With the WNBA’s 25th season tipping off, many stories from the season prior are still looming, as well as new headlines surrounding draft picks and trades making noise before the regular season starts.
Whether it be players returning from injuries, stars who chose to take their talents to new cities or simply who will claim the title at the end of the season, there’s always something happening in the league that fans should pay close attention to.
Here’s five storylines to watch as the 2021 WNBA season tips off.
Storm title defence, take two
The biggest storyline is, of course, if the Seattle Storm can defend their title, which they were unable to do after their 2018 championship win.
Many attribute it to the fact both Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart were injured, but that also takes away from the success of Elena Delle Donne, Aerial Powers, Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud leading the Washington Mystics to the 2019 title, and the same argument could be made for their own defence in 2020 with Delle Donne and Cloud both missing the “wubble” season.
Seattle lost Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Sami Whiticomb in the off-season, but was also able to add Katie Lou Samuelson from the Dallas Wings.
With that said, most of the WNBA has seriously reloaded in the 2021 free agency.
For example, Minnesota has come back strong with Lynx GM and head coach Cheryl Reeve returning as the defending coach of the year, and their acquisition of Canadian star Natalie Achonwa figures to help their frontcourt depth, as well as shooting from mid-range if they want to stretch their perimeter to four.
The Lynx will also hope to have a healthy Sylvia Fowles, and with a full-strength team they should have one of the best chances to win this year.
Las Vegas will also be looking to return to the finals for a second straight year with the return of Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum as well as picking up guard Chelsea Gray.
Sabrina Ionescu’s second chance at a rookie year
Though she isn’t actually eligible to win a Rookie of the Year award since she did play in two and a half games last season, Ionescu’s second debut is one of the most anticipated events of the 2021 season.
After rehabbing her ankle for the past year, refraining from going overseas like many of her peers, Ionescu is ready to be the leader that New York desperately needs – the team went 2-20 last year and lost Kia Nurse in a trade that brought Sami Whiticomb and Natasha Howard to the Liberty.
And while the addition of the former Storm players brings experience and leadership to what was an incredibly young New York squad, with head coach Walt Hopkins keen on development which can be seen in the addition of rookies Michaela Onyenwere and Didi Richards making the team, Ionescu’s raw talent and competitive drive is something that can’t be taught and will make an impact for the Liberty. After all, the now-sophomore managed to score 55 points in 80 minutes played in 2020.
“On the court it’s just doing what I have been doing my entire career just having fun doing what I love and helping those around me and finding ways to win,” Ionescu said during the Liberty’s media day.
Candace Parker, the hometown kid
After the Los Angeles Sparks were eliminated from the playoffs last year, Parker said, “I don’t want to leave L.A., but at the same time we gotta get better. Can’t keep saying ‘next year.’”
As it turns out, going back to her hometown of Chicago was what she saw as the correct fit for her future – joining an already talented squad of Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stef Dolson, Kaleah Copper, Diamond DeShields and Ruthy Hebard among others. Chicago also picked up 19-year-old Shyla Heal out of Australia to add to the team’s depth and future development.
Chicago lost to the ultimate underdog Connecticut Sun in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, but the addition of Parker, the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year in her 13th season, aims to help fill in the defensive gaps in Chicago as its playmaking and scoring abilities are more than taken care of.
Though the Sky have had their struggles in team chemistry and seemingly a disconnect between coaching and players, Parker’s veteran presence figures to give them the true leader they’ve been missing.
How the rebuilding teams will make 2021 work
Other than New York there are two other teams that are heavily into a rebuilding stage: Indiana and Atlanta.
The Dream have done a 180 since this time last year – ousting their previous ownership group, that conflicted with the political views of their players, and bringing in former WNBA champion, and Dream alum, Renee Montgomery as now part-owner of the team. And with former coach Nicki Collen taking over for Kim Mulkey at Baylor, the team also has a new interim head coach in Mike Petersen as well.
Additionally, Atlanta also drafted Arizona guard Aari McDonald with its third-overall pick to accompany last year’s fourth-overall pick Chennedy Carter to make up a new backcourt core.
With all these changes, the team seems to be heading in the right direction to be much better than 2020’s 7-15 record.
As for the Fever, the direction their rebuild is headed in is still quite unknown.
General manager Tamika Catchings, who played her entire WNBA career with the Fever, drafted Kysre Gondrezick with the team’s fourth-overall pick – a move almost nobody saw coming.
West Virginia University’s highest ever draft pick, Gondrezick was chosen because the team had “picked the player that best fit [the needs] for our team,” Catchings said post-draft.
As well, with the loss of Achonwa to the Lynx, but also the pick-up of Danielle Robinson from the Las Vegas Aces, the Fever do look to be adding to their scoring punch. However, they will need to work on minimizing their turnovers, of which they had the second most in the league last year, as well as capitalizing on steals and defensive plays to be able to make the most of what appears to be a multi-year rebuilding plan.
Which rookie will rise to the top?
Crystal Dangerfield’s historic 2020 Rookie of the Year campaign appeared to open the doors for those drafted in the second and third rounds to realize that not only could they make a WNBA roster, but they could also make a big impact for their team as well.
This year, 17 of the first 24 rookies drafted have made WNBA rosters, with the exception of Iliana Rupert who is reportedly not making the trip overseas from France for the Aces this season who selected her 12th overall.
Players like the Wings’ Dana Evans and the Sun’s DiJonai Carrington are early favourites for the award, seeing as their draft stock slipped seemingly far, but also because both players have been put in situations where they will be heavily utilized and may even find their way into starting positions early in the season, the same way Dangerfield did before them.
With Charli Collier, Awak Kuier and Chelsea Dungee all joining Evans on the Wings, the team alone will be having their own rookie-of-the-year race internally, but with limited roster spots in a competitive league, all rookies will be expected to show out for their teams right from the start.