The WNBA’s 26th season has finally arrived after a long but entertaining offseason; one that saw superstar players and championship-winning coaches relocate, the return of the in-person WNBA Draft, and the exciting introduction of ESPN’s Fantasy Women’s Basketball league.
And now that all of the offseason’s happenings have been processed, The Athletic’s Cole Huff, Chantel Jennings and Shannon Ryan give their thoughts on the 2022 WNBA season. They put their money where their mouths are on championship bets and predict player awards, fantasy basketball sleepers and more.
Let’s start simple: Who is your pick to win, regardless of the odds, in 2022?
Chantel: Seattle Storm. There’s a reason why Breanna Stewart signed a one-year deal to come back to Seattle during Sue Bird’s final year in the league … and it wasn’t to come in second place. With the Big Three of Stewart, Bird and Jewell Loyd, this team’s core ranks with the strongest in the league. On the inside, Mercedes Russell was one of the most improved players last year and with another offseason of overseas play, Ezi Magbegor’s game will take a big step forward, too. Briann January and Gabby Williams bolster the perimeter defense while adding guard depth for a team that needs it. It’s a simple equation: Talent + motivation + a cohesive (and healthy) Big Three = championship.
Cole: History suggests that taking the Sky to repeat is a bad idea, as no team has won back-to-back championships since the early 2000s Sparks. So, I’ll roll with the Sun to finally get over the hump and win a WNBA championship. They had the best record after last year’s regular season and essentially brought back the same team. The one major subtraction is Briann January and while her departure hurts, the Sun defense should still be elite, and Courtney Williams’ return should give Connecticut the added scoring punch it desperately needed last postseason. Oh, and Alyssa Thomas will get to begin the season in May, not September.
Shannon: I’m a little torn between wondering if Chicago can run it back with its veteran squad or if this is the year for the Aces. There might be some early hiccups in Las Vegas as the Aces get used to new coach Becky Hammon’s system and life without Liz Cambage, but they are loaded with talent led by A’ja Wilson.
Now let’s bring the odds into it. You have $50. How would you spread that out in terms of WNBA title winner?
Chantel: If this is my money, I’m going with $10 on the Storm (+500) and $10 on the reigning champions Sky (+450). Both of those bets give me a safe chance to earn back my money and then a bit. It’s a prudent choice. But with the remaining $30, I’d go with the Mystics (+2000). If Washington stays completely healthy this year (Elena Delle Donne and Alysha Clark being the biggest question marks there), then it’s got a path back to the WNBA championship, which is exactly where it was the last time Delle Donne played a full season. A $30 bet there would pay out $630, and those are odds I’m happy to take.
Cole: There are no clear-cut favorites to win this season’s championship, so I’ll split my $50 on the Lynx (+1000) and Mystics (+2000), a couple of low-risk, high-reward bets. For both teams to win, player availability would have to be the main thing to fall in their favor. That means Angel McCoughtry and Aerial Powers staying healthy, the slim chance Napheesa Collier (due to give birth in May) makes her way back to the Lynx lineup before this shortened season concludes, and Elena Delle Donne and Alysha Clark being healthy for the Mystics. Player availability is critical for every team, but I think those two rosters are as good as any if whole.
Shannon: I’d put $10 on Phoenix and $10 on Chicago. The rest would go on the Lynx. Sylvia Fowles’ last season will provide motivation, but let’s get it straight: She’s also not limping out the door. Fowles averaged 16 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, and is poised for another dominant season. The Lynx might be without Collier for all or most of the season, but they have plenty of high-caliber players to keep Minnesota in the running. Five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry was added in free agency. The Lynx have so much talent they felt comfortable enough to waive Layshia Clarendon, who was pivotal last season.
Who is your pick for MVP?
Chantel: If Minnesota finishes in the top three (and does so without Collier), then it’ll be on the shoulders of Sylvia Fowles. The veteran, who announced that this will be her last season, has officially won the award once and has been in the MVP conversation multiple times throughout her storied career. The era of the back-to-the-basket big isn’t over, and in her final year in the WNBA, I expect Fowles to add to her awards with one that’ll represent what her massive contributions mean to this team.
Cole: Is it boring for me to pick A’ja Wilson? Most are down on the Aces after a disappointing ending to the last season and then Liz Cambage’s relocation to Los Angeles. I understand that reason, but I’ll say this — Wilson became the league’s MVP in 2020 when she basically had the frontcourt to herself. Perhaps, she gets those same opportunities this season, but now alongside better players than that reduced Aces squad that took the court at the Wubble. Am I talking myself into Vegas again? I’ll slow my roll. But if they outperform expectations and Wilson has some ridiculous stats, I can see her being in contention for another MVP award.
Shannon: I agree with Cole; Wilson could pull it off. But Jonquel Jones will repeat. She ranked fourth in the league with 19.4 points and led with 11.2 rebounds per game. She also made the all-defense first team. Jones, who plays in Russia in the offseason, returned earlier than usual this season and will be in sync with teammates from the jump. The Sun should be a championship contender with Jones leading the way.
Who is your pick for Rookie of the Year?
Chantel: Rhyne Howard. Atlanta didn’t make the move up to the No. 1 spot (and potentially give up a better draft pick to the Mystics in 2023) to sit Howard on the bench this season. Surrounded by better talent than the Dream’s had in the past and a smaller margin for error, I expect Howard to have a big impact on Atlanta, which isn’t just rebuilding but rebounding around her.
Cole: NaLyssa Smith for ROTY. There’s honestly no other Indiana forward in Smith’s way that could interfere with her playing time. The tricky part is trusting the Fever to actually play a rookie enough minutes (sorry, Kysre Gongrezek and Lauren Cox). But Smith is different. She should be able to have an immediate and long-term impact on this franchise.
Shannon: Howard and Smith have potential for long-term impact on the league as top players. This season, Howard will make more of a splash as she helps the Dream rebuild. As a 6-2 guard, she has the size and strength at the position required to succeed in the W.
For those playing WNBA fantasy, who are two sleepers you’d tell them to draft?
Chantel: Fantasy favors 3-point shooters (because you get a point for the make and three points for the bucket) and so most of those high-volume shooters are obvious early fantasy picks (Arike Ogunbowale, Kelsey Mitchell, Ariel Atkins). New York Liberty guard Sami Whitcomb, who hit the second-most 3-pointers of any player in the league last season (76) could be a great pick here and outside of 3-point shooters, you might also want to consider someone like Sky forward Emma Meesseman. In her most recent season in the league (2020), she averaged 13 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game — that puts her average around 25 fantasy points per game. And with her passing skills paired with her being on a high-scoring team like Chicago, I could see both her scoring and assist numbers going up.
Cole: Dearica Hamby is sleeper No. 1. I don’t expect too many frontcourt minutes from veteran Kiah Stokes. Who does that leave? The two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Award winner. Hamby was underutilized last season, but she’ll play a bunch at the four alongside Wilson and probably some at the three. Expect some fun stat lines.
My second sleeper is Rebecca Allen because steals and blocks are worth twice as much as every other statistical category in fantasy women’s basketball. Allen is a good defender and racked up the steals and blocks a season ago. Knocking down a ton of 3s would be the cherry on top.
Shannon: It’s hard to consider Las Vegas’ Kelsey Plum a sleeper, but because the Aces had so many high-scoring players, she might be available for a later fantasy pick. She was one of seven double-digit scorers last season, averaging 14.8 points per game. I imagine she’ll get even more scoring opportunities in Becky Hammon’s offense.
Seattle also has plenty of scoring options, but Gabby Williams could make for a smart sleeper pick. She opted out of the WNBA last season but averaged 7.7 points for Chicago in 2020. She was named EuroLeague Final Four MVP after leading Sopron Basket to its first championship, averaging 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds with 3.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game. If she plays with similar efficiency with the Storm, she could rack up some fantasy points.
Who’s an underrated player in the league right now whose card you’d buy, thinking it’ll go up in value as they become a household name or star?
Chantel: Can we pick Aliyah Boston now (Note: You can get her SI For Kids card)? If not, I’m going with Aussie Ezi Magbegor (cards here), who has a bright future in this league. As the identity of the Storm potentially makes some major changes in the next few seasons, she could emerge as one of the stars on the West Coast.
Cole: The first that comes to mind is Aari McDonald (cards here). It’s easy to forget about her after playing behind Courtney Williams and Chennedy Carter for most of her rookie season, but maybe there’s a path to more minutes this season. If not this season, she’ll get her shot soon once Erica Wheeler’s contract expires.
Shannon: Rookie of the year Michaela Onyenwere (cards here) isn’t exactly under the radar, but expect the Liberty forward to blossom even more in her second year as New York is poised to become a more relevant team. She averaged 8.6 points last season, and she should be more comfortable in the league this season, raising her profile.
Give us one bold prediction for the 2022 season.
Chantel: Neither of the WNBA finalists from last season — Chicago and Phoenix — makes the WNBA semifinals this year. (Yes, this is going against how I’d spend $50 betting, but the question asked for bold so I’m going … bold). With the depth of the league getting better every season, the Sky and Mercury will be shut out of the semifinals as four other teams vie for the 2022 title.
Cole: My bold prediction is that Courtney Vandersloot’s single-game record of 18 assists will be broken this season by … Courtney Vandersloot. Sloot got close to her record last season when she recorded 16- and 15-assist games (the two highest totals of the season), so getting to 19 doesn’t seem too far-fetched for the Sky guard.
Shannon: Dallas and New York make the playoffs – and advance. This feels especially bold because the league is brimming with talented teams this season. It’s now or never for the Wings, who have enough skill to make some noise in the playoffs. Coach Sandy Brondello has enough to work with in New York to cause upsets. If the Mystics have health issues again and Collier’s absence messes with Minnesota’s mojo, that helps open up these two playoff spots.
For someone who knows nothing about the WNBA, who’s the one player you’d say, “Go read a story on her”?
Chantel: The entire Aces team is worth following this season because even outside of the storylines on the court — Becky Hammon returning to the league to coach, an MVP frontrunner in Wilson and some of the most engaged fans in the league — they’re hilarious to follow on social media. Wilson, Dearica Hamby and Chelsea Gray are a comedy trio, Jackie Young’s dry humor hits pretty hard and Sydney Colson, who did stand up during her time away from the WNBA, is now a part of this roster. Truly, the Aces have as much fun away from the court as they do on the court.
Cole: I encourage people to get familiar with Betnijah Laney’s story. She was drafted to the Sky in 2015 and had a tough time finding much success to begin her career. She even tore her ACL during the 2016 season, which put a pause on her WNBA career up until 2018. She’s now a WNBA All-Star, Most Improved Player Award winner, and one of the better two-way wings in the league after never averaging more than six points per game over her first four seasons. Pretty cool story.
Shannon: Indiana fans are going to fall in love with rookie Emily Engstler. The Louisville product plays with her heart on her sleeve – unafraid to show emotion during and after games. She’s a fierce defender, rabid competitor and strong scorer. She’s bringing some New York hustle and swagger to Indianapolis, and the fans are going to eat it up.
(Top photo of Breanna Stewart: Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)