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The Biggest Story Lines Heading Into the 2021 WNBA Season

The WNBA season officially tips off Friday, which means it’s time to look at the contenders and pretenders, stars in new homes, and the young players who could shock the league in 2021

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The WNBA season is almost upon us, and the hype (and hope) around your favorite team likely won’t get any higher than it is right now. A lot has changed since the Seattle Storm lifted the championship trophy in Bradenton, Florida, last year. Some stars have switched jerseys; others are returning to their teams after opting out in 2020. And the middle of the season will feature a monthlong break because of the Olympics. (Those are still a thing, right?)

With the first games of the 2021 season tipping off on Friday, it’s time to look at the story lines that will define this season. Who stands an actual chance of winning the championship, and who’s pretending? Which players who changed teams will make the biggest impact? And which young stars will be appointment viewing? Let’s get to it.

Familiar Faces in New Places

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or you’ve spent the past few months trying to get that seven-hour daily quarantine Screentime report down, you know that plenty of stars will be suiting up for new teams this season. We all know where I have to start.

In a somewhat surprising move, Candace Parker came home in the offseason. The Sparks legend immediately vaults the Chicago Sky into true contender status—which we’ll get to later—and gives an already stacked roster an absolute force on both ends of the court. Adding a unicorn who is dominant enough to win the Defensive Player of the Year award and be a top-25 scorer shouldn’t be legal. Plus, Parker looks like she was born to wear the Sky’s dope Explorer jerseys. The Windy City is gonna be fun this year.

Meanwhile, about 400 miles northwest of Chicago, Cheryl Reeve and the Minnesota Lynx got busy too. With Maya Moore’s future still up in the air, Reeve bolstered her roster, bringing in sharpshooter Kayla McBride from the Aces, former WNBA champion Aerial Powers from the Mystics, and big Natalie Achonwa from the Fever. Each player adds something unique to the roster, and collectively they give the Lynx the depth they’ll need to return to their 2010s-level dominance.

Speaking of dominance: While the Aces lost McBride to the Lynx, they didn’t waste any time bringing in reinforcements. The team snagged Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams to strengthen a guard rotation that already featured Jackie Young, and will also welcome back Kelsey Plum, who missed last season with an Achilles injury.

And finally, Natasha Howard has touched down in New York to bring some championship experience and hard-nosed defense to the Liberty, who finished with the worst record in the league last year. Howard takes over for Amanda Zahui B., who moved from the Liberty to the Sparks this offseason. How those teams will get on with their new bigs remains a mystery, but it’ll be fun to watch them try to establish new identities.

Contenders vs. Pretenders

Frankly, it’s silly how many teams have a real claim to contender status this season. Sure, a couple teams stand above the rest, but almost half the league could reach the WNBA Finals in October and I wouldn’t be surprised.

Let’s start with the easy pick: the Las Vegas Aces.

The Aces made the Finals last year without two of their best players, Plum and Liz Cambage, who opted out of the season because of COVID concerns (she spent last year playing in Australia and dunking on folks in her mentions). Now, though, the Aces will bring Plum and Cambage back—along with a couple newcomers—and try to bring the title to Vegas.

Pick your poison of trying to guard a lineup that includes reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, Cambage, Gray, and Plum. And that doesn’t even account for bench spark plugs like Dearica Hamby, Williams, and Young. This team is stacked, full stop, and they deserve to be seen as title favorites. Losing Angel McCoughtry for the year after a recent ACL and meniscus tear is a heartbreaking blow for both her and the team, but I still think Vegas can push through and stick around to the end.

Next comes the primary challenger from the East: the Sky. Parker is ready to bring a championship to Chicago, and she likely has the pieces around her to make a good run at it. Courtney Vandersloot is an exceptional passer who will no doubt enjoy having an elite multilevel scorer like CP to dish to. Meanwhile, Allie Quigley can continue to bomb away from 3, and Diamond DeShields can use her athleticism to cut into the spaces afforded to her by her teammates’ positioning and movement. The offloading and just general weirdness surrounding the Gabby Williams situation notwithstanding, this team is loaded and ready to roll.

Now we get into pricklier territory. Your defending champion Seattle Storm will look different this summer, especially on defense. Losing Howard—the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year—and Alysha Clark will be a blow, and their departures likely put more of the onus on Breanna Stewart, who is a superstar in every facet of the game but could begin to tire if too much is asked of her on both ends of the court.

Even so, this team trotted to the title last year, sweeping their semifinal and championship series against two very tough teams in the Lynx and Aces, respectively. Sue Bird is a year older, but with Jordin Canada and Jewell Loyd still in tow and youngsters like Ezi Magbegor, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan in line for more opportunities, this team is still plenty dangerous.

Next up are the Mystics, who could be the league’s biggest wild card. They snuck into the playoffs last season at 9-13 but were also without former MVPs Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, as well as Natasha Cloud, who opted out of the season to focus on fighting for social justice. Suffice to say, this team will look very different with those three playing. And while Emma Meesseman’s availability this season is in question—Meesseman will be with the Belgian national team through the Olympics, and it’s unclear whether she’ll return to Washington to finish out the season—the acquisition of Clark should help, as will the emergence of Myisha Hines-Allen and Ariel Atkins as go-to scorers. Expect this year’s Mystics to come much closer to matching the talent level and success of the 2019 championship-winning squad.

Lastly, I fear that if I don’t include the Mercury in here, Diana Taurasi might try and see me in the lobby. Truth be told, you just can’t count out a team with this much talent. Between DT, a “ready to roll” Brittney Griner, and Skylar Diggins-Smith, the Mercury are a dangerous dark horse. Add Bria Hartley to that mix, improved versions of Brianna Turner and Sophie Cunningham, and Kia Nurse coming in from the Liberty, and you have a team stacked with shooters and defensive grit. Doubt Phoenix if you dare, but we all know how that usually turns out.

Now, to the “pretenders,” which frankly is just a mean name for teams that are still quite good, but aren’t elite for one reason or another.

Did the Lynx make it to the semifinals last season? Check. Do they have a great roster? Check. Do they have a top-three coach in the league? Check. And yet, I just don’t know if they can keep up with the contenders. Bringing in Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, and Natalie Achonwa really raises this team’s ceiling, but it may not be enough—especially if Sylvia Fowles can’t stay healthy. Of all the teams in the pretender category, though, I’d be the least surprised if Minnesota managed to wiggle its way into the league’s elite. You never want to count out Cheryl Reeve and Co.

The Sparks fall into this category because their roster was decimated this offseason. Losing Parker, Gray, and Williams is a tough look. Nneka Ogwumike will likely welcome the return of her sister Chiney to the lineup, and Amanda Zahui B. is a great pickup, but it’s just hard to see Los Angeles making a ton of noise in the postseason. Plus, I’m still not convinced of Derek Fisher as a coach, for … well you know why.

And lastly, the Sun, who might have been in the contender category if Alyssa Thomas hadn’t torn her Achilles overseas in January. Thomas helped Connecticut reach the 2019 Finals while playing with two torn labrums, and she was the emotional heartbeat of this squad. It will be tough for the Sun to adjust without her. Jonquel Jones will return to the lineup and help form one of the biggest and most dynamic frontcourts in the league with DeWanna Bonner, but it might not be enough to propel them into the top half of the league.

Young Players to Keep an Eye On

Now it’s time to talk youngsters, which I will qualify as first- and second-year players (otherwise I’d regale you with 1,000 words on Arike Ogunbowale, and we can save that for another time).

First is Sabrina Ionescu, who missed all but three games last season due to an ankle injury. The former Oregon sensation is back healthy and looks ready to welcome Liberty fans into Barclays Center. Her shooting, distribution, and star power should boost New York, which finished last in offensive rating (by a lot) and labored to just two wins last season. It will be fun to watch how she pairs with newcomers Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney, and those returning from last year. There’s a good team buried in this roster, and Sabrina could be the piece that unlocks its potential.

Sticking with sophomores, let’s travel south and cast a spotlight on Atlanta’s Chennedy Carter. There was little doubt that the Arlington, Texas, native would get buckets when she was drafted no. 4 last year, but leading her team in scoring was a fun surprise. Plus, the Dream backcourt—which features her, Courtney Williams, and no. 3 pick Aari McDonald—has the most sauce in the league. Name a squad with better vibes, I dare you.

Carter became the youngest player in WNBA history to drop 30 in a game last August, and now she’s got another year of experience under her belt. Like WNBA reporter Matt Ellentuck noted, the lack of a full-time coach and GM isn’t stopping this team from being fun as hell. Atlanta has the capability to be a bucket factory, and if McDonald can build on her heroics from the 2021 NCAA tournament and produce more iconic poses like this, Dream games will be must-watch television.

As for the rookies: There was a genuine shock wave when Kysre Gondrezick was picked by the Fever at no. 4 this spring. That is [checks notes] 25 spots higher than ESPN had her being taken, and 13 spots higher than Swish Appeal. It’s safe to say Gondrezick wasn’t on the top of many fans’ minds last season, so let’s catch you up.

Any conversation about Gondrezick has to start with her dropping 72 points in a high school playoff game. And not only did she score 72, but she scored 72 of the 80 total that her team put up in the contest. When Sky is showing you love, you know you’re the real deal. After high school, Gondrezick went to Michigan, where she led all Big Ten freshmen in scoring. She later transferred to West Virginia, and in two years there she led the team in scoring and showed off her ability to get buckets from anywhere. She has also drawn attention for her focus on her brand, and she now boasts nearly 71,000 followers on Twitter and over triple that on Instagram.

With bigs Teaira McCowan and Lauren Cox demanding a ton of attention in the post and Kelsey Mitchell holding it down in the backcourt, I’m very interested to see where Gondrezick will fit in this Indiana offense, especially with Julie Allemand’s commitments to Belgium leaving a gap at guard. Indiana doesn’t have a ton of expectations this season, so here’s hoping we see a lot of Gondrezick and find out whether she can lift the Fever’s fortunes.

Finally, the Wings will certainly be one of the more interesting teams this season. Due to Olympic considerations, Dallas has temporarily suspended standout center Satou Sabally, which opens a spot in the lineup until she’s available to return to WNBA play. That should create opportunities for no. 1 and no. 2 picks Charli Collier and Awak Kuier, who could form a formidable duo in the post. That, coupled with getting Dana Evans as an absolute steal with the no. 13 pick and another prolific shooter like Chelsea Dungee, should make this team fun as hell to watch.

The Wings are incredibly young, with no players carrying more than five years of W experience on their résumés. How new coach Vickie Johnson fits all these pieces together will be quite the experiment. And even if things don’t go exactly according to plan, watching Arike go on a streak of 30-point games, or seeing Dungee do something silly like splash fives 3s in a game will make for compelling television. Something’s brewing in College Park Center, and you’d do well to get on the bandwagon before it’s full.

Whether your team is a contender, has a new star leading the way, or features a young core that can light up scoreboards, this season will have something for everyone. So get hyped—we’re in for six months of fun.