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WNBA betting guide: Keep an eye on Sabrina Ionescu and the Liberty

(Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Another week of WNBA action is in the books, and the betting world continues to give us plenty to talk about.

This past week had both the lowest and the highest over/under for a game this season — 150 in last Tuesday’s Atlanta-Seattle game and 177 in Saturday’s contest between Las Vegas and Los Angeles — and it also gave us the Liberty’s first win against the spread as road favorites in over four years.

With those highlights in mind, let’s dive into the week in WNBA betting.

Team trends

Liberty rolling

In May, the Liberty were arguably the best fade in the league. Now, they may be the best bet. The addition of Crystal Dangerfield has allowed Sabrina Ionescu to spend some of her minutes off the ball, and it’s done wonders both for Ionescu and the team.

Statistically, the newly-minted Eastern Conference Player of the Week has done a complete 180 since the calendar flipped to June. Ionescu has essentially doubled her May averages in scoring, 3-pointers per game and free throws per game, while sinking over 44 percent of her triples and all 29 of her free throws so far this month.

As you might expect, this individual breakthrough has directly coincided with a team turnaround. Since inserting Dangerfield into the starting lineup to begin the month, New York has gone from the league’s worst net rating to its best. They even pulled the biggest upset of the season when they took down Washington as 12-point underdogs on June 3.

Fever getting on the board first

In our last betting piece, we talked about BetMGM’s “first to score” prop bets. These generally only take into account the strength of each team overall, not the strength of each team’s center at winning jump balls.

Because of this, we can use jump ball data to our advantage. The Fever in particular present an interesting case. Despite owning one of the worst win-loss records in the league, Indiana is scoring first at a remarkable rate. The Fever are the only team in the WNBA to score first 11 times already this season.

While it helps that the Fever have played more games than some teams, they are even in the top three in percentage, having scored first in 68.8 percent of their games. Only the Sun and the Storm have done it more frequently.

Mystics’ second quarters

We’ve devoted plenty of words to the Mystics and their propensity for unders this season — their slow pace and elite defense have made it tough for sportsbooks to adjust their totals low enough.

Washington’s 11-4 record on unders in full games is the best in the league, but it’s nothing compared to their record on second-quarter unders. In 15 Mystics games this season, the second-quarter under has hit an incredible 14 times. If you bet on the under in every Mystics second quarter so far, you’d be nearly undefeated.

Even when they combined for 180 against the Wings, or 173 against the Sky, or 189 on Sunday against the Mercury, the second quarter still went under. There’s bound to be regression at some point, but ride this trend for as long as you can.

League trends

Checking on trends we’ve been monitoring

So far, we’ve been keeping an eye on back-to-back unders, fourth-quarter unders and live second-quarter unders.

Back-to-back unders and fourth-quarter unders continue to sit around 50-50, so it may be that books are finally making adjustments after last season. They haven’t quite figured out those second quarters though — after a first quarter goes over, the second quarter is still going under over 60 percent of the time.

Combined with the Mystics’ extreme low-scoring second quarters, any high-scoring Mystics first quarter should be an automatic trigger to open your sportsbook app and bet the under on the next quarter.

Elena Delle Donne has been sitting out some Mystics games while she works her way back to full strength. (Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Late player availability updates

Usually, the earlier you can get your bets in, the better. With lines now being posted the night before, if you can place your wagers before you go to bed you can often get a better line before the lines move the day of the game.

However, there have been some exceptions to that this season. Because of the lingering effects of the pandemic, there have been occasions where a player is ruled out seemingly out of nowhere mere hours before tip. Most notably, it happened to Breanna Stewart earlier this season, but other players such as Sophie Cunningham, Natasha Cloud and Marina Mabrey have been affected.

Even aside from COVID-19, this type of thing happens in rare instances, such as Elena Delle Donne being ruled out on Sunday after carrying a probable tag into the game (she was the first probable player this season who didn’t end up playing). But the health and safety protocols have increased the frequency of last-minute scratches, so there has been some value in waiting on your bets.

Sportsbooks are doing a much better job this season of updating lines shortly after news breaks. Last season, there were times when odds didn’t change for hours even after a player as important as Candace Parker or Brittney Griner was ruled out. Sportsbooks are now moving their lines within minutes, not hours, of availability news. (That books are putting this effort in is also a great sign of progress in the game.)

Nonetheless, there’s still a small window to bet on a game after player news comes out before the lines move. As long as we’re still dealing with COVID-19 in any form, it may make more sense for those who are really on top of things throughout the day to wait on putting any money down until closer to tip.

Futures update

Here are FanDuel’s biggest movers of the last two weeks.

Stock up: Aces (+200 previous to +115 current)

It says a lot about the Aces that their stock increased the most despite already being the favorites. Even without Jackie Young for the last several days, Las Vegas has raised its value.

It’s also noteworthy to see a number as low as +115 before the halfway point of the season. If that number hits +100, the Aces will have a 50 percent implied probability of winning the championship, a mark we don’t typically see any team hit until after the playoffs have started.

From their three legitimate MVP candidates, to their league-best 9-4 record against the spread, to their ever-rising title chances, there are all sorts of ways to use betting odds to tell the same story: The Aces are flat-out awesome.

Stock down: Mercury (+1000 previous to +4100 current)

As the season has gone on, it’s become more and more apparent that Phoenix just doesn’t have a championship-level defense without Brittney Griner. The superstar backcourt of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, alongside Tina Charles in the middle, can win the Mercury games on the right night, but this team doesn’t have the interior resistance to consistently compete with the league’s top tier right now.

Even Phoenix’s opponents would welcome an improvement in that department if it meant getting Griner back home safely before season’s end. For now, it’s tough to consider Phoenix as a contender for anything more than a backend playoff spot.

Best bets tonight

Washington -6.5 vs. Phoenix

Let’s run this one back. It looked like Washington had a good shot at clearing this line on Sunday, then Delle Donne was unexpectedly ruled out just a couple of hours before tip. She’s probable again for this one, but it would be extremely surprising if she didn’t play. As long as she’s on the floor, look for Mike Thibault to make adjustments from Sunday’s loss and the Mystics to win comfortably in a revenge game.

Phoenix vs. Washington under 165.5

The total for the first leg of this back-to-back closed at 160, so we’re getting an extra 5.5 points just based on how high-scoring Sunday’s contest was. That’s an overreaction to a single game. Whether the back-to-back under effect is still around or not, this line is far too high for any Mystics game. And, of course, if you have access to a book with quarter unders, take the second-quarter under here as long as it’s at least 40.

Calvin Wetzel is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering basketball and betting. He also contributes to Her Hoop Stats, CBS SportsLine and FiveThirtyEight. Follow him on Twitter at @cwetzel31.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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