WNBA Season Preview 2020: One big question for every team

The 2020 WNBA season tips off on Saturday. And to be honest, there’s a lot to process. 

So much has changed since the last time a WNBA game was played. There’s the return of Breanna Stewart. There’s the debut of Sabrina Ionescu. There’s the return of Sue Bird. There’s the coaching debut of Walt Hopkins. There’s the expanded role for Amanda Zahui B., and Ezi Magbegor’s debut in the United States, there’s Jocelyn Willoughby’s first WNBA game…

And that’s all in just the first game, scheduled for noon Saturday on ESPN.

Accordingly, I’m going to provide you with some cheat codes to stay on top of it all. A WNBA season is a work of art, with many small details to scrutinize and an effect on your soul akin to what others experience through great food, religion or recreational drugs.

But for each team, there’s one question that, above all others, will determine just what kind of season it will have. Start here — then consume it all.

Seattle Storm: Can Sue Bird continue defying time?

The return of Stewart is the most important development for the Storm after she missed the 2019 season with an Achilles injury. However, Stewart is still just 25, looks healthy, does not have a minutes restriction and professes to be moving better than she did before she got hurt.
Sue Bird, let’s not forget, actually posted a higher net rating for the 2018 Storm than Stewart did — that’s how good, and how important, she was to the champions. Bird will turn 40 later this year, and while betting against Sue Bird is a losing proposition since, well, always, how closely she hews to the 2018 version of herself, as opposed to the great-but-not-best Birds of earlier in the decade could determine Seattle’s fate.

Diamond DeShields is on the shortlist of any WNBA general manager for a player he or she would draft if starting a team. But on a Sky roster where much of the talent returning from last season is well-established — we know who Stef Dolson, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot are — the difference between an early playoff exit and a title comes down to DeShields taking another step forward. There’s small sample indication that she’s ready to become a more efficient decision-maker, too: her season marks were 16.2 points per game on 39.9 percent shooting, but over her final 10 regular-season games, those jumped to 19.3 and 45.4 percent. Last three games? 20.3 and 48.9 percent. She’s ready to make the leap, and if she does, the Sky could win it all.

Phoenix Mercury: The Sue Bird question, but Diana Taurasi

The craziest thing about Bird’s 2018 renaissance is that it denied Diana Taurasi, doing something very similar, the chance to win a title for her efforts as well. And while Bird missed all of 2019 with her knee injury, Taurasi might as well have — trying instead to ignore her body and shooting just 10 percent on 3-pointers. This winter, she took a brand new approach to rehab and says she’s ready to resume being the Taurasi we’ve always seen. Those who claim the Mercury are thin on the bench understate the potential of players like Alanna Smith, in my opinion, but the thing about Taurasi is she’s singular. The Mercury, if she plays like her forever self, are title contenders. They are still dangerous with Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner as a two-person attack, but Taurasi is the element no one else can match.

Los Angeles Sparks: Who’s taking 3s?

When the Sparks reached the WNBA semifinals against the Connecticut Sun, a glaring weakness helped sink their season: a lack of perimeter shooters. Accordingly, Los Angeles went out and added Kristi Toliver, the floor-spacer who helped the Mystics reach the pinnacle in 2019 after doing the same for Los Angeles back in 2016. But with Toliver opting our of the #wubble, it is incumbent upon Brittney Sykes and Seimone Augustus, two other offseason acquisitions, to keep Williams and her boom-or-bust cycle from being the only one helping to space the floor for Chelsea Gray, Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker. All three can shoot the 3 as well. But some legitimate floor spacers are necessary for the trio of stars to reach their best selves.

Las Vegas Aces: How long until A’ja Wilson plays the 5?

Look, no one wants to lose a Liz Cambage, one of the top-five talents in the league. But in theory, it meant a world of opportunity for A’ja Wilson, the uber-impressive 2018 Rookie of the Year and prototypical 5 in the current WNBA.

That’s not how Bill Laimbeer, who never met a lineup he didn’t wish were bigger, appears to see it. Wilson, remaining at the 4, while Carolyn Swords and Avery Warley-Talbert are set to split time at center. Both are credible WNBA players, but they get in the way of Wilson’s best areas on the floor, they do not provide shooting around her (nor does Angel McCoughtry, who is below average from 3, for all her other offensive gifts) and allows perimeter defenders a few more steps when trying to contain the criminally underrated Kayla McBride.

Laimbeer is stubborn. Maybe he’ll keep Wilson at the 4 all season long. Or maybe he’ll change, and the Aces can maximize their potential.

Connecticut Sun: Can DeWanna Bonner be a leading scorer?

Three-time All-Star DeWanna Bonner can do it all, and often has, for the Phoenix Mercury. But at no point in her career has she been on a team without at least one of Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi, and for the most part, she’s played with both of them. Now, on a Connecticut team without Jonquel Jones, she’s the purest scoring option Curt Miller has. Sure, Alyssa Thomas‘ comical array of trick shots around the basket are good for plenty of production, and Jasmine Thomas can get hers when she needs to, but the Sun will go as far as Bonner’s ability to hit critical baskets, and many of them, can take them.

Washington Mystics: Same question, Emma Meesseman

Covering Emma Meesseman in the 2019 WNBA playoffs was to see a more authoritative, confident player taking over games. It was a far cry from early memories I had of her career, where our media sessions mostly consisted of me pointing out stats indicating she had greatness within her, and Meesseman shyly finding them hard to believe.

Well, Meesseman knows how good she is now, and so does the world, after she won the WNBA Finals MVP award. But she’ll have to do it largely without the main offensive forces from last year — Elena Delle Donne is expected to miss most, if not all of the season, recovering from a back injury she somehow played through last fall, while Tina Charles and Natasha Cloud opted out of the 2020 #wubble. Is Meesseman ready to carry a team? We’re about to find out. Washington’s playoff future hangs on the answer.

New York Liberty: What can Amanda Zahui B.?

Hey, remember this?

Look, a lot of what happens to the Liberty will depend on Sabrina Ionescu’s adjustments in the WNBA. And even though I know the Storm will be coming for her in her debut, I don’t worry about it much — Ionescu’s physical and mental toughness, combined with the translatable skillset, means she’s going to be just great. And Kia Nurse, with an expanded offensive role, is another given in my mind.

No, the biggest indicator of success for the Liberty will be if Zahui B. can stay on the floor, avoid fouls, and do things like she did that night in the Staples Center. Because the list of centers with her array of skills is remarkably limited, the Liberty need her to rim protect as well amid a roster with seven rookies (and, you can be sure, the missed assignments that often come with inexperience). But a Zahui B. with 30 minutes per game is going to be one of the elite performers in this league.

Dallas Wings: Is Moriah Jefferson‘s knee sound?

Let’s stipulate as a given that Arike Ogunbowale‘s late-season efficiency sticks around. Dallas has loads of young talent, a lot of ways it can be utilized, and a mad scientist in Brian Agler with more than a few successful experiments under his belt. But the team really has one elite point guard option, and it’s the reason Greg Bibb committed to Jefferson long-term this past offseason, even though Jefferson played only half-seasons in 2017 and 2018.

She struggled in 2018, but in both 2016 and 2017, Jefferson did everything asked of her and more – a strong on-ball defender, excellent at getting to the basket and finishing despite her size, a fantastic three-point shooter, and a basketball IQ that pulls the package together. It’s not an accident that Breanna Stewart’s UConn teams that won four titles in four years were also, in each instance, Moriah Jefferson’s UConn teams.

The question isn’t ability. It’s endurance. The WNBA, and the Wings, will be better for it if Jefferson is able to play a full season.

Atlanta Dream: How good, how soon for Chennedy Carter?

The talent: well, I saw Chennedy Carter in a Jordan Classic as a high school senior, and the penetrating, the body control, the finishing were all pro-ready that day. It’s always been about the choices she makes on the floor, the efficiency that comes with them, whether she can turn herself into a 3-point shooter who makes 35-40 percent instead of her 25.3 percent at Texas A&M last year. At the risk of an NBA comp, she reminds me so much of Allen Iverson, a comp I use in part because I don’t really think there’s been a Chennedy Carter in the WNBA yet.

Iverson was electric as a rookie. But the Sixers finished 22-60. By year three, the way he led his team on the court, they reached the second round of the playoffs. If Carter pushes ahead of Iverson’s timetable, the Dream could be better that much sooner.

Minnesota Lynx: Is Napheesa Collier ready to be a star?

I don’t think the Minnesota Lynx are a question mark at guard the way many others do. Rachel Banham, Lexie Brown, Shenise Johnson and Crystal Dangerfield are all plus shooters who can run a team, while it sounds like Odyssey Sims will be back to further buttress the backcourt. Nor is Sylvia Fowles a question, other than the one where we figure out how she managed to get even better in her 30s than she was in her 20s.

But the question I have, and it is one I think she’s going to answer effusively in the affirmative, is this: can Napheesa Collier build off of her Rookie of the Year campaign and become one of the true frontline stars in the WNBA? Collier did everything in her first season, knocking down 3s to compliment her remarkable footwork in the paint, defending opposing wings and bigs alike. As a rookie, she was one of the most mistake-free players in the WNBA, a reality recognized by Cheryl Reeve, who made her a co-captain for 2020, an unconventional choice for such a young player, but an obvious one in Collier’s case.

So if Collier can take on more of the offensive load, suddenly Minnesota will be deploying a bevy of shooters like the guards mentioned above and modern stretch-4 Damiras Dantas around Fowles, the best 5 in league history and a next-generation star in Collier. If you don’t think that’s enough talent for Cheryl Reeve to figure out how to win with it, you must not know who Cheryl Reeve is.

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