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WNBA All-Star Game: Top matchups, snubs and why Team USA could go down

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The 2021 WNBA All-Star Game proceedings have been unique at every level. With the game a week away, we’ve taken some time to digest the competitive voting process and roster selections and offer our thoughts on the matchup pitting the U.S. women’s national team against the best of the rest in the league.

For the first time, the WNBA is holding an official All-Star Game the same year as the Olympics. Team USA faced a group of WNBA All-Stars in an exhibition during the 2004 Olympic year, and the “Stars at the Sun” showcase in 2010 featured the same matchup, but neither was considered a WNBA All-Star Game.

This year, every player selected to represent the U.S. in Tokyo earns 2021 All-Star accolades. That meant voters faced the challenge of identifying the 10 best WNBA players (six frontcourt and four backcourt) who are outside of the Team USA roster.

The selection process consisted of 50 percent voting by fans, 25 percent by current WNBA players and 25 percent by the media. WNBA head coaches then determined the 12 All-Stars among the top 36 vote-getters, with the caveat that coaches couldn’t vote for players on their own teams.

The 17th WNBA All-Star Game will take place at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas next Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Here’s what you can expect from the unprecedented event.

The newbies

This year’s WNBA All-Star squad features seven first-timers: Kahleah Copper, Dearica Hamby, Brionna Jones, Betnijah Laney, Arike Ogunbowale, Satou Sabally and Courtney Williams. With them, the WNBA All-Stars have a legitimate chance to beat Team USA.

Those seven players combine for over 110 points per game and an efficient 48 percent field-goal percentage. In addition to the sheer offensive firepower of the group, these first-timers bring energy and will be hungry for a win. Combine that with the veteran All-Star returners who might have a bit of a chip on their shoulder after not making the U.S. Olympic team, and we could be in for one of the most competitive All-Star Games in the league’s history.

The matchup

In years past, the All-Star Game was an opportunity for the WNBA to showcase its top players and for the athletes to mingle and celebrate their accomplishments in a light-hearted event. It was a chance for the majority of the league to get rest while the All-Stars enjoyed themselves, playing the game cautiously enough to avoid injury.

This year, Team USA will be in the middle of its training camp in Las Vegas, tasked with building chemistry, competing and preparing to win their seventh gold medal in Tokyo. The team has pre-Olympic tune-up games against Australia and Nigeria, but neither opponent is as deep and talented as the 2021 All-Star Team.

If Team USA and the WNBA All-Stars both compete at 100 percent, it is a coin flip as to who wins. Each team has the offensive talent to score points, so whichever side goes in with a better defensive game plan will have the upper hand.

Here’s who I would start on each team:

Team USA

Sue Bird PG
Jewell Loyd SG
Ariel Atkins F
Breanna Stewart F
Sylvia Fowles C

WNBA All-Stars

Courtney Vandersloot PG
Arike Ogunbowale SG
DeWanna Bonner F
Candace Parker F
Liz Cambage C

I like this WNBA All-Star group because Courtney Vandersloot, Candace Parker and DeWanna Bonner are veteran leaders who will value defense while Arike Ogunbowale and Liz Cambage are offensive threats who have the potential to put Team USA on their heels early. The All-Stars have a slight edge over Team USA in rim protection, with Jonquel Jones’ ability to secure rebounds and guard the paint.

I’m also eyeing the Candace Parker-Breanna Stewart matchup. Watching arguably two of the best point-forwards and competitors in the world going toe-to-toe is a basketball lover’s dream.

Historically, Team USA has prevailed over the WNBA All-Star team, but we have yet to see a matchup like this one under these circumstances.

My pick: Call me crazy, but for all of those reasons, I’m going with the WNBA All-Stars.

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Nneka Ogwumike, who's recovering from an injury, was left off of both teams. (Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)

Biggest snubs

It’s hard to argue with any of the All-Star selections, but the most glaring absence to me is that of Nneka Ogwumike.

It was surprising, first of all, that Ogwumike didn’t earn an All-Star nod with Team USA. The forward was left off the Olympic roster after a successful year with the national team in which she was the second-leading scorer and MVP of the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Ogwumike, who won WNBA MVP in 2016, is the only former MVP never to make a U.S. Olympic roster.

Ogwumike has played in just five games this WNBA season because of an injury. In those games, she averaged 16.4 points and seven rebounds per game on 59 percent shooting from the field. Despite the small sample size, the six-time All Star deserves to be in the conversation because of the sheer impact she makes for the Sparks, accounting for close to 25 percent of their scoring and rebounding when on the court.

Jackie Young is another player who had a strong argument to make the All-Star roster. Young is the fourth-leading scorer for the top-ranked Aces, averaging 12.8 points per game on an efficient 48 percent shooting from the field. The third-year guard is an X-factor for Las Vegas as she continues to stretch opponents defensively, shooting a career-best 39 percent from the 3-point line. Young has been a steady force on both ends of the floor, playing the most minutes (32.7 per game) and putting up the best numbers of her career.

Then there’s Marina Mabrey, the Dallas Wings guard who has emerged as a top early candidate for Most Improved. Mabrey is currently in the top 20 in the league in scoring at 14.8 points per game, including seven 20-plus point performances in the Wings’ 19 games.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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