Inside The W With Michelle Smith: Sophomores

There’s an adage that says athletes make some of their biggest improvements between their first and second years.

If that’s true, then the WNBA is going to see some spectacular development from some of its young second-years stars.

These are players with a year of WNBA experience under their belt. They experienced the physicality, the pace and the grind of a full WNBA season and they learned what it takes to succeed in the world’s best women’s basketball league.

“There can be a huge jump in the second season,” said Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. “But it can also be true that if a player has had success in their first year, they jump to the top of the opponents’ scouting report, and that can be tough on some people. But I think if you look around the league, there are some [second-year] players out there that are going to play a big, big role for their teams going forward.”

Let’s take a look at the top players in the “sophomore” class of 2019.

A’ja Wilson, Aces. The reigning Rookie of the Year has picked up where she left off for a team that suddenly carries the weight of expectation with the acquisition of Liz Cambage. On a team with plenty of offensive firepower, she has to be considered the top scoring option, averaging 17 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in the early goings, having faced three of the league’s top teams – Connecticut, Phoenix and Los Angeles. But the Aces are 1-2 and head coach Bill Laimbeer will be looking to Wilson to set a tone, especially as Cambage gets into playing shape in the early weeks.

Jordin Canada, Storm. With Sue Bird missing a significant portion of the season with a knee injury and surgery, Canada, the speedy guard from UCLA, is making her mark. She’s scored double-figures in three of four games, including 16 points in the season-opening win over Phoenix. Dishing out 6 assists in three games, Canada is emerging into a true floor leader and a great complement to Jewell Loyd. But she needs to cut down on turnovers as the season moves on if the Storm wants to weather this season without Bird (for a while) and MVP Breanna Stewart (for the duration).

Kelsey Mitchell, Fever. It was a tough year for the Indiana Fever last year, notching just six wins. But in the first two weeks of the season, the Fever already have two victories and their high-scoring shooting guard is partially to thank. Mitchell is known as one of the top scorers in NCAA women’s basketball history and she is finding a way to fill the stat sheet early this season, thanks in part to the presence of rookie Teaira McCowan down low to take some of the defensive pressure off the perimeter. Her 23-point game – including 5 3-pointers – against New York on June 1 looks like a sign of things to come.

Diamond DeShields, Sky. The Chicago Sky’s lithe, hyper-athletic small forward is a game-changer. After a rough opening game against the Lynx, DeShields bounced back with a 21-point performance against defending champion Seattle, adding five rebounds and three assists. Last season, DeShields said she felt comfortable as a rookie, averaging 14.4 points a game and shooting 42.5 percent from the floor. The more comfortable she gets, the less comfortable Sky opposing teams are going to be.

Ariel Atkins, Mystics. Atkins was one of the big surprises in the league a season ago for a team that reached the WNBA Finals. This year, the fact that she is a potent scorer is a surprise to no one. Atkins is out the gate quickly in the early season, including a 21-point game against Atlanta on Saturday, a performance that included four 3-pointers.

Azurá Stevens, Wings. Now that Liz Cambage has moved on to Las Vegas, Stevens is going to get the opportunity to be a bigger presence inside for the Wings. Stevens missed the Wings’ first game with an injury, but returned Saturday against Minnesota and finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

Kia Nurse, New York. Nurse leads the Liberty in minutes played so far, and is second on the team in scoring behind Tina Charles at 13 points per game. Nurse versatility is key to a team that is trying to find its footing. Nurse said she worked in the offseason – playing in Australia and for the Canadian National Team – on becoming more consistent on both sides of the ball. The Liberty will need that consistency.

Lexie Brown, Lynx. On a team playing without backcourt stalwarts Maya Moore (sitting out) and Seimone Augustus (knee injury), Brown’s role as a spark off the bench is a critical one and so far, she’s been up to the challenge. Brown, who played in Connecticut last season and came to Minnesota via trade, has scored in double figures twice in three games as the Lynx have gotten off to an impressive 3-0 start. Brown’s 10-point totals against Chicago and Seattle mark career-highs. Coach Reeve said that she has given Brown some freedom offensively and it’s paid off early.

“I told her I wanted her to show us what she can do,” Reeve said. “She’s better off the bounce than I thought she was, she knows how to play the game. I told her to shoot when you are open and be a great teammate and so far, it’s been good.”

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.