The 2019 season for the best women’s basketball league in the world is only three weeks in as the league continues to grow in talent, entertainment and popularity. This 23rd season is a unique one with some stars absent for the whole or the start of the season. Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, and Angel McCoughtry will all miss the entire 2019 season while Skylar Diggins-Smith and Candace Parker will be rudely late to it. With all these superstars absent the league has an exciting power vacuum. Here’s a quick guide or refresher for what to expect from each team this season.
The first fallen star of our WNBA preview is Angel McCoughtry, who was a huge addition to the team in 2018, will be out with an ACL tear until the very end of the season, adding on to a rocky few years for the team. In 2017, Atlanta had a 12-22 record and a nine game losing stream.
The Dream have some hope in the form of Tiffany Hayes, who has increased her scoring average every year of her career. Last season she led the team in scoring with 17.7 per game and made her first All-Star game. The Dream will rely heavily on Hayes to fill in for McCoughtry on the offensive end. Guards Renee Montgomery, Alex Bentley and Brittany Sykes will all need to step up for the team to stay afloat.
The Dream will likely fail to replace McCoughtry’s scoring and late game heroics and will regress to their 2017 record in an ever-improving league.
The Sky are coming back with their core of Courtney Vandersloot, Alaina Quigley (the first married couple to play together), along with second year players Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams.
Vandersloot has more than proven to be a great distributor. She has impressively assisted on 41.9% or more of her teammates baskets over the last three years. Quigley shot an incredible 42% from three (tied for 6th in the WNBA) last season. The couple will play less total minutes this season due to age but they will without a doubt still be relied on for production and consistency on such young team. Both veterans can mentor rookie Katie Lou Samuelson out of UConn, who could develop into the perfect point guard compliment to DeShields.
Everyone seems to be expecting DeShields to make a huge second year leap forward and win the Most Improved Player Award. She certainly has the potential to be a franchise-changing player. In her rookie season she showed amazing scoring off the dribble skills, thread the needle passing, and high defensive awareness by stealing the ball in passing lanes and blocked shots coming from the weak side. Her unrelenting energy exploits every opposing team’s offensive and defensive slips.
Another UConn alum Gabby Williams had an up and down season with some nice flashes on both ends. She was promoted in the draft as a Swiss army knife type player who can play all five positions, be a top defender with rebounding, passing and driving. While at times she looks undersized guarding 4s on defense, her fluid athleticism can make for a advantageous matchup against 4s on offense. If she can be more consistent and improve her shooting she can be a valuable role player plus more for a long time.
If the young Sky players can stay consistent and DeShields can ride the momentum towards stardom, the Sky can makes some waves in a lower seed playoff spot.
For the last two straight years the Mercury eliminated the Sun in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, legend Diana Taurasi broke Connecticut’s heart with five three pointers in the second half comeback to defeat the Sun in a single elimination game. The Sun traded their best player Chiney Ogwumike in the offseason, but have the talent to replace her production perhaps more than any other team losing a star player. With a strong start this season, the team looks ready to gain a higher seeding, burst through the early playoff barrier and finally be a title contender.
6’7 Jonquel Jones won 2017’s Most Improved Player award and 2018’s 6th Player Of The Year award. Without Ogwumike on the team this season, Jones will have much more playing time and a green light to display her is dominant play. She will certainly advance in 2019 to be an MVP candidate. Jones was second in the league in three-point percentage last season and has an elite and versatile offensive game. It’s rare for a player of her size to be able to shoot and handle the ball at an elite level.
Jones and Alyssa Thomas could potentially be league’s best frontcourt. Thomas thrives in the Sun’s frequent fast breaks and can be one of the most difficult in the league to guard when she has the ball in the open court.
The Sun can also boast the strongest bench mob in the league with forwards Brionna Jones and Morgan Tuck, and guards Bria Holmes, Shekinna Strickland, and finally the team’s moral booster Layshia Clarendon. Each could find starting roles elsewhere in the league.
With all the talent they have and great coaching, the Sun should find themselves in the 3rd or 4th seed and a make a deep playoff run this season.
The Wings are the biggest wildcard of the league. They are yet another team dealing with a missing star player, Skylar Diggins-Smith, who gave birth just a few weeks before the season started. She had a great season last season averaging 17.9 points (10th most in WNBA) and 6.2 assists (3rd in WNBA).
The team will also be recovering from trading superstar Liz Cambage to the Las Vegas Aces. The absence of her and Diggins-Smith brings a lot of question marks to the roster.
Rookie Arike Ogunbowale will play a lot of minutes at point guard, however there are doubts that that’s her natural position. She became Ellen level famous for hitting two incredible game-winning shots in the NCAA final four and otherwise averaging 17.6 ppg in the tournament. How consistant and reliable she is will determine a lot of the team’s success this season.
Azura Stevens, who made the all-rookie team last year, can score in the post both with her back to or facing the basket. She could also shoot from the outside and at times made hard drives to the paint from the wing. Will she be able to show her improved skill or have a sophomore slump?
6’7 Imani McGee-Stafford, who had a successful college playing career in Texas at UT, was upset with her playing time for the Atlanta Dream and successfully demanded a trade to Dallas. Her rookie season she was top ten in the league in rebounding and block percentage and could bring some much-needed aggression for the Wings.
One presence of certainty for the Wings is new coach Brian Agler, who was unceremoniously pushed out of the Sparks head coaching position to be replaced by Derek Fisher. Agler, who has won four championships (two with the Sparks and two with the Storm), is one of the most successful coaches in league history. He’ll bring the team more defensive discipline which was a core reason for his past teams’ success, especially in Los Angeles. It will likely take time for the new staffs’ culture and basketball principles to sink in but if the Wings look good and make the playoffs after so much transition, he will deserve a lot of credit and possibly a Coach Of The Year award.
The Fever had the worst overall net rating (-11.4) and the worst record in the league last season at 6-28. In recent years there’s been a severe lack of leadership, positive team culture and top tier talent. It can only go up from there. They had a more than solid 3-0 pre-season and so far, they certainly look better and with higher morale than last season.
It was a promising sign for the team culture that they drew up a play for rookie Teaira McCowen to hit the game winning shot in their season opener and immediately celebrated her execution.
McCowen, this year’s third overall pick, was a two time SEC Defensive Player Of The Year and will hopefully be able to provide some much needed rim protection and rebounding for the Fever early on. Her offensive skills are a bit more underdeveloped and it will take more than a season for the Fever to be able to rely on her for post moves and scoring.
In the buckets department, the Fever will look to second year player Kelsey Mitchell. Last season she made 70 three pointers, third most in a season for any rookie in history. She was also second in assists among all rookies in 2018.
Ultimately, the fever probably won’t make a big enough improvement to make the playoffs but, however incrementally, the team is finally heading in the right direction.
Las Vegas Aces
A team going from a 9th place 14-20 record to a title contender would be a rare and amazing story. The Aces made this possible with some incredible moves and drafts in the last three offseasons to stack talent. They have the number one draft picks from the last three drafts and the biggest trade acquisition in years of superstar Liz Cambage. Now the challenge will be how to handle an embarrassment of riches. How will the Aces mesh all their new talent together?
2017’s number one pick was Kelsey Plum out of University of Washington where she was an all-time Division I scoring leader. She was marketed as a James Harden type player coming into the league and in her first two seasons its proven to be true. Plum has shot a high three-point percentage with accurate passing (2nd in the league in assists to turnover ratio only behind Sue Bird). In the last two seasons she has shown spectacular flashes of playmaking and shooting, and could develop into one of the league’s most exciting players. She didn’t improve her points and assist numbers from her rookie season but she did dramatically improve her efficiency. With all the playmakers on the Aces, Plum will likely start playing more off the ball, which will take advantage of her shooting strength but could unfortunately downplay her playmaking and passing strengths.
2018’s number one pick A’ja Wilson is already a legend. As a center, she impressively ran the team’s offense. She led the team in minutes played, blocks and points. Wilson is drawing in a lot of fans, and looking dominant with strong post moves and mid-range scoring. Even if she has a sophomore slump she’ll remain an all-star player.
2019’s number one pick is Jackie Young out of Notre Dame. At Notre Dame was a versatile wing player who could score and defend. Her playmaking was spotty, but coach Laimbeer has said she might play a lot of point guard for the Aces. Nevertheless, Young looked amazing in her season opening game, scoring eight points on 4-4 shooting. Her game seems to be more suited for professional play and her skills will be displayed more than was possible at Notre Dame.
It was always known that Cambage didn’t want to play for her previous team, the Dallas Wings. Now that the offseason trade freed her and all the drama is over, she might just mess around and take over the league. She will miss some of the beginning of the season to recover from an injury but should be in full form after around halfway through the season. In 2018, she led the league in scoring at 23 points per game, led the league in efficiency at almost 60% shooting, and was second in the league in rebounding. Once she gets 100% her and Wilson will be an unstoppable duo.
If coach Laimbeer can successfully organize and coach all the team’s talent into a cohesive unit, he will be a coach of the year favorite. If it looks a little sloppy this season then its guaranteed to sure up sooner than later and the Aces will continue to quickly grow their fan base and be one of the more exciting teams for years to come.
Part II starting with the Los Angeles Sparks coming soon!
Picture attribution: Lorie Shaull [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D