WNBA fans who last tuned in to watch the final seconds of Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics capturing their first league championship can be forgiven for finding the sport’s current landscape almost unrecognizable.
And no, the changes aren’t only because of COVID-19, though the WNBA hasn’t been immune to the worldwide flood of sports closings, with the league’s late-April training camp date and May 15 opening night pushed back indefinitely.
But the sport also underwent massive changes in the offseason after the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, signed in January, allowed players more freedom to switch teams and significantly increased both the salary cap and max salaries. Many of those changes have altered what teams need and will be looking for in this Friday’s 2020 WNBA draft, which is going on as scheduled (albeit in virtual form).
Let’s get caught up before teams start making picks.
Among the lottery teams, the busiest so far has been the Dallas Wings, who hold the second pick in Friday’s draft, followed closely by the Atlanta Dream, who select fourth. The Wings traded franchise player Skylar Diggins-Smith, who had requested a trade, for the No. 5 and 7 picks in the 2020 draft. They also acquired Phoenix’s first-round 2021 pick in that deal before sending that pick to Chicago for big Astou Ndour, and they picked up Katie Lou Samuelson, just a year removed from being picked fourth in the 2019 draft.
The Wings control much of what happens in the first round of the upcoming draft, with the Nos. 2, 5, 7 and 9 picks, the last of those coming in the package Dallas received for Liz Cambage last offseason. Think of this draft as the largest part of the rebuild that Greg Bibb, the team’s president and CEO, has engineered. Of the nine players who accumulated win shares for the 2018 Dallas team that made the playoffs, just two remain on the roster: Kayla Thornton and Allisha Gray.
Figure on Satou Sabally as a franchise cornerstone at the No. 2 pick, and any number of options for Nos. 5, 7 and 9 — including trades, given that the Wings have 14 players under contract already and regular-season rosters max out at 12.
The Atlanta Dream, too, look fundamentally different from both the 2018 team that reached the WNBA semifinals and the 2019 squad that finished just 8-26 and landed in the lottery. Gone is Angel McCoughtry, the team’s franchise leader in win shares by a healthy margin, who left via free agency to Las Vegas. Brittney Sykes, a guard and a critical part of the 2018 surge, is off to Los Angeles via trade, with the Dream acquiring Kalani Brown in that deal.
Head coach Nicki Collen is likely to rely on Brown, a 6-foot-7 center, as a major weapon against the league’s other big bigs, including Teaira McCowan of the Indiana Fever, Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx and Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury. As a rookie, Brown finished fourth in the league in block percentage. Shooting extraordinaire Shekinna Stricklen, a driving force for the Sun, is now with the Dream as well.
But the biggest change is the acquisition of Courtney Williams, the patron saint of the midrange jumper, in a three-team deal that cost the Dream forward Jessica Breland, among others. The addition of Williams, who led the Sun to within one win of the 2019 WNBA title, means that Collen’s offense will have a pair of clear late-game options with Williams and Tiffany Hayes, the only remaining 2019 Dream member among the team’s top seven in usage rate.
In a perfect world for Atlanta, Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter is still available at the fourth pick, giving the Dream a playmaker to learn under veteran Renee Montgomery and eventually (maybe even this season, given Carter’s talent) take the reins as ball-dominant floor leader.
The Indiana Fever, who pick third, will have a say in this as well, either by selecting Carter themselves or trading the pick to a team that doesn’t already employ Erica Wheeler and Kelsey Mitchell in the backcourt. It’s worth remembering, as Indiana weighs its options, that Wheeler is in the final season of a deal that will pay her just $81,600 in 2020, so she could be a trade target, while both general manager Tamika Catchings and new Fever coach Marianne Stanley may look askance at Wheeler’s turnover percentage of 23.3 when evaluating who should run the team’s offense. But Baylor’s Lauren Cox, as a stretch-four placed next to McCowan, may be too enticing for Indiana to pass up at No. 3.
Speaking of turnovers, New York, which holds the first pick, has the biggest leap forward on that front of any offseason participant already. After its two primary point guards last season, Tanisha Wright and Brittany Boyd, finished 1-2 in the WNBA in turnover percentage by a wide margin, the Liberty went out and added Layshia Clarendon, the USA Basketball and league veteran, to play point guard. She’ll have a heavy responsibility beyond the on-court duties, too, as a mentor for Sabrina Ionescu of Oregon, who’s widely expected to go to New York as the top overall pick.
Expect the Liberty to look very different, including a potential parallel with Atlanta as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, Tina Charles, may be departing. (In a recent interview, a Liberty spokesperson declined to let general manager Jonathan Kolb answer a question about Charles’s status.)
Outside the lottery, the biggest changes may have come in Connecticut. Williams and Stricklen may be in Atlanta, but their production will be largely replaced by DeWanna Bonner, a small forward do-it-all brought in on a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, and Briann January, whose specific skill set — secondary playmaker, dead-eye 3-point shooter and plus defender — is hard to find anywhere else in the league.
“We knew that it was going to be very, very difficult,” said head coach and general manager Curt Miller of juggling his offseason priorities, including re-signing Jonquel Jones. Returning Alyssa Thomas, as a rebounder and playmaker 1A between Bonner and Jones, creates a complementary set of skills that will be hard to beat. “On paper, arguably, it’s maybe the best 3-4-5 combination in the league,” Miller said.
The Sun, barring a last-minute deal, will be observers early on, lacking a first-round pick. So will the Los Angeles Sparks, who traded their 2020 first-rounder last year for Chiney Ogwumike, but they landed an elite talent — Kristi Toliver — in free agency as well.
As for the Las Vegas Aces, they aren’t scheduled to select until the third round. Even so, Las Vegas won’t be resting, not with wheeler-dealer Bill Laimbeer in charge, even after adding McCoughtry and point guard Danielle Robinson in free agency. It’s a change from the past three drafts, when the Aces franchise selected first overall — Kelsey Plum in 2017, A’ja Wilson in 2018 and Jackie Young in 2019.
“When you’re at the top of the draft, you’re getting a lot more phone calls,” Aces GM Dan Padover said. “Nobody’s as interested in number 33.”