Changing of the Guard

The WNBA regular season is set to tip-off this Friday at 7 pm Eastern, as the Indiana Fever and Washington Mystics set the summer in motion! The Fever and Mystics signify so much of what this year holds for the W: change. The Fever enter a rebuilding phase after a drastic teardown and the Mystics aim to return to title contention with a healthy Elena Delle Donne

Also changing is the league’s landscape of talent.

Sue Bird is set to make what is likely her last go-round in the W as the Seattle Storm re-upped and reloaded in the short term to go all in for a deep postseason run. To call Bird legendary would be an understatement; 12-time All-Star, 5-time Olympic Gold Medalist, and one of the greatest shooters the sport has ever seen. Only five players have surpassed 2,000 career assists, but Bird stands atop history as the only player with 3,000 plus in their career (3,048 to be exact).

Coming fresh off of a W Finals appearance, Diana Taurasi is also in the twilight of her career. No player has scored more points in W history (9,174) than Taurasi, and she’s the only player to have eclipsed 8,000 career points. How she got there has set her apart since the early 2000s. 

Guard play has shifted in professional basketball over the last decade greatly. While floor generals still exist, shot creation is at a premium. Taurasi is a fantastic passer, but her shot-making is still her finest attribute.

Her prolific pull-up shooting, dynamic off-ball movement, and shifty handle have allowed her to bend the court to her will for nearly two decades. Her audacity and knack for contortion finishes and mid-air adjustments defy defensive attention and are the extra punch that has made her such a powerful offensive engine. 

Early shot clock pull-up threes in transition, high volume of threes off motion and screens, pushing the pace with her frenetic play and all-out offensive style; Taurasi forwarded a brand of basketball in vogue now with gumption and guile unlikely to be replicated.

Taurasi recently said, “I plan on playing for a while,” when answering questions at Mercury media day, quelling speculation about retirement in the immediate future. 

Taurasi isn’t the MVP-level player she once was, as age and injuries have sapped some of the athletic pop that amplified her skill. Her efficiency dropped precipitously last year down to .9 points per play according to HerHoopStats, the lowest since her second season in the W. Defense was never Taurasi’s calling card, but she conserves energy for her sizable offensive load by coasting much of the time defensively.

Bird is in a similar place, still, the steady hand which guides the Storm offensively and an effervescent pick and roll operator. Defending on the ball without the same lateral quickness she had in her prime can throw Seattle’s defense into rotation (You’ve seen the Erica Wheeler snatch back), although she still makes solid plays consistently off of the ball.

Two legends are still impacting the game for teams vying for a title in altered yet still high-profile roles.

While watching a star retire is always an oddity as memories flood, the potential and flashes of the next wave of young guards ascending is a jolt of joy. With each player that retires, a bittersweet feeling, but also the excitement of new personality and swagger that deserves just as much showcasing!

Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jewell Loyd were both named All-WNBA First Team at the guard spots last season. Courtney Vandersloot, reigning champion, assist leader, and All-Star (2nd Team All-W in 2021), carries the torch as the best passer in the game.

Kelsey Plum won Sixth Woman of the Year last season with the Aces, putting forth her best season as a pro. Her borderline All-Star year as one of the key cogs of the league’s best offense was made all the more impressive, considering she missed the season prior with an Achilles injury. With a new coach and likely more open offense, Plum is on the way up. 

First-time All-Star Courtney Williams further established herself with the Atlanta Dream as a dynamic scorer, capable of leveraging her speed and shiftiness both on and off the ball. Can we talk about her rebounding? It’s actually absurd that she finished 12th in rebounds per game, the only guard in the top 15. Few can rip and run like Williams, thrashing teams on coast-to-coast attacks. She brings her refined shotmaking back to the Connecticut Sun, who she spent three seasons with before being traded to the Dream.

While the Indiana Fever has struggled since their Finals appearance in 2015, Kelsey Mitchell continues to be a bright spot. She finished 8th in scoring this past season, her fourth in the W, and feels on the cusp of more as her prevalence as one of the best pick and roll creators in the game burgeons.

The guards 25 and under in the league and their already riveting play during their short pro careers has me pondering what exactly the league landscape might look like in the next half decade.

Arike Ogunbowale was named 2nd Team All-W in 2021, her second straight selection to an All-W team in only three years in the league. What’s so wild about her already establishing herself as a top player is the room for growth that still exists in her game.

She feasts on tough buckets; Ogunbowale took 40.4% of her total field goals last season as pull-up jumpers, according to InStat scouting. That’s an absurd number. Yet, it was justified, as she canned 37.8% of her pull-up 3’s (the league average from three in 2021 was 34.3%, according to basketball reference).

She has some of the most prodigious space creation tools in basketball. Give her an inch; she’ll take a mile. Drop your big in pick and roll, she’ll cash a pull-up. Overplay her right hand, and she’ll hit you with the sidestep. Go under a screen, and you’ll regret it as you hear the swish 24 feet behind you.

That room for improvement mentioned is what happens inside the arc. There’s nothing wrong with a pull-up two! They’re essential for lead guards who thrive in pick and roll. Shooting the volume, she does on pull-up twos with her efficiency (29%) is an easy out for defenses at times. She has decent craft in the paint and a good first step but could benefit from working in more change of pace and a further developed floater.

With that change of approach in the paint could come improved reads as a passer and more fine-tuned decision-making as a primary option. She’s already one of the best in the league and the improvements she continues to make, makes Dallas a frightening proposition if the roster can put together those consistent flashes of intrigue from their young core.

Jackie Young, another former first overall pick by the Aces, does everything with power. She’s a remarkably strong downhill driver and uses her frame and touch to finish through contact and craft. She’s fantastic at using explosive east-to-west moves to set her defenders into screens or to craft a better angle to get to her spots. 

Young’s an incredibly efficient finisher, predicated by her quick jumper from the elbows and the interior.

Her pick-and-roll passing, particularly with pocket passes, makes her a constant defense threat.

She’s perhaps the player I’m most excited to see in a new system. Young took 33 threes total the past two seasons, and it’s tantalizing to imagine her expanding her game out to open lanes even wider. Young has never been a volume shooter, even dating back to her three seasons at Notre Dame, but her touch on passes and shots inside the arc, along with her free throw shooting (83% for her career), lend credence to the potential of a viable outside jumper and even more space for her to torment defenders with her probe game.

Sabrina Ionescu’s rookie season was cut short by injury, limited to only three games, but the upside so clearly shone through. This past season was marred by inconsistency, emblematic of the Liberty’s season in general. The jumper that opened her game up wasn’t there for her to the same degree it was in college, hindering her scoring impact. She had some moments of hesitancy inside the arc, and her overall shotmaking felt very much like a rookie process. 

That’s not a bad thing!

She was essentially a rookie in her second season; it takes time to acclimate. Every player has a different journey regardless of where they were or weren’t picked, and what their pre-professional play might indicate.

It stands to reason that her shotmaking/taking will take a step forward this season with more experience under her belt and off-season to tweak her game. 

The playmaking and control of the ball that she showed left no wonder as to the upside she has. Ionescu finished 3rd in the W in assists per game, which doesn’t fully encapsulate her efficacy (she was near the top of the league in turnovers). Her court-mapping and feel for a passer are phenomenal.

She’s adept at contorting her body and using angles to hit windows that most ball-handlers can’t. Her ball placement and timing, while not always consistent, are routinely impeccable. 

As far as her shotmaking continues to go, the game will continue to open up for her. The more the defense cares about what Ionescu can do as a scorer, the more she’ll be able to bend the defense to her will to pick it apart with her passing. 

Mystics guard Ariel Atkins became a first-time All-Star last season, absolutely thriving as a high-volume shooter off the catch, off screens, in transition, and of a variety of movements. Her shooting gravity makes her a fantastic secondary pick and roll operator, along with a steady array of passes to keep an offense flowing.

The offensive growth over the past few seasons is fantastic, but the defense Atkins came into the league with and continues to stamp her mark with is astounding. Atkins has made WNBA All-Defense every year of her career, including when she was a rookie!!! That’s actually absurd.

Atkins has remarkable hands, finishing in the top 10 in steals per game every year. If a lackadaisical pass is thrown crosscourt, you’re liable to chalk that up as a turnover as Atkins screams sideline to sideline to pick six a lofted ball.

She’s incredibly physical and active on switches, negating screens and blowing up handoffs. She digs well on stunts and rotates low from the weak side with good timing. Atkins is a complete defender, and her ever-growing offensive game is a significant reason for optimism that the Mystics are still built to contend with Elena Delle Donne back on court.

Chennedy Carter’s burst is legitimately special, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that she has the best first step in the league. Carter lives at the rim and in the paint, carving defenses up with her quickness, but uses a package of stutters and hesitations to cook with the front burners.

This is not Jewell Loyd’s finest defensive possession, but the suddenness from Carter is startling. The hesitation to sell and dictate pace only to rip into much speed is a gift.

She eats at the line and has good touch on floaters and short jumpers, as well as using the rim to protect her finishes, essential for a small guard.

The reasons for her suspension last season have still not been disclosed by her or the Atlanta Dream outside of “conduct detrimental to the team,” and she only played 11 games as a result. She’s played just 27 games as a pro since being drafted in 2020 due to the suspension and an ankle injury that shortened her rookie year as well. The only thing holding back Carter from becoming one of the very best in the league is consistent court time and reps. With a new environment in Los Angeles after an off-season trade to the Sparks, hopefully, she can find stability to build upon the promising play she’s been able to exhibit when on the court.

As the changing of the guard takes place in the WNBA this season, bask in the skill and craft of passing generations of players. The league is in good hands, literally and figuratively, as the torch passes to an ascending collective of young guards.

Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.