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WNBA opening weekend: Becky Hammon’s Aces off to scorching start

A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Dearica Hamby all scored in double figures against the Storm on Sunday. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Welcome to my JWS weekly column during the WNBA season! Here, you will find my thoughts and analysis on what’s transpired in the league in the past week.

It’s easy to overreact after teams have played one to two games through the opening weekend of the season. I usually like to hold my thoughts until at least two weeks into the season, but that’s no fun, so here is what stood out to me from the first live WNBA action of 2022.

Rookies showed up and showed out

The 2022 WNBA draft class made quite the splash on opening weekend. The Fever and Dream, last year’s bottom two teams, are in a position where they need their rookies to play early and often, and the players have rewarded them so far.

While Indiana lost both of its games to the Mystics and the Sparks, I have not had this much fun watching the franchise in years. With three rookies in their starting rotation, the Fever competed on offense and defense and, unlike in past seasons, refused to roll over. Much of that has to do with the competitiveness of their draft class.

No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith tallied a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double in her pro debut against the Mystics. Smith was aggressive from the opening tip, hunting her opportunities to score often. It’s clear the Fever’s coaching staff has given her the confidence to make plays and shoot on offense.

Destanni Henderson then played like an experienced vet against the Sparks, scoring 19 points on 3-of-4 shooting from the 3-point line and leaving many to question the teams that passed on her in the draft, allowing the guard to fall to the second round.

No. 10 pick Queen Egbo is still developing her offensive skill set, but her ability to rebound, score around the rim and make her presence felt in the paint gives the Fever an element they did not have before.

In her pro debut for the Dream, Rhyne Howard showcased her potential with 16 points and four assists, playing nearly the entire game in their win over the Dallas Wings. Howard was just 4-of-15 from the field (all four of her field goals came on 3-pointers), but I expect the guard to continue to get more comfortable on the floor as time goes on, because Atlanta will give her the minutes.

I’m not sure anyone expected Shakira Austin, in her second game as a pro, to go toe-to-toe with one of the greatest centers in the history of the WNBA. But the Mystics rookie center held her own against Sylvia Fowles on Sunday night.

Austin finished with a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double while shooting an efficient 6-for-8 from the field. We knew Austin had the size and skill to transition smoothly into the pros, but it was her confidence that stood out to me the most. You can tell that she not only feels like she belongs, but also that she can be great in this league.

Hellooooo Las Vegas Aces

Many of the questions about what this Aces team would be capable of in the Becky Hammon era were put to bed over the weekend.

The Aces are off to a 2-0 start after beating the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm, the latter of which was particularly impressive. The game felt like part of a best-of-five playoff series, with heavyweight superstar talent making play after play. The Aces put their foot on the gas early and controlled key areas of the game, out-rebounding the Storm 45-30 and outscoring them 42-16 in the paint to win 85-74.

Dearica Hamby and A’ja Wilson combined for 30 points and 34 rebounds, and Jackie Young added 19 points. While Kelsey Plum struggled from the field, the fact she still finished with 18 points, seven assists and 6-for-6 shooting from the free-throw line suggests she’s ready to take her pro career to the next level this season.

The Aces’ tenacity on defense fueled their offensive outbursts in both games. They controlled the glass and were disruptive on-ball and in passing lanes, forcing the Storm into tough contested shots. While we’ve become accustomed to Las Vegas’ offensive firepower, we haven’t seen this type of defensive grit from them in the past.

My biggest question remaining for the Aces lies in their depth. With four starters each playing over 34 minutes against Seattle, sustaining the pace and level of their play will be challenging. The Aces will benefit greatly from the return of Riquna Williams, but getting valuable minutes and production out of players like Kierstan Bell and Theresa Plaisance will be especially key down the road.

What’s up with the …

Minnesota Lynx

The Lynx were expected to struggle early on this season, and that certainly was the case as they fell to the Storm and Mystics over the weekend. The loss to Washington on Sunday was particularly painful to watch, but still there’s no reason to hit the panic button. Remember that Minnesota started 0-4 in 2021 and finished fourth.

The Lynx fell victim to a discombobulated offense that was unable to get the ball inside to Sylvia Fowles and a defense that seemed non-existent at times. They are still without Damiris Dantas, who is expected to return soon from injury, and Kayla McBride will rejoin the team from overseas in the coming weeks. Odyssey Sims has been with the team for just over a week and is still finding her footing.

Jessica Shepard was a bright spot for the Lynx over the weekend, with a career-high 16 points and 12 rebounds against Washington and a near double-double against Seattle. For Minnesota to have success this season, she’s going to need to elevate her play and have a breakout season. Shepard, after missing nearly all of the 2019 and 2020 seasons while recovering from an ACL tear, is on my early shortlist of Most Improved Player candidates.

I’m giving the Lynx more time before I start questioning specific pieces of this roster.

Phoenix Mercury

After a 106-88 opening loss to Las Vegas, Phoenix’s play left much to be desired. While I’m confident in the Mercury’s ability to score the basketball, I do question their ability to get stops with the makeup of their current roster. When you concede 108 points in your first game, and allow your opponent to shoot 53 percent from beyond the arc and close to 60 percent for the game, the concern is warranted.

Brianna Turner and Diamond DeShields, who reported to Phoenix on Monday, will be key defensive additions as the Mercury head into back-to-back matchups with Seattle. While the Storm struggled a bit offensively during the opening weekend, they will give the Mercury’s defense a good, early test.

Week 1 Power Rankings

  1. Las Vegas Aces, 2-0
  2. Seattle Storm, 1-1
  3. Chicago Sky, 0-1
  4. Connecticut Sun, 0-1
  5. Washington Mystics, 2-0
  6. Los Angeles Sparks, 2-0
  7. New York Liberty, 1-0
  8. Phoenix Mercury, 0-1
  9. Minnesota Lynx, 0-2
  10. Atlanta Dream, 1-0
  11. Dallas Wings, 0-1
  12. Indiana Fever, 0-2

Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.

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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