We are just days away from the start of what looks to be another exciting season in the WNBA. The league will look a bit different this year compared to years past both on and off the court. First off, there’s a new woman in charge of the WNBA; Cathy Engelbert will join the league as Commissioner on July 17 after being appointed to the position earlier this spring. The league also has a new logo and a promise of new merchandise.
But the biggest changes will easily be seen on the court starting this weekend. Former Minnesota Lynx star Lindsay Whalen retired at the end of last season (and will have her jersey retired next month). Whalen's teammate Maya Moore is taking a year off of play. 2018 WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart won't suit up for the Seattle Storm this year after getting hurt overseas. Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and Los Angeles' Candace Parker are expected to miss a few weeks after suffering injuries themselves. Dallas' Skylar Diggins-Smith recently gave birth to a son (and, unsurprisingly, is already practicing with the Wings).
So many big names starting the year on the sidelines is only extra motivation for the rest of the 12-team, 144-player league. Competition in the past three weeks of training camp has been fierce across the league as rookies and other new faces fight for coveted roster spots with returning players.
Here are my picks for players to watch during the 2019 WNBA season, one for each team, in alphabetical order.
Atlanta Dream: Tiffany Hayes
After signing a multi-year extension last season to stay with the Atlanta Dream, Hayes has continued her excellence on the court so far in 2019. She scored double figures in two of Atlanta's three preseason matches, including a team-high 15 points in 19 minutes in a loss to Washington (May 19). Hayes joins many of Atlanta’s big names who are back for the new year, and I expect her to lead the Dream to another playoff berth, if not more.
Chicago Sky: Cheyenne Parker
Cheyenne Parker is coming off of a career season for the Sky, where she averaged 10 points a game in 2018. Competition for starting spots has been strong in Chicago during training camp under first-time head coach James Wade, and Parker is surely making her presence known early for one of those nods. She led the Sky with 11 points in a 69-58 loss to Indiana (May 14) before putting up a team-high 16 off the bench in a 76-65 loss to the Fever two days later. Parker was blunt in her thoughts after the latter defeat:
"We've got to get tougher; face adversity and stay together when we do face it. Take it to the team that's taking it to us."
If Parker continues to grow with the Sky, they could do just that.
Connecticut Sun: Jonquel Jones
Jonquel Jones won the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year award in 2018, an honor given to the league's top reserve, after coming off the bench in 18 of 34 games for the Connecticut Sun. With the preseason she's had and the big names traded away from the Sun in the offseason (more on that later), I think she'll make a jump from the bench to the starting five this year. Jones played as the starting center in all three of Connecticut's preseason games, scoring at least 10 points in each en route to a 2-1 record. The fourth-year forward looks to continue her improvement on a Sun squad that will be looking to win a postseason game for the first time since 2012, well before the majority of the current team was in place.
Dallas Wings: Arike Ogunbowale
Former Notre Dame standout Arike Ogunbowale has already made her presence known on a team with a new head coach and a lack of a Liz Cambage (more on that later as well). She became the first rookie in the franchise to start a preseason game since 2016 during the Wings' 89-52 loss to Atlanta (May 13), where she led all Wings newcomers in playing time. She played as starting point guard a day later, leading everyone with 19 points in Dallas' 71-67 win over Connecticut. Ogunbowale missed the Wings' final preseason game on May 19, but with good reason: she graduated!
Indiana Fever: Kelsey Mitchell
If their regular season is anything like their preseason, expect big things from the Indiana Fever this year, despite finishing 2018 with the worst record in the league. Second-year guard Kelsey Mitchell has been a big part of the Fever's early resurgence thus far. She led everyone with 26 points in a come-from-behind victory over Dallas in Indiana's preseason finale (May 19). The win helped the Fever finish the preseason undefeated for the first time since 2016, which was also the last time the team reached the playoffs. Mitchell started half of the Fever's 34 games in 2018; I expect her to improve on that number this season. No matter what happens, though, I believe the Indiana Fever will get a playoff berth this season, and Mitchell will be a reason why.
Las Vegas Aces: Liz Cambage
Liz Cambage was not expected to return to the WNBA this year. Not after Dallas fired its head coach and got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. Not after she went public with her mental health struggles as trade talks ebbed and flowed. But Liz Cambage will be back in the WNBA this year, this time with the Las Vegas Aces. Cambage is expected to take the Aces from missing the playoffs to fighting for a WNBA title. But that’s not what's important here. As she told reporters at Las Vegas' media day Monday, she's now at a place where she's happy.
"I'm not crying because I have been through stuff," Cambage said as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Everyone has been through stuff. I just get frustrated that I look back on my career and many people say so many things about me — she's a diva, she's this, she's that — and at the end of the day, I'm just a person who wants to be comfortable and respected in the job that I'm doing.
"I speak my truth and live my truth. I'm just really happy to now be with an organization that really looks after and cares about its players. It's an honor to be part of this team."
And it’s an honor to have Cambage back in the WNBA.
Los Angeles Sparks: Chiney Ogwumike
Chiney Ogwumike, an ESPN analyst, made some news of her own in the off-season when she was traded from Connecticut to Los Angeles. Despite missing time in recent years following injuries, Chiney has already made an impact on her new team, scoring 12 points in the Sparks' 92-85 win over Seattle (May 17). The move to the Sparks means she's back playing with her older sister Nneka for the first time since the two played at Stanford seven years ago. If this time is anything like that, Sparks fans could be in for a treat; the Ogwumike sisters led the Cardinal to two Final Four berths in 2011 and 2012.
Minnesota Lynx: Odyssey Sims
In an offseason move that made some Lynx fans scratch their heads, Odyssey Sims was traded to Minnesota from Los Angeles. I'm betting many of those fans have since changed their minds after the team's former rival led the Lynx to a 3-0 postseason record. Sims scored 25 points off the bench to lead everyone in Minnesota’s 79-75 win over Las Vegas (May 19); her efforts helped the Lynx secure a tie for the lead in bench scoring this preseason (47.0 ppg, tied with Atlanta). This is a welcome change for Minnesota, who will be playing without Moore, Whalen, and likely Rebekkah Brunson this year. Whether she starts or comes off the bench, Odyssey Sims will be a key part of the new-look Lynx in 2019.
New York Liberty: Asia Durr
The New York Liberty settled for the No. 2 pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft after Las Vegas won the lottery again in 2018. But with the draft class improving after Notre Dame's Jackie Young declared early, the team did not settle in who they chose: Louisville's Asia Durr. The guard has already made her presence known on a Liberty squad looking to find their ground after a rocky 2018, scoring 16 points off the bench in a 98-79 loss to Connecticut (May 19). Durr also started twice for New York in its four-game preseason slate. I expect her to compete for a starting role but help the team either way.
Phoenix Mercury: DeWanna Bonner
Ninth-year forward DeWanna Bonner missed the 2017 season after giving birth to twins. A year later, she made such an impact on her Phoenix Mercury and the league that she won the AP's Comeback Player of the Year award. I expect the same and more from Bonner in 2019, especially as Diana Taurasi recovers from a successful surgery. Even though they play different positions, they both have taken on similar leadership roles on the Mercury squad. Bonner in particular has continued her return to dominance in the preseason, leading everyone with 20 points in Phoenix's win over Los Angeles (May 11) and tying for the team lead with 15 in the Mercury's 87-84 victory over the Seattle Storm (May 15). After they took the eventual champion Storm to five games in the WNBA semifinals last year, the Mercury will look to get back to the Finals and win a fourth title, tied for the league record. If Bonner continues the comeback and everyone else stays healthy, I can easily see that happening.
Seattle Storm: Natasha Howard
One might say it’s hard to improve after having a career game in a contest where your team won the league title. But it's a new season for Natasha Howard and the Seattle Storm, and anything can happen. Howard quickly found her place on a new team in 2018, as she started all but one game in the regular season after coming off the bench all year with the Minnesota Lynx in 2017. She has already proven herself to be a leader of a Storm team that will be without MVP Breanna Stewart, and has played the preseason without veteran All-Star Sue Bird. Howard started both preseason games, one at power forward and the other at center, also proving her versatility. She scored double figures in both contests, and even though they were both losses, that shows promise for what could be a different team in the future. Regardless, look for Howard to play a key role as Seattle tries to defend its title.
Washington Mystics: Ariel Atkins
The Washington Mystics fell short of an epic turnaround when they were swept by the Seattle Storm in the 2018 WNBA Finals. Even though the team has stars like Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver, there might not be anyone more hungry for a title than second-year guard Ariel Atkins.
Her overseas team, InvestInTheWest ENEA Gorzów Wielkopolski, suffered a similar defeat in the Polish League earlier this year. Despite both losses, Atkins had a stellar rookie year and will only improve from here. After Delle Donne got hurt during last year's semifinals, Atkins stepped in to help get her Mystics to the finals, where she set a new rookie scoring record in Game 1. In this year's preseason, she started at small forward in both games and scored more than Delle Donne and LaToya Sanders combined in the Mystics' 75-64 win over Atlanta (May 17). Atkins also had the second-highest playing time in that game at 29:42; only fellow guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough saw the court more. I expect Atkins to continue her success in year two in the pros, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she led either of her teams (she signed with the Perth Lynx for 2019-20) to a title in the process.
The 2019 WNBA season begins with two games on Friday, May 24. In addition to continued deals with ESPN and Twitter, the league signed a multi-year broadcast deal with the CBS Sports Network. WNBA League Pass is also once again available for the new season. And I'll be providing recaps and previews throughout the year right here at The Victory Press!
Friday, May 24
- Dallas Wings at Atlanta Dream – 7:30 PM Eastern
- Indiana Fever at New York Liberty – 8:00 PM Eastern
Saturday, May 25
- Phoenix Mercury at Seattle Storm – 3:30 PM Eastern [ABC]
- Washington Mystics at Connecticut Sun – 7:30 PM Eastern [Twitter]
- Chicago Sky at Minnesota Lynx – 8:00 PM Eastern [CBS Sports Network]
Sunday, May 26
- Los Angeles Sparks at Las Vegas Aces – 8:00 PM Eastern [Twitter]