2022 WNBA Playoffs: Key Players to Watch in the First Round

After 216 regular season games over the past 3½ months, the 2022 WNBA Playoffs have finally arrived, beginning Wednesday with a doubleheader on ESPN2 and ESPN.

It took until the final day of the regular season to complete the field and set the first round matchups, and unlike the past six seasons, it will take more than one game to advance as the WNBA has shifted to a best-of-three format in the first round, followed by best-of-five in both the semifinals and Finals.

Before the action tips off on Wednesday, we’ll take a look at each series and offer some key players to watch from each team – some will be the All-Stars expected to take on additional minutes and usage in the postseason; others will be key role players looking for a playoff breakthrough.

Courtney Vandersloot (6.5) and Sabrina Ionescu (6.3) finished second and third, respectively, in assists per game this season.

(2) Chicago vs. (7) New York (Game 1: Wednesday, 8:00 ET, ESPN2)

Chicago: Courtney Vandersloot

The defending champs have plenty of key players on the roster – last year’s Finals MVP Kahleah Cooper, the two-time MVP Candace Parker, the 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman in her first season with the Sky, or the sharpshooter Allie Quigley – but we’re focused on the point guard Courtney Vandersloot. The Sky floor general led Chicago in both points (17.0 ppg) and assists (8.3 apg) against the Liberty in the regular season – her second-highest marks against any opponent in both categories.

While Sloot saw her five-year run of winning the league assist title come to an end – Vandersloot (6.5 apg) finished second to Washington’s Natasha Cloud (7.0) – she did establish herself as one of the league’s top clutch performers. Vandersloot finished as Chicago’s fourth-leading scorer this season (11.8 ppg), but led the team in the fourth quarter (4.3 ppg), which also ranked ninth in the league.

And when it came to clutch situations – score within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime – Vandersloot delivered as she ranked third in clutch scoring with 57 points on 55.6% shooting and led all players with 14 clutch assists. The playoffs are the most clutch time of the year and the Sky point guard has shown she’s ready for the moment.

New York: Sabrina Ionescu

Another team with multiple players to choose from when making this selection. There’s Marine Johannes, who finished as the league’s second-leading 3-point shooter this season at 43.7% and shot a ridiculous 64.3% from the field and 60% from deep in three games against Chicago this season. There’s Betnijah Laney, who returned to the lineup in early August after missing most of the season due to injury, helping the Liberty close the regular season with three straight wins to squeak into the playoffs.

But it’s hard to go against Sabrina Ionescu because of how she impacts all facets of the game. This season, she became the first player in league history to post at least 500 points, 200 rebounds and 200 assists in a single season. She added two triple-doubles (tying Parker for the all-time lead at three) and led the Liberty in points, rebounds and assists on five different occasions – the most of any player this season.

Ionescu finished eighth in the league in usage rate this season at 25.6% and she will likely have the ball in her hands more than any Liberty player in this series.  The Sky will game plan against her and it will be Ionescu’s success against that focused defense that will play a huge role in New York’s outcome in this series.

Jackie Young averaged 19.7 points per game on 58.3% shooting in Las Vegas’ season series sweep of Phoenix.

(1) Las Vegas vs. (8) Phoenix (Game 1: Wednesday, 10:00 ET, ESPN)

Las Vegas: Jackie Young

Both the Aces and Young got off to a blistering start this season. As the Aces went 9-1 in the month of May – with three of those wins coming against their first-round opponent – Young led the squad in scoring at 18.5 points per game.

In sweeping the season series against the Mercury, the Aces were led by their backcourt as Kelsey Plum led the team in scoring (20.2 ppg) and Young was right behind her at 19.7 points per game on 58.3% shooting from the field (Young’s best mark against any opponent this season) and 44.4% from 3-point range.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas’ MVP candidate A’ja Wilson posted her lowest scoring average against any opponent this season against Phoenix (13.3 ppg). Wilson led the WNBA with 20 20-point games this season, but did not score more than 16 points in any game against Phoenix. Of course, these games came while the Mercury still had Tina Charles on the frontline (and they still have Brianna Turner).

Las Vegas will miss Dearica Hamby, who is expected to miss the next few weeks with a bone contusion in her right knee, after she averaged 16.7 points on 76.9% shooting against Phoenix this season. But if Young can replicate her performances against Phoenix that she had a few months ago, the Aces will be in good shape.

Phoenix: Sophie Cunningham

There may not be enough time before this series tips off to discuss all of the turmoil that the Mercury have been through this season. Yet after all the heartache, drama, injuries and surprises, the Mercury find themselves back in the postseason for the 10th consecutive year – now the longest active streak in the league after Minnesota missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

There will be a lot of talk about which players the Mercury don’t have in this series: there is the ongoing wrongful detainment of Brittney Griner that has weighed on this team (and the league as a whole) all season long; there was the midseason departure of Tina Charles; there is the quad injury to Diana Taurasi that leaves here status for the postseason unknown; and there is the absence of Skylar Diggins-Smith, who missed the final four games of the regular season due to personal reasons.

But with stars out, opportunity knocks, and Sophie Cunningham is definitely one player that has answered the call this season. After Charles’ sudden departure, the Mercury shifted toward a smaller lineup and Cunningham’s role dramatically increased.

  • In 10 games before Charles left, Cunningham averaged 7.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists while shooting 40% from the field and 36.8% from 3-point range in 21.7 minutes per game.
  • In 18 games since Charles’ departure, Cunningham has averaged 15.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists while shooting 46.2% from the field and 40.9% from beyond the arc.
Alyssa Thomas tallied two triple-doubles this season, but averaged just 9-6-6 in three games against Dallas.

(3) Connecticut vs. (6) Dallas (Game 1: Thursday, 8:00 ET, NBA TV/ESPNU)

Connecticut: Alyssa Thomas

This is the only first-round matchup in which the lower seed won the season series against the higher seed as the Wings took two of three games against the Sun this season – including the most recent matchup on July 5.

When looking for players to watch, we can look back at the season series and see which players stood out the most. In this series, it was Alyssa Thomas, but not for the right reasons. Thomas averaged just 9.0 points on 37.5% shooting (her lowest marks against any opponent this season in both categories), to go with 6.0 rebounds (tied for her lowest average) and 6.3 assists in 30.5 minutes per game.

Connecticut refers to Thomas as The Engine and rightfully so as her all-around play and tenacity fuels the Sun while she’s on the court. Connecticut will need the engine at full capacity if the Sun hope to win that elusive first championship. Of course, we can’t discount the importance of the reigning MVP Jonquel Jones, whose 14.4 net rating led all 147 players that appeared in more than five games this season.

Dallas: Marina Mabrey

The Wings will enter the postseason shorthanded as Arike Ogunbowale underwent an iliac crest core muscle avulsion repair on Aug. 9 that forced her to miss the rest of the regular season and will keep her sidelined for this first-round series.

In Ogunbowale’s absence, Marina Mabrey has stepped up big time just when the Wings needed it most as they secured the No. 6 seed in the postseason. Check out these numbers:

  • In 28 games that Mabrey played with Ogunbowale, Mabrey averaged 12 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 40% from the field and 32.6% from 3-point range in 26.6 minutes per game.
  • In six games that Mabrey played without Ogunbowale, Mabrey averaged 21.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 49% from the field and 44.4% from 3-point range in 34.5 minutes per game.

The Wings will need that trend to continue if they hope to find success against the third-seeded Sun. Keep in mind, Ogunbowale was the team’s top scorer (17.3 ppg) against Connecticut this season. Dallas will also need Teaira McCowan to continue her dominant play over the past six weeks. In 16 games since the calendar flipped to July, McCowan has averaged 15.9 points and 9.8 rebounds in 26.2 minutes per game. In her first 17 games of the season prior to July, McCowan averaged just 6.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 12 minutes per game.

Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne have both won a scoring title, Delle Donne has a 2-1 advantage in league MVPs, while Stewart has a 2-0 lead in Finals MVPs.

(4) Seattle vs. (5) Washington (Game 1: Thursday 10:00 ET, ESPN2)

Seattle: Breanna Stewart

There are times to search for deep cuts on an album and other times that you just want to hear the hits. For this series, we can’t avoid focusing on the marquee matchup of Breanna Stewart against Elena Delle Donne – two of the top forwards not only in the game today, but that we’ve ever seen in WNBA history.

Stewart not only won her first scoring title in the WNBA (21.8 ppg), she also led all players in clutch scoring with 61 clutch points on 20-39 (51.3%) FG, 5-11 (45.5%) 3P, and 16-18 (88.9%) FT shooting splits. In three games against the Mystics this season, Stewart averaged 20 points on 50%-43%-80% shooting splits to go with 6.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

And we have to mention Stewart’s defense as she ranks fifth in steals (1.6 per game), 13th in blocks (0.9 per game) and second in defensive win shares (0.183) as she leads the league’s third-ranked defense (97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Also, have to mention Jewell Loyd before we move on to the Mystics. Loyd was Seattle’s second-leading scorer against Washington this season at 18 points per game as she shot 45% from beyond the arc in the series.

Washington: Elena Delle Donne

There was a recurring theme when discussing the Mystics week-to-week in the WNBA Power Rankings: Washington’s record when Delle Donne played compared to the record when she was out. Here’s the final tally: 18-7 (.720) with EDD; 4-7 (.364) without EDD. That’s the difference between the No. 3 seed (just .002 behind both Las Vegas and Chicago at the top of the standings) and a trip to the lottery with a 10th place finish.

When looking at on-court/off-court stats, Delle Donne stands out as the Mystics were 12.2 points per 100 possessions better in her 694 minutes on the court (12.3 net rating) than in her 761 minutes off the court (0.1 net rating). Only 11 players posted a greater differential than Delle Donne this season while playing as many minutes.

Monitoring Delle Donne’s rest and recovery after she played a total of three games over the past two seasons – she did not join the bubble season in 2020 due to health concerns and played only three games in 2021 before being shut down for the season. Delle Donne played in only one back-to-back all season – the July 30-31 two-game set with the Storm – as the teams battled for home-court advantage in this first round series.

The good news for Washington is that there are two off days between each game of this series – Game 1 on Aug. 18, Game 2 on Aug. 21, and Game 3 on Aug. 24 – which means Delle Donne should be available for all games. In four games when playing on two days rest this season, Delle Donne averaged 16.8 points on 50%-58%-91% shooting splits.

Similar to Stewart, Delle Donne impacts the game on both ends of the court as she ranks third in defensive win shares (0.180), which is right behind Stewart and just ahead of teammate Natasha Cloud. Cloud led the WNBA in assists this season (7.0 per game) and dished out more against Seattle (9.7 per game) than all but one opponent this season.