W.N.B.A. Preview: The Mystics Get Their Stars Back in the East

The W.N.B.A. begins its 25th season on Friday with the returns of some big-name veterans and the debuts of promising rookies.

“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,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told The New York Times.

Below, our reporters tell you what to expect this season in the Eastern Conference.

The Mystics are hoping to rebound from a forgettable 9-13 season, which they played without Elena Delle Donne, who won her second Most Valuable Player Award in 2019 as she led the team to a championship, and Natasha Cloud, who sat out to focus on social justice.

This year, Delle Donne and Cloud are back and they will finally get to play alongside another former M.V.P. in Tina Charles, who went to Washington in a trade from the Liberty but opted out of last season for health reasons.

“Even though we have some people out, we’ve lost some people to injury, we still have a really scary team on paper,” Cloud said during media day, adding: “I think we’re going to shock a lot of people in this league. You know me, that’s the underdog mentality, so we’re ready.”

One positive from last season’s short-handed squad was the emergence of Myisha Hines-Allen, who averaged 17 points per game and shot 42.6 percent from 3-point range. She might not be relied upon as much this season, with a healthy Delle Donne and Charles in the lineup, but she is another reliable option on defense after averaging 8.9 rebounds per game last season.

Hines-Allen could also fill in a gap in outside shooting: Alysha Clark, who signed with Washington as a free agent after winning a championship with Seattle last year, is out for the season after injuring her foot while playing overseas. Clark shot 52.2 percent from 3-point range last season.

“I’ve got no idea what positions you play,” Mike Petersen, the Dream’s interim head coach, said he told his players. “But if I don’t know, the other team’s got no chance.”

Atlanta’s off-season has been marked by change. Pressured by players, the Dream’s previous owners sold the team to a group that included Renee Montgomery, a former Dream player. Gone are Chris Sienko, the team’s former president and general manager who was fired in April, and Nicki Collen, the former head coach who left for a job at Baylor earlier this month. Now Petersen will exchange convention for creativity to get the best out of an eclectic roster.

Calling it “silly” to follow the practice of assigning players numbered positions, Petersen said he will form lineups with the five best players, regardless of position. “Basketball players are basketball players,” he said. “Everybody has to be able to pass, dribble and shoot. And everybody has to play defense.”

On the Dream, those bodies are small: Aari McDonald, the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, is 5-foot-6; the veterans Odyssey Sims and Courtney Williams are both 5-foot-8; and Chennedy Carter, picked fourth overall in the 2020 draft, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, in her first season with the Dream, each stand 5-foot-9.

Petersen did not hesitate to play three guards during the team’s lone preseason matchup on May 5. And if these smaller players with big games execute what he envisions, perimeter shooting will spread the floor for the 6-foot-7 center Kalani Brown and the 6-foot-4 forward Cheyenne Parker, a free-agency acquisition, to operate in the paint.

All eyes are on the Liberty this season for many reasons. Chief among them is the return of last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Sabrina Ionescu.

Ionescu’s much-anticipated rookie season was cut short when she suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain during the first half of the Liberty’s third game.

Her season over before it began, Ionescu underwent surgery but is back and ready to go.

“I’m excited for this season,” Ionescu said in a call with reporters. “I’m taking it one day and one step at a time.”

Along with managing Ionescu’s return, the second-year head coach Walt Hopkins will have to handle the unexpected loss of guard/forward Jocelyn Willoughby, who is out for the season after tearing her left Achilles’ tendon. In 2020, her rookie year, Willoughby averaged 5.8 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting a team-best 40.5 percent from 3-point range in 22 games, five of which she started.

But here’s what should help: the off-season acquisitions of the three-time champion Natasha Howard and the two-time champion Sami Whitcomb from the Seattle Storm, and Betnijah Laney, who won last year’s Most Improved Player Award and was named to the All-Defensive team after a breakout season with the Atlanta Dream.

The Liberty finished 2020 in last place with a 2-20 record and are still searching for an identity and footing.

“Everyone wants to be here, they want to win, they want to support one another,” Hopkins said. “If we learned anything from last year it’s how to bounce back from a loss.”

The Fever finished last season with the lowest-ranked defense (111.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. This season, the second-year Coach Marianne Stanley’s goal is to have a stronger defensive identity.

“Each and every player on this team needs to buy in to the defensive end of the floor and make sure they’re doing everything they can to improve and make us a team that is stingy on defense,” Stanley said during her media day news conference.

Indiana gets a shot in the arm with a healthy Lauren Cox, who missed the beginning of last season after testing positive for the coronavirus, and a positive outlook for Victoria Vivians, who last played a full season in 2018. Stanley said Vivians had been an early standout during training camp.

Add to that the growing star power of Kysre Gondrezick, drafted fourth over all this year out of West Virginia, and the Fever are on the cusp of having not just a stronger defensive identity, but a concrete team identity as well.

“She’s shooting the ball well,” Stanley said of Gondrezick. “She’s fitting in with her teammates. Just getting adjusted to the rigors. Just about as we expected. She’s a pretty well-rounded guard, and we really like what we’re seeing in her.”

The Fever lost Candice Dupree to Seattle in free agency but added Danielle Robinson and the bigs Jantel Lavender and Jessica Breland.

Arguably no other team had a better off-season than the Sky, who landed Candace Parker, the top free agent, champion and winner of last season’s Defense Player of the Year Award.

Parker, who had spent her entire career with the Los Angeles Sparks, will add veteran experience to Chicago, a team two years removed from an unexpected playoff run and coach of the year honors for James Wade.

The Sky’s star power continues with shooting guard Diamond DeShields and forward/center Azura Stevens, who are both returning from injury, and Courtney Vandersloot, who set a single-game assist record last year with 18.

With a stellar roster headlined by Parker, and a high-scoring offense (ranked fourth last season) expectations for the Sky are, well, sky-high.

“I think it creates expectations from outside,” Wade said. “My goal is to just get us better, that’s it. We’ll end up where we are going to end up.

“Having the players we have, it puts us in a conversation where people think we can do better than a lot of other teams. I just try to get us in situations where we can win games and build some confidence around what we want to do.”

In 2020, the Connecticut Sun once again overperformed. Without the 6-foot-6 forward Jonquel Jones, who sat out the season, the Sun still managed to nearly knock off the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces in the playoffs. Their upset-filled run to the semifinals was fueled in large part by Alyssa Thomas’s tireless defense and consistent scoring; even after she dislocated her shoulder early in the Sun’s second game against the Aces, Thomas led the team to victory two days later with a double-double.

Thomas won’t be with the Sun this season, though, meaning they once again will be short-staffed. She injured her Achilles’ tendon while playing overseas, and isn’t slated to return until 2022. Jones is back, though, and together with the veteran star DeWanna Bonner — 6 feet 4 inches — creates an unenviable matchup for even the league’s most elite bigs.

The Sun have favored a slower, grind-it-out pace, averaging the third-least points per game in the W.N.B.A. last season. But without the defensive might of Thomas and with two forwards who can shoot 3s in Bonner and Jones, it seems possible they might favor a more offense-oriented style in 2021.

Forward Brionna Jones reached a new level in 2020, more than tripling her points per game and becoming an important contributor on defense as well; now, she adds to the size and overall athleticism of the Sun. The veteran guards Briann January and Jasmine Thomas round out the starting lineup.

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Written by Bourbiza Mohamed

A technology enthusiast and a passionate writer in the field of information technology, cyber security, and blockchain

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