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.