The 17th season of the WNBA tips off Memorial Day Weekend. That's right, THE 17th SEASON. Despite the ups and downs associated with the start of any American professional sports league (see the Chicago Bears-Portsmouth Spartans NFL controversy of 1932 and Major League Baseball's Black Sox Scandal of 1919), and the additional challenge of establishing a women's sports league, the WNBA is alive and kicking and poised to reach a new level thanks to an exciting infusion of fresh talent and personalities to a league already sporting an impressive collection of bold, athletic and entertaining players.
Whether you're a hardcore fan returning for another year of a ball, a long-time skeptic open to convincing or a curious onlooker wondering what it's all about, one thing you all have in common is you're reading this. On some level, you're interested in the W. That being the case, provided for you below (in no particular order) are 25 Things You Need to Know About the WNBA.
1. DON'T SLEEP ON THE INDIANA FEVER
Yes, dethroning the defending champion Minnesota Lynx was an upset. Yes, 2011 Finals MVP Seimone Augustus inexplicably got colder in Indy than Nicki Minaj at a Mariah Carey concert. But make no mistake, Tamika Catchings and the Fever were deserving WNBA Champions in 2012 and they aim to prove it again in 2013. Here's why: Catchings, the three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, 2011 WNBA Most Valuable Player and 2012 Finals MVP, is hands-down the toughest, most intense, most driven player in the league. And despite leading her injury-ravaged team to the Promised Land last year, it appears that recent improvements to other squads (we'll get to those below) has resulted in a general feel that the 2012 Fever are a one-and-done success story.
This, in turn, could result into a chip on the rather broad, muscled shoulders of Ms. Catchings, which should send a shiver down the spine of every opponent attempting to grab a rebound, set a pick or make a lazy cross-court pass in the vicinity of the player affectionately known as simply, "Catch." If this wasn't enough, Katie Douglas has returned from the injury suffered in the Conference Finals vs. Connecticut, Briann January is still one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the league and Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous are eager to bolster their bids to enter the WNBA elite. All the while, Lin Dunn, equal parts Southern charm and Hubie Brown-like defensive-scheme wizadry, is planning Indiana's defense with a quiet confidence. Don't sleep on the Indiana Fever.
2. MAYA MOORE SHOOK THE WORLD
Maya Moore is a winner. Two NCAA titles during a storied career at national powerhouse UConn were followed immediately by a WNBA crown with the Minnesota Lynx to cap off her Rookie of the Year campaign. Moore then secured the prestigious EuroLeage title with Spanish club Ros Casares before returning for what she hoped would be a second-straight W championship with running mates Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and the rest of the Lynx. Reuniting with former Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma for the summer, Moore was part of the historic U.S. Women's Basketball team which won an unprecedented fifth-straight Olympic team gold medeal in London 2012, but as discussed above, when pitted against her Team USA captain Tamika Catchings and the Fever in the 2012 WNBA Finals, Moore's winning streak came screeching to a halt.
What does a winner do, when faced with defeat? Moore responded by blazing a new trail in the Far East and shook the world with a truly historic, dominant season in China. Averaging 38.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.6 steals per game, Moore led the Shanxi Xing Rui Flame to the Chinese Women's League Championship over an Olympic nemesis from Australia in Liz Cambage (more on her below) and Zhejiang Far East. While competition in the Western Conference promises to be fierce in 2013, the seasoned, well-traveled Moore is surely hungry for more crown championship bling.
3. 3 TO SEE
Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 of the 2013 WNBA Draft. The celebrated "3 to See" may not have played a single regular season game in the WNBA yet, but the media buzz surrounding this talented, eclectic trio, combined with the tantalizing promise of unprecedented potential justifies the pithy moniker. Other rookies have come into the league with similar fanfare and talent -- the aforementioned Moore and the super-talented Candace Parker in most recent memory -- but the collective and varied talents of the 6-8 center from Baylor, the 6-5 forward with guard skills out of Delaware and the leadership and on-court savvy of the recent Notre Dame grad makes the 2013 Class the most anticipated in the history of the league.
4. BRITTNEY GRINER: ONE OF A KIND
Unless you've been living under a rock, you're familiar with Griner. The numbers are impressive -- Height: 6-8, Shoe size: 17 (men's), Wingspan: 86-inches, NCAA record 736 blocked shots, undefeated 40-0 National Championship season her junior year at Baylor, three-time First Team All-American, 18 career collegiate dunks -- but its the one-of-kind nature of Griner's size, strength, speed and athleticism that has captured the attention of every true sports fan. The women's game simply hasn't seen a player who can run the court like a guard and also employ a back-to-the-basket, spin-move, two-handed slam dunk during the regular flow of a game. It just doesn't happen. Until now. Hyperbole Alert: Griner may indeed be the women's equivalent to Wilt Chamberlain. There. I said it. Don't take my word for it, just ask LeBron.
5. ELENA DELLE DONNE: GREAT STORY, GREAT GAME
Elena Delle Donne's talents have never been in doubt. A McDonald's All-American coming out of high school, Geno Auriemma and UConn came calling, landing the highly-coveted recruit. After just a few days in Connecticut, however, Delle Donne returned home to Delaware, reuniting with her older sister, Lizzie, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is also blind and deaf. Delle Donne eventually made her way back to the court at the University of Delaware and led the the Blue Hens to their first-ever NCAA tournament wins, prior to being selected as the No. 2 pick of the WNBA Draft by the Chicago Sky. At 6-foot-5, Delle Donne's superior ball-handling ability, three-point range and post-up moves represent a unique challenge for WNBA defenses. She is also a gym rat, as you can see in these workouts.
6. SKYLAR DIGGINS NAILS IT
Skylar Diggins got her first taste of the WNBA in a preseason game against the Atlanta Dream where she took a hard shot to the face which required several stitches to repair. The new Tulsa Shock point guard, who is as savvy in the brave world of social media (where she is approaching 400,000 Twitter followers) as she is on the basketball court, nailed the postgame narrative by promptly posting a close-up shot of her stitched lip to Instagram. This quick-thinking, effective decision making has served Diggins well on the court too, as she parlayed a stellar career at Notre Dame, where she led the Lady Irish to three straight Final Four appearances and became the only Notre Dame player to amass 2,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals, into being selected with the No. 3 pick of the WNBA Draft by the Tulsa Shock. Diggins, who often sports stylish nail polish and fashion-forward headbands on the court, is definitely someone to watch in 2013.
7. RETURN OF THE BAD BOY
Bill Laimbeer is back. After a brief hiatus, the former charter member of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys has returned to the WNBA as the GM/Head Coach of the New York Liberty. Laimbeer, who won two NBA titles in Detroit with the Pistons as a player and three WNBA crowns as a coach with the Detroit Shock, brings his tough-minded defensive philosophy and unflinching commitment to win to the Big Apple, where he will team up with explosive back-court wizard Cappie Pondexter (more on her later) and a few of his former Shock players, including Karl Malone's daughter Cheryl Ford and prolific scorer Katie Smith.
8. ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: "TRUST ME AND BELIEVE"
Angel McCoughtry has had an up-and-down few years, but two things remain constant for the mercurial Atlanta Dream gunner: her unquestioned athleticism and her unfailing confidence. McCoughtry led the Dream to consecutive WNBA Finals appearances in 2010 and 2011, but failed to reach the ultimate goal both times. In 2012, she fought her way onto the largely UConn and Tennessee dominated U.S. Women's Olympic Team and, despite averaging just 14.9 minutes per game, was arguably the most efficient player in London, leading the tournament with 20 steals and providing a raw enthusiasm and energy which sparked the United States to gold. Upon her return to Atlanta, McCoughtry finished the year as the league's leading scorer, but a controversial coaching change and failure to reach a third-straight Finals put a damper on the season. McCoughtry, however, is ready to make things right in 2013. "Trust me and believe, Angel is coming back strong, said McCoughtry. Trust me and believe. Its coming. Real soon. I will win a WNBA Championship. Im 26-years-old, hitting my prime, and I am ready to go. Trust me and believe. Its coming."
9. TINA CHARLES: CHAIRWOMAN OF THE BOARDS
Tina Charles, to put it bluntly, is a rebounding machine. After leading UConn to two straight national championships, Charles entered the WNBA as the No. 1 pick of the Connecticut Sun in 2010 and didn't miss a beat, winning Rookie of the Year and setting all-time single-season league records for rebounds (398) and double-doubles (22). Not rookie records, mind you, but overall league records, in her very first year in the league. Charles was named Second Team All-WNBA that season, an oversight that would not be repeated in 2011 and 2012 when she took her rightful place on the First Team, in addition to securing the WNBA MVP Award in 2012.
A flashier, more outspoken player may have garnered more headlines for these accomplishments, but Charles is the epitome of the blue-collar baller, a throwback to an earlier time. Like most old school players, Charles is also her own biggest critic, and following her Eastern Conference Finals exit to Tamika Catchings and the Fever last year, she took stock. "Seeing up close how Tamika went about her business last year, I realized what I have to do to get to the next level," said Charles. "I have to be more of a leader, be more assertive, be more vocal. The little things that don't show up in the box score. I'm going to take things personally in 2013, so I can get the Connecticut Sun to the next level."
10. THIS COULD BE THE YEAR
Candace Parker is due. Arguably the most gifted woman player on the planet, Parker's rare skills were showcased in London 2012. Even as she was surrounded by the best basketball talent the world has to offer, she stood out, running the floor with the speed of a guard, almost goading opponents to force her either right or left, before deftly ball-handling around them and laying the ball in with a fluidity that almost, almost made it look easy. That's thing with Parker, a 6-foot-4 player who often defies description, who emerged from the University of Tennessee as a guard/forward/center that won two National Championships and dunked twice in one game.
Since landing with the Sparks, Parker has been brilliant, but in stutter steps, as after winning both the Rookie of the Year and League MVP in 2008, she missed several games in 2009 after giving birth to her daughter Lailaa, and suffered injuries in 2010 and 2011 which again limited her time on the court. Last year, in addition to helping Team USA to gold in London, Parker managed a full season and didn't disappoint, earning All-WNBA First Team honors and reaching the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Lynx. Parker then teamed up with Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird to win the EuroLeague with Russian club UMMC in early 2013, sharpening her game to the point where a majority of WNBA GMs picked her to be WNBA MVP in 2013. Healthy, settled and hitting her peak, this could be the year Candace gets her championship.
11. DIANA TAURASI: NOT DONE YET
Diana Taurasi has dominated the landscape of women's basketball for over a decade and heading into 2013 she shows no signs of slowing down. At age 30, Taurasi has done it all: three NCAA titles, two WNBA crowns, three Olympic gold medals and an incredible five EuroLeague championshps, the most recent with the aforementioned Parker and UMMC. But the drive and hunger to win was clearly evident in London 2012 where she openly discussed her intention to win another gold in Brazil 2016.
On the WNBA side, the addition of Griner to Taurasi's Mercury squad does not bode well for the rest of the league. The consummate floor leader and perhaps the best pure shooter in the history of the WNBA, Taurasi plays with a fiery energy that rubs off on her teammates, and her will to win is part of the reason WNBA GM's have predicted she will lead to the Mercury to another WNBA title in 2013.
12. QUEEN OF THE CROSSOVER
The spectre of Cappie Pondexter approaching you with the ball in her hands is thrilling and scary at the same time. Thrilling because the pace at which she moves is dizzying and scary because the corresponding threat of the killer-crossover and/or pull-up jumper can be a potential ankle-breaker. Pondexter first displayed these skills alongside Taurasi in Phoenix, winning two championships with the Mercury, including a WNBA Finals MVP Award in 2007, just her second year in the league. The former Rutgers University standout moved back East to the New York Liberty in 2010 and will now be a featured element of Bill Laimbeer's 2013 squad, something Pondexter is looking forward to. "I'm extremely happy for us to sign a proven winner, with much success and experience in Bill Laimbeer," said Pondexter. "Youre talking about a hard-nosed, super competitive guy who wants to win at all costs, and thats something you need to reach the top in this league."
13. OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
The Seattle Storm have a proud history in the WNBA, with All-Star point guard Sue Bird and three-time league MVP Lauren Jackson leading the franchise to two WNBA crowns and fostering a home-court advantage that is the envy of the league. This year, however, the Storm will go into the season without the services of both Bird and Jackson due to injuries, which presents a great opportunity for young players Shekinna Stricklen, last year's No. 2 pick in the Draft, and this year's No. 6 pick Tianna Hawkins, out of Maryland. Veterans Tanisha Wright and Temeka Johnson will provide some experience for the Storm, who will also feature the ageless Tina Thompson, the WNBA's all-time leading scorer and the only player in league history to play in all 16 -- and in a few days 17 -- seasons.
14. CENTER OF ATTENTION
Anyone who followed the U.S. Women's Olympic Team in London 2012 (your loss if you didn't, as you missed one of the most impressive records in team sports as the American women won an unprecedented fifth straight team gold medal) will remember Liz Cambage, who almost single-handedly derailed Team USA's historic achievement, scoring 19 points in the first half of the US-Australia tilt, before Head Coach Geno Auriemma went zone in the second half to hold off the 6-foot-8 Aussie. Shock fans will certainly be happy to see Cambage in Tulsa this season as initial reports indicated the physically imposing 21-year-old would not compete in the WNBA in 2013. After some back-and-forth, Cambage has decided that teaming up with Skylar Diggins, Candice Wiggins and Glory Johnson among others on the Shock was a good idea, and who can blame her? With that stable of talent, Tulsa could be playoff bound.
15. SEIMONE AND THE BASELINE SHIMMY
Any WNBA list would be incomplete without Seimone Augustus, the silky-smooth Minnesota Lynx scorer with the cool on-court demeanor and league-best baseline shimmy, shake and bucket. After an injury-filled start to her WNBA career, Augustus announced her ascension to the league's elite in leading Minnesota to the 2011 WNBA title with a stellar Finals MVP performance against Angel McCoughtry and the Dream. Augustus also picked up a gold in London before she and the Lynx were stymied by Catchings and Co. in the WNBA Finals.
16. NO BREAK. NO PROBLEM
While talking Lynx, we might as well finish up with the third member of the vaunted Minnesota Big Three, Lindsay Whalen, the sneaky good point guard regarded as the best passer in the league and a true pro's pro. Whalen broke a finger on her left hand in helping Team USA to gold last summer and then suffered a badly bruised wrist on the same hand against the Storm in the first round of the playoffs. No break, no problem. Whalen hit the court for the rest of the playoffs with a lot of tape and basically played mostly with one hand. And nobody was surprised.
17. L.A. STORY
While Candace Parker is the undisputed star of the show in Los Angeles, she will be backed by the best supporting cast since Coach, Norm and Cliffy hung on every word uttered by Sam "Mayday" Malone. Last year's Rookie of the Year Nneka Ogwumike, the Stanford grad wise beyond her years and busting with athleticism, Kristi Toliver, the whirling dervish who never met a shot she didn't like, and newly-acquired former Duke Blue Devil, point guard Lindsey Harding give the Sparks plenty of star-power.
18. NEW ADMINISTRATION IN D.C.
The buck stops with Mike Thibault in Washington D.C. this season, as the former Connecticut Sun Head Coach headed south down Route 95 and landed in the District where he will build on the foundation of top scorer and post-presence Crystal Langhorne. Two exciting rookie prospects, No. 4 pick Tayler Hill out of Ohio State and No. 19 pick from Belgium (yes, you read that correctly) Emma Meeseman, join other D.C. newcomers Kia Vaughn (from the Liberty) and Ivory Latta (from the Shock). This core of players could spur a new day in the nation's capitol.
19. THE SILVER AND BLACK
Much like the Storm, the San Antonio Silver Stars head into 2013 with a few key injuries resulting in increased playing time for younger players aiming to impress Head Coach Dan Hughes. Eight-year San Antonio veteran Sophia Young injured her ACL playing abroad in China during the winter and just last week point guard Becky Hammon broke her finger. Hughes will turn to speedy guard Danielle Robinson, 6-4 center Jayne Appel, third-year post presence Danielle Adams and second-year guard Shenise Johnson, in addition to newly-acquired veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones as the Silver Stars attempt another playoff run in 2013.
20. BLUE SKIES
Things are really looking up in Chicago as not only have the Sky drafted Elena Delle Donne, but in three-time WNBA All-Defensive First Teamer Sylvia Fowles, three-time WNBA champion Swin Cash and dynamic scorer Epiphanny Prince, they have the makings of one of the most difficult teams to match-up against in the WNBA. Cash was almost giddy after Chicago's first preseason game where EDD (get used to it, Delle Donne is so good this is gonna stick) scored a team-high 17 points in a win over New York. "Elena is going to make everyone else's job easier," said Cash. "With her size and ability to hurt you from the three-point line, Syl [Fowles] will be getting more room down low and I was getting a bunch of looks that were even better than the looks I get in practice. We are going to be getting lots of chances to knock down open shots."
21. STACKED IN THE VALLEY OF THE SUN
So, we've already discussed Taurasi, perhaps the greatest women player ever, and Griner, who is 6-foot-8, runs like a gazelle and prowls the paint like an angry panther. Now, let's take a look at the rest of the scary good Mercury. DeWanna Bonner is a three-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year winner. Candice Dupree is a three-time WNBA All-Star with a plethora of post moves, complemented by a soft touch. Penny Taylor is regarded as one of the best international players in the league and possesses a dead-eye jumper, while point guard Sam Prahalis developed very nicely as a rookie last year while Taurasi was mostly out of the lineup. Phoenix. Is. Stacked.
22. NOT JUST THE BIG THREE
Sure, Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins are special, but several other rookies bear watching. Kelsey Bone under the tutelage of Laimbeer in New York. Tayler Hill will be getting plenty of minutes with Thibault and the Mystics. Tianna Hawkins in a similar, potentially minutes-friendly role in Seattle. Kayla Alexander could get some burn in San Antonio, while both Layshia Clarendon (Indiana Fever) and A'dia Mathies (L.A. Sparks) may fill key roles with good teams.
23. FEELS LIKE BRAND NEW
The WNBA also introduced a new brand identity in 2013, reflecting how far the level of play has come in 16 years as stronger, more agile players have brought the game to a new level. Highlighted by a new, more modern "Logowoman" the new branding feels right as we head into 2013 at a fever pitch.
24. LET THE BATTLE BEGIN
As the 2013 WNBA season tips this weekend, the battle will begin, pitting the players and teams above against each other in the quest for the championship of the best, most intensely competitive woman's sports league in the world.
25. TUNE IN THIS WEEKEND
Tamika Catchings and the Indiana Fever begin their title defense on Friday night, May 24 in San Antonio, while Tina Charles and Connecticut host Cappie Pondexter and the Liberty and Skylar Diggins and the Shock travel to face Angel McCoughtry and the Dream on Saturday. Candace Parker and the Sparks host the Storm on Sunday, and a big ESPN2 doubleheader is on tap for Monday, May 27 as the Mystics meet Diggins and Shock (5pm ET) prior to Elena Delle Donne and the Sky taking on Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and the Mercury in Phoenix (7pm ET).