Having followed the league since inception, I decided to watch the six WNBA openers and write down some first impressions (many to be proven wrong) from these games.
A WNBA season is a combination of a soap opera and a marathon. Information can be hard to come by as players listed as "day to day" can, in reality, be out a month. What impression you get today, particularly very early in a season, may be viewed as very wrong by the next week.
For young players, announcers tend to cling to how the player was as a collegian, especially if she had "rep" at that level. Above all else, be cautious not to draw too much from a game or two. Again think marathon, not sprint!
General first impressions mostly positive in nature:
1. The reset to 14 seconds on offensive will have an effect on outcomes to games. The goal is to speed up games even more and it should.
2. The new format, virtually eliminating any post-season advantage to finishing first in the conference, will make winning each game out of the 34 more meaningful as higher placement in the post-season seeding has increased value with byes and avoidance of one-game eliminations.
3. From an aesthetic viewpoint, this fan likes the use of the darker, more colorful uniforms on the home team (as opposed to home "whites").
4. Like most years, there are a few very good and a few very bad teams in the league. History has shown the majority of the teams suffer major injuries which will change the equations and make our predictions chancy.
5. Gut feeling is that the level of play will overall be up this year. Most rookies will need time to be impactful, but this group is likely better than last year's crop.
6. Breanna Stewart is the overwhelming favorite for Rookie of the Year with the MVP candidates the usual suspects.
One negative from the pre-season:
After doing a great job updating WNBA Transactions, the league office ceased posting on May 11 leaving fans and media to have to search around for the final cuts. One might wonder if the person in charge just quit the job!?
On to the team and player impressions from all six game, one contests...
Dallas at Indiana
Both teams were missing what they hope are essential components for the season. Missing for Dallas was Skylar Diggins whose knee is not yet ready but beyond that, no information on her status was given. For Indiana, Briann January is still out being listed "day to day" coming back from her knee surgery and Marissa Coleman, expected to start on the wing, just returned from Turkey.
From a Fever viewpoint, the biggest plus was Tiffany Mitchell, who finished with 18 points showing both driving and perimeter shooting. Picked ninth this year, the question coming in was could she shoot the ball from the perimeter at the WNBA level. More performances like game one will have her in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
Maggie Lucas appeared to play with more poise on offense, but the ability to play D remains a question. There may be enough competent guard play on the roster to make up for the defection of Shavonte Zellous to New York and the trade of Layshia Clarendon to Atlanta.
The biggest question for the Fever might be can Tameka Catchings make her final season a memorable one? Game one was not. She was outplayed by Wings' vet Plenette Pierson. Catchings has looked subpar before and come back strong.
For the Wings, besides no Diggins, Glory Johnson still has six games left on her suspension. After missing last year to give birth, what can she bring to the table? In 2015, the small forward position was a weak area for the Wings (as the Tulsa Shock). Aeriel Powers was drafted at number five to cure that ill.
In game one, she did not lack for aggression, but her outside shot was not falling. Will it improve as the season progresses? Otherwise, small forward by committee could be the theme. One small positive might be an offensive improvement of Theresa Plaisance, who appears more mobile/confident offensively but still struggles on defense.
Given the critical pieces missing, it might be weeks before a real gauge can be reached as to how good the Fever and Wings can be in 2016.
New York at Washington
The bottom line is the Liberty has a superstar in Tina Charles while the Mystics (which try to use depth and balance to compensate) don't.
Of the players who contributed to the game one victory, only point guard Brittany Boyd (who still can't shoot) and steady Kiah Stokes were drafted by the Liberty. The rest are a mixture of cast-offs from other clubs and free agents. Dredging up Lindsey Harding who has been out of the league since 2014 may stabilize the point.
Not all Laimbeer moves work out, but enough of them do to allow his team to compete. Still the Liberty lacks a true small forward which will be needed in matching up with some teams.
Washington was without the injured Ivory Latta (important to run the team) and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (less important). Tayler Hill had one of her best games of her career. Is this meaning more than an isolated occurrence?
Bria Hartley, who was dogged by injury last year, also showed well. Rookie Kahleah Copper showed her athleticism walloping the boards and appears to be another decent roster addition, which typifies this franchise so desperate for one true superstar, a commodity that the Mystics have been without for years. Washington is often not pretty to watch but under Mike Thibault, the club grinds out enough wins to get into the playoffs.
Phoenix at Minnesota
The battle of veteran studs! ESPN staff was probably disappointed with a non-competitive second half, but the talent on both teams was pretty special!
Diana Taurasi is a great player, but the Mercury have put an unfair burden on her. She is no youngster (34 in June), and she is still expected to score heavily, run the offense, protect the ball and make others around her better!?
Might the Merc be better served long term with DT only being asked to play the wing or at least have a solid natural point guard to take a chunk of those lead guard minutes? Nirra Fields did not play point guard at UCLA, and now she is supposed to in the WNBA!?
Looking at other Merc rookies, Courtney Williams (their first round pick), who had two solid exhibition games (be they against Seattle), was not ready for this contest and barely played with Euro veteran Sonja Petrovic (tall, skilled but slow) getting the major bench perimeter minutes. A bright note was Izzy Harrison showing good energy and did not look out of place in her brief minutes.
Phoenix is tall and very talented and should contend for the title barring injury. However, the team is slow defensively and some nights could well be hurt by smaller, quicker attackers. Regardless this will be a fun team to watch assuming Taurasi can hold up.
While the Mercury are pretty veteran in nature, the Lynx are even more so. Of the starters, only Maya Moore has less than 10 years of WNBA experience. If each of Minnesota's veterans can drink from the "fountain of youth" as needed for the entire season, another championship could be at hand.
However, with four key players (Augustus, Fowles, Moore, Whalen) not resting during the Olympic break and a coaching philosophy that in the past has given starters huge minutes even when games were fully in hand, chances are even greater than normal that one or more key Lynx gets targeted by the injury bug.
The additions of Jia Perkins and Janel McCarville appear to have shored up the Lynx bench, but this is only one game. Until the injury bug strikes, expect the team rookies (Bashaara Graves and Keisha Hampton) to get their minutes in practice and garbage time.
Until proven otherwise, these teams have to be considered the top of the WNBA food chain in spite of age.
Connecticut at Chicago
The big question was most downplayed. Elena Delle Donne was out with "the flu." Post-game, it was announced to have been some kind of stomach virus. What all fans of the game should hope is that her chronic Lyme Disease condition has not surfaced again.
That Connecticut got blown out by an EDD-less Sky is not a good sign for first-year Coach Curt Miller. The goal of any team is to be greater than the sum of its parts and to start the year; the Sun is far from it.
Issue number one is who gets the lower paint? Kelsey Bone was a star there with Chiney Ogwumike out last year. In game one, Bone spent too much time in the first half unsuccessfully attempting to shoot perimeter shots. The problem is Ogwumike also struggles away from the basket but when healthy can be a force in the lower paint. Issue number two is a lack of point guard feel for the game.
Jasmine Thomas is a fine athlete but is a converted shooting guard. Rachel Banham, who struggles to defend, thinks shot first like Alex Bentley, who came into the league as a point guard but has had her best years on the wing.
The team is still searching for a fully competent small forward with multiple candidates, but no proven solution as most may really be power forwards in functionality. Rookie Jonquel Jones showed flashes of promise with her size and athleticism.
Morgan Tuck was hyped (as expected by the announcers) but showed signs of being a tweener forward (body of a 4F hoping to be a 3F). In all fairness, this team has a lot of new pieces, and Chiney Ogwumike just started to play after being out over a year. Color this night step one to a 2017 lottery ticket for the Sparks who received the Sun's number one pick for Jonquel Jones.
Unlike Connecticut, Chicago showed highly competent point guard play in starter Courtney Vandersloot and backup Jamierra Faulkner. They appeared to have a good feel when to pass and when to shoot.
Vandersloot quietly garnered second team all-league honors last year, and she played at a high level on this night. The center position appears to be by committee. Second-year pro Cheyanne Parker looks a bit more poised but still kind of raw. Rookie Imani Boyette looks young and a bit frail by "W" standards.
The Brazilians (de Souza and Dos Santos) appeared more productive. Perhaps the best news on the interior is that Jessica Breland is reportedly to be healthier than last year. Coach Pokey Chatman is preaching improved defense for this year. That and a healthy Delle Donne will be needed if the Sky is to win a WNBA title. With a good chance of having to play two Western Conference teams in the post-season, the job may be even harder than last year.
Atlanta at San Antonio
This was a battle between a team (the Dream) searching for players on its roster with one (the Stars) that knows this season is basically just a learning experience.
Atlanta has spent the last few weeks auditioning point guard candidates (almost an annual event for the franchise). It appears the race is coming down to free agent Carla Cortijo (the better athlete) and Layshia Clarendon (more of a shooting guard when with Indiana).
Another problem area is center, where Elizabeth Williams shows some signs of improvement from her mediocre rookie campaign with Connecticut. The drafted rookies on the team look like they are in the early stages of training.
On the flip side, as often is pointed out, when you start with scoring machine Angel McCoughtry, you have a chance to win the game. If things break right, the Dream could get into the playoffs, but the veteran core will have to step up.
If ever a team put up the white flag before a season tipped off, it is San Antonio Stars 2016. This game was a golden opportunity for the Stars to win with Sancho Lyttle and Angel McCoughtry having subpar performances.
Dan Hughes has already agreed to step aside after the season and politely talks about helping with the growth of the squad. Kayla McBride looked like an all-star hitting shots all over the court in the home opening overtime loss to the Dream. Moriah Jefferson was solid running the offense, showing great speed with the ball and limiting turnovers. However, there are questions how her relatively thin body can hold up in the more physical WNBA.
The addition of Monique Currie, cast off by the Mercury probably due to salary cap issues, gives the Stars a perimeter veteran be one of just journeyman status. A few of the negatives include Jayne Appel-Marinelli looking out of condition to start the season.
Dearica Hamby continues to score primarily close to the rim but insists on attempting shots outside the key even beyond the arc. Looking forward, there are a lot of holes that need to be filled before the Stars can compete for anything but a high ranking lottery ticket.
Seattle at Los Angeles (from Sunday)
The Storm dominated the series last year, and the Sparks with its powerful, and deep front line were out to get revenge.
Breanna Stewart performed up to billing as an instant superstar forming a high-quality one/two punch with Jewel Loyd, who showed more poise starting year two. Beyond that, the Storm need more soldiers to play with the better teams in the league.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis can stand and shoot but struggles to put the ball on the floor and is very limited defensively. Crystal Langhorne needs to be more involved in the offense. Ramu Tokashiki continues to look intriguing, similar to last year (tall, somewhat athletic, able to get off shots from the mid-range area but not a reliable finisher or fully up to speed on decision making).
Sue Bird looked her age, but there is really no other viable option (Loyd is really a shooting guard) at the point. To their credit Seattle tried to run its offense in spite of being blown out in contrast to Connecticut, which went into "jack mode" with the game out of hand. With its new dynamic duo, Seattle will win more games. However, just making the playoffs would be a successful season.
Los Angeles has been talented for years. Somehow the sum has been less than the total of parts. Having been rebuffed by USA Basketball in not being selected an Olympian, Candace Parker is on a mission to prove she is the best in the world.
Parker showed the full arsenal in crushing the Storm in game one. If this was any indication, her range beyond the arc seemed improved. One problem from prior years rarely discussed was that Parker and Nneka Ogwumike both needed the lower paint to score. Maybe that will be less of a problem this year.
Essence Carson, who moved west from New York, shows she is willing to do the little things that do not show up in the box score. The biggest question remains at point guard where Kristi Toliver starts, but Chelsea Gray is being touted as the future.
Game one did not show that as she seemed uncomfortable with the ball spending most of her on-court time on the wing where she showed little impact with her high-arcing shot. The Sparks have a quartet of experienced Euros including Ana Dabovic (who contributed last year) and Ann Wauters (former number one pick near the end of her career).
How many of these will really help? Once again on paper the Sparks look like a contender but let's see them against the Lynx and Mercury (both much deeper than Seattle) before getting carried away. Parker as a strong MVP candidate might be a safer bet.