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W.N.B.A. Season Preview: Latest Talent Is Here, but an Absence Looms

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The longest W.N.B.A. season in league history will begin on Friday. For the primary time, teams will each play 36 regular-season games as the following step within the league’s plan for incremental growth — a plan stifled for the past two seasons by the coronavirus pandemic.

Because the league enters its twenty sixth season, recent sponsors and a few increased engagement from team ownership is inspiring some optimism in regards to the state of the W.N.B.A. Growth in viewership at the faculty level means more buzz for graduating players aiming to grow to be professionals, while recent broadcast deals and a heavier emphasis from the league’s primary partner, ESPN, have made games more accessible.

Looming over all that optimism, though, is the continued absence of one among the league’s best players, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia — where she also plays professionally — since February on drug charges. A picture of Griner and her jersey number No. 42 will likely be on each team’s court throughout the season.

“We’re keeping Brittney on the forefront of what we do through the sport of basketball,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a press release.

Here’s what to anticipate from the 12 W.N.B.A. teams this season.

Irrespective of what happens, this season will likely mark the top of an era for the Storm and for girls’s basketball. After contemplating retirement last season, Sue Bird announced in January that she would return and with the hashtag #1moreyear suggested this season could be her last. When she was drafted No. 1 overall by Seattle in 2002, the franchise had played only two seasons; 4 championships later, won partly by Bird’s consistency, the Storm have grow to be one of the vital dominant teams in W.N.B.A. history.

The 41-year-old’s farewell tour will inevitably include many teary tributes and gaudy highlight reels, however the Storm will aim for its final stop to be a champions’ parade. The team is playing its first season in the brand new Climate Pledge Arena, which the Storm are sharing with the N.H.L.’s Kraken. The Storm will still have Breanna Stewart, who met with the Liberty within the off-season before signing a one-year deal, and Jewell Loyd, who also met with the Liberty before re-signing for 2 years. Bird, Stewart and Loyd form the team’s core, and the likelihood of playing without them within the near future makes the team’s quest for a league-leading fifth title more urgent than ever.

A number of recent faces crowd the Sparks roster, as Los Angeles looks to reignite this season. The team struggled last yr within the wake of Candace Parker’s departure and the fallout from a legal battle with Penny Toler, the team’s former general manager.

The Sparks had a wonderful season defensively in 2021 but fell in need of the playoffs for the primary time since 2011 due to their woeful offense. This yr, they’ve added starpower designed to spice up their scoring with the flashy young guards Chennedy Carter and Jordin Canada and center Liz Cambage, who owns the single-game scoring record and is on the lookout for a fresh start after promising seasons in Las Vegas that also ended in need of titles. The query is how all those talents will fit together under Coach Derek Fisher: There aren’t many role players on this Los Angeles team, so checking out responsibilities could prove difficult.

Those players will join Nneka Ogwumike, still the team’s best likelihood at filling that Parker-size hole, in addition to the veterans Brittney Sykes and Kristi Toliver as they chase a recent type of chemistry befitting the franchise’s storied legacy.

For the sixth yr in a row, the Fever will attempt to return to the playoffs — or at the least not be the worst team within the league yet again. And not using a modicum of success to indicate for years of high draft picks, Indiana was compelled to just about start from scratch this yr. The team amassed 4 picks in the primary round alone after cutting Kysre Gondrezick, their top pick within the 2021 draft at No. 4 overall.

A gaggle of rookies, then, will join the veterans Danielle Robinson, Bria Hartley, Tiffany Mitchell and Kelsey Mitchell, as Lin Dunn, the interim general manager, tries to right the ship.

NaLyssa Smith, Indiana’s top 2022 draft pick at No. 2 overall, was dominant at Baylor and enters the W.N.B.A. with something to prove after an underwhelming senior postseason. She’s been clamoring to compete on the skilled level and, at 6-foot-4 with impressive athleticism, Smith could well prove to be the difference-maker the Fever desperately need.

Last season, the Wings had one among the youngest rosters within the league. Though they appear to have found some stability, having made just one non-draft addition, the 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan, there’s still some uncertainty about how the team will balance all that potential. Dallas has a whole lot of depth but few clear front-runners who can define the team’s core.

Arike Ogunbowale is one exception to that rule. The sharpshooting All-Star has been the centerpiece of Dallas’s offense, and he or she signed a multiyear extension within the off-season. She had help from guard Marina Mabrey, her former Notre Dame teammate; they work together so well they’ve earned the moniker Marike.

This season, the second-year Wings Coach Vickie Johnson, will attempt to take the team past the primary round within the playoffs for the primary time since 2015 by finding consistency within the frontcourt. Forward Satou Sabally, along with her refined footwork inside and talent to seek out high-percentage shots, looks like the right balance for Ogunbowale’s pull-up-from-anywhere mentality — the Wings just should make certain she’s touching the ball.

The four-time champion Lynx will lose the ultimate piece of their last two title-winning squads at the top of this season with the retirement of the 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles, who was playing at a near-M.V.P. level last season despite being 35 years old then.

Fowles’s continuing dominance could push Minnesota back into position to win within the postseason. Nonetheless, she and Coach Cheryl Reeve will face the added challenge of competing without forward Napheesa Collier, the team’s leading scorer last season, who’s pregnant and more likely to miss most or the entire season.

The five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry, who injured her knee last season, will join Fowles in the trouble to push the Lynx back to the playoffs for the twelfth consecutive yr. The veterans Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers round out a Lynx roster that would, once more, outperform expectations, due to Reeve’s consistent coaching and the team’s experience.

The story of the Aces centers on one crucial off-season move: the introduction of Becky Hammon because the highest-paid head coach within the W.N.B.A. Combined with the development of a shiny, recent Aces-specific practice facility in Henderson, Nev., Hammon’s hiring was a part of owner Mark Davis’s efforts to flaunt his investments within the team to this point. All that’s left is for the team to finally win its first title.

Hammon will undoubtedly be within the highlight — even perhaps more so than her players — after returning to the W.N.B.A., where she first flourished as a player, and passing up what many saw as a possible shot to grow to be the primary female head coach in N.B.A. history.

In her first head coaching role, the longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant will attempt to retool the Aces following the departure of center Liz Cambage and forward Angel McCoughtry, veteran talents who accounted for much of the team’s production. Last season ended with an unpleasant upset loss to the Mercury within the playoffs, one game away from the championship series. This yr, Hammon will work with A’ja Wilson, the 2020 M.V.P., to take the talented team to the following level, counting on guards Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum to amp up the Aces’ offense.

The Liberty’s 2021 season was a surprise: It was Betnijah Laney who took the reins to steer the team back to the playoffs for the primary time since 2017 and never Natasha Howard, the previous defensive player of the yr who missed a lot of the season with a knee injury or the highly-touted guard Sabrina Ionescu.

This season, they’ve added Stefanie Dolson from the reigning champion Sky and hired a recent coach, Sandy Brondello, to place all of the pieces together. The team is filled with potential but an entire mystery so far as chemistry. Despite losing 10 of their last 12 games at the top of the 2021 regular season, the Liberty were two points shy of upsetting the Phoenix Mercury in the primary round of the playoffs — a confusing end result consistent with their unpredictability last season.

If Brondello, who led the Mercury to a championship in 2014, can find consistency amongst a gaggle of veterans who’ve found a whole lot of success on other teams, the Liberty might give you the chance to make a deeper run within the playoffs.

The Mercury begin the season under a very large shadow: the continued detention of their star center, Brittney Griner, in Russia, where she has been held since February. Her indefinite absence leaves an enormous hole within the team and league, on and off the court. Until she returns, the Mercury can have to work out the right way to play without one of the vital dominant centers in W.N.B.A. history for the primary prolonged period in nearly a decade.

An esteemed group of veterans may also be fighting for an additional title. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi were joined by Tina Charles within the off-season, sparking much discussion about so-called superteams within the W.N.B.A. Coach Vanessa Nygaard, in her first yr, has been charged with getting the team into shape to try to say the franchise’s fourth championship. Phoenix made it to last season’s championship series before losing in 4 games to the underdog Chicago Sky.

Taurasi, who will turn 40 years old in June, insists that she’s not planning on retiring anytime soon. But she — the league’s profession leading scorer — has had nagging injuries over the past few seasons, making the Mercury’s pursuit of one other deep postseason run much more pressing than usual.

The Sun have been nothing if not consistent over the past few seasons, each of their regular season dominance and of their inability to finally secure the franchise’s first championship. In the event that they were ever in win-now mode, though, this may be the time, having re-signed Jonquel Jones, last season’s M.V.P., within the off-season.

Jones rejoins Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones — one among the league’s most consistent core groups. While other teams across the league are figuring out their rotations, the Sun and their longtime coach, Curt Miller, will look to refine a long-established dynamic. Even their biggest move of the off-season — securing the return of guard Courtney Williams — was to bring a team veteran back into the fold after her temporary stint with the Atlanta Dream.

Connecticut can nearly take without any consideration the incontrovertible fact that this group will reprise one among the higher defenses within the W.N.B.A., with its veterans who appear to summon unfathomable energy to stifle opponents yr after yr. The difficulty comes when the shots stop falling for the physical team. Williams, and maybe some offense-minded young players coming off the bench, can have to shut that gap.

The Dream look like they’ve been in rebuilding mode for several seasons now, winning single-digit games in each of their past three seasons and facing turnover on the coaching and ownership tiers.

But this season, Atlanta will try and actually start fresh, with the first-year head coach, Tanisha Wright, and a slew of young talent joining Tiffany Hayes and Monique Billings, who’ve stuck with the Dream through all those losses. Aari McDonald, whom the Dream drafted with the third overall pick last yr, will likely be joined by the No. 1 pick within the 2022 draft, Rhyne Howard — whom Atlanta traded as much as snag — and Kristy Wallace, who spent the past few years honing her skills in an Australian skilled league. The veterans Erica Wheeler and Nia Coffey, each of whom last played for the Sparks, round out the upstart group, which is able to aim to outperform expectations and make it to the playoffs for the primary time since 2018.

After winning their first championship as underdogs in 2021, the Sky return as contenders to grow to be the primary W.N.B.A. team to win repeat titles in 20 years. Many core members of last season’s team are back, including Candace Parker; Kahleah Copper, last yr’s finals M.V.P.; and the veteran guards Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. The team added center Emma Meesseman, who was the finals M.V.P. when the Mystics won the 2019 championship.

The Sky will need to have been certain that this group could be enough once they traded away all of their 2022 draft picks, relying as a substitute on their veteran squad and the skills of Coach James Wade to make them one other deep postseason run. Copper particularly, who stuffed her 2021 finals highlight reels with circus shots and difficult layups, will look to proceed her breakout run this season.

Since winning the W.N.B.A. championship in 2019, the Mystics’ fate has revolved around one variable: whether Elena Delle Donne, who has played just three games up to now two seasons, can get and stay healthy. Delle Donne sustained a back injury within the 2019 W.N.B.A. finals that required multiple surgeries, left her with lingering back issues and has taken extensive therapy and conditioning work to beat.

If Delle Donne and Alysha Clark, who missed last season with a foot injury, can stay on the court, Washington’s roster suddenly looks rather a lot more solid. Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud and Myisha Hines-Allen are all settled well into Coach Mike Thibault’s system, and Elizabeth Williams, a recent addition, can provide support within the post if Delle Donne isn’t able to go.

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