The 2021 WNBA season is fast approaching, and with the league moving back to a traditional traveling schedule (fan attendance, however, is currently at the discretion of each individual WNBA team), we’re anticipating the return of many big-name players who sat out the 2020 “bubble” season, such as Tina Charles, Jonquel Jones and Liz Cambage.
In addition to these WNBA players reclaiming their spots, it’s also worth keeping an eye on who will raise their game from 2020. Whether it be players returning from injury, players in new environments or simply players who have most of their careers ahead of them and are expected to improve, we’ve compiled a list of those we’re looking forward to taking a big leap in production in 2021.
Satou Sabally (Dallas Wings)
The sky’s the limit for Sabally, who impressed immediately as a rookie in 2020. A multi-talented forward with a smooth handle and the ability to pass and finish with both hands, Sabally averaged 13.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists last season, earning All-Rookie honors. If she improves her 3-point shooting — Sabally shot just 19.7 percent from deep in 2020 — she’ll quickly turn into one of the WNBA’s biggest matchup problems.
Diamond DeShields (Chicago Sky)
DeShields’ seemingly inevitable ascent to stardom took a slight detour in 2020 when the athletic wing began the season dealing with injuries. Kahleah Copper took her spot in the Sky’s starting lineup, and DeShields departed the Bradenton bubble midway through the season, never looking truly settled on the court. She’ll get every opportunity to get back on track in 2021, especially with Gabby Williams set to miss at least part of the season due to international basketball commitments.
Teaira McCowan (Indiana Fever)
For McCowan, simply staying on the court can be more challenging than maximizing her production. First-year Fever head coach Marianne Stanley showed little patience with McCowan in 2020, often choosing to bring the 6-foot-7 center off the bench and playing her 30 or more minutes just twice. McCowan does need to improve her defensive mechanics in order to better defend pick-and-rolls; if she’s able to do this, the rest of her game (21 percent total rebounding rate — first in the WNBA in 2020) will bear fruit.
Katie Lou Samuelson (Seattle Storm)
Samuelson will be on her third team in as many seasons in 2021, and while that’s not usually a ringing endorsement, the Storm have to like what they see. Seattle acquired Samuelson in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, which the team initially traded for as part of the deal that sent Natasha Howard to New York. This suggests that the Storm have quite a bit of confidence in Samuelson’s ability, and the third-year forward was recently named to the All-EuroLeague Women First Team after playing some of the best basketball of her career overseas.
Aerial Powers (Minnesota Lynx)
The Lynx went all-out for Powers in free agency, offering her a maximum salary and even trading Odyssey Sims in a less-than-favorable deal in order to guarantee Powers’ money. It would be reasonable, then, to surmise that Cheryl Reeve and her staff have big plans for Powers, who was putting up career-highs across the board in 2020 before suffering a season-ending injury.
Bella Alarie (Dallas Wings)
One of the most highly-decorated mid-major players in recent years, Alarie found herself cast much differently in her rookie season in Dallas than she was at Princeton. The Wings played Alarie largely as a paint-bound center, and she made just one 3-pointer the entire season — quite a change for a player who was given free reign on offense in college. Perhaps new Wings head coach Vickie Johnson will have an expanded role for Alarie in 2021, though she’ll have to compete with rookies Charli Collier and Awak Kuier for minutes.
Kaila Charles (Connecticut Sun)
Charles took advantage of a fluid situation in 2020, seizing the Sun’s starting small forward position as a rookie and playing a key part in Connecticut’s late-season run to the playoffs. With Alyssa Thomas out for all of 2021, things are obviously much different for the Sun than they were last season, but Charles’ only competition at her position comes from players like Kamiah Smalls, DiJonai Carrington and Teana Muldrow, each of whom have even less WNBA experience. Charles may not be a high-volume player this season, but she’s a good bet to build upon what she earned last year.
Rebecca Allen (New York Liberty)
We last saw Allen play in the WNBA in 2019, and while the Australian has five years of WNBA experience to her name, few of them featured her in a consistent and defined role. That should change in 2021, when the 28-year old Allen will be one of the Liberty’s few veteran players. Her excellent 3-point shot will be well-utilized in head coach Walt Hopkins’ pace-and-space system, so don’t be surprised if Allen obliterates her career averages in both minutes (12.2) and scoring (4.6).
Kia Nurse (Phoenix Mercury)
Nurse, like DeShields, is a former WNBA All-Star who struggled mightily in 2020. Nurse’s 27.3 percent field goal percentage was by far a career-low, and nagging injuries kept her from playing at her best for a Liberty team that posted one of the worst offensive ratings (87.3 points scored per 100 possessions) in league history. It’s hard to see a scorer of Nurse’s caliber shooting that poorly again, though, especially now that she’s playing alongside bonafide star talent in Phoenix.
Te’a Cooper (Los Angeles Sparks)
The Sparks signed Cooper at the dawn of the 2020 season after she was waived by Phoenix, and she turned out to be an instant hit in Los Angeles, leading the team’s second unit and quickly proving herself to be an effective point-of-attack defender. Cooper may be asked to do a little bit more in her second season with the departure of Chelsea Gray. She’s currently only signed to a training camp contract, but there’s little competition for her at the Sparks’ backup point guard position.