Biggest surprises of the 2021 WNBA season so far

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The 2021 WNBA season is only beginning to take shape, but despite a small sample size, some teams such as the New York Liberty have already emerged as front-runners, even though they won just two games last season. Not all surprises have been good, however, as two teams are still looking for their first victories.

Our panel — ESPN’s Kelly Cohen, Dana Lee, D’Arcy Maine and Kevin Pelton, as well as The Undefeated’s Sean Hurd — breaks down the young season so far, including which players on new teams are making the biggest impact and how overseas commitments, injuries and absences might continue to impact the WNBA.

What has been the biggest surprise for you so far this season?

Kevin Pelton: The Connecticut Sun’s undefeated start (5-0) before losing their first game Tuesday in overtime at the Seattle Storm. As much as Jonquel Jones’ return figured to help the Sun, I was concerned about the team’s depth with injured Alyssa Thomas taking up a roster spot all season, leaving just 10 active players — a total that’s down to nine with Briann January sidelined by an ankle sprain. Indeed, Connecticut is getting a league-low 11.2 PPG from reserves. That hasn’t mattered because the Sun’s lineups with starters on the floor have been dominant. The Sun’s plus-10.2 point differential remains more than four points per game better than any other WNBA team.

D’Arcy Maine: The Liberty have already won more games this season than they did in the entirety of the 2020 campaign, so they get the nod. After finishing 2-20 last season in the Wubble, they are now 5-1 and — dare I say? — a legitimate playoff contender. It’s the team’s hottest start since 2007 and has been fun to watch thus far.

We all knew Sabrina Ionescu was a special talent and she has more than delivered this season, but it’s the play of those around her who have really helped elevate this franchise. Prior to suffering a sprained knee ligament that will sideline her four to six weeks, Natasha Howard was looking like an immediate threat in the two games she was able to play after wrapping up her overseas commitments. And Betnijah Laney is averaging a team-high 22.7 points a game and shooting a ridiculous 54.3% from the field and a mind-blowing 52.2% (12 of 23) from beyond the arc. I knew she was shooting well but I did a double-take when I saw that stat. New York is shooting a league-leading 43.7% from deep.

With this blistering start from the Liberty (5-1), and with the Nets and the Knicks in the playoffs, it feels like New York is finally back in the good graces of the basketball gods — and that might be the biggest hoops surprise of them all.

Sean Hurd: Despite their losing record, I like what I’ve seen from the Dallas Wings so far. Their opening night blowout of the Sparks was impressive, their overtime loss to Seattle was one of the top games of the early season and they came within two points of the Liberty with four minutes to play in their loss Monday night. Arike Ogunbowale continues to demonstrate that she is one of the best shot creators in the league, Marina Mabrey (19.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists per game) has had an impressive start and Vickie Johnson — in her first year as the Wings’ head coach — has this young team playing competitive basketball against top teams, despite Dallas missing some of the franchise’s top players. Add Allisha Gray, who led the team in scoring against the Sparks but has missed the last two games to USA Basketball 3×3 commitments, and Satou Sabally, who has been out due to commitments with the German national team, and the Wings might make some noise this season.

Dana Lee: After notching a No. 7 spot in our preseason power rankings, the Los Angeles Sparks are sliding in the wrong direction. The numbers were never going to be great with an 0-2 record, but the Sparks are hitting bottom in nearly every statistical category — last in points scored (70), last in field goal percentage (36.2%), last in total rebounds (53). It was inevitable that this team would need time to adjust without Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams, but … oof.

Which offseason addition has had the biggest impact so far on the season?

Pelton: Betnijah Laney. So far, Laney’s improvement as a shooter last season in the Wubble doesn’t look like a fluke. In fact, Laney has been even hotter, knocking down 52% of her 3-pointers (she shot 40.5% in 2020) and shooting 55% inside the arc. Laney’s consistent play — she’s the first player in Liberty history to score at least 20 points in each of the season’s first six games — is a big reason New York has started 5-1 despite limited contributions from Howard, the team’s other marquee offseason addition.

Maine: If you had asked me this before the season, I probably would have predicted the addition of free agents Aerial Powers and Kayla McBride to the Lynx, but, well, shrug emoji, they’re 0-3. I’m clearly bullish on the Liberty, but Laney gets my vote, too. She has been extraordinary so far, has been just as impactful as Ionescu and is a key factor in the Liberty’s turnaround.

Hurd: I agree with the praise for Laney, who has been spectacular, but I’m also excited to see more of Candace Parker with the Chicago Sky. Parker has missed the last three games with an ankle injury, but in the one game she played for Chicago, the season opener against the Washington Mystics on May 15, Parker put up 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks. We saw a glimpse of the impact that Parker’s presence can have on the team through both her on-court play and veteran leadership. If our small sample size is any indication, Parker’s season-long impact will be huge for Chicago.

Still, this answer would feel incomplete without highlighting the incredible play of the Washington Mystics’ Tina Charles, who is leading the league in scoring at 26.2 points per game (to go along with 8.4 RPG). Has any single player meant more to her team this early season than Charles? The Mystics center, who is a former MVP and seven-time All Star, has never had more than two 30-point games in a season in her career. Through just five games in 2021, Charles has recorded three 30-point games, something only one other player (Maya Moore, 2014) has done in WNBA history.

Lee: I agree with Sean on Charles. The 11-year veteran opted out of the 2020 season due to medical reasons, and we hadn’t seen her play in the WNBA since 2019. But it has been well worth the wait to see Charles in a Mystics jersey. With Elena Delle Donne still recovering from back surgery, the Mystics are leaning on Charles — whose usage percentage is the highest in the league. Don’t let the Mystics’ 2-3 record detract from what Charles has accomplished early.

Kelly Cohen: I’m also going with a player who sat out 2020: Liz Cambage. Any time you are away from your team for that long, it can be hard to get back into sync with your teammates. But Cambage picked up right where she left off in 2019 and ranks in the top of the WNBA in a handful of categories, including blocks per game (2.5) and field goal percentage (66.7%).

Which team stands to benefit the most when all the overseas players are finally able to join their teams?

Hurd: I think we could make an argument for it being the Minnesota Lynx and the addition of Napheesa Collier, given she still has yet to actually play a game for the Lynx. Pelton had Collier as his preseason pick for MVP. I had Collier as my preseason pick for defensive player of the year. The obvious point being that the Lynx have navigated this early season without a pivotal roster piece (Collier averaged 16.1 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game in 2020). With Collier back in the rotation, we can expect the Lynx to reverse the current trajectory of their season.

Lee: In agreement here: Collier will provide much-needed relief for the Lynx, who are 0-3 for the first time since 2007. As a bonus, Minnesota is in the middle of a week-long break before playing the Storm on Friday, giving coach Cheryl Reeve more practice time with a now-complete roster. This includes Kayla McBride, who has played in all three games but joined the Lynx just days before the season started after winning a championship in Turkey. McBride signed with Minnesota in free agency after spending the previous three seasons with the Las Vegas Aces.

Pelton: At this point, I think the Dallas Wings have the most to gain when Gray and Sabally return from their national team commitments. Sabally hasn’t played at all while Gray has missed the last two games after a dominant performance (23 points, nine boards, four assists, four steals) in the Wings’ opening blowout of the Sparks. Dallas could emerge as a playoff contender with them back in the lineup.

What’s the biggest X factor when Chicago and Phoenix meet Tuesday?

Pelton: Sadly, it looks like health could be the biggest factor in this game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). We haven’t seen Candace Parker since her impressive debut in a Sky uniform (16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 25 minutes of a comfortable win May 15 over the Washington Mystics) due to an ankle sprain, while Allie Quigley has also missed those games with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Mercury are dealing with Tuesday’s news that Diana Taurasi will miss at least four weeks with a chest injury. Chicago looks better positioned to handle those absences.

Maine: The Mercury were nowhere near looking at their best before the Taurasi news and now will have the unenviable task of replacing her 15.8 points and 3.8 assists per game. If Parker and Quigley are both back in the lineup, the Sky should have the edge.

Hurd: There’s a must-see point guard battle between Phoenix’s Skylar Diggins-Smith and Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot. We saw how Diggins-Smith stepped up when injuries and exits hit the Mercury roster last season, and I’d expect to see the same leveled-up performance from the veteran point guard that we saw in the bubble. Vandersloot has also had to step up in the absence of Quigley and Parker. She currently leads the league in assists per game, punctuated by a ridiculous 16-assist double-double against New York.

Lee: Diggins-Smith’s ability to step up will be a factor against Chicago, as will Brittney Griner’s performance, the other third of the Mercury’s Big Three. In the Mercury’s first two games, Taursi, Diggins-Smith and Griner combined for 102 points. Everyone else? Fifty-three. Griner’s usage percentage is down to 22 percent, compared to 26 percent during the 12 games she played in 2020, but expect that to bump up during Taurasi’s absence. Getting Griner going again will be key to winning on June 1 and beyond.

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