The 25th WNBA season is almost upon us, and teams around the league are gearing up for what should be another exciting campaign. The W is coming off a busy offseason, which included some of the league’s biggest names moving in free agency, a draft featuring a number of surprising selections and even talk of possible expansion.
Before the season tips on Friday night, here’s what you need to know:
What’s new this season?
The league will look a lot different this summer on a number of fronts. For starters, each of its 12 teams will don new uniforms, with Nike unveiling three looks for each franchise. A new Wilson basketball will also be used in game action, marking the first time in league history the game ball will not be manufactured by Spalding.
The 2021 season will span 32 games, up from last year’s 22-game Wubble campaign, but down from the 36-game regular season that it has traditionally used. According to a WNBA statement, the number of games was adapted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the Olympic break, which will run from July 15 to August 11. Fans are currently able to attend games in nine of the league’s 12 markets, but commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently told reporters that the league is “hoping as we go into the Olympic break and come off of that maybe we can have more full arenas.”
What were the most important offseason moves?
The Sky made the biggest splash of the winter, signing future Hall of Famer Candace Parker in free agency. Parker, 35, had spent her career with the Sparks but elected to join Chicago and return home. “Chicago is where my family raised me, where I first learned the game of basketball and where I first fell in love with this orange ball,” said Parker, who grew up in nearby Naperville, Ill. “I am excited to continue the next chapter of my career where it all began.” By doing so, the Sky put themselves squarely in the title conversation.
Among other notable moves, the Aces sought to improve their roster this winter by effectively swapping guard Kayla McBride for Chelsea Gray. By adding the three-time All-Star, Las Vegas is getting one of the league’s most dynamic playmakers to an already loaded roster.
The Liberty won the draft lottery again, but rather than add another young player, they opted to trade for 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard as part of a series of blockbuster deals with the Storm and Wings, which eventually resulted in Dallas’s holding the first two picks.
Who are the rookies to watch this summer?
In a league full of loaded frontcourts, Dallas is hoping that the duo it selected this past April becomes the foundation of a title contender. The Wings made league history this offseason, using both of the first two picks of this year’s draft. Former Texas center Charli Collier went No. 1, after finishing a senior season in which she averaged 19 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Dallas next selected 19-year-old Finnish big Awak Kuier, who some talent evaluators think might have the highest upside of any player selected in the draft. In being selected inside the top five, Kuier, who first dunked at age 14, became the first international player taken that high since 2011.
NCAA tournament star Aari McDonald went to the Dream with the third pick. McDonald captivated the hearts of the college basketball world with her scoring ability and competitive drive as she led Arizona to the national championship game. She will now look to help an Atlanta team that has made just two playoff appearances since 2015, changed ownership, recently fired its general manager and saw coach Nicki Collen leave for Baylor.
Other rookies to watch include Fever guard Kysre Gondrezick, who was a surprising selection at No. 4 but was an electric scorer at West Virginia. There’s also Sparks guard Arella Guirantes—if any second-round pick could be the league’s top rookie then the 20-point per game college scorer definitely could—and Liberty wing Michaela Onyenwere, who was a third-team All-America last year at UCLA. Also, while not technically a rookie anymore, New York will welcome star guard Sabrina Ionescu back to action after injuries cut her debut season short after merely three games.
Which players could make the leap in 2021?
Despite Dallas’s investment of high draft picks in Collier and Kuier, last year’s No. 2 pick Satou Sabally remains a valuable part of the Wings’ future. Sabally is poised to see her numbers jump in her second WNBA season, one year removed from a campaign that featured some promising flashes. Sabally played her best basketball down the stretch. A 28-point, 11-rebound performance against the Aces was a particular high point for the Oregon product, as was a 25-point, seven-rebound game against the Storm in the regular-season finale. Sabally’s natural talent is there, and, after a solid season with Turkish club Fenerbahçe, expect a similar output in her second season with the Wings.
The Storm reworked some of their roster this offseason and will head into the 2021 campaign eyeing a leap from guard Jordin Canada and forward Katie Lou Samuelson. Canada, now in her fourth season, has averaged more than 24 minutes per game in each of her last two seasons, but the departure of guard Alysha Clark via free agency should lead to Canada taking on an even bigger role in Seattle. Samuelson will enter this season on her third team in as many WNBA seasons. The Storm elected to trade the No. 1 pick to the Wings in exchange for the former UConn star. That’s a high vote of confidence, but one that bodes well for a player who averaged just 3.8 points and 1.7 rebounds per game over her first two WNBA seasons. Seattle surely wants Samuelson to succeed, and the 23-year-old wing is coming off a stellar international season with EuroLeague runner-up Perfumerias Avenida in which she averaged 15.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game and made All-EuroLeague first team.
In terms of other names to watch, don’t be surprised if Fever big Teaira McCowan, who was selected one pick ahead of Samuelson in the 2019 WNBA draft, improves her play this season as she tries to become a more consistent force on the inside. Sky guards Kahleah Copper—who saw her scoring output double last season—and Diamond DeShields should also see a production boost from playing alongside Parker.
Who are the title favorites?
Despite their trading Howard to the Liberty and losing Alysha Clark in free agency, it’s hard to begin a conversation about possible WNBA title favorites without mentioning the reigning champion Storm. Breanna Stewart is an additional season removed from her Achilles tear, and she’ll enter this year having won a WNBA title, WNBA finals MVP, EuroLeague title and EuroLeague Final Four MVP in the last 10 months. Seattle’s backcourt of Sue Bird and rising star Jewell Loyd also remains among the league’s most dangerous. Their roster may not be the most talented in the league anymore, but the team's star-power remains undeniable.
The Aces should be poised for another deep postseason run. The addition of Gray should boost Las Vegas’s guard rotation, and the team will also benefit immensely from the return of three-time WNBA All-Star Liz Cambage and 2017 No. 1 pick Kelsey Plum. It's fair to say that Las Vegas has the league's most talented roster coming out of the preseason.
The Mystics will look to dominate the Eastern Conference with two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne back in the mix, even though she will begin the upcoming season on a minutes restriction. The Sky, Mercury and Lynx also all have the talent to be among the league’s best team throughout the duration of the 2021 season. The Sun’s frontcourt duo of DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones could also still make a potentially undervalued Connecticut team dangerous.