Vera Jones' Games To Keep An Eye On in The Season Ahead

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With the 2003 WNBA season set to tip off on Thursday, caught up with ESPN analyst Vera Jones who shared her thoughts on some of the games she's got circled on her calendar -- from the start of the defending champions' pursuit for number three, to a traded player's first game against a former team (e.g., Natalie Williams and the Indiana Fever vs. the San Antonio Silver Stars), to a new coach, a new player, a new comeback....

There are a thousand reasons to watch, but here are a few of the storylines that Jones will be following:

Lisa Leslie is always fierce.
D. Clarke Evans
WNBAE/Getty Images
Los Angeles Sparks @ Connecticut Sun
Saturday, May 24, 4 pm ET, ABC

It's always great to see the defending champions in action. I expect Lisa Leslie to be as fierce a competitor as ever. But Connecticut fans will be excited that there�s a new WNBA team in Connecticut. Being that the game is in Connecticut, that would be a huge opening win for them. You�ve got both Nykesha Sales and Rebecca Lobo creating a huge interest for UConn fans. For L.A., I think their veteran experience now is unmatchable, especially with the pick-up of Jennifer Gillom. Gillom may have felt slighted in not being an All-Star last year, but she has found herself an All-Star team to play on and has a chance to finally get that well-deserved ring. And with Connecticut having added Debbie Black, they now have both Black and [Shannon] "Pee Wee" Johnson, two tough defenders who are both very scrappy and who are going to make this team an exceptionally quick team. Whoever matches up with them, especially if Coach Mike Thibault plays Johnson at the shooting guard, they�re going to be very tough to keep up with defensively from the guard end.

Bottom Line: With the game at Mohegan Sun, it might not be a bad gamble to pull for the underdog.

Cash now has Cheryl Ford to help carry the load.
Allen Einstein
WNBAE/Getty Images
Charlotte Sting @ Detroit Shock
Saturday, May 31, 7:30 pm

What can I say about Swin Cash? She�s young, she�s strong, she�s quick and she�s hungry. It will be really exciting to see if coach Bill Laimbeer is able to motivate Ruth Riley, Ayana Walker and Cheryl Ford in to being a true front court presence in the East. With Charlotte, an outstanding perimeter shooting team, what they lacked was help inside for Tammy Sutton-Brown. This will be a great opportunity to see if Charlotte has improved its inside game and if Detroit really has improved all the way around -- they could be very strong inside, but I�ll be interested to see how well they shoot outside. They picked up Kedra Holland-Corn and Elaine Powell did an outstanding job for them, but there�s always Dawn Staley, Andrea Stinson, and Allison Feaster, the big three for Charlotte, who make perimeter defenders crazy.

Bottom Line: With these teams, one team�s strength is the other�s weakenss from last year, and this should be an exciting backcourt vs. frontcout battle.

Stacey Dales-Schuman gives the Mystics another option.
Mitchell Layton
WNBAE/Getty Images
Washington Mystics @ New York Liberty
Sunday, June 1, 4 pm ET, NBA TV

The Washington Mystics vs. the New York Liberty is always a good game. This has become my new favorite Eastern Conference matchup. I love to see Chamique Holdsclaw in action, period. She�s a great player, and she has a little something to prove coming off the injury, having done so well last year and then getting injured. I love Marianne Stanley, she was the one who introduced the real running game to the Eastern Conference last year. For New York, they've added Elena Baranova to three awesome three-point shooters in Vickie Johnson, Crystal Robinson and Becky Hammon, And Baranova brings both three pointing shooting and size, which is great for the Liberty.

Bottom Line: Whenever you get a matchup of this Washington team who loves to run and this New York team who loves to defend, it�s always a great game.

Bird and Donovan should provide great leadership.
Jeff Reinking/WNBAE/Getty Images
Seattle Storm @ Sacramento Monarchs
Saturday, June 21, 10 pm ET, NBA TV

Chantelle Anderson told me at the draft that one of her favorite players was Yolanda Griffith. Now she gets to play alongside her. This could be the most dominating front court in the league with Griffith, Anderson and Tangela Smith. Tennessee fans will be excited to see how Kara Lawson fares. With both Lawson and Ticha Penicheiro running point, this will be a team moving full speed ahead. And the Seattle Storm, on the back of little Sue Bird had a good run last year, advancing to the Western Conference playoffs. Expect a return, especially with Anne Donovan at the helm. Donovan is an exceptionally calm and collected leader and teamed with Sue Bird, this team will have even more direction than they�ve had before. I always have felt that Lauren Jackson is a very good player. Anne Donovan is just the right coach to help her settle into her real role as a star of that team.

Bottom Line: This is a good west coast matchup, and it also could be a 2003 playoff preview.

Katie Smith and Teresa Edwards should be a powerful combo for the Minnesota Lynx.
David Sherman/WNBAE/Getty Images
Cleveland Rockers @ Minnesota Lynx
Saturday, July 5, 8 pm ET

I think this is an exciting game. It may be overlooked because it's not televised, but this is a big measuring stick game. Minnesota finished last in the West in 2002 and Cleveland finished seventh in the East, and just looking at the lineups alone on paper, these two teams should have faired much better. Cleveland has always been a tenacious defensive team, but Dan Hughes may have helped himself on the offensive end with LaToya Thomas, the number one pick in this year's draft. And Helen Darling is back in control at the point which should put Cleveland back on the map again. In a similar situation, Minnesota has a former All-Star point guard in coach Suzie McConnell Serio, who will definitely make this Lynx team more defensive-minded. And the adddition of Teresa Edwards and Sheri Sam, will help the younger players focus on winning.

Bottom Line: This should be a matchup of two of the most improved teams in the league.

Look out for the reigning MVP.
Jesse D. Garrabrant
WNBAE/Getty Images
Houston Comets @ Los Angeles Sparks
Friday, July 18, 10:30 pm ET, NBA TV

For obvious old rivalry reasons, Houston Comets vs. Los Angeles Sparks always will be great. The opportunity to see Cynthia Cooper (two-time WNBA Most Valuable Player and four-time WNBA Finals MVP) in action again will be awesome. By mid-summer, by the time these two meet, this could also be a good preview of the Western Conference playoffs. The key matchup and the big question will still be who is strongest inside � Lisa Leslie or Tina Thompson. Sheryl Swoopes is the league�s returning MVP and knowing Sheryl, she has no intention of not renewing that title. She�ll be tough to defend as always. Getting Ukari Figgs is a big move for Van Chancellor and the Comets. They needed a solid point guard, and I think Figgs is totally underestimated. This will be battle.

Bottom Line: Sparks vs. Comets, this game speaks for itself.

Williams faces her old team for the first time on July 23.
Ron Hoskins/WNBAE/Getty Images
San Antonio Silver Stars @ Indiana Fever
Wednesday, July 23, 8 pm ET

By mid-summer, post-All-Star break, things really heat up. There's Houston vs. L.A., but also another great one to watch for is San Antonio at Indiana � Natalie Williams matching up against the team for which she was pretty much the marquee player for four years. She will challenge them for the first time on July 23. It will also be interesting to see what kind of team San Antonio will be; they're in a new place, and I�d just really love to see what coach Candi Harvey has figured out to do without Williams and with Sylvia Crawley and Gwen Jackson. Did picking up Jackson's youth and Crawley�s height better her team or will Indiana came out on top?

Bottom Line: Who got the better end of the trade is the big question of this game.

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