Here comes the WNBA – 6 things to watch out for this year 

Don’t look now, but the WNBA is coming. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is sorted, Free Agency looms, and training camp will be just around the corner. 

Ever since Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association President Nneka Ogwumike and league Commissioner Cathy Engelbert broke the CBA news on Good Morning America, the floodgates of news and anticipation opened. But of the hundreds of storylines that will unfold this year, here are the six that you should follow.

Free Agency

Just weeks away from the WNBA Free Agency period, the league might face quite the shake up between now and when it tips off on Friday May 15.

There are a number of big name free agents that could find themselves elsewhere. On the Unrestricted Free Agent list, you’ll find names such as the Phoenix Mercury’s DeWanna Bonner (who can no longer be a Core player) and Brittney Griner, the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, as well as Stef Dolson, the Atlanta Dream’s Angel McCoughtry, the New York Liberty’s Tina Charles, the Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird, and the three players that led the Washington Mystics to a championship last season: Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Emma Meesseman. That’s before we even get to the Restricted Free Agent list. 

The increased compensation for players as a result of the new CBA – up to $215,000 – means that a lot of these players could be enticed to move to places that hadn’t been in previous seasons. It could lead to a big shake-up.

Breanna Stewart

The Seattle Storm forward was unquestionably the best player in the world in 2018, and was just entering her prime when the league MVP tore her Achilles while playing for Dynamo Kursk last year in the WNBA off-season. 

No one expects Breanna Stewart to be playing at that level straight away but in her year away from basketball, her Storm teammates have grown in ways they possibly wouldn’t have had she been there. Natasha Howard played like an MVP for stretches of last year. former back-up point guard Jordin Canada took over while Sue Bird was injured last season and became a better player for it. Jewell Loyd became more consistent. Sami Whitcomb turned into more than just the toughest defender in the league. Also, Bird is well-rested for perhaps the first time in her career. 

If Stewart can even return to being a top 10 player by the regular season’s end, Seattle will be a threat to return to the Finals.

Olympic break

It’s something every season. Last year, most teams lost some of their European talent to FIBA EuroBasket, the season before finished in a hurry so the World Cup could take place, and in 2020, the WNBA will make way for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

After every team plays a game on July 10, the league will shut up shop for the regular season and won’t return until August 16. This should give the league’s top players – who will fly to Japan to represent their respective countries – a week or so to recover from jet lag and get back on the court. 

The break could benefit some teams more than others. If a WNBA roster is made up of multiple members of the US women’s national squad, or if much of it is non-American, the time away could give some struggling teams a chance to refocus. Take the Atlanta Dream last season: for various reasons, the team struggled out of the gates and never found its footing. The team has an abundance of talent, but unless they re-sign Angel McCoughtry, and Elizabeth Williams or Tiffany Hayes wins an unexpected spot, this squad will have the best part of five weeks to prepare for the final stretch of the season, which amounts to 14 games.

On the other hand, look at the Las Vegas Aces. In 2018, the USA World Cup squad featured Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson, but Kayla McBride will also be up for a place in the squad, and on top of that, the team also boasts Liz Cambage – the best player on Australia’s team. That means four key players could make extended runs deep into the Olympic tournament on top of their duties playing overseas in the off-season and a bigger WNBA season than ever before. It could be tiring.

Commissioner’s Cup

A lot of naysayers are wondering if players will even care about the Commissioner’s Cup. Simply put, they are the reason it exists. They asked for it.

Having an additional competition within the regular season will give teams a bigger reason to be focused on a typical game that would have otherwise not held much excitement. Throughout the summer, the media will be able to build storylines based on their record within the Commissioner’s Cup. Players will find themselves in the race for the Commissioner’s Cup scoring leader, or will want to have the first double-double of the Commissioner’s Cup. It will add storylines that we can’t even predict. It might also bring in sponsors that we weren’t even aware of. 

Even if it is only looked at in a luke-warm fashion this season, going forward, it could have the effect that multiple soccer tournaments have on a team, when they might do poorly in one competition one season but perform well in another. It could be the shot in the arm professional basketball in the United States needs.

LA Sparks

At the end of last season, the Los Angeles Sparks’ first-year coach Derek Fisher benched arguably the team’s all-time best player. The longest-serving General Manager Penny Toler was removed from her post. And one of the league’s most storied franchises was swept out of the playoffs in embarrassing fashion to the upstart Connecticut Sun. 

This season will likely see some changes in personnel: Alana Beard is an Unrestricted Free Agent and has been playing for 13 years, Sydney Wiese stepped up last year in a big way and looks like she could be a big part of this franchise in the future, Candace Parker is entering her 11th season and questions will be asked about her ability to still perform (she will probably answer them definitively), the Ogwumike sisters are still playing a similar position, and the roster is still loaded with bigs.

Will Fisher still be on the sidelines when the season ends? Who knows. But like every Hollywood storyline, this one promises to have Sparks.

Sabrina Ionescu

The greatest Oregon Ducks player ever. Perhaps the best college player ever? Sabrina Ionescu looks more ready for the WNBA than maybe anyone in women’s basketball history. 

The New York Liberty have the first pick in the draft, and while the roster has a selection of talented individuals, under former coach Katie Smith they never developed a rhythm that related to any success. Walt Hopkins from the Minnesota Lynx coaching staff will take over as the franchise kicks off its first full season under new ownership – the Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai – and in a new arena – the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

On top of this, they are expected to select Ionescu this year to add to a core of young talent, such as Kia Nurse, Bria Hartley and Amanda Zahui B. Things may change as legendary big Tina Charles is an Unrestricted Free Agent – as is Hartley – and success with her on the roster has been limited, but the team could turn around its run of missing the playoffs with a new face and a fresh new direction for the franchise.