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Five WNBA players with the most breakout potential in 2021

@minnesotalynx

Editor’s note: After this story was published, Julie Allemand was placed on the Fever’s suspension list for the 2021 season because of commitments with the Belgian national team this summer.

With the 25th anniversary season of the WNBA set to tip off Friday, Just Women’s Sports has been previewing everything you need to know.

There has been plenty of talk about the league’s stars. Candace Parker faces high expectations in her first season with the Chicago Sky. The Seattle Storm are looking to repeat behind Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. Sabrina Ionescu is primed to build upon her injury-shortened rookie season, while rookie Charli Collier will begin to cement her legacy.

But what about the players who are waiting in the wings, ready to make an impact? The ones you don’t hear about in the headlines? After all, teams need their role players to step up in order to succeed. We’ve delivered our preseason power rankings and laid out our five storylines that will define the season.

Now we’re back, with the five players who have the most breakout potential this season.

Bridget Carleton

The Canadian national teamer has had quite the journey to the WNBA. After being drafted 21st overall by the Connecticut Sun in the 2019 WNBA Draft, she was released after just four games. The Minnesota Lynx then signed her to a seven-day contract which turned into a season-long commitment.

Starting out as a fringe player for the Lynx, Carleton quickly gained the trust of the coaching staff during the bubble season. In her first WNBA start, the 6-foot-1 guard went 11-for-16 from the floor and made all 3-pointers she took, scoring 25 points. She became just the third player in WNBA history with at least 25 points and five rebounds in their first league start.

The others? Carleton’s teammate Napheesa Collier and five-time WNBA All-Star Candace Parker.

Through the rest of the 2020 season, Carleton hit 52 percent of her shots from the field and 45.7 percent of her 3-pointers, averaging 6.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

Carleton should see even more time at guard this season for Minnesota, especially as Kayla McBride works her way back from overseas play. Carleton no longer has to prove that she belongs in the WNBA, which should take some pressure off as she looks to build on her impressive 2020 campaign.

Ezi Magbegor

The Storm will be looking to get even more out of their young center this season. Magbegor, who was considered for the All-Rookie team last season, averaged 6.5 points and 2.5 rebounds and shot 56.9 percent from the floor as a reserve. While she averaged just 13.3 minutes per game last year, that number should increase after the Storm lost two starters — Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark — in the offseason.

Seattle is also waiting on several players to join them from overseas play. Breanna Stewart reported to training camp Tuesday, but head coach Dan Hughes doesn’t expect guard Epiphanny Prince, center Mercedes Russell or forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan to be available to play in the opener Saturday against Las Vegas.

Magbegor has room to improve defensively after averaging 2.5 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game last season. The 6-4 Australian has also been working on her 3-point shot in the offseason, averaging 41.7 percent with the Melbourne Boomers late in 2020. Since then, she’s had an additional four months to improve her game and come into her second WNBA season ready to make an impact for the reigning champions.

T’ea Cooper

T’ea Cooper’s WNBA story is similar to Carleton’s. Taken with the 18th pick in the 2020 draft, the Mercury cut her before the season to meet roster expectations. The Los Angeles Sparks then picked Cooper up after point guard Kristi Toliver opted out of the 2020 season.

The point guard averaged 7.3 points and 2.0 assists per game in the bubble, finishing the season seventh in points per game and eighth in assists per game among all rookies. If Cooper can become a more consistent shooter from 3, after ranking 29th among guards with at least 30 attempts last season, coach Derek Fisher will have even more reason to keep her on the floor.

The Sparks lost three of their top five players in total minutes this past offseason and are embarking on a new era without Candace Parker. That turnover creates an opportunity for Cooper to expand her role with the team. If Cooper continues to improve her game, the ceiling is high for the energetic player.

Julie Allemand

The Indiana Fever finished the 2020 season in second-to-last place, helping them land No. 4 overall pick Kysre Gondrezick. While many eyes will be on Gondrezick, the Fever will run through second-year guard Julie Allemand.

It’s hard to imagine now that Allemand was the 33rd pick in the 2016 WNBA draft and didn’t play in the league until last year, but the Belgian has quickly filled the role of high-level playmaker for a team that lacked one. She finished second in the league in assists per game last season at 5.8 while averaging 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. She also shot 47.8 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked third in the league.

While Gondrezick should help lighten Allemand’s load, look for them to play off each other and maximize Allemand’s potential.

Brionna Jones

The Connecticut Sun center is on the rise. In 2020, Jones improved her career-best scoring average from 7.7 points per game to 11.2, as well as her rebounding average from 2.2 rebounds per game to 5.6. Jones also shot a ridiculous 60.5 percent from the field. Prior to the 2020 season, Jones never exceeded nine minutes per game. In the Wubble, that number increased to 26.1.

She also went off in the Sun’s final preseason game this month, scoring a game-high 22 points and grabbing nine rebounds to lead the team. That type of performance suggests Jones’ ceiling is only getting higher as time goes on.

For a team that lacks depth, Jones will be pivotal alongside Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner. With star forward Alyssa Thomas likely out for the season with a torn Achilles, the expectations for Jones only increase.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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