It's that time of year! Today, the 26th WNBA season begins with eight of the 12 teams in action. ESPN analysts LaChina Robinson and Rebecca Lobo shared their thoughts ahead of opening weekend.
Before we get into their expert analysis, let's take a moment to pray for the safe return of Brittney Griner. The Phoenix Mercury center was detained while attempting to leave Russia for what officials deemed "illegally brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil."
This week, the U.S. government classified Griner's situation as a "wrongful detainment", according to a report by T.J Quinn of ESPN. Until recently, those close to Griner were maintaining a low profile, following what ESPN reports as advice from the State Department.
"The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner's release."
The WNBA will display Griner's initials and jersey number on the court throughout the season. “As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”
We here at Black Rosie Media will be keeping up with the latest news on Griner until she is home. Let's ineloquently transition to Lobo and Robinson's take on the 2022 WNBA Season.
The State of the League
Robinson: The brand of the League has never been stronger when it comes to the voices of the players and how they have come together to create a unified face of the WNBA. There are definitely still challenges as it pertains to the overseas commitments. Yes, we all want players to make more money, but, overall, there's more money coming into the league, and more eyes on the product and that's always a really good thing.
I would also add that the media coverage has grown tremendously – the number of media entities digital and otherwise that are committing personnel, time, content to the WNBA is greater than we've ever seen. That’s important obviously in spreading the word about the League, marketing the League, and increasing storytelling.
Lobo: We've been talking about this for the last couple of years – people involved in the WNBA. It feels like it's on the verge of exploding, in terms of mainstream popularity. The product on the court is incredible. If you want to understand how good the players are in the WNBA, look at the waiver wire. Some of the players who are getting cut today, it's incredible the level of talent that's not on teams, and that's a reflection of what we'll see on the floor.
We're seeing an increase in ratings in women's basketball across the board, whether it's college or WNBA. There's an increase in attendance. Interest in everything off-the-court is reflecting what we're seeing on the court, and that's just a great product that feels like it's really on the verge of finding a strong mainstream base of fan support.
Robinson: What we've seen under the new CBA is that free agency is running the storylines of the League in the last few years, and for me it starts with three of the teams that were in the semifinals making big moves that could propel them to the championship. Starting with Chicago adding Emma Meesseman to their roster, they now have three Finals MVPs that they could put on the floor in a starting lineup. I don't know that we've ever seen that in the League before.
Then you go to Phoenix adding the league-leading scorer in Tina Charles, who is in search of a championship alongside a very hungry and disappointed Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins Smith. But adding Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields has to be one of the headliners. Then, Connecticut, a team that has kind of been in the hunt for a championship, but they have fallen short, whether it's injury, needing more experience, there's always kind of been something but adding Courtney Williams back into the fold, I think makes Curt Miller's team stronger than we've seen it, and it feels like it's Connecticut's time. So, I would say that those three teams in particular, with offseason moves and being championship contenders, are where I'm really focused in to start.
Lobo: It's interesting to see how different free agency is since the new CBA. Just a few years ago, there wasn't a whole lot of movement. There couldn't be. Star players didn't really have an opportunity because of the coring system and the number times you could be cored. To kind of test the free agency waters or move around like they have been since the new CBA – the last two years, free agency has been a blast to follow and it's had a huge impact. You know we'll look at Candace Parker going to Chicago last year, and you see similar things with free agency this past year. So that's an area where the things have really changed in the WNBA, and because of that, and because of the salary structure too, now it's a lot harder for a rookie to make a team or for a drafted player to make a team. We're seeing players drafted in the first round getting cut. We hadn't seen that to this degree prior to the CBA so it's kind of an interesting way that the League has changed and given us more excitement in the offseason than we had before the CBA.
LaChina mentioned the three main impactful moves that happened in the offseason, but we're kind of intrigued also with LA because they have some incredibly talented pieces there. In particular Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter, and Jordin Canada, but what are they going to look like? They've never played together before. I don't think we're necessarily considering LA as a championship contender to the level of those other three because they weren't in the playoffs last year, but it could be the most intriguing team to watch to see how their pieces come together.
Robinson: And I would just add to that, Elena Della Donne and Breanna Stewart returning from injury for being very important for those two organizations. Adding Gabby Williams could be another move that ends up being huge for Seattle and their championship aspirations. Anytime Elena Delle Donne’s in the league, it's great for the WNBA because she's just a tremendous player. She's my favorite player to watch.
Players to Watch
Lobo: It's hard because one of the things that made Kahleah Copper’s season so exciting was that it was not something we were really expecting to see. I'm interested to see Jonquel Jones. How does she follow up her MVP campaign from last year? I'm interested in Tina Charles – how she was a leading scorer last year and now she's with a new team and a new coach and a new environment. It seems like she's kind of on her quest to find her first championship. What will that look like for her? Breanna Stewart coming back from injury. We've seen her do it one other time, and it looked like she didn't lose a bit to her game
And I'm also kind of interested to see Sabrina (Ioenscu) in New York. She's talked about how last year she was still struggling with her ankle injury and now she feels like she's closer to 100 percent. What will that look like, because there was so much intrigue with her coming out of college, and she didn't really have a chance to play very much before the injury her rookie year. So what is she going to look like this year?
Robinson: I would add to that, we've got some new coaches in the League and some coaches in different places, so that, of course, will have an impact on playing styles. With Sandy Brondello in New York, Vanessa Nygaard in Phoenix, Tanisha Wright in Atlanta, Becky Hammon in Vegas. Anybody else I forgot? Former players as well, so it’s an exciting time for the fans of those franchises to get a look at new head coaches and how that may impact the success of their teams.
Lobo: For rookie of the year, I think Rhyne Howard in Atlanta and NaLyssa Smith in Indiana will have the biggest opportunity because they'll get the most minutes of the rookies and will have the greatest chance to put up the big numbers.
In terms of MVP, I imagine it'll be the same three that have sort of lead the way – Jonquel (Jones), A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. I feel like those three will be the ones again this year who will be playing on championship-caliber teams putting up big numbers, leading their teams and having the best chance to be talked about in that conversation.
Especially this year, because it's a World Championship year and it's a condensed schedule, I like the team that stays healthy. You have a lot of teams that are talented enough, whether it's Connecticut or Chicago or Seattle or Phoenix, when we have these seasons – or Minnesota, it tends to be the team that has their players who can consistently be healthy. Seattle would have been a different playoff team last year if Breanna Stewart was healthy, so the healthiest of those teams to me is the one that has the best chance to win the championship this year.
Robinson: My favorite to win is Chicago. I just believe that having three Finals MVPs on a roster is not a bad thing, but I also believe that Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker on one team are two of the greatest leaders that we have in the sport right now. And obviously they have the depth of talent as well. My MVP, I'm going to go with Jonquel Jones. I think she could win it back-to-back. She's just playing at a very high level. There's no one like her in the sport. Knock on wood, she's healthy and I do believe that Connecticut will play for a championship this year. My Rookie of the Year would be Rhyne Howard of Atlanta.
Connecticut at New York (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET | ESPN):
Lobo: I'm excited to see what the Liberty look like this year. They have a new coach in Sandy Brodello and the addition of Stefanie Dolson should be a great complement for Natasha Howard in the frontcourt. Betnijah Laney is in her prime and a fully healthy Sabrina Ionescu could be the catalyst for an exciting young roster.
Connecticut won't have their full roster on opening weekend (Bonner still overseas and Williams serving the first game of her two-game suspension), but we will get to see a fully healthy Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones on the floor together with last season's most improved player Brionna Jones. The Sun have all the pieces, and the experience, to contend for a championship. They could start laying the foundation for that on Saturday.
Seattle at Las Vegas (Sunday, 10 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
Robinson: There are so many great storylines in Seattle. Sue Bird in her final season of the WNBA.
Can she keep this ageless play going? Breanna Stewart, how she progresses coming back from her injury is something that we’ll all have our eyes on very early. This is Noelle Quinn’s first training camp as head coach, so how much more succinct does the team look on both ends of the floor? Also, as they get their full roster and get Briann January and Gabby Williams in the system and acclimated, I think we'll see a better Jewel Lloyd, and that's tough to say considering how great she played last season, but I think Gabby and Briann coming in will take some of the responsibility off of her defensively. And those two players will also give the team just that added grit, but also think Seattle is going to have to rely on Jewel a little bit more early as Breanna Stewart comes back from her injury. Overall, I think Seattle will be right there in the championship conversation but Jewel Lloyd just seems to continue to grow as a star in the League and her journey has definitely been intriguing.
For Vegas, what do they look like in terms of their playing style? We hear that Becky Hammon wants to play fast. She wants to shoot a lot of threes. I’m looking forward to her as head coach of Vegas, but I think there's a very small margin for error in Vegas after losing Liz Cambage. They're not ‘as’ talented on paper, however, seeing Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby in more prominent roles, this is still a very talented Vegas team, and A’ja Wilson also just continues to cement herself as one of the greatest players in this league.
Note: Quotes provided by ESPN PR