With the wubble long gone, the 2021 WNBA season has seen teams back in their home arenas exciting fans with buzzer-beaters all over the place. Whether it’s Tina Charles or Sylvia Fowles, there always seems to be a seasoned vet putting up a monster stat line. Or it could be a young up-and-coming star like Ariel Atkins or Brionna Jones.
At Swish Appeal, we’ve taken the time to pause and assess where this incredible season is at. Here’s our midseason roundtable:
Team that has been a pleasant surprise
Cat Ariail: I think we all underestimated the Sun. Skepticism about the Sun’s upside stemmed from great respect for Alyssa Thomas. It was hard to imagine them contending for a championship, or even the playoffs, without their engine. Yet, it should not be surprising that adding Jonquel Jones back to the Connecticut veteran core has resulted in one of the WNBA’s best teams.
Eric Nemchock: The Connecticut Sun. It was fair to doubt the Sun after they lost Alyssa Thomas for the year to an Achilles injury, but with Jonquel Jones back in the lineup and an elite defensive backcourt, Connecticut has re-forged its identity into that of a team that places a strong emphasis on gritty, slow-paced play and controlling the glass. At 12-5 and in third place, it’s hard to argue with their results thus far.
Zack Ward: The Connecticut Sun. They came in at No. 9 in our preseason power rankings, but Jonquel Jones has lived up to the high end of expectations and Brionna Jones and Natisha Hiedeman have exceeded theirs. Meanwhile, DeWanna Bonner and Jasmine Thomas have done what they do and the team just plays so well together. The often disrespeCTed Sun are right in the thick of things.
Team that has been biggest disappointment
Cat: It’s gotta be the Fever. While we predicted that they would be the league’s worst team, they are not a feisty-but-sometimes-fun bad team, as I expected. Instead, they are awful, trending toward embarrassing. It is hard to have much, if any confidence, in the direction general manager Tamika Catchings has taken this team.
Eric: The Phoenix Mercury. Granted, there’s not a lot of room between most of the teams in the middle of the standings, and at 7-8, Phoenix is far from out of the picture. Still, a roster with three elite players in Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith lagging behind younger, upstart teams like Dallas and New York has to be a bit concerning at this juncture. We don’t know how much longer Taurasi is going to play, so if this is really going to be the Mercury’s last shot at a title, hovering around .500 isn’t exactly convincing.
Zack: The Phoenix Mercury. I was tempted to go with the Minnesota Lynx here. The Lynx came in at No. 3 in our preseason power rankings and are barely above .500. However, they are on a three-game winning streak that includes an epic win over the first-place Las Vegas Aces in which their two biggest stars, Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier, looked like all-world players. I was going to go with the argument that Minnesota has had those two stars through its struggles while the Mercury have been without Taurasi and the Mystics have been without Elena Delle Donne. But the Lynx are 8-4 with Collier (remember that she missed the first three games) and have had injury problems of their own, albeit not involving superstars. So I’ll go with the Mercury for the second midseason roundtable in a row, though it seems a bit unfair seeing as they haven’t had Taurasi. Maybe it’s fair to say that no team has been a major disappointment yet, but Phoenix has to be careful because it is once again looking like a team that may struggle to win despite its talent. It is only 3-3 with Taurasi.
Cat: While it is a minor storyline, I have loved the emergence of Crystal Bradford. When a “big name” player is waived, it often inspires much consternation. Yes, the WNBA needs to expand. But, the current reality is that there are less than 144 roster spots. The WNBA is a “What have you done for me lately?” league. It does not matter who you are or where you’re from, but what, in the here and now, you are doing for your team. Bradford has done a lot for the Dream. She made it impossible to keep her off the final roster and, since then, keep her off the court. Her maniacal energy and unabashed swagger have been a highlight in an up-and-down season for the Dream.
Eric: Betnijah Laney’s All-Star season. Laney came out of nowhere to win Most Improved Honors in 2020 — just months after being waived — and earned a max contract from the New York Liberty for her efforts. She’s now officially an All-Star, continuing her transformation from defensive specialist to all-around workhorse. It’s hard not to root for a player with such an improbable career arc.
Zack: The storyline of two lottery teams turning it around. The New York Liberty and Dallas Wings would both be playoff teams if the season ended today and the Liberty have even won six games without Natasha Howard, who was expected to be their best player entering the season. The Wings took 16 games to match their win total from a 22-game wubble season and the Liberty already have six more wins than they did in 2020. Dallas’ impressive run has come without too much involvement from No. 1 overall pick Charli Collier and almost no involvement from fellow first rounders Awak Kuier and Chelsea Dungee. The storyline of those players contributing right away would have been compelling too, but it’s been nice to see Marina Mabrey’s emergence as a star and Isabelle Harrison and Kayla Thornton getting the respect that they deserve.
12 players you think should have been All-Stars on the non-Olympic team (snubs in bold):
Cat: I have no major issues with the All-Star roster. Yes, you could suggest that the second or third All-Stars for the Aces, Wings and Sun could have been swapped for a teammate — Jackie Young over Dearica Hamby, Marina Mabrey over Satou Sabally and Jasmine Thomas over Brionna Jones. However, the way things shook out is fine. Had she not been hurt, I think Tiffany Hayes should have been a no-brainer. She was in the midst of the most efficient offensive season of her career, all while remaining a relentless defender.
Eric: Jonquel Jones, Liz Cambage, DeWanna Bonner, Tiffany Hayes, Brionna Jones, Betnijah Laney, Arike Ogunbowale, Courtney Vandersloot, Candace Parker, Dearica Hamby, Courtney Williams, Sami Whitcomb.
Zack: Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney, Arike Ogunbowale, DeWanna Bonner, Courtney Vandersloot, Courtney Williams, Liz Cambage, Marina Mabrey, Sabrina Ionescu, Erica Wheeler, Brionna Jones, Kahleah Copper.
Cat: Right now, it is Tina Charles. However, fast forwarding to the end of the season, I see Jonquel Jones earning the MVP award. Jones is putting together the best season of her WNBA career, posting career-best raw and advanced stats in most all categories. She could be even better during the second half of the season. Jones has been on a basketball marathon, going from UMMC Ekaterinburg to the Sun to the Bosnia and Herzegovina National Team for EuroBasket before coming back to the Sun. After resting and recharging during the Olympic break, Jones could be ready to run away with the MVP award down the stretch of the season.
Eric: Jonquel Jones. She’s one of two WNBA players to rank in the top three in both points (21.7) and rebounds (10.9) and she’s scoring on an uber-efficient 68.6 percent true shooting percentage. So much of the Sun’s production in every phase of the game comes from Jones, and when you factor in the team’s current top-three seeding, she has the ideal blend of individual statistics and team success typically seen from WNBA MVPs.
Zack: Tina Charles. Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones are on better teams, but Charles’ scoring average is just too far ahead to not give her MVP if the season ended today. She is averaging 25.5 points per game to lead the league (3.7 ahead of Stewart). Plus, she is sixth in rebounding at 9.1 boards per game and the Mystics aren’t too bad at 7-9. It’s fair to say that Charles has carried Washington because she has contributed to six wins and scored 30-plus in five of those games.
Rookie of the Year
Cat: By default, the ROY would go to Michaela Onyenwere. Although she has had a few strong games, her overall numbers are not that impressive. However, she is a genuine contributor on a pretty good team. Charli Collier and Aari McDonald have shown some nice flashes, suggesting that, if they were to receive more playing time, they could challenge Onyenwere for the award.
Eric: Michaela Onyenwere. It hasn’t been easy for the 2021 rookie class to assert itself, and Onyenwere stands alone as a first-year player who has carved out a consistent role for her team. She’s started every game for New York thus far, playing 23.5 minutes and averaging 10.2 points – both by far the highest respective marks among WNBA rookies.
Zack: Michaela Onyenwere. According to Howard Megdal of The Next, Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins pushed hard for Sabrina Ionescu to be eligible for Rookie of the Year this season after she played in just three games in her highly-anticipated true rookie season. What nobody expected when Megdal reported this back in April was for one of Hopkins’ other players to emerge as the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, thus making him proud and probably unwilling to continue his argument for Ionescu. Onyenwere was selected at No. 6 in the draft and there were questions about how she would transition to the pros and if she could become a legit 3-point threat. She shocked everyone with a 3-of-6 debut from beyond the arc and is currently 28th in the league in 3-pointers made per game (1.5).
Jonathan Kolb just mentioned what I’ve heard as well, which is that Sabrina Ionescu probably won’t be eligible for Rookie of the Year in 2021. Walt Hopkins, fyi, strenuously argued that she should be eligible. “There’s precedents in other sports,” he added. #WNBA
— Howard Megdal (@howardmegdal) April 14, 2021
Sixth Woman of the Year
Cat: In her first season as an off-the-bench player since 2016, Allie Quigley is one of the strongest contenders for the Sixth Woman of the Year award. While the likes of Kelsey Plum and Marina Mabrey have provided some of the punchiest bench performances of the season, Quigley has been more consistent, reliably offering a point total in the teens on above average shooting.
Eric: Dearica Hamby. There’s nothing new here; the Aces forward continues to provide starting-caliber minutes off the bench. While her scoring efficiency has been down slightly from last season, Hamby is still posting a more than respectable 58.7 percent true shooting percentage, and her presence as a super-sub gives the Aces a tremendous advantage in staggering their lineups.
Zack: Dearica Hamby. Marina Mabrey is in the running here too, but five of her six 20-point games came as a starter. Hamby is putting up the best numbers of any player who has exclusively come off the bench. If Mabrey keeps coming off the bench she will be eligible to win the award, but unless she becomes a more consistent bench player, I’m going with Hamby.
Most Improved Player
Cat: While a pair of Fighting Irish alums — Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young — widely have been considered MIP favorites, another former Notre Dame player is more deserving — Jewell Loyd. While both Mabrey and Young have increased their points per game, their other numbers are mostly the same. In contrast, Loyd’s improvement goes beyond scoring more points. While her shooting has regressed a bit after a super hot start, Loyd still is a more dangerous offensive player because of her improved playmaking, as she is averaging a career-high 4.5 assists. Loyd also is snagging a career-high 4.1 rebounds, a number indicative of her overall increased engagement on the defensive end. That the Storm sit near the top of the standings despite losing key championship contributors is largely due to Loyd’s improvement. She has gone from a supporting star to a true star.
Eric: Brionna Jones. While 2020 may have been Jones’ breakout season, she’s been even better for the Sun in 2021, most notably during a recent stretch of games without Jonquel Jones in which she anchored Connecticut on the interior and scored with the utmost efficiency. The two seem like an awkward pairing on offense, but their defense in the frontcourt has been nothing short of spectacular; it’s improvements in Brionna Jones’ game that have allowed her not only to play the minutes the Sun demand of her, but to thrive in them as well.
Zack: Marina Mabrey. Somewhere along the line during the 2020 season, Mabrey flipped a switch, clearly determined to stay in the league and not let her career fizzle out quickly. Then, in 2021, she turned it up another notch and nearly made the All-Star Game. Her scoring has electrified the Wings and added excitement, so, despite much of it coming in losses, it has contributed to the overall turnaround in Dallas. She is averaging 14.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game, which are All-Star worthy numbers. Her scoring average is up 4.1 points from 2020 and would be up way more if not for some oddly low scoring totals dragging the average down.
Defensive Player of the Year
Cat: Jonquel Jones has the opportunity to join Sheryl Swoopes as the only WNBA players to win the MVP and DPOY in the same season. Her five-game absence illuminates her importance to the Sun defense. Without Jones in the lineup, Connecticut had a defensive rating of 100.86 (a number that would be higher if not for the putrid Chicago Sky offensive performance they benefited from). For the season, the Sun’s defensive rating is 96.0. That Jones ranks second in defensive rebounds, sixth in steals and 14th in blocks solidifies her DPOY resume.
Eric: A’ja Wilson. While her basic defensive metrics (blocks and steals, in particular) are down from her dominant 2020 season, it can be argued that Wilson has blossomed into an even better defensive player. She’s more comfortable defending in space than ever before, she rarely fouls, and the Aces can count on her to bring it on that end of the floor even if her shot isn’t falling. This award tends to be given to the best defensive player on one of the best defensive teams, and if the Aces keep locking up opponents and winning the battles on the glass and at the free throw line, Wilson will have a strong case here.
Zack: Sylvia Fowles. She’s already won this award three times and I think her league-leading 2.3 steals per game given her position is just amazing. She’s also fourth in the WNBA with 1.8 blocks per game and is the same intimidating presence down low that she’s been her whole career.
Cat: The teams currently at the top of the league — Las Vegas and Seattle — both have a significant number of players who will be competing in the Olympics. The Aces have five players going to the Games; the Storm have six. It is worth wondering about the toil that the time in Tokyo will take on these players. Not only do they have to travel halfway around the world, but, when they arrive, they will be burdened by COVID-related restrictions. It seems like a physically and mentally exhausting experience that could catch up with these players and their teams down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs. In contrast, Connecticut and Chicago are light on Olympians. No Sun players will be going to Tokyo while Stefanie Dolson is the Sky’s only Olympic participant. These teams should be much fresher for the championship chase. Because of their prior playoff experience, I think the Sun could be poised to claim the organization’s first title.
Eric: The Las Vegas Aces. They currently lead the WNBA in efficiency differential (13.3 net rating) by a healthy margin, illustrating just how good they’ve been on both ends of the floor, but it goes deeper than that. They rarely turn the ball over (14.5 percent TOV), are second to none in defensive rebounding (74.5 percent DREB) and are among the best in the WNBA at both getting to the free throw line and keeping their opponents away from it. They’ve also got the star power; Chelsea Gray, in particular, has proven to be an invaluable addition. These aren’t the one-dimensional Aces of years past; they’re fast, they’re strong, they’re skilled and they’re the best team in the WNBA.
Zack: The Las Vegas Aces. We already knew entering the season that they are the best team on paper. They’ve shown enough in terms of mental toughness for me to pick them as the midseason favorite as well. Bouncing back from that Minnesota loss on June 25 by beating the then first-place Storm in overtime was impressive. Of their five most recent games, the other three have been by 20-plus points. So things are headed in the right direction for Vegas.