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.
👀 did you see that ? MJ’s over the back dish to Flash!#Ownthecrown pic.twitter.com/F1FTHLv6VX— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) August 18, 2022
👀 did you see that ? MJ’s over the back dish to Flash!#Ownthecrown pic.twitter.com/F1FTHLv6VX
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 DOES IT ALLLLL 👌@nyliberty looking for the dub to secure their playoff spot on League Pass 👏 pic.twitter.com/EEngskHp0W— WNBA (@WNBA) August 14, 2022
HAN XU DOES IT ALLLLL 👌@nyliberty looking for the dub to secure their playoff spot on League Pass 👏 pic.twitter.com/EEngskHp0W
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.
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.
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.
we love a megan gustafson moment #4TheValley | #WNBATwitter pic.twitter.com/RhTeq9tNMS— PHNX Mercury (@PHNX_Mercury) July 29, 2022
we love a megan gustafson moment #4TheValley | #WNBATwitter pic.twitter.com/RhTeq9tNMS
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.
First career three for Iliana Rupert 🙌 pic.twitter.com/G2LWKIVbL5— WNBA (@WNBA) June 26, 2022
First career three for Iliana Rupert 🙌 pic.twitter.com/G2LWKIVbL5
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.
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.
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.
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 gets it to go with 0.1 seconds remaining 😮 pic.twitter.com/hOjqauxAtz— ESPN (@espn) June 19, 2022
Ezi Magbegor gets it to go with 0.1 seconds remaining 😮 pic.twitter.com/hOjqauxAtz
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.