Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, May 12, 2017

WNBA begins Season No. 21 as a Worthy Follow-Up to What No. 20 Delivered

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

The WNBA’s 21st season promises to be exciting with big names moving to new cities, electrifying rookies joining the league and dynamite storylines.

Elena Delle Donne is the newest Washington monument. San Antonio’s Kelsey Plum enters the league as the No. 1 overall pick after an awesome record-breaking career at the University of Washington. The Los Angeles Sparks are looking to repeat as champions while the Minnesota Lynx are looking to bounce back from a Finals heartbreak.

If it means anything, the Lynx was picked to win its fourth WNBA championship in seven years according to the 15th annual 2017 WNBA.com GM Survey released Thursday.

The Mystics are probably the most fascinating team to watch this season. In addition to acquiring Delle Donne from the Chicago Sky in exchange for Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper and this year’s No. 2 overall draft pick, who became South Carolina’s Alaina Coates, the Mystics also added veteran Kristie Toliver, a member of last season’s Sparks championship squad.

“I think they're very intriguing,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said during a conference call Wednesday. “When you look at what Elena Delle Donne has already accomplished in the WNBA, being a former MVP, and now you add to that being back to what she calls home.

“I was watching her reading the letter to the fans in D.C. and to her teammates and coaches, and just how excited she is. So to think that there is another level to her game, possibly, with her being in a place where she feels even more comfortable than she did in Chicago, is something exciting, to think about.

“And Kristi Toliver, as well. We watched her in the Finals. I mean, she is a championship-minded player. She plays at a very high level, and I think can bring a mentality to Washington that they've needed. That killer instinct, that player who can help them elevate to the next level. So definitely a very intriguing team. As far as how long it will take to come together, I think a lot of that will depend on the point guard position. Just, you've got so many options there.”

The Mystics already had some nice building blocks in place with veterans Ivory Latta, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Tayler Hill, Emma Meesseman, and Natasha Cloud.

The Mystics could produce plenty of points this season with arguably their most talented team in franchise history. Even though Meesseman will be in and out of the Mystics lineup this summer because of the European championships, head coach Mike Thibault doesn’t appear overly concerned.

“Emma will fit in just because she's been here long enough to know how we do things,” Thibault said and previously noted at last Monday's preseason game he was aware of the situation since last winter. “She's comfortable with how we play and what we do and with the majority of the teammates that are returning. Kristi's a very smart player who picks up things quickly. The way we are playing kind of fits what she's already done. We're probably playing a little bit closer to how L.A., stylewise did last year. So I think that will fit her.

“It's going to take us a while just to develop the on-court chemistry you'd like. Luckily those two have played together all winter. So that should help. But as long as we're playing our best basketball when it counts, I guess that's probably all that matters.”

Ninety-two percent of GMs viewed the Mystics as the team that made the best offseason moves overall, and the same number considered Delle Donne to be the one player acquisition who will make the biggest impact.  Similarly, 67 percent of general managers picked the Mystics as the most improved team.

The Mystics main competition in the Eastern conference could come from the New York Liberty. Half of the league GM’s believe that the Liberty will lead the Eastern Conference in victories for a third straight season. It should be a fun summer along the Interstate 95 corridor as both teams are loaded.

The Liberty also benefitted from the Mystics acquisition of Delle Donne as they gained Long Island native Bria Hartley and Kia Vaughn, who played at Rutgers and is entering her second stint as a member of New York, as part of the three-team trade involving the Sky.

Tina Charles is back to terrorize the league again. Last season, she became just the third player in league history to lead the league in both scoring (21.5) and rebounding (9.9) in the same season. One of the biggest moves was resigning Sugar Rodgers, who averaged 14.5 points (more than her previous two seasons combined) and knocked down 86 3-pointers.

A full season of Epiphanny Prince and an improving Brittany Boyd makes the Liberty a solid contender to finally breakthrough and win the title this season.

Of course just leading the East for the Liberty is not the only thing they need based on last season’s playoff change in which the top eight teams qualified without regard to division affiliation.

Under the old system, New York might have made the finals, but with just the third best overall  record, the Liberty, who had a first round bye,  were knocked off by the Phoenix Mercury 101-94  still early in a one-and-done deal in Madison Square Garden in the second round  at home as Diana Taurasi scored 30 points.

Meanwhile, out West, Maya Moore decided not to play overseas during the offseason in an effort to rest, refine, and recover. That is a scary thought that Moore, who is just 27, is entering the prime of her career and has another level that can she raise her already superb and indescribable game to.

“It's scary to think of Maya rested, more focused than ever, coming off of what could be described as a heart-breaking loss in the Finals,” Robinson said. “So if there is another level to Maya Moore's game, then watch out, WNBA, because she's already an elite player. But definitely as Maya can find another gear, she can really start to establish herself, if not already, as one of the greatest to have ever played in this league.”

The Sparks added Odyssey Sims from Dallas. They still feature the most potent low-post combination in Nneka Ogumike, the regular season MVP, and Candace Parker, who is beginning her 10th season.

The Sparks also made the smart move of re-signing defensive stalwarts Alana Beard and Essence Carson, the former Rutgers great, to keep their core together for another championship run.

“We feel like Odyssey can provide us quality minutes at the point and on the perimeter,” Sparks head coach Brian Agler said. “I don't know if she'll be starting for us, I can't tell you that right now. But she'll play quality minutes.

 “When we knew Kristi was going to Washington, we knew we lost a really good player and somebody that had come off of an extremely good season, both individually and her part of the team. So we needed to find a way to replace her. Not that we could replace her with Odyssey, but we also feel like Odyssey is a really good player on her own behalf.”

The Atlanta Dream will without Angel McCoughtry for an unspecified length of time as she announced that she will be resting during the upcoming campaign. Tiffany Hayes could emerge as the leader of the Dream after coming off of her best season of her career in which she averaged 15 points per game. She will be counted to lead a young team that features Elizabeth Williams, who was named the league’s most improved player last year, and Layshia Clarendon.

McCoughtry won’t be the only big name missing this season. The Mercury will be without standout DeWanna Bonner, who is pregnant and will sit out the season.

 The Connecticut Sun won’t have forward Chiney Ogwumike, who will miss the season as she continues to recover from Achilles surgery. Obviously, the biggest absence will be that of Tamika Catchings, who retired from a long career with the Indiana Fever and now has a job in the front office.

Some other familiar faces in different places this season include Candice Dupree (Fever), Danielle Robinson (Mercury), Lynetta Kizer (Sun) and former Sky coach Pokey Chatman, who is now the Fever’s head coach. A major addition occurred for Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who as you guessed it got married recently.

Also longtime Connecticut Sun GM Chris Sienko, who also held a similar position with the former ABL franchise in that state, departed and coach Curt Miller added his duties, while Amber Cox, who served stints with the Mercury and collegiate Big East Conference, is now with the Mohegans as vice president of the Sun and the organization’s National Lacrosse League entry.

“I'm really eager to see -- I guess it's Diggins-Smith now,” said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn great who will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September. “I'm eager to see her this year in Dallas. Such a young group now that is around her.

“That's another team that I think people are kind of watching because you don't really know quite what to expect from them with so many new faces on the roster and anticipating her being back at the top of her game, which I'm eager to see because she was having such a great season a couple years ago before she got hurt.”

 “We saw it again in stretches last year. So I'm eager to see if she can, once again, be one of the elite players in the WNBA.”

The answer to that question and many more will be revealed when the Silver Stars and Liberty tip off the season that runs through September 3rd.

The Sparks and Seattle Storm, with reigning rookie of the year Breanna Stewart, plus the Sun and Dream, will also open Saturday, while Sunday’s card will feature the Mercury and Wings, the Fever and Storm, the Sky and Lynx, and Delle Donne with the Mystics opening at home against the Silver Stars.

Fearless predictions
Playoff teams in order: Lynx, Liberty, Mystics, Sparks, Mercury, Storm, Fever and Wings.
MVP: Maya Moore, Lynx
Defensive Player of the Year: Briann January, Fever
Rookie of the Year: Kelsey Plum, Silver Stars
Coach of the Year: Mike Thibault, Mystics
Most Improved Player: Tiffany Mitchell, Fever
Finals: Lynx over Liberty

Five Must Games To Watch
Lynx at Liberty, Thursday, May 18: Possible championship preview and an early gauge for both teams.
Mystics at Sky, Wednesday May 24: Delle Donne’s first game against her former team in Chicago.
Liberty at Mystics, Thursday, June 29: First meeting between the two Eastern Conference favorites.
Sparks at Lynx, Thursday July 6: First meeting between the two heavyweights since last season’s memorable WNBA Finals.
Fever at Mercury, Wednesday July 19: Dupree returns home to Phoenix.

WNBA Games On Twitter
The second day of the season marks the debut of live WNBA games on Twitter. The matchup between the Dallas Wings and Phoenix Mercury on Sunday, May 14 (6 p.m. ET) will be available at wnba.twitter.com and via @WNBA. The WNBA will live stream 20 regular-season games per year on Twitter in 2017, 2018 and 2019. This is cool and interesting. Kudos to the WNBA for expanding its brand.

Fantasy game
The WNBA and FanDuel announced today a new partnership that will make FanDuel the official, one-day fantasy partner of the WNBA. The partnership is FanDuel’s first with a women’s professional sports league and the WNBA’s first official one-day fantasy offering.

New awards
The WNBA has announced new awards beginning with the 2017 season. For the first time, the league will present a Coach of the Month award, an addition to the list of in-season honors that includes Players of the Month and Rookie of the Month. Also new in 2017, the WNBA will name a Basketball Executive of the Year at the end of the season.

Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru also contributed to this report.


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