WNBA opening weekend: first glances and initial impressions

Rookie Ezi Magbegor goes up against Amanda Zahui B.. as Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart trail. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Rookie Ezi Magbegor goes up against Amanda Zahui B.. as Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart trail. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

After what felt like an eternal wait, the WNBA peeled back the curtain this weekend in its return to play, giving fans and media a glimpse of all 12 teams. The games have left plenty to contemplate in their wake. But in an unusual season framed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the subplots have multiplied.

Impressive

Both the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks showcased their extreme depth in routes of the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury, respectively.

Seattle’s veteran core – Sue Bird, Alysha Clark, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart – have been together for a long time. Their supporting-cast-that-is-another-starting-five-off-the-bench has been with the team long enough to win the WNBA Championship together two years ago. In fact much of that group, which includes Natasha Howard, Crystal Langhorne, Sami Whitcomb, Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell, benefited by having Bird and Stewart out for 2019, as they grew light years in taking starting roles. Stewart is back from an Achilles tear looking like she never left. Bird is now sharing point guard duties with Canada, which allows her to rest while giving the young guard opportunity to play. With exciting Australia rookie Ezi Magbegor, who has been mentored by franchise great Lauren Jackson, the Storm look like they are ready to party like it’s 2018.

Brittney Sykes elevates to block Brittney Griner's shot. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Brittney Sykes elevates to block Brittney Griner’s shot. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

Los Angeles has six new players on this year’s roster, but 13-year veteran Candace Parker, nine-year veteran Nneka Ogwumike and six-year vet Chelsea Gray are as solid as it gets. Parker and Ogwumike are former league MVP’s, and are two of the best to play the game. All three are All-Stars, and even more importantly, all three are playmakers. They’ve added veteran Seimone Augustus and lightening-quick guard Brittney Sykes to a solid rotation that had no trouble dismantling Phoenix, thought to be a favorite going into the weekend.

In fact, if the Storm and the Sparks end up playing for the title this year, it would be no surprise. But the Chicago Sky will have something to say about that.

Chicago went from mediocre to contenders last season, finishing the regular season in fifth place behind renewed energy, focus and cohesion. This year they return their core, which includes All-Stars Diamond DeShields, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Stefanie Dolson, as well as reliable reserves Kahleah Copper and Cheyenne Parker. The loss of starting forward Jantel Lavender to injury was offset by the signing of Azura Stevens, and by drafting Ruthy Hebard in the first round.

In facing the Las Vegas Aces – the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season – the Sky were tested as DeShields’ minutes were limited due to nagging injuries. Las Vegas took a 12-point lead in the third quarter, but Chicago rallied back for the win – a gut check game and a confidence-booster, as DeShields is one of their court leaders and the best in-game creator on the team. If they can win without two of their starters, well, Bring It On.

Surprises

When last year’s regular-season MVP, Elena Delle Donne, opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns, and signee/All-Star Tina Charles did the same, most overlooked the Washington Mystics to defend last year’s championship win. But after a rout of the Indiana Fever that saw solid performances from just everyone on the roster, Washington put the league on notice. Myisha Hines-Allen rose up for a career-high 27 points, and Aerial Powers, Emma Meesseman, Ariel Atkins and reserve Shey Peddy also scored in double figures. The Mystics are playing team basketball, and those kinds of squads win titles.

Chennedy Carter and Betnijah Laney prepare to high-five Monique Billings. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Chennedy Carter and Betnijah Laney prepare to high-five Monique Billings. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

Equally-eye-opening was the Atlanta Dream‘s 105-95 win over the Dallas Wings. Monique Billings led all five starters in double figures with a career-high 30 points, new signee Betnijah Laney had 19 points and No. 4 draft pick Chennedy Carter scored 18. Unexpected? Absolutely. Atlanta saw starters Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery opt out of the season last month. In training camp they’ve been without three players, who tested positive for COVID-19, and they have three rookies. Billings, in her third season, is the only returner from last year, along with Elizabeth Williams. The Dream finished in last place in 2019, and begin this year as the highest-scoring team of opening weekend, with the league’s highest scorer.

The difference so far is largely Billings and Carter. Billings worked hard on her game and fitness in the offseason, and it shows. She was also a vocal leader on the court Sunday, giving words of advice to Carter, among other things. And those words helped settle Carter, who was able to channel her energy into some beautiful finished plays that showcased her dynamic skill set. Both Billings and Carter have the kind of athleticism that makes the game fun to watch. When the three players who are out return to the team, things will only get better for Atlanta.

The last team to surprise was the New York Liberty. With seven rookies on a rebuilt roster, they went into the weekend as the Most Doubted Team. But they played the Storm well, and the method to the franchise’s madness became a bit more clear. Eight-year veteran Layshia Clarendon led New York with 20 points, No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu had 12 and veteran Amanda Zahui B. scored 10. Two other rookies – Jocelyn Willoughby and Leaonna Odom each had nine points, and if it weren’t for Kia Nurse going down with an ankle sprain in the second quarter, the Liberty might have been able to continue challenging Seattle. This team has the potential to be great sooner, rather than later.

Could be special

The Minnesota Lynx have had a tough couple of years, as they’ve been rebuilding. But things are coming together. Sylvia Fowles and Damiris Dantas are the only long-timers, but they’ve got a solid surrounding cast in reigning Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier, Lexie Brown, and newcomer veterans Karima Christmas-Kelly and Shenise Johnson. In a surprise come-from-behind over the Connecticut Sun on Sunday, Minnesota showed they might have the steal of the draft in Crystal Dangerfield. The UConn star, selected 16th, ignited the team with her energy and a 10-point outburst. If the Lynx continues to have such total team efforts, they will be back on the winning track.

Cheyenne Parker #32 of the Chicago Sky grabs the rebound against the Las Vegas Aces on July 26, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.
Cheyenne Parker #32 of the Chicago Sky grabs the rebound against the Las Vegas Aces on July 26, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

Like the Dream, the Las Vegas Aces sustained some blows going into the season. All-Star center Liz Cambage opted out for the year, and starting guard Kelsey Plum tore her Achilles in June. Starter Kayla McBride was late to training camp, as was steadfast reserve Sugar Rodgers. Yet in their first outing, Las Vegas still showed flashes of the brilliance that kept them in the playoff race throughout last year. They have a huge opportunity in having Angel McCoughtry on the roster. Refreshed after missing last season with injury, McCoughtry went off for 25 points, while A’ja Wilson put up 22. Both players work well on the floor together, unlike Wilson and Cambage have. With a bit more adjustment to their new roles, the Aces could be dangerous again in 2020.

The other WNBA team to rebuild its roster this year is the Dallas Wings. Only Kayla Thornton, Allisha Gray, Arike Ogunbowale, Isabelle Harrison and Megan Gustafson return. But the newcomers make Dallas a much more well-rounded team. Ogunbowale, who narrowly missed being Rookie of the Year last season, was forced to play the point. With the arrival of true PG’s Moriah Jefferson and rookie Tyasha Harris, however, high-volume scoring Ogunbowale can move back to the shooting guard spot. The Wings’ other two first-round draft picks, Satou Sabally and Bella Alarie, give them depth and height in the paint. Against Atlanta, Dallas looked like a young team trying to figure things out. Yet they still scored 95 points – a great sign. If this new group can figure each other out fast, they will be fun to watch.

Missing pieces

Going into the weekend, the Phoenix Mercury were tagged to be among the top teams due to the health of Diana Taurasi and the signing of Skylar Diggins-Smith. Thus, the pounding they endured at the hands of the Sparks caught everyone off guard. Their performance, which was lackluster at times, underscored the value of DeWanna Bonner, who departed over the winter. Bonner has been their energy player for years. Time and time again, when the rest of the team has sagged, the wiry but fiery Bonner would put them on her back and go on a scoring spree. The Mercury look like they miss her much.

The Connecticut Sun are without center Jonquel Jones, who opted out for the year, Briann January, who tested positive for COVID-19, and Theresa Plaisance, who has yet to play. Shooters Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen signed with other teams in the offseason, while Bonner came to Connecticut. Yet for all that, they looked great for most of their game against the Lynx. In the end, though, Bonner and Alyssa Thomas, for all of their usual heroics, were not enough to stop their opponents. None of their teammates, aside from Brionna Jones, truly stepped up with them. It seems like the Sun is missing some fire, or some firepower. It’s hard to tell which is the case.

The rebuilding process for the Indiana Fever continues, but they are making progress. They were hit with bad luck when starting point guard Erica Wheeler and No. 3 draft pick Lauren Cox were diagnosed with cororavirus, delaying the team’s arrival to the Bradenton, Florida camp. But Kelsey Mitchell, who scored 25 points over the weekend, continues to improve, and Julie Allemand is a talented newcomer. Victoria Vivians looked good in her return, after missing 2019 with a torn ACL. When Wheeler gets back and if the reserves can rise to the occasion, Indiana will take their next step as a team.

Roles: knowing them and having the players

The best teams consist of those who know their roles. It’s also important that those roles are filled.

Great teams have great leaders. Think Bird, who is basically another coach, whether on the sidelines or during games. Think Fowles, aka “Mama Syl,” helping bring players along.

Successful teams have playmakers: those who can create their own shot, their own offense, a space on the floor for themselves. Think Ogwumike, who has spent much of her professional career getting buckets from her own creativity. Think DeShields, who can shift her body in mid-air, change direction – change everything – if the situation calls for it.

Teams that get there have energy players, who give the team a lift emotionally. Think Sydney Colson and her tunnel songs and cheers. Think Kahleah Copper, the special handshake emperor of the Chicago Sky.

If a team has all of these? Watch out.

Let’s see which teams are three for three this year.

Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back

Devastating injuries plagued the league last season, and it is a joy to see players return healthy and re-energized this year. Kudos to Bird, Taurasi, Stewart, Diggins-Smith, Augustus, McCoughtry, Clarendon, Stevens, Vivians and Johnson for working hard in rehab and making personal sacrifices to play in tough circumstances this season.

Draft class talent is off the charts

The only thing the 2020 draft class lacks is a full season of play, and that’s a shame, because we haven’t seen a talented group like this in a while.

Carter grabbed headlines because of her scoring and her skill set, but Ionescu, Harris, Sabally and Dangerfield were also impressive and show a great amount of potential. I have a feeling other rookies will be showing out soon too, as not everyone is locked and ready to perform in the first game; some players need more time to adjust. Keep an eye on Bella Alarie and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan.

One game down, 21 games to go

This is going to be a great season, but played at warp speed. Buckle up.

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