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Tam’s Take: An unwatched WNBA preseason guarantees a regular season of surprises

An early peek at retooled teams is a sport all its own for WNBA fans waiting several months to watch their favorite teams again. But no preseason games were broadcast ahead of the 2021 season, leaving impressions to be formed from clips, interviews and box scores. Tamryn Spruill launches her Tam’s Take column with insights into every team in the runup to the start of the league’s 25th anniversary season.

Atlanta Dream v Washington Mystics
Atlanta Dream rookie Aari McDonald taking flight in a preseason matchup against the Washington Mystics on May 5, 2021.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Fans of the WNBA live for preseason action. Stunningly, this roundup of a 2019 meeting between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury remains one of the most widely-read stories at Swish Appeal. This season, however, fans hoping to glimpse the newfangled rosters of their favorite teams received a disappointing message when signing onto WNBA League Pass: PRESEASON GAME NOT TELEVISED. A seven-month wait between seasons would be extended a little further, promising a regular season of newness and surprise for fans enthusiastic about the league’s 25th anniversary season.

Clips, interviews, box scores and more informed these impressions of the WNBA’s 12 teams heading into the 2021 season:

Atlanta Dream

Veteran Tiffany Hayes arrived late to the Dream because of overseas commitments. Not only will she acclimate to playing in College Park instead of Atlanta proper, Hayes will reconnect with just two other players — Monique Billings and Elizabeth Williams — from 2019, the last season she played.

Hayes opted out of 2020.

Now, the Dream are trying to build around Kalani Brown, a 6-foot-7 center who played her first season in Atlanta in 2020, and Chennedy Carter, a zippy shooting guard and the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft. And while all the buzz has been about Candace Parker moving from the Los Angeles Sparks to the Chicago Sky, another Parker, Cheyenne, was a casualty of the blockbuster trade now seeking to make a splash with the Dream.

Atlanta’s youth movement also includes Aari McDonald, a 5-foot-6 guard and the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft, who likes to create on the move.

Veteran guards Odyssey Sims and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough were brought in to help ground the professional upstarts. As for how this guard-heavy roster will roll is anyone’s guess, but it won’t be Nicki Collen, the 2018 Coach of the Year, and Chris Sienko, the 2018 Executive of the Year, calling the shots. Sienko was fired in April by the Dream’s new ownership group, which includes former Dream player Renee Montgomery, and Collen departed after accepting the head coaching position at Baylor.

Interim head coach Mike Petersen and assistant coach Darius Taylor will be working closely together in a system that likely will abandon convention. A guard-heavy roster presents a strong likelihood for more than two guards to be in a rotation at any given time, and Petersen is ready to roll with possibilities that could create havoc for opposing defenses.

Think of the damage Brown, Elizabeth Williams and the other post players could do in a rotation rounded out with a 3-ball-threat combo like Courtney Williams, Carter and McDonald.

Consider those floor-stretching possibilities!

Enough wind in the lanes to power some wins.

Chicago Sky

The big story surrounding the Sky this season is, of course, the arrival of Candace Parker, the longtime face of the Sparks who brought a championship to LA in 2016. Though weird to see her in a different uniform for the first time, she looked right at home in Chicago white during a preseason meeting with the Indiana Fever.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, at 35, brings championship hopes to Sky country. Crucial to the team’s success will be the energetic phenoms who shined in the 2020 wubble season, Kahleah Copper in particular, who pushed the pace and lit up the scoreboard to help the Sky get back into the playoffs. In the Sky’s first preseason home-and-home matchup with the Indiana Fever, Copper recorded 14 points, four rebounds and one steal.

Diamond DeShields left the wubble early in 2020 to focus on rehabbing an injury, but she appears poised to reclaim a prominent role in the starting lineup alongside Parker. DeShields will aim to show why she is the 2019 All-Star Game Skills champion, and her 66.7-percent shooting from the field in the Sky’s and Fever’s first preseason meeting signals a return to health.

Allie Quigley, the 2018 All-Star Weekend Three-Point champion, came off the bench in the Sky’s second preseason meeting with the Fever, and Copper got the start. And Lexie Brown, newly acquired after being waived by the Minnesota Lynx, scored 10 points in the friendly (including five points at the free-throw line). Considering that Ruthy Hebard and Azurá Stevens are still on the roster — second-round draft pick Natasha Mack was added — head coach and general manager James Wade, the 2019 Coach of the Year, has the depth the team lacked last year as it fizzled down the stretch.

What this means in terms of title-potential is anyone’s guess. But having Candace Parker in Chicago reshapes the Eastern Conference battle lines, upping the Sky’s limits toward no ceiling.

Connecticut Sun

Jonquel Jones and Jasmine Thomas arrived late to their Sun teammates, flying high on good feelings of victory. Jones helped UMMC Ekaterinburg, the EuroLeague Women superteam, win a championship. Thomas won a Turkey League title with Fenerbahçe. Unlike much of the league, however, the two starters will have very few roster changes awaiting them.

Returning are All-Star DeWanna Bonner, Natisha Hiedeman in her third year and veteran Briann January, a Hungarian League champion this year. Jones is back after opting out of 2020 because of concerns over the pandemic. And Brionna Jones, with increased minutes last year because of J. Jones’ absence, made a splash and then killed it overseas, culminating in the Czech Republic League title.

Whether her sister, Stephanie, a rookie, makes the team is yet to be seen, but second-year players Beatrice Mompremier, a center, and Kaila Charles, a guard, are looking to craft niches with the team. DiJonai Carrington, a late second-round pick in the 2021 draft who arguably should have been a first-rounder, has been heating things up early. In the Sun’s lone preseason game, Carrington sizzled for 16 points and five rebounds.

As head coach Curt Miller whittles the roster — third-rounder Aleah Goodman (Oregon State) was waived — he surely has at the forefront of his mind a need to replace the energy, grit and two-way play of Alyssa Thomas, the team’s “Engine.” Sidelined for the season with a torn Achilles, A. Thomas’ relentless defense and offensive swagger will be missed. Carrington, however, could be the one to pick up much of the load.

Will the chemistry and consistency of a roster that has been left relatively intact be enough to get the Sun back to the Finals, vying for a franchise-first championship?

With Candace Parker in Chicago, Connecticut’s task just got harder.

Impossible? Not for a team radiating championship glory.

Dallas Wings

Under new head coach and former player Vickie Johnson, the WNBA’s only Black woman head coach in a league made up of more than 80-percent Black athletes, the Wings remain in a rebuilding mode that began with the departures of Skylar Diggins-Smith (Phoenix Mercury) and Liz Cambage (Las Vegas Aces), who last played in Dallas in 2018. The Wings have been through two head coaches since then — Taj McWilliams-Franklin (interim) and Brian Agler (two seasons) — and its roster this offseason was mostly razed for reconstruction.

Bella Alarie, drafted by Agler, so far is safe, but Katie Lou Samuelson was shipped to Seattle. And with the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in this year’s draft, Johnson & Company selected Charli Collier, a 6-foot-5 center from Texas, and Awak Kuier, a power forward from Finland. Staking claim to some of the talented guards in the 2021 draft pool, Dallas brought in Dana Evans (Louisville) and 3-point-threat Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas).

But with only 12 roster spots to be had, and Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally occupying two of the most important, who stays and who goes?

Megan Gustafson is out, waived on May 12. But Ogunbowale, the 2020 scoring champion, has plenty of options to get involved on offense. And if Johnson wants to take the playmaking burden off her, she needs to look no further than Tyasha Harris, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 draft, for an elite shot creator.

Will things cohere quickly enough for the Wings to take flight into the playoffs?

To be determined.

Indiana Fever

If Marianne Stanley, Fever head coach and finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, makes the right roster finalization decisions, the Fever could be the best-balanced team in the league in terms of talent at the respective five positions and veteran leadership complementing youth.

Julie Allemand of Belgium wowed Fever fans in 2020, showing that she’s one of the best point guards in the league. All she needs now is team cohesion and capable hands to receive her exquisite passes. Teaira McCowan, in her third season and recording a double-double in her second preseason matchup with Chicago, will be waiting in the paint. And Victoria Vivians, after sustaining a torn ACL in 2019 and missing the majority of the 2020 season after aggravating the injury, is back — healthy, and looking to reclaim the game of strength and poise she flashed as a rookie in 2018.

The Mitchell sisters are back: guards Tiffany and Kelsey (unrelated). To help anchor the youth, Stanley brought in nine-year-veterans Jantel Lavender and Danielle Robinson and eight-year-veteran Jessica Breland. But how will Stanley integrate the versatile talents of Lauren Cox, the 6-foot-4 forward out of Baylor and fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft? A positive COVID-19 test sidelined her for a portion of her rookie season and she did not suit up in either of the Fever’s preseason matchups.

Where things get tricky for Stanley, however, is narrowing the five-player pool of 2021 draftees. Unique Thompson (Auburn) is a two-way force who, by graduation, had eclipsed everything All-Star champion DeWanna Bonner had done during her years as a Tiger. Thompson did not score in the first preseason outing, but hauled in seven rebounds; in the second, she scored two points and pulled down five boards.

Toughening her decision-making process are Bernadett Hatar, a center from Hungary and veritable lock given the lack of depth this team has at the five, and Aaliyah Wilson, a first-round pick and former 3-point threat at Texas A&M. And then there is Kysre Gondrezick, whose star power long preceded her arrival into the league, and Chelsey Perry, a 6-foot-2 forward out of Tennessee-Martin, seeking to pull off a roster-spot upset.

In fewer than 15 minutes off the bench, Perry scored a game-high 16 points (tied with Tiffany Mitchell) in Indiana’s first preseason outing and hauled in four rebounds.

No matter the finally assembly of players, the Fever are sure to do it their way, unscripted.

The influx of new and untapped talent empowers them with possibility.

Las Vegas Aces

For the Las Vegas Aces in 2020, it was no Kelsey Plum, no Liz Cambage, no problem.

Plum suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in a preseason workout and Cambage was medically excused. With an assortment of replacement players, including Emma Cannon, the Aces dominated in ways few expected. En route to powering the Aces to the Finals, A’ja Wilson was voted the 2020 MVP. And in keeping with her usual dominance off the bench, Dearica Hamby earned the Sixth Woman of the Year award for the second year straight. But how will the Aces proceed this season with Cambage and Plum back, along with JiSu Park?

Las Vegas’ blockbuster moves in free agency provide a clue. The franchise snapped up from the Western Conference rival Sparks two veteran guards who can make plays and light up the scoreboard: Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams.

Gray is expected to start at the one ahead of Plum, in spite of her short learning curve. Due to overseas commitments, Gray joined the team just days before its preseason meeting. The 27 turnovers in that outing should be chalked up to consistency-building at the season’s early start. A true cause for deflation, however, is the loss of Angel McCoughtry for the season.

Her elite playmaking and steps-ahead court vision inside a game restructured around an aging body and 2018 knee injury mechanized the Aces’ offense in awe-inspiring ways. Without her, can the Aces make it back to the Finals?

Luck is on their side. After all, they did it last year without two of its biggest weapons.

Los Angeles Sparks

With head coach Derek Fisher emboldened with the powers of general manager, the success or failure of decisions fall to him, and no choice disappointed Sparks fans more than seeing Candace Parker flee during free agency to play for the Sky in her hometown of Chicago. Then, the franchise parted ways with Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams, guards who had been integral to the Sparks’ prior success.

Yet, Fisher has no shortage of veteran winners on his side.

Four-time champion Seimone Augustus returns for a second season with the Sparks, as does Kristi Toliver — who helped bring a title to LA in 2016 and to the Washington Mystics in 2019 before returning to the Sparks in 2020. Nneka Ogwumike, a nine-year veteran, is back, along with her sister Chiney, whom Fisher brought off the bench in 2019, adding exhilarating depth to an already-stacked team. But with Parker out, Fisher may no longer have this luxury.

What he does have, though, is defensive menace Brittney Sykes, fan-favorite playmaker Te’a Cooper and rookie Arella Guirantes (Rutgers). How these pieces will mesh is anyone’s guess, but the team came up tied with the Aces in their lone preseason matchup and it was rookie Jasmine Walker who carried the load, scoring 23 points and pulling down nine rebounds in just under 25 minutes.

Like the rest of the coaches in the world’s most competitive league, Fisher has important decisions to make, with nothing more at stake than a storied franchise, rooted in LA, vying four its fourth championship.

Minnesota Lynx

Head coach Cheryl Reeve finds herself in familiar territory to start the 2021 season: with a rookie phenom out because of injury.

In 2019, it was Jessica Shepherd, felled by a knee injury, six games into her professional career. Shepherd missed the rest of the 2019 season, all of 2020, and returns this season healthy and ready to remind the world why she has the potential to a valuable piece of the Lynx organization for the long haul.

This season, it is Rennia Davis, a guard/forward out of Tennessee, whose flashy swagger will have to beam from the sidelines while she recovers from a stress fracture in her foot. But Sylvia Fowles, who missed most of 2020 with a calf injury, is back healthy and ready to anchor the young guns, though in reduced minutes per game. And when she takes the court, the 13-year veteran will not have to do it all as in recent years. She’ll have a gaggle of younger phenoms, new to Minnesota, to work with: Aerial Powers, a champion with the Washington Mystics in 2019; Kayla McBride, the 3-ball behemoth previously known to Aces’ fans as “McBuckets”; and Natalie Achonwa, once a staple in Indiana, now poised to play an important role on the defensive end for the Lynx.

Despite Fowles’ injury last season, and the Lynx receiving play calls from spritely point guard Crystal Dangerfield, the eventual 2020 Rookie of the Year, the team made it to the semifinals. With Fowles now healthy, additional defenders in the mix and 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier returning from overseas play in search of championship glory at home, the Lynx’s bite in 2021 could be lethal.

Sure, it may take Davis a while to get acclimated to the lineup once healthy. But a full roster, seemingly unheard of in today’s WNBA, should worry the other 11 teams, even though the media is counting them out before they even start.

New York Liberty

Fitting for a team that has Sabrina Ionescu, the daughter of Romanian immigrants as its star, the New York Liberty ahead of the 2021 season announced its new mascot: Ellie the Elephant, named after Ellis Island.

Under head coach Walt Hopkins, it’s Ionescu’s team, and the two-year guard has a lot of young talent around her. Out are mid-career standouts Kia Nurse and Bria Hartley. In are Natasha Howard, a two-time champion with the Seattle Storm and former Defensive Player of the Year, and Betnijah Laney, who is coming off a breakout season with the Dream. Always respected as a defensive force, she turned heads while displaying her offensive range.

The Liberty drafted Michaela Onyenwere, a 6-foot forward out of UCLA, and DiDi Richards, a 6-foot-2 guard/forward, out of Baylor. Anchoring the young bloods are Layshia Clarendon, an eight-year veteran, and Howard, now in her seventh season. But 2020, despite Clarendon reminding the basketball world of her prowess, was a bit of a wash.

The Liberty underperformed after Ionescu went down with an ankle injury in the early minutes of her third professional game and finished 12th in the standings. Ionescu is back, healthy, but Jocelyn Willoughby, hoping to break through in her second season, is out with an Achilles injury.

The team has not disclosed whether Asia Durr will play following a long battle with COVID-19 that kept her out of the 2020 season.

Add in that the Liberty did not play a true preseason game, just an early-May scrimmage against the Sun with no published result, New York is the team most shrouded in mystery this season.

The message is clear: Any attempt to own the crown will be carried out by covert operation.

Phoenix Mercury

It came as a shock to Mercury fans when two-time WNBA champion DeWanna Bonner demanded a trade after the 2019 season.

It was a season of burnout for Bonner who, at 32, played the most minutes of anyone in the league, put in work at every position at least once and multiple times was one of a single-digit number of healthy bodies suiting up. Now thriving with the Sun, the Mercury appear to be sticking with its “Pound It to BG (Brittney Griner)” model of offense, which seems increasingly ill-fitting for the speed and versatility of today’s WNBA.

Teams are stacked with youth, deep with talent and enchanted with positionless basketball. How will Griner, all-time leading scorer Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith propel a team that has seemed offensively frustrated, if not stunted?

Last year, Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley, in their first seasons with the Mercury, breathed fresh air into the offense, with Hartley, in particular, sparking a quicker pace. But Griner, responsible for patrolling the paint as Phoenix’s 6-foot-9 center, must return to her Defensive Player of the Year ways. Brianna Turner signaled hope during the increased minutes she was given after Griner departed the Florida bubble early. But Turner does not have the size of Griner, who should be blocking three shots per game and rebounding in double digits more often than not. To avoid wearing her out, though, head coach Sandy Brondello will need to democratize the offense — make Griner an option, as Reeve is doing with Fowles, rather than the option.

The Mercury’s preseason matchup with the Seattle Storm, worryingly, showed no signs of this being the plan. With its Big Three in the starting lineup, plus Turner and Kia Nurse, who signed during free agency, only one player — Diggins-Smith (+1) — was positive in plus/minus. The Storm, with just two starters playing no more than 15 minutes apiece, had all players except one — Breanna Stewart (-4 in two minutes off the bench) in positive plus/minus.

Though preseason games usually can be taken in stride, the Mercury’s persistent struggles in recent seasons suggests the time to panic was when Bonner bid adieu.

Who, or what, will be the X-factor that helps these talented players maximize their potential?

Seattle Storm

The Storm are going to Storm.

In the preseason matchup with the Mercury, with Stephanie Talbot at small forward, Candice Dupree at power forward and Ezi Magbegor at center starting alongside Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, Seattle overpowered Phoenix 88-71. And the defending champs did it with Finals MVP Breanna Stewart playing just two minutes.

Whether the Storm can repeat for a title in 2021 is yet to be seen, considering the influx of young talent, like draftees Kiana Williams and N’dea Jones. Shipped away were defensive stalwarts Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, with hopes that players commanding lower salaries — veteran Epiphanny Prince, who was integral to the team’s 2020 success, and Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan, traded from Minnesota — can lock down the defense.

Seattle has another UConn-bred shooter in town, Katie Lou Samuelson, who had a great career overseas.

But whether the new pieces can fill in where Clark and Howard excelled is yet to be seen. And the degree to which new players can demoralize opponents on the defensive end will largely decide Seattle’s fate.

And then there is Kitija Laksa, a phenom with international playing experience on which the franchise hopes to stake its future. Laksa didn’t play last season because of the pandemic, but the Latvia native brings a wealth of international experience the Storm hope to groom for the franchise’s post-Bird future, where Jordin Canada also is waiting in the wings.

Changes aside, the Storm appear locked in and looking to repeat. Whether the retooled roster will give the rest of the league reason to take cover is yet to be seen.

Washington Mystics

Without 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne playing in either of the Washington Mystics’ preseason outings, head coach Mike Thibault utilized the opportunity to get returning players and new players acclimated to the offense. Back with the team is Natasha Cloud, who opted out the 2020 season to work on social justice issues in D.C.

Leilani Mitchell, who held down the shot-calling duties in 2020, is back in the mix after leading the Opals to a championship in Australia and herself to the Finals MVP award. How will Cloud and Mitchell fit together? And how will Tina Charles, the once longtime face of the Liberty, find a niche with a team full of do-all scorers?

In each of her preseason outings, Charles scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed four rebounds in one and five in the other. But what does she look like on the court with Delle Donne, who skipped the preseason? And will fan favorite of the 2020 season, Myisha Hines-Allen, go back to limited minutes off the bench? Or will she get to pump up the D.C. faithful often with her linebacker drives to the basket?

As with many teams this season, there are more questions than answers this preseason and fans of the W will have to wait to see it in real time. Certainly, the offseason brought in change into a district seeking the offense-erasing forwards of Alysha Clark. Sadly, an offseason injury has sidelined her for the season, creating an opportunity for others.

Author and freelance journalist Tamryn Spruill covers women’s basketball from an intersectional perspective. Represented by New Leaf Literary & Media, she is writing a book about the WNBA (ABRAMS 2022). Her work has appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR, The New York Times, SLAM, ZORA, Teen Vogue and more. She is the former managing editor of Swish Appeal and begrudgingly interacts on the bird app @tamrynspruill.