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Ten role players who could impact the WNBA playoffs

Marine Johannès led the Liberty with seven assists in their playoff-opening win. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The stars showed out in the opening games of the WNBA playoffs, but the team that wins the championship will need top-to-bottom production from its roster.

Here are the top 10 role players (in no particular order) who could provide a major spark for their teams in the first round and beyond.

Marine Johannès, G, New York Liberty

There’s no making this list without Johannès. Even without the pass heard ’round the basketball world, Johannès has been an impact player for the Liberty. The French guard is averaging 10 points and 3.4 assists for New York and is performing at a high level both coming off the bench and when she’s in the starting lineup. On Thursday, she scored eight points and recorded seven assists in her team’s upset of the Sky. Her playmaking skills make her the perfect complement to Sabrina Ionescu, because she forces defenses to take notice of every spot on the floor. That takes some of the attention off the Oregon grad, and allows the Liberty offense to flow. Plus, her highlight-worthy plays have a way of igniting New York on the floor.

Han Xu, C, New York Liberty

The depth of the Liberty can’t be ignored, so it makes sense for them to have two players on this list. Han isn’t likely to have a 20-point game, nor do I expect her to take over, but she does have the ability to change a game with impactful minutes. The 6-foot-10 center is averaging 8.5 points per game and shooting 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. Her 3-point shooting prowess forces defenders to adjust and draws shot-blockers away from the rim. Even playing spot minutes, Han has a positive impact on New York’s offense.

(Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

Azurá Stevens, F, Chicago Sky

Stevens comes off the bench for a deep Sky team, but she often plays starter-type minutes. On Thursday, she gave the Sky a lift with 16 points as starting forward Emma Meesseman struggled, going 2-for-7 for four points. At 6-6 with a lengthy wingspan, Stevens is an asset on defense — she averages 1.1 blocks per contest — and offensively, finishing around the rim or floating outside to score from long range. Thursday proved that they Sky need everyone playing at a high level to top the Liberty, and they will especially need continued bench production from players like Stevens.

(Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rebekah Gardner, G, Chicago Sky

Both Gardner and Stevens have cases for Sixth Woman of the Year, with significant bench contributions throughout the season. Gardner is averaging 8.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.4 steals a game for Chicago. She has a knack for catching defenders off guard and cutting to the basket for open looks, but I see her impact this postseason coming more on the defensive end.

Against the Liberty, she was one of the only players who could stay in front of Ionescu. Her defensive tenacity was also on display against the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup. Again, she managed to stay in front of Kelsey Plum, another skilled guard, when her teammates struggled. Having someone who can disrupt a skilled ball-handler may prove vital to the Sky as they try to avoid first-round elimination.

Megan Gustafson, C, Phoenix Mercury

Gustafson has played limited minutes (9.6 per game) for the Mercury this season, but with Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith out at the moment, Phoenix has a thin roster that’s only getting thinner. Phoenix needs someone like Gustafson to step up and provide much-needed offense, especially after Shey Peddy also went down with an injury in Game 1 on Wednesday night. Gustafson, who had 12 points and four rebounds off the bench on Wednesday, was an elite scorer at Iowa, averaging 27.8 points per game during her senior season in 2019. If she can harness that scoring ability in increased minutes (the 26 she played Wednesday marked a season-high), the struggling Mercury will have a better shot at sticking with the Aces.

Iliana Rupert, C, Las Vegas Aces

One of the Aces’ few weaknesses is their lack of depth. Las Vegas relies on its starting five for nearly all of its offensive production. That can be an issue if anyone runs into foul trouble, but Rupert provides a viable option off the bench. In her minutes this season, the mobile center has shown her ability to read defenses and find open spaces to shoot inside and outside the arc. She’s averaging 3.8 points in 14.1 minutes per game this season but has the potential to contribute at a higher level if needed.

(Evan Yu/Just Women’s Sports)

Veronica Burton, G, Dallas Wings

I was going to include Teaira McCowan on this list, but she’s since graduated from role player to centerpiece for Dallas. Still, there was clearly something missing in the Wings’ loss to Connecticut on Wednesday. Enter Burton. Without Arike Ogunbowale, the Wings need Burton to step up offensively. The point guard is known for her defense, but the Wings need her not only to set up her teammates — she averaged 1.5 assists in 15.2 minutes per game — but score on her own as well. The rookie averaged 17.8 points per game during her senior season at Northwestern. If she can tap into that scoring potential, it will be a huge help for Dallas.

(M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Brionna Jones, C, Connecticut Sun

Jones is the frontrunner for Sixth Woman of the Year for a reason. The 6-3 center scores 13.8 points, grabs 5.1 rebounds and dishes 1.3 assists per game off the bench for the Sun. She brings efficiency, shooting 56.9 percent from the field, and a different style of post play than the Sun get from starting forwards DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones. Brionna Jones is more of a traditional big who isn’t afraid to use her strength to battle through contact in the paint. In addition to her skill set, Jones brings a unique toughness to the Sun.

(Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Shakira Austin, C, Washington Mystics

Austin has been a key piece for the Mystics this season, averaging 12 points, 7 boards and one block per game. The rookie leads her team on the glass and is a dynamic shot-blocker. She played well against the Storm in Game 1 with 12 points and seven rebounds but missed shots she shouldn’t have down the stretch. Still, Austin has been consistent throughout the season, and I’d be surprised to see her miss opportunities like that again. With defenses focusing on Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud, Austin has the opportunity to put up big numbers for Washington.

Ezi Magbegor, C, Seattle Storm

Magbegor is second in the league in blocked shots with 1.8 per game, so her defensive presence is an obvious advantage for the Storm. But she’s contributed across the board this season, averaging 9.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists. Magbegor provides production in all categories for the Storm off the bench, and her ability to keep them at a high-level when subbed in for a member of the starting lineup is a luxury the Storm can take advantage of as they look to advance past the Mystics.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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