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Swish Appeal Roundtable: Asia Durr will have breakout rookie season, Mystics will win it all

Prior to the start of the 2019 WNBA preseason on Thursday, the Swish Appeal crew met for a lengthy discussion of what’s to come. Check out who we think will have sophomore success (and sophomore slump), and much more!

A majority of Swish Appeal contributors believe the Washington Mystics will win the 2019 WNBA Championship.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2019 WNBA preseason tips off Thursday, May 9! But before the New York Liberty meets the China National Team tomorrow in primetime on ESPN News, the Swish Appeal crew gathered to discuss what should be a very interesting — albeit, very different — 2019 WNBA season. Here are our thoughts. Share yours in the comments.

Looking forward to the most in the 2019 WNBA season

Cat Ariail: Bully ball or the three-ball? In recent years, the WNBA has been blessed with a bevy of talented bigs. After Sylvia Fowles claimed the MVP in 2017, Liz Cambage dominated inside last season. Brittney Griner again exerted her defensive presence, while A’ja Wilson established herself as a star. Yet, the two teams standing at the end of the 2018 WNBA season, Seattle and Washington, leveraged the power of the long ball. In 2019, it will be interesting to see if analytically-inclined offensives again triumph at the team level, even as talented, physical athletes appear to define the direction of the league.

Jim Savell: The Las Vegas Aces. The Aces should make the playoffs this year. They almost did last year and I expect them to be even better. A’ja Wilson is a special player and gives every team fits on defense. I look forward to seeing how the Aces have improved since we last saw them. There is a lot of great young talent in the league and it is going to be fun to watch all the new rookies find their places.

Albert Lee: Can two Eastern Conference teams meet in the Finals? The top teams certainly make a case. The Mystics return last year’s core, plus Emma Meesseman. They will begin this season as favorites. The Dream have enough talent to make the Finals even if Angel McCoughtry misses most of 2019. And the Sun will benefit from Jonquel Jones’ and Courtney Williams’ experience after two consecutive 21-win seasons.

Christine M. Hopkins: How the teams with new coaches will fare, especially since they all have exciting new players and a lot of ways to improve. Nicki Collen’s run last season was inspiring, and it’ll be fun to see how this season’s coaches will rise to the occasion — and if any of them can match Collen’s success and pick up Coach of the Year honors with a new team.

Eric Nemchock: I’m looking forward to seeing what the next wave of star players brings to the table. The number of injuries and absences to star players is already well-documented: Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Angel McCoughtry and Elizabeth Cambage will all be missing the entire season or a large chunk of it. This is going to alter the competitive landscape dramatically and leave the door open for another tier of players to claim top-dog status.

Zackery: The Dallas Wings and their new-look roster for the 2019 season. During the offseason, Dallas experienced some highs and lows. At the end of 2018, the franchise named Brian Agler the new head coach. Agler inherited top-tier talent in Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liz Cambage. Unfortunately, Dallas could possibly be without both star players, for all or part of the season. Needless to say, the organization rebounded nicely in the draft by selecting Arike Ogunbowale and Megan Gustafson. It will be interesting to see how competitive the team will be and whether the Wings can still make the playoffs.

Tamryn (to Zackery): And with Diggins-Smith already participating in team activities after giving birth to a baby boy, at minimum, her veteran leadership from the practice and coaching ranks will help the new-look team get off on the right foot.

Tamryn Spruill: With the WNBA Draft and ongoing free agency activity, fans have been focused on the game and looking forward to the season. But then NBA PR sent that ill-timed tweet a few weeks ago claiming to clarify alleged erroneous reporting on players’ salaries. With the WNBPA holding firm to its commitment to avoid bringing collective bargaining into the media, it will be interesting to see if the NBA proceeds down what appears to be a path of spin. If so, how will the WNBPA counter those attacks? And will a vitriolic process become a distraction for teams and players?

Rookie most likely to have a breakout season

Eric: Asia Durr. The Liberty has already made several moves to open up playing time for her: Sugar Rodgers was traded to Las Vegas, Epiphanny Prince and Marissa Coleman remain unsigned and Tanisha Wright seems to me like little more than a veteran mentor at this point in her career. Even if Durr doesn’t start right away, I think the minutes will be there for her to have a significant impact.

Cat: New York needs a breakout season from Asia Durr and the Louisville star should make an immediate impact. Flashing a pro-ready skill set as a collegian, expect Durr to emerge as a needed offensive force for the Liberty, regardless of whether Tina Charles chooses to return to the court in New York or not.

Christine (to Cat): Although the Liberty has not released an official statement yet, it has been reported by other outlets that Tina Charles has re-signed.

Albert: Teaira McCowan could have a breakout rookie season for the Fever. Natalie Achonwa wasn’t a regular starter until 2018 when the Fever went 6-28. Because McCowan shot over 60 percent and averaged over 13 rebounds per game in each of her last two college seasons at Mississippi State, she should be playing significant minutes right away.

Christine: Given the opportunity, Asia Durr can absolutely A’ja Wilson the New York Liberty into ... well, if not playoff contention, certainly a much better spot than last season. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on her to excel, but if she keeps playing her game, she could turn into a go-to scoring option for the Liberty right away. In an absolutely packed draft class, there’s a reason she was chosen before almost everyone else: She’s pro-ready.

Jim: Katie Lou Samuelson is multi-faceted and brings a lot of talent to the Chicago Sky. Pairing Samuelson next to Stefanie Dolson could provide the extra playmaking needed to get the Sky into the playoffs.

Zackery: Megan Gustafson. This may be an unpopular pick, but fundamentals are key in basketball. Gustafson’s IQ and ability to impact the game in a variety of ways will help her dominate in the WNBA. With Liz Cambage most likely out the door, it’s safe to say Gustafson will get plenty of play time and touches. With Dallas drafting shooters the post should be open for her to dominate.

Tamryn: Sophie Cunningham is poised for a breakout year, at least while Diana Taurasi recovers from back surgery. At Mizzou, the Cunningham-led Tigers were inconsistent: They’d topple Mississippi State one day but fall to low-ranked LSU. If one of her teammates didn’t step up with a big game, it meant a loss for Mizzou. But as a member of the Phoenix Mercury, Cunningham will be surrounded by championship-winning playmakers and scorers like DeWanna Bonner, Briann January and Brittney Griner. Her three-point shooting could do wonders for Griner’s game, specifically, and for the team’s overall depth.

Second-year player most likely to have a breakout season

Eric: I’m expecting big things from Azurá Stevens this year. Liz Cambage was such a huge part of what the Wings did last season, and I’m not seeing many frontcourt players on that roster who are sure bets to inherit that kind of workload other than Glory Johnson. Stevens has both the skills and the size needed to play both frontcourt positions and, without a high-usage player like Cambage in the lineup, I think Stevens will thrive.

Cat: Diamond DeShields. In an interview last fall, new Chicago Sky head coach James Wade stated, “We’re going to move the ball a lot. I want my playmakers making plays. We’re going to build on the fact that we are a team that’s willing to pass the ball.” The uber-athletic DeShields should establish herself as the skeleton key for Wade’s system. With Courtney Vandersloot controlling the offense and Allie Quigley and Katie Lou Samuelson spacing the floor, DeShields can cut and slash like Chicago native Dwyane Wade, making the Sky’s attack more dynamic.

Albert: Kia Nurse. Last season, Nurse saw her playing time fluctuate downward midseason, after a hot start. Still, she averaged 9.1 points per game and shot over 40 percent from the field. Asia Durr will play major minutes this season, but Nurse will still get her opportunity to shine.

Jim: Kelsey Mitchell started 17 games last year. I expect her to be a full-time starter for the Indiana Fever this year. She shot 33 percent from beyond the arc and, with the additions of post players like Teaira McCowan, there should be more space for her to shoot the ball.

Christine: Diamond DeShields had a fantastic rookie season, definitively carving out a space for herself on a Chicago Sky team with a lot of individual talent. Her comfort level in the league and her skill will only increase. I’d also love to see Kia Nurse get more chances to thrive this season. As a bench player, she certainly made the most of every minute she was out there. The Liberty are going to be trying out many different combinations this season, having added so much talent, but I think Nurse will still stand out.

Zackery: Ariel Atkins. Last season, Atkins played 29 games and started 24 of them as a rookie. She averaged 11.3 points (third highest on the team), 2.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 35.7 percent from three. In last year’s playoffs, she helped push the Mystics to the WNBA Finals. I expect Atkins to only get better and continue to evolve as a strong two-way player.

Tamryn: If Victoria Vivians hadn’t gone down with an injury that stopped her season before it started, she would have been my pick. But with Vivians out, I’m going with Seattle Storm guard Jordin Canada. She only played 16.4 minutes per game in 2018 and started just just two of them. But with Breanna Stewart out for the season for Seattle, Canada could find herself with a bigger role and more minutes. Stewie is a masterful playmaker and scorer; Canada can help to fill in some of the gaps Stewie’s absence will create.

Second-year player most likely to have a sophomore slump

Eric: I’m wondering what the Sparks are going to do with Maria Vadeeva. They traded for Chiney Ogwumike and drafted Kalani Brown in the first round. Even if Candace Parker plays some small forward this season, we don’t know if Derek Fisher is as high on Vadeeva as Brian Agler was when he was coaching the Sparks. I’m having a hard time imagining a scenario in which Vadeeva gets significant playing time. It just doesn’t seem like an ideal fit for her or her development.

Cat: Because she instantly was excellent as a rookie, it is possible that A’ja Wilson experiences a perceived slump. The attention she likely will receive, in addition to the need to develop a dynamic with Jackie Young and Sugar Rodgers, could contribute to early struggles. However, Wilson likely will adjust to any challenges, again displaying her dominance as the Aces look to take advantage of a possibly wide-open West.

Albert: Ariel Atkins could also have a perceived sophomore slump. She exceeded expectations last year. And, now, defenses will pay more attention to her even with Washington looking as deep as deep as it is. Also, Kiara Leslie’s and Kim Mestdagh’s arrivals will cut into her playing time.

Christine: Kelsey Mitchell got to be something of a star on an extremely disappointing Indiana Fever team last season, and her game is solid. But there may be some similarities to how Cat described A’ja Wilson. If Mitchell doesn’t keep putting in the most to fix the team, so to say, she could be seen as a one-hit wonder — a player who got a chance to shine because she was on a bad team that will certainly be less bad this season. It’s an unbelievable amount of pressure for a second-year player, and for that reason, I hope I’m wrong.

Zackery: Kia Nurse could experience a sophomore slump. Although she had a solid rookie season, the expectations will only increase after the franchise selected Asia Durr No.2 overall in this year’s draft. Last season, Nurse played almost every position and oftentimes experienced limited minutes. By drafting Durr, Nurse could possibly be forced to play out of her natural position — guard — even more.

Tamryn: In 2018, Gabby Williams averaged just 26.9 percent from three-point distance and made 43.2 percent of her field goals for 7.3 points per game. Maybe she can improve under new coach Wade, and with the familiarity of UConn alum Katie Lou Samuelson. But it is Samuelson who poses the biggest threat to her playing time. So, if Williams hasn’t improved in the offseason, she could find herself taking a back seat to Katie Lou. (And this argument also is case-in-point on why the WNBA needs to undergo an expansion.)

Player most likely to retire after the 2019 WNBA season

Cat: It might be time for Money Mone to cash out. The combination of age and injuries, along with Minnesota’s transition to a new era, could limit Augustus’s effectiveness. However, her sweet mid-range stroke certainly is ageless, making her still a valuable asset to Cheryl Reeve’s retooled Lynx.

Albert: Rebekkah Brunson could also retire after the season. Her shooting percentage dropped to just 40.5 percent, low for a power forward. Rookie Napheesa Collier plays the same position and she is coming off a strong senior season at UConn. Brunson is still a great defender, but the Lynx are also looking to the future.

Christine: Yeah, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson are both on my list. The Lynx are an older team, but they have a ton of younger talent eager to step up and solidify their own legendary status like the players before them. Plus, Brunson has yet to re-sign with the team, isn’t on the training camp roster and seems to be doing quite well for herself outside of basketball ... so maybe it won’t take until autumn for that decision to be made.

Zackery: Seimone Augustus will most likely retire after this season. Although the Minnesota Lynx made some solid moves in the offseason, this team will probably struggle to make the postseason. Minnesota is filled with young talent but it’s hard to see Augustus sticking around for a rebuild process. Without Maya Moore, this team doesn’t really have a player who can get you 18 points or more on a nightly basis while getting the team involved.

Tamryn: Instead of discussing which players may retire, I’ll chip in about which are most unlikely to retire: Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Barring major injuries that thwart their seasons or careers, I see both playing in the WNBA through 2020 and in then in the Tokyo Olympics for a final hoorah on storied, legendary careers.

Title-less team with best chance to win the 2019 WNBA Championship

Eric: The Washington Mystics. This roster is going to be downright scary offensively with all its shooting. With Emma Meesseman back in the fold and Elena Delle Donne playing power forward, opponents are going to have to defend out to the perimeter at every position. Defensively, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins can switch just about everything on the perimeter and LaToya Sanders remains one of the league’s better shot blockers. Plug in another 3-and-D wing in Kiara Leslie and you have the potential for a juggernaut — especially in a season when most other championship contenders will be missing their star players.

Cat: Washington. Stewie-less in Seattle should position the 2018 runner-up as the favorite. Although Los Angeles offers an intimidating amalgam of talent, the ability of Derek Fisher to implement a system best suited to his array of stars inspires some skepticism. In contrast, a healthy Elena Delle Donne, the ever-steady Kristi Toliver, the return of Emma Meesseman, the energetic Natasha Cloud, the cool and composed Ariel Atkins and the still underrated Latoya Sanders — all maximized by one of the WNBA’s best minds in Mike Thibault — should seamlessly combine to give the Mystics a great chance to claim their first WNBA title.

Christine: The Mystics are going to be terrifying this year. With basically the same squad that got them to last year’s Finals, and a healthy Delle Donne to boot, they’re going to be tough to beat from start to finish. Plus, with last season’s Finals appearances already historic for the team, they know exactly what they need to do to get back.

Jim: While I agree that Washington is a very talented team, they played five games against a great Atlanta Dream team in the Semifinals. The Atlanta Dream are an elite defensive team and although Angel McCoughtry may miss time or be out this season, I think the Dream can push for a championship.

Zackery: The Washington Mystics will win a championship this year. The fact that Breanna Stewart will not be available for the Seattle Storm is huge. The injury bug has also affected other teams, with Diana Taurasi out for 10-12 weeks and Angel McCoughtry still recovering. The Mystics kept their core intact, added more depth through the draft and welcomed back Emma Meesseman. Assuming everyone stays healthy, Washington will win it all.

Tamryn: With the Storm and Lynx without players who were integral to their championship wins, the Phoenix Mercury has the best shot to win it all. But of the trophy-less franchises, I go all-in on the Atlanta Dream. Angel McCoughtry led the dream to the Finals in prior years. With the younger players around her, she was poised to do it again before stopped by a torn ACL. The Dream was the only team to beat the Storm multiple times during the regular season. With a healthy squad, Atlanta could have defeated the Storm in the Finals. And, with McCoughtry, they could have edged past the Mystics in the WNBA Semis.

Bonus chatter:

Christine: We’re going to vote Courtney Vandersloot into the All-Star Game this year, right? Right?

Eric: I second that motion, Christine. Let’s do the right thing, folks.

Tamryn: If granted the great honor once again to vote for season awards and All-Star selections, Sloot will get my ballot. (But my selections last year did not exactly line up with everyone else’s, so there’s no guarantee she’ll make it in.)

Albert: How will the Liberty adjust during Women’s EuroBasket in late June and July? New York could lose three players midseason because Bria Hartley and Marine Johannes will play for France while Amanda Zahui B. will play for Sweden.

Zackery: Prepare to see the birth of another strong duo in Asia Durr and Tina Charles.