The WNBA is a star-driven league. A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage for Las Vegas, Breanna Stewart for Seattle, Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles for Washington, and Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner for Phoenix all top the odds to win MVP, and their teams are some of the early favorites to win it all. But it takes a complete squad to grind through the season and into playoffs. This group of players is less heralded, but could be the key to taking their teams to the next level. Here’s a look at the players who are indispensable for each team heading into the 2021 WNBA season.
Las Vegas Aces - Jackie Young
2020 stats: 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists in 26 minutes per game
The No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft shot 32% as a starter in her rookie season. Last season, she shot 49.2% coming off the bench and nearly doubled her scoring output, too—from 6.6 to 11 points per game. The Aces added All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray in free agency, and fellow No. 1 pick Kelsey Plum is returning from injury, so Young could find a similar role as a key bench player. With Angel McCoughtry out for the season, Young could give the Aces crucial depth if she continues to improve her efficiency.
Atlanta Dream - Cheyenne Parker
2020 stats: 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 steals in 25 minutes per game
The Dream paid big to bring Parker over from Chicago, and they’ll need her to deliver to find a way back into the playoffs for the first time since 2018. The versatile power forward was extremely efficient last season as she stepped into a starting role, scoring 13.4 points per game on 55.4% shooting. But what the Dream really need is her inside defense and shot blocking. The team gave up the second-most points per game and allowed opponents to shoot 51% from two, the worst in the league. Parker has been in the top 12 for blocked shots each of the last three seasons, and should pair well with Elizabeth Williams’s high-caliber defense.
Chicago Sky - Kahleah Copper
2020 stats: 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steal in 31 minutes per game
Copper made a huge leap in her first season as a regular starter, playing twice as many minutes and scoring more than twice as many points per game as she did in 2019. Copper went from shooting six times a game to 12, and her field goal percentage improved from 38.7% to 49.6%. Turnovers were a concern, but Copper will be asked to do less with Diamond DeShields returning to the team. If she can keep up the efficiency coming off the bench, it will give the repowered Sky some dangerous depth.
Indiana Fever - Teaira McCowan
2020 season: 10.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.0 block in 21 minutes per game
McCowan has been one of the top shot blockers and rebounders in the league over her first two seasons, but the No. 3 pick out of 2019 still hasn’t established herself as a regular starter with the Fever. Indiana’s frontcourt options are McCowan, second-year forward Lauren Cox and veteran newcomers Jessica Breland and Jantel Lavender. Breland and Lavender have been solid contributors throughout their careers, but neither played last season and neither has the size of 6’ 7” McCowan. It’s hard to imagine head coach Marianne Stanley not giving McCowan a larger role, more suited for someone who is advertised as one of the faces of the franchise, but the Mississippi State alum has yet to live up to her potential on defense. Her rebounding average and block rate decreased from her first to second year, and she matched her total turnover count despite playing 12 fewer games in 2020. Her third season will be crucial in foreseeing if success is on the horizon for a hopeful Indiana squad.
New York Liberty - Jazmine Jones
2020 season stats: 10.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals in 21 minutes per game
One of New York’s less heralded rookies last season, Jones ended up being one of the bright spots of a 2–20 season. Jones wasn’t an efficient shooter, but scored 10.8 points per game off the bench by consistently finding her way to the free throw line, where she took four attempts per game—the 14th-most in the league. She provided the most value on defense, averaging 1.4 steals a game. Like many on the Liberty, Jones was prone to turnovers—averaging 2.9 per game—so she’ll need to take care of the ball better to make a big impact.
Minnesota Lynx - Natalie Achonwa
2020 season stats: 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists in 20 minutes per game
The Lynx may have signed bigger names in the offseason, but Achonwa could have the most important job—keeping Sylvia Fowles healthy. The Lynx’s championship hopes live and die with Fowles. Achonwa’s role is to play well enough to give her more time on the bench and keep her healthy throughout the season. In her six seasons in Indiana, Achonwa established herself as a solid big who could score inside, rebound and defend the paint. To make an impact on the Lynx, she’ll need to do the same.
Phoenix Mercury - Kia Nurse
2020 stats: 12.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists in 27.5 minutes per game
After a surprising All-Star season in 2019, Nurse was arguably the worst shooter in the league in 2020 as the No. 1 option on an overmatched Liberty squad. She took 6.2 three-pointers a game—fourth most in the league—and converted only 23.8%. Her two-point percentage was in the bottom 2% league-wide, according to Her Hoop Stats. Now with the Mercury, Nurse will be the fourth or fifth option and should find more open looks than she ever did in New York. The Mercury will expect her to be more efficient with those looks, and she could be pushed into a larger role at some point if Phoenix becomes shorthanded because of injury.
Washington Mystics - Ariel Atkins
2020 season: 14.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.8 steals in 31.0 minutes per game
Atkins has been the Mystics’ secret weapon since she arrived in Washington in 2018, and she’s only gotten better. Atkins has earned second team All-Defense honors all three years she’s been in the league, and took on a large role as the team’s key player in 2020 after losing much of its championship roster from 2019 to free agency, opt-outs, and injuries. She improved her three-point shooting volume and efficiency last year, and was fourth in the league with 1.8 steals per game. With Alysha Clark out for the season and Elena Delle Donne expected to miss at least the first few games, Atkins should play a huge role on the perimeter in a Mike Thibault offense that consistently ranks at the top of the league for percentage of points scored from behind the arc.
Los Angeles Sparks - Brittney Sykes
2020 season: 10.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals in 24 minutes per game
The Sparks will need Sykes after losing crucial pieces on both sides of the ball in free agency. Candace Parker, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, led the team in rebounds and blocks, and Chelsea Gray led in total steals. Along with Riquna Williams, the team lost three of its top-five scorers from 2020, but Sykes is a promising contributor on offense and defense. She’s blossomed into a top defender over the last few years and earned a spot on the second team All-Defense last season. She didn’t attempt as many shots last year compared to her first three seasons in the league, but took a huge step in her shooting efficiency, making 48.7% of her attempts throughout the year compared with 36.5% in 2019. Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver will star on the new-look Sparks team, but if Sykes can take another leap in her development, Los Angeles could go further than people may think.
Seattle Storm - Ezi Magbegor
2020 season stats: 6.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.7 blocks in 13 minutes per game
The Storm have a trio of stars in Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird that keeps them in contention for another championship, but Magbegor could be in that mix before the season’s over. The Storm head into 2021 without Natasha Howard and Crystal Langhorne, but added 15-year veteran Candice Dupree in free agency to help shore up the front court. The most time Magbegor saw on the floor in a game as a rookie last year was just 20 minutes, but the 21-year-old Australian star has already taken on a much larger role in training camp and could be relied on early as players arrive late from overseas. Magbegor will need to improve her rebounding and shot blocking to help Stewart, but she’s bound to build on the potential she showed in just a short amount of time last year as the season goes on.
Connecticut Sun - Brionna Jones
2020 season stats: 11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals in 26 minutes per game
After not averaging more than 9.0 minutes per game in her first three seasons, Jones had a breakout year in 2020 filling in for Jonquel Jones, who sat out the season because of health concerns. Jonquel Jones will be back in the starting lineup, but head coach Curt Miller still has high expectations for Bri Jones and expects her to have a “monster year.” Even though the Sun are projected to land in the middle of the standings by most preseason power rankings, DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones will still most likely make a dominant pair despite never playing together before this season. But Bri Jones will be the important common thread that could take this team to the top. She was the third-best offensive rebounder in the league last season, but couldn’t always convert second-chance opportunities in key moments. Her offensive consistency and help on defense will be crucial to help the Sun contend for another Finals appearance.
Dallas Wings - Allisha Gray
2020 season stats: 13.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists in 26 minutes per game
Heading into her fifth season, Allisha Gray is one of the most experienced players on a Dallas team heavily composed of first- and second-year players. It’s easy to get overshadowed by last year’s scoring leader Arike Ogunbowale on offense, but Gray led the team in points per play and points per scoring team each of the last two seasons. The Wings are loaded with young talent, but if they are going to make the leap from a lottery team to a playoff team, the “veteran” backcourt of Gray and Ogunbowale will have to lead them there.
All stats are from HerHoopStats.com
Jacqueline LeBlanc is a contributor for GoodSport, a media platform dedicated to raising the visibility of women and girls in sports.
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