The 16th annual WNBA All-Star weekend made plenty of headlines: Team Wilson won 129-126; undrafted, first-time All-Star Erica Wheeler tearfully accepted her MVP award; and Brittney Griner became the first player in the contest’s history to record multiple dunks—including a two-hand slam. But the midseason “break” was short-lived, as all 12 teams are back in action this week, starting with three tipoffs on Tuesday. Players are now focused on qualifying for postseason play, which begins September 11. So as we enter the season’s second half, here are the five biggest story lines to watch:
How Will the Aces Handle A’ja Wilson’s Injury?
The two-time All-Star missed this weekend’s festivities due to a left ankle sprain she suffered on July 19, and that situation is one Vegas fans will continue to monitor after the fanfare from this weekend leaves the Strip. Wilson is expected to be out for weeks, according to coach Bill Laimbeer, a timetable that projects her to return pretty close to the start of the playoffs. Wilson was averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting 49 percent from the field prior to the injury. She was the eighth-leading scorer in the league, right behind her teammate and fellow Slam cover model, Liz Cambage.
The 13-6 Aces are no. 2 in the WNBA standings, but not by a comfortable margin—they’re just two games up on the sixth-seeded Seattle Storm. But Wilson and her teammates are positive about her return. “We just have to work through it,” fellow All-Star Kayla McBride told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the team’s last game before the break—their first time playing without their star since she was drafted first in April 2018. “It’s a collective effort for us. That’s what it’s been all year. We just want her to recover and get back with us, but for now everybody (will) step up and do a little bit more.”
That “little bit more” means finding a way to replace Wilson’s scoring and work on the boards. Last week Laimbeer said the team will be looking to add a player who can help fill that role before the August 6 trade deadline. The Aces will need an addition who can bang in the post and ensure the Aces have little drop-off when forward Dearica Hamby needs a breather. Guards McBride, Kelsey Plum, and no. 1 pick Jackie Young will also have to step up as they get more touches without Wilson on the floor. But will that be enough to keep Las Vegas close to the top of the standings?
Rookie of the Year Watch
Lynx rookie Napheesa Collier replaced Wilson in the All-Star Game, which made her the only first-year player in Saturday’s contest. Through the season’s halfway mark, Collier leads all rookies in minutes and steals, and is Minnesota’s third-highest scorer. But despite the former UConn All-American’s solid first impression, the Rookie of the Year race isn’t over yet.
Wings rookie Arike Ogunbowale has blossomed into her team’s go-to scorer (ahem, which we predicted before the season started). She’s leading all rookies with 14.2 points per game on 15.2 field goal attempts. Dallas coach Brian Agler is well aware he has an emerging star on his team. “With everything that’s on her shoulders and how defenses are playing her, they’re playing her like she’s our no. 1 option. ... We want the ball in her hands,” Agler said two weeks ago. “When you get pro teams that are trying to focus on you like that, I don’t care who you are, it’s difficult. But I’m really proud how she’s responded and handled it.”
Another rookie in the conversation is former Mississippi State rebounding machine and current Indiana Fever defensive powerhouse Teaira McCowan. No, you can’t win ROY for a GIF (we wish), but her stats speak for themselves. She leads her team and all rookies in boards and blocks per game with 8.0 and 1.4 respectively. So far, she’s had seven games with 10 or more rebounds, including one this month against the Sky when she hauled in 16. This rookie class has had a solid half of the season to test the pro waters, and whoever kicks it into high gear for the remaining games will earn the right to lift a Tiffany and Co. trophy come September.
The Diana Taurasi Question
Taurasi made headlines earlier this month when she shared her views on the current state of the league with espnW—and she didn’t hold back. “In the last 11 years, I think we’ve had a 1.5 percent increase in our pay salary. I mean, who doesn’t leave that job?” she said about her and Storm star Sue Bird’s virtually nonexistent pay increases. “And it’s just shocking to me, as we have the NBA as the best model ever. But the WNBA always finds a way to mess it up. I just don’t get it.”
Taurasi has played in only one game this season—a July 12 loss against Connecticut—as she’s recovered from an April back surgery. Her Phoenix Mercury squad has held down the fort, though. Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner are the league’s two top scorers, averaging 19.1 and 18.7 points per game, respectively, and the two All-Stars have kept the Mercury within striking distance (they currently occupy the no. 7 seed). But Taurasi aggravated her back in that July 12 contest, and now the question is: Can Phoenix stay consistent without the help of its 15-year vet?
Last season, at 36 years old, Taurasi was tied for third in the league in scoring. She averaged 3.2 made 3s, knocked down 92.5 percent of her free throws, and the team made it to the conference finals. And she still has more left in the tank. Taurasi told ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss that she hasn’t felt “this good in a while.” Now Phoenix is hoping that, with 16 regular-season games left, the team’s superstar will get healthy and aid in the stretch run. Weinfuss asked the future Hall of Famer if she thought about calling it quits after her surgery. “No, no, no, no. I got ... no way,” she said. “I still love to play too much.” Basketball fans still love to watch her in action, so hopefully we’ll get to again soon.
How Will Last Year’s Finals Teams Fare in the Second Half?
The Seattle Storm swept the Washington Mystics 3-0 during last year’s championship series. Briana Stewart and Sue Bird couldn’t be stopped, and the Mystics lost two of the games by double digits. That served to only motivate Washington’s star forward Elena Delle Donne, and this season, she’s gunning for her second MVP award. “I don’t think I’ll ever let it go,” she told the Wizards Talk podcast about the series loss. “But I think it’s something that can fuel you.”
Lately, Delle Donne has adopted a new moniker: the “Masked Mystic.” She’s earned this by playing with a protective cover across her face after sitting out two games with a broken nose. And mask or no mask, she’s playing at an incredible pace. She’s shooting 40 percent from 3 while averaging four attempts a game, and she’s missed only two free throws all season. Before the break, she returned from her injury and immediately dropped 28 points in back-to-back games. Now, her team is rolling on a three-game win streak and sits just a half game out of first place. Point guard Kristi Toliver virtually can’t miss (she scored 32 points in their last contest), Emma Meesseman has returned to the depth chart after sitting out last season, and Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud’s roles are only growing.
The Seattle Storm, meanwhile, are a top-six team despite [inhales] losing their MVP to an Achilles injury and their HOF point guard to a knee injury; their third option, Jewell Loyd, also missed a portion of the season due to an ankle injury, and their coach, Dan Hughes, missed the season’s first half as he deals with cancer. Yet the Storm are still 12-9. If they can somehow find their way through their first-half troubles and pull off a deep run in the playoffs, this season will be one for the books.
There’s still a long road to go, though, and it’s one the team may have to travel without power forward Natasha Howard, who is currently being investigated by the league because of domestic abuse claims Howard’s wife made against her two weeks ago. Howard has not been suspended, but the WNBA has said it is “in the process of gathering additional information.” (The league has no formal process in place for domestic-violence-related suspensions or other mandated time off while it investigates.)
All Eyes on the New WNBA Commissioner
Cathy Engelbert was appointed as the first WNBA commissioner in May, and she had her work cut out for her from the jump. She’s already faced difficult situations, including the league’s investigation into the L.A. Sparks’ Riquna Williams over a domestic violence incident involving an ex-girlfriend (Williams was suspended 10 games), and she’ll be expected to take charge of this Howard situation as well.
The former Deloitte CEO and Lehigh University student-athlete gave her first press conference Saturday, and she discussed numerous topics including the upcoming CBA deadline (October 31) and how the league plans to capitalize on the rise in women’s sports recognition. Engelbert also introduced a new initiative with USA Basketball as the women’s team prepares to go for its seventh consecutive gold medal in next year’s Olympics. The expanded national team program, led by Bird, Taurasi, and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, will be a paid amplified training program with the goal to keep the athletes home in the offseason and forgo overseas contracts.
With a league in desperate need of some changes (salary increases, improved travel conditions, and better attendance, to name a few), Engelbert will serve an important role in an organization that’s going through a pivotal rebrand. Yes, the WNBA is the only women’s professional league that’s been around for more than two decades—a common talking point for the commissioner—but how can it survive another 20? Engelbert may still be in her starting blocks, but onlookers eagerly await her answer to that question, and more.