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WNBA’s best 25 under 25: Ranking A’ja Wilson, Napheesa Collier and all the young stars

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The Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird, 40, and the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi, 39, won their fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. The Minnesota Lynx’s Sylvia Fowles won her fourth gold, and at age 35 was just one point shy Tuesday of becoming the first player in league history to have a 30-point, 20-rebound game. The “older generation” of WNBA players is still going strong.

But what about the opposite end of the spectrum? The next generation of stars will have big shoes to fill. Some are already well on their way, others are just getting started.

Our annual look at the best players age 25 and under who are currently in the WNBA includes three No. 1 draft picks, and just two players — neither of whom were the top selection — from this year’s draft. With a stronger draft expected in 2022, we could see more rookies on this list a year from now.

The 2021 version also is missing the likes of Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and the Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields, who are both 26 and ranked first and third, respectively, in 2020. We also did not include any players who haven’t competed in the WNBA this season or who have been announced as out the rest of 2021.

We made players who are 25 years old eligible for this list, both because they fit the spirit of the exercise — a study of the WNBA’s young talent — and because the list is weaker without them. Will a fresh class of young players fill the void for those who age out of next year’s list? Time will tell.

1. A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

She is the undisputed choice atop this list and also would be a top contender as the best player at any age currently in the WNBA. The 2020 MVP, Wilson is a candidate to repeat the honor (putting Tuesday’s very uncharacteristic 1 of 15 shooting performance aside). She turned 25 on Aug. 8, when she won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA, and she tied with Phoenix’s Brittney Griner in leading the Americans in scoring (16.5 PPG) in Tokyo. Now Wilson will try to lead the Aces to the WNBA Finals for the second year in a row, and is hoping for the franchise’s first championship. Her rebounding and assists (3.2) averages are career highs.


2. Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx

An Olympic gold medalist for the first time this year, one of her biggest strengths is the versatility to play well at either forward position. The 2019 Rookie of the Year, Collier leads the Lynx in scoring, is second in rebounding and steals and third in assists. Her 3-point percentage (24.0) is down a lot from last season, so that’s something she will want to focus on. How well she plays goes a long way to determining how far the Lynx will go in the postseason.


3. Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings

Ogunbowale has been a consistent top-notch offensive threat each of her three seasons in the WNBA and has the ability to create shots out of nothing. She didn’t make the Olympic team, but was the All-Star Game MVP in leading Team WNBA over Team USA last month. Her 3-point percentage (37.0) is up a little this season, but her 2-point percentage (39.2) is down. It’s understandable because there are times she still has to force shots. Dallas doesn’t have truly elite post play; that will have to develop from young post players the Wings have drafted, or they’ll need to get it via trades/free agency. Until then, much of the weight of Dallas’ playoff hopes rests on its guards, led by Ogunbowale.


4. Ariel Atkins, Washington Mystics

She won a WNBA championship as a starter in 2019 at age 23, and this has been a further breakthrough season for Atkins. She made her first Olympic team with the United States and also her first All-Star Game appearance. She is averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists. With all the injuries Washington has endured, Atkins has been the only Mystics player to start and to play in every game this season. Her leadership evolved last season in the bubble, and the growth has continued this summer.


5. Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun

She made a big jump last season when she first moved to a starting role and has improved again in 2021. Averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists, she made her first All-Star Game appearance this year. The Sun miss injured forward Alyssa Thomas, who is out for the season with an Achilles injury, but Jones has been crucial in helping fill the gap to keep Connecticut in championship contention. Jones went No. 8 in the 2017 draft; Chicago and Dallas, which at Nos. 2 and 3 took other post players who aren’t currently in the WNBA, likely wish they could re-pick and have Jones on their roster.


6. Kelsey Mitchell, Indiana Fever

Mitchell’s effective field goal percentage is down a bit from last year, 53.9 to 47.3. She is seventh in the league in field goal attempts; her 15.0 per game is a career high. In short, the Fever still need Mitchell to generate much of their offense. Indiana seems caught between commitment to a full-on youth movement and the comfort of having some over-30 veterans who are known quantities but aren’t the future. The Fever have been at or near the bottom of the league standings for five seasons in a row now, and Mitchell has been there for four. We haven’t seen yet what she could contribute to a team with more upwardly mobile talent, but maybe next year, since Indiana seems headed to the draft lottery again.


7. Myisha Hines-Allen, Washington Mystics

She was a strong candidate for Most Improved Player last season when she and winner Betnijah Laney could have split the honor because both had such statement seasons. Hines-Allen led the Mystics in the absence of stars like Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne, who didn’t play in the bubble. Hines-Allen missed 10 games with a knee injury earlier this year but is back for the stretch run. She uses her physicality to her advantage offensively and defensively; it’s hard to out-muscle her in the post. Her field goal percentage has gone down from 51.0 last season to 39.6 this year, but part of that is about coming back from the injury.


8. Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces

Young, who was the 2019 No. 1 draft pick, has been good about giving the Aces what they need to be championship contenders. She is second to A’ja Wilson in minutes played for Las Vegas and is fourth in scoring. She’s a strong defender and someone Las Vegas can rely on for her steady presence. Winning a gold medal as a last-minute replacement for Team USA in 3×3 basketball — along with Aces teammate Kelsey Plum — made Young all the more confident.


9. Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty

After suffering a season-ending ankle injury in her third game last year, this has been more like a true rookie season for the 2020 No. 1 draft pick. She was in a scoring drought through June, but has been more productive points-wise since the league resumed after the Olympic break. We’ve seen flashes of the kind of player Ionescu could be but she also has had her struggles. With fellow guard Sami Whitcomb out 10-14 days with a sprained ankle, Ionescu’s performance could be pivotal for the Liberty’s playoff aspirations.


10. Marina Mabrey, Dallas Wings

The best thing that happened to Mabrey — picked in the second round by Los Angeles in 2019 — was the trade before last season to Dallas. With the Wings, she has been paired with former Notre Dame teammate and good friend Arike Ogunbowale, and they have meshed well. Mabrey had a big jump in play last year in the bubble and has improved this season. Her 50 3-pointers are second on the team to Ogunbowale’s 57; Mabrey’s perimeter shooting, in particular, could be key for the Wings trying to secure a playoff spot.


11. Satou Sabally, Dallas Wings

Sabally hasn’t played since the Olympic break ended, as the Wings are being understandably cautious about her sore Achilles tendon. That uncertainty is keeping her out of the top 10 on this list right now. If she can return strong, the Wings’ chances for the postseason obviously improve. She was an All-Star in this, her second WNBA season, and her effective field goal percentage is 47.7, up from 40.4 last year.


12. Brianna Turner, Phoenix Mercury

Turner’s offensive numbers don’t necessarily stand out, but that’s not what the Mercury most value about her. She’s one of the league’s best defensive players, and she and Brittney Griner combine to average just over 19 rebounds per game for Phoenix. Plus, when Turner does have a big offensive game, it gives Phoenix one more weapon. She has had two double-doubles since the Olympic break.


13. Teaira McCowan, Indiana Fever

McCowan hasn’t been a full-time starter in her three seasons in the WNBA, but she’s averaging the most minutes per game (25.1) and points of her career thus far. And the same things we mentioned about teammate Kelsey Mitchell (at No. 6) apply to McCowan: We don’t know exactly how valuable she could be on a playoff-contending team, but it would be fun to see.


14. Chennedy Carter, Atlanta Dream

Carter is the most difficult player to rank on this list because of the uncertainty surrounding her suspension. From a talent-alone standpoint, she would be higher. But considering she hasn’t played since July 4 and there is no announced timetable for her return, she also could be left off the list entirely. The Dream have said Carter could come back if she meets the conditions they’ve set. At this point, you just hope she realizes the importance of doing so. No matter how young you are, the clock is always ticking on a pro career.


15. Michaela Onyenwere, New York Liberty

This hasn’t been a good draft class thus far, but Onyenwere has been the best of it and is a near-lock for WNBA Rookie of the Year. The Liberty are very happy they got her at the No. 6 pick; she has started every game for them and adjusted quickly to the WNBA. She will become a stronger rebounder, among her skills that will get better with time. She just turned 22 this month, so there should be a lot of growth ahead of her.


16. Kia Nurse, Phoenix Mercury

Nurse’s scoring average is down from last year, but that reflects her being on a contender instead of a last-place team. At one point, it seemed like Nurse would be a part of the long-term future of New York, which drafted her No. 10 in 2018. But the February trade that sent her from New York to Phoenix has worked; she has started every game and is leading the Mercury in 3-pointers (39).


17. Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx

Dangerfield’s role isn’t the same as in her Rookie of the Year season of 2020, when she averaged 16.2 points and 30 minutes per game. The acquisition of veteran guards Kayla McBride, Layshia Clarendon and Aerial Powers (who just returned from injury) has changed Minnesota’s perimeter dynamics. But Dangerfield has the personality to adjust to what her team needs, which is a valuable quality along with her on-court skills.


18. Katie Lou Samuelson, Seattle Storm

Playing on her third team in her three years in the WNBA might be the charm for Samuelson, who was drafted No. 4 by Chicago in 2019, dealt to Dallas in 2020 and then traded to Seattle for 2021. Now she’s a starter for a championship contender and has the chance to play with older sister Karlie, who signed with the Storm this week. Samuelson’s numbers are up across the board. Although she had the heartbreak of missing the Olympic 3×3 tournament because of COVID-19, this has been her best WNBA season so far.


19. Te’a Cooper, Los Angeles Sparks

Cooper was selected in the second round of the 2020 draft by Phoenix, but the Mercury waived her before really getting a chance to see her because COVID-19 prevented normal training camp. That was good fortune for the Sparks, who signed Cooper. She hasn’t shot as well from the field this season as she did last year, but she can provide a boost of energy both offensively and defensively.


20. Natisha Hiedeman, Connecticut Sun

Hiedeman is having her best season in her third year in the league. A 2019 second-round pick by Minnesota, she was traded to Connecticut on draft day. After being waived by both the Sun and subsequently Atlanta, Hiedeman ended up back in Connecticut in July 2019 and has become a solid player who contributes to the league’s stingiest defense and displays some scoring pop at times.


21. Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm

The Storm’s first-round draft pick in 2019, she sat out then but learned a lot her rookie season playing on a championship team in 2020. This season, her numbers are similar, but she seems more confident overall on court. Playing in the Olympics for Australia helped that, too. She just turned 22, so she has a lot of growth to come.


22. Ruthy Hebard, Chicago Sky

One of Hebard’s biggest strengths in college at Oregon was that she not only took high-percentage shots, she usually made them. Both things are harder to do at the WNBA level. But Hebard is still shooting 55.4% from the field and ranks second on the Sky in rebounding average.


23. Kylee Shook, New York Liberty

Shook came to the league from Louisville last year with a reputation for strong post defense. She has brought that and a toughness factor to the Liberty, who’ve gone from two victories in 2020 to playoff contention this season. Shook has started 19 games this summer as she has made noticeable improvements from her rookie year.


24. Azurá Stevens, Chicago Sky

Stevens looked strong in 13 games last year before her season ended early due to injury. Her stats this year are off that pace. But she still has a chance to make an impact for the Sky and has started their last three games. She scored a season-high 14 points on Aug. 17.


25. Aari McDonald, Atlanta Dream

McDonald, who was the No. 3 pick in April’s draft, makes this list largely for the potential of what she might do for the Dream. The franchise is on its third coach this year, and that is a lot for a rookie to process. She has scored in double figures twice since the Olympic break and can use the final eight games of the season to build toward 2022.

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