Training camp is underway and preseason scrimmages are happening. Less than two weeks from now, the 25th WNBA season will officially tip off. In hopes of answering some lingering questions ahead of those games that count in the standings, we set up a Mailbag on Twitter. Thank you to everyone who sent in questions—let’s dive right in!
Ben Diamond @BenDiamond14
Where is Marine Johannès?
Short answer: France!
The long answer is a little more complicated. Johannès is locked into overseas commitments through the Olympic break. Last Thursday, I asked the Liberty’s head coach, Walt Hopkins, where things stand with the dynamic guard. “We’re still working on what we can do with Marine [Johannès]. Some of the players, with EuroBasket and the Olympics, have hard situations,” he told Winsidr. “Obviously, we’d love to have her this year, but we’re still working on the logistics of it.” I’d asked specifically if being excluded from the training camp roster would prevent Johannès from joining later, but that did not seem to be the case. Over at The Next, Jackie Powell had some great reporting about the Johannès situation.
New York’s cap situation would still be a major obstacle, barring a midseason deal that brings some relief, because they’re maxed out on salary at the moment, with Rebecca Allen’s guaranteed one-year deal. Hope the front office has been stretching, because it’s going to take some limber gymnastics to figure out all the 2021 roster permutations.
Bobby the Burger @rlawrencem
Which non-first-round pick rookies do you think have the best chance to contribute this season?
I checked in with Chris on this question. Here’s what he had to say:
Chris Wozniak: I want to say… DiJonai Carrington? Dana Evans, Destiny Slocum, Natasha Mack, and Kiana Williams all might have a tough time breaking into the rotation on a consistent basis given the depth in front of them; Arella Guirantes hasn’t made it to the training camp yet, and there must be some reason she fell and was the Sparks’ own third-round pick.
Carrington could be the second wing off the bench for the Sun with sparse competition they will probably start DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones backed up by… Kaila Charles and other rookies?
Meanwhile for others:
Evans – Chelsea Dungee, Allisha Gray, Tyasha Harris, Mo Jefferson, Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale
Slocum – Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, Riquna Williams
Kiana – Sue Bird, Jordin Canada, Jewell Loyd, Epiphanny Prince
Mack (if she makes the roster) – Candace Parker, Stef Dolson, Azurá Stevens, Ruthy Hebard
I think it comes down to opportunity, and Carrington might have the clearest path to meaningful and consistent minutes on her team.
Erick Savills @ErickSavills
Will teams keep “training camp” players longer this season, with many of their players still overseas? (Dallas and Chicago in particular.)
Yep, this is a fair assumption to make. There are so many different circumstances at play this year: end-of-season overseas commitments extending into camp, EuroBasket, the Olympics… there’s not a single blueprint for each player to follow. These extended looks will have the potential to get some young players game action on film, which might help them secure deals elsewhere, even if they’re belated victims of a roster squeeze.
The Dallas Wings and Chicago Sky, despite being franchises in very different situations, will both face similar roster maneuvering struggles over the next couple of weeks. For Dallas, their bounty of draft picks—and the value they got in those selections—makes for a cutthroat camp. They’re a team with soaring potential, and anything they can do to keep young talent bodes well for their long-term outlook.
Chicago—with its offseason splash in signing Candace Parker and just two guaranteed contracts on the books for 2022—is very much in win-now mode. Their roster situation made for a very contentious conversation in the Winsidr Slack the other day. With so many vets, they’ll likely be forced to roll with 11.
Still, storylines abound. Gabby Williams is likely out until after the Olympics. Lexie Brown has been looking terrific on all the B-roll film we’ve seen. Top draftee Shyla Heal has yet to show up to camp but is likely to arrive Monday or Tuesday. Could Ruthy Hebard and Natasha Mack, despite being very different players at the same position, be battling for a single roster spot as frontcourt depth? (The team is enamored with both young bigs.) With so much of the core locked in, filling these last few spots will be a grind.
I don’t understand the overseas players’ timeline to opt in to play, Bird/team rights for overseas players, and how the Olympics will affect players playing for their national teams. Does the WNBA have mid-level exceptions?
Lots going on here, but I’ll do my best! Different overseas leagues are on different timelines, which is why players haven’t all been showing up to camp together. COVID protocols have a lot to do with that, as well.
As far as opt-outs, that’s got some nuance, too. New York’s Han Xu, for example, has been stashed and designated “Non-Active, Personal Decision,” which allows the Liberty to retain her rights without having her on the active roster. Indiana’s Julie Allemand, however, is listed as “Suspended – Partial Season,” letting us know she plans to come stateside at some point. Her salary counts towards the cap, but she does not take up a roster spot while she’s suspended. The season takes a month-long break for the Olympics, stretching from mid-July to mid-August, which will mitigate most of the player absences. It won’t cover them all, however—some countries may ask their athletes to appear early for team workouts.
As far as I understand the Collective Bargaining Agreement (and you’re welcome to take a shot at absorbing the info on your own, too), there’s nothing akin to the NBA’s mid-level exception, which would allow you to go over the cap. There are pro-rated contracts for signings, though, if a team needs to fill out a roster. (Note: The hardship exception is a unique case, but that requires multiple in-season injuries and is less about cap maneuvering.)
J. Samuels @j_samu3ls
When Kate Cain makes the @LVAces roster, what number should she wear?
Unfortunately, Kate Cain did not even make it to the publishing of this article. It’s yet another reminder of just how difficult it is to make a W roster. And we lose the opportunity for a bunch of Batwoman references.
jeff gilmore @jefftgilmore
When is the preseason and TV schedule going to be released?
The preseason schedule has been coming out somewhat piecemeal, but several games are now available on the WNBA website. More games are being played than what’s listed, but some contests are designated as scrimmages, so those may not be captured.
As for the TV schedule, this worked itself out by the time I got to writing! On Monday, the WNBA announced a partnership with Google. Per the league’s press release, “Google will become the presenting sponsor of the WNBA on ESPN, collaborating with both brands to deliver ‘25 for 25’: 25 regular season ABC/ESPN nationally televised games to celebrate the 25th season of the WNBA.” Further details can be found here. In total, there will be 100 national broadcasts across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, CBS Television Network, CBS Sports Network, and NBA TV. Even more games will be available online, streaming over Twitter, Facebook Watch, and Oculus from Facebook. The balance—another 110 games—will air on WNBA League Pass.
For those who aren’t familiar with WNBA League Pass, this is the best deal in sports. For just $16.99, you get all games on-demand, and you can also go back and rewatch completed ones. There are, of course, blackout restrictions to contend with, as well as a limited roster of commercials that will drill themselves into your brain, but it’s a tremendous value.
Joseph Zucker @JosephZucker
Within a historical context, do you foresee the WNBA having two distinct phases: pre-Ezi Magbegor and post-Ezi Magbegor?
Here’s a glimpse into our Slack, after Justin Carter ranked the Seattle young core just eighth in the league.
So yes, I’d say it’s fair to say the Ezi era is already upon us.
Juarline Ruiz @juarline
Any word on Asia Durr from the Liberty? I know she is recovering from COVID.
Unfortunately, no great news to provide on the Asia Durr front. At New York’s media avail this week, Erica Ayala asked Coach Hopkins about Durr’s status and recovery. Here’s what he had to say:
“Asia’s a situation where I don’t know that we’re going to get to see her this year because she’s still battling with so much. At this point, it’s a possibility, but it’s a very low probability. She’s just had an extraordinary amount of things that she had to fight through, and so we’re doing everything we can to support her. As those updates come available, we’ll definitely let you guys know.”
It’s fair to read between the lines here, but definitive word will be out May 13, once rosters are finalized. Unfortunately, with how tight cap space is, it’s not likely that the Liberty will keep her on the roster when they’ve got such a strong need for depth.
What’s the situation with AC in Washington?
Just to bring readers up to speed: Alysha Clark signed as a free agent with the Washington Mystics, leaving the Seattle Storm. Just a couple of months later, in late March, Clark was diagnosed with a Lisfranc injury, suffered while playing in France. The foot injury will sideline her for the entirety of the 2021 season. “She was very excited to get started with us this season and now will have to wait a year,” Mystics coach/GM Mike Thibault said in a statement at the time. “Obviously, she was a big piece of our offseason planning and will be sorely missed.”
On April 20, the Mystics declared Clark’s status as “Non-WNBA Injury – Full Season.” This means her contract will not be on the cap, nor will her roster spot. She also won’t be paid by the team. It’s brutal, all the way around, and the latest reminder that these athletes are more susceptible to injury than most others because of the wear-and-tear they experience playing basketball year-round.
It also begs the question: whatever happened to that ambassadorship Breanna Stewart received back in 2019, when the league paid out her contract following her Achilles injury? Clark should be a candidate, as should Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas, who ruptured her own Achilles recently. I understand it’s difficult for the league to decide which players qualify for this arbitrary ambassador status, but they’ve opened Pandora’s Box on this one.
Would it be wise for a team to cut a protected vet with a history of injuries to make room for a rookie or second year player?
Todd Roman @TBRBWAY
The roster cap crunch. Seeing vets forced out of the league due to cap space (Glory Johnson, Essence Carson, Shenise Johnson, Karima Christmas-Kelly, Pondexter, etc.).
I’m going to combine these two, because they both deal with the same general idea: the WNBA’s eroding middle class. To help contextualize, take a look at these two images below, both pulled from the CBA.
In 2021, the gap between the rookie scale contract ($58,710) and the veteran minimum contract ($70,040) is $11,330. On a cap that maxes out this year at $1,339,000, that eleven grand is a big deal, and builds up quickly. What also can’t be ignored, I think, is that the GMs are still getting a handle on the new CBA, and the teams with lots of existing cap space handed out some large contracts. These franchises, however, still have a majority of their talent grandfathered into existing deals that haven’t yet expired. For example, Minnesota Lynx star Sylvia Fowles is on the last year of a deal where she makes $117,894, just fifth on the team in terms of salary. When players like Fowles or 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces (who is entering the final season of her rookie-scale deal) are due for major raises, there will need to be cuts elsewhere. When this cap gets overleveraged, some teams are being forced to roster just 11 players, which is a tier past choosing between an aging vet and a slightly more affordable neophyte. One could argue we’ve already seen these choices in play in situations like Los Angeles or Seattle, where the team would have really struggled to keep the core together and still pay everyone their market value.
Top-tier players are absolutely right to secure the bag, and should not need to worry about the ramifications of the paycheck they’ve earned with their hard work. This is an issue the league itself will need to reconcile, as the talent continues to overflow. Otherwise, the 144 spots will quickly become 132, and rosters will be a mix of maxed-out stars and young players who have three years to prove they deserve top dollar. If not, they’ll be replaced by the incoming crop of affordable talent.
So, is it wise to sign a young player over a vet with injury history? The short answer, accounting for the suffocating salary cap situation, is yes. Does that hamper the on-court product, having less experienced play? That answer is also a resounding yes. And it’s a shame.
Do you think this Liberty roster will see more improvement from 2020’s 12th-ranked offense or ninth-ranked defense?
This is a tricky one to answer, because the two are so deeply intertwined, especially with New York’s commitment to adding defensive-minded players in free agency and the draft. Additionally, players have talked throughout training camp about how they’ve started each practice with defensive drills.
Still, I’m going to go the other way on this one, partially because there is more room to improve. It’s going to take a lot to make up that ground, though: the offensive rating gap between New York and 11th-place Atlanta (11.7) was greater than the gap between first-place Seattle and Atlanta (9.3). It’s important to note that the Liberty largely played 2020 in a brand new offensive system with seven rookies and without a natural point guard on the floor. After Sabrina Ionescu’s season ended just two-and-a-half games in, Layshia Clarendon and Jazmine Jones (who hadn’t played the 1 since high school) took on a majority of the ball-handling duties. Last season, the Liberty ranked first in turnovers and last in assists per game, a difficult combination to overcome.
The additions of Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney, and Sami Whitcomb, paired with the return of the efficient Rebecca Allen and the improved sophomores also give the team a much improved depth. The defense will also lead to offense: the 2020 Liberty finished—you guessed it—last in points off turnovers. Getting stops on that end and getting out to run (the team managed second in pace) should lead to some more easy buckets. Ionescu’s outlet passing and Howard’s ability to rebound and start a break herself are two gamebreakers that were not available to last year’s squad that finished with a 2-20 record. Open looks will take a lot of pressure off this team.
Will from 2Sixty5Media @WJL1691
Rookie you expect to have the biggest impact this season? And early championship favorite?
So, we’re gonna close on a pair of questions from Will.
But first, I’m going to start with a qualifier: it’s so hard to tell, based on how few minutes will be available for rookies, who will have the opportunity to contribute. It’s not just about skill level with these stacked rosters. It could come down to an injury or being drafted to a non-contending team that’s willing to invest on-court time in their first-year talents. On Saturday, the Lynx announced first-round pick Rennia Davis is out indefinitely after suffering a stress fracture in her foot.
I crowdsourced responses from some of our Winsidr team to get some options here.
Question 1, the most impactful rookie:
John W. Davis: I think it is extremely hard to say which rookie will have the biggest impact without knowing which rookie is in line for 25+ minutes per game. I believe playing time is the biggest determinant of impact. I could see Kysre Gondrezick working her way into major minutes early in her rookie campaign with the Indiana Fever. I could also see a second-round pick like Carrington playing big minutes out of necessity for the Connecticut Sun, who will essentially play most of the season with 10 active players, while Alyssa Thomas rehabs after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.
Dani Bar-Lavi: We got to see a lot of rookies play big, important minutes last year in the Wubble, with a ton of rotation spots being opened up between injuries and opt-outs. As has been discussed to death, opportunities are going to be a bit harder to come by in the 2021 season, with players who missed 2020 returning and rotations being somewhat logjammed. Some of the biggest names from this year’s NCAA tournament, including Aari McDonald and Dana Evans, figure to play diminished roles this season as more established players at the same positions take precedence. If I have to pick one, my way-too-early prediction is that the second overall pick for the Dallas Wings, Awak Kuier, will have the biggest impact for her team this season. The 6’5’’ Finnish forward slots in well, starting at the 4 or 5 as a stretch big for Dallas, able to open up the floor with her shooting and provide another scoring option next to Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally. And if her confidence in interviews and convincing, dominant play in Italy is to be believed, Awak Kuier is ready to take on a starting role in the WNBA today.
If I had to pick a “sleeper” rookie to have a big impact, look to Kysre Gondrezick to play her way into the starting point guard role for the rebuilding Indiana Fever with Julie Allemand out for at least part of the season. There’s a ton of opportunity for advancement in that Fever backcourt.
Aryeh Schwartz: The closer we got to the draft, the more hyped I got for Awak Kuier. The potential might lead you to think she’ll struggle to make an early impact, but I would put money that, if she gets the minutes, she excels. I truly think it will be a gamble with any rookie this season, so I’ll put money down on the one I think has the most potential.
Owen Pence: I think Awak Kuier will have the biggest impact of any rookie in 2021. Kuier will thrive as part of an offense featuring five shooters, assuming Dallas head coach Vickie Johnson starts her at center and not Bella Alarie. To me, Kuier is clearly the best player in her class, and when you take into account her one season of professional basketball experience in Italy, it’s hard to see anyone else making a bigger imprint on their team in year one. Honorable mention to Aari McDonald, who just might prove me wrong.
Question 2, early championship favorite:
Aryeh Schwartz: Early champ favorite has to be Aces. It’s not because I think they are the clear-and-away favorites, but they’re at advantage due to their star power and generally good amount of continuity. This team still has new players and questions to answer, but in my mind they’re clearly the too-early favorite.
Owen Pence: Though Minnesota and Chicago make compelling cases, there is only one true title favorite: the Las Vegas Aces. This team boasts an embarrassment of riches. Led by MVP A’ja Wilson; buttressed by All-Star level talents Angel McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby, Liz Cambage, and Chelsea Gray; and made truly fearsome by role players Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, and Riquna Williams, the only way the Aces fall short of winning it all is if they stumble over themselves (or suffer key injuries).
John W. Davis: My early championship favorite is the best team on paper, the Las Vegas Aces. With a projected starting lineup of Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Angel McCoughtry, A’ja Wilson, and Liz Cambage, the Aces have more than enough talent to win the 2021 WNBA Championship. Pair that starting five, with perennial sixth women Dearica Hamby and Riquna “The Microwave” Williams, and the Aces have more than enough firepower to win the championship.
Myles Ehrlich: I’m going to close out and agree with my colleagues on this one. The Aces were runners-up last year, and now they’re adding Chelsea Gray while returning Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum. Paired with the fact that Seattle’s roster took a few major hits, and several other contenders—Washington and Connecticut—are dealing with significant injuries, things have largely broken in their favor.
The others I must mention here are the Sky and Lynx, who were this offseason’s major free agency winners. I look forward to our comeuppance if one of those teams bring home the title. (And we reserve the right to change our opinion a bunch of times between now and season’s end.)