The 2020 WNBA season promises to be unlike any of its predecessors. The league’s 12 teams have gathered at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. in a “Wubble” designed to keep COVID-19 out throughout the summer and fall. The 22-game regular season begins on Saturday with a highly anticipated national television affair that pits 2020 league No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu and the New York Liberty against Breanna Stewart and the 2018 WNBA champion Seattle Storm. Here are eight burning questions we’re curious about ahead of the regular season.
Which teams will be hurt most by player absences?
It’s unfair to criticize players for not traveling to Florida and not taking part in this highly unusual season. Still, from an on-court perspective, a number of rosters were seemingly ravaged by player opt-out decisions.
On the surface, no team will be as impacted by player decisions than the 2019 WNBA champion Washington Mystics. Two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne is not expected to play after the WNBA denied her application for an exemption due to preexisting conditions. Major offseason acquisition Tina Charles, who was granted an exemption due to her extrinsic asthma, will also miss the season. Guard Natasha Cloud has also opted out to pursue social justice initiatives, and last year’s starting center LaToya Sanders will not take part in the season, either, citing doing what’s best for her and her family. Washington will still have seventh-year center Emma Meesseman, who is coming off a 2019 WNBA Finals MVP award, but she will now be forced to produce even more for a team with a more sparsely talented roster.
The Mystics are not alone in being without some of their key contributors. The Los Angeles Sparks will be without both guard Chiney Ogwumike and guard Kristi Toliver, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition who joined L.A. after winning last year’s title with Washington. The Connecticut Sun will look to reach their second consecutive WNBA finals without Jonquel Jones, who ranked second in the league in win shares last season. Additionally, the Las Vegas Aces will also be without their dominant center, as Liz Cambage is sitting out the 2020 season for health reasons.
Will the Seattle Storm pick off where they left off before last year’s injury-riddled season?
The 2018 WNBA champion Seattle Storm enter the season looking to rebound after last year’s 18–16 campaign. Their potential title run will begin with 2018 league MVP Breanna Stewart, who missed all of last season after tearing her Achilles while playing for the Russian club Dynamo Kursk. Stewart, 25, averaged 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 53% from the field in her last WNBA season. 39-year-old point guard Sue Bird also missed last year with a knee injury; Bird was key in the team’s title in 2018 and averaged a career-high in assists in 2018.
Without Bird and Stewart last season, Seattle lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Sparks. However, forward Natasha Howard emerged as one of the league’s top players, making all-WNBA first-team and winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. Howard started alongside Stewart in 2018 and will likely do the same again this year. Add in crafty guard Jewell Loyd, a former league No. 1 pick, and the Storm seemed set up for another dangerous season.
Which offseason move will be the most impactful this season?
Phoenix might have made the biggest splash trade of the offseason, adding Skylar Diggins-Smith from the Dallas Wings in a trade. Diggins-Smith didn’t play last year after the birth of her son, but remains a versatile playmaker, capable of scoring on her own or setting up her teammates. She averaged 14.5 points per game in 2018 and thrived alongside Cambage, while the latter was still with the Wings. Look for Diggins-Smith’s game to mesh well with 2019 MVP runner-up Brittney Griner and veteran guard Diana Taurasi, who is looking for her fourth WNBA title. For its strong core, Phoenix enters as a title contender.
In terms of other major offseason transactions, veteran guard Angel McCoughtry will likely make a sizable difference for the Aces, especially following the Achilles injury to guard Kelsey Plum. An ACL injury cost McCoughtry nearly all of her 2019 season, but the ball-dominant player still averaged 16.5 points per game in 2018.
Sun forward DeWanna Bonner is also in a prime position to make a major impact, especially in the wake of Jones’s decision to sit out of the 2020 season. Bonner, a two-time WNBA champion, has made All-Star appearances in each of the past two seasons and is coming off one of her most productive seasons, in which she averaged 17.2 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Mercury.
What can we expect from Sabrina Ionescu and the Liberty?
Ionescu enters the 2020 WNBA season after completing one of the greatest collegiate careers in the history of the sport. During her senior season at Oregon, she broke a slate of NCAA records en route to becoming the first player in NCAA Division I history (male or female) to record 2,000 career points, 1,000 career assists and 1,000 rebounds, among other standout notes.
When the Liberty drafted the 22-year-old guard first, it took less than an hour for her WNBA jersey to sell out on the WNBAstore.com. The fan base is clearly excited for her arrival, and the Oregon star enters her debut professional season with high individual expectations.
However, as a team, New York will feature one of the most inexperienced rosters in the league. New York has six other rookies on its roster, including a number of other high draft picks in Megan Walker and Jocelyn Willoughby.
2019 No. 2 pick Asia Durr will miss her sophomore season with a COVID-19 diagnosis after struggling with nagging injuries last year. All-Star Kia Nurse will be a key name to watch as she enters her third season. While team expectations might be justifiably muted, Ionescu recently said that she has an “underdog mentality no matter what.”
What other rookies could make the biggest impact this season?
As evidence by a recent IG live between Bird and Taurasi, the 2020 rookie class is far deeper than just Ionescu. Wings forward Satou Sabally, a teammate of Ionescu’s at Oregon, comes into the league as a highly decorated big who can stretch the floor. Sabally will be joined by fellow rookies Bella Alarie and Tyasha Harris in Dallas as the three will look to mesh alongside 2019 All-Rookie team member Arike Ogunbowale and create a young core.
Former Texas A&M guard Chennedy Carter is an ideal fit for Atlanta Dream head coach Nikki Collen and appears likely to be the lead playmaker for a rebuilding team that won just eight games in 2019. Carter led A&M with 21.3 points per game in 2019–20 and enters the WNBA after three All-America seasons with the Aggies.
Forward Lauren Cox could be an anchor on both ends for the Indiana Fever. Her defensive production was instrumental in helping Baylor reach a national championship in the 2019 and she averaged double-digit scoring in each of her final three seasons in Waco. Fever head coach Marianne Stanley recently noted that Cox is not currently in the Wubble due to medical protocols, but that she is expected to still arrive.
How important will roster depth and roster continuity be?
The Sparks enter the Wubble with one of the strongest cores in the league. Despite averaging career lows nearly across the board last season, Candace Parker remains one of the league’s top players, and she’ll be joined by 2019 first-team standout guard Chelsea Gray and second-team forward Nneka Ogwumike. While the Sparks also added veteran Seimone Augustus, they will be without Chiney Ogwumike and Toliver, thus shortening the team’s bench. Los Angeles will serve as an interesting test case about the value of depth.
A team like the Chicago Sky, on the other hand, enters the season after bringing back nearly their entire core in Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson and Diamond DeShields. Last year, the Sky posted their best regular-season record since 2015, winning 20 games, and they were just seconds away from advancing to the semifinals before a miracle half-court shot by Aces forward Dearica Hamby sent Las Vegas to the next round. Chicago did add the third University of Oregon star in Ruthy Hebard with the No. 8 selection, and Azura Stevens, who was acquired in a trade with Dallas, could also make an impact. Still, continuity would appear to be instrumental in any potential Chicago run.
Will the recent news regarding Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler hover over the 2020 season?
Loeffler has found herself in the middle of a firestorm after opposing the league’s decision to include Black Lives matter in its social justice initiatives. In early July, she spoke out against the league in a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, calling Black Lives Matter a “political organization” that is “undeniably radical.” Several current and former players have called for her removal, but Engelbert recently said that she would not force Loeffler, who is also a junior U.S. senator from Georgia, to sell her stake in the team.
Engelbert also has said on multiple occasions that Loeffler, who is running to retain her U.S. Senate seat this November, has not served as a governor in the league since October 2019. Still, with the league deciding to feature the names of women who have died in connection to police brutality and racial violence on jerseys, among other social justice initiatives, the dissonance in Loeffler being associated with a WNBA franchise remains present.
Who will take home the WNBA MVP award?
The WNBA is loaded with talent, especially in the frontcourt. Even though it appears last year’s MVP, Elena Delle Donne, won’t be in the Wubble, the aforementioned Stewart, Griner and Aces forward A’ja Wilson and are all more than worthy candidates to take home the league’s top honors.
Griner was the runner-up last year and finished second in scoring and tied for the league lead with blocks. While she hasn’t ever won the MVP award, she has finished in the top six of voting four times throughout her career.
Wilson would also be a first-time winner, and with Cambage sitting out this season, the South Carolina product will likely see her numbers increase. Wilson’s numbers were down last year compared with her Rookie of the Year–winning 2018 season. Still, the two-time All-Star seems poised to make her first All-League team this year as she becomes the focal point of Las Vegas’s attack.