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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.