W.N.B.A. Preview: Don’t Bet Against the Aces in the West

The W.N.B.A. begins its 25th season on Friday with the returns of some big-name veterans and the debuts of promising rookies.

“Rosters are stacked with incredibly talented veterans, and the last few rookie classes are bringing a whole new element to the fierce competition within the league,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The New York Times.

Below, our reporters inform you what to anticipate this season in the Western Conference.

A medical exemption (Liz Cambage) and torn Achilles’ tendon (Kelsey Plum) saved two of Las Vegas’s key gamers out for the 2020 season. In their absences, A’ja Wilson (Most Valuable Player Award) and Dearica Hamby (Sixth Woman of the Year Award) notched award-winning seasons. Angel McCoughtry, in her first season with the franchise, added playmaking and veteran poise, and the Aces made it to the finals.

Cambage and Plum are again, together with JiSu Park, however little else is acquainted.

Kayla McBride, a fan favourite, signed with the Minnesota Lynx in free company, and Las Vegas introduced in the former Los Angeles Sparks’ guards Chelsea Gray, as a starter, and Riquna Williams, in reserve.

Plum will come off the bench.

Gray, who had been enjoying abroad, joined the Aces simply 36 hours earlier than the Aces’ preseason sport in opposition to her former group, so there’s an acute have to develop chemistry. Coach Bill Laimbeer set forth easy objectives heading into their regular-season begin on Saturday: Get to know each other higher, keep wholesome and enhance conditioning.

Simple objectives, however not simple ones.

McCoughtry tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Saturday, and is anticipated to overlook the season. McCoughtry’s absence will sluggish the chemistry-building course of, as will Plum’s: A member of the U.S.A. Basketball 3×3 group, she’s going to miss every week at the finish of May whereas competing in an Olympic qualifying match.

As the first W.N.B.A. group ever to have the prime two picks in the draft, the Dallas Wings had a novel alternative to fortify an already younger, growing group.

They added Charli Collier of Texas, who was the consensus No. 1 choose, and Awak Kuier, a 6-foot-Four heart from Finland. One of Dallas’s greatest weaknesses final season was inside offense. Wings Coach Vickie Johnson instructed reporters final week that Collier’s scoring in the paint had stood out, and that ought to earn her enjoying time.

She shall be a superb scoring punch alongside ahead Satou Sabally, final yr’s No. 2 total draft choose, and guard Arike Ogunbowale, who virtually led Dallas to the playoffs final season as the league’s main scorer, averaging 22.eight factors per sport.

Moriah Jefferson performed simply 9 video games a yr in the past however shall be part of the common rotation this season now that she’s wholesome, and Tyasha Harris earned priceless expertise abroad and is anticipated to contribute greater than her 6.9 factors per sport from final season.

Then there’s the fifth-year veteran Allisha Gray, who could also be the glue for the roster of third- and second-year gamers.

For the first time since 2007, the Los Angeles Sparks shall be enjoying with out Candace Parker, who led the group to their third championship in 2016. Parker, a free agent, signed along with her hometown Chicago Sky in the low season, however the Sparks have a good quantity of star energy on deck to try the unenviable process of changing her. The sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike shall be joined by the free company acquisitions Amanda Zahui B — whose job shall be to assist fill the Parker-size gap in the paint — Erica Wheeler and Kristi Toliver, each veteran guards.

Beyond that, the Sparks will look to make the most of what looks as if a transition season. Young guards like Te’a Cooper and the second-round draft choose Arella Guirantes will undoubtedly discover sturdy mentorship in Toliver, a W.N.B.A. champion and up to date N.B.A. assistant coach. Nneka Ogwumike shall be compelled to step right into a management function with the departure of not solely Parker however the Sparks’ 2020 second-leading scorer, Chelsea Gray, and fourth-leading scorer, Riquna Williams. Guard Brittney Sykes may even be returning to the group as one in all just some acquainted faces to assist ease the transition, however Ogwumike is the centerpiece of the new-look Sparks.

Third-year Sparks Coach Derek Fisher hasn’t been in a position to capitalize on his group’s spectacular regular-season data in the postseason. With a lot change on this yr’s roster, it appears unlikely that Los Angeles will make a deep run in 2021. But the Sparks have the expertise — each veteran and up-and-coming — to problem any group in the league.

“She just looks like a coach that knows how to win,” ahead Rennia Davis stated of Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve. That evaluation shall be put to the take a look at immediately, although Reeve is used to challenges early in the season.

Jessica Shepard, picked 16th total in 2019, was clicking fantastically with Napheesa Collier, that yr’s sixth total choose, when Shepard went down with a knee damage six video games into her professional profession. Now Davis, the ninth total choose in this yr’s draft, is out indefinitely with a foot damage.

But after lacking the remainder of the 2019 season and all of 2020, Shepard is again.

Sylvia Fowles is again, too.

After setting the profession rebounding file in 2020, Fowles was sidelined by a calf damage that pressured her to overlook most of the season. Yet the Lynx persevered, practically upsetting the Seattle Storm in Game 1 of the semifinals earlier than shedding the sequence in a sweep. Reeve stated she’s going to prohibit Fowles to roughly 24 minutes per sport and diversify offensive schemes in order that her title-winning veteran doesn’t have to hold the load.

But with Collier and Kayla McBride, who signed on as a free agent, arriving late from enjoying abroad, Reeve should improvise as soon as once more. So far, ahead Natalie Achonwa, who joined in free company, has made herself irreplaceable to a group searching for to shore up its protection past Fowles. Aerial Powers, who gained a championship with the Washington Mystics in 2019 and averaged 4.9 rebounds per sport final season, is anticipated to assist that effort.

The reigning champions had a surprisingly eventful low season, headlined by their determination to commerce their beginning heart Natasha Howard to the Liberty for the No. 1 total choose in the 2021 draft. They then flipped that choose to the Dallas Wings in change for the third-year ahead Katie Lou Samuelson and a 2022 second-round choose. They additionally misplaced beginning guard Alysha Clark, who, together with Howard, was key to Seattle’s success on protection throughout their 2018 and 2020 title runs. Clark signed with the Mystics in free company.

But the finals M.V.P. Breanna Stewart, the star shooter Jewell Loyd and maybe most impressively Sue Bird have all returned to the Storm to compete for the W.N.B.A.’s first back-to-back titles since the Sparks gained in 2001 and 2002. Bird shall be in her 18th season, a feat of longevity unmatched by any of her friends at the moment competing — though Candice Dupree, who signed with the Storm in the low season, additionally has double-digit seasons underneath her belt.

With Stewart, the Storm don’t want to search out one other once-in-a-generation participant amongst their younger expertise. They do, nonetheless, want to determine who in that pool will finest recreate the alchemy of their title groups, positioning Jordin Canada as the level guard of the future and discovering a go-to heart in both Mercedes Russell or Ezi Magbegor. If they will do this and preserve Stewart, Loyd and Bird wholesome, the Storm have a greater probability than most groups to make historical past as the solely five-time W.N.B.A. champions by the finish of this season.

Brittney Griner’s again. Skylar Diggins-Smith is again. And Diana Taurasi, sometimes called the GOAT, is just too.

Sprinkle in teammates like Brianna Turner and Bria Hartley, and newcomers like Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, and the Phoenix Mercury are centered on returning to their championship-winning methods.

“You just see all these pieces,” Taurasi stated, including, “And if we can all get on the same track and on working toward the same goal, I think we can do some special things this summer. But that’s just all nonsense if we don’t come in and put the work in every day.”

The Mercury completed with a 13-9 file final season, shedding to the Minnesota Lynx in the second spherical of the playoffs. With an eye fixed towards a deeper playoff run, they acquired guard Nurse and Walker in an low season commerce with the Liberty. Hartley, an eighth-year guard, is working her approach again after a knee damage, and extra offense may come from Turner.

But the greatest impression is more likely to come from the Big 3 — Griner, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi — who accounted for a lot of the Mercury’s scoring final season. Taurasi averaged 18.7 factors and 4.5 assists per sport; Diggins-Smith averaged 17.7 and 4.2; and B.G. averaged 17.7 factors and seven.5 rebounds in 12 video games.

“We have pretty good chemistry,” Coach Sandy Brondello stated. “We grew a lot together as a team last year. Hopefully we can continue to build on that.”

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