Above the Break: Looking ahead to the future of the WNBA

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images /

With the 2022 WNBA season in the books, we’re looking back at how it all ended and what is on the horizon for the league’s future.

The 2022 WNBA season is over, with the Las Vegas Aces capturing their first WNBA title on Sunday. In her first year as a WNBA head coach, Becky Hammon took a team that had been competitive for the last few seasons and gave them that final push over the top, emphasizing spacing more and really unlocking A’ja Wilson, who won her second MVP award. Or M’VP award, I should say.

Now that the dust has settled and the Aces’ championship parade is over, let’s look at some things we learned this season and what we should be looking ahead for.

How the WNBA Finals ended

The Aces were a good team under Bill Laimbeer, but they were also a pretty narrowly-focused team. They ran a Laimbeer offense, which has worked in the past but also had become increasingly archaic. Becky Hammon was able to zoom the Aces into the modern era, creating an offense with a lot more versatility, which is a big part of what got the Aces the title.

And then there’s Connecticut. The Sun made the Finals in large part because Alyssa Thomas allows them to get a little weird with rotations since she’s able to effectively run the offense while playing the 4.

Vegas and Connecticut are basically the two teams that everyone had been waiting to see get over the hump. Connecticut seemed to have stalled out as a contending team that wasn’t going to win a title … and that could still be true, since the Sun didn’t win this year’s title. But the way head coach Curt Miller was able to use Thomas really helped this team reach the best version of itself: just a bruising attack that pummels opponents on both ends.

The Finals battle between these teams was fascinating, especially when the teams showcased how different they were at the same time. There were times down the stretch in the Finals where Vegas went with A’ja Wilson at the 5 and then four guards around her, with Riquna Williams at the 4, while the Sun went the opposite direction with an ultra-big lineup that saw Brionna Jones, Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner all playing at the same time. It was a clash of styles, and while Vegas came out ahead, Connecticut was able to keep the Vegas offense in check, not allowing the Aces to score more than 85 points in any Finals game. If the Sun had just one more perimeter threat, things could have gone differently.

This WNBA Rookie Class is the future

After a disappointing 2021 rookie class, the 2022 group more than made up for it, producing three players who seem well on their way to being stars in this league — Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith and Shakira Austin.

Howard won Rookie of the Year for the Dream, averaging 16.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Hyped as a top prospect for the last few years while she was at Kentucky, Howard quickly shrugged off concerns about her motor, taking control of this Atlanta team and leading them to their best season since 2018. It didn’t end in a playoff appearance, but Howard looks like someone who can be the best player on a playoff team by 2023.

Smith was the No. 2 pick by Indiana, part of a large rookie class for the Fever. It took a little longer for Smith to find her footing, but in 32 games, she averaged 13.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Smith did something she didn’t do at Baylor, which was develop a 3-point game. There are some question marks surrounding the other young players on the Fever, but Smith is going to be a strong piece for this team.

And then there’s Austin, who found herself in a much different situation. While Howard and Smith were tasked with playing key parts on rebuilding teams, Austin played for a contending Mystics squad that didn’t really look like they’d need her at first because of their depth. But Austin very quickly showed that she was a vital piece for the Mystics, starting 32 games at center and averaging 8.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

This draft was expected to have three very good players in it. So far, it looks like that expectation has become a reality.

It’s WNBA prioritization time

2023 is the first season of prioritization, and prioritization might radically alter the way the WNBA looks.

So, what is prioritization?

Essentially, the league CBA is going to require that players be here for the start of the season. That’s been an issue in the past because many players go overseas in the offseason because overseas teams usually pay significantly better than WNBA teams do.

I have a lot of issues with prioritization. If the WNBA is going to require players to be here at the start of the season or else be hit with a full-season suspension, then the league needs to find a way to pay players more money. Asking players to prioritize their lower-paying job is anti-worker. Maybe there will be some workaround with it that involves every good player signing one-year contracts so that they’re never on a team during training camp…oh, no, the league also figured out how to get around that by saying that any player who doesn’t have a contract before training camp and is still playing overseas when the new season begins won’t be eligible to sign in the WNBA.

I get what the league is trying to do. The current system makes it tough to know which players will be playing when. And there is a caveat that players in their first two seasons are exempt from prioritization. Still, I have a feeling that prioritization is going to be very messy, and there’s a chance that until the next television deal and CBA — which should theoretically help increase salaries league-wide — the league will see some of its best players choose not to play.

WNBA Draft prospects to watch

Just because the WNBA season is over doesn’t mean that women’s basketball is done. In addition to the FIBA Women’s World Cup, which started on Wednesday, the college season is coming up soon.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to watch women’s college basketball and I’m sure I could go off right now and create an endless list of players I’m excited about this season, but since this is a WNBA column, I want to focus on some of the players who WNBA fans need to keep an eye on.

The first one is Aliyah Boston, the center for South Carolina. Boston is the best center in college basketball, a fact that has been true for the last couple of years. At 6-foot-5, Boston has the size to be a dominant force in the WNBA and seems almost guaranteed to be the No. 1 overall pick this year.

Three other players to keep an eye on for draft purposes are Iowa State’s Ashley Joens, Stanford’s Haley Jones and Maryland’s Diamond Miller. All three play on the wing, with each having things that make them appealing. Miller has the most scoring upside. Jones has the most playmaking upside. Jones is probably the best pure shooter of the three. This is a draft with a clear No. 1, but the other lottery picks will also be good.

Watch college basketball. Do it.

(And that’s a wrap on Above The Break for this WNBA season. Thanks to everyone who’s read this column this year!)

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