Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

WNBA Bubble Tip-Off: Stories to Watch This Season, on and off the Court

The Washington Mystics will have to work around the absence of reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, who opted out of the league’s abridged season due to health concerns.
The Washington Mystics will have to work around the absence of reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, who opted out of the league’s abridged season due to health concerns.
Photo: Getty

The WNBA season starts Saturday, with the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty squaring off to open a triple header that also includes the Los Angeles Sparks taking on the Phoenix Mercury and the defending champion Washington Mystics facing the Indiana Fever.

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Kind of a lot has happened in the world since the Mystics won that title last October, and it’s worth catching up on where things stand as the WNBA gets going on a 22-game schedule.

Who’s Not Here?

Elena Delle Donne is, obviously as the reigning MVP, the highest-profile player not participating this season. The league’s handling of Delle Donne’s application for a medical exemption was atrocious, The Washington Mystics did agree to pay the forward, but that was more about trying to save face than doing the right thing.

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Aces center Liz Cambage was the most prominent player who did receive medical clearance from the league to sit out the season, as did Liberty guard Rebecca Allen, Mercury forward Jessica Breland, Sun forward Jonquel Jones, Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike and guard Kristi Toliver, Mystics forward LaToya Sanders. After weeks quarantined in Italy, Lynx guard Cecilia Zandalasini decided not to come to the United States this summer.

For Liberty guard Asia Durr, opting-out wasn’t about being worried about coronavirus, but recovering from it, as she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June and had what she described as a “complicated and arduous” time returning to health.

But it’s not just health issues that players decided to prioritize over playing this season. Mystics guard Natasha Cloud declared, “I am more than an athlete … (and) will continue the fight on the front lines for social reform, because until Black lives matter, all lives can’t matter.”

Likewise, Dream guard Tiffany Hayes wrote of her choice not to play, “Although I love playing this game, I believe there are much more important things to be thinking about in this moment.”

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Also in Atlanta, guard Renee Montgomery told Deadspin of her reform-minded departure from the league, “What made me nervous was the conversations about [protesting], that the media and fans were having about players that would choose to sit out. This is not a topic that just came up just today. I was nervous that people might not understand why I wanted to do this.”

But, Who Is Here?

This is the second straight year that the WNBA will have a season without the MVP from the previous season, but as Delle Donne sits out, the 2018 honoree, Storm forward Breanna Stewart, is back from a ruptured Achilles. So, too, is one of the best players in league history, Sue Bird, who missed last year after knee surgery and said that if there hadn’t been a season this summer, she may have called it a career.

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And, yes, both Stewart and Bird have remained in touch with the moment and in stride with their fellow players when it comes to the political moment. Not that there should be any surprise about this — being politically active is nothing new for WNBA players, now in their fifth year trumpeting that Black Lives Matter. Heck, Maya Moore straight up quit basketball to help free an innocent man from prison.

With two stars back and so many other teams around the league down players this summer, the Storm’s 3-1 odds as favorites to win the title seem almost too long. Then again, the Mystics still have Emma Meesseman, who was their leading scorer in three of the five WNBA Finals games last fall, and should still have something to say about defending their crown.

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The 13-1 odds for the New York Liberty, on the other hand, feel much too short for a team that went 10-24 a year ago and will be missing multiple players, but that’s a reflection of how exciting the arrival of another star who wasn’t in the WNBA last year, No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu, is. After a legendary career at Oregon, when Ionescu went to the Liberty, her jersey sold out in 45 minutes. Even if it takes more than this season for the Liberty to actually get good, Ionescu’s game is super entertaining as she does everything on the court.

Where Is “Here,” Anyway?

The WNBA’s bubble, aka the Wubble, is at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and it’s been… not really up to the standards of the NBA setup at Disney World. Or, for that matter, the standards of the Howard Johnson motel in Tampa that’s next door to one strip club and across the street from another strip club (it was very convenient to Yankees spring training, but is now closed forever).

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Bed bugs, worms, and food that wouldn’t pass muster in a school cafeteria aren’t what you would expect professional athletes to endure in order to play a season, but here we are.

The “Wubble Tea” account on Twitter has done well bringing together the highlights and lowlights of the experience from players’ accounts, which also is a good reminder that no group of athletes on the planet is better at using social media than WNBA players.

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Within those social media accounts is the greatest lesson of all of this as a WNBA fan: you don’t need to have a favorite team. You can find players you like, and root for them. It saves you the trouble of having to associate yourself with the Kelly Loefflers of the world, and it winds up forging a bond that’s greater than simply rooting for a brand. You wind up making a personal emotional investment in people, and a great thing about WNBA players is that they pay it off, repeatedly.

The players are, like us, just trying to get through all of the craziness off 2020, and you can see it in Mercury forward Brianna Turner alternately tweeting about the injustice of Breonna Taylor’s killers walking free and mistaken grocery delivery (she’s been leaning more on the former, and keeping it up). In the Wubble, the players have a lot of time for Twitter and Instagram, and as lousy of a situation as it is, the players showcasing themselves in their own voices is the best thing for the WNBA as it moves forward.

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A More Proficient Phoenix Mercury

Since the acquisition of Skylar Diggins-Smith by the Phoenix Mercury, the WNBA’s power rankings have taken new shape. Diggins-Smith’s addition brings another much-needed ball handler to their shuffle.

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Slipping into my women’s college basketball fandom bag for a moment, Brittney Griner and Diggins-Smith were in the trenches 10 years ago, reaching for national titles — with Griner getting the best of Diggins-Smith. It’s been a long-awaited hope that the two would join forces in the WNBA, and that time has finally arrived.

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Taurasi is more of a shoot-first point guard because of her strength at long range, while Diggins-Smith is an exceptional floor general, capable of finding Griner in the paint and punishing defenses.

Although they play the same position, I see both Taurasi and Diggins-Smith spending most of their time together on the floor, because their games complement each other. Taurasi could focus solely on scoring, while handling the ball from time to time. On the flipside, Diggins-Smith will handle the ball most of the time she is on the floor, shooting and scoring when necessary.

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Griner would be placed in traditional pick-and-roll situations, but the Mercury can use her in a number of ways, so her upfront presence is not too much of a concern.

With Taurasi, Diggins-Smith, and Griner now identifying themselves as “The Big Three,” will see over the next few weeks how they mesh together. Their first test is Saturday against the Los Angeles Sparks.

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The Atlanta Nightmare

You might not want to root for the Atlanta Dream because part-owner Kelly Loeffler, the racist Karen who was appointed to the U.S. Senate by a governor who rigged his own election, but remember that this is not only the team of Hayes and Montgomery, but a team whose players put out a statement opposing Loeffler, albeit not by name, as they said, “Our team is united in the Movement for Black Lives.”

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While the players said it was not a political statement, Loeffler had tweeted that Black Lives Matter is “a radical movement that seeks to destroy American principles.”

This is a team of athletes who aren’t afraid to stand up to a boss who in addition to being one of the worst human beings in America, also holds the immense power of a U.S. Senator. And players around the league have had their back.

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On the court, they’re going to have an uphill battle. Atlanta went 8-26 last season, and goes into this season without Hayes and Montgomery.

The wins are for the players. The losses are for Loeffler.

Seattle Is Back

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Brace yourself — the Seattle Storm are fully healthy and they are ready for liftoff down in the Florida Bubble.

Breanna Stewart suffered from a torn achilles while playing in Europe last year. But even without Stewart on the hardwood, the Storm still beat the Minnesota Lynx in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

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Stewart said last week that she is taking her time to get back to her MVP form from two years ago, but with her on the floor, Seattle’s chances for another title have ticked up dramatically.

“She really hasn’t missed a beat,” said Storm guard Jewell Loyd. “She actually looks stronger. … Her ball-handling looks great, her shot looks great, her conditioning looks good. If you didn’t know she got injured, you really couldn’t tell.”

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Even if Stewart plays this season at 80 to 90 percent, her explosive offensive game is no secret once she gets going. Opponents should plan accordingly.

Rookies to Watch

Former Ducks teammates Satou Sabally and Sabrina Ionescu are no longer Ducks. They have spread their “Wings” and resembled a symbol of freedom — Lady Liberty, respectively. The championship mentality they manifested together brought them two consecutive PAC-12 titles and a Final Four appearance.

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Ionescu will sport the foam green for the first time against a tough test Saturday, the Seattle Storm. The Storm are a clear front runner when it comes to the WNBA title conversation this season, but with a team as loaded as they are, it’s hard not to put them there. Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Jewell Lloyd, and now Morgan Tuck.

Those players have won titles over the last few years which can only be a good sign for Ionescu to see how her game needs to elevate before she too can join that special class.

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Given the sheer nature of how Ionescu played collegiately, I’d imagine the New York Liberty will be in full promo mode in an effort to lure talent and make necessary trades so that Ionescu can have some scorers and shooters hanging with her in the back court. And when that happens, the league better watch out for New York because they will be coming.

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When Sabally turns out the lime green for the first time, she will probably be working the front court with first round rookie Bella Alarie. If their games look anything like they did in college, this pair will provide a unique one-two punch unlike any other in the league.

Sabally is a 6’4” small forward who was able to develop an outside game in Eugene. Alarie, a 6’4 power forward, had a similar skill set at Princeton. She chastised defenses on offense when facing the basket, knocking down shot after shot from 15 to 20 feet away. It might take a minute, but it will be fun to watch them adjust to the WNBA — and vice versa.

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Since the Wings are fairly young, Sabally and Alarie will see extended minutes across a number of lineups.

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Mark your calendars for Wednesday, July 29. That’s the first meeting between New York and Dallas. It should be a memorable one.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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