2021 WNBA season off to a twisting, turning start

The 5-0 Connecticut Sun are off to their best start in three seasons. Connecticut Sun photo.

Drama? Intrigue? Unexpected twists and turns? Ten days into the WNBA’s 25th season has seen a bit of everything. And as players continue to return from overseas play – and hopefully back from injury – teams will continue to write their stories.

Going into this week, one squad has separated itself from the rest, with others right behind.

The Connecticut Sun is off to a 5-0 start, which is their best in three years. Five players are averaging double figures, lead by the dominating combination of Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner. Jones, who sat out last year, puts up 18.4 points and grabs 10.8 rebounds per game, while Bonner averages 19.4 points and is the Sun’s emotional leader. Briona Jones has stepped up her game, and is one of five on the roster who shoots 45 percent or better. Natisha Hiedeman is also executing at a high level, and playing 33 minutes per night.

Some discounted Connecticut when forward Alyssa Thomas was ruled out for the season with an Achilles tear last winter, but her teammates have all stepped up in her absence, and then some. Their roster is mostly the same as it has been for the last two years, and their on-court chemistry shows.

One of the biggest surprises so far has been the New York Liberty, who rebounded from their only loss last week to hand the Chicago Sky their first defeat of the year over the weekend.

“I think we adjusted and learned from all the mistakes we were making offensively (in their loss to Washington) by having better ball movement,” said Sabrina Ionescu after Sunday’s win. “We needed to crack down and get rebounds….we needed to punch first.”

“Defense is what helped us get our offense going and win this game….and we will have to continue to do that.”

Having 2020 No. 1 pick Ionescu back from last year’s season-ending injury has been critical for the young Liberty squad, as she is averaging 18.4 points, 8.8 assists and 6.4 rebounds per outing. In her third game, Ionescu became the ninth player in league history to notch a triple-double. And as in college, many of her shots and assists are jaw-dropping. In the team’s first game, she hit a buzzer-beating winner.

Last season’s most-improved player, Betnijah Laney, has picked up right where she left off with Atlanta, averaging 22 points per game for New York. Rookie Michaela Onyenwere has started all five games due to her versatility as a forward who can also shoot from the perimeter. She averages 10.2 points per contest in 22 minutes of play. Second-year forward Kylee Shook has upped both her scoring and rebounding, and is seeing more playing time as a result. Newcomer veteran Sami Whitcomb has proven to be a good fit for the Liberty, and a reliable scorer from behind the arc.

Natasha Howard, who also came with Whitcomb from Seattle, played her first game Sunday and put up 12 points. As she finds her way into the rotation, Howard will undoubtedly have more of an impact, as the 2019 defensive player of the year is a great two-way option. Look for New York to be contenders this season, for the first time in years.

Jordin Canada launches a shot around Liz Cambage. Neil Enns/Storm photos.

Most doubted the defending champion Seattle Storm going into the year, which was understandable after they lost two starters and a key reserve in free agency. But Seattle came out firing in their first game, and buried the Las Vegas Aces. Doubt surfaced again when Las Vegas returned the favor next outing with a win, but the Storm roared back to win their next two matchups in dramatic fashion. First they rallied from 19 down to top Minnesota by 12 points, and two nights later 2018 league MVP Breanna Stewart lead them over Dallas with 36 points and 11 rebounds. She became the fastest player in league history to reach 2,500 career points.

Stewart is averaging 25.8 points per game, Jewell Loyd 21.8, and Jordin Canada, 10. Sue Bird, Katie Lou Samuelson and Candice Dupree are close behind.

The Storm’s returning core acknowledged that the team is still learning how to work together.

“We’re practically a brand new team, so we’ve got to keep pushing,” Canada said after the Lynx win. “We can’t come out slow; we have to be on the same page and keep pushing through. As we continue to work through the lulls, we’ll find and get into a rhythm.”

Bird said the team had the same core group for several years, and had settled into it. With new personnel, they are working to become comfortable with each other on the fly, as the season schedule is fast-paced. Ultimately, however, she sees it coming together.

“I think that the depth of the team could be our biggest weapon,” Bird said. “Depth can end up playing a significant role for our team, (so) we’ve got to get comfortable.”

Loyd said Seattle is embracing the process.

“We’re going to continue to build confidence in our system, which is built on chemistry,” Loyd said. “We’re excited…..we know we’re not where we want to be right now….we want to make sure we’re peaking at the right time.”

The Chicago Sky got off to an exciting start by routing the Mystics in their season opener. Coach James Wade had said his team, which has been knocking on the door of greatness since he arrived in 2019, had a chance to win the Championship after acquiring All-Star Candace Parker in free agency. And to be sure, Parker and guard/forward Kahleah Copper looked like they were ready to lead the charge, as they showed off explosive chemistry in the win.

But Parker has missed two games with an ankle injury, and in their lone loss, she was especially missed. Sharpshooter Allie Quigley has also been out two games with injury.

The Sky has a lot going for them, as Courtney Vandersloot is in her usual form, dishing 16 assists Sunday. Diamond DeShields is healthy and back to being a threat from anywhere on the floor. Sophomore Ruthy Hebard has stepped up in the paint to double-double form, and Astou Ndour-Fall is averaging 13.3 points per game.

Yet, let there be no doubt: if Parker and Quigley don’t return to the starting lineup soon, Chicago will have a rough road ahead in a league that gets exponentially tougher each year.

Many picked the Las Vegas Aces to reach the title game, if not win the Championship. But the team was dealt a tough break when starter Angel McCoughtry tore her ACL in a preseason game. They are also learning how to integrate high-octane point guard Chelsea Gray into their system, as well as the returned Liz Cambage and JiSu Park, and the newly-acquired Riquna Williams. The shifts have resulted in peaks and valleys.

After splitting games with the Storm, the Aces then drubbed the Los Angeles Sparks before running out of gas Sunday against the Sun.

One bright spot for the team, besides reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and the fact that six on the roster average double figures, is the new attack mentality of Jackie Young. She is averaging 13.5 points per game, and has proven to be reliable. But Las Vegas will need to figure out how to put more of their exceptional off-court chemistry onto the hardwood if they want to make a successful run this season.

The Dallas Wings have only played twice this year, and it was in their three-point loss to the Storm in overtime that provided a glimpse of their potential. For the last two seasons they have relied on star guard Arike Ogunbowale to carry the scoring load, but this year she has assistance in Marina Mabrey, Allisha Gray, Isabelle Harrison and Kayla Thornton – all of whom are also averaging double figures.

Satou Sabally and new draftee Awak Kuier are still overseas, but will add a lot to the team when they arrive. If Bella Alarie, who just joined the team, and their stellar rookie class can get more involved, Dallas could be dangerous.

The Phoenix Mercury continue to underachieve, as they have over the past two seasons, despite having All-Stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, and All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith, beginning last year. It is further proof that having a collection of stellar players on a roster doesn’t necessarily equate to greatness if the entire unit can’t produce results. Time will tell whether or not the Mercury can pull things together.

Besides having to integrate returning Tiffany Hayes and new signees Odyssey Sims and Crystal Bradford into their scheme, the Atlanta Dream also has a new coaching staff. Nicki Collen left to become Baylor’s new head coach just days before the season, and Mike Petersen was elevated to head coach. He brought in two new assistant coaches, and the team has a new ownership group, as well.

As they mesh, Atlanta has shown moments of on-court brilliance. But they must learn to put 40 minutes of solid basketball together to be successful.

Sabrina Ionescu applauds a good call. Getty Images photo.

Tina Charles, who opted out of the season last year after signing with the Washington Mystics, has proven she was worth the wait so far this year. She is averaging 25.3 points per outing with inspired, passionate play – the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in a while. All-Star Elena Delle Donne has been out as she recovers from back surgery, leaving Ariel Atkins as the only other double-figure scorer. The rest of the team is making solid, balanced contributions, but the Mystics need their 2019 MVP back as quickly as possible.

The Indiana Fever got off to a tough 0-3 start, but their weekend win over Washington was a triumph. Kelsey Mitchell scored 18 points, Jessica Breland and Teaira McCowan each 17, Danielle Robinson, 13, and Victoria Vivians, 11, in what seemed to be a game that broke the seal off of the basket of the season for players.

If the Fever can continue working relentlessly like their recently Hall of Fame-enshrined general manager Tamika Catchings, there is still plenty of time for this young, talented squad to have a successful season.

From 2015-2018, the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx kept exchanging punches for bragging rights at the top of the league standings. So it’s ironic that both teams begin this season at the bottom, as the only two teams without a win.

The Sparks lost Parker to the Sky, Gray and Williams to the Aces, and Seimone Augustus to retirement. They have six new players, or seven if Chiney Ogwumike is counted, as she sat out last season. They have looked disjoined and out of sync on the court – especially in their 29-point drubbing at the hands of Las Vegas.

Los Angeles has played just twice, which will be the least of any team after tonight’s game. And it’s unfortunate, because they can use all the chemistry-building that they can get.

The Lynx have been missing star forward Napheesa Collier, who just returned from overseas and is going through the COVID-19 protocol. She might be the piece they need to get them over the hump and earn them their first win, as Sylvia Fowles, Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Crystal Dangerfield are each scoring in double figures. Coaches and players alike have seemed mystified as to why the team is winless.

When the nets are coming down this fall in the WNBA’s final game, which team will be doing the cutting? It’s going to be an interesting journey to that final frame.