In the first video of my new series of WNBA Season Previews, we take a look at the newly minted Las Vegas Aces, and what we might see in this team’s first season in it’s third city since 1997.
With a little over a month of basketball already played including preseason, the league is starting to take shape, and there are certainly a few surprises that I doubt many folks saw coming. And of course a few not so surprising things to take into consideration as well. I want to look simply at teams as whole, rather than individual players.
First, most surprising of all is the Los Angeles Sparks. They are still tied with the other best team in the league, Minnesota at 8-0. The Sparks are team that looks like they are loving playing together, and have some of the best all around talent in the league. Despite their youth, I won’t be surprised if they keep up with the Lynx and contend for a Finals appearance, or at least battle in the Conference Finals. Another interesting surprise is that no other team in the West has a winning record. Maybe that is because of how well the Lynx and Sparks are playing, but we should also consider how inter-conference play, new this season, is affecting both conferences. Sure, the West has only two winning teams, but in the East only the Dream have a winning record, while the Sky, Liberty and Fever sit at 4-4. I would honestly venture to say that inter-conference play is separating the contenders from the non-contenders sooner than expected, but it is also still early in the season. Nevertheless, the fact that Minnesota is 8-0 does not surprise at all, while that fact that the Sun are 1-7 does. The Sun, with the talent they already had, as well as the talent they drafted, look like a team with a lot more growing and learning to do.
So, Connecticut is disappointing, but the Mercury and the Mystics are as well. If any of these three teams can really turn it around, I’d say it’s Phoenix, but it simply may not be their year. Their biggest rival Minnesota looks so good, and so does Los Angeles, that it appears to be another two-horse race in the West like last season, only it’s the Sparks instead of the Mercury. The rest of the West, although maybe unable to keep up with Lynx or Sparks, still look to provide some very entertaining moments this year. The Storm look promising with a VERY dynamic duo in Lloyd and Stewart, the Wings look like they could possibly do some damage if they can get Skylar Diggins healthy this season, but once again San Antonio looks destined for another single digit number of wins season.
In the East, the Dream are the pleasant surprise that many in Atlanta have been hoping for. Like Los Angeles, Atlanta looks like a team with chemistry and a real desire to win now rather than hope for a success later. Angel McCoughtry continues to lead her team and has a good group of players around her that are contributing well and having fun doing so. The other team of note is the Liberty. They have shown flashes of last year’s regular season toughness and ability, but are going to have to find answers fast if they want to stick around come playoff time. The same could be said for Chicago and Indiana, but it will be interesting if anyone will really compete with the Lynx the rest of the season. They are so talented, so deep, and have so much experience these past several seasons, I think only major injuries are going to stop them from winning another title this year. As for the rest of the East, the Mystics and Sun look like almost wrecked ships even well before the All-Star Game. But can Atlanta, New York, or the Sparks get close to an upset like Indiana last year, or even do the Fever one better and topple the league’s best team? My advice is to simply stay tuned and above all else, enjoy some great basketball.
With the draft just a couple of weeks away, I wanted to highlight a player from each team that everyone should be watching, whether it be sophomores, veterans, players contributing off the bench, whoever should be interesting to keep an eye on this season. Since we don’t quite yet know who drafts who yet, rookies will be excluded, and I will probably do a Rookie Watch post after the draft. Nevertheless, the recurring theme here is youth and talent, and if that youth and talent can translate to not only continued growth and success as individual players, but for their respective teams as well. We’ll start in the Eastern Conference.
Schoni Schimmel – Guard, Atlanta Dream
Schimmel is a skilled player on a team with a real mix of young and veteran players. Along side Angel McCoughtry, Schimmel is a standout young guard on a team desperate for less turnovers and better defense. If Schimmel can harness the talent she has into more consistent play on both ends of the floor, including the welcome addition of her 3 point shooting, Atlanta has a chance to get back to being a real contender come playoff time. It goes without saying that you should keep an eye on Schimmel for her flashy behind the back and no look passing that can happen at any moment in the game.
Erika de Souza – Center, Chicago Sky
Erika de Souza resigned with the Sky in February after coming from Atlanta mid season last year in a 3 way trade that sent Sylvia Fowles to Minnesota. With the loss of Fowles, the Sky struggled with interior defense all season long, and de Souza will have to continue to lead the defense for the Sky this year as well. She has to make her presence felt on the defensive boards as much or more than she has on the offensive end, where she placed 3rd on offensive rebounds but out of the top 10 at 16th in defensive rebounds in 2015. She has to be one of several veteran leaders that offers as much on defense as the whole team does on offense. Without that, the Sky will continue to fall short come playoff time. Watch her and see how her presence influences Chicago’s mindset this year.
Chelsea Gray – Guard, Connecticut Sun
Chelsea Gray is one of the best young point guards in the WNBA, and had a great rookie season in 2015. She was 5th assist percentage, shot well at times from the 3 point line, and can only look to improve in 2016 in every facet of her game. She was a real asset off the bench for the Sun, and she will continue to provide valuable minutes for a team that looked very good at the start of last season, but faltered as it went on. I expect the Sun to bounce back this season and they are my sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the East. Gray should be an important contributor to that kind of success of the Sun in 2016.
Tamika Catchings – Forward, Indiana Fever
I don’t need to say anything more about Catchings than has already be said. She is one of the best players to ever play in the WNBA, and the reason I picked her as the player to watch on the Fever for her final season is for the influence on the game and on her teammates. She continues to push for excellence from herself and her team, so much so that the Fever made a surprise run to the WNBA Finals last year. I expect Catchings to continue to lead and put her team first this season. She wants to win another title, and with her leadership and skills, anything could happen. Watch Catchings and see just what happens. Whether the Fever make it back to the Finals again or not, it has been an incredible career for Tamika Catchings, and I hope it will be another great season, even though it is her last.
Kiah Stokes – Center, New York Liberty
Kiah Stokes is a central piece of the Liberty’s future. She finished second in rookie of the year voting last year, and is a defensive machine. She is a rebounding and blocking monster, and has plenty of talent around her to continue to succeed in New York in the years ahead. She was a bit of a surprise coming out of UConn because not many expected her to succeed at the WNBA, but she quickly proved her doubters wrong as a rookie for a surprisingly strong Liberty last year. Sometimes players get overlooked, or people think they are drafted too high. In the case of Stokes, she proved that she probably should have been taken a lot sooner than 11th in the draft. Watch and see if she continues to evolve, strengthen her game and her team, and prove that she belongs in the WNBA.
Emma Meesseman – Center, Washington Mystics
Meesseman is another breakout center for a team that can really go either way this season. The Mystics, like many teams in the league, have plenty of talented young players that have an opportunity to win not only now, but in the future. Meesseman had a standout season in 2015, her third season after being picked 19th in the draft in 2013. Along with Stefanie Dolson, Meesseman has created a formidable frontcourt for Washington. She had the 2nd best field goal percentage and effective field goal percentange in the league last season, as well as posted top ten ratings in total blocks, rebounds, blocks per game,
Skylar Diggins – Guard, Dallas Wings
Diggins’ ACL injury in the middle of last season absolutely crushed the Tulsa Shock. Not only did the season ending injury completely change the team for the rest of the season, but it must have been a major blow the for Tulsa Shock fanbase, especially coming only months before finding out they would be losing the team when it moved to Dallas to become the Wings. Tulsa was, in my opinion the best or second best team in that first part of the season last year. They looked like the team that was finally going to breakthrough again and make a deep run in the playoffs. But with both Odyssey Sims and Diggins out for much of the season, the team simply fell apart. They still took the 3rd seed in the playoffs, but got booted out in the first round by Phoenix. With a new home in Dallas and a lot of talent around her, I expect Diggins and the rest of the Wings to be very competitive this year. It will be exciting to see what she can do in bouncing back from her ACL injury last year, continuing to lead and make plays, and continuing to develop into one the league’s best players.
Nneka Ogwumike – Forward, Los Angeles Sparks
Can Ogwumike continue to grow? Can she improve her scoring to say, 20 points a game? Can she get more blocks per game? More importantly, will she continue to learn to lead a young and talented Sparks team back to not just making the playoffs, but winning a series? Even if they don’t win a series, Ogwumike can still continue to develop into one of best young talents in the league this season.
Anna Cruz – Guard, Minnesota Lynx
Anna Cruz is a young international player on arguably the most talented team in the league. Injuries to Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus, as well as backup Monica Wright last season, meant a lot more minutes than she expected coming over in a trade from the Liberty. The intriguing thing about 2016 for Cruz is the question of whether or not she will be as effective if she gets to start less this year and has to come off the bench instead. It will be very interesting to see how she adjusts, and if she can continue to play well in a backup role.
Leilani Mitchell – Guard, Phoenix Mercury
Mitchell is another guard on a very talented Western Conference team. Her offense late last season really pushed the Mercury, helping to keep them a very dangerous team even without Diana Taurasi; especially from behind the 3 point line. If she can continue to provide good 3 point shooting and a scoring spark off the bench, she will be a very important aspect to keeping the Mercury in games, especially late in games when starters are tired and need rest. It will be interesting if she can also can continue to pass well and create opportunities for other players around her.
Kayla McBride, Guard, San Antonio Stars
KMac, like Mitchell, is another guard in a deep Western Conference, but her role is far different than Mitchell or Cruz. McBride is the leader of a young but talented Stars team who struggled mightily last year, in large part due to their inexperience compared to the rest of Conference. Let’s face it, the Stars have talent, but much of that talent is raw and still yet to be fully developed. McBride, along with her back court partner of Danielle Robinson, has to continue to prove she can lead this team in every game of the season. This season she has to continue to score and improve her shooting. If she can do that, the rest of the team will continue to see improvement as well.
Ramu Tokashiki, Forward, Seattle Storm
Tokashiki had a breakout season last year as a rookie forward from Japan for the rebuilding Storm. She quickly became a fan favorite, and her combination of speed and athleticism will certainly be an attribute that the Storm will hope to utilize in the upcoming season. When the Storm draft Breanna Stewart next month however, it will be interesting to see how the starting lineup shifts for Seattle. Tokashiki started 16 of the 30 games she played in last season. With the resigning of Sue Bird, Tokashiki, as well as Crystal Langhorne, the starting lineup according to Jeffrey Brown of SB Nation’s Storm Chasers blog, will probably be Bird at the point, Lloyd at shooting guard, Tokashiki at small forward, Stewart at power, and Langhorne at center. So even with Stewart on the team, I would guess Tokashiki will be a definite part of the starting lineup. Look for Tokashiki to continue to improve on both defense and offense as she continues to acclimate to the higher level of play in the WNBA than she was used to back in Japan.
So we are three weeks in and there was a ton of great action across the league this past week. The Mystics sit at 6-3 after starting the week with a close win against the still win-less Sparks on Tuesday, and the Sky started off an up and down week with a close win as well against the Dream. On Thursday we saw San Antonio finally get their first win this season against Phoenix, and the Lynx came back to beat the Storm on the road. Friday’s group of games had Chicago beating the Fever, the Sun winning their only game this past week, just holding on to win against Los Angeles, the Mystics falling to Atlanta in a close game as well, and the Shock beating the Liberty at home 71-62. Saturday the Stars picked up their second win of the season beating Seattle 73-71, and the Lynx found a bit of revenge as they beat the Mercury despite Brittney Griner’s strong return as she 14 points and 11 rebounds. Sunday had the Liberty with a good showing against LA, winning 79-70, the Mystics with a very big win against Chicago, and the Shock with a thrilling overtime win against Seattle.
What do all these results mean? Well, it means the Connecticut Sun still stand atop a slightly shifting Eastern Conference, as they have the second best record in the league at 7-1 and are ranked first in points allowed per game and 3rd in points per game. The Washington Mystics faltered a bit going 2-1 on the week and 6-3 overall. They still look very strong however, as they are first in assists in the league and 4th on points allowed. They need to get their rebounding up, but they still look like playoff contenders who could eventually pass up the Sun in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Chicago Sky are easily the most potent offense in the league by a wide margin, but are 11th in defense and 10th in assists. They will continue to struggle defensively without Sylvia Fowles. After this week, the New York Liberty look like a team that is just middle of the road at 5-4, as they are 9th in points per game, 2nd in rebounds, 4th in assists, and 3rd in points allowed. If they can improve the offensive scoring they can move up the standings. Atlanta is the most up and down team in the Conference if not the league. Their record looks like roller coaster, as they have gone L L W W L L W L L W to start the season. They have to find more consistent execution if they expect to move up in the Conference. They also get a nice break this week as they don’t play until this Sunday against Seattle Indiana fared no better as they lost their only game of the week and now sit at 3-6 and are dead last in points allowed per game, second to last at 11th in rebounds and 9th in assists.
The Western Conference has been sadly, far less competitive, as it is simply a two horse race so far between the Tulsa Shock and the Minnesota Lynx. The Shock won both of their games this week and are now 8-1 and yet to lose since posting the loss against who else, the Lynx in the season opener. Tulsa’s offense is hot and is 2nd in the league in points per game, 1st in rebounds, 4th in assists and 5th in per allowed. They are getting great offense from guard Skylar Diggins, whose averaging 17.8 points and 5 assists per game, and they are getting it done on the boards, especially with Courtney Paris, as she is averaging a league leading 11.2 rebounds per game. Plenette Pierson and Riquna Williams are also contributing big while averaging 15 and 12.8 points per game respectively.
The Lynx still look like the 2nd or third best team in the league, as they are 5th in points per game, 5th in rebounds, 3rd in assists, and most importantly, 1st in points allowed. They are getting double digit point averages from 4 starters, and getting a ton of rebounds from Rebekkah Brunson. If they can keep up the defense, and keep improving on offense, they will be one of few teams to beat in the playoffs.
Phoenix continues to struggle without Diana Taurasi, despite the All-Star caliber play of DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree. Losing to the Stars hurt, but what especially stung for the Mercury was losing to Minnesota in Griner’s return. With Griner back though, they have real hope of becoming more competitive as the season continues, and could still certainly do well come playoff time. The Stars finally have shown some life as they got their only two wins of the season this week, and their young team looks to have some fight and some real potential in guard Kayla McBride. Seattle looks lost offensively, as they are just 2-7 and are 2nd to last in points per game and dead last in rebounds per. Only Crystal Langhorne and Sue Bird are averaging at least 10 points a game, and everyone else is so far inconsistent.
The saddest story of the season so far however is the Los Angeles Sparks. They are 0-7, dead last in points per game, and 8th in points allowed. They are middle of the road however in assists and rebounds, ranked 6th in both categories. They do have some life left in them though as they have seen the return of Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard, as well as Nneka Ogwumike, who should give them a real boost offensively. The Western Conference however, despite being the weaker of the two so far, still has what I think will end up being the two juggernauts of the league in Tulsa and Minnesota. The Eastern Conference will continue to be competitive, but the Western Conference as a whole could get more interesting if we see improvement in Phoenix and Seattle.
This year has been full of interesting games, nail biters, and a lot of great individual performances from players like Elena Delle Donne, DeWanna Bonner, Angel McCoughtry, and Skylar Diggins. It will be interesting to see if the return of players like Kristi Toliver and Brittney Griner can change their teams’ fortunes around and into playoff shape, if not at least into a few winning games.
Well, the WNBA continued to roll on this week, and the cream is starting to rise to the top. The Tulsa Shock and the Connecticut Sun are now both unbeaten after losing their season openers and stand atop their respective conferences at 6-1. Both these teams look great on both ends of the floor, but the Shock are statistically the better looking team overall. The Shock are 2nd in the league in points per game, 1st in rebounds per game, 2nd in assists per game, and 5th in points allowed per game. Meanwhile, the Sun are 5th in points, 8th in rebounds, 10th in assists, but are 1st in points allowed. I do have to say I think it is their defensive effort that is getting it done as only one team has scored more than 70 points against them all season, and that was the Phoenix Mercury who they still beat in a two overtime game.
The third best team right now, and most everyone’s pick to win the title, is the Minnesota Lynx. Not only are the Lynx the third best team according to the standings, but they are the third best statistically as well, as they are third in points, assists, and points allowed per game. The four starters for Minnesota are all averaging at least 11 points per game, so if they can continue to click offensively while maintaining their defense, which is above the league average, they will eventually be one of the top two teams in the league at season’s end.
The Chicago Sky are the offensive juggernaut of the league right now, led by Elena Delle Donne’s league best 29.3 points per game, which is almost 10 points better than second place DeWanna Bonner. Where the Sky are going to have to improve of course is on the defensive end, where they currently rank 10th in the league, just two spots from last place.
The team that has the best chance to keep improving and go far in the playoffs, in my mind, are the Washington Mystics. They are currently 2nd in points per game and are 1st in assists per game. They sit at 4-2 and second in the Eastern Conference. If their defensive effort holds, and their offense improves as the season goes on, they will make some noise in the playoffs.
As far as the rest of the Eastern Conference, it’s a toss up right now for the Sky, the Fever, and the Dream. They all sit at 3 wins, with the Sky at 3-3, and the Fever and Dream both at 3-5. The Liberty, despite their record of 4-3, still look like a team that could get hot, and move on from what has been an up and down start to the season.
The Western Conference is a two horse race between the Lynx and Shock, one of which I believe will be the team to win the Finals this year. The Mercury sit at 3-3, but should improve with the return of Brittney Griner this Saturday, albeit with a tough matchup on the road at Minnesota. Seattle, L.A., and San Antonio are a combined 2-14, with Seattle the only team with any wins at all. L.A. could improve with the return of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard sometime in the future, but face a daunting upcoming road trip against the Mystics, Sun, and Liberty.
The San Antonio Stars have had a very rocky start and are dead last in the standings, and almost dead last statistically as well. They rank as the worst rebounding team in the league, the third worst assisting team in the league, and the 2nd worst team in the league for points allowed. They also have the third least points per game. One thing that should be mentioned however, is that they have faced Tulsa back to back, Minnesota, Phoenix, Chicago, and Atlanta, all teams that either are some of the best in the league, or who look to have potential to turn it around. As we’ve previously mentioned Chicago and Phoenix in particular are the teams that are looking to improve as the season goes on. But even with the tough schedule to start the season, it’s not looking good for the Stars as they will probably miss the playoffs this year. Yes, they made the playoffs last year, but they did so with a losing 16-18 record, and I don’t see them bettering or equaling that this season.
Overall, things are starting to settle a bit across the league, and if the top teams in each conference can stay healthy, I see surprising Tulsa, dominant Minnesota, and the Mystics and Sun maintaining the top two spots in each conference. As I mentioned last week though, the season is still relatively young, and a lot can happen between now and August. It’s been a very interesting season so far, and I want everyone to get out there on Twitter, Facebook, and WNBA.com and vote for the best players for the All Star Game! See you all next week!