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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: What We Know So Far

Hello June. The calendar has turned to the heart of the WNBA schedule and the picture is becoming clearer. Competitive games, buzzer-beating shots and injuries are defining the early days of the 2021 season, but there is so much more basketball to be played, and an opportunity for many teams to redefine themselves in this critical month before the scheduled Olympic break.

What do we know so far?

Injuries are already defining this season in a way that no one would want

Elena Delle Donne hasn’t played a game yet for the Mystics and the date of her return is uncertain. Candace Parker’s hometown return is marred by an ankle injury (she’s played just one game so far), while Allie Quigley was out early with hamstring troubles. Diana Taurasi, who is six points away from 9,000 in her career, can’t add to her WNBA-leading scoring total because she is sitting out with a fractured sternum that might jeopardize her participation in the Olympics. In Los Angeles, both Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike are out with knee injuries, Nneka with a sprain that will keep her out at least a month. And Natasha Howard has been limited to just two games with a knee injury across the country in New York. All of this, by the way, after we already knew we’d be without Alyssa Thomas, Angel McCoughtry and Alysha Clark for 2021.

Many of the teams with injured stars are feeling the consequences. Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles are under .500. Phoenix, thanks to the play of Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and a stellar game-winner by Kia Nurse, sit at 4-3. Meanwhile, Howard has played sparingly in New York, but the Liberty are riding the play of young talent to a surprising 5-2 start. Which brings us to the next thing we know…

Sabrina Ionescu has set a new tone in New York

The Liberty are 5-3 with their young star point guard healthy and motivated to make up for a lost rookie season. But Ionescu isn’t doing anything alone. Five players are averaging in double figures. Betnijah Laney, last year’s Most Improved Player, showed that last season was a launching point. Laney leads the team in scoring at 22.3 points, is shooting 51 percent from the floor and was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week and has put up at least 20 points in seven straight games to start the season. Ionescu has already notched her first career triple-double and is averaging 7.1 assists a game to go with 16.1 points. And then there is Michaela Onyenwere, the UCLA standout who is making an early run at frontrunner status for Rookie of the Year, averaging 12.1 points a game in a starting role, including a 29-point game against Atlanta on May 29. The Liberty aren’t leading the league in any of the big statistical categories, and the games they win are close ones (all within 10 points), but they are playing with grit and teamwork and it shows in their record.

The rust didn’t stick to Jonquel Jones

Taking 2020 off did little to slow Jones, who is further establishing herself as one of the best post players in the world. Jones is averaging a double-double in leading Connecticut to a fast start. Being named Eastern Conference Player of the Month sets Jones up nicely in the early MVP discussion. Her scoring average of 20.6 points a game is a career-high, which makes sense considering that Jones is picking up some of the offensive slack left by the year-long absence of Alyssa Thomas, and she is averaging 10.1 rebounds a game, which leads the league so far. Her 3.0 assists per game is also a career-high at this point. Her 28-point, 13-rebound day against Seattle on May 25 sent a message that she is ready to be included in the conversation of the league’s most elite players.

The Storm will stay calm

An unexpected coaching change, with head coach Dan Hughes announcing his retirement and handing the reins to Noelle Quinn, in the first few weeks of the season, isn’t likely to disrupt Seattle or sink their 6-1 start. Gary Kloppenburg coached them to a title last season in the bubble, and the stability of Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd will not only keep Seattle on track, but will likely make Quinn’s transition to head coach a smooth one.

There are several teams that look better than their records.

Let’s take these three – Atlanta, Minnesota and Dallas. The Dream are the hottest team in the league at this moment, riding a four-game winning streak that righted the way after an 0-2 start. Tiffany Hayes’ return this season has buoyed this team (she is averaging 16.6 points a game with a pair of 26-point efforts against Dallas and Chicago), but Chennedy Carter’s elbow injury is a major concern and a tough stretch is coming, with a trio of back-to-back opponent matchups with Minnesota (road) Seattle (at home) and Washington (road and home). The Lynx picked up their first win of the season last weekend against Connecticut behind the stellar play of new addition Layshia Clarendon, but with only five games played so far – compared to other teams in the league who have played as many as nine – the Lynx need more time on the floor to put things together and with Collier back and Clarendon settling in, Minnesota could be primed for a comeback. Meanwhile in Dallas, the Wings – playing currently without Satou Sabally and Allisha Gray – have lost four games by seven points or less and they are averaging 88.5 points a game. Shoring things up defensively and finding a way to close out games have to be the current priority.

The Five Most Intriguing Games of June

Without knowing the dates that some players might be returning, and going by what we know now, these look like the five best games coming up in June.

June 4 – Atlanta at Minnesota. A surging Dream team, coming off a six-day break, comes up against a Lynx team looking to find some momentum after their first win.

June 5 – Las Vegas at Washington. An ABC television audience will get a treat, watching Tina Charles  – who is averaging a league-high 26.7 points a game – work against A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage.

June 13 – Seattle at Connecticut. The defending champs will make the long trip to face the Sun and it is bound to be a good one if the first game in Seattle was any indication, the Storm pulling out a 90-87 win.

June 19 – Connecticut at Chicago. A national TV game on CBS, let’s hope this game is part of Candace Parker’s comeback tour after an ankle injury has sidelined her for much of the season so far. A healthy Sky, including Allie Quigley, who made her first appearance on Thursday against Phoenix, would like to be in position to knock off one of the league’s top teams.

June 30 – Minnesota at Phoenix. Let’s face it, who doesn’t love a Sylvia Fowles-Brittney Griner matchup?