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WNBA midseason poll: Most likely to win MVP? Biggest surprise? Most underrated?

(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

What did the first half of the 2021 WNBA season tell us about where teams and players stand entering the final stretch? The WNBA’s break for the Olympics over the past month seemed like the best time to answer that question by getting the pulse of those within the league.

We polled seven WNBA experts — consisting of general managers, coaches, agents and PR representatives, and each representing different teams — to get their anonymous responses to seven questions. The topics ranged from the top performers to the biggest surprises and most glaring disappointments.

A lot can change between now and the WNBA playoffs, which begin next month. Our panelists give us a taste of what to take away from the first half of the season and what to expect as the games tip off again.

Who would you bet on right now to win the championship?

Seattle Storm: 4 votes
Chicago Sky: 2
Connecticut Sun: 1

The choices here, for the most part, reflect the top of the WNBA standings. Perhaps most surprisingly, none of our panelists picked the Las Vegas Aces, currently in second place behind the Storm at 15-6.

In their own words:

“Seattle knows what it takes to win it all and will likely have a renewed sense of urgency as Sue [Bird]’s career is winding down. Can Las Vegas generate the sustained focus needed to get it done?”

“Breanna Stewart is clearly the best player in the world, and I think that makes you the favorite to win it all. With Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird playing at All-Star levels, combined with Ezi Magbegor’s development this year, this team is the most versatile.”

“The hunger aspect of this is a huge factor in any team winning a championship. Chicago is starving for it. This could be Allie [Quigley]’s last year, [Courtney Vandersloot] has not performed well in playoff play, Candace [Parker] wants at least one more. When you keep losing in the playoffs in a bad way, it will make you hungrier. And I think they have it the most, to go along with the shortest window, to get it done and keep the whole team together.”

“The Sun’s chemistry is something special. They are a gritty team capable of taking teams out of what they want to do. They have been on that stage and are ready to go take one despite the odds.”

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Jonquel Jones has been a force for the Connecticut Sun all season. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Who would you bet on right now to win MVP?

Jonquel Jones: 3 votes
Breanna Stewart: 3
Tina Charles: 1

The official race for WNBA MVP should come down to the wire this season, so it’s no surprise these votes are as close as they are.

Two panel members gave another player the nod over Jonquel Jones — who’s averaging a double-double this season for the Sun — solely because of the games she missed to compete with Bosnia and Herzegovina at EuroBasket in June. Tina Charles leads the WNBA in scoring with 26.3 points per game, while Breanna Stewart continues to do a little bit of everything for the No. 1 Storm.

In their own words:

“Tina Charles’ numbers are ridiculous and Washington has been able to win some games, despite all of the injuries, because of her. Jonquel Jones would have my vote, but she has missed too many games at this point.”

“When it is all said and done, Breanna Stewart will be the best player on the best team, and that puts you in a prime position to win this award.”

Which team has been the biggest disappointment?

Phoenix Mercury: 3 votes
Atlanta Dream: 2
Los Angeles Sparks: 1
Indiana Fever: 1

The responses to this question were mixed. The Dream have gone through multiple changes internally this season, including interim head coach Mike Petersen stepping down in late July due to health reasons, and dropped their last four games before the break. They also have had to address questions about the locker room after second-year guard Chennedy Carter was suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.”

The 4-16 Fever and 6-13 Sparks have also underwhelmed this season. But, to most of our panelists, it’s the Mercury who have most glaringly failed to meet expectations through the first half of the season.

In their own words:

“Phoenix traded two firsts for [Kia] Nurse and [Megan] Walker and the return has been substandard. Would you rather have [Michaela] Onyenwere and your pick next year or what they have now? If you are going to trade away those picks, it’s a chips-to-the-middle-of-the-table type of move, and I’m really not sure they have the cards they thought they had.”

“With three Olympians, the Phoenix Mercury should be well above .500. Not 9-10”

“Atlanta has a ton of talent, speed and scoring, especially when Tiffany Hayes is healthy. But, I guess chemistry goes a long way.”

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WNBA All-Star Game MVP Arike Ogunbowale and the Dallas Wings have delivered multiple upsets this season. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Which team has been the biggest surprise?

Seattle Storm: 3 votes
Dallas Wings: 1
Minnesota Lynx 1
New York Liberty: 1

The panelists who chose the Storm cited their ability to remain as dominant as they have been despite missing key players from their 2020 WNBA championship team, such as Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard.

A common refrain for the Wings through the first half of the season is that their 9-12 record doesn’t reflect their talent. Minnesota ended the first half on a seven-game winning streak, earning them recognition. The Liberty overhauled their roster in the offseason and are currently sixth in the league at 10-11. One panelist felt there were no major surprises yet this year.

In their own words:

“Dallas has a young group. They’re starting to figure it out and can really score the ball. They are going to be really dangerous come playoff time.”

“In spite of all of their injuries, Minnesota has been able to get it together and finish the first half of the season strong after so many people wrote them off after their bad start.”

“New York has been the biggest surprise to me, in terms of how quickly they have been able to integrate so many new pieces after only winning two games last season.”

Which team has been most affected by injuries/absences?

Los Angeles Sparks: 4 votes
New York Liberty: 1
Chicago Sky: 1
Washington Mystics: 1

The Sparks were the runaway winner in this category due to the adversity they faced in the first half of the season.

Meanwhile, New York has missed Natasha Howard, their marquee free-agent addition, for most of the season with a knee injury. Chicago garnered only one vote despite suffering an 0-7 slump early in the season when they were without All-Stars Allie Quigley and Candace Parker as well as Stefanie Dolson and Astou Ndour-Fall, who’s having a career year. The Mystics have missed 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne and 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman for the entire season, as well as Natasha Cloud for parts of the season.

In their own words:

“The Sparks were without Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Maria Vadeeva, Kristi Toliver and Jasmine Walker for part of the season. Washington is a close second for me, but at least they have an MVP-caliber player in Tina Charles to help make up for it.”

“The Liberty traded the No. 1 overall pick for a player that positively changes everything they do on both ends of the floor and they’ve only had her for two games. [Jocelyn] Willoughby went down in preseason, [Leaonna] Odom was out nearly the first month, [Rebecca] Allen was a late arrival and missed time due to injury. It will be interesting to see what a healthy group in the second half can do.”

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Michaela Onyenwere, the No. 6 pick in the 2021 draft, is leading all rookies in points and minutes per game. (Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

Which rookie will have the best WNBA career?

Michaela Onyenwere: 5 votes
Jasmine Walker: 2

Onyenwere, the current frontrunner for WNBA Rookie of the Year, garnered the most votes after averaging 9.8 points and 2.9 rebounds in 24 minutes per game for the Liberty through the first half of the season.

Walker played in just two regular-season games before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Her two voters cited the 6-foot-3 forward’s preseason performances and long-term potential as reasons for their confidence.

One panelist talked about how difficult this question was to answer because of the shortcomings of the 2021 draft class as a whole.

In their own words:

“Onyenwere is so tough, she is so strong, and she competes at such a high level for her age.”

“Pure athleticism and skill.”

“To me, this is the toughest question. This class is not overly amazing in my opinion. I’m just going to say the obvious answer based on what she has been able to do this season so far in Michaela Onyenwere.”

Which player is the most underrated?

Brionna Jones: 2 votes
Sami Whitcomb: 2
Jackie Young: 1
Jonquel Jones: 1
Kahleah Copper: 1

Our panelists struggled with this question and included many honorable mentions as a result, such as Jackie Young, Courtney Vandersloot, Betnijah Laney, Jonquel Jones and Kahleah Copper.

In their own words:

“They are both All-Stars this year, but Brionna Jones and Kahleah Copper play on teams where other people get the shine, but they come in everyday and contribute in a major way. You don’t hear them complain about anything. They just do what is asked of them.”

“Did anyone in the league think [Sami Whitcomb] would be this good playing this many minutes? She is shooting close to 50 percent from the field, 45 percent from the 3-point line and tallying career-highs in nearly all statistical categories.”

As our panelists’ responses show, there are few clear favorites or obvious answers after an eventful first half of the season. Many WNBA teams battled through injuries, late arrivals, mid-season absences and streaky play. Now, with the Olympics behind us and just over a month left to play in the regular season, we’ll see which teams can make up ground and which can hold on to the top playoff seeds.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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