WNBA Season Preview: Championship favorites, players to watch and more
Our 2022 WNBA Season Preview is here, with championship favorites, players to watch, coaching changes, rising young players and more.
The 2022 WNBA season is almost here, tipping-off Friday. In case you haven’t been keeping up with the offseason news and notes, let’s catch you up on how the league looks heading into this new season — What’s new. What’s old. What’s going to happen.
The Brittney Griner situation
Before talking about this WNBA season, it’s important to take a moment to discuss one of the world’s best players, Brittney Griner. Griner won’t be with the Mercury for the start of the season and her availability at all in 2022 is in question because Griner is currently being detained in Russia after a February arrest on drug charges. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the Griner situation and although there have been some big changes recently. On Tuesday, ESPN reported the United States had reclassified Griner as “wrongfully detained” which means they will, “no longer wait for Griner’s case to play out through the Russian legal system and will seek to negotiate her return.”
For a more thorough read on this situation and the political climate that surrounds it, read this recent piece from Howard Megdal.
WNBA Season Preview: Which teams are championship favorites?
The defending champion Sky had a weird 2021 season. After an early losing streak, the team rebounded to finish 16-16, but then went on a postseason run to win the league title. The team returns a large chunk of the core that won last year — Candace Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley are all back — but did lose Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson in free agency. Bringing in Emma Meesseman, who was the Finals MVP in 2019, helps, but you do have to wonder if this team has the depth to win another title.
A team that does have that depth? Connecticut. The Sun return MVP Jonquel Jones and have a healthier Alyssa Thomas this year. DeWanna Bonner, Brionna Jones and Jasmine Thomas are back for another run, plus the team signed Courtney Williams — who used to play for the Sun before spending the last two years with the Dream — to provide some more guard offense.
And, of course, there are last year’s preseason favorites, the Storm and Aces. Both teams had disappointing playoff exits to the Mercury, with Seattle falling in the second round and Vegas in the semifinals. The Storm return the Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd core for another year, but the depth isn’t great in the backcourt, especially with Jordin Canada gone. As for Vegas, Liz Cambage and Angel McCoughtry both left this offseason. The team still has A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray, two of the best players in the W, plus a new head coach in Becky Hammon who should modernize this offense. But there are definitely question marks about this team, especially at the 4 and 5, where Wilson and Dearica Hamby are both very good but there’s a huge talent drop-off beyond that.
You can call Phoenix a contender too. The Mercury added Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields this offseason. Skylar Diggins-Smith is a top five guard in the league, Diana Taurasi can still score and Brianna Turner might be the league’s best defensive player. But if they don’t have Griner, what’s their ceiling?
(You might call the Mystics a contender as well, but so much of that depends on Elena Delle Donne being healthy for the first time since 2019.)
READ MORE: How do I watch WNBA Opening Weekend?
How did the WNBA offseason change the league?
Some of the biggest free agents in the WNBA stuck around their old teams this offseason. As mentioned above, Stewart and Loyd both stayed with the Storm, though the terms of those deals have Stewart set to hit free agency again next offseason.
But there was movement. Liz Cambage was the biggest name to change teams — she joined the Los Angeles Sparks, who also traded for Chennedy Carter. Those are some big swings for the Sparks and while both are risky — Carter was suspended by the Dream for much of last year and has question marks surrounding her shooting while Cambage averaged just 23.8 minutes per game last year — they also bring some hope to a team that just kind of floundered around last season after losing Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray.
Angel McCoughtry is in Minnesota, which is good for the Lynx as they try to make one final run with Sylvia Fowles. The issue? Napheesa Collier is having a child this month and will miss at least most, if not all, of the 2022 season. McCoughtry is nearing the end of her career, but does she have enough left to help the Lynx win games?
A lot of the other free agency news was covered above. One that was only touched on in terms of her leaving her old team is Stefanie Dolson. She heads to New York, where she’ll provide the Liberty with some size at the five, something the franchise has lacked over the past couple of seasons. I’m not sure how much she fixes the Liberty, but she at least provides some stability inside.
WNBA coaching changes
The coaching situation in the league looks a little different this year.
New York moved on from Walt Hopkins, whose “just shoot a ton of 3s” strategy didn’t really work out, as he won 14 games in two seasons at the helm. He’s replaced by former Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, fresh off an appearance in the Finals. Expect a more balanced approach in New York.
With Brondello gone, the Mercury turn to Vanessa Nygaard, who was previously an assistant with the Aces. Will she bring over the big-oriented approach of her former boss, Bill Laimbeer?
Speaking of Laimbeer, he’s gone from Vegas. The Aces lured Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to Sin City, where she’ll try to modernize a Vegas team that was very averse to shooting from outside under Laimbeer. If the preseason is any indication, expect to see the Aces taking 3s and running more lineups with A’ja Wilson at the five, with spacing maximized around her.
Is that all the coaching news? Nope.
The Dream went through a revolving door of coaches in 2021, as Nicki Collen left just before the season for the head job at Baylor. Mike Petersen took over, but then left in July. Darius Taylor took over in July, but the team moved on this offseason, bringing in former WNBA guard Tanisha Wright. Like Nygaard above, she spent time coaching under Laimbeer and also spent some years playing for him as well.
WNBA players to watch
I could talk about the usual suspects like Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurai and A’ja Wilson here, but you already know to watch them. I could mention some rookies, but let’s save them for their own section.
For this part, let’s briefly look at three players who I’m intrigued by this season.
Tina Charles — Phoenix Mercury
I thought Charles was done. In 2019, she shot 38.9 percent for the Liberty and, if I recall correctly, was rated very, very low by an advanced metric that is no longer publicly accessible. She was taking on a huge role in New York and it looked like the wear and tear had gotten to her.
But after taking 2020 off, she showed up last year for the Mystics and averaged a career-high 23.4 points per game, plus pulled down 9.6 rebounds.
Now, she joins a Mercury team where she won’t have to do everything. Will we see an even more efficient version of last year’s Charles? Or was 2021 just a positive blip and the concerns that were raised about her final year with the Liberty will resurface?
Satou Sabally — Dallas Wings
Arike Ogunbowale is the star in Dallas, but could Sabally be the best player? Maybe not yet, but the former No. 2 overall pick made some big strides in her second season. She jumped from 19.7 to 32.7 percent from deep. She showed she could play multiple positions, all the way from the 3 to the occasional small-ball 5. She continues to improve as a playmaker. She’s an active defender who you can stick on anyone.
If Sabally can just get a little more consistency on her shot, then she’s going to be an elite 3-and-D wing. The 6-foot-4 German can do a bit of everything. Dallas needs to maximize her talents this year, though I worry the team isn’t built in a way that best takes advantage of what it has in Sabally.
Sylvia Fowles — Minnesota Lynx
We obviously know what Sylvia Fowles brings to the floor at this stage of her career, but with 2022 being the final season for her, basketball fans should make sure to watch her as much as possible.
Fowles is basically the Platonic ideal of a WNBA center. She’s 6-foot-6. She’s finished in the top five in rebounds per game 11 times. She’s finished top 10 in blocks per game 13 times. She’s the WNBA’s career leader in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage and is the active leader in Defensive Win Shares. Basically, she gets in the paint and she does things there, on both ends of the floor, year after year after year after…
So, pay attention to Fowles. This is your last chance to watch greatness.
WNBA retirement watch 2k22
In addition to Fowles, here are some players who either are retiring after this year or are rumored to be retiring after this year:
And that’s not to mention older players like Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Angel McCoughtry, who are closer to the end of their careers than to the middle of them.
2022 WNBA Draft picks to watch
If you’re a fan of young players, then you’re in luck, because you can basically just watch one team. The Indiana Fever had one-third of the first-round picks in this year’s draft, taking NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Lexie Hull and Queen Egbo and then adding South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson, who many thought would go late in the first, in the second round. By concentrating so much of the league’s young talent in one place, the Fever have ensured that they’ll 1) probably be bad enough to land in the lottery again next year, in a draft that’ll be headlined by Aliyah Boston, and 2) will be a lot of fun to watch. Indiana was bad last year, but not in the fun, youthful way that it’ll be bad this year.
Other than that, the rookies to watch are Rhyne Howard (Dream) and Shakira Austin (Mystics). Howard is the kind of playmaking wing who could dominate in this league and will likely be asked to do a ton for Atlanta. Austin should ideally spend this season as a backup big for the Mystics, but the current roster construction means she’ll likely end up playing more than Washington might want.