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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Breakout Players

The thought of a WNBA season starting without Maya Moore, and Breanna Stewart, and Angel McCoughtry, and Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Diana Taurasi is well, a little unthinkable.

But every adversity presents an opportunity. As training camps open across the league in advance of the 2019 season, it’s time to find out who will be in a position to take advantage of that opportunity to fill a void left behind by these All-Stars.

“From a league standpoint, these players will be missed,” said Dallas Wings coach Brian Agler. “But this league isn’t going to stop. In basketball, in sports and in real life, sometimes people get an opportunity and it creates something positive for them.”

It’s safe to assume that players such as Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner, Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike will continue to lead their teams and the league as standard-bearers of skill and talent. And there is room, it seems, for some different faces to emerge.

Who might breakthrough this season to add their name to the list of the league’s indispensable stars? Who might lead their teams into title contention?

It’s not possible to forget what’s being lost, but it might be fun to figure out what’s been found.

“It’s a year where a number of our marquee players won’t be competing,” said Seattle Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis. “But there is space for other players to step up and I think that’s going to add an element of interest and intrigue to the season.”

A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas. The 2018 Rookie of the Year was stellar in her debut season for Bill Laimbeer’s relocated Aces. She was fourth in the WNBA scoring at 20.7 points a game and sixth in rebounding at 8.0 per game. Wilson nearly led the Aces to a playoff berth and will be looking to achieve that goal this season with a loaded offensive roster that includes Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum and the No. 1 pick in the draft, guard Jackie Young from Notre Dame. Wilson, who is already finding herself an outspoken, passionate advocate for gender equity issues, is also going to find herself on the short list for MVP candidates very quickly.

Kayla McBride, Las Vegas. The Aces’ shooting guard has gone through injury issues through the past few years, but when she’s healthy, McBride is one of the top scorers in the WNBA. Last season, the Notre Dame product averaged a career-high 18.2 points a game and shot 39.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc to make her one of the top perimeter threats as well.

Jewell Loyd, Seattle. Loyd begins her fifth season in the WNBA without running buddy Breanna Stewart on the floor. But Loyd is a standout in her own right, averaging 15.5 points a game last season in the Storm’s title run. She posted the best rebounding and assist numbers of her career last season and there is no doubt she will be asked the shoulder a larger portion of Seattle’s offensive load without Stewart on the floor.

Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta. Hayes averaged a career-best 17.2 points a game in 2018 as the Dream returned to the playoffs under first-year head coach Nikki Collen. Hayes’ dynamic, perimeter-slashing game will be on display as Atlanta waits for McCoughtry’s possible return from last year’s late-season knee injury. In the meantime, this will be Hayes’ offense to drive.

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut. Thomas is in her sixth WNBA season and she is the glue player for a talented Connecticut Sun team not to mention one of the WNBA’s best power forwards. Thomas missed eight games last seasons and averaged 10.3 points and 8.0 rebounds, but it’s her versatility and her ability to play in the open floor in transition that makes her so valuable and could propel her to a breakout season.

Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago. Sloot is back in Chicago, re-signed as the Sky’s franchise player in the offseason, and she is looking to cement her status as one of the league’s premier point guards. Vandersloot, who averaged 12.5 points and a WNBA-record 8.6 assists a game last season, is someone who can get the ball to a stable of young talent that includes Gabby Williams, Diamond DeShields, rookie Katie Lou Samuelson, veteran guard (and wife) Allie Quigley and the kind of leader that can bring the Sky back into the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Azurá Stevens, Dallas. With Liz Cambage not returning to Dallas following her All-Star campaign a season ago, the Wings will be looking to make up for Cambage’s contributions inside, and Stevens is positioned to be that player. The second-year player averaged 8.9 points and 4.6 points a game off the bench last year, will play more minutes and make a bigger impact and have a chance to establish herself as one of the league’s most promising young post players.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.