2020 WNBA midseason check-in - Sports Illustrated

Wubble, Baby, Wubble: WNBA Midseason Check-in

As the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season passes the halfway mark, let's take stock of the league's players and teams to watch.
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The 2020 WNBA season is just past the halfway point, and the league’s award races are in full swing. While the year has been unconventional as a result of the condensed schedule and fan-less campus environment, the action in Brandenton, Fla., has been highly competitive. A number of star-studded Western Conference teams have regularly asserted their superiority; however, teams like the Chicago Sky remain worthy foes out of the East. Despite there still being plenty of time for things to change, here’s a look at where the WNBA stands with half the schedule accounted for.

Most Valuable Player: Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm)

Considering the success of the Storm (10–2) thus far, it should be no surprise that Stewart has cemented herself at the top of the league’s MVP race. Entering Thursday’s action, Stewart is averaging just under 19 points per game on 52% shooting from the field. She leads the league in defensive win shares and has the best defensive rating of players who play at least 25 minutes per game. In addition to her MVP candidacy, she could also take home the Defensive Player of the Year award.

What’s even more impressive is that Stewart is thriving despite missing the 2019 WNBA season after tearing her Achilles tendon, an injury she sustained while playing for the Russian Club Dynamo Kursk. Even though the UConn legend’s per-game totals are currently a tad lower than what they were in her MVP-winning 2018 season, Stewart’s per-36 totals are incredibly similar to her stellar 2018 campaign. She has not missed a beat in her return.

In terms of other names to watch, don’t be surprised to see Aces star A’ja Wilson push Stewart for the award. Before Las Vegas’s win over the Sun, Wilson was second in the league in scoring and fifth in rebounding. While the South Carolina product’s raw numbers are similar to 2018, the year when she took home Rookie of the Year honors, she has helped Las Vegas overcome the absence of center Liz Cambage, who is sitting out the season for health reasons. Las Vegas, led by Wilson, is very much a title contender.

Rookie of the Year: Crystal Dangerfield (Minnesota Lynx)

Dangerfield certainly crafted an impressive résumé during her collegiate seasons at UConn, making two AAC first-team appearances and one AAC third-team appearance, but few predicted this kind of production when she was selected with the No. 16 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft.

Dangerfield’s path to the award (thus far) has certainly been helped by injuries to two of the league’s other top rookies, Sabrina Ionescu and Chennedy Carter, but Dangerfield is deserving of it nevertheless.

First to the injured rookies: Ionescu played just two full games before suffering a Grade 3 ankle sprain, and, while she looked as good as advertised, her sample size is simply too small. Carter played eight games, leading the Dream in scoring with 17 points per game and racking up a 31% usage rate, the most of any WNBA player who has recorded at least 100 minutes this season. However, on August 11, the former Texas A&M star also sustained an ankle injury, and that’s expected to keep her out two weeks.

Enter Dangerfield, who comes into Thursday’s action playing nearly 29 minutes and totaling 14.3 points per game on 10.4 shot attempts. She’s shooting an impressive 47.1% from the field on the those looks, the best percentage among rookies who take at least eight shots per game, and she’s recording just 2.4 turnovers per contest, the same number as another former UConn great, Diana Taurasi. Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally is another possible Rookie of the Year candidate, and Carter could steal the award depending on when she returns, but look for the 5'5" Minnesota guard to continue her successful play into the second half of the season.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is a Coach of the Year candidate.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is a Coach of the Year candidate.

Biggest surprise team: Minnesota Lynx

Minnesota entered the 2020 season with a plethora of questions, the most overarching one being: How was it going to extend its streak of nine consecutive postseason appearances? Lynx legend Seimone Augustus signed with Los Angeles this past offseason, and 34-year-old Sylvia Fowles was coming off her lowest totals in six seasons. While the aforementioned Dangerfield has been a pleasant spark for Minnesota, the biggest reason for their success has been the improvement of second-year forward Napheesa Collier.

Collier is one of just two Lynx players to start all 11 of her team’s games, and she is averaging team highs in minutes and points, with 15.2 per game. For her success she was named the Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday.

But if Minnesota looks to sustain its successful first half, it will have to do so without Fowles. The veteran big suffered a right calf strain last week that will keep her out indefinitely. While head coach Cheryl Reeve—who is a worthy Coach of the Year candidate—said that the injury to the 2017 WNBA MVP is “the type of blow you’d think it would be,” Reeve also added that the team was “sort of familiar with what needs to happen and what our rotations will be.” Behind the league’s third best defense, the Lynx (8-3) look well on their way to finishing in the league’s top eight and becoming just the third WNBA team in history to make the playoffs for at least 10 straight years.

Team to watch in the second half: Los Angeles Sparks

It’s not entirely surprising that the Sparks have gone 8–3 through their first 11 games in the Wubble, as even after Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike opted out, they traveled to Florida with one of the strongest cores in the league. Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray have been as good as expected, with Parker, in particular, upping her production this year.

The 34-year-old big is grabbing three more rebounds per game than she did in 2019. She’s also shooting a better percentage from the field and from three. Defensively, the former Tennessee great is also the anchor of the league’s second-best unit, one that is allowing just 95.3 points per 100 possessions. On a per-36-minute basis, Gray has been as good as she was throughout last season, a year in which she made All-WNBA first-team. And Ogwumike has similarly been impactful, despite playing few minutes per games. Throw in Riquna Williams, who is currently in the middle of her best-career WNBA season, and Brittney Sykes, who is a solid contributor, and the Sparks look like another legitimate title contender. Los Angeles doesn’t play Seattle until Sept. 4; keep an especially close eye on how that game turns out.

How is the Wubble holding up?

Quite well.

Credit the WNBA for creating such a successful campus environment thus far. Two players, Kalani Brown and Glory Johnson of the Atlanta Dream, tested positive after arriving in Bradenton, but they did so in the league’s initial quarantine period. Both were sent off-campus to quarantine at a hotel. There was never an outbreak. To this point, the league’s testing protocol and restrictions have worked, and the league has not recorded a confirmed positive test since Brown’s and Johnson’s in early July.

Additionally, while the IMG Academy campus has fewer amenities than the NBA’s Disney World campus, players from around the WNBA still appear to be busy, and in good spirits, while not on the court. Among off-court highlights, we’ve seen the launch of multiple player-hosted shows, such as Tea With A & Phee, and adorable children moments, like clips of Amaya, the daughter of Aces forward Dearica Hamby, who has been a star in the Wubble. We've also seen strong displays of social justice, such as players wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts, opposing Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler. Not surprisingly, WNBA players continue to be leaders in the fight for racial equality, so expect continued displays down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.