It’s July, which means that if things go according to plans we’ll be watching WNBA basketball by the end of the month.
The entire idea of playing basketball amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic and the protests against social injustice and police brutality is fraught with questions. Should it happen? Should audiences watch sports? Will the league’s return do more harm than good?
I wanted to acknowledge these concerns before jumping into this WNBA mailbag, because I think it’s important to remember that things are happening that are bigger than sports. I want to acknowledge this because it’s also important to remember not to judge players who’ve chosen not to participate in the upcoming season.
But assuming basketball happens, many of us will be watching because we love the WNBA. And many of us have questions about what to expect this season, which is why I decided to ask our Twitter audience to send in some questions. I’ve sifted through them and grabbed some to discuss.
How do you think a frontcourt of Lauren Cox and Teaira McCowan will work? – @heav_tyc
First, let me say that I totally understand concerns about this pairing. On paper, you have two bigs who don’t provide much spacing and don’t seem to complement each other as well as you’d like.
But I firmly believe the paper is wrong on this. Cox did some of her best work at Baylor while playing power forward beside Kalani Brown.
Back in March, I asked Cox during a conference call with Baylor media about stretching out more in the WNBA. She thought she would be “pretty successful” as a stretch big, citing that she was “able to shoot [and]able to drive.” That’s something that people don’t consider enough with Cox: she has some range and is an underrated athlete who can operate in space. She’s also a great passer, which should help the Fever offense run smoothly. I think she’s a lot more versatile than people think, so no, I’m not very concerned about this frontcourt pairing. Cox will continue to expand her range in the WNBA and can play both frontcourt positions.
How does New York’s rotation work? – @rlawrencem
Ahh, the question we’re all wondering.
New York’s got seven rookies and will go into 2020 with just two players who played for them last year after Asia Durr opted out: Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B.
New head coach Walt Hopkins is going to want to run a lot and shoot a lot of threes, so expect this team to go small most of the time. Because of that, I’m assuming a lineup that looks kind of like this:
PG: Sabrina Ionescu/Layshia Clarendon
SG: Kia Nurse/Jazmine Jones
SF: Jocelyn Willoughby
PF: Megan Walker/Leaonna Odom/Joyner Holmes
C: Amanda Zahui B./Kiah Stokes/Kylee Shook
But of course, that’s an oversimplification. I could see Zahui B. and Stokes playing together a lot with Zahui B. at the four. I can see a lot of Megan Walker at the three. I can see Ionescu playing some off-guard beside Clarendon. I could see the team avoiding giving Odom and Holmes a lot of minutes since both are likely lower in the team’s plans than other players. Jazmine Jones could wind up playing small-ball four at times.
Which of Phoenix’s departures will they miss the most, aside from DeWanna Bonner? – @corbannba
First, a plug for my recent piece on the new acquisitions for the Mercury, because I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of this team.
I think the non-Bonner depth is better this year than it was in 2019, but you’d have to think this team — or, like, any team — would be better if they had Leilani Mitchell, who shot 43% from deep last year. She’d have been a great piece for this current Mercury team, even if she likely would have moved to the bench due to the Skylar Diggins-Smith trade and the assumed return of Diana Taurasi. But Mitchell could have been a tremendous sixth woman on this team.
Give me your best case and worst case scenarios for the 2020 Chicago Sky. – @TheSkyShowCHI
Best case is easy here. The Sky are one of the teams that has, so far, been least impacted by players opting out. They enter the 2020 season with a lot of continuity and won 20 games last year. Three of the four teams with better records last year have key opt outs this year and the other, Vegas, lost a key player due to injury and just had star center Liz Cambage opt out of the season. The best case scenario for Chicago is winning the WNBA title.
In terms of the worst case scenario, I don’t know. I like to think of worst case scenarios as “worst non-injury scenario,” because injuries can derail anything. I suppose a worst case for Chicago is Ruthy Hebard and Azura Stevens aren’t able to be the important frontcourt pieces they need, Allie Quigley and/or Courtney Vandersloot plateau as players and potentially start to regress, and Diamond DeShields doesn’t get any better than she already is. But even then, DeShields is very good and the Vanderquigs duo wouldn’t suddenly drop off the earth. I don’t see a scenario where a healthy Sky team doesn’t make the playoffs.
Is 2020 an asterisk year? – @Nicoco99571300
Ahh, I was hoping someone would ask me this one!
My short answer here is no. This year’s WNBA schedule might be shorter than usual, but with the playoff structure staying the same, I have no questions about the champion. They’ll have proven that they were the best of the 12 teams who were playing in the WNBA in 2020.
There are two scenarios where I might be persuaded to change my opinion on this, though. The first one is if a mass exodus of players — whether due to COVID-19 or some other factor — happens after the season begins. The second one would be if an entire team doesn’t play this year. If only 10 teams compete this WNBA season, then sure, slap an asterisk up there, since that would fundamentally shift so many things about the league.
How quick will Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart get back to their championship form after the long layoff and no preseason? – @tokyo202021
Sue Bird is 39 years old and coming off a knee injury. Breanna Stewart is returning from one of the worst injuries you can get as a basketball player. I think it’d be fair to wonder if they do get back to championship form at all.
But if you want a more optimistic view, I think Bird won’t take long. She’s already seen a drop in usage over the last few seasons and doesn’t need to be an elite-level player anymore. Seattle needs Sue to be an on-court leader, good decision maker, and a shooting threat. They won’t ask her to do too much, and she was shooting the ball better than she ever had before the injury.
For Stewart, I think it’s likely that she’s not at 100% this year as she works her way back from the injury, but 80% of Breanna Stewart is still an All-Star level player, and she’s also young enough that the Achilles injury might not wind up being as bad as it’s been for other athletes.
Seattle does have a lot of question marks but I think they’re a top two team heading into the season and it should only take a handful of games for them to get to whatever the 2020 version of their peak will look like.
With all the opt-in/opt-out movement, has the needle moved for any team? – @MylesEhrlich
Obviously, some things can still happen, but Washington has fallen for me. I had them first in my power ranking. Now, without LaToya Sanders and Natasha Cloud, they’re probably third or fourth. I know there’s also still a lot of speculation about Elena Delle Donne potentially sitting, which would drop them further.
Connecticut not having Jonquel Jones also hurts a lot. The addition of DeWanna Bonner means they’re still a playoff team, but I think they fall into the bottom half of the playoffs. Jones probably would have been my MVP pick this year. Huge, huge loss.
What second round pick will make the most impact on their team? – @TBRBWAY
I’m going to get this part out of the way real quick: I’m not going to talk about any of New York’s second round picks, because that might be cheating.
I wrote about all the second rounders who made initial rosters back in early June, so I won’t go too overboard on this question. But I think the answer is Crystal Dangerfield. Odyssey Sims is currently on the temporary suspension list and we don’t know her status for the season, but I think it’s safe to say Dangerfield is going to get ample playing time in a fairly shallow backcourt, though the return of Sims would cut into that.
I think my other pick would be someone who isn’t on the team that drafted her: Te’a Cooper. I’m a big fan of the rookie combo guard, and the Sparks could use her as a ball-handler when Chelsea Gray sits.
How will the addition of Tina Charles work for the Mystics? – @mccohen5
(Note: There have been a lot of rumors swirling about Charles’s status for 2020, as there are some reports that she has yet to report to Florida. I wrote this under the assumption that Charles would play this season, so take this all with a grain of salt.)
I really don’t know.
The reason I don’t know is that it’s hard to know what Tina Charles looks like in a lower usage role. For the last five years, Charles has had a usage rate of at least 29.1%. which has ranked as one of the top three usage rates in the league in each of those years. Charles has basically been the No. 1 option on her team for her entire career.
That won’t be in the case in Washington (assuming that Delle Donne plays). Charles is going to need to adjust to a much different kind of role than we’ve ever seen her in, and how that adjustment works is going to tell us a lot about Washington’s 2020 chances.
One thing that’s been noticeable lately is a huge drop in efficiency for Charles. I’m a pretty firm believer that her lower usage rate will lead to better shot selection and thus an increase in her efficiency this year. And with Sanders sitting out, I think we see Charles in more of a pure five role, which should be good for her. Some of her best games last year came when Amanda Zahui B was out and Rebecca Allen was spending a lot of time at the four in New York, which helped Charles get more space to work with inside.