The 2019 WNBA season tips later this week. This weekly ’12 Things’ column will touch on something happening with each team around the league throughout the season.
The focus of the first three installments this month: A 2019 WNBA season preview. Part one featured some (not so) bold predictions, including playoff picks and two sophomores expected to take some big steps forward. Part two sorted the 12 teams into three tiers for an edition of preseason power rankings.
Part three will cover my 12 most interesting players for the 2019 season. For various reasons, these players will have a big say in how close these teams come in reaching their full potential.
1. LaToya Sanders, Washington Mystics
How will the Mystics look with Emma Meesseman back in D.C.? How will they fare while she’s away at EuroBasket? Who will the starters be down the stretch and in the playoffs?
All things considered, Mike Thibault and the Mystics are in such a good position to contend again in 2019 and answer these questions with relative ease because of Sanders’ presence.
But will the shooting taper off? She shot 63-of-113 (55.8 percent) last season from 11 to 21 feet per Swanny’s Stats. The flip side of that coin: Will opponents treat the threat of her spotting up near the elbows much differently?
2. Jordin Canada, Seattle Storm
This choice was cemented with the news of Sue Bird’s indefinite absence. Canada, seen as the point guard of the future, is coming off an impressive playoff run where she hit some key shots off the bench.
And without Breanna Stewart for the entire season, Canada is the most equipped player on Seattle’s roster to create efficient offense in different ways. She can get by just about anybody with or without a ball screen and already is a high-level defender at the point of attack.
At least one of the team’s more dependent spot-up players, possibly Sami Whitcomb, will need to get up more 3-pointers for this team lock down a playoff spot. Canada and All-Star Jewell Loyd, sharing and splitting those playmaking duties, give the Storm hope that they can make that happen.
3. Briann January, Phoenix Mercury
Jeff Metcalfe of AZCentral Sports had one of the big revelations of the offseason from January, who noted that a shoulder injury actively inhibited her playmaking and driving abilities last season.
Her usage rate (12.5) was at a career-low last season per Basketball-Reference.
January had a wonderful season as an ace 3-point shooter (47-of-100), which is exactly what that team needs around the star trio of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner.
Taurasi is out in the interim recovering from back surgery. More playmaking from January would ease the stress on Bonner—a welcome sight if she is going to continue to play the majority of her minutes at the 4.
Not only will January likely see the quality and/or frequency of her spot-up looks go down. The same is to be expected for her teammates without Taurasi at the controls. A second confident playmaker will make the Mercury more unpredictable and allow them to continue to tap into their 4-out spacing around Griner as they attempt to bank as many wins as possible until Taurasi returns.
4. Kia Nurse, New York Liberty
2019 No. 2 overall pick Asia Durr will be associated more often with the team’s need for a lead scoring option from the perimeter. Durr is fully capable as a high-volume 3-point threat.
The Liberty will still need multiple guards that can help them continue to push the pace and set Durr up flying around screens.
Nurse still feels like a very amorphous offensive threat. She scored in a variety of ways as a rookie even as she shot just 29.4 percent from deep, well below the level she shot it at in college.
And that leads us right up to the most exciting thing about Nurse’s game. She was often mentioned as a surprise rookie contributor last season because she was so comfortable looking to score in those “other ways”.
Once more of those shots start to drop—a consistent playmaker next to her to generate more wide open threes would help—the Liberty could begin making some noise as a fringe playoff team if they’re able to pair that with an efficient rookie campaign by Durr.
5. Odyssey Sims, Minnesota Lynx
There’s a case that Sims could have one of the biggest individual impacts to lift a bubble team into the playoffs. Her arrival ups the pressure on Danielle Robinson to show that she can command an efficient offense.
But Sims arrives with some clear advantages. She’s more aggressive seeking her own offense out of pick and roll or one-on-one situations, something the Lynx will need in a big way.
For the most part, this Minnesota group consists of more reluctant or occasionally hesitant 3-point shooters. Somebody needs to collapse the defense to create bigger shooting windows.
The Lynx already have made more of a long-term commitment to Sims, so don’t be surprised to see more arguments for her to start running the show in Minny.
6. Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks
I think Nneka, not Chiney, will have the biggest say in how good this Sparks team can become. Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker are the team’s constants offensively but you wonder if there’s enough shooting to put around them without sacrificing too much on the other end.
The elder Ogwumike is the better midrange and 3-point shooter. The Sparks don’t need her to become Breanna Stewart overnight, but they need somebody to hit the wide-open looks that Parker and Gray are going to create.
The other end of the floor will be even more fascinating. 2019 will be an interesting season at the 3 spot. No Maya Moore, no Victoria Vivians, no timetable on Angel McCoughtry. There aren’t as many of the most difficult matchups at the position for LA to worry about in a three-big alignment.
Nneka can guard those players quite well, but with Chiney and Parker as the two big defenders, neither will completely silence the defensive rebounding concerns that have persisted with this team in recent years.
The hope or expectation is that the collective efforts of all three on the floor together will make more of a difference along with the help of Maria Vadeeva and Kalani Brown off the bench.
7. Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces
Young was almost playing a different sport in the open floor at Notre Dame. Don’t worry about that aspect of her game translating to the next level.
The Aces didn’t just luck out to win the lottery for the No. 1 overall pick. They lucked out when Young made the decision to declare, not long after Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu decided not to come out after her junior campaign. (Who knows. Maybe Lucky Laimbeer would have lucked out again and netted a chance to draft one of them in 2020 had they both returned to school.)
Young and the Aces are a perfect pairing: one of the game’s best transition scorers and the 2018 league leader in offensive pace.
Bill Laimbeer won’t have a hard sell in asking for dominance on the defensive glass from Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson and the rest of the frontcourt. If they get it done, Young will reward them with plenty of rest as she bolts the other way to rack up easy points in transition.
8. Shenise Johnson, Indiana Fever
It’s been a long time coming for Johnson, officially back in action after suffering a season-ending knee injury back in 2017.
I’ve been constantly reminding myself that this is a player with some very real WNBA Finals experience, dating back to Indiana’s 2015 playoff run. She started all 11 games for the Fever and averaged north of 30 minutes per game.
The Fever will desperately need her return to offset the loss of Vivians to the season-ending knee injury. Johnson is not a high-volume gunner like Vivians, but she has been solid across her six-year career. The area in which she provides the most help is to just give them some kind of juice off the dribble as a secondary playmaker to keep teams honest and take some of the possession-to-possession pressure on Kelsey Mitchell.
9. Azura Stevens, Dallas Wings
I picked the Wings to sneak into the playoffs this season. Behind only the idea of the return of Skylar Diggins-Smith, I just was ready to believe that the forward tandem of Kayla Thornton and Stevens was going to contribute in a big way toward winning games.
They can go small or big depending on the matchup. Thornton is a terror in transition; Stevens is always around the basket on both ends, extending out of nowhere to alter shots or grab rebounds that seemed out of her reach.
Both are tantalizing young defenders. Thornton is one of the few real ‘I can guard one through five’ players. Stevens sprinkles in a nice combination of length and mobility.
The main question for each has two parts to it. First, how can they excel offensively when a game slows down? Then, what kind of players need to be around them to amplify their big strengths?
Stevens shot 31.8 percent on 88 3-point attempts and 17-of-29 on post-ups per Synergy Sports. Expect to see more of the many elements to her inside-out game.
10. Bria Holmes, Connecticut Sun
Holmes likely enters the season as one of the more under-the-radar fliers taken by a team in the past year or so. As mentioned earlier with the Sparks, this is an interesting season at the position. The Sun don’t necessarily have a big, physical wing stopper.
Alyssa Thomas is their best option there, but they risk compromising the spacing that makes her so effective unless Morgan Tuck fills that 4 spot as a stretch big.
Holmes is a worthy candidate to try to bring along in that kind of role off the bench as the Sun also get a look at how she can mesh offensively with their system.
She shot 23.5 percent (27-of-115) from deep in two seasons in Atlanta. Things may get tricky when she’s on the floor with one of Thomas or Layshia Clarendon.
Now is a good time, though, for Connecticut to give her a shot. So much of their team is about to hit free agency. One important distinction to make in how Curt Miller has constructed this team: Each player meets a clear need. They aren’t overflowing with redundancies.
Holmes gives them a different look at the position. Now we get to see what kind of impact she can have on a contender.
11. Diamond DeShields, Chicago Sky
DeShields simply has to be featured on all of these lists—most interesting, breakout candidates, most improved candidates, etc.
Forget League Pass team rankings. DeShields alone should be thought of as must-see TV.
Coincidentally, she provided us with some of the best content of the preseason via Brooke Weisbrod:
12. Brittney Sykes, Atlanta Dream
Forgive me if I’m forgetting somebody, but Sykes and DeShields belong to a very exclusive club of active guards/wings that are the kind of leapers that can produce chase down blocks and come across the lane to pin people on the backboard.
Both are much more than those kinds of highlights, too. DeShields has made it clear that she plans to make a big leap with her play this season. The table is set for Sykes to do the same as a starter on the wing as McCoughtry works her way back.
If she just defends and makes open shots, I think Atlanta can come eerily close to reaching the level they were at last season. There’s more to explore with her off the bounce game, too, which would be a welcome sight to lighten the load of All-WNBA guard Tiffany Hayes.
MVP—Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
Defensive Player of the Year—Elizabeth Williams, Atlanta Dream
Rookie of the Year—Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces
Champion—Phoenix over Las Vegas
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