Candace Parker and her LA Sparks face off against Maya Moore and her Minnesota Lynx tonight in a nationally-televised clash on ESPN2. Both women have been the face of the WNBA, both women are veteran champions with storied careers and both women are Hall of Fame-bound after retirement.
To make the battle even, Team Parker won the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game and Maya Moore won the All-Star Game MVP award. But with other players and other teams rising to dominance all around them, the season has not been a foregone conclusion for either the 2017 WNBA champion Lynx or the runner-up Sparks. Heading into tonight, the Lynx are third in the standings and the Sparks in fourth.
In first and second place? The Seattle Storm and the Atlanta Dream, respectively, each powered by new-generation superstars Breanna Stewart and Tiffany Hayes, who seek enough wins and awards to make their names as synonymous with “WNBA” as Parker’s and Moore’s. So far, Stewart has the advantage here, but Hayes is not far behind.
The Storm’s Stewie
Stewart, from powerhouse UConn, entered the league having won everything that could be won in a college basketball career. And she continued that trend in her WNBA rookie year by sweeping the 2016 Rookie of the Month awards, taking the Rookie of the Year honor a vote shy of unanimous, being named to the 2016 All-WNBA Second Team and to the 2016 WNBA All-Defensive Second Team, winning a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and being named Best Female Athlete and Best Female College Athlete at the 2016 ESPYs.
In her rookie season, Stewart averaged 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and in 2017 she averaged 19.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. So far in the 2018 WNBA season, Stewart is averaging 22.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and she has led the league in scoring for several weeks and she is currently fourth in rebounding.
This level of consistency is impressive on its own, but placing it in the context of Stewart leading the league in scoring for several weeks over the likes of Liz Cambage, Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne shows what a truly special player she is. This level of reliability is what has her Seattle team in first place in the standings, a full 3.5 games head of the second-place Atlanta Dream.
To go with the July 2018 Player of the Month award, Stewart is a 2018 All-Star and she won Player of the Week honors for the week ending June 17.
The Dream’s Hayes
Hayes’ rise to league dominance has been much more measured than Stewart’s, but that doesn’t mean her place in the upper echelon should be viewed as anything other than solid and secure. She entered the league having won two NCAAW Championships with UConn and in her rookie WNBA season, Hayes was named to the 2012 WNBA All-Rookie Team.
But her path began to veer in 2013 following a knee injury and surgery that caused her to miss time.
In the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, Hayes began to settle into a consistent double-digit scoring routine. In 2017, with teammate Angel McCoughtry sitting the season out to rehab injuries, Hayes made her way to an average of 16.3 points per game, which put her at 13th in the league in scoring for that year. In 2017, she earned her first Player of the Month award (May) and was named an All-Star.
So far this season, Hayes is averaging a career-high 17.2 points per game. Although she currently sits ahead of Nneka Ogwumike (Sparks), Sylvia Fowles (Lynx), Jewell Loyd (Storm), DeWanna Bonner (Mercury), Angel McCoughtry (Dream) and Allie Quigley (Sky) in scoring — 12th in the league — she was snubbed by the 2018 WNBA All-Star voters.
To go with the July 2018 Player of the Month award, Hayes was named Player of the Week twice this season, for weeks ending June 10 and July 22.
The blood of the Huskies flows through both players. Although they have followed very different paths in the WNBA, they are on a collision course towards becoming individual rivals, and for their teams to enter into a heated rivalry for years to come.
Stewart is on track to win the MVP award and with her team holding tight to first place, she and the Storm have a real shot at a championship. Atlanta, of course, has different ideas and would prefer to continue crushing teams’ dreams for a chance to close the 3.5-game gap separating them from Seattle.
Hayes has been a major part of the Dream’s success this season and it is worth examining whether some of her fuel comes from finding herself in the shadows. When the name UConn comes up, for example, the headlines are always about Stewart (or Taurasi or Sue Bird ... Kia Nurse or Gabby Williams). Any player aware of her capabilities the way Hayes is aware of hers (and like the box scores show) would get tired of being overlooked.
A June hair-pulling incident might shed some light into a possible rivalry between Hayes and Stewart, with Hayes asserting after the incident that she basically felt maligned by talking heads and Stewart apparently feeling disrespected by being referred to by Hayes as “that girl.”
But Atlanta is just 0.5 game ahead of the surging Lynx, so the margin of error for the rest of the season is nil. A good old-fashioned rivalry is usually great motivation for teams and, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, All-Star snubs can be gasoline for individual players.
Naturally, a heated rivalry is a draw for fans as well and, with any hopes, the Storm and Dream will do for the league what the Lynx and Sparks have.
With the season winding to a close, every game counts, and the Storm get a shot to prove their worthiness against the Lynx in a nationally-televised matchup on Friday night. For the Dream, a win against the Sky on Friday is a must if they wish to put some distance between themselves and the Lynx, who are nipping at their heels.
Coach of the Month — July 2018
Atlanta Dream Head Coach Nicki Collen has been named Coach of the Month for July. To get here, she kept her team afloat after two star players went down with injury (Hayes and Brittney Sykes), secured a trade that brought Alex Bentley back to Atlanta, which has proved successful, and guided her team to a franchise-best eight straight wins.
Coach of the Year, anyone?
Last night in the league
Two teams won and two teams lost.
Here’s the recap from Christine M. Hopkins.
Next up on the court
Two games are on the schedule for Thursday, including the reigning champion Lynx against the rival Sparks at 10:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Stay tuned for previews!
How to #WatchThemWork all season
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