At the end of the 2018 WNBA season, it would have seemed unimaginable that we’d be starting the 2019 campaign without superstars Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and now Candace Parker. But here we are. A fresh logo, slogan, and newly appointed commissioner mean this season will look a little different off the court—but it will on the floor, too, and with change comes opportunity. Rookies just entering the league and some seasoned veterans are in position to have breakout years. So clear some room—here are seven candidates who could have outsize impacts on the league this season:
Jewell Loyd, Seattle Storm
2018 stats: 15.5 ppg, 3.7 assists
After winning the WNBA championship last September, the Storm were back in the news in April for all the wrong reasons, as their star and reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart (who averaged 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season) injured her Achilles playing overseas (which sparked its own conversation about the league’s business model). Five days after the Stewart news broke, Storm head coach Dan Hughes announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer and will undergo surgery before the May 25 season opener.
But Loyd is here to quiet the … storm. “I know that with Stewie not being here that there’s more on me,” Loyd told the Seattle Times last week. “I had to carry teams before and I had to be the main focus so it’s nothing new to me. It’s just the opportunity that I have now to prove myself again on another level.” She recorded career high per-game numbers in rebounding (4.6) and assists (3.7) last season, and she seems ready to pick things up where she left off in 2019. Sue Bird is entering her 17th year in the league, and will surely still do what Sue Bird does—don’t count her out yet!—but no one is looking to her to be the main driver of the team’s offense this season. That responsibility could shift to the 5-foot-10 Loyd, who attacks the paint off the dribble and can also hit from behind the arc—she shot 37 percent last season. She’s dialed in to do more of the same this summer, and if the Storm has any hopes of making another deep playoff run, they’re going to need her to.
Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta Dream
2018 stats: 17.2 ppg (career high), 44.1 FG%
Hayes won’t be the WNBA’s best kept secret for long. We already know she’s great, but this may be the year she solidifies her spot as a dominant player. The Dream will sorely miss their franchise player, Angel McCoughtry, at the start of the season, who went down toward the end of the regular season last year with torn ligaments in her knee. (She’s still on a month-to-month strength evaluation.) But Hayes, the eight-year vet, is poised to pick up the slack. She led the team in points per game (17.2, a career high) and in minutes played (29) last season, and she was the team’s leading scorer in 2017 (when McCoughtry sat out the season to rest).
Although Atlanta is still McCoughtry’s team, Hayes has stepped up when it counts. The 5-foot-10 guard earned her first All-Star selection in 2017, but the team didn’t do so hot; the Dream went 12-22, including a nine-game losing streak. With McCoughtry back in the lineup last year, they were back on top and seemed like a playoff contender, but then she got hurt and they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, Hayes can put up the points and hit buzzer-beaters, but the question is: Can she keep the squad’s record afloat this season?
Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky
2018 stats: 8.6 assists per game (league leader)
Last season was a tale of two Vandersloots: pre All-Star Game Vandersloot, and the player she turned into after her All-Star game snub. The nine-year vet had a chip on her shoulder throughout the second half of the season, and she wore it proudly. She went on a tear and recorded 50 assists over four games, setting a WNBA record, and she logged six double-doubles over Chicago’s last 10 games. Before the All-Star announcement, Vandersloot averaged 9.9 points and 8.4 assists per game, but afterward, those figures jumped to 14.8 points and 9.9 assists over a month-long period. Don’t expect that pace to slow this year.
Part of her continued success stems from the additional weapons Vandersloot will have around her this season. With the fourth pick in the draft, the Sky selected UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson, a 6-foot-3 guard who shot 37.6 percent from 3 last season on a team-high 237 attempts. With another finishing threat, Vandersloot’s assists should continue to skyrocket. Earlier this month, in the Sky’s first preseason game against the Fever, Vandersloot had six assists, two of them coming off of Samuelson 3s. That type of two-person game is something we can get used to seeing.
The Sky also have a new general manager and head coach in James Wade, which also leans in Vandersloot’s favor. Wade coached her overseas at top Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg this past offseason, and together they won the EuroLeague Championship in April. Now that she’s gotten a taste of the hardware, she’ll do whatever it takes to get the Sky back into the playoff conversation this year.
Odyssey Sims, Minnesota Lynx
2018 stats: 8.2 ppg, 2.8 assists
Sims is known for her spunky energy and getting in your grill on the defensive end. She can just as easily knock shots down from deep as she can speedily drive through the lane for a floater. Last season with the Sparks, she played behind All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray. But she was traded to Minnesota this offseason, and there she’s poised to have a much bigger role. Without future Hall of Famer Lindsay Whalen and star Maya Moore (who’s taking the season off), Sims will have room to work and be looked to as one of the Lynx’s top scorers.
In the team’s opening preseason game against the Mystics, it was clear Sims has the green light to score. She dropped 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting with seven assists off the bench. She displayed spurts of that ability last season, as she recorded 11 games in double figures, but now she’s going to need to help make up for Moore’s missing 18 points per game. She has plenty of assets around her. Sylvia Fowles was a walking double-double machine for the second season in a row last year, averaging 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, and vet Seimone Augustus signed back on for her 14th season after averaging 10.8 points a game last year. Along with first-round draft pick Napheesa Collier, who’ll come off the bench and add top-tier shooting and a strong inside game, Sims’s leadership could have Minnesota back as a title contender.
Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings
2018 stats, Notre Dame: 21.8 ppg, 3.8 assists
With Diggins-Smith out (we don’t know for how long) and Liz Cambage’s recent move to the Aces, there’s space on the Wings for incoming talent to make an immediate impact. And coming off a national championship loss to Baylor, Notre Dame product Arike Ogunbowale is ready to bring the 21.8 points per game she averaged last season into the WNBA. Her playmaking abilities and aggressiveness will be immediate boons to the Wings, and Ogunbowale also has a proven track record in big-time situations. Plus, Diggins-Smith knows firsthand the Muffet McGraw system Ogunbowale is coming from, which will make their fit all the better when they do share the floor. The 5-foot-8 guard couldn’t have been drafted to a better team at a better time.
Megan Gustafson, the Wings’ second-round pick and last year’s NCAA scoring leader, could also help fill the rebounding/scoring hole that Cambage left. And having her to pass to in the post is not only going to pad Ogunbowale’s stats, but could help this team make its third consecutive playoff berth.
Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces
2018 stats, Notre Dame: 14.7 ppg, 45.2 percent from 3
The no. 1 overall pick that almost wasn’t. Young didn’t declare for the draft until hours before the deadline April 8, forfeiting her last year of eligibility at Notre Dame. But, hey, it worked out pretty well for Sin City. The Aces finished 14-19 last season, good for last place in the Western Conference, despite having 2018 no. 1 pick A’ja Wilson lead the charge with 20.7 points per game. The team has new pieces all over the floor—including Cambage!—but even factoring in some growing pains, they look ready to make some noise this year. Young’s efficient shooting only adds fuel to the fire.
She finished last season knocking down 52.8 percent of her field goals and going 14-of-31 from beyond the arc. Paired with her length and her ability to get stops on defense, Young fits in seamlessly alongside the now-healthy Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum, and Wilson. By adding Cambage to the lethal lineup, the Aces look virtually unstoppable. Young says that she still needs to get adjusted to the pace of the game and terminology, but once she does, the team will have a solid shot at bringing the Rookie of the Year trophy to Vegas for the second season in a row.
Han Xu, New York Liberty
2018 stats, Xinjiang: 16 ppg, 8.6 rebounds and 2 blocks
At 6-foot-9 and 19 years old, Xu was the youngest and tallest prospect in this year’s draft. Some have even billed her as the Yao Ming of the WNBA. “I am OK with the comparison and see it as an expectation that I have to meet,” Xu said through a translator to Newsday earlier this month. “It is common to be compared [to Yao] because of my nationality and my height and being the second Chinese player drafted into the WNBA.” In her first preseason game against the Chinese national team, she boosted the Liberty to victory with 19 points and five rebounds. Quick-turnaround shots from the low block showcase her footwork and soft touch, which should help her fit in with key returners Kia Nurse and Tina Charles. And Xu will be able to capitalize on lob passes and pick-and-roll action with floor general Brittany Boyd. Playing alongside these dynamic players will only help turn her into a force in the Eastern Conference.
Xu is the first graduate of the NBA Academy—an elite training center that develops top international talent—to be drafted by the WNBA, but she won’t likely be the last. Watch out for up-and-coming 17-year-old Finland prospect Awak Kuier, whose soaring, reverse-two-handed dunk took over social media last week. These breakout players rising to the occasion and prospects showing their fearlessness are what make this league—and its future—so damn exciting.
An earlier version of this story misstated the Las Vegas Aces’ record last season; it was 14-19, not 4-19.