All-Star games are usually an afterthought in any sport, with little defense played, the results largely meaningless. It’s generally no different in the WNBA.
This year, well, expect it to be different.
For one thing, it isn’t East vs. West. It will be the USA Basketball team headed to Tokyo on one side and Team WNBA, a collection of the best WNBA players who aren’t on USA Basketball’s final roster on the other. That creates significant, abnormal incentives for both teams playing.
For the USA Basketball team, it will be its best pre-Olympics test. Indeed, it may well be that the WNBA’s best who aren’t playing for Team USA still constitute a better team than any that the Americans will face in the Olympics, though Australia and Canada may have something to say about that.
As for those who aren’t on the final USA Basketball team, well, there are plenty of folks with an ax to grind about that. There’s the opportunity to prove, on a big stage, that you really belonged on that team headed to Tokyo.
I expect defense to be played. I expect the results to matter. I am ready for a basketball game, not a mere exhibition.
Accordingly, we’re going to present to you a WNBA voting guide, since you have the chance, right now, to weigh in on who should face Team USA.
Let’s briefly talk about the selection process for this this team of All-Stars. The fan vote will count for 50 percent of the final tally, while players and media (full disclosure, myself included) will account for 25 percent each. Then, WNBA coaches will choose 12 players from the list of the top 36 vote-getters aren’t on USA Basketball’s final 5×5 roster to face Team USA.
Let’s move on to how that team might shape up. I’m going to take some leaps here: It’s a roster of 12, slightly more than the four backcourt and six frontcourt players fans can currently select, and it involves projecting to an extent which players will be in that pool of 36.
For purposes of this exercise, I’m picking 10 that adhere to the fan ballot — four backcourt, six frontcourt — and then adding two others to get us to 12:
Backcourt picks: Courtney Vandersloot, Arike Ogunbowale, Betnijah Laney, Sami Whitcomb
Frontcourt picks: Liz Cambage, Jonquel Jones, Ruthy Hebard, Brianna Turner, Kayla Thornton, DeWanna Bonner
Additional picks: Dearica Hamby, Nneka Ogwumike
Let’s start in the backcourt. It’s fascinating to consider the decision that Courtney Vandersloot, born and raised in the United States, made to become a citizen of Hungary in 2016. At the time, few thought that Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird would play well into the next Olympics, or that this would be true even if those Olympics were delayed a year by, say, a global pandemic. But they have, and it means that the path for the player who may be the best point guard of her generation would have been blocked at the start level once again. It also means that Vandersloot, having another vintage season, will provide playmaking skills for the WNBA All-Star team that faces a pair of potential five-time gold medalists. The Chicago Sky floor general easily leads the WNBA in assist percentage among qualifiers. And this is nothing new.
Joining her in my backcourt is the league’s fourth-leading scorer in Arike Ogunbowale, who is having the now-typical Arike season: loads of buckets and shooting it from anywhere, with no shot too tough to take. But she has also roughly tripled her attempts around the basket and elevated her threes, making her overall offensive profile even more dangerous for Dallas opponents.
Then there’s Betnijah Laney of the New York Liberty, the model of the modern major combo guard so far this season. She scored 20-plus in each of her first eight games, she’s managed to increase her assist percentage to 32 as she’s helped run the offense during some recent downtime from Sabrina Ionescu. Laney has also continued to defend at the high level she always did before her offensive game reached its current heights, and she’ll be pose a matchup problem for Team USA’s guards.
Finally, there’s her teammate in New York, Sami Whitcomb. Once again, Whitcomb has taken her game to another level, with an expanded role after helping the Seattle Storm win championships in 2018 and 2020. Her true shooting percentage is up to 71.4 this year, powered by a nearly 50 percent clip from 3-point range, while she can defend positions 1-3 on the other end — it is no accident Walt Hopkins has started her in all 13 games. Imagine how Australia’s head coach Sandy Brondello, who left Whitcomb off the Olympic team, will feel if Whitcomb leads the WNBA All-Stars to a win over Team USA?
Leading the way In the frontcourt is an Australian who will feature in Tokyo, center Liz Cambage. She presents matchup problems for essentially everyone in the world, at 6-foot-8 with broad-based skills. If Australia allows her to participate, she may benefit from a trial run for potentially bigger games ahead.
Fellow bigs Jonquel Jones of Connecticut (an early MVP candidate) and Ruthy Hebard of Chicago are also easy selections, though they do overlap some in skill set. But each has been an efficient scorer around the basket while offering her team stout defending, and both can pair with Cambage to present different looks inside.
The same is true for Brianna Turner, whose shot-blocking has been a constant since she entered the league. She has turned herself into a effective finisher at the rim while reversing the troubling trend from last year of wandering farther away from basket (which, to be fair, was partly to offset Brittney Griner’s offensive dip).
Rounding out the first 10 selections are Kayla Thornton of Dallas and DeWanna Bonner of Connecticut, with each player providing versatility at each end. Thornton’s ability to guard positions 2-4 is a critical reason why Vickie Johnson’s Wings are one of the early WNBA surprises, and Bonner, at a wiry 6-foot-4, can get off her shot over or around virtually anyone.
That leaves us two spots to get to 12, and I’m going to give one of them to Las Vegas do-everything forward Dearica Hamby, who doesn’t start but logs starter minutes, hits clutch shots and can defend any position, a vital skill when facing Team USA’s versatility.
Finally: Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who has played only five games this season, is on this team. It was upsetting to many in the Ogwumike orbit when Nneka, who has been an integral part of the national team for years, was left off the Tokyo-bound roster. Head coach Dawn Staley cited the injury that’s kept her out for much of the season, but she should be back and healthy by the time of the All-Star Game.
Is there a better show available than Ogwumike playing with something to prove?
Most All-Star games don’t matter. This one feels like it will.
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.
CLARIFICATION (June 22, 2021, 5:40 p.m.): This article has been updated to include Jonquel Jones in the All-Star lineup.