WNBA 2020 tipoff — 12 greatest questions earlier than the season begins

Amid all of the discuss of the coronavirus pandemic, life within the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, and the social justice initiatives the league and gamers are pursuing, the countdown to tipoff for the 2020 WNBA season is on. There have been months of uncertainty about whether or not the WNBA would also have a season, however opening day is Saturday (ESPN, midday ET). It comes two months and 10 days later than initially deliberate, and the common season has been shortened from 36 to 22 video games for every crew.

So it is neither a dash nor a marathon, however extra like a middle-distance race that requires each endurance and pace, techniques and tenacity. We’ll get to see veteran legends reminiscent of Diana Taurasi, Seimone Augustus, Sue Fowl and Candace Parker, but in addition ascending younger stars reminiscent of Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson, plus a rookie class led by Sabrina Ionescu.

Earlier than the season opens, we have a look at 12 of the largest questions that may outline the WNBA’s 24th season, which could be its most uncommon but in addition may very well be amongst its most memorable.

1. Who’s the favourite for the 2020 championship?

In early April 2019, the Seattle Storm appeared a robust wager to repeat. However halfway by way of that month, 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart suffered an Achilles tendon harm whereas abroad that stored her sidelined the remainder of the 12 months, and guard Sue Fowl missed the season as effectively after knee surgical procedure. But even with out them, the Storm went 18-16 and received a playoff sport.

Each are again, and the Storm once more are favorites. Contemplate the depth of this crew, together with Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd, Seattle’s scoring leaders final season, defensive stalwart Alysha Clark and improved third-year gamers Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell. Rookie Ezi Magbegor, the Storm’s 2019 first-round draft choose who did not play final 12 months, Stewart’s former UConn teammate Morgan Tuck and 10-year veteran Epiphanny Prince are new to the Storm roster this 12 months.

“It is virtually like we have now to take some steps backwards to get all people on the identical web page once more as a result of Sue and I have never been right here,” Stewart stated. “We added three new items, after which we have now to go ahead.”

Dan Hughes is not within the bubble due to a medical evaluation that deemed him excessive danger if he contracted the coronavirus, so assistant Gary Kloppenburg will fill the head-coaching function.

2. Who’re the opposite high contenders?

Like Seattle, the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury have skilled stars and what seems to be fairly good depth.

Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver are sitting out this season, and Alana Beard has retired. However the Sparks nonetheless have a “massive three” in publish gamers Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike and guard Chelsea Grey.

“Often inside the first two weeks yow will discover out,” 12-year veteran Parker stated of how lengthy it’ll take to get a really feel for what sort of crew the Sparks will probably be. “How individuals take care of adversity, and what is going on to occur. Thus far we have now nice power and crew chemistry.”

The Mercury’s Diana Taurasi was restricted to 6 video games final season by again and hamstring accidents however stated she feels good coming into her 16th season. Heart Brittney Griner continues to be an MVP candidate. The Mercury misplaced a longtime key participant in DeWanna Bonner, who’s now with the Connecticut Solar, however Phoenix introduced in level guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.

“That is the most effective I’ve felt in a very long time,” Taurasi stated, though she acknowledged that the general shutdown due to COVID-19 stored her from taking part in something that resembled 5-on-5 for just a few months. “The extra years you pile up, you want these reps and that sort of sport motion to get you prepared. Hopefully when the season begins, I will be able to go.”

3. How will the Sparks reply to final season’s playoff implosion?

The Sparks would most likely simply as quickly not take into consideration how 2019 ended: a 78-56 Recreation Three loss as Connecticut swept them out of the semifinals, with Parker benched by first-year coach Derek Fisher. Longtime common supervisor Penny Toler was then fired after a locker room tirade was revealed, and he or she subsequently filed a lawsuit in opposition to the franchise. All which may make individuals overlook that earlier than the fireworks, the Sparks went 22-12 and completed third within the common season.

Parker stated she’s bodily in higher form than she was final season, and Fisher stated he has realized loads. Each appear prepared to maneuver on, as does the crew.

“I feel my function is to serve the most effective wants of our gamers,” Fisher stated. “To do no matter it’s that’s crucial to permit our gamers to be the most effective variations of themselves.”

4. What in regards to the Mystics and the Solar?

Final 12 months, the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Solar performed an exciting WNBA Finals that went to a decisive Recreation 5, received 89-78 by the Mystics for his or her first title. Getting that far once more will probably be a problem, as each groups look totally different in 2020.

For the Mystics, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders opted out this season, and Toliver left as a free agent. Elena Delle Donne isn’t anticipated to play after being denied a medical exemption. Heart Tina Charles, the Mystics’ key addition, bought a medical exemption and will not play.

However Emma Meesseman, the Finals MVP, is simply 27 and within the coronary heart of her prime. She averaged 21.Eight factors per sport within the 2019 postseason, incomes the nickname “Playoff Emma” — and he or she may have to be nearer to that model all season for the Mystics.

The Solar are with out three key gamers from 2019: Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen are gone to Atlanta, and Jonquel Jones opted out for this season. As talked about, Bonner is in her first season with the Solar and will make a direct influence. And Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas, who had been so important in final 12 months’s Solar playoff run, are the hardest of opponents.

5. Which groups might shock us and win the championship?

The Storm, particularly, are prone to make that troublesome. However contemplating it is a shortened season and nobody will be certain how bubble life will influence gamers and groups, possibly a “shock” would not be that shocking.

How in regards to the Chicago Sky? They suffered a heartbreak final 12 months in dropping their second-round playoff sport to Las Vegas and Dearica Hamby’s half-court heave. However the Sky have a veteran backcourt in Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, a rising star in Diamond DeShields and a promising rookie in Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard.

Then there are the Las Vegas Aces, who could be a robust championship contender if Liz Cambage, who isn’t taking part in this season, and Kelsey Plum, who’s sidelined with an Achilles tear, had been with the crew. As it’s, they’ve nonetheless bought gamers reminiscent of A’ja Wilson, Kayla McBride, Hamby and new addition Angel McCoughtry.

“We nonetheless have a whole lot of key items, even with Liz being out,” stated McCoughtry, who spent her first 10 seasons in Atlanta however sat out final 12 months rehabbing a knee harm. “I am excited to play with them and produce some management.”

6. Which non-playoff crew from 2019 may make the largest leap?

The Indiana Fever, Dallas Wings, New York Liberty and Atlanta Dream, so as, completed 9-12 within the standings final season. The Fever and the Wings could be greatest positioned to maneuver up in 2020.

Indiana has a brand new coach in longtime WNBA presence Marianne Stanley, who received a title as an assistant final 12 months with Washington. And the Fever deliver again many of the crew that went 13-21 final 12 months. Indiana has been rebuilding since Tamika Catchings’ retirement in 2016, and possibly the Fever could make it again into the postseason.

“We need to set up a tradition of successful,” Stanley stated. “We now have a comparatively younger group with some veterans sprinkled in, so creating gamers and serving to them develop of their sport can be a part of the mission this season. I’d suspect you will see us enhance every time we go on the market.”

Dallas is much more youthful, and the Wings are remaking themselves.

“I am locked in, and I feel the entire crew is able to go,” stated Moriah Jefferson, who was traded to the Wings in 2019 however did not play final season. “It is by no means simple to decide to take a seat out and never play. I knew for me, as a way to be my greatest self, I wanted to do this and take the time to rehab and get higher.”

7. Who’re the main MVP candidates?

Final 12 months, Stewart was seeking to grow to be the primary repeat MVP since Cynthia Cooper did it the primary two seasons of the WNBA (1997, ’98). Then got here Stewart’s harm and the MVP door opened for Delle Donne, who had a 90-50-40 season along with her taking pictures percentages from the road, the sphere and 3-point vary.

Peak effectivity has outlined the MVP race the previous a number of years. Stewart, who would not flip 26 till August, once more turns into the front-runner. She was capable of return to taking part in with the U.S. nationwide crew in late January after which additionally competed abroad in Russia.

“She’s improved her ballhandling, her accuracy from 3, and he or she’s added to her sport,” Kloppenburg stated. “I feel the adversity of that harm made her much more decided to grow to be a greater participant.”

Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike (2016) may very well be one other second-time MVP. Or possibly Phoenix’s Griner or Las Vegas’ Wilson turns into a first-time winner.

8. How will the rookies, led by No. 1 choose Sabrina Ionescu, fare?

For essentially the most half, No. 1 picks have made a reasonably large splash of their first season. That wasn’t as a lot the case final 12 months as guard Jackie Younger joined a robust Las Vegas crew. She had a stable season, however the rookie of the 12 months race was between No. 5 choose Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas and the winner, No. 6 Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx.

This 12 months, Oregon’s Ionescu may battle a few her former Geese teammates for the award — or possibly even a few of her present New York Liberty teammates. Ionescu is considered one of seven rookies on the roster.

Dallas chosen Oregon’s Satou Sabally at No. 2, and the Wings even have two different rookies who might have an effect in No. 5 choose Bella Alarie and No. 7 Tyasha Harris. The Sky’s Hebard, additionally from Oregon, will probably be seeking to show she went too low at No. 8.

There’s additionally No. Three choose Lauren Cox of Indiana and No. Four Chennedy Carter, who may very well be accountable for lots of Atlanta’s offensive manufacturing. For that cause, Carter — a scoring whiz at Texas A&M — could be the favourite choose of many.

And do not forget the Lynx’s No. 6 choose this 12 months, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who might comply with Collier’s lead.

9. What can we anticipate from high gamers who missed final season?

Fowl stated even for somebody as skilled as she is — she’s coming into her 17th WNBA season — it is nonetheless a little bit of a shock to the system to return to league play after a 12 months away. She has expertise with that, having sat out 2013 and returned the subsequent 12 months.

“I do know what to anticipate,” Fowl stated, “however it would not essentially imply I will be ready for it.”

Nonetheless, the truth that everybody’s preparation was altered by the pandemic may make it just a little simpler for the gamers returning. For Fowl, Stewart and Diggins-Smith, who was out on being pregnant go away, their time with the nationwide crew over the winter helped get them again onto the courtroom.

10. How a lot will groups be damage by no home-court benefit or followers this season?

It will have an effect on each crew due to the power that followers can deliver, together with the familiarity of being at residence versus the fatigue issue of journey. Now each sport will probably be at a impartial web site with no spectators in attendance, and it is arduous to know what influence that may have on groups.

Augustus, in her first season in Los Angeles after 14 years in Minnesota, stated she will not miss going to Phoenix.

“Phoenix might be one of many hardest locations to play within the league,” Augustus stated. “That power that Diana and BG and all of them feed off of, and the truth that their followers are proper up on you and so they do not thoughts speaking actual good smack to you.

“And there is a place like Dallas, that is smaller, however after they pack that [arena], it is actually arduous to listen to.”

The Aces’ Wilson stated she’ll miss the highway journeys, particularly to Phoenix — “Their fan base is fairly electrical” — and that she was notably wanting ahead to dealing with the Liberty, who had been purported to be of their first full season at Barclays Heart in Brooklyn.

“In fact, the Home is the most effective place to play,” Wilson stated, referring to the Aces’ Mandalay Bay Occasions Heart in Las Vegas.

11. How will the time without work this spring have an effect on gamers’ well being and health?

WNBA groups are used to shorter coaching camps and restricted preparation time collectively, partially as a result of some gamers are available in at totally different instances from abroad play. However with the pandemic shutdowns, a whole lot of gamers did not have an opportunity to do something near regular preparation for this season. They did get relaxation — however an excessive amount of of it in some circumstances.

“Let’s be frank: The gamers are going to be off form going into the common season,” Aces coach Invoice Laimbeer stated. “We are going to attempt to get into the most effective form we will in the midst of the video games.”

After a comparatively transient preparation, they’re going to have to leap immediately right into a season wherein they’re going to play about 3 times per week. However there is no journey, in order that helps.

12. What is going to the standard of play be like?

As talked about, gamers are working to get again into full-court form. Plus, there are not any male follow gamers within the bubble, which all groups are used to having, and that impacts what will be completed in follow.

Laimbeer stated he thinks practices all through the season may extra intently resemble what they’re like in the course of the playoffs, with groups doing extra walk-throughs and particular movie preparation.

“You are going to need to be just a little extra delicate to tiring them out,” Laimbeer stated, “and saving their legs for video games.”

Nonetheless, the groups are decided to placed on an ideal present.

“Certainly one of our greatest considerations was, ‘How will we navigate this world?’ You are making an attempt to prepare,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve stated. “Quite a lot of video games are gonna be on TV, and also you need to be certain that your product appears actually good.”

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