Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Five Biggest Transitions Ahead in 2021

In just over a week on May 14, the historic 25th WNBA season will tip-off, but in the meantime, training camp continues as teams teach, test and configure their rosters for the grinding schedule ahead.

It is also a time of transition for those who made big changes in the offseason. And those transitions come in many forms: new teams, new eras, new opportunities. Let’s take a look at the five biggest transitions of the 2021 WNBA season.

Candace Parker in Chicago.

After spending her entire WNBA career in Los Angeles, 35-year-old Parker has returned home to Chicago to anchor the Sky and make a run at the Sky’s first-ever title with a new group of teammates in a familiar place. She joins a roster loaded with talent, including guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, and wings Diamond DeShields and Kahleah Copper. Because of the salary cap, Chicago will carry just 11 players this season, meaning that Parker’s role gets even bigger. She will need to stay healthy, stay on the floor and be the multi-dimension, productive player and leader she has been throughout her career to lift the Sky into the ranks of the WNBA elite.

Parker said Monday she is already settling in well and is impressed with the way the team and the coaches are communicating. Sky coach James Wade said Parker is already mentoring his younger players.

“The fact that she is willing to share all of those experiences, that leadership…” Wade said. “Candace has always been a player and person willing to pay it forward, and the players are opening to hearing everything she says. The fact is she’s been a leader. She’s had to carry a team on her shoulders for so many years and that only helps (other players).”

Tina Charles in Washington.

Charles’ move to Washington was one of the biggest moves of 2020. Then, Charles opted out of the season in the bubble after being granted a medical exemption. So more than a year after she became a Washington Mystic – the last time she suited up in a WNBA game was 2019 for New York, where she averaged 16.9 points and 7.5 rebounds a game – the time has come for her to suit up alongside Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud and last year’s breakout star Myisha Hines-Allen. The Mystics are battling through adversity. Free-agent Alysha Clark sustained an injury overseas and is out for the season. Delle Donne is coming off of off-season back surgery, her second procedure in the span of a year, but is trying to be ready by opening day. Additionally, Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP, is out through the Olympic break, therefore Charles will need to establish herself quickly for the Mystics to make a push.

So far, so good, said Mystics head coach Mike Thibault.

“She will play the same role she’s played her whole career. She’s a dominant post player. I expect her to get a lot of touches,” Thibault said. “She’s been a dominant player in practice and I’m thrilled with what she’s done. She’s making shots inside and outside, her versatility is showing and she’s in great, great shape.”

Chelsea Gray in Las Vegas.

Gray, a three-time All-Star, made herself a star in Los Angeles as one of the game’s most dynamic point guards. Now she will find her fit in Las Vegas under Bill Laimbeer. Gray, entering her seventh season, is a guard with size who can both score and distribute. On a team full of perimeter talent – including Jackie Young, Kelsey Plum and Angel McCoughtry – Gray should have some room to improve on last year’s 30.5 3-point shooting percentage and will also have plenty of targets inside with A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage and Dearica Hamby. Gray averaged 14.0 points and 5.3 assists per game in 2020. On a loaded Aces roster, those kinds of numbers will be just fine.

The Los Angeles Sparks.

For the Sparks, losing Parker and Gray meant starting anew in many ways. This will be Nneka Ogwumike’s team moving forward. The 2016 Most Valuable Player will be asked to do more, in the absence of Parker inside, but there is little doubt she is capable of it, and she will be playing next to sister, Chiney, who sat out the 2020 season and will have a larger role than the one she had when she came to Los Angeles in 2019. The Sparks will lean on veteran point guard Kristi Toliver and shooting guard Seimone Augustus, while finding its chemistry among new talent such as Amanda Zahui B, Erica Wheeler, Bria Holmes and Nia Coffey, who put up 20 points (including four three-pointers) in L.A.’s opening scrimmage win over Las Vegas on Sunday. Change can be difficult, and it can be good. It will be interesting to see which way L.A.’s big changes play out as the season begins.

Sabrina Ionescu in New York.

Ionescu came into the WNBA last season as one of the best collegiate players in the history of the sport and the excitement around her professional debut was palpable before an ankle injury just three games into the season forced her to the sidelines. Ionescu is getting a do-over in New York this season with a team that is deeper and more experienced than the team that won just two games a year ago. The additions of Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney (the 2020 Most Improved Player) and the return of veterans Kiah Stokes and Layshia Clarendon give the Liberty reason for optimism about the future with Ionescu running the show on the floor. Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said he is bringing Ionescu along slowly. Ionescu did not require surgery but passed on the overseas season to continue to heal and prepare for the WNBA season.

“It’s been a really hard and long process,” Ionescu said. “But wanting to get back on the court motivated me…I’m just excited to be able to play and back doing what I love.”

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.