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The WNBA Training Camp Battles To Watch

As usual this time of year, the fast-forward button is stuck on the VCR playing the 2021 women’s basketball schedule. (Kids, ask your parents what a VCR is.) An unconventional 2020-21 college basketball season ended in thrilling fashion on April 4, followed quickly by the 2021 WNBA draft on April 15. Now WNBA training camps are open, preseason games begin next week, and the WNBA’s 25th season tips off on May 14. Got all that? I know, it’s a lot.

But with the draft now long behind us, relatively speaking, we’re headed into an express evaluation period, with both playing time and roster spots up for grabs. Let’s take a look at the biggest decisions ahead.

We’ll start in Dallas, where Wings president Greg Bibb and head coach Vickie Johnson have one of those embarrassment-of-riches problems you hear so much about: too many versatile bigs. They drafted 6-foot-5 Charli Collier first overall out of Texas and 6-foot-4 Awak Kuier from Finland second, just a year after selecting 6-foot-4 Satou Sabally second in the 2020 draft, followed shortly thereafter by 6-foot-4 Bella Alarie fifth overall. Those four are part of the Wings’ preseason roster, though overseas commitments will stagger their debuts, along with veteran bigs Isabelle Harrison and Megan Gustafson. All six — even Gustafson, who remade herself as a versatile big after maxing out her Mikan Drills at Iowa — can play a modern WNBA stretch 4 or 5.

Now, in a world where I got to see all my curiosities indulged, Dallas would do things like roll out a lineup with Collier at the 5, Kuier at the 4, Sabally at the 3 and Alarie going back to her high school guard roots as a shooting guard around, say, Arike Ogunbowale. But since they are a basketball team and not a fever dream (let alone the Fever or the Dream), they’ll probably deploy a typical complement of wings and guards as well, which leaves fewer spots for this sextet. From this view, Alarie’s ability to handle the 5 defensively should make her the incumbent in that spot, while Collier would be a perfect stretch 4 next to her. 

We still need to see more efficiency from Sabally, who many around the league feel has the highest ceiling of the entire group, and Kuier needs to get reps. Harrison and Gustafson could struggle to get minutes, reflecting the strength of Dallas coupled with a need for Bibb and company to see what they have in a quartet of high picks.

Speaking of an embarrassment of riches, consider the Atlanta Dream at point guard. Last year’s fourth overall pick, Chennedy Carter, was as productive as any rookie on a per-game basis, with only a midyear injury costing her Rookie of the Year honors. So naturally, in this year’s draft, the Dream took … Aari McDonald of Arizona, who many believed was the best point guard in the draft. This is not, however, the problem it might first appear, even before taking into account how much fun head coach Nicki Collen can have deploying two-point-guard sets.

McDonald is a better defensive player than Carter — the former is as effective as getting into passing lanes and grabbing steals as anyone since Lexie Brown — while Carter is well over a point per possession better, per Synergy, in virtually every off-the-ball offensive category. Knowing McDonald can run things while Carter looms as a lethal isolation option is going to stretch defenses in ways that will benefit the Dream, while Collen can keep each one fresh by alternating them. After all, the Dream don’t lack for options at the 2 guard, either, with Tiffany Hayes and Courtney Williams if you prefer your scoring in the midrange, or long-range threats like Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. 

Again, I understand that teams don’t run out lineups for my benefit, but I sure hope at some point that Collen tries a super-small four-guard set with Hayes as the nominal 4, Walker-Kimbrough to stretch the floor at small forward (or even Shekinna Stricklen, I’m flexible), with McDonald and Carter in the backcourt. Ask Elizabeth Williams to get all the rebounds — she can do it.

Maybe the most intriguing of the roster battles out of the draft comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Sparks, who at No. 10 picked Stephanie Watts, a combo guard most recently at North Carolina. A round later, the Sparks got the steal of the second round, selecting Arella Guirantes 22nd overall out of Rutgers. Guirantes is a top-five talent who can defend at an elite level, shoot the three, distribute, everything you need out of a 5-foot-11 guard.

All of which makes for a fascinating battle, since the roster space for a guard in Los Angeles starts to get tight when you count up. There’s Kristi Toliver, of course, back from her 2020 opt-out, and the re-signed Brittney Sykes, a stopper and athletic scorer. Erica Wheeler, signed away from Indiana, will be the starting point guard. Seimone Augustus proved last year that she’s got plenty left in the tank, Te’a Cooper performed well as a backup point guard, and Sydney Wiese is more of a 2 than a 3.

So the Sparks are going to have trouble finding room for both Watts and Guirantes. But would they really be willing to keep their 22nd pick but not their 10th? Guirantes will need to convince Derek Fisher, Los Angeles’s general manager and coach, to keep her on the team. Bottom line: Guirantes is among the best 130-something players in the world. She needs to be on someone’s roster.

There are other fascinating questions, to be sure. After the Indiana Fever shocked the world by selecting guard Kysre Gondrezick with the fourth overall pick, will she be the primary ball handler, or will Kelsey Mitchell play the 1 for the most part? How does the battle for minutes at the 3 between Rennia Davis, Minnesota’s steal of a ninth overall pick, shake out with the criminally underrated Bridget Carleton and returning Jessica Shepard in tow? Can Dana Evans, the Louisville playmaker who dropped to No. 13 in the draft, overtake the three incumbent Dallas point guards in Moriah Jefferson, Ty Harris and Marina Mabrey?

Think fast, WNBA teams: The rosters must be set by May 13.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.