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The WNBA’s Rising Stars Are Taking Center Stage

The first week of the 2021 season has been jam-packed with stellar performances from the likes of Sabrina Ionescu & Co., Arike Ogunbowale and A’ja Wilson.

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

The Liberty had waited 575 days between the announcement of their impending move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and their home opener Friday night against the Fever. In the intervening months, few moments were as important as the night of Sept. 17, 2019. That evening, New York won the ’20 WNBA draft lottery and, in turn, the right to select Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu with the first pick. The franchise’s path drastically changed from that point forward.

Ionescu’s Barclays Center debut was every bit worth the wait.

On the night before Friday’s game against Indiana, the 23-year-old guard dreamed of hitting a game-winning shot. That’s why with 5.8 seconds to go in the fourth quarter and the score tied at 87, Ionescu flashed a glowing smile as she walked back into New York’s huddle, and why, as she took stood on the sideline nearest to Indiana’s bench to inbound the basketball coming out of that huddle, she felt confident in what was about to occur.

“It was too good to be true,” Ionescu said of the late-game situation. “I was just ready for the moment.”

If anyone needed reminding, Ionescu showed why her debut last summer was among the most-anticipated in league history, and why the ankle injury that cut her season short was so debilitating to the New York faithful. The crowd at Barclays Center on Friday night, all of whom had been given T-shirts that read, “I Was Part of History,” witnessed a moment they wouldn’t soon forget—Ionescu’s game-winning three with 0.4 seconds remaining. In just four games, Ionescu had already notched a signature professional moment. Less than a week later, in a win over the Lynx, she recorded another: the first triple double in franchise history. It seems as if an avalanche of success is bound to follow Ionescu and the Liberty in the coming weeks, months and years.

But more than just Ionescu, a number of the WNBA’s rising stars took center stage during the league’s opening week. The Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale, who led the league in scoring last season, finished Friday night’s dominant win over the Sparks with an efficient 17 points in 20 minutes. Her teammate, 2021 No. 1 pick Charli Collier, secured a double double in the same victory. Reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson, still just 24 years old, avenged the Aces’ Saturday loss to the Storm with an 18-point, 11-rebound, five-assist, three-block performance against Seattle on Tuesday night. All week long, the richness of the league’s talent was on full display.

“Rosters are stacked with incredibly talented veterans, and the last few rookie classes are bringing a whole new element to the fierce competition within the league,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert recently told The New York Times.

The loaded franchises help to explain why Engelbert acknowledged the possibility of future expansion in a predraft press conference. And why many have also floated the prospect of added roster spots.

The 25th WNBA season seems poised to be among the most memorable in league history. With a continued increase in eyeballs (ESPN/ABC’s opening weekend viewership was up 25% with the Sky-Mystics game as their most-viewed regular-season game since 2012), games themselves continue to be hypercompetitive affairs.

“We know once we draw in a fan to watch a game, they come back,” Englebert told Sports Illustrated in March.

Already, some of the league’s worst teams from last year have shown marked improvement. In less than a week’s time, New York has already surpassed its win total from last year and improved its playoff odds, in FiveThirtyEight’s projection model, by 30 percentage points. Dallas, who won just eight games in 2020, held Los Angeles to just 36% shooting from the field in its 23-point win. It marked an encouraging start defensively, considering the Wings were No. 11 in defensive rating last year, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions.

And many of the expected contenders—Las Vegas, Seattle and Chicago, to name just a few—look as good as advertised.

“There’s a uniqueness to every year,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “I could take you back to feeling unique every year. None of them kind of just roll like the same.”

So with Hughes’s sentiment in mind, as the abridged 32-game, 2021 campaign progresses, perhaps the only thing we know with certainty will roll over from the WNBA bubble season into this year is incredible showcases on a nightly basis.

Notes from around the league

While the Aces were en route to their second WNBA finals appearance in franchise history last summer, Kelsey Plum could do nothing but support her teammates from afar. The No. 1 pick in the 2017 WNBA draft tore her Achilles tendon in her left leg less than a week before the league announced its plans for the ’20 season. She elected not to travel to the Wubble in Brandenton, Fla.

Plum was diligent throughout her rehab process and says that in the months since her injury last June she changed her body, building strength and endurance in a way she hadn’t before. She also worked on her mental condition. “I’ve learned a ton,” Plum says. “I think you’ll see a change in my game this year.”

The former Washington star returned to WNBA game action last weekend vs. the Storm, scoring 11 points and dishing out four assists in 26 minutes of action. On Tuesday night in Las Vegas’s win over Seattle, she finished with 10 points, three assists and three rebounds in the same amount of time. “She’s really confident in her own ability and she needed a game like this to get back on track,” coach Bill Laimbeer said Tuesday night.

For now, Plum is an overqualified reserve on what is arguably the league’s most-talented team. While she’s set to miss about six Las Vegas games as she tries to help Team USA’s three-on-three team qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, she’s eager for the season ahead.

“It feels amazing to be back,” Plum says. “I really missed my teammates. What a year that they had. I was super proud to watch and support them. But for me, it’s just I’m super grateful. The game was taken away from me for a little bit and I got to miss it. But I’m excited to be back. It feels really good to be home.”

Stellar first weeks by Ionescu and Betnijah Laney might have grabbed more headlines when evaluating New York’s 3–0 start, but the impressive play of rookie wing Michaela Onyenwere was another major boost for the franchise. A third-team All-America at UCLA last winter, she set a New York rookie debut record with 18 points on Friday night against Indiana, grabbing five rebounds in its win. On Sunday, in the Liberty’s road win over the Fever, she finished with 11 points and another five boards. Ionescu said that the “sky’s the limit” for the No. 6 pick, adding Friday night that she “was an absolute killer.”

“I’ve played against her for many years in the Pac-12, and I am so happy that she’s on our team,” Ionescu said. “I think the composure that she showed, the grit that she showed, she came in hitting big shots, getting to the line, getting to the basket. It was absolutely amazing.”

The Sun might not have garnered as much preseason hype as some of the other top teams around the WNBA, but if their first week is any indication, their defense will be a disruptive force no matter whom they play. Of two-person pairings that have played more than 40 total minutes together this season, Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner have been one of the league’s best duo on defense, allowing just 89.7 points per 100 possessions.

“It’s a long, long season. We have a long way ahead of us. But I think you see this team can be special defensively,” coach Curt Miller said Sunday following his team’s win over the Mercury.

In addition to the stellar play of Bonner and Jones, Natisha Hiedeman has gotten off to a stellar start. The 24-year-old guard averaged just more than six points per game last year but had what was a WNBA career-high 17 points on Sunday night, and was also disruptive defensively. She backed up her 17-point performance with a career-high 19-point, six-assist game in 33 minutes of action off the bench on Tuesday night vs. the Fever.

All told, while admittedly it's still incredibly early, of two-person lineups that have played at least 40 minutes this season, Connecticut rosters seven of the top 10 pairings in terms of net rating.

The Sun had a relatively underwhelming season in 2020, but Miller’s group still has a number of key pieces from ’19, when they lost in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. Watch out.

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