Despite the WNBA’s 25th season only starting two weeks ago, some teams have already played upwards of six games in 14 days, with the New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun both leading the pack with 5-1 records.
What’s changed from last year, where both of these teams started their seasons on five-game losing streaks? For Connecticut, it’s using the momentum and chemistry that got them to Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals.
But for New York, as well as the 4-1 Seattle Storm and 3-2 Las Vegas Aces, the answer has been free agency. Though it’s still early in the season, here are some of the returns on free agents who moved to new cities in the off-season.
Arguably the best free agency pick-up, and a lead candidate in the MVP talk after putting the world on notice of her skills by winning the WNBA’s MIP award last season, Laney has been the Liberty’s leading scorer and is on a six-game streak of scoring 20 or more points this season -- aka every game the Liberty have played this season.
Playing for four other teams before arriving in New York, finding her dominance in year four with the Atlanta Dream last year, Laney has been the three-point shooter that head coach Walt Hopkins has been missing in his offence. Shooting over 50 per cent from all areas of the floor including beyond the arc, Laney has been key in allowing the Liberty to stretch the floor, with playmaker Sabrina Ionescu easily finding where Laney is at any time during play. Her ability to shift to the four spot has made her hard to contain for defenders from any opponent.
Dubbed the “Point Gawd” for a reason, Gray is averaging a career-high six assists per game with the Aces on top of an average of 12.8 points per game. The depth for Las Vegas in the guard rotation is one of the best in the league, with Jackie Young coming into her own for the first time since she joined the Aces in 2019, and Kelsey Plum returning from injury, though she is currently away for FIBA 3x3 commitments.
What makes Gray stand out on the Aces is her court vision -- many times teams are going to do whatever they can to shut down centre Liz Cambage, or push A’ja Wilson to the three-point line as it isn’t her area of expertise. Allowing Gray to bring up the ball gives Las Vegas a chance to either have Gray drive the basket herself or draw in defenders to be able to kick the ball out to another option -- but even on her own, Gray is shooting 40 per cent from the three and 52.8 per cent from the floor regardless and has adjusted nicely to the Aces’ fast-paced offence.
Powers has been another casualty of the injury bug with a hamstring injury and has been sidelined indefinitely for the season. But before the injury, she had tapped into head coach Cheryl Reeve’s coveted ability to turn any player into one who excels in two-way play with an 11-point, five rebound average in her three games with the Lynx.
With Powers out and Napheesa Collier late to arrive due to overseas commitments and other injuries, the Lynx are one of two teams yet to find a win in the league, but Powers lead the team with 18 points in her Lynx debut against the Mercury and showed no signs of needing adjustment when arriving in Minnesota.
To say that the Indiana Fever had a rough 2020 would be an understatement, and losing long-time veteran Natalie Achonwa to the Lynx was a shake up for their roster, but one they desperately needed. In addition to drafting Kysre Gondrezick fourth overall in 2021, the Fever also brought in Robinson from the Aces to add another guard in the rotation to complement Kelsey Mitchell.
Though the Fever have only found one win this season, putting Robinson at point guard has allowed Indiana to swing the ball to sharpshooters like Mitchell and Gondrezick, who are effective from the three-point line (though Robinson is capable of making shots from anywhere on the floor herself), while also creating plays for centre Teaira McCowan. The win column still isn’t stacking up, but the trend of the rebuild in Indiana is looking a lot more clear.
The best is yet to come
Natalie Achonwa, Candace Parker, Cheyenne Parker and Alysha Clark all were big off-season moves, with Candace Parker playing her entire career in LA before moving to her hometown of Chicago for her 14th season, and Clark leaving her champion Seattle Storm for the 2019 champion Washington Mystics.
It's been a mixed bag for this group of players so far.
Clark is out for the season with a foot injury, Candace Parker has yet to make her home debut for the Sky with an everchanging timeline of return for her ankle injury, and Achonwa has seen just eight minutes of action in two games for the Lynx with a knee injury. Cheyenne Parker is out due to COVID-19 protocols but is expected back this week.
These players were sought after due to their ability to make an immediate impact on their respective teams, and their full potential is far from being reached, but as of right now there is no way to know whether or not the return on investment will actually turn out for each team with these injuries.