WNBA Players to watch this season: Nurse joins a stacked Mercury

New-York-Liberty's-Kia-Nurse-shoots-at-the-three-point-contest-during-the-WNBA-All-Star-festivities

New York Liberty's Kia Nurse shoots at the three-point contest during the WNBA All-Star festivities in Las Vegas in 2019. (John Locher/AP)

With the 2021 WNBA season about to tip-off Friday, and less than 144 roster spots available in the league, it seems like almost every player league is one to watch with each roster overflowing with talent.

But after a big off-season that had huge signings, shocking moves in free agency and a chaotic draft that no one could have mocked up, here is one player to keep an eye on this season from each of the 12 teams.

Atlanta Dream – Aari McDonald

If you watched any part of the NCAA Women’s tournament in April, you know that McDonald stole the show, and for good reason. The sharpshooter, and co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12, raised her draft stock to go third overall after not even being in the conversation a month prior.

Joining an already talented backcourt of Courtney Williams and Chennedy Carter, who had her rookie campaign botched due to injury, McDonald will be looking to elevate the Dream into the playoffs this year.

The Dream are under new ownership and have a new head coach, so the 180 the team is doing off the court is aiming to ensure that the inconsistencies faced in 2020 stay in the past and the games where Atlanta lost by one point are now one they could win by 10.

“The culture is definitely different, when you get to the pros it’s more player led, if something breaks down the players step in and are directing traffic,” said McDonald. “I think I’m getting comfortable with everybody, I’m getting close to everybody.”

Chicago Sky – Diamond DeShields

No one needs to be told to watch out for Allie Quigley or Courtney Vandersloot, and the addition of hometown kid Candace Parker, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year heading into her 14th season.

DeShields, however, is definitely a player who doesn’t get enough hype for her performance. She left the 2020 bubble mid-August for personal reasons after playing only 13 games for the Sky and was limited in what she could do because injuries. Prior to last season, though, she averaged at least 14 points per game in her previous two seasons, including leading the Sky in scoring in 2019.

Connecticut Sun – DiJonai Carrington

The Sun made their name known after taking the Aces to all five games in the semifinals of the playoffs last year after starting the season on a five-game losing streak and slipping into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed.

With no first-round pick in the draft, Connecticut took Carrington with their pick, a projected first-rounder who seemingly slipped to 20th overall. In her pre-season appearances, Carrington has made a splash that mirrors her offensive hunger shown during her time at Baylor, and, in particular, her standout performance of 2021 against UConn in the Elite Eight matchup where she had 22 points and seven rebounds.

A versatile two-way player, many now have Carrington on their radar as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate.

Dallas Wings – Satou Sabally

Turkish champion for Fenerbahçe SK, Sabally will be joining the Wings late this season due to pandemic protocols but proved overseas that her sophomore comeback will be one for the record books.

Missing six games last year due to injury, Sabally was a fantastic partner for Arike Ogunbowale, and though the team lacked depth, they look to have made up for it this year after picking up Charli Collier, Awak Kuier and Dana Evans.

Despite entering just her second season Sabally is a leader for the Wings and is also another two-way player to watch out for, something we’re seeing more of in the league.

Indiana Fever – Kelsey Mitchell

The Fever definitely didn’t have the season they wanted to last year, and it didn’t help that only five players on their roster were actually able to play all 22 games on the season.

Mitchell led the team in scoring and sat second in assists per game, but her playmaking ability wasn’t enough to lift the rocky squad into the playoffs. Now, with the draft selection of Kysre Gondrezick and the addition of Danielle Robinson to offset the loss of Natalie Achonwa, the Fever are hoping to redeem themselves from a season that saw their rookie draft pick Lauren Cox get COVID-19 and other players bit by the injury bug.

Mitchell is entering her fourth season with the Fever and will look to have her biggest impact yet on the floor.

Las Vegas Aces – Chelsea Gray

The Aces made it to the WNBA finals in the 2020 bubble despite missing Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum mostly thanks to the leadership of MVP A’ja Wilson, but the injury of Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby and a young bench led to the Aces getting swept by Seattle.

Enter veteran Gray, dubbed the “Point Gawd,” to enhance the team’s leadership as well as offensive playmaking.

“I’m holding everyone accountable and playing my best basketball whenever I’m on the floor, putting our team in a position to win each game – when you do it by small increments, every quarter, every minute you try to be the best you can on the court and I’ll just be a leader out there,” said Gray.

Los Angeles Sparks – Kristi Toliver

After missing all of the 2020 season due to health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Toliver returns to the Sparks this season, a team she played for the first six seasons of her career and won her first championship with in 2016.

She’s averaged double-digit scoring for the last nine seasons and also had the highest assist average of her career in 2019. Her ability to make plays will be needed on the Sparks squad who is without long-time leader Parker after her move to Chicago.

Toliver brings some much-needed experience and leadership to a Sparks team that needs to be able to make it further into the playoffs than they did last season.

Minnesota Lynx – Aerial Powers

Powers had the best season of her career in 2020, despite only playing six games.

She had a career-best 27 points against Connecticut last season and also grabbed more defensive boards than ever. Cheryl Reeve, head coach and general manager for the Lynx, has a keen eye for players in the league who could make an impact on her squad, which we saw with the drafting of Napheesa Collier in 2019 and Crystal Dangerfield in 2020, as well as the bench of Bridget Carleton and Rachel Banham.

With Maya Moore still sitting out from the game to pursue her anti-racism and social justice work, Powers will be able to bring experience and leadership to the young squad to accompany that of Sylvia Fowles, who missed part of the 2020 season due to injury. The Lynx already showed just how good they can be last year, albeit a bit depleted, but the addition of Powers and Achonwa to an already solid roster means that Minnesota is here to compete once again.

New York Liberty – Didi Richards

The rookie Richards’ resilience is only a fraction of the reason why she is someone to watch for this season.

In October of 2020, she suffered a spinal cord injury that left her temporarily paralyzed. Afterwards, not only did Richards recover to walk again, she shot 43 per cent in her final season to help lead Baylor to a Big 12 title and to the Elite Eight where they fell to UConn.

Even pre-draft, Richards said she felt anxious and was unsure where she would end up, if anywhere.

On the floor, what sets Richard apart isn’t her ability to make plays or disrupt plays with her steals and blocks, but her character makes her fun to watch. Richards has stolen the show at Liberty media days, loving the New York City atmosphere and just being her authentic, bubbly self – a contrast to the aggression she can have on the court. Getting to play with fellow rookie Michaela Onyenwere, Richards will be a solid contributor off of New York’s bench but will also help facilitate the chemistry needed for the team to bounce back from 2020.

“I just wanted to get on the court, and I’ve been doing that for the past two weeks. If I’m not confident by now, they’ve gotta get rid of me,” Richards said.

Phoenix Mercury – Kia Nurse

It seems quite obvious to put the Canadian in a new city on a watchlist, right? The novelties of either are far from the reason why Nurse should be on the radar during her fourth year in the league, though.

Leading the Liberty in scoring last season, Nurse had what she felt was a junior year slump, with injury plaguing herself as well as a lot of a young Liberty team that struggled to find cohesion until late in the year.

Taking her talents south to Phoenix, Nurse now gets to join a stacked backcourt of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith and will try and find more efficiency in her shooting the way she did her first two years in the league. With the return of Brittney Griner as well, who left the 2020 “wobble” for personal reasons, there is a lot of opportunity to find success for the Mercury squad.

Seattle Storm – Jewell Loyd

It seems like it’s a challenge in itself to stand out on a team where your teammates are Sue Bird, one of the greatest to play the game, and Breanna Stewart, who many have dubbed the young “GOAT,” but Loyd has managed to do just that.

Loyd averaged 15 points per game in her sixth year in the league and was a shooting force for the Storm, a team that also had lingering injuries from Bird and Stewart to deal with. Not to mention the ability to produce on both sides of the ball with gritty rebounds, Loyd scored 20 or more points 10 times last season, adding to the already dominant roster that stayed tough during 2021’s free agency.

Washington Mystics – Tina Charles

The highly anticipated arrival of Charles in Washington has finally come – Washington traded Shatori Walker-Kimbrough their first-, second- and third-round picks in 2021 for Charles, but she sat out the 2020 season due to her extrinsic asthma.

Washington had an underwhelming-looking title defence in 2020, but were missing Charles, Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud and were left to rely on young and inexperienced players, who still got them to the playoffs.

Getting to see Charles in head coach Mike Thibault’s rotation will be interesting as the man has the most wins in the WNBA for a reason and will know how to best utilize his new star in order to repeat what the team did and give the strong Storm a run for their money.

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