Halfway into this abbreviated 22-game WNBA season, the league’s top talent is on full display—and it’s been a beautiful thing to watch. Superstars like Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, and Candace Parker are performing like superstars and have positioned their teams to make the playoffs. Every Aces-Sky matchup is must-see TV, and the Fever continue to be a bright spot in the Eastern Conference. So far, though, I’ve been most intrigued by the players who didn’t get a lot of attention this preseason but are putting together exciting campaigns within the “wubble.”
A reminder: There are only 144 players in the WNBA. One hundred and forty-four! Not even a secluded bubble can hide the fact it is flat-out hard to keep your position on a roster in this league. But the reality is that with the overflowing talent that this league possesses, each player is capable of having a record-breaking night every night. Maybe it’s the elimination of travel in between games, or the nostalgic AAU-style environment, but either way these women are ballin’. So to celebrate their achievements—and to look ahead to the next month-plus of basketball—here are the 12 players to watch for in the season’s second half.
Atlanta Dream: Betnijah Laney
Shame on you if you’re only just now recognizing Laney’s greatness. From her butter-smooth free throw stroke to her no-quit attitude, she’s taking no prisoners. Laney has had a chip on her shoulder ever since she was waived by the Fever in June, and that’s fueled her to lead this young Dream team. Nine players on Atlanta’s roster have less than five years’ experience in the league, and those women look to Laney for veteran leadership. Rookie Chennedy Carter has been getting all the attention on this team—I mean, rightfully so; she’s making it look easy—but Laney’s 17.0 points and team-leading 1.6 steals per game have been a surprising boon. The most impressive part of Laney’s game this season, though, has been the year-over-year improvement she’s shown across the board:
She nearly doubled her 3-point percentage (20.8 to 40.4) this season and tripled her scoring rate (5.1 to 17.0) in a 12-game sample size. While Carter misses time due to an ankle injury, Laney’s teammates and fans should expect her to keep calling her own number and filling up the box score. This might be a building year for Atlanta, but with Laney playing like this and Carter playing like this, the Dream have plenty of momentum. In a couple of years, this squad is going to be a problem.
Chicago Sky: Kahleah Copper
This Chicago team is so entertaining. It felt like the Sky were robbed of their championship chances last season, and every win since has been an emphatic “I told you so!” While teams around the league were moving pieces during free agency, the Sky kept the core of their 20-14 team intact—and this group came back even better. Copper is imperative to that success; her season-to-season improvement has even started some Most Improved Player rumblings. If there’s a rare miss by sharpshooter Allie Quigley, Copper crashes the board for the cleanup; if the defense overplays the guards on the perimeter, Copper slashes to the rim for a quick bucket. Her electric speed and shiftiness allows her to work inside the paint (despite her 6-foot-1 stature), and those skills have even earned her a starting role.
Copper has drained her shot more often than not this season (52 percent from the field), but her hustle is what’s going to make the difference for a team that’s trying to make a deep playoff run. Look at her stay with the play and get an easy putback here:
The Sky as a team are fun to watch, but witnessing Copper develop into an essential role player might be my favorite part.
Connecticut Sun: Kaila Charles
The Sun’s unexpected 0-5 start this season had everyone a little shook. The team’s blockbuster trade for DeWanna Bonner in February made it seem like Connecticut was trying to get back to its winning ways, but it wasn’t enough early on. The question soon became: Who else is going to step up? And that person has been rookie Kaila Charles.
Charles has brought the defensive intensity that the team needed, and she earned a starting job because of it. Charles told The Next earlier this month that her confidence is growing because of her teammates’ positive comments about her tenacity during practice. “It is definitely cool hearing DB [DeWanna Bonner] talking about ‘Oh, I don’t want Kaila guarding me today,’” she said. “These are the greats, and they think I can guard them.” Charles is now tasked with guarding top players around the league, and so far it’s working. The Sun have gone 3-1 in her four starts, and in one of those much-needed wins, she held Betnijah Laney to just three points. Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller loves Charles’s motor and said recently: “She’s one hell of a player.”
Dallas Wings: Allisha Gray
Most of the Wings headlines tend to mention Arike Ogunbowale, which is understandable. She was the runner-up Rookie of the Year last season, and this season, she’s leading the league in scoring with 21.4 points per game. But Gray is a necessary complementary piece for this young Dallas team. Gray currently has a six-game double-digit scoring streak going, and she’s leading her team in field goal percentage at 45.7 percent. According to ESPN’s Holly Rowe, Gray came into her fourth season in incredible shape and with razor-sharp focus to contribute to this team. And she’s playing at an exceptionally high level—averaging 20.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes. Ogunbowale is going to keep requiring double-teams and on-ball traps, but Gray has prepared herself for this moment, and now she’s become the additional threat that this squad so desperately needs.
Indiana Fever: Erica Wheeler
I can’t say enough great things about the Fever; don’t let their 4-7 record fool you—they are electric to watch. A big part of that is the frontcourt duo of Tiffany Mitchell and Kelsey Mitchell, who are combining for an average of 33.3 points per game and 49.1 percent of the team’s usage. But the most exciting part about Indiana’s recent success is that the team has done it without its All-Star guard.
Wheeler is currently quarantined in the IMG Academy wubble after testing positive for COVID-19 in July, but she’s expected to make her return to the floor this week. Her Cinderella story of undrafted free agent turned 2019 All-Star MVP is still unfolding, and I’m putting my money on her overachieving the second half of the season. Without flinching, she’ll peak at the right moment, and help secure the Fever’s playoff spot. When I spoke to GM Tamika Catchings and new head coach Marianne Stanley before the season started last month, they were focused on creating a “championship mentality” within the team this year. Sitting in a tie for third place in the East, the Fever should bring a renewed energy as their floor general makes her return.
Las Vegas Aces: Jackie Young
A’ja Wilson is undoubtedly playing at an MVP level, but second-year guard Jackie Young has also arrived this year. The 2019 no. 1 pick had a rocky debut last season. At Notre Dame, she played as more of a wing, utilizing her length to slash to the rim and create her own shot. But when Las Vegas shifted her to point last season, it caused some friction in her flow.
This season, though? Young’s pull-up jumper is *chef’s kiss*—plus, she’s attacking the basket with purpose and is noticeably more confident with the ball in her hands. This is huge for Vegas—once Plum and Liz Cambage return next season, Young will be able to keep the defense honest off the bench; everyone’s a threat now. Between Young’s tough finishes inside the paint, on-point passes, and swarming defense-turned-offense, she’s unquestionably helping prop up the Aces’ 8-3 record. I can only bet that her confidence grows throughout the back half of the season and into the playoffs. It was high-key problematic to me that she got drafted in the top slot last April with that loaded rookie class, but I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong.
Los Angeles Sparks: Brittney Sykes
The secret’s out—I wrote this whole story just so I could write about Brittney Sykes. She’s exactly what this group of players exemplifies: grit, grind, and a killer debut. In her first season with the Sparks, Sykes has brought her speed, freakish athleticism, and efficiency, and she’s already clinched a starting spot. Her silky-soft touch around the rim is unmatched, and her defensive energy is something the team feeds off of, too. Not to mention she’s a human highlight reel. Like when she (5-foot-9) blocked Brittney Griner (6-foot-9):
Or when she did this sweet up-and-under move:
Or when she did … whatever this was:
She’s having that kind of season. Even though the Sparks have had trouble finding consistency, Sykes has been a refreshingly steady presence.
Minnesota Lynx: Odyssey Sims
Barely four months after giving birth to her son, Sims is back on the court for Minnesota. She said last week that leaving for the bubble was a hard decision to make, but “I’m happy to be back. I’m ready to play.” Given that Sims led Minnesota in points (14.5 per game) and assists (5.4) last season, and the fact that she earned both a 2019 All-Star nod and All-WNBA selection, the Lynx are certainly happy to have her back too.
In her second game last Sunday, she struggled to get her footing, finishing 1-for-10 from the field. But the Lynx aren’t expecting Sims to fill up the stat sheet quite yet. Her invaluable veteran presence is what’s needed most as Sylvia Fowles is out indefinitely with a right calf strain. Sims reunites with a roaring Minnesota team that’s tied for second place in the West and features Rookie of the Year front-runner Crystal Dangerfield, who has been putting on a clinic for guard play. It will be interesting to see how head coach and GM Cheryl Reeve continues to manage this roster for the rest of the regular season. The Lynx are hitting a groove, bulldozing every opponent in sight, and as spooky as it is, they’ll be even scarier once Sims is back at 100 percent.
New York Liberty: Layshia Clarendon
All the buzz heading into the season was about the no. 1 pick, Sabrina Ionescu, but Clarendon has shown true leadership on and, more importantly, off the court. She’s constantly praised for her activism and being the vice president of the WNBPA, but she’s also been putting in work between the baselines as well. The Liberty are the youngest WNBA team in league history, with an average age of 24; Clarendon is the oldest player at 29, and she’s showing the franchise’s seven rookies how it’s done, leading the team in assists, minutes, steals, and points. New York’s youth is reflected most in its record, as the Liberty sit in last place with only a single win so far. But as frustrating as it may be right now, Clarendon and Co. have to trust the process.
Phoenix Mercury: Bria Hartley
Hartley is having a career season, and I’m ecstatic for her. Coming over from the Liberty in free agency, she had a piping-hot start to the season, averaging almost 20 points on 44 percent from 3 in her first four games. Hartley started 75 percent of the games she played last season, and while she’s started zero this season, she’s flourishing in her new role. The seven-year vet out of UConn has already earned a career high in points (27) and tied one for 3-pointers made (four) in nine games. At one point, she was the Mercury’s leading scorer—and Phoenix’s roster features Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner, and freaking Diana Taurasi. You love to see it.
It's 2AM and we're going through Bria Hartley takes from free agency.— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) August 15, 2020
Oh are we going to have some fun. pic.twitter.com/oOfn4XerG3
Seattle Storm: Sami Whitcomb
On August 12, Seattle dropped 18 3-pointers in one game. It set a new franchise record and tied the WNBA record. Whitcomb had six of those 3s, and she’s proved herself to be a sharpshooter this season. But that’s all the clout I’m going to give Seattle. Honestly, I should’ve just picked Bubble Megan Rapinoe for this spot—this team is just too good.
Washington Mystics: Myisha Hines-Allen
Hines-Allen has been the focal point for the reigning champs during this shortened season, but frankly, I still don’t think she’s getting enough of a spotlight. The Mystics came out roaring at the season’s tipoff. They started 3-0 and had everyone saying, “Elena Delle Donne who?!” (OK, no one was really saying that, but just go with it.) To give some clarity to how deep the Mystics bench was during their championship run last season, Hines-Allen played a total of 211 minutes and had just 63 points last year. This year, she had 60 points in those first three wins alone. Unfortunately, they’ve only won four games through the midseason mark. Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and Ariel Atkins have shown promise in spurts, but the team will need more from them going forward. Hines-Allen’s near double-double a night isn’t going to turn the standings upside down and put the Mystics back on top but, hey, the 6-foot-1 Draymond Greenesque power forward can still do things like this:
And it’s really, really fun to watch. So when you tune in to the back-11 games of the WNBA regular season, put some respect on Hines-Allen’s name—and all of these players’ names while you’re at it.