Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Rookies on the Rise

The WNBA Rookie Class of 2020 is going to remember their first WNBA season for so many reasons. Living in the bubble. Social justice efforts. A fast-paced 22-game schedule that barely leaves time for absorbing the celebration of a big win or the lessons of a big loss, not to mention minimal practice time to acclimate to the speed, skill and physicality of the WNBA.

This group of young women, regarded as one of the most potentially impactful collection of rookies in recent years, has had a rough road to the start of their pro careers. The COVID pandemic forced teams to make roster decisions without a training camp, and many first-year players were cut before they had a chance to prove themselves.

The ones that made it on to rosters have seen their ranks thinned by injuries. No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu (New York) went down early with a significant ankle injury, followed a couple of weeks later by No. 4 pick Chennedy Carter (Atlanta), who returned last Friday after missing six games.

Dallas forward Satou Sabally, the No. 2 pick in the draft, missed four games with a back injury, but is now back with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Crystal Dangerfield has become something of a pleasant surprise. Dangerfield has emerged a go-to scorer for the Lynx in her rookie season moving up the ladder following an injury to starting point guard Shenise Johnson and the early-season absence of Odyssey Sims.


Should Dangerfield end up as the Rookie of the Year – and her numbers certainly make her a front-runner – she would be the first rookie drafted in the second round to win the award in league history. Dangerfield is averaging 15.5 points and 3.0 assists per game. Over the last nine games, she has averaged 19.3 points, including five 20-point plus games.


But Dangerfield is hardly alone in having a positive impact on her team.


Sabally is quickly making up ground in the rookie of the year race after being out with a back injury earlier in July. Sabally is one of five rookies ever to average 12.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 2.4 assists. The others are Lisa Leslie, Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart. Good company.


Carter, the Dream’s high-scoring guard, is a welcome sight for the Dream, who are out of the playoff race. Carter put up 26 points on Sunday against Los Angeles in her second game back from her ankle injury.


And a big sigh of relief was felt league-wide when news came last week that Ionescu will not have to have surgery to repair her ankle sprain.


“It’s all about opportunity,” said Dallas Wings coach Brian Agler, who has three rookies playing significant minutes for his young team. “Depending on your team’s situation, some are getting bigger ones than others.”


Here are some of the best rookie performers of the 2020 season so far:


Julie Allemand, Indiana. The Belgian guard, who had never played in the United States before this season, is making a run at Rookie of the Year. She has made significant contributions to the Fever as the starting point guard in the absence of All-Star Erica Wheeler. In her last four games, she scored 45 points, pulled down 18 rebounds and dished out 21 assists. She has scored double figures in eight games so far this season and ranks second in the league in assists (5.3 per game) behind Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot and tied a team record with 11 assists against Dallas back on July 31. Only one other rookie in league history has collected more than 5.0 assists per game, Temeka Johnson in 2004. Fever coach Marianne Stanley said she knew the team had a “gem” when they signed Allemand, who has national team experience in Belgium, and so far she’s been proven right.


Te’a Cooper, Los Angeles. Cooper, drafted in the second round out of Baylor, has given the Sparks some very valuable minutes off the bench, including back to back double-digit games against Indiana (14 points) and Washington (10 points) earlier this month. Cooper is part of a Los Angeles bench crew including Seimone Augustus and Riquna Williams that is averaging 33.8 points a game to help propel Los Angeles to an eight-game win streak.


Tyasha Harris, Dallas. Harris’ minutes have been relatively consistent (18.3 minutes) off the bench, and she is averaging 6.7 points a game. With Moriah Jefferson out of the season with a knee injury, the South Carolina product’s minutes are likely to increase down the stretch of the season. Against Washington on August 21, she played 26 minutes and finished with 10 points and three assists in a big Wings win. Harris has been playing through a thumb injury.


Ezi Magbegor, Seattle. The 21-year-old Australian star (born in New Zealand) was drafted by the Storm with the 12th overall pick in 2019, but decided to make her WNBA debut in 2020, taking a year to get more experience before joining the world’s best professional league. She has scored in double figures in a pair of games this season.


Jazmine Jones, New York. The Louisville product, the final pick of the first round in April, is picking up some of the slack left behind by Ionescu’s injury. She is averaging 10.4 points a game, but she is picking up steam, averaging 13.1 points in the last eight games, including a 24-point effort against Los Angeles on August 11. On August 20 against Chicago, Jones finished with 18 points, four rebounds and three steals.


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.