. Turner had a good year, but mostly after Griner left, and is more of a 5 than a 4. And while Nurse should be an upgrade over last year’s options, the team is still betting she does not repeat her woeful shooting from a year ago. Hard to see this team challenging for the semifinals without answers at the most valuable position. Turner can at least likely guard the best bigs/wings like Elena Delle Donne, A’ja Wilson, and Breanna Stewart, which is something.
  2. Skylar Diggins-Smith is the only player on the roster with a contract for next year. Mercury has a team option for Megan Walker as well. Presumably Griner and Taurasi stay, if both continue playing another year. Hartley and Nurse are the big questions. Hartley is earning 196,000 this year and Nurse 110,000. It will be impossible to pay both of them, so the Mercury may need to pick one. Who to pick will be interesting, assuming both want to stay in Phoenix. Hartley may be better, but Nurse more at a position of need.

Seattle Storm

Projected Starters:

Sue Bird: Bird rarely gets to the rim anymore, but if you can pass and shoot like her, it does not matter. Amazing that she played as well as she did even with missing time with injury. Hopefully she has at least one more run in her in her age 40 season. 

Jewell Loyd: Had her best season in 2020, a key to her season in 2021 and forward will be if she can keep consistently hitting the 3 off the dribble. This current roster may not be able to space the floor like past teams, so Loyd’s ability to generate decent offense for herself will be key. Career best 58 TS% in 2020.

Katie Lou Samuelson: Maybe the least secure starter in the entire W, there are multiple players who could get an opportunity at this spot. Still, Seattle did trade a #1 pick for Samuelson. Hopefully her shot shows up, as a 3 point shooter shooting 30% from 3 is not going to cut it, as she has for her career.

Breanna Stewart: The best player in the W, but really only now entering her prime. Two things to watch are if she can figure out ways to punish teams who switch smaller players onto her and get her shooting numbers back up to their career norms. Even without those, the Storm will be a favorite to make the semifinals so long as she is healthy and playing.

Mercedes Russell: Depending on the Storm’s postseason match ups and development of young players, she may not remain the starter. But as she is a solid center who does everything the Storm ask of her well enough, she likely gets at least some of the starts. Good passer from the high post, good for a few surprising passes.

Key Reserves:

edited 5/13: Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast pointed out that I overlooked Candice Dupree. So 9 Storm players will be mentioned

Candice Dupree: While Dupree is still a solid all around player, I do wonder if she is less effective than she seems. She is not a great one on one defender, but nor does she accumulate many blocks or steals. And on offense, she prefers to shoot long 2s, which are both inefficient and cramp the spacing for her teammates. For the Storm to be a championship team, one of the young bigs will likely need to outplay Dupree.

Ezi Magbegor: Is she ready in her age 22 season to start on a championship level team? She has the highest upside of the non-Stewart front court players, but is still young. Shows hints of an outside game and has the speed and length to defend in the Storm’s high pressure defense. However this year goes, the future is bright for Magbegor as a versatile modern big.

Jordin Canada: Can a starting caliber point guard not shoot 3s at all in 2021? This will be the question both this year but especially going forward as the Storm will have to think about who replaces Sue Bird and if Canada can do it. While she makes plays while on ball, watch what happens when she gives the ball up and how far her defender strays from her.

Kennedy Burke: Burke should let the 3s fly. Volume is as important if not more than percentage for a role player. 2.2 is not enough.  Even if her percentages fall from the 33% range, teams often respond more to how likely a player is to shoot 3s than their percentages anyways. Burke is the best defender of the options at the 3, but needs to at least try to provide the 3 part of the 3 and D role. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. Is Katie Lou Samuelson ready enough to compete right away to justify passing on Awak Kuier? Building around Loyd and Stewart should be the Storm’s plan going forward, but I still have questions over the Storm’s decision to punt on the first round in this latest draft for a player that in theory better matches the Storm’s needs, but without nearly the same upside..
  2. What position does Breanna Stewart play in pivotal playoff games? The Storm have the luxury of playing Stewart anywhere from the 3 to the 5 in the regular season, but how they feel it is best to maximize Stewart in the playoffs will dictate rotations this year and roster decisions down the road. I prefer Stewart at the 5 in key moments, though her and Magbegor could eventually form quite a duo that can do a bit of everything on both ends.

Washington Mystics

Projected Starters:

Leilani Mitchell: Should be able to remain effective in a lower usage role with more talent around her this year. 3 point shooting should rebound after a tough season in 2020. Some concern about her ability to provide enough offense at the highest levels in the playoffs, but the Mystics will likely not have a better option.

Natasha Cloud: Even in the championship year in 2019, in the greatest offense in W history, Cloud was not especially efficient, with a true shooting % of 48, ten points lower than Loyd in 2020 by comparison. Without Kristi Toliver, any improvements in Cloud’s shooting from 3 and overall efficiency would be welcome if the Mystics want to make a championship run. But her play making and size on defense will be welcome.

Ariel Atkins: Was not quite able to take on the shot creation load in 2020 that I had hoped she could. Still, she is among the best 3 and D players in the league and this Mystics team will not need her to create for others so much. She will turn 25 this summer and still has time to improve her handle and passing, even if it was a struggle at times last season.

Elena Delle Donne: Health is the biggest question for EDD. When healthy, she is the second best player in the league, in her own tier with Breanna Stewart. But a second back surgery is a concern and she will not be back for the start of the season. Hope she can return and play most of the season. An amazing shooter who has become a fine defender and rebounder, she warps defenses just standing on the court.

Tina Charles: A lot of focus has understandably been on Tina at the offensive end. I think that can work as she will play in better spacing than she ever did in New York. My questions are on the defensive end. Center is the most important position on defense and I have my doubts if a 32 year old Charles can anchor a top 4 defense in 2021.

Key Reserves

Myisha Hines-Allen: Now we know what she can do on offense after her breakout in 2020. Now the question is how can she overcome not being the longest or biggest front court player to be an effective defender. That will decide if she is a long term starter or more suited to being a third big who brings scoring off the bench.

Kiara Leslie: Given her athleticism and size, surprising that it was her shooting from 2 that she struggled with, not her 3 point shot. 34% from 2 will not cut it. Should be better in year 2 as she gets used to finishing against W size and length.

Stella Johnson: Johnson performed well in her limited games with the Mystics in 2020. This team could use some scoring punch off the bench after losing Aerial Powers. Johnson showed some promise in that role. If she can do that, would be a help to a Mystics team not as deep as recent versions. 

Key Questions:

  1. Does Emma Meesseman show up an if so, when? Meesseman is focusing on Eurobasket and the Olympics first this summer, but if the Mystics are in good position entering the playoffs, Meesseman is one European player in the W with other commitments who could make a big difference come playoffs. Overtaxed in 2020 as a primary option, she is still a great player who pairs wonderfully with EDD.
  2. Who is is this team’s center behind Tina Charles? Mike Thibault has shown a willingness to cut and  pick up players in season. Erica McCall is fine, but there might be better options out there once teams make cuts. If Natasha Mack does not make the Sky roster, she’d be a high upside option, if an inexperienced one. Centers can be found, so something to keep an eye on. 

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

Here is my third of four preview pieces in preparation for the WNBA season. the Los Angeles Sparks, a team trying to hold onto relevance but might just be delaying the inevitable need to rebuild, the Minnesota Lynx, a team that may be a year or two away from contention, but is going for it, and the New York Liberty, an interesting mishmash of veterans and young players. 

Los Angeles Sparks

Projected Starters

Erica Wheeler: Wheeler was good, not great, in 2019 for the Fever in her age 28 season. The Sparks paid her as if she will continue to shoot so well from both 3 and 2. Possible, but real downside risk with this contract. And even if she does shoot well, she is still an interesting choice next to another 5’7″ guard in Kristi Toliver.

Kristi Toliver: The most dangerous guard with the ball in her hands behind the three point line not named Diana Taurasi, with the best step back 3 in the league, the main question is how long can she play at a high level going into her age 34 season. Hopefully she can be like Taurasi and stay effective into her late 30s, but no guarantees, given even in the Mystics’ championship winning season in 2019, she missed time with injuries. 

Brittney Sykes: The 33% she shot from 3 in 2020 is acceptable, especially if she gets the attempts back up to what they were earlier in her career, 7 or so per 36 minutes. A slasher who does not finish at the rim nor make plays for others at the rate one might hope, however there were signs of growth in her first year in LA of growth. Even only small improvements in her various skills could have big benefits, as Sykes could better harness her athleticism.

Nneka Ogwumike: A star in every way except for her usage rate, this team might need her to try to step up and provide scoring and create for herself. Her excellent efficiency will likely fall if she is taking on more of an offensive burden without Candace Parker. If she proves unable, this team outside of Toliver might struggle to score.

Amanda Zahui B: Sort of a 3 and D center, hopefully her woeful scoring inside of the arc with the Liberty was due to a weird situation with a mostly young team. A career 32% shooter from 3, her willingness to fire away does provide benefits but it would nice if a few more went in. Defensively she is more competent than stellar, but Nneka Ogwumike is a good fit next to her on that end. 

Key Reserves

Sidney Wiese: If the Sparks do struggle to score, she is the option in place of Sykes to juice the offense. A career 40% 3 point shooter who will shoot off the dribble, she can provide some shot creation next to Toliver. Next step for her is improving her passing, as she went from  2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio in 2019 to an even one in 2020. Not a turnstile on defense, either, if not the athlete Sykes is. 

Chiney Ogwumike: Rumors of her shooting some 3s which would be welcome, as it would ease the fit with her older sister. Her career has been mostly stalled by injury, but she is somewhat caught between being a 4 or a 5. A good backup big.

Te’a Cooper: Earned minutes with her defense, but did shoot 34% from 3. Shot relatively few attempts though, so upping that would be good. Something to watch for is if she can guard shooting guards because that would help earn her playing time next to either Wheeler or Toliver. 

2 Key Questions

  1. The Sparks traded their 2022 first round pick for the 7th pick in the 2021 draft and a 2022 second rounder from the Wings. This was not a trade I liked for the Sparks as the odds are too high that this Sparks team ends up in the lottery. The 2022 draft is deeper than the 2021 draft, so a top 4 pick in next year’s draft is even more valuable than a top 4 pick in the most recent draft, never mind the 7 pick. Jasmine Walker should be a decent player, but the downside risk is that she is out of the league in a couple of years and the Sparks 2022 pick is a top 2 pick and turns into Rhyne Howard or NaLyssa Smith. Odds of that are not high, but still too likely, especially given the best case scenario with Walker is that she is a starter level player. The odds seem remote of her becoming a star. 
  1. Building off the draft talk above, it would be really helpful for this team if one of their just drafted wings pops and pushes for a starting role. The Sparks drafted Jasmine Walker with the 7th pick, Stephanie Watts with the 10th, and Arella Guirantes with the 22nd. Sykes might be the answer, but in the current W, one can never have too many good wings.

Minnesota Lynx

Projected Starters:

Crystal Dangerfield: A player I thought last year was a first round talent who fell all the way to 16th, she showed in the first game in 2020 that she was the team’s best option at the point. I was high on her because of her shooting from 3, an area she was merely adequate in 2020. Now on a team with more shot creation around her, hopefully she can show her ability to shoot off movement and space the floor as well as being an effective on ball option.

Kayla McBride: 3.3 threes per game is too few for such a talented shooter. Even in a down year still she shot 34% from 3 and is a career 37% shooter. An underrated defender, she did an impressive job guarding the much taller DeWanna Bonner in the playoffs in 2020.

Napheesa Collier: Collier has the potential to be one of the top 2 or 3 players in the W at some point. The next step in her growth is seeing what she can do with the ball in her hands more. Would especially like to see the Lynx use their guards to screen for Collier. Teams will  be loath to switch, but not switching risks Collier having an open lane to the rim or McBride or Dangerfield popping for open threes. A switch leaves a small guard on Collier, and she can use her post up skills. She is good at basically everything else already needed for a prototypical big wing.

Damiris Dantas: An excellent complimentary player, she should be the backup 5 on this team as well as the starting 4. Staggering her with Fowles so they keep one on the floor at all times makes sense as the Dantas + Collier front court was very effective last year.

Sylvia Fowles: The best defensive center in the W, question is whether she can make it through the season healthy. Likely to have her minutes limited, but while playing should remain effective on both ends.  

Key Reserves:

Aerial Powers: Tied with McBride for the highest paid player on the team, the Lynx are betting a lot on a 6 game sample in 2020. But Powers is an excellent player to have off the bench. While she does not create much for others, an even assist to turnover ratio, she can score both on and off ball and should pair well with any of the Lynx other back court options.

Natalie Achonwa: If only Achonwa would turn her long 2s into 3s, this contract would make more sense. Achonwa is a fine player, but it is odd that she is earning more than either Dantas or Fowles. Fine as a third big, but the Lynx defense will suffer if she is pressed into more minutes because of injuries. 

Rachel Banham: While she will probably not shoot nearly 50% from 3 this season, she should be a fine backup point guard. Point guards tend to take longer to develop than other positions and she should be a fine option. Can also play off ball, depending on the match up.

2 Key Questions:

  1. Who is their go to player to score in a tight playoff game? I would argue it should be Napheesa Collier, but she did not really play that role last year against the Storm. Was that because Cheryl Reeve preferred to involve other players, was it because Collier does not quite have the handle yet be an on ball creator, or some of both? Collier with the ball in her hands should be the goal and it would be nice to see that leaned on at least some this year.
  2. Continuing with the Collier theme, what is her best position in the playoffs in key moments? The decision on whether to play her at the 3 or the 4 matters for how the team should build as she enters her prime and especially how the team will build for a post Sylvia Fowles world. If Rennia Davis can return healthy and show growth in her 3 point shooting, she might be a perfect fit next to Collier in that then you have two players who are interchangeable between the 3 and the 4.

New York Liberty

Projected Starters:

Sabrina Ionescu: The W has not had the same trend towards super high usage players as the NBA has with players like Luka Doncic and Trae Young having usage rates of 35%+. But if any player in the W were to approach that, it might be Ionescu. I am not recommending that, as Ionescu can and should be used off ball, but young stars who have been successful at every level often prefer to have the ball in their hands. Ionescu was third in her limited minutes in usage in 2020 to Arike Ogunbowale and Chennedy Carter, two other young star guards.

Betnijah Laney: The shooting improvement Laney showed last year seemed real. New York paid her as if it was and will continue. In a lower usage role, she should be able to cut down on the turnovers and still make plays in the pick and roll occasionally. Solid defender across multiple positions as well.

Rebecca Allen: Hopefully even given all the talk of defense from the Liberty, they still play some small ball. A front line of Allen and Howard  should be good enough defensively and very good offensively, with Allen a threat to shoot from anywhere and Howard able to make plays with the ball in her hands against slower centers.

Natasha Howard: Howard played well in 2019, her one year where she was a go to offensive player, but she was not especially efficient. How well she gels with Ionescu will decide whether this team can make it to the playoffs, as they are the best bet at a pick and roll tandem that can really give teams fits. Also will be interesting to see how and how much this team runs their offense through Howard. Do they try her in the post, faving up when facing a slower big, or use her as a ball handler and really let her stretch her game.

Kiah Stokes: Keep shooting, Kiah! While the 3s did not go in in her first season attempting 3s, her stroke did not look broken and the experiment should continue. Especially since it is unclear what her other role on offense would be if she tries to hang around by the basket, her defender will gum things up for the Liberty. She was a big reason this team was not a disaster on defense even given the youth up an down the roster, that should continue.

Key Reserves:

Layshia Clarendon: Played admirably in 2020 as a starter, but third guard off the bench is a much more natural fit for them. She is capable at either back court spot and should be good at filling wherever the Liberty need. High turnover rate will come down too in this scenario, their main flaw in 2020. 

Jazmine Jones: Miscast as a lead guard in 2020 because of injuries and opt outs, Jones played hard and impressively her shooting percentages were not terrible with a TS% over 50. But a negative assist to turnover ratio was not good and should improve in 2021 as she moves to a more natural off ball role and has another year of experience under her belt. 

Sami Whitcomb: Whitcomb could start for this team, with Laney at the 3 and Allen off the bench. But either way, she is going to help this offense as much as any player as someone who can actually make threes. A good example of how valuable shooting is, relative to other skills, as she was undrafted out of college but has carved a very good career for herself. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. In 2020 the Liberty defended ok, if not great, finishing 9th in defense, while struggling to score from anywhere on the floor, finishing last in offense by a mile. They put up one of the worst offensive performances in league history. Yet the talk in 2021 so far has been all about improving the defense. The team did add players who can actually shoot and make plays, but then drafted defense first players. Will be very interesting to see whether this team ends the season better on the defensive or offensive end.
  1. Natasha Howard made sense for this team, but trading the #1 overall pick was a risk. While overall this was not a deep draft, I remain high on Awak Kuier. Kuier will not be as good as Howard in the next couple of years, and possibly ever, but would be able to grow with Ionescu. I am curious how/if this team can get a second star to pair with Ionescu who is closer in age to her. This team clearly does not want to tank again, but another trip to the lottery in 2022 would not be the worst thing.  If Ionescu lives up to her potential, the Liberty have to hope to avoid a situation where they finish somewhere between 5th and 8th each season and struggle to add another star to play next to Ionescu.

2021 Season Preview: Dallas, Indiana, and Las Vegas

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

Dallas Wings

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

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

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

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

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

Key Reserves

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

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

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

2 Key Questions

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

Indiana Fever

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

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

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

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

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

Key Reserves:

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

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

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

2 Key Questions:

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

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

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

Las Vegas Aces

Projected Starters:

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

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

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

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

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

Key Reserves

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

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

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

2 Key Questions:

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

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