May 12, 2017, 9:26 am
It’s hard for me to articulate how excited I am to start this project. Hoop Ball founder and head honcho, Aaron Bruski, and I have been kicking around the idea of launching our WNBA coverage for more than a year now. I won’t lie to you, dear reader, I’m newer to the WNBA than I am to the NBA. I have only started to delve into it over the past few seasons, but what I’ve discovered is an exciting and compelling league that has been dramatically undercovered. That’s why I want to write this article every week, not because I have any particular expertise on the WNBA, but because good basketball deserves our attention on this site. And the WNBA is damn good basketball.
Every week we’ll dive into the major stories in the Association, taking a wide angle approach to the season. Today, let’s look at four pressing topics that could define this season. Additionally, since we love our fantasy basketball here at Hoop Ball, we’ll highlight some major box score performances with our “Fantasy Line of the Week” segment. While WNBA fantasy platforms are just getting off the ground, we think there is immense potential in that arena, so we’ll do a quick fantasy spin to wrap up each article. Here we go.
The Title Contenders
Most Vegas oddsmakers have zeroed in on three teams atop their championship futures: Los Angeles, Minnesota and Phoenix. The Washington Mystics remain a true dark horse after their offseason moves, but we’ll discuss them in further detail in the following section.
After last year’s thrilling finals between the Sparks and the Lynx, which came down to the final second of the deciding Game 5, it isn’t hard to understand why Vegas is predicting a rematch. The Sparks sport perhaps the top duo in the league in Nneka Ogwumike (the 2016 MVP) and Candace Parker, but have experienced some volatility in the backcourt this offseason with former All-Star Kristi Toliver signing in Washington. The Sparks are hoping that the 24-year-old Odyssey Sims can replicate some of Toliver’s shooting to help stabilize the offense. There are questions here, but we aren’t ready to question the Sparks as favorites just yet.
As for Minnesota, it’s fair to say that the Lynx have become synonymous with WNBA championships. They’ve appeared in five of the last six finals, and would be the defending champs today if it weren’t for Ogwumike’s buzzer-beating putback in Game 5. The team has kept its entire core intact, and looks poised to make another run deep into the playoffs. It’s fair to wonder, though, if the wave has crested. Three of their starters are entering at least their 12th year in the league, and while superstar Maya Moore is still just 27 this is looking like the last go round for this incarnation of the Lynx.
Phoenix probably has the highest variability of the Big Three teams, as they boast the dynamic duo of Diana Taurasi (who could become the league’s all time leading scorer this season) and Brittney Griner but have retained very few of the supplementary core players over the past few seasons. Some of those losses are alleviated by the addition of Danielle Robinson, a three-time All-Star who led the league in assists in 2015 before missing last season due to injury, who the Mercury acquired from San Antonio this offseason. Her recovery, and how well Phoenix’s pieces gel early on, will have massive implications on who is crowned champion at the end of the season.
The Mystics could be the WNBA’s most intriguing team this season. After finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference last year they went through a complete offseason overhaul to transform into an under the radar title contender. They started the offseason by putting together a deal for one of the league’s more electric offensive players, acquiring All-WNBA First Team guard Elena Delle Donne from the Chicago Sky. Donne tied for the league lead in scoring last season (21.5 ppg) and on her own would be enough to boost the Mystic’s playoff chances significantly.
The team didn’t stop there, however, as they also signed 3-point bomber Kristi Toliver from Los Angeles to pair with Donne. Couple that with some intriguing young players from last year and the addition of Maryland’s Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (the 6th pick in this year’s April draft) and the Mystics look like an offensive juggernaut who could easily win their conference. In the playoffs one has to wonder about how much they can clamp down on the defensive end, but their elite shooting could nullify those concerns if things come together the way Washington fans are hoping.
Is it already Breanna Stewart’s league?
Stewart put together a historically great Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016, finishing with averages of 18.3 points, 9.3 boards, 3.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 triples per game. She finished inside the top-20 in every major counting category. She’s already drawing comparisons to Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Stewart was managing these staggering totals in her rookie season.
The WNBA is at an interesting crossroads in terms of generational talent. All time greats like Taurasi and Sue Bird are reaching the end of their careers, and while Moore and Ogwumike are in the midst of their primes this might be the season that the WNBA officially belongs to Stewart. There’s literally nothing she doesn’t do well on the court already, and her potential for 2017 and beyond is simply stratospheric.
Kelsey Plum’s Rookie Impact
Continuing our look at exciting young players, it would be hard overstate Kelsey Plum’s extensive basketball resume coming out of Washington. The 2017 first overall pick set the NCAA women’s record for career points (3,527) for the Huskies, and her 31.7 points per game as a senior and ability to get to the line have garnered a number of James Harden comparisons this offseason. She’ll bring a much needed offensive punch to a San Antonio Stars team that finished last in points per game and offensive rating a season ago.
There’s little doubt that Plum can develop into a star down the road, and her play this preseason has done nothing to cloud those expectations. The question for 2017, though, is where she fits into a backcourt already captained by Moriah Jefferson and Kayla McBride. Plum is the future of the franchise and the Stars are desperate for a fresh start, but whether or not she gets the keys to the kingdom from day one remains to be seen.
Fantasy Line of the Week (Preview Edition)
Usually we’ll look at who took the league by storm in a given week, but for our preview edition let’s zoom in on one of the WNBA’s more impactful statistical performers. I thought long and hard about focusing on Stewart here, but instead let’s take a close look at Ogwumike’s 2016 season. She finished last season with averages of 19.7 points, 9.1 boards, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks per contest. Simply put, Ogwumike was top-3 in both scoring and rebounding who also providing top-20 (or close to it when it came to assists) contributions in just about every other counting statistic.
She also offers league leading efficiency from the floor (where she shot 66.5 percent last season) on a high volume of attempts and has become a devastating foul shooter (making 86.9 percent from the line on 5.1 attempts per game). It’s fair to wonder if her otherworldly 2016 is replicable from a statistical standpoint, as both her blocks and boards could potentially regress toward her career averages. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw her numbers dip a bit, but she offers the rare fantasy blend of a safe floor with immense upside even if she doesn’t quite replicate last season. There are absolutely no holes in her game. She’s someone who’s worth building around in DFS every time the Sparks take the floor, and I’d be willing to consider at the top of season long drafts along with Stewart.
That’ll do it for this week’s Roundup. Follow @HoopBallTweets for up to the minute NBA updates or hit me up on Twitter (@JacobECousins) if you have any questions (WNBA or otherwise). See you all next week.