12 Things: 2019 WNBA season (not so) bold predictions

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 2:Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) shoots for two of her 19 points over Atlanta Dream guard Brittney Sykes (7) in the second half of game 4 of the WNBA conference finals at the Charles E. Smith Center September 02, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Washington Mystics beat the Atlanta Dream 97-76 and will play game 5 in Atlanta on Tuesday.(Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 2:Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) shoots for two of her 19 points over Atlanta Dream guard Brittney Sykes (7) in the second half of game 4 of the WNBA conference finals at the Charles E. Smith Center September 02, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Washington Mystics beat the Atlanta Dream 97-76 and will play game 5 in Atlanta on Tuesday.(Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images) /

The 2019 WNBA season tips later this month. This weekly ’12 Things’ Monday column will touch on something happening with each team around the league. The focus of the first three installments this month: A 2019 WNBA season preview. First up, we’ve got some (not so) bold predictions, including playoff picks and two sophomores expected to take some big steps forward.

Atlanta Dream

1. Brittney Sykes will be the team’s second-leading scorer upon Angel McCoughtry’s return

Let’s start with a pick more on the safe side. This isn’t much of a stretch. Renee Montgomery, logging more than 300 more minutes than Sykes last season, was the third-leading scorer behind McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes.

Sykes has a straightforward case to continue on in McCoughtry’s slot on the wing in the starting lineup. Sykes will likely need to take a big step forward as a 3-point shooter for this to come true. That would also make life much easier for Hayes in particular as she does most of the heavy lifting offensively.

Connecticut Sun

2. The Sun will secure the No. 1 seed

Not today, Diana Taurasi!

Well, that’s the hope, at least, for Connecticut.

This team is eager to prove they can win a playoff series. They need to get that far first. The Sun have experienced the anguish of falling in single elimination to Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury in back-to-back seasons. (This phrase can’t be repeated enough: A top-two playoff seed is the most valuable commodity in the WNBA.)

So why the Sun?

Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones are one of the league’s premier frontcourt pairings that are free to play a beautiful brand of basketball because of the depth and personnel around them. Don’t forget that they’ve won 68 percent (39-18) of the regular season games that Thomas has played in the past two seasons.

Curt Miller & Co. still have the depth to continue on sans-Chiney Ogwumike. Backup center minutes could get a little shaky, but that burden rests more on Jones to stay on the floor long enough to minimize that concern.

Chicago Sky

3. Diamond DeShields will make the leap to stardom

Last year’s draft class, similar to this year’s, was good because of its overall depth. The separator that made last year special? A’ja Wilson wasn’t the only franchise-changing player at the top. There were three of ’em.

DeShields is devastating with a live dribble or from a dead stop. The only current analog to that aspect of her game, to me, is Tiffany Hayes. When Hayes truly gets to size somebody up 1-on-1, she’s going to shoot a layup. It’s up to you whether you foul her or get a helper big and long enough into the picture to make it a tougher look.

DeShields can be that kind of force driving to the rim and parading to the foul line, not to mention the rare air she already is in as a defensive playmaker. If the Sky break their postseason drought in year one under James Wade, DeShields will likely be the biggest reason why. Speaking of that…

4. The Sky will make the playoffs

I’ll elaborate more on my preseason tiers, make all eight playoff picks and lay out the case for each of my championship contenders in next week’s column. As seen above, I think DeShields takes a giant step forward.

Katie Lou Samuelson is one of the league’s most versatile shooters from day one. Stef Dolson, removed from last year’s early-season foot injury, will play much better from start to finish. Gabby Williams can give them much, much more offensively given opportunity to attack from the right spots.

There’s no hiding from the fact that the Sky finished last in defense (111.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) last season. That needs to improve. But so does the offense (103.8 offensive rating, good for seventh). That starts with Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley taking better care of the ball. That alone will work wonders for a roster overflowing with offensive talent.

Dallas Wings

5. Tayler Hill will make the Mystics loathe the day they shipped her to Dallas

I thought the Wings hit a home run trading for Hill last season. They turned Aerial Powers, somebody that had fallen out of their rotation, into somebody that would have been an All-Star in 2017 had she stayed healthy (and the second round pick that was used to select Kennedy Burke).

Hill is now more than a full year removed from the ACL tear, and the Wings will need her to carry more of a scoring and playmaking burden as they wait on the return of Skylar Diggins-Smith.

The situation with the Mystics simply may have reached a breaking point. Hill is on a multi-year deal near the max and did not look like herself last summer upon return from injury. The Mystics needed to bank wins; they probably couldn’t afford to dish out big minutes to a player still on the mend.

But a guard that can get to the rim and the foul line is exactly what the Mystics still need. They lacked it in the Finals against Seattle and did not add that kind of player to the mix this offseason.

The backup point guard spot has been a concern of late in Dallas. Hill makes sense to soak those minutes up and play alongside Diggins-Smith upon her return.

6. The Wings will make the playoffs

Maybe a Liz Cambage trade still happens, and that could drastically shake the playoff picture up depending on what else is involved in said deal. For now, this prediction is being made as the roster stands at the start of training camp.

I just believe in the Kayla Thornton/Azura Stevens duo at the forward spots becoming a core piece of this team’s identity. Add Glory Johnson into that mix and you’re looking at three players that can cover a ton of ground, switch, get out in transition and create mismatches and cross-matches for a team that won’t initially be able to generate many of them against a set defense.

As noted, I expect Hill to return to form and score efficiently for them. And I think the offense we saw Brian Agler run with the Sparks lends itself well to this collection of players that will be trudging on without their All-WNBA point guard.

Indiana Fever

7. Betnijah Laney will be the Fever’s second-best option on the wing

The Victoria Vivians injury hurts. It hurts the Fever. It hurts a young, emerging starter coming off a solid rookie campaign. It hurts the watchability of the season. Indiana is just looking to get out of the cellar offensively, but won’t have half of one of the league’s best 3-point shooting duos.

Opponents could end up shrinking the floor even more, making life even tougher for Kelsey Mitchell. Shenise Johnson is expected back from the 2017 ACL tear that cost her all of last season. After Johnson, I think Laney steps up to become that second option flanking Mitchell.

That would give Pokey Chatman a pair of big, strong, athletic wings to perhaps prop up their defense that will already get a boost from the presence of No. 3 overall pick Teaira McCowan inside. And if Mitchell improves as a pick-and-roll scorer, you just might have something to keep you in more games and even double up last season’s win total.

Las Vegas Aces

8. We’ll know by season’s end exactly what they need to contend for a title

Kelsey Plum, Kayla McBride and Jackie Young is something. That’s a very real starting trio on the perimeter for a (future) winner. As the Aces continue to build their way to that point, I’m interested to see how Bill Laimbeer utilizes his frontcourt depth throughout the season.

What does he need from the player next to A’ja Wilson? The good news, for now in the interim, is that Laimbeer has compiled a group that allows him to match what he needs against a given opponent.

But what’s the answer moving forward? Does Wilson need to play more at the 5? Will a top-tier frontcourt talent fall to them in an upcoming draft?

Expect contributions from all the bigs in Las Vegas. They each bring different skill sets. The Aces should manage to compete for a playoff bid at minimum this season. More high-leverage minutes against top competition will inch them closer to deciding what they need from that spot to be great two, three and even five years from now.

Los Angeles Sparks

9. Sparks will go big…

…out of necessity. Who’s making this roster for certain on the perimeter? Is it safe to even lock in free agent signing Tierra Ruffin-Pratt?

What this team does with the minutes behind Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard is a total mystery (not just because this is Derek Fisher’s first WNBA gig, either).

Odyssey Sims (traded to Minnesota for Alexis Jones), Essence Carson (signed with Phoenix this offseason) and Riquna Williams (still an unrestricted free agent, was arrested earlier this month and is facing charges) logged nearly 2,200 minutes for the Sparks last season!

All three, all high-end rotation players/capable starters, are gone. But there’s a flip side to this coin. The Sparks do have depth up front on top of the Chiney Ogwumike/Nneka Ogwumike/Candace Parker trio.

The services of Maria Vadeeva and Jantel Lavender will be at a premium. If nothing more, both add value mixed in with one or two of that star trio to put somebody on the floor more comfortable in a spot up role.

No. 7 overall pick Kalani Brown flashed more of a midrange game this past season at Baylor, and it’s tough to imagine that most roads will lead to some sort of high-low option for this Sparks offense, a role Brown should thrive in.

So yes, I fully expect the Sparks to lean in to the bigger lineups, mostly because they’ll need to while also acknowledging they’ll at least be doing so from a position of strength.

Minnesota Lynx

10. Lexie Brown will make at least 80 3-pointers

That number would have ranked second last season behind Diana Taurasi. The Lynx need her shooting in the worst way. On the bright side, I think they have enough flexibility to create more minutes for her than you’d think.

Karima Christmas-Kelly can slide to the 4 and split those minutes with Napheesa Collier. (Consider me bearish on anybody else on their roster being more productive on both ends than those two.) Seimone Augustus could then slide to the 3 at times, and her minutes could be on the decline to open more time up at the 2.

Brown and 2019 second-round pick Cierra Dillard are the only players that have been high volume 3-point shooters. For the Lynx to make the playoffs, assuming Rebekkah Brunson does not play in 2019, they’ll need to best last year’s ninth-best offense (102.8 ORtg). Maya Moore’s individual brilliance won’t be there to carry them in grind-it-out games. Setting Brown up to let it rip would be a good first step.

New York Liberty

11. The Liberty will outscore their opponents with the quartet of Bria Hartley, Asia Durr, Kia Nurse and Tina Charles on the floor

I think it’s of the utmost importance for Katie Smith to see how well her team can score with her three best guards on the floor around Charles. And if they really want to have some fun, let’s add Rebecca Allen or Megan Huff (if she makes the cut) to this group for even more shooting.

Hopefully we can add Marine Johannes to this mix if she comes over this season. If not, Nurse and Durr alone infuse plenty of young talent into this roster.

The cloud that hung over the team as they sat on the block for sale and were forced into the Westchester County Center by James Dolan makes last season so tough to evaluate. They were in a lot of close games early in the season. Is the best choice to just write the second half of the season off to said cloud and injuries?

The sum of their parts last year was much more than seven wins. The same is true this year. But the Liberty might be impacted more than any other team by EuroBasket departures, including a few players that they didn’t re-sign (yet).

12. Han Xu will be the team’s best big next to Tina Charles

Han can shoot it from the midrange and has good feet defensively. If Cambage doesn’t play this season, there’s one less dominant center to worry about, meaning coaches ought to default more to just playing their best players.

I think Han ultimately is a happy balance between what New York hopes to get out of its other two centers. Amanda Zahui B is a promising stretch 5 that needs to up her volume and quell some defensive concerns, and Kiah Stokes is a plus defender that just isn’t the greatest fit offensively next to a post up 4 like Charles.

Phoenix Mercury

13. Brittney Griner will win the scoring title

This was heavily impacted by the news of Diana Taurasi’s back surgery. The Mercury now have every reason to play through Griner and are still rich with guards and wings that allow Sandy Brondello to play 4-out around Griner’s post ups.

14. The Mercury are runaway title favorites if Diana Taurasi returns healthy

There’s simply no stopping this group with Taurasi even playing at 75 percent of what she was last season. Double Griner in the post and you’re leaving somebody open for a triple. Trap Taurasi to force her to give it up and she’ll make the right pass. Nail all your rotations and watch DeWanna Bonner, the league’s most overqualified third banana, score 1-on-1 late in the clock.

With a healthy Sancho Lyttle, the Mercury are favorites in the semifinals last year against Seattle. The versatility she and Bonner give them on the opponent’s best pick and roll duo can grind possessions to dust. Nobody wants to attack Griner at the rim. They got better with the addition of Essence Carson, added three rookies that can play, return all their depth, and will have Briann January and Leilani Mitchell healthier than they were last season.

Health is a big ‘if’ with every team. With it, I think the Mercury are heavy favorites to win it all.

Seattle Storm

15. The Storm will push the limits of what we thought a ‘small’ lineup was

This might be their best shot at making the playoffs. What do they have to lose? We’ve seen what Crystal Langhorne as the starting 5 looks like. Though Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner would love to see it some more, it would impact the unbelievable spacing we saw last season even if they defend better than they did in 2017.

The loss of Breanna Stewart (Achilles) obviously hurts in many ways. Taking a shooter with so much gravity off the floor makes everything else less scary. But if the Storm can maintain that spacing by actually putting somebody on the floor that can hit open looks consistently, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd will be in a better position to carve people up in pick and roll.

Thrusting Langhorne back into the starting lineup would also do little to help Natasha Howard. Though Langhorne is an efficient post scorer in the right matchups, Howard is a much more dangerous pure roll threat.

So let’s really have some fun. Can we just see what would happen if they slid Alysha Clark down and started Jordin Canada? The likes of Teana Muldrow, Anriel Howard and/or Shavonte Zellous give them enough wing depth to make it possible.

16. Jordin Canada will be the team’s second-leading scorer

Prior to Stewart’s injury, Canada trumped every attempt to play devil’s advocate and make a case why the Storm shouldn’t be considered favorites to repeat. She’s too talented as a finisher and decision-maker in tight spaces. She can blow by just about anybody and rose to the occasion in last year’s playoffs.

The champs need a lift without Stewart. If they do miss the playoffs, it won’t be because Canada failed to produce.

Washington Mystics

17. Last season’s best lineup will be leaned on even more

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen this stat before. Kristi Toliver, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Elena Delle Donne and LaToya Sanders outscored opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions last season per Positive Residual.

That regular season sample consists of 290 minutes. Given health, that group should surpass that count this season unless Emma Meesseman rejoins the starting lineup upon her return from EuroBasket.

The Mystics are stacked up front. I’m not as sold on the rest of their bench. What will those groups even look like? Will Mike Thibault keep a third point guard? Will No. 10 overall pick Kiara Leslie and Aerial Powers/Shatori Walker-Kimbrough be enough?

If those players make their open 3-pointers and defend, none of this will matter. They can get more creation out of their bigs than most teams because of the skill level and post polish of Delle Donne and Meesseman. And like the Sparks, I think Thibault will have good reason to lean into that frontcourt depth because…

18. Myisha Hines-Allen will be too good not to average at least 12 minutes per game

Though she came without the fanfare of a scoring guard, Hines-Allen was one of the most exciting players in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. She was bigger, faster and stronger than just about everybody and played to that billing to help lead Louisville to a Final Four.

The idea of the bigger and faster parts translating to the WNBA gave me pause because she was only listed at 6-foot-2. It became clear the Mystics came away with a second-round steal as she continued to hold up inside banging for position with some true centers.

I can see a path where Delle Donne logs a ton of time at the 3 because of the shooting of Tianna Hawkins and Hines-Allen as such a capable defender with an emerging face-up game behind Meesseman and Sanders. It just might be the best path forward to ensure a trip back to the Finals, too.

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