Is it still the case that the Las Vegas Aces will be the team to lift the WNBA championship trophy in 2021? Are Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson the front-runners for the Most Valuable Player award? Which player has emerged as the favourite to win the Rookie of the Year award?
Our preseason predictions from mid-May have been revisited and updated in light of the WNBA’s preparations to pause its season for the 2021 All-Star Game and Olympic break. The ESPN panel — which includes analysts Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson, play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco, ESPN’s Kelly Cohen, Dana Lee, Kevin Pelton, and Mechelle Voepel, and The Undefeated’s Sean Hurd — dissects what we’ve seen so far as every team has a chance to win a championship this season.
This year’s WNBA All-Star Game, which will pit the United States Olympic team against Team WNBA, will take place on Wednesday in Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App). Starting on August 15, six games will be played, including a matchup between the Seattle Storm and the Chicago Sky (4 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).
Here are the biggest impact players of 2021 and how we see the season shaping up so far.
Which team or player has been the biggest surprise — good or bad — so far in 2021?
Rebecca Lobo: The Connecticut Sun (12-6) has been the most surprising team for me. Because Alyssa Thomas has been so crucial to their success, I anticipated that they would experience a longer period of adjustment while she is out with a torn Achilles tendon. I was wrong. Instead, they found a defensive identity and a three-headed monster in the frontcourt in the form of Bri Jones, Jonquel Jones, and DeWanna Bonner, who all contributed to the team’s success. They’ve performed admirably and achieved success despite a demanding schedule.
Mechelle Voepel (Mechelle Voepel): Was it really true that I predicted the Phoenix Mercury would reach the WNBA Finals back in May? Yes, I did it. I’ll now classify them as a mostly “bad” surprise thus far this season, despite the fact that their 99-90 overtime victory over Las Vegas on Wednesday demonstrated how good they can be. Phoenix has five Olympians — Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Diana Taurasi for Team USA, Kia Nurse for Canada, and Alanna Smith for Australia — but the Suns are only 8-9 overall and 2-7 at home despite having five Olympians on their roster. Taurasi has only played in seven games this season due to an injury, and she was absent from Wednesday’s game. When the Mercury have looked disjointed on offence and/or disinterested on defence, it has been difficult to root for them. Griner, on the other hand, had a fantastic game on Wednesday, finishing with 33 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. Diggins-Smith finished with 27 points and eight assists. Which Mercury team is the real deal? We saw them come together in the second half of last season when they were on the verge of making the playoffs, and we’ll see if they can do the same this year and build on Wednesday’s victory.
Kelly Cohen (Kelly Cohen): I understand that the Dallas Wings don’t have the best record right now, but I am impressed by how poised the young team appears to be in their victories thus far. Arike Ogunbowale is capable of making shots from virtually any position on the court and filling up the stat sheet in every game. Allisha Gray, Satou Sabally, and potential Most Improved Player candidate Marina Mabrey are also contributing to Dallas’ third-place finish in the league in scoring with 85.8 points per game. Moreover, in addition to Sabally’s outstanding rebounding abilities, Kayla Thornton and Isabelle Harrison are the team’s top rebounders, and they are a major reason why Dallas ranks third in the league in terms of rebounding percentage with 36.2 RPG. I believe that if this well-rounded team can iron out some kinks on defence and learn to hold onto leads late in games, the Wings have a chance to advance far in the playoffs this season.
Ryan Ruocco: The New York Liberty have taken me completely by surprise, and I mean that in a good way! They were able to put it together in a short period of time.
Kevin Pelton: Connecticut is also on my list of possible choices. The Sun appeared to be lacking in depth at the start of the season without Thomas, but depth has only really been an issue during the period in which Jonquel Jones was away from the team for the EuroBasket tournament. And the two Joneses, Jonquel and Brionna, have formed a stronger bond than I anticipated, given that they had barely played together in 2019 prior to Brionna assuming the starting role in Jonquel’s absence last season, which surprised me.
Dana Lee (Dana Lee): The rest of the field chose a member of their respective teams, but Tina Charles’ performance has been a delight to watch — and was nearly impossible to predict before this season. He is averaging a career high in points (25.8) and effective field goal percentage (.533) at the age of 32. In part, this is due to Charles appearing more comfortable shooting from beyond the arc this season — she is attempting 5.4 3-pointers per game this season, up from 2.9 attempts per game last season. She’s also averaging 33.3 minutes per game for the Mystics, which is close to a career high. The only two seasons in which she played more minutes than she did in the previous season were in 2016 and 2011, when she was 27 and 22 years old, respectively. Consider the fact that Charles is doing all of this after missing the entire 2020 season and with a different team.
LaChina Robinson: The most unexpected performer has been Betnijah Laney of New York City. In the wake of her breakout performance in 2020, she has put together an all-star campaign. It is difficult to accomplish this when everyone is looking at you and expectations are high.
Sean Hurd (Sean Hurd): Kelsey Plum is another player who should be included on this list. She was forced to miss the entire 2020 season due to a torn left Achilles, but she has since returned to the Las Vegas rotation and has established herself as a true difference maker on the court. Plum is having a breakout season as a reserve for the Aces, averaging 13.0 points and 3.6 assists per game. She will undoubtedly be considered for Sixth Woman of the Year honours. This time last year, Plum was recuperating at home while players began to arrive at the WNBA’s training facility. A year later, she is just a few weeks away from departing for Tokyo, where she will compete as a member of the United States’ 3×3 Olympic team. How much of a difference a year can make.
At this point of the season, which player is the front-runner for MVP?
In the preseason, A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Supersonics each received three votes, while Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx received one vote.
Ruocco: At this point, Jonquel Jones is my favourite to win the MVP award.
Pelton: If everything plays out exactly the same in the second half as it did in the first, I believe Jones will win. However, after the five games she missed for EuroBasket, she doesn’t have much wiggle room to miss any more. Even five games would be the most ever missed by a WNBA MVP, as no one has ever missed more than three games in their WNBA career.
Although I recognise Jones as the front-runner, I’m rooting for Tina Charles instead. Jones, Brenna Stewart, and A’ja Wilson are all on winning teams that appear to be strong contenders for the WNBA championship this season, but Charles is not, and she is still putting up incredible numbers. Charles is the best player in the WNBA. It is because of Charles that the Mystics have a chance to make it into the playoffs this season. The 32-year-old is playing as well as she did in 2012, when she won the MVP award — if not better — as she averages 25.8 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Robinson: Hello, my name is Charles. I believe that we can all recognise the excellence and skill that she brings to the court, in addition to her desire to improve her overall game. It all comes back to her preparation leading up to the season and her incredible work ethic throughout the season.
Lee: As much as I’d like to agree with Kelly and LaChina on Charles, if you look at the past five years of MVP selections, you’ll notice that they’ve almost exclusively played for the top-ranked team in the league during that season. Except for Nneka Ogwumike in 2016, when the Sparks finished second in the Western Conference, there has been no other notable exception. Stewart, on the other hand, is the leader of a team that appears capable of returning to the Finals and is ranked among the top five in nearly every individual category in the league.
Stewart has a slight advantage for the time being, as evidenced by her 27-point, 11-rebound performance against the Storm on Wednesday, which demonstrated her ability to put the Storm on their backs and take over in crunch time.
Hurd: Jones is my favourite to win the MVP award.
Lobo: This is a difficult question. At the moment, my favourite players are Charles, Jones, Stewart, and Wilson.
Who is your pick at this point for Rookie of the Year?
In the preseason, DiJonai Carrington of Connecticut was a popular choice, receiving four votes in the process. Charli Collier of the Dallas Mavericks, the first overall pick in April’s draught, received two votes, and Jasmine Walker of the Los Angeles Sparks, who suffered an ACL tear in late May, received one vote.
In addition to her WNBA skill set and physique, New York Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere has the kind of athleticism and mobility that keeps her involved in plays on both ends of the court.
Voepel: As was expected, this draught class hasn’t had as much of an impact as other rookie classes in recent memory. Onyenwere is unquestionably the best option right now.
Onyenwere is the name of Pelton’s son. Aari McDonald has surprisingly played more minutes than the next two rookies combined (Charli Collier and Aari McDonald), though McDonald should have more opportunities now that Chennedy Carter has been suspended for the season.
Cohen: I agree with Onyenwere’s assessment, but I’m looking forward to seeing how other rookies fare in the second half of the season.
Dana Lee (Dana Lee): Unless things drastically change in the second half of the season, Onyenwere will be the starting quarterback for me as well. The No. 6 overall pick was named rookie of the month in both May and June, and he currently ranks first among all rookies in scoring at 10.2 points per game.
Who has stood out as the Defensive Player of the Year?
The preseason votes were split between Brittney Griner of Phoenix (three votes), Napheesa Collier of Minnesota (two votes), and A’ja Wilson of Las Vegas (two votes).
So far, my favourites are Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner, according to Lobo.
Sylvia Fowles is having one of her most impressive defensive seasons of her career, according to Robinson, and she could be the best in the league. As a 6-foot-6 post player, leading the league in steals (2.1 per game) is a mind-blowing accomplishment.
Pelton: In addition to Fowles, I’d like to call attention to the defensive impact that Jonquel Jones has had. According to WNBA Advanced Stats, when Jones is on the court, opponents are shooting just 39 percent against the Sun, compared to 45 percent when she is not.
While Fowles is clearly the front-runner, I agree with Kevin that Jones’ defensive presence for the Suns should be considered in the DPOY conversation.
According to Cohen, Fowles’ hard-nosed play has been a big part of the Lynx’s ability to turn around their sluggish beginning to the season.
Ruocco’s name is Fowles.
Voepel: Fowles missed the majority of last season due to a calf injury, but you’d never guess it from the way she’s playing this season. Voepel: Even at 35 years old, she appears to be as strong as ever on the defensive.
Who is your Most Improved Player?
Lobo: Betnijah Laney and Myisha Hines-Allen were two players who made significant improvements from the previous season in the 2020 season. This year, we have a handful of players who have improved, albeit in more incremental ways than in previous years.
Marina Mabrey has thrived in situations where she has been asked to contribute a greater number of points for Dallas. Theresa Plaisance has settled in well in Washington, regardless of whether she’s playing off the bench or starting the game. And Astou Ndour-Fall is having a strong season in Chicago after a strange year in which she had limited playing time in Dallas.
For the time being, I’d say Mabrey gets my vote. So far, she has put on a number of impressive performances.
Pelton: Crystal Bradford’s emergence as a key starter for the Atlanta Dream deserves recognition.
Voepel: For Bradford, a former Central Michigan standout, his journey to the WNBA has been a fascinating one. He was a rookie in 2015, played in 15 games, and then didn’t play in the league again until six years later. You have to be rooting for someone who has that kind of determination. However, I believe Brionna Jones’ journey to All-Star status has propelled her to the top of my MIP list.
Hurd: My pick is also Brionna Jones.
Robinson: Brionna Jones is the woman I’m rooting for. Although she’s an unyielding, dependable force in and around the paint, she appears to be playing with greater fluidity and improved foot speed this season.
Cohen: Is it okay if I take a chance and choose Laney? I know she won the award in 2020, but her improvements in 2021 give me reason to believe she will win it again in the near future. The Liberty have been inconsistent this season, but she has been consistent and has improved with each game, averaging 19.6 points per game, 5.3 assists per game, and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Ruocco: There are many great candidates, but I’d say Mabrey.
How does your All-WNBA First Team look different now?
Our preseason teams consisted of one centre, two forwards, and two guards, a format that was carried over into the regular season. Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Suns was named to three preseason all-star teams. Liz Cambage of Las Vegas, Napheesa Collier of Minnesota, Elena Delle Donne of Washington, Diamond DeShields of Chicago, Chelsea Gray of Las Vegas, and Diana Taurasi of Phoenix were also recognised during the preseason but were not included in the midseason update.
Ruocco: Because Breanna Stewart is the only player from my preseason projection who has remained, my team has changed: Tina Charles, Jonquel Jones, Stewart, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Jewell Loyd are the only players who have remained from my preseason projection.
Pelton: Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot are still on my First Team, but Jones, Charles, and Loyd would round out the roster for my Second Team.
Hurd: Stewart and Vandersloot have also remained on my updated First Team, which now includes Jones, Loyd, and Charles, as well as others.
Voepel: I’m having trouble with too many post players, but who do you recommend removing? In the event that I keep Stewart and A’ja Wilson from my preseason team while also adding Jones and Charles, there will be room for only one guard, and I’d lean toward Loyd for that position. To have two guards (while keeping Vandersloot out of my preseason picks), I may be forced to leave Wilson off the roster, who was the MVP last season. I really don’t want to do it, but it might be necessary to demonstrate the strength of the Aces’ lineup.
Robinson: My updated First Team would be Jones, Sylvia Fowles, Charles, Loyd and Betnijah Laney.
Cohen: Stewart, Jones, Charles, Wilson, and Arike Ogunbowale are on my All-WNBA First Team right now, despite the fact that I wasn’t a part of the preseason predictions.
Are you sticking with the same teams to reach the WNBA Finals?
Ruocco: Yes, I am sticking with the Aces and the Storm.
Robinson: Yes, I do have the Mystics and Aces in my collection. The Mystics and this prediction will be in good hands if Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman ever get on the court together during the season.
Pelton: Yes, I did choose the Aces and the Storm, didn’t I? Never mind that the state of Minnesota was listed in the predictions; it was a typo.
Hurd: Originally, I had Aces vs. Lynx as my pick. During the first half of the season, it was difficult to figure out the Minnesota Lynx, but heading into the Olympic break, the Lynx appear to have found a winning formula for success. When the Lynx perform to their potential, they have demonstrated that they are capable of defeating top-tier competition (they have OT wins against the Aces and the Sun). The Lynx have won five straight games since going 0-4 to start the season and are 10-3 overall. I’m willing to stick with it for the rest of the season if it means winning the championship. What’s the harm in trying?
Voepel: One of them, the Aces, is the team I’ll be rooting for. As previously stated, I’m not having a good time with the Mercury right now. I’m going to go with the Storm, as I should have done in the first place, and see what happens.
Cohen: Despite the fact that I believe it is possible for a team such as the Wings or the Lynx to sneak in, the Aces and the Storm are simply too good and are my pick for the time being.
Lee: As a result of making the tragic mistake of not jotting down my predictions at the start of the season, I have no way of demonstrating that I have remained steadfast in my prediction. But, yes, I’m eagerly anticipating the conclusion of the Aces and Storm saga. However, as we’ve discussed in previous roundtables, outside of the core three, this Seattle team will look very different from the one that competed in the 2020 championship.
Has your predicted champ changed?
Ruocco: I’m sticking with Seattle.
Pelton: The Aces were going to be without Angel McCoughtry, who was a big part of their success last season, and I was worried about how much they would miss him. Now that the Aces are cruising along with the best point differential in the WNBA — and the fourth best in WNBA history, just ahead of last season’s Storm — I’m going with them to win the championship.
Hurd: Nope, still picking the Aces.
Robinson: Vegas is still my champ.
Voepel: Whatever happens after Wednesday’s loss, in which nothing went right for the Aces in overtime, I’m sticking with the team. And I don’t believe A’ja Wilson will be disappointed if she does not make the WNBA’s first team but does win a championship. She could, of course, have both of them.
Cohen: The Aces have an incredible amount of depth when compared to the Storm and any other team. This year, Las Vegas will be the undisputed champion.