The Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty have dominated the headlines and conversations since last year’s playoffs. On the court, the Aces and Liberty have had similar success, earning the top two seeds in the 2023 postseason.

Six other squads, though, are ready to challenge the superteams, starting with four intriguing first-round matchups. Just Women’s Sports has insights and predictions for each three-game series.

(1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (8) Chicago Sky

Defending champion Las Vegas set a WNBA regular-season record with 34 wins in 40 games. And after ending the season on a four-game winning streak, the Aces are in prime position to start the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Sky made the postseason against all odds in a season that saw the departure of their head coach and general manager, James Wade, who left for an assistant coaching position in the NBA. Chicago needed a late-season push to edge out the Los Angeles Sparks for the final playoff spot, and they got it by winning four of their last five contests.

These two teams are in completely different places, and while the Sky should be proud of their resilience in even making the playoffs, this series should be dominated by the Aces.

The teams played three times in the regular season, with the Aces taking all three matchups, 93-80, 107-95 and 94-87. In each matchup, Las Vegas had a different leading scorer, with the team’s four stars – A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum – all hitting double-digits each time. Chicago will have to find a way to limit one or two of those scorers to have a chance against the potent Las Vegas offense.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 2

Chicago's Alanna Smith and Las Vegas' Jackie Young go after a loose ball. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(2) New York Liberty vs. (7) Washington Mystics

This series shows the importance of the fight for the No. 1 seed. Neither the Aces nor the Liberty wanted to play the Mystics.

Washington may be a No. 7 seed, but the team ranks much higher in terms of talent. Injuries throughout the season prevented the Mystics from ever getting on a roll, but when healthy, they boast Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Shakira Austin, Ariel Atkins and Brittney Sykes in the starting lineup.

Washington is certainly feeling good about itself after beating New York, 90-88, in the final game of the regular season. Yet while the Mystics can challenge the Liberty, New York is the better team and should win the series – though it may take three games to do so.

The Liberty also come into the playoffs on a high, despite the loss to Washington. They started the regular season with a ton of talent and ended it as a cohesive team that looks hard to stop in a playoff series.

Sabrina Ionescu has been particularly tough for the Mystics to stop, as she’s been New York’s leading scorer with 20-plus points in three of their four regular-season meetings. Washington needs to lean on a stellar defensive performance across the court, but particularly from Sykes and Cloud to defend New York’s guards. After that, it will be up to Austin and Delle Donne to slow down Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones. So a lot needs to go right for Washington. Ultimately, even healthy, it will be challenging for Washington to contend with New York’s talent across all five positions.

Prediction: New York in 3

(3) Connecticut Sun vs. (6) Minnesota Lynx

The Sun and the Lynx played four times this season, with Connecticut holding a 3-1 advantage, but the series featured several close games. Two of the Sun’s wins came by 10 points and 5 points.

Led by MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas and her 15.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per contest, Connecticut has been consistent all season. Slowing down Thomas is the first challenge the Lynx will have to tackle. She runs the court for the Sun, and no squad has had an answer for that. Meanwhile, DeWanna Bonner is having the best season of her career, averaging 17.4 points per game. Her length also provides a challenge for Minnesota’s defense.

Meanwhile, the Lynx are peaking at the right time. They started the season 0-6 but have turned their season around. Napheesa Collier has been a huge part of that success, averaging 21.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. She was huge in the most recent matchup, finishing with 30 points.

The Lynx have come a long way, particularly with the development of rookies Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász, and they have the ability to make this series interesting. But ultimately, the one-two punch of Thomas and Bonner is too big of a challenge to overcome, and the Sun should take this series.

Prediction: Sun in 3

Connecticut's Alyssa Thomas goes up for a shot against Minnesota's Napheesa Collier. (David Berding/Getty Images)

(4) Dallas Wings vs. (5) Atlanta Dream

Dallas and Atlanta come into the playoffs as two similar squads — not in the way they play, but in their ability to beat anyone on a given night. Both these teams are bursting with talent, and when things go right, they go really, really right.

Yet while the Wings continue to mesh, the Dream struggled down the stretch. Still, if Atlanta puts everything together, it can compete with Dallas, though the Dream are 0-3 in the regular-season series.

To have a chance against the Wings in the playoffs, Rhyne Howard, Cheyenne Parker and Allisha Gray will all need to have big games, and Atlanta will likely need a lift from someone unexpected as well.

Dallas will lean on its big three – Satou Sabally, Arike Ogunbowale and Natasha Howard – to do most of the scoring. But the team’s inside presence is where the Wings can separate themselves. Both Teaira McCowan (6-7) and Kalani Brown (6-7) can do damage on both ends, and alongside the length of Awak Kuier (6-6), they make it difficult for opponents to attack the rim.

Prediction: Dallas in 2

With injured players making their returns to the court, the Washington Mystics look like a completely different team compared to just weeks ago.

For the first time since early June, Washington has a healthy roster. Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin, who both missed significant time with injuries, are back on the court. And in Tuesday’s 83-72 win over the Lynx, not a single name was listed on the injury report.

“It was just a really dope moment,” Natasha Cloud told the Washington Post. “We’ve been through f—ing hell.

“It was a rough month and a half [of] playing down numbers, playing crazy lineups, having to adjust in a lot of minutes. So just to have everyone back [when] we’re making this playoff push and we’re really starting to peak and putting some wins together, it’s like the sweetest moment of the season for me right now.”

Kristi Toliver also made her return Tuesday, playing for the first time since June 16 after suffering from plantar fasciitis. And while Toliver, Delle Donne, Austin and Ariel Atkins remain on minute restrictions, it’s a step in the right direction.

With Tuesday’s win, the Mystics leapfrogged the Lynx into the fifth playoff spot. The Mystics (17-18) now hold a half-game lead on Minnesota and Atlanta with five games left in the regular season.

“It’s huge,” Brittney Sykes said of the win. “No, seriously, it is really big. We don’t want to get too caught up in looking ahead or thinking about, ‘Oh, well, if these teams win, if we win it, if we lose, they lose’ — it’s literally controlling our controllables.”

Of course, the team still has to juggle its returning players and monitor their progress. But the Mystics could be coming together at just the right time.

“It was good to have options,” head coach Eric Thibault said. “It feels a little choppy yet, kind of because I’m putting people in and yanking them out. We didn’t get a great rhythm, but we made some shots. Made some shots late in the clock, which was probably the difference in the game. We’ve been on the wrong end of a couple of those. We kept defending. I don’t know if we win this game earlier in the season.”

Natasha Cloud knows some people haven’t yet woken up to what’s possible for the Washington Mystics this year.

“Y’all can keep sleeping (on us),” the five-foot-nine guard said after the Mystics defeated the New York Liberty, 80-64, to open the 2023 WNBA season.

“We’re confident in what we have in this locker room and you can continue to talk about the super hero teams. But we know who we are and we know what we bring every single night.”

While the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces made huge offseason moves, the Mystics’ path to the start of the WNBA season was more subtle. Elena Delle Donne, who has dealt with a back injury for three straight seasons, says she is as strong as she’s ever been. And she looked it on Friday night, recording 13 points, five assists, four rebounds, two steals against the Liberty. Cloud, Ariel Atkins, and Kristi Toliver also added double-digit points.

While Liberty fans might have been surprised by the result, Delle Donne wasn’t.

“It’s what we’ve been doing in training camp. And we don’t care about the outside noise,” the two-time WNBA MVP said. “We don’t care about the storylines. It’s not going to change how we show up every single day, take care of one another and get the work we need to get done each day.”

As for the New York “super hero” team?

“This was a huge lesson for us,” Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot said.

“We can learn a lot from this,” echoed Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello. “The team with the most chemistry certainly won tonight. We were not very good, and they were very good.”

It may be the year of the superteams, but there is plenty of talent up and down the WNBA’s 12 teams as the league prepares to tip off its 27th season this weekend.

Still, it’s easy to see why New York and Las Vegas are the favorites to win the 2023 WNBA championship. The Aces and Liberty combine to have eight players on our list of the top 25 players in the league.

1. A’ja Wilson, F, Aces

The 2022 MVP led the Aces to their first-ever title last season, averaging 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals per contest. Wilson was an impact player on both ends of the floor, performing well in the most high-pressure situations. She had six double-doubles in 10 playoff games and played 40 or more minutes in three contests, including the championship-clinching win over Connecticut. With the Aces once again a favorite to win the WNBA title, Wilson will continue to be at the top of her game.

2. Breanna Stewart, F, Liberty

New team, same Breanna Stewart. The 6-4 forward brings scoring versatility to the court for New York, just like the 2018 MVP did for the Storm over her first six years in the league. Last season, Stewart averaged 21.8 points per game, tying her career-high and leading the WNBA as a whole. She also contributed 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. With more weapons around her in New York, Stewart likely won’t put up numbers as big, but her talent and impact won’t change.

3. Jonquel Jones, F, Liberty

Like Stewart, Jones will be adjusting to a new team and a new role. But with other elite scorers around her, Jones will have more freedom as defenses won’t be able to center their game plans around the 2021 MVP. The 6-6 forward averaged 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest with the Sun last season. Her ability to stretch the floor and shoot 3-pointers on offense is a major strength that opens up lanes for Jones and her teammates.

4. Elena Delle Donne, F, Mystics

After multiple back surgeries caused Delle Donne to miss games at the start of the 2022 season, the Mystics star ended up having a solid campaign. Her 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game were some of her lowest totals over her nine-year WNBA career but impressive nonetheless. Now fully healthy, the 6-5 forward is poised to regain at least some of the form that vaulted her to WNBA MVP in 2015 and 2019. One highlight from last season was Delle Donne’s 2.3 assists per contest, the best mark of her career thus far.

5. Chelsea Gray, G, Aces

After winning the 2022 Finals MVP award, Gray solidified herself as the best point guard in the league. She averaged 21.7 points and seven assists per game during the playoffs, up from 13.7 and 6.1 in those same categories during the regular season. Gray proved herself invaluable during the title run, and the Aces wouldn’t have claimed the trophy without her. The guard was virtually unstoppable when she wanted to score, making 63.5% of her contested shot attempts.

Nneka Ogwumike (Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

6. Nneka Ogwumike, F, Sparks

The Sparks had a chaotic season in 2022, but there was one bright spot: Nneka Ogwumike. The 6-2 forward put up her best numbers since 2017, averaging 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 steals per game. Ogwumike helped keep the Sparks in playoff contention late into the season despite all the drama that surrounded her team. Her standout season is part of the reason new coach Curt Miller made it a priority to re-sign Ogwumike, and the 2016 MVP will be a cornerstone of the new-look Sparks this season.

7. Jewell Loyd, G, Storm

Loyd has played eight years in the WNBA and accomplished a rare feat of improving every season. Now, without Stewart and Sue Bird leading the Storm, Loyd will be thrust further into the spotlight, and the 29-year-old guard is ready. Loyd is one of the best shot-creators in the league, using her speed and athleticism to score off the bounce. During the 2022 playoffs, she proved she’s ready to be the team’s primary scorer, with 26 points in Seattle’s lone win over the Aces in the semifinals.

8. Kelsey Plum, G, Aces

After five seasons in the WNBA, Plum hit her stride last season, becoming a key piece to the Aces’ championship run while averaging the second-most points in the league with 20.2 per game. The guard also proved herself as more than a scorer, averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game. As the Aces battle for another title, Plum will continue to be a cornerstone of the team’s offense.

9. Candace Parker, F, Aces

Parker, a 15-year WNBA veteran, has said retirement is coming soon. But when she plays, the 6-4 forward doesn’t look anywhere near ready to hang it up. Parker has always been a player who impacts every aspect of the game, and that won’t change in her first year in Las Vegas. After leading the Sky to a championship in 2021, the second of her career, she put up 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, one block and one steal per game last season.

Sabrina Ionescu (David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images)

10. Sabrina Ionescu, G, Liberty

New York locked down their former No. 1 draft pick with a contract extension through the 2025 season this week, and it’s easy to see why the franchise wants her around. In college, Ionescu earned the title of “Triple-Double Queen,” something she showed glimpses of last season in the WNBA. Her best performance came last July, when Ionescu had 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists against Las Vegas to record the WNBA’s first 30-point triple-double. After trading for Jonquel Jones and signing Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot, the Liberty will be atop the WNBA this season; and if they win a title, Ionescu will be a key piece to the puzzle.

11. Napheesa Collier, F, Lynx

The new mom missed last season on maternity leave after giving birth to daughter Mila. Collier is back for the 2023 campaign, ready to build on the 2020 and 2021 seasons in which she averaged 16 points per game. Collier is also a skilled rebounder and passer, averaging a career-high nine rebounds and 3.3 assists in 2020. The 2019 Rookie of the Year moves well with and without the ball. She has a proven ability to get to the rim and finish with strength, or pull up for a mid-range shot.

12. Kahleah Copper, G, Sky

After losing Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot to free agency, Copper is now the leader of the Chicago Sky. The 2021 Finals MVP is more than capable of taking on a primary scoring role after averaging a career-high 15.7 points per game last season. Copper is efficient around the rim, where her body control makes her difficult to stop. The 6-1 guard has also become more well-rounded as her career has progressed, averaging 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2022, both career highs.

13. Alyssa Thomas, F, Sun

Thomas is a do-it-all player for the Sun, and they will need her even more this season after trading Jonquel Jones to the Liberty. Thomas kept Connecticut alive against the Aces in the 2022 Finals with two triple-doubles in a row, marking the first and the second triple-doubles in WNBA Finals history. Thomas averaged 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game in 2022.

14. Courtney Vandersloot, G, Liberty

In 12 seasons in the WNBA, Vandersloot has solidified herself as the league’s top pass-first point guard. Last season, she averaged 6.5 assists per game, which was actually her lowest mark since 2016. Vandersloot’s ability to run an offense and set up teammates will be on full display this year alongside elite scorers in Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart and rising star Sabrina Ionescu.

Arike Ogunbowale (Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)

15. Arike Ogunbowale, G, Wings

Ogunbowale was fourth in the league last season with 19.7 points per game. The Wings guard hunts her shot at every opportunity. She can score off the bounce or the catch and has a killer step-back that is difficult to guard. Ogunbowale also averaged a career-best 3.6 assists per game in 2022. With new additions to the Wings’ offense, the guard will be relied on to score and set up her teammates this season.

16. Rhyne Howard, G, Dream

The No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft made noise in her first season, earning an All-Star nod and proving herself as the future of the Atlanta Dream organization. This year, Howard will build on her Rookie of the Year numbers of 16.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game.

17. Ariel Atkins, G, Mystics

A key piece to the Washington Mystics attack, Atkins averaged 14.6 points and 2.3 assists last season, but it’s her ability to impact both ends of the floor that earns her a spot on this list. After receiving All-WNBA Second Team honors four years in a row, Atkins was named to the First Team last season.

18. Skylar Diggins-Smith, G, Mercury

Diggins-Smith will miss part of the season on maternity leave, but after the season she had in 2022, she’s earned a spot on this list, full season or not. Diggins-Smith was third in the WNBA in scoring last season with 19.7 points per game, her best mark since 2014. Diggins-Smith also averaged 5.5 assists, four rebounds, 1.5 steals and — despite being 5-9 — one block per contest.

DeWanna Bonner (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

19. DeWanna Bonner, F, Sun

Bonner has been consistent throughout her 13-year career in the WNBA. Since 2015, she’s never averaged fewer than 13 points per game. Bonner was a key piece to the Sun’s WNBA Finals run last season, and her length and athleticism at 6-4 make her a threat on offense and defense.

20. Allisha Gray, G, Dream

After six solid years with the Wings, Gray embarks on a new journey with the Dream. The guard put up some of her best numbers last season, averaging 13.3 points and 2.5 assists per game. Gray is also an excellent defender who will bring experience and poise to a young Dream squad.

21. Brittney Griner, C, Mercury

Griner says it will take her a bit to get comfortable on a basketball court again after missing last season while being wrongfully imprisoned in Russia. But once she gets reacclimated, the 32-year-old should emerge as one of the top WNBA players once more. In 2021, Griner averaged a near double-double with 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

22. Brionna Jones, F, Sun

The Sun made keeping Jones a priority in the offseason, clearly viewing her as the future of the franchise in the wake of other departures. She was named Sixth Player of the Year in 2022 after putting up 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Now, without Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones will be expected to step up even more for the Sun.

23. Natasha Howard, F, Wings

Behind Ionescu, Howard was the Liberty’s second-leading scorer last season. New York dealt her to the Wings to make room for players like Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart, but that’s not a knock on her talent. Howard hit her stride in Seattle in 2018 and has been a consistent scorer and defender since then, winning WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.

24. Kelsey Mitchell, G, Fever

Since being drafted in 2018, Mitchell has been a bright spot during losing seasons for the Fever. Last year was her best yet, as the 27-year-old guard averaged 18.4 points and 4.2 assists per game.

25. Diana Taurasi, G, Mercury

At 40 years old, Taurasi is still one of the best scorers in the WNBA, and she proved that last season with multiple games of 30 or more points. She’s had staying power for a reason, and the veteran will continue to make an impact in Phoenix this season.

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

Just as WNBA fans and families were beginning to feel at ease, with reports that American players in Ukraine and Russia were returning home safely, we awoke last Saturday to find out that Brittney Griner was taken into Russian police custody over three weeks ago on charges of possessing vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Griner was detained at the airport as she attempted to return to Russia, where she competes for UMMC Ekaterinburg and has played professionally during the WNBA’s offseason for the past eight years.

Suddenly, the real-life consequences of Russia’s political agenda hit very close to home for sports fans in the U.S. At the heart of the conflict in Europe, the lives of professional Ukrainian players were thrown into total chaos as soon as Russia’s invasion of their country began two weeks ago.

Olympic gold medalist and Mystics starting guard Ariel Atkins was competing in Ukraine as things began to unravel. After stints in Poland, Australia and Turkey, Atkins decided to play with BC Prometey, a EuroCup team based in Kamianske, during this WNBA offseason. Atkins led Prometey to a 9-1 EuroCup regular season record, while averaging 20.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

At the end of January, the European season paused for a month-long national team break as top players returned to their national team programs for FIBA World Cup Qualifying competitions. Atkins joined Team USA in her WNBA home city of Washington, D.C. for a three-day training camp and two-game series against Puerto Rico and Belgium.

With Russian troops gathering at the Ukrainian border even before she left for the break, Atkins was skeptical about returning to Eastern Europe for the rest of the season and packed up almost all of her belongings for her trip back home.

“It was definitely a tough decision,” Atkins recalled in a recent conversation with Just Women’s Sports. “Ultimately, I decided not to go back as I didn’t plan on crossing the Ukraine border whatsoever, just because I wasn’t sure how I would be able to get out if things ended up being what they are right now.”

But when her agent called to say the team was being relocated to Bulgaria to continue practicing ahead of their EuroCup playoff series against a tough Turkish squad, Atkins found herself back on a plane to Europe to rejoin her Ukrainian teammates.

“I build bonds with my teammates, and I really do care about them,” Atkins said from Turkey, the day before CBK Mersin knocked Prometey out of EuroCup competition. “I just want things to go well for them and I want to help as much as I can. But I honestly, personally, don’t know how. What I’m thinking or feeling or dealing with is not even an ounce of what they’re dealing with.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine escalated rapidly during the brief time Prometey was practicing in Bulgaria and then competing in Turkey. The team’s Ukrainian captain, Olga Dubrovina, did her best to console her teammates as feelings of helplessness overwhelmed them.

“Everybody cry. Everybody don’t know how to help,” Dubrovina said in her semi-fluent English. “Everybody is scared. A lot of people leave [Ukraine]. The situation is so bad. A lot of people die.”

In shock and sorrow, the team continued to practice and prepare for their playoff game.

“There are moments here and there where you can just tell the room goes kind of somber,” Atkins said. “I feel like my job is to try to make practice more fun or to kind of lighten the mood a little bit as best I can, without being ignorant to the fact of what they have going on with their friends and their families back home.”

After losing that final playoff game and the remainder of the Ukrainian Women’s Basketball SuperLeague season was canceled due to the war, Atkins returned home to the U.S. while her teammates dispersed across Europe. Dubrovina and a couple of her Prometey teammates were able to sign with teams inside Turkey, and will play the remaining six weeks of the domestic league there.

With her 4-year old daughter and husband, a pro soccer player, safe in his native Bulgaria, Dubrovina’s primary concerns now are supporting her family financially and ensuring the safety of her loved ones still in Ukraine, including her parents, grandmother and brother.

“My brother is in the war in Ukraine. I don’t know his movement,” she said. “We don’t know where he is, what he’s doing. It’s army. It’s everything like secret, and we just wait for when he talks, he calls mom.”

Dubrovina, 34, says a few of her Prometey teammates opted to return to Ukraine despite her encouragement that they stay in Turkey until the danger subsided. Those with husbands or fathers younger than 60 years old were the most anxious to return, as men aged 18-60 are currently not permitted to leave the country per President Volodymyr Zelensky’s general military mobilization.

Other teammates scattered to Poland or Belgium, Dubrovina explained. One had a family connection in Canada. Another, who opted to stay and play in Turkey, is planning to use the money she will earn there to get her kids and grandmother safely out of Ukraine when the season ends.

Olga Dubrovina competes for the Ukrainian national team at the European Championships in 2014. (Jonas Güttler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Dubrovina originally left Ukraine in 2014 when tensions with Russia escalated over the annexation of Crimea. After ten years of playing professional basketball all over Europe, the point guard had assumed her playing career was behind her when she became pregnant with her daughter in 2018. She was enjoying coaching youth basketball when an old coach called and talked her into getting back on the court with the newly formed Prometey club in Ukraine. As a result, Dubrovina, her husband and their young daughter have spent the past two years in Ukraine.

Now that her family has relocated to Bulgaria, Dubrovina is the sole provider for the time being. She says focusing on providing for her daughter, who wants to be a basketball player like her mom when she grows up, is keeping her sane during an otherwise unbearable situation. Dubrovina talks with her family during every break she gets, often ten times a day.

She hopes to eventually get her parents safely to Bulgaria, where she envisions staying to raise her family surrounded by her husband’s relatives. The main reason her parents are still in Ukraine is that her grandmother cannot travel.

“I’ll stay with my family, my daughter and husband. And speak with my mom, because now I have grandma who is invalid,” she said. “She can’t move, she’s just in the bed. And I want to take my mom and my family to Bulgaria, but it’s impossible because Grandma can’t move and now it’s so dangerous.”

As to what Dubrovina thinks will happen to her homeland, she says giving in is not an option for her people.

“You need to understand, we’re not scared of nothing,” she said. “We are a people who can’t just stay and shut up … We can’t lose. If we lose, it’s just as if we died.”

She also urged leaders in the West to hear Ukraine’s pleas for military support in the country’s air space.

“[Those] who have power, close the sky for Ukraine, please,” she implored. “We don’t need food. We don’t need help with money. Just to close the sky…We talk about this night and day. Close the sky. That’s all.”

For now, the continuation of leagues outside Ukraine is helping players like Dubrovina better survive this catastrophe. But as the situation with Griner escalates and geopolitical relations become more strained, WNBA players who supplement their salaries overseas during the offseason will have even more difficult decisions to make in the future.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

WNBA players who have spent the offseason competing in Ukraine have evacuated the country, the WNBA said in a statement Thursday.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins, who plays for BC Prometey in Ukraine, applauded her Ukrainian teammates for taking the court in Bulgaria after Russia launched a military invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday.

On Thursday, she shared several photos of herself and her teammates draped in Ukrainian flags on her Instagram story before the game.

“Can’t even put into words how proud I am of my Ukrainian teammates for drying up their tears and giving their best tonight,” Atkins said. “A big part of me is angry of what’s happening in the world. Please be aware of what’s happening in the world and educate yourself on the effects of a potential war and in this case actual war. Because if you think this is only going to effect Ukraine, think again.”

Joyner Holmes, who plays with Atkins on the team and recently signed a training camp contract with the Connecticut Sun, added on her own Instagram story that it “has been so tough for all of us.”

(via @iamarielatkins on Instagram)
(via @joyneeer on Instagram)

Many WNBA players are also currently playing in Russia. The league confirmed that it has been “in contact with WNBA players who are in Russia, either directly or through their agents” and will “continue to closely monitor the situation.”

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones and Chicago Sky guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley all play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Yekaterinburg. Russia’s Dynamo Kursk is also home to several WNBA players, including the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale, the New York Liberty’s Natasha Howard and the Seattle Storm’s Epiphanny Prince.

Many athletes have spoken out following the invasion. Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina has been particularly outspoken, writing on social media that she is “proud to be Ukrainian.”

Arella Guirantes, a guard for the Los Angeles Sparks who has also spent time playing with BC Budivelnyk in Kyiv, said that her “heart is so heavy right now.”

The United States women’s national basketball team cruised to a 93-55 win over Puerto Rico on Saturday, closing out a dominant World Cup qualifying performance that also included a victory over Belgium.

Ariel Atkins led the scoring charge for Team USA with 14 points, while Allisha Gray, Brionna Jones, Dearica Hamby, Kelsey Mitchell and Jewell Loyd also finished in double digits. The team’s bench recorded 53 of the 93 points.

On the other side of the ball, the U.S. forced 19 turnovers from Puerto Rico and out-rebounded their opponents 27-to-10 in the second half.

“Defensively, I thought we were on point. Offensively, we got an awful lot of good looks that we just didn’t make,” said Team USA head coach Cheryl Reeve. “Overall, once we got through the second quarter, I thought the effort was there on our intentional parts of the game plan.”

The U.S. will next compete in the 2022 FIBA World Cup from Sept. 22-Oct. 1 in Sydney, Australia.

When Ariel Atkins learned she had made her first United States Olympic roster, she didn’t know quite how to feel. The 24-year-old Washington Mystics guard erupted in laughter and then fell into tears.

All of the early mornings she spent in the gym before the sun came up, the double workouts she did with her trainer, the baskets she shot until her arms felt like string beans, the late nights of watching film — those moments flashed before her like an old, familiar movie she’s seen at least one hundred times.

“It was just one of those, like, surreal moments, because it’s definitely something that you want and strive for,” Atkins says. “Me being on the U.S. national team is top tier. It’s always the best of the best, it’s always been the best of the best, and it’s a very hard team to make.”

Atkins called her parents and thanked them for supporting her, for being there from the beginning. She sent text messages to friends, family members and mentors. That list included her high school basketball coach, Cathy Self-Morgan. Atkins thanked Self-Morgan for pushing her to get better and for being a special person in her life. The text ended with: “We’re going to the Olympics coach!!!”

The way Atkins responded to the news is the essence of who she is. She wanted all of the important people in her life to know that they had made it, too.

“Growing up, that’s just who she’s been. She’s always had, I guess, a maturity about herself that’s just beyond her age,” says Lashonda Atkins, Ariel’s mother. “I know my mother-in-law used to look at our family photo albums and she would say, ‘She’s gonna be the glue.’ She was always pointing at her saying she’s always the strong one. It’s just who she was.”

To Atkins, it’s always been about the people in her circle and the people in her community. Basketball is secondary. It’s also the reward of those human connections. She did not travel the road that got her to her first WNBA All-Star Game and first Olympics alone.

“(I’m) just super thankful for my circle and my support system,” she says. “They really pushed me to be just a better human overall.”

Atkins is averaging career highs in points, assists and rebounds in her fourth WNBA season. (Washington Mystics, courtesy of Ariel Atkins)


Atkins was in third grade when she first met Self-Morgan at a fifth-grade basketball camp.

“I told her it’s for fifth graders and she said, ‘No, I can do this,’” Self-Morgan recalled. “She proved to me that first day she could do it. Any time I challenged her after that, she could do it. She might look at me kind of with her head cocked sideways, but she’d turn around and she would get whatever job done.”

Self-Morgan coached for 42 years at Duncanville High School in Atkins’ hometown in Texas. She knew Atkins was special and had the potential to make it to the WNBA someday, even the Olympics.

When Atkins was a junior, they were losing to a team at a tournament in Houston by 15 points. Self-Morgan remembers the team laughing at them, and at halftime, she “chewed out” the players hard. It got their attention.

As soon as she turned her back to walk out of the locker room, she heard a voice hyping up the team, holding them accountable. It was Atkins. They ended up winning the game by ten.

“She always lifted up people around her first,” Self-Morgan said. “It got to the point where I would ask her to talk to teammates. When she graduated, I lost an assistant coach.”

Atkins honed her basketball skills and love of the game at Duncanville High School. (Deena Byrd)

As a freshman at Duncanville, Atkins averaged just 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds. But her game continued to improve year after year, thanks in part to her personal trainer and mentor, Lajeanna Howard. Howard had also played for Self-Morgan at Duncanville. She was coaching college basketball at the University of Louisiana Monroe when Self-Morgan called her to come back and work with the high school team, specifically Akins.

Howard and Atkins connected instantly. They’d get to the gym at 5 a.m. and stay there for hours, sometimes pulling double workouts. Even as a freshman, Atkins didn’t complain. She just put her head down and went to work. And it paid off.

By the time Atkins was a senior, she was averaging 17.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 steals and 3.9 assists as the starting guard. She led Duncanville to a 35-1 record and the Texas UIL Class 5A state title game that season, drawing the attention of many top college programs. A 2014 McDonald’s All-American, Atkins was ranked third overall and first overall at her position by ESPN.

Atkins ended up at the University of Texas. The campus was relatively close to home, but the transition from high school to college was a challenge for Atkins. Basketball was harder, the culture was different, academics were tough. At one point, Atkins even thought about transferring and reached out to the people she trusted most for guidance.

“There’s a lot of different adjustments, especially coming from Duncanville in any college program, because you’re so used to being phenomenal,” said Howard. “And you have to adjust to coaching, the setting, not having the people around you that you’re accustomed to having around.”

Self-Morgan doesn’t typically support transferring. She’s an old-school coach who believes that players should push through the hard times because they’ll be better off for it on the other side. But she knew Atkins was struggling, so she decided to look into the situation and reach out to another school.

“The culture at Texas was just different,” Self-Morgan said. “The seniors were the top dogs and the freshman needed to sit down and be quiet. And when Ariel sees things that aren’t right, she’s not going to sit down and be quiet. So that year, in my opinion, she just kept watching as a spectator and being suppressed, and not being able to be who she was and is.”

Atkins scored 1,497 points during her career at Texas, 20th in program history. (Deena Byrd)

“I think college was the first time that I was really away from my family,” Atkins said. “I’m a huge family person. I have a really big family. I’m always with them when I’m home or with an aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa. To not have them with me and to go through those transitions was really tough.”

Atkins eventually changed her mind about transferring and decided to stick it out the rest of her freshman year. She didn’t know it at the time, but doing so would only make her stronger. Especially because WNBA legend Tina Thompson joined the coaching staff as an assistant the following season.

From that moment on, everything shifted.


It wasn’t the first time Atkins and Thompson had met. When Atkins was younger, she played in an AAU tournament in Dallas. She was very shy back then and doesn’t remember speaking to Thompson, but she remembers being in awe. Now, Thompson was one of her coaches.

“Anytime somebody approaches me as a human first, I immediately am intrigued and interested in what they have to say, because a lot of times, as athletes, people really approach us as basketball players, as athletes first,” Atkins said. “And even from (Tina’s) first day coming in to (the University of Texas) and just meeting all of us and everything, she approached me as a human more so than anything. And I think that was my first, like, (real) introduction to her.”

The more Atkins grew to trust in Thompson, the more she took her advice and life lessons to heart.

“It’s easier to follow someone who has gone through it before,” she said. “They’ve walked it. So when they talk, you can believe it.”

Unlike a lot of WNBA players, Atkins didn’t really think about making it to the pros. She was always focused on getting better and making it to the next level; basketball was fun and putting in the work made it more enjoyable, but it didn’t go beyond that. It didn’t register with her that her game was evolving to the point where WNBA scouts were starting to take notice.

To her family, friends and coaches, however, Atkins was always destined for the WNBA. Self-Morgan says she knew from the first moment she met Atkins as a third grader. Howard had seen Atkins’ potential, too. And when Thompson arrived at Texas, she told Atkins she had what it took to get there.

“I think it sunk in when she was young, playing in the driveway, because she always said it. Whenever she did some move on her dad and made him look bad, she’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s the WNBA there for you,’” said Lashonda.

Her senior year at Texas, Atkins averaged 14.9 points and 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. At 5-foot-8, Atkins had size and strength, and she could score, defend, help out on the boards and put in maximum effort on the court. There was no more avoiding the WNBA’s interest in her. The Mystics scooped up Atkins with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft.

(Washington Mystics, courtesy of Ariel Atkins)

When she arrived in Washington, the WNBA’s East Coast fan base wasn’t familiar with the guard from the Big 12. Atkins saw it as an opportunity.

“She’s a driven type of person. Whatever she sets her mind to, she’s focused and she’s willing to work for it. She knows she has to work hard,” Lashonda said. “She endears people to her. She knew fans didn’t know her, but she wanted to work hard and show them who she is. She wanted the fans to get to know her.”

Atkins did just that, averaging 22.5 minutes, 11.3 points, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game as a rookie. That didn’t mean the transition from college to the pros was easy. Atkins considers it her biggest basketball lesson to date. She had to figure out how to separate herself and give her team more.

“Like, how do you find your uniqueness? How do you (set) yourself apart?” Atkins said. “I think that’s been, for me, one of the toughest things to do, because I don’t need to step outside of myself. You just need to be yourself a little more.”

That team-first approach has endeared Atkins to those around her, even the most legendary players.

“Ariel’s an utmost professional. She’s one of the most selfless players that I’ve played with in a long time,” said Mystics and U.S. teammate Tina Charles. “She’s equipped with a lot of things that many players her age don’t have, that I didn’t have. So it’s really great to see her maturing into the woman that she is on and off the court.”


Atkins has never been afraid to use her voice. She’s been active in her community since she was in high school and her mother taught her the importance of giving back. And as her platform has gotten bigger over the years, she’s realized the opportunity she has to speak louder than ever before — particularly when it comes to social justice.

“I think it’s something the WNBA has always done, ever since I became aware of it, even going back to the Minnesota Lynx when they wore the shirts during their warm-up, and then the league fining them for that,” Atkins said. “This league just has a history of women speaking up and speaking out about not only what they believe in, but speaking up for people whose community they’re a part of.”

During the 2020 bubble season, the Mystics walked out of a scheduled game against the Atlanta Dream in solidarity and protest the day after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisc. Atkins spoke for her team, telling the Washington Post: “These moments are so much more bigger than us. … If we do this unified as a league, it looks different. … We matter.”

“I had the opportunity to speak and it wasn’t planned or anything by my team, so like, I guess I was the person for the job,” Atkins said “I really call that a God moment because… I was very angry. I didn’t really know what I wanted to say, but I know how I felt, so I was just hoping to hone everything that our team was talking about and what we were all feeling that day and before that day and even to this day, and try to portray that out into the world or whoever was listening at the moment.”

Atkins’ urge to speak up for what she believes is right does not come from a feeling of pressure or responsibility, she says, but a calling based on opportunity. When the moments arise, she feels the need to use her platform for people who need it.

“I have the resources, and if I have the resources, I’m gonna help, you know?” she said. “I think it’s more so in our nature and just who we are as people. There’s s a lot of people in our league that are very caring, that want to help, that are super understanding, and want to empower their community, our community, in the best way that we can.”

Looking back at her evolution from high schooler to Olympian, Atkins says she’s grown in her faith, in her relationship with her family, and her relationship with herself. Along the way, her support system has been everything to her.

Whenever Atkins goes back to Duncanville, she goes to lunch or dinner with Self-Morgan and some of her former high school teammates. Self-Morgan, who retired in 2020, cherishes her connection with Atkins.

“I’m always just thoroughly in awe and supportive, and just one of her biggest fans,” said Self-Morgan. “She is your complete athlete, young lady, person, human being.”

Howard still trains and works with Atkins, and they talk all the time. They watch film, break it down and zero in on areas of improvement. They’re always working on getting better, even when Atkins is overseas.

“When I first met her, she was a kid. I called her kid all the time. But the thing that I can appreciate, and I’m sure that everybody that’s been connected to her as well, is we had the opportunity to grow up and truly be a village and part of someone that is so special,” said Howard. “I just told her the other day, I saw her on the red carpet for (Team USA) and I’m like, ‘Wow — kid, you’ve finally grown up.’ It’s just special to be able to be a part of somebody’s journey and how hard work can really pay off.”

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As for Atkins’ family, they are as tight as ever.

”It feels so good,” said Lashonda. “You know, every parent wants the best for their child. Every parent believes in their child, even when their child sometimes don’t feel they believe in themselves. As parents, we always have that belief in them.”

Atkins, who turns 25 this week, has already accomplished so much. With Team USA set to begin Olympic play Tuesday against Nigeria, a gold medal in Tokyo would only add to the list.

None of it changes what Atkins’ primary focus has always been — to be her best self, connect with people and put good out into the world. The secret is that Atkins’ approach to life matters just as much on the basketball court, where there’s always something more to strive for, to put in work for, to achieve.

“We’re still waiting on her to hit a buzzer shot,” joked Lashonda.

Chances are, somewhere over in Tokyo, Atkins is in a gym right now . . . working on it.

Of the 12 members of Team USA, only Ariel Atkins will be keeping the same uniform number she plays with in the WNBA.

For Atkins, the No. 7 is an important number. Not only is it her favorite number, it’s also the number that she was drafted overall by the Washington Mystics in 2018.

Additionally, her mentor, Hall of Famer Tina Thompson, wore the number during her time in the WNBA. It also holds religious significance for Atkins

A first-time member of the Olympic Team, Atkins will be making her Olympic debut in Tokyo.