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Will The Mystics Repeat? Will The Storm Surge? What To Watch In The WNBA Bubble.

Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman says she sees life “as a big adventure.” That’s part of why the Belgian native decided to play in the 2020 WNBA season in Bradenton, Florida. “I just want to do as much different stuff as possible in my career, and this is one of them.”

This adventure for Meesseman and the rest of the league will tip off on Saturday. The Seattle Storm and New York Liberty take the court at noon ET, a game that features a tantalizing point guard matchup between the legendary Sue Bird of the Storm and the debut of No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu of the Liberty. That game will be followed by the Los Angeles Sparks versus the Phoenix Mercury, a West Coast rivalry that features many of the game’s biggest names, and the Indiana Fever versus the defending champion Mystics, which will pit new Fever head coach Marianne Stanley against her former team.

The six other teams will tip off on Sunday, launching a regular season that will run through Sept. 12. Each team will play every opponent twice for a total of 22 games. While several big-name players — including the Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones and the Mystics’ Tina Charles — have opted out of the WNBA bubble, or “Wubble,” there is still plenty of star power to be found. Here’s what each team will look like in this unprecedented season, based on the rosters they brought to Florida and what we’ve heard about how training camp is going. Teams are listed in reverse order of finish last season. Records are for the regular season only, and players who are new to their teams are denoted with an asterisk.

Atlanta Dream

2019 results: 8-26, missed playoffs
Key players for 2020: C/F Elizabeth Williams, F Glory Johnson*, G Chennedy Carter*

The Dream finished in last place in 2019, just one year after being the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. They were tough to watch on offense, finishing last in the league in points per game (71.2), field-goal percentage (37.1 percent), 3-point shooting percentage (29.0 percent) and offensive rating (89.8). So they shook up the roster in the offseason, acquiring Kalani Brown and Courtney Williams via trade and Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen in free agency. Coupled with the selection of Carter, the NCAA’s sixth-leading scorer for two straight seasons, with the No. 4 pick in the draft, these moves may have been enough to get Atlanta back into the playoffs.

However, when guards Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes decided to sit out, that left Atlanta without five of its top six in points and all of its top six in assists from last season. Only two players — Williams and forward Monique Billings — return, and while the frontcourt looks solid, there are serious questions about Atlanta’s backcourt. Carter will likely have a lot of opportunities to make plays and could contend for Rookie of the Year honors, but the Dream likely need more around her to be a playoff team.

Dallas Wings

2019 results: 10-24, missed playoffs
Key players for 2020: G Arike Ogunbowale, F Kayla Thornton, F Satou Sabally*

When you look at the Wings’ roster, their youth leaps off the page. The oldest player, Thornton, was born in October 1992, and just five players have more than one year of WNBA experience. But the Wings return four starters in Thornton, Rookie of the Year runner-up Ogunbowale, Allisha Gray and Isabelle Harrison, who combined for 63 percent of the team’s points and over half of the team’s assists and steals last season. Adding point guards Moriah Jefferson and Tyasha Harris will allow Ogunbowale to play her natural shooting guard position, and Sabally, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, is an instant impact player at small forward who will give Ogunbowale more space to operate.

The unprecedented schedule, with approximately three games per week at a single neutral site, could also be uniquely beneficial to the Wings. Last season, Dallas was just 2-15 on the road compared with 8-9 at home, and the team actually had a slightly higher winning percentage when playing on one or fewer day’s rest (0.333) than when playing on two or more days’ rest (0.250). Dallas will likely still finish near the bottom of the WNBA standings, but it was one of the biggest winners in this year’s draft, and the team should be back in the playoffs sooner rather than later.

New York Liberty

2019 results: 10-24, missed playoffs
Key players for 2020: G Sabrina Ionescu*, C Amanda Zahui B, G Layshia Clarendon*

Transcendent point guard Ionescu deservedly gets most of the headlines: She averaged 17.5 points, 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds last season for Oregon, and she should instantly boost a Liberty offense that finished 10th in offensive rating in 2019. But she joins a whopping six other rookies, including three other first-round picks, on a New York roster that is slated to tie for the youngest ever in the WNBA.

The Liberty are led by first-year head coach Walt Hopkins, who is reportedly implementing an up-tempo style of play with an emphasis on 3-point shooting. “It will be fast; we really have to have our lungs ready to go,” third-year player Kia Nurse said on Instagram during the offseason. That could be extremely fun to watch, but it will likely take some time to get results, given the youth on the roster and a condensed schedule that gives the team less time to practice together and learn the new system.

Indiana Fever

2019 results: 13-21, missed playoffs
Key players for 2020: C Teaira McCowan, G Kelsey Mitchell, F Natalie Achonwa

Unlike many other teams, Indiana has a lot of continuity from the 2019 season, which could help the Fever make the playoffs for the first time since 2016. The top six scorers return, including two young players who could make big leaps this season in third-year pro Kelsey Mitchell (13.6 points per game in 2019) and second-year pro McCowan (10.0 points, 9.0 rebounds). The returners also include veteran leaders Candice Dupree, who is entering her 15th WNBA season, and Achonwa, Indiana’s longest-tenured player. To that mix, the Fever add No. 3 overall pick Lauren Cox, who averaged 12.5 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior at Baylor, and welcome back Victoria Vivians, a deadly 3-point shooter who missed all of last season with an ACL injury.

Last season, the Fever had a 7-6 record after the All-Star break, showing that they were starting to put all of their pieces together. Though they have a new head coach in Stanley, the talent and continuity on this team should set it up well to make a playoff push.

Phoenix Mercury

2019 results: 15-19, lost in the first round of the playoffs
Key players for 2020: G Diana Taurasi, C Brittney Griner, G Skylar Diggins-Smith*

Phoenix made one of the biggest splashes in free agency, acquiring point guard Diggins-Smith one day after trading forward DeWanna Bonner to Connecticut. The result is a new “Big Three” of Diggins-Smith, Taurasi and Griner that establishes the team as championship contenders. The trio “is going to be hard to guard,” Griner said at the team’s media day. “I don’t know what I would do, honestly. … You can’t take away all three of us.”

Phoenix will also have depth around that trio, something it sorely lacked in last season’s injury-riddled campaign. Brianna Turner and Alanna Smith are entering their second seasons and could be ready to break out, while Shatori Walker-Kimbrough may finally have a chance to show what she can do after playing limited minutes the last few seasons with the Washington Mystics. It may take the revamped roster a little time to gel after losing five of the team’s top six scorers from 2019, which could put the Mercury at a disadvantage in the playoff race, but it’s likely that by September, Phoenix will be a team that no one wants to play.

Seattle Storm

2019 results: 18-16, lost in the second round of the playoffs
Key players for 2020: G Sue Bird, F Breanna Stewart, F Natasha Howard

According to The Next’s Nicholas Niendorf, Seattle finds itself in the enviable position of both returning the most minutes from the 2019 season and bringing back two superstars who missed last season with injuries in Bird (knee) and Stewart (Achilles). As talented as the rest of the league is, that’s borderline unfair, and it’s why Seattle is my pick to win the 2020 WNBA title. While an Achilles injury is one of the hardest in sports to recover from, Stewart said recently that she is in the best shape of her career, and interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg indicated that she had actually improved her 3-point shooting and ballhandling. Meanwhile, Bird is one of the best leaders in the league and holds the all-time records for assists and games played.

Surrounding Stewart and Bird will be 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Howard, savvy shooters Sami Whitcomb and Alysha Clark and uber-quick point guard Jordin Canada. Also in the mix? Six-foot-4 rookie Ezi Magbegor, a member of the Australian national team who will add depth in the frontcourt. This team may be even deeper than the 2018 championship team, which set several records en route to winning 26 regular-season games.

Minnesota Lynx

2019 results: 18-16, lost in the first round of the playoffs
Key players for 2020: C Sylvia Fowles, F Napheesa Collier, G/F Karima Christmas-Kelly

Minnesota swung and missed on some big-name free agents, according to head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve. As a result, some people are looking at the roster and counting Minnesota out. Yet Reeve has a potential MVP in Fowles and last year’s Rookie of the Year Collier leading the way. (Collier is also a co-captain in just her second season, which demonstrates how highly her teammates and coaches regard her.)

With Fowles and Collier in the frontcourt, the questions about the Lynx tend to focus on the backcourt. Point guard may be played by committee, with rookie Crystal Dangerfield and guards Rachel Banham and Lexie Brown all pitching in. Banham, in her first season with the team after being acquired from Connecticut, will likely help the Lynx improve upon their 33.2 percent 3-point shooting from last season, which ranked ninth in the league. But can a point guard rotation fix the team’s Achilles heel last season? The Lynx turned the ball over on 20.5 percent of their offensive possessions, last in the league, which turned into 16.1 points per game for their opponents.

Chicago Sky

2019 results: 20-14, lost in the second round of the playoffs
Key players for 2020: G Courtney Vandersloot, G Allie Quigley, G Diamond DeShields

Like Indiana, Chicago returns nearly its entire roster from 2019, including a trio of All-Stars in Vandersloot, Quigley and DeShields. “That’s the blessing about our team: we came into this season already a cohesive unit,” DeShields said recently. The Sky also have a chip on their shoulder after losing in the second round of the 2019 playoffs on a halfcourt shot. “We’re here to win a championship, so I think that’s the motivation,” Vandersloot said.

In 2019, the Sky finished second in offensive rating but ninth in defensive rating. One of their few new additions could help them bridge that gap. Six-foot-6 forward Azurá Stevens ranked eighth in the WNBA in block percentage as a rookie in Dallas in 2018 while averaging 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds, and head coach James Wade has indicated that he wants her in Chicago for many years to come. The Sky also drafted forward Ruthy Hebard with the eighth overall pick, a move Wade was visibly ecstatic about on draft night. Hebard averaged 17.3 points per game with a field-goal percentage of 68.5 as a senior at Oregon.

Las Vegas Aces

2019 results: 21-13, lost in WNBA semifinals
Key players for 2020: F A’ja Wilson, G/F Angel McCoughtry*, G Kayla McBride

When the Aces signed McCoughtry, a five-time All-Star, it was the rare acquisition that both terrified and confused people outside the organization. It was terrifying because it seemingly cemented Las Vegas as a superteam, with McCoughtry joining All-Stars Liz Cambage, Wilson and McBride — as well as two additional No. 1 overall draft picks in Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. It was confusing because of how hard it would be to get all of those players enough shots, as well as the fact that McCoughtry, a 29 percent career 3-point shooter, would not exactly space the floor for Wilson and Cambage inside.

The Aces look a little different now, with Plum out for the season with an Achilles injury and Cambage sitting out, but the question of how to get everyone enough shots remains. McCoughtry (first), Wilson (fifth), McBride (18th) and reserve Alex Bentley (23rd) all rank among the top 25 active players1 in career usage rate. But this is a problem that many coaches would love to have, and if Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer can solve it effectively, his team should be in good shape to repeat last season’s semifinal run.

Los Angeles Sparks

2019 results: 22-12, lost in WNBA semifinals
Key players for 2020: F/C Candace Parker, F Nneka Ogwumike, G Chelsea Gray

Coming off a trip to the WNBA semifinals, the Sparks return all four double-digit scorers from last season. Parker (11.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in 2019) and Nneka Ogwumike (16.1 points, 8.8 rebounds) have three MVP trophies between them and will keep the Sparks’ frontcourt among the league’s best in 2020. Meanwhile, Gray (14.5 points, 5.9 assists) is among the league’s best point guards, and Riquna Williams (12.3 points) is one of the league’s top shooters and a former Sixth Woman of the Year.

The Sparks sought to strengthen their supporting cast in the offseason by bringing in six new players,2 including guard Brittney Sykes, guard/forward Seimone Augustus and center Marie Gülich. Augustus was one of the biggest surprises of the offseason, signing with Los Angeles after playing 14 seasons for archrival Minnesota and winning the 2017 championship at the Sparks’ expense. If she returns to form after an injury-plagued 2019 season, Augustus could be the X-factor the Sparks were missing in their 2019 semifinals loss to Connecticut.

Connecticut Sun

2019 results: 23-11, lost in WNBA Finals
Key players for 2020: G/F DeWanna Bonner*, F Alyssa Thomas, G Jasmine Thomas

The bad news for the Sun is that they are missing three starters from last season’s WNBA Finals runner-up squad, as MVP candidate Jonquel Jones is sitting out this season and Shekinna Stricklen and Courtney Williams both left for the Atlanta Dream. The good news is that they acquired another MVP candidate in Bonner, who averaged 17.2 points and 7.6 rebounds last season for Phoenix, as well as Briann January, a 38 percent career 3-point shooter who can fill in for Stricklen in that respect.

Off the bench, the Sun have four more newcomers, including 3-point shooter Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and head coach Curt Miller believes his backups are more versatile and athletic than in previous seasons. The Sun are also huge, with eight players standing at least 6 feet tall, which can create mismatches on offense and be disruptive on defense. Ultimately, Connecticut will look to the two Thomases — forward Alyssa and point guard Jasmine, no relation — to set the tone on both ends of the court. That hasn’t changed much from a season ago, and it will likely position them well for another postseason run.

Washington Mystics

2019 results: 26-8, won WNBA Finals
Key players for 2020: F Emma Meesseman, G Ariel Atkins, G Leilani Mitchell*

The day after the Mystics won the first championship in franchise history, head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said he expected everyone to return in 2020 for a chance to repeat. Instead, guard Kristi Toliver signed with Los Angeles and three other players who combined for a whopping 13.5 win shares last season opted out for 2020. Luckily for the Mystics, they still have Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, who contributed 4.0 win shares last season despite missing 11 regular-season games to play for the Belgium national team. She played her best basketball in the playoffs, averaging 19.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and earning the moniker “Playoff Emma,” and Thibault reports that Meesseman has picked up right where she left off.

The question for the Mystics: Can the supporting cast step up enough to counter the “Big Threes” of other top teams? Guard Ariel Atkins (10.3 points per game in 2019) and guard/forward Aerial Powers (11.4 points) look like prime candidates to take the next step in their games. Veteran point guard Leilani Mitchell, who signed with Washington as a free agent after averaging a career-high 12.8 points per game in 2019, will also be counted on to replace some of the lost leadership and 3-point shooting.

While each team has its own set of questions heading into the season’s opening weekend, the big unknown for the entire league is just how the season will play out in the Wubble. “Good, bad, I don’t know yet,” Meesseman said, but “it’s gonna be a real nice story to tell that I was part of that one special season in the WNBA.”

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 1,000 minutes played.

  2. That number doesn’t include Kristi Toliver, who returned to the Sparks during free agency but then opted out of this season.

Jenn Hatfield is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Her work can be found on Her Hoop Stats and The Next.

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