Within the WNBA, its 2021 season is in its opening stages – and already so much has happened it feels as if an entire campaign has played out only in its first week or so.
Two teams that were expected to be contenders are mired at the bottom of the standings while two teams that were projected to be lottery teams are looking like playoff contenders in the early going.
Of course, we have a long way to go – and awards and championships are anything but won in May. But, here are five observations so far from the early days of the W’s 25th anniversary season.
Of course, one of the focal points of plenty of preseason hoop-la were the release of the new uniforms Nike unveiled for our 12 teams. We have seen how these fits look while watching games on television (or in person) and these updated threads look arguably every bit as good on the court as they did when the Swoosh did its initial release.
Without question, these new uniforms have only made the viewing experience for WNBA games much better as these jerseys look more like actual basketball jerseys. No disrespect to the old uniforms worn by players the last couple of years, but compared to these new uniforms, those old threads looked more like NASCAR on hardwood with the sponsor logos being so prominent that it was hard to tell who was who.
It particularly helps for casual fans as they will actually know who is A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart or Sabrina Ionescu.
Emerging from the Lottery
Speaking of Ionescu’s team, there were not too many who expected that the New York Liberty would begin the season at 4-1. At this point in the season, only the Connecticut Sun (more on them later) have a better record at an unbeaten 5-0.
That one blemish so far against the Liberty came on the road at the Washington Mystics – and Tina Charles who scored 34 points in what was clearly a revenge game in the Mystics’ 101-72 rout of the Lib. Outside of that contest in the Nation’s Capital, New York has, in the early stages of this season, returned to the winning ways Lib Loyals have come to known for 25 seasons.
There is a second team that appears on the verge of emerging from the purgatory that is the lottery. That team is the Dallas Wings. Of course, we are a long way from the postseason, but if that postseason were to begin today, the Wings would be the sixth seed in the playoffs.
Dallas currently stands at 1-1 prior to its get-together with the Liberty at Barclays Center on Monday Night – a game that was originally supposed to be on Tuesday night but was moved because of Game 2 of the NBA playoffs first round between the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets. But that one game, so far, that the Wings have dropped came in an overtime loss to the defending champion Seattle Storm. Coaches may dislike the term “moral victory,” but that had to be as close to a moral victory as possible, taking the champs to the limit.
Dallas’ strategy of stockpiling draft picks may finally be starting to pay off.
Naj and Natisha
As for those resurgent Liberty, there are plenty of reasons why New York has found itself near the top of the W’s perch once again. Of course, Ionescu. Then, there’s Michaela Onyenwere who early on is looking like she is after that Rookie of the Year award.
Then – there is Betnijah Laney. Ex-Chicago Sky and ex-Indiana Fever. She has began the season in emphatic fashion and proving that last season when she averaged 17 points in the bubble for the Atlanta Dream en route to Most Improved Player was no fluke. Laney has scored at least 20 points in all five of New York’s contests this season and has provided clutch baskets when the black and seafoam needed them most. Remember – this season will have an All-Star Game even though it is an Olympic year. The way Laney has been balling, Lib Loyals may need to stuff ballots for Laney when All-Star voting season comes around.
Another notable who has surprised this season has been Natisha Hiedeman of the Connecticut Sun. The undefeated Sun needed someone who could fill the (big) shoes left by the injury to Alyssa Thomas. So far, Hiedeman has put up a very Engine-esque 14.3 points per game for Connecticut and has been a major spark plug to the Sun’s unblemished start to the season. Laney was last year’s Most Improved Player and Hiedeman in the early start to the 2021 campaign is making a great case to have her name engraved on that award for this season.
Speaking of those Sun …
We think we can scrap the whole #disrespeCT thing, because what Curt Miller and the Sun are doing so far has been very #effeCTive.
The loss of Thomas, who injured herself while playing overseas, was supposed to be an ailment that was going to hamper Connecticut for this season. Thanks to Hiedeman, Jasmine Thomas and a Jonquel Jones that the Sun did not have last season in the bubble, Connecticut is maintaining a perfect 5-0 mark and establishing themselves early as the team to beat in the WNBA.
A 5-0 start implies the Sun are getting it done against teams they should beat (such as the Atlanta Dream on opening night) and the Las Vegas Aces, who the Sun recently dispatched of. Teams playing Miller’s Sun need to bring their best because it is a guarantee Connecticut will bring its.
On the other end of the WNBA landscape right now is the Indiana Fever. Marianne Stanley’s Fever team, similar to Miller’s Sun and Hopkins’ Liberty have been a team that has played plenty of games early on. Unlike Connecticut and New York, the results have not been as rosy.
Going into this past Sunday, the Fever had bean the season at 0-4 which included a pair of losses to New York in their first two games. Indiana then got itself into the win column after its recent win over the Mystics. It was an 89-77 decision where Indiana got 18 points from Kelsey Mitchell along with 17 each courtesy of Jessica Breland and Teaira McCowan.
There is still plenty of season to go – and it will tell if Stanley is, perhaps, the correct coach for what is a young and talented Fever team that added a few veteran players in free agency such as Danielle Robinson and Jantel Lavender. After all, the Sun began last year’s campaign in the bubble with a slow start, then peaked prior to the postseason and got to within one win over Las Vegas shy of a return trip to the Finals.
But let us also remember that this is the same Indiana Fever team that, in the last season under Pokey Chatman, which was 2019, was only two games shy of a playoff berth. Not everything, of course, can be put on the coach as Indiana over the years have been a team set back by injuries. But there is pressure for Stanley to get results for what is still a rebuilding Fever team.