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.