What did the first half of the 2021 WNBA season tell us about where teams and players stand entering the final stretch? The WNBA’s break for the Olympics over the past month seemed like the best time to answer that question by getting the pulse of those within the league.
We polled seven WNBA experts — consisting of general managers, coaches, agents and PR representatives, and each representing different teams — to get their anonymous responses to seven questions. The topics ranged from the top performers to the biggest surprises and most glaring disappointments.
A lot can change between now and the WNBA playoffs, which begin next month. Our panelists give us a taste of what to take away from the first half of the season and what to expect as the games tip off again.
Seattle Storm: 4 votes
Chicago Sky: 2
Connecticut Sun: 1
The choices here, for the most part, reflect the top of the WNBA standings. Perhaps most surprisingly, none of our panelists picked the Las Vegas Aces, currently in second place behind the Storm at 15-6.
In their own words:
“Seattle knows what it takes to win it all and will likely have a renewed sense of urgency as Sue [Bird]’s career is winding down. Can Las Vegas generate the sustained focus needed to get it done?”
“Breanna Stewart is clearly the best player in the world, and I think that makes you the favorite to win it all. With Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird playing at All-Star levels, combined with Ezi Magbegor’s development this year, this team is the most versatile.”
“The hunger aspect of this is a huge factor in any team winning a championship. Chicago is starving for it. This could be Allie [Quigley]’s last year, [Courtney Vandersloot] has not performed well in playoff play, Candace [Parker] wants at least one more. When you keep losing in the playoffs in a bad way, it will make you hungrier. And I think they have it the most, to go along with the shortest window, to get it done and keep the whole team together.”
“The Sun’s chemistry is something special. They are a gritty team capable of taking teams out of what they want to do. They have been on that stage and are ready to go take one despite the odds.”
Jonquel Jones: 3 votes
Breanna Stewart: 3
Tina Charles: 1
The official race for WNBA MVP should come down to the wire this season, so it’s no surprise these votes are as close as they are.
Two panel members gave another player the nod over Jonquel Jones — who’s averaging a double-double this season for the Sun — solely because of the games she missed to compete with Bosnia and Herzegovina at EuroBasket in June. Tina Charles leads the WNBA in scoring with 26.3 points per game, while Breanna Stewart continues to do a little bit of everything for the No. 1 Storm.
“Tina Charles’ numbers are ridiculous and Washington has been able to win some games, despite all of the injuries, because of her. Jonquel Jones would have my vote, but she has missed too many games at this point.”
“When it is all said and done, Breanna Stewart will be the best player on the best team, and that puts you in a prime position to win this award.”
Phoenix Mercury: 3 votes
Atlanta Dream: 2
Los Angeles Sparks: 1
Indiana Fever: 1
The responses to this question were mixed. The Dream have gone through multiple changes internally this season, including interim head coach Mike Petersen stepping down in late July due to health reasons, and dropped their last four games before the break. They also have had to address questions about the locker room after second-year guard Chennedy Carter was suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
The 4-16 Fever and 6-13 Sparks have also underwhelmed this season. But, to most of our panelists, it’s the Mercury who have most glaringly failed to meet expectations through the first half of the season.
“Phoenix traded two firsts for [Kia] Nurse and [Megan] Walker and the return has been substandard. Would you rather have [Michaela] Onyenwere and your pick next year or what they have now? If you are going to trade away those picks, it’s a chips-to-the-middle-of-the-table type of move, and I’m really not sure they have the cards they thought they had.”
“With three Olympians, the Phoenix Mercury should be well above .500. Not 9-10”
“Atlanta has a ton of talent, speed and scoring, especially when Tiffany Hayes is healthy. But, I guess chemistry goes a long way.”
Seattle Storm: 3 votes
Dallas Wings: 1
Minnesota Lynx 1
New York Liberty: 1
The panelists who chose the Storm cited their ability to remain as dominant as they have been despite missing key players from their 2020 WNBA championship team, such as Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard.
A common refrain for the Wings through the first half of the season is that their 9-12 record doesn’t reflect their talent. Minnesota ended the first half on a seven-game winning streak, earning them recognition. The Liberty overhauled their roster in the offseason and are currently sixth in the league at 10-11. One panelist felt there were no major surprises yet this year.
“Dallas has a young group. They’re starting to figure it out and can really score the ball. They are going to be really dangerous come playoff time.”
“In spite of all of their injuries, Minnesota has been able to get it together and finish the first half of the season strong after so many people wrote them off after their bad start.”
“New York has been the biggest surprise to me, in terms of how quickly they have been able to integrate so many new pieces after only winning two games last season.”
Los Angeles Sparks: 4 votes
New York Liberty: 1
Chicago Sky: 1
Washington Mystics: 1
The Sparks were the runaway winner in this category due to the adversity they faced in the first half of the season.
Meanwhile, New York has missed Natasha Howard, their marquee free-agent addition, for most of the season with a knee injury. Chicago garnered only one vote despite suffering an 0-7 slump early in the season when they were without All-Stars Allie Quigley and Candace Parker as well as Stefanie Dolson and Astou Ndour-Fall, who’s having a career year. The Mystics have missed 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne and 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman for the entire season, as well as Natasha Cloud for parts of the season.
“The Sparks were without Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Maria Vadeeva, Kristi Toliver and Jasmine Walker for part of the season. Washington is a close second for me, but at least they have an MVP-caliber player in Tina Charles to help make up for it.”
“The Liberty traded the No. 1 overall pick for a player that positively changes everything they do on both ends of the floor and they’ve only had her for two games. [Jocelyn] Willoughby went down in preseason, [Leaonna] Odom was out nearly the first month, [Rebecca] Allen was a late arrival and missed time due to injury. It will be interesting to see what a healthy group in the second half can do.”
Michaela Onyenwere: 5 votes
Jasmine Walker: 2
Onyenwere, the current frontrunner for WNBA Rookie of the Year, garnered the most votes after averaging 9.8 points and 2.9 rebounds in 24 minutes per game for the Liberty through the first half of the season.
Walker played in just two regular-season games before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Her two voters cited the 6-foot-3 forward’s preseason performances and long-term potential as reasons for their confidence.
One panelist talked about how difficult this question was to answer because of the shortcomings of the 2021 draft class as a whole.
“Onyenwere is so tough, she is so strong, and she competes at such a high level for her age.”
“Pure athleticism and skill.”
“To me, this is the toughest question. This class is not overly amazing in my opinion. I’m just going to say the obvious answer based on what she has been able to do this season so far in Michaela Onyenwere.”
Brionna Jones: 2 votes
Sami Whitcomb: 2
Jackie Young: 1
Jonquel Jones: 1
Kahleah Copper: 1
Our panelists struggled with this question and included many honorable mentions as a result, such as Jackie Young, Courtney Vandersloot, Betnijah Laney, Jonquel Jones and Kahleah Copper.
“They are both All-Stars this year, but Brionna Jones and Kahleah Copper play on teams where other people get the shine, but they come in everyday and contribute in a major way. You don’t hear them complain about anything. They just do what is asked of them.”
“Did anyone in the league think [Sami Whitcomb] would be this good playing this many minutes? She is shooting close to 50 percent from the field, 45 percent from the 3-point line and tallying career-highs in nearly all statistical categories.”
As our panelists’ responses show, there are few clear favorites or obvious answers after an eventful first half of the season. Many WNBA teams battled through injuries, late arrivals, mid-season absences and streaky play. Now, with the Olympics behind us and just over a month left to play in the regular season, we’ll see which teams can make up ground and which can hold on to the top playoff seeds.