Shoot for the Stars
BY MATTHEW KELSEY
If you’re paying attention to basketball this year, you’ve likely heard word of the uniquely stacked rookie class in the NBA. Ben Simmons leads the way for other young talents such as Dennis Smith Jr, John Collins, Lauri Markkanen, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball. The sophomores aren’t duds, either, what with Dario Saric, Taurean Prince, Malcom Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, and Joel Embiid all taking the league by storm. It’s enough to make your head spin like a Spalding ball on the fingers of a Harlem Globetrotter.
Sure, it’s fun to speculate about the future of basketball. But in all the talks of Lonzo’s celebrity, Embiid’s injury history, and the fresh duo currently leading Boston atop the East, major news outlets seem to be forgetting something: the rising stars of the WNBA. If your basketball chatter doesn’t include mention of female athletes, you’re simply not doing it right.
See, there are as many breakouts in the women’s league as there are in the men’s, and with fewer resources to get them there. That’s why we at Awesome Sports Project are ringing in the new year with a list of young WNBA players—three rookies from 2017, two sophomores, and a future star to be drafted in 2018—that you should all get excited about, along with some hot takes on the future of the league.
We start with Allisha Gray, this year’s Rookie of the Year. Gray was plucked from South Carolina last year with the fourth overall pick, and lit up the Dallas Wings roster immediately. She not only played in every game, but started all 34 of them. She ranked first among rooks in minutes, blocks, and steals per contest, while ranking second in points and rebounds. Her consistency and scoring punch earned her Rookie of the Month honors for May and June. With Allisha in the backcourt, Dallas improved upon last year’s record by 5 games, and returned to the playoffs after a disappointing 2016 campaign. If Allisha continues to develop, the Wings could be looking at a future that mirrors their glory days in Detroit under Bill Laimbeer. By the way, Allisha and I share the same birthday (Jan. 12), which is in less than a week. Happy Birthday, Allisha!
If there was anyone who came close to stealing the ROY award from Allisha, it was the Atlanta Dream’s Brittney Sykes. Sykes played college ball at Syracuse, and became the highest drafted women’s player in school history, selected 7th overall. Though she only started 23 of the team’s 34 games, Sykes established a Dream rookie record with 471 points on the season. Naturally, her average of 13.9 points led the entire 2017 class. Sykes wasn’t just a scoring machine, however—she led her classmates with 4.1 rebounds per game, too. She followed Gray’s monthly honors up by winning Rookie of the Month in both July and August. Something tells me Sykes will be joining Gray in many all-star games to come.
I’d be remiss to round out these rookie profiles without including last year’s #1 draft pick. Kelsey Plum, the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader with 3,527 points, joined fellow Huskies player Markelle Fultz in becoming the first #1 draft picks in the NBA and WNBA to hail from the same college. While Markelle’s first season has been hampered by a strange muscular injury in his shoulder, Kelsey led all WNBA rookies in assists (3.4), and was third in minutes played and scoring average. Clearly, Kelsey’s a dual-threat, and her team-first mentality has translated well to the next level, helping her earn All-Rookie honors. It was a tough year for the Stars, what with another losing record, a brand-new head coach, and a season-capping move to Las Vegas. The relocated and rebranded Aces still have a bright outlook, however, and ought to improve on their record this coming season.
This is especially true if sophomore Moriah Jefferson has anything to do with it. Jefferson, a fellow Vegas Aces guard, was selected 2nd overall in the 2016 draft, and, like Kelsey, was named to the All-Rookie team in her inaugural campaign. Though her usage and scoring numbers dipped a bit in 2017, her field goal percentage rose from 43 to 52, and her 3-point percentage jumped from 38 to 45, suggesting that she became a more efficient scorer from her first year to the next. She also led all sophomores—by a landslide—with 4.4 assists per game. Moriah is best known for being one of the UConn Huskies to win 4 national titles in a row, and for being a fixture on the USA team, but she could become known for bringing basketball success to Las Vegas.
You know if I’m writing an article for Bea Chang that I have to mention the Seattle Storm at some point, right? Here goes: the second sophomore from 2017 that everyone should keep their eyes on is Breanna Stewart. Stewart, the 2016 Rookie of the Year, as well as 2016’s ESPY winner for Best Female Athlete, led all sophomores in 2017 with 19.9 points per game, and was second in her class with 8.7 rebounds per game. As the brilliant Sue Bird ages, and more years pass between this current Seattle roster and their championship teams, players like Stewart and Jewell Loyd ensure that the Storm franchise will still compete in the West for a long time to come.
Other notable rookies from last year include Kaela Davis (G, Dallas), Stephanie Talbot (G, Phoenix), and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (G, Washington). Also watch out for Jonquel Jones (F, Connecticut), Isabelle Harrison (C, Las Vegas), and Courtney Williams (G, Connecticut), all of whom are entering their third seasons in 2018.
But who’s the star of the future? What player, yet to don a WNBA jersey, will be the next Rookie of the Year? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: A’ja Wilson, star of the South Carolina Gamecocks. The 6’5” forward from nearby Hopkins, SC, has been a finalist for the Wooden and Naismith Awards each of the past two seasons. She led South Carolina to the NCAA title just last year, and has scored and rebounded at will against her opponents this year, averaging 24.6 points per game and 11.4 rebounds per contest through the team’s first 14 games. Could the Aces select Wilson first in the coming draft? Or will teams like Indiana (drafting 2nd) and Chicago (3rd and 4th) win the rights to this special young player? We’ll find out this April!
So what does this all mean? Here are a few quick takeaways:
1) Yes, the league features some dominant forwards. In fact, 9 of the last 10 MVPs have been centers, forwards, or at least—in the case of Elena Delle Donne—a forward/guard combo. But many of the league’s premier forwards (Ogwumike, Charles, Stewart, Fowles, Griner, and Moore) benefit from a league that’s still deeper in guard talent. In a Newsday article that was published just as last year’s season began, Mike Rose ranked the top 25 WNBA players. 12 of them were guards, with 2 of them being combos. Seems evenly split, right? Not if you consider that of the 12 players mentioned above, only 4 of them were forwards. Tomorrow’s WNBA, folks, will be a guard’s league.
2) Watch out for those Vegas Aces! If Vegas selects Wilson, they’d add her to Jefferson, Plum, Harrison, and Kayla McBride. Imagine a frontcourt with Wilson and Harrison, a backcourt with Plum and McBride, and a fresh Jefferson jumping off the bench. This vision, by the way, will be coached along by none other than Bill Laimbeer, a basketball legend who won 2 NBA titles as a player, and earned 3 WNBA titles with the Detroit Shock. Sure, the Aces are a new team, and new teams don’t often win titles right away, but this franchise only has to look down the road to the startup Vegas Golden Knights—who lead the NHL’s Western Conference halfway through their first season—for a blueprint on how to succeed immediately in Sin City.
3) Gone are the days when nearly every top WNBA draft pick came from UConn. Last year, South Carolina provided Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray, and Kaela Davis. The year before, they gave the league Tiffany Mitchell. And, as I mentioned above, there’s a good chance the Gamecocks send A’ja Wilson to the WNBA as the very first selection. If you want to look for future WNBA talent, look at what Dawn Staley is doing in Columbia, and stop getting stuck on Storrs.
4) The Seattle Storm haven’t produced a winning season since 2011. The Dallas Wings have only turned out one winning record since 2009, when they were still the Detroit Shock. I predict that both will make the playoffs in 2018, and that at least one of these two teams will advance out of the first round of the playoffs. (That would be the Seattle Storm.)
5) Quite simply: the WNBA is a thrill, brimming with new talent and age-old intrigue. The only question is: can the WNBA stick around long enough for the stars above to fully emerge? I sure hope so. Let’s, as fans, do everything we can to turn out for games and make some noise for our favorite squad. Oh, and bring your kids! WNBA games represent the most family-friendly sports experience I can think of, so bring young fans to match the league’s young talent.