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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: The Six Players Quietly (And Not So Quietly) Having Breakout Seasons

It’s hard to believe that the WNBA season is just about a third of the way through.

Enough time to determine front-runners – teams such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Connecticut. Enough time to determine surprises, disappointments and teams that still have a lot of work to do.

But the breakouts, those players who have gone from being role players to marquee names, those are much easier to spot.

What does it mean to have a breakout season? It means to set new standards for performance. To seize a moment, or a few. To take your game to another level.

Here are the six breakout performers in these early days of the 2018 WNBA season.

Natasha Howard, Seattle, F

Howard had a great two-year stint in Minnesota, reaching the Finals in 2016 and winning a championship last season with the Lynx. She then signed a contract with the Seattle Storm in the offseason, to fill a depth need for the Storm in the frontcourt. Howard, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 Draft out of Florida State, has more than doubled her career scoring average, sitting at 15.0 points per game. She’s shooting nearly 85 percent from the free-throw line and pulling down 6.7 rebounds per game. Howard’s play has helped to propel Seattle to a great 8-3 start.

She has scored in double figures in 9 of 11 games and is coming off a career-best 25-point game against Connecticut on June 15 in which she was 8 of 11 from the floor, including a pair of 3-pointers, and 7 for 7 from the free-throw line.

Cheyenne Parker, Chicago, F

Parker has been with the Sky since she was drafted out of Middle Tennessee State in 2015, and she’s never made a bigger impact than this season. Following the departure of Jessica Breland and injuries to Stefanie Dolson, Parker has taken on a bigger role on Amber Stocks’ up-and-coming team.

Parker had never averaged more than four points a game heading into the 2018 season. She is currently averaging a career-best 10.9 points per game to rank third on the team in scoring, has put up double figures in six of 10 games so far this season, including a 20-point game on June 3 vs. Las Vegas, a game in which she also pulled down 13 rebounds and blocked two shots. Parker leads the Sky in rebounding at eight points a game and she has pulled down double-digit rebounds in four of the past five games.

Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta, G

Hayes was an All-Star last season, so her performance in 2018 isn’t a complete surprise. But with the return of Angel McCoughtry to the Dream lineup, Hayes’ production and her star hasn’t dimmed even a little. In fact, it’s only gotten brighter: the Connecticut product ranks among the top 10 scorers in the WNBA at 17.9 points a game. Recently named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Hayes leads Atlanta in scoring. She has six 20-point games already this season, including four in her last six games. She has been a steadying force for the offense under new head coach Nikki Collen. Hayes sprained an ankle against Indiana on Sunday, and her loss will be felt greatly by Atlanta considering how well she has been playing.

Nia Coffey, Las Vegas, F

Coffey played limited minutes as a rookie out of Northwestern a year ago. But her team is in a new city, playing for a new coach and making a new start and Coffey is now a big part of the equation for Las Vegas. Coffey opened the season with three straight games in double digits, including a career-high 23 points in the Aces’ home debut against Seattle on May 27. On Sunday, against Phoenix, she put up her first double-double of her career with 11 points and 12 rebounds against the Phoenix Mercury, no small feat when going up against Brittney Griner. Coffey is battling through an ankle injury that cost her a game and a couple of starts, but her athleticism and her hunger on the defensive end have made her an early favorite of head coach Bill Laimbeer.

Natasha Cloud, Washington, G

The Mystics guard has taken advantage of the minutes that she’s getting while Tayler Hill gets ready to come back into the lineup. Cloud, the St. Joseph’s product who was a second-round pick in 2015, has scored in double-digits in three of her last five games, including an impressive 17-point, nine-assist performance on June 7 against the defending champion Lynx. Cloud also put up 14 points and eight assists against the Lynx on May 27. This is her fourth season in Washington and her most impactful yet.

Courtney Williams, Connecticut, G

On a roster full of breakout young stars, Courtney Williams is taking her place as the most pleasant surprise this season for the Sun. Williams was selected eighth overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2016 Draft out of South Florida. She ranked fourth on the Sun in scoring last season, and this season she ranks third at a career-best 13.1 points per game, having started all 11 games alongside backcourt mate Jasmine Thomas. Williams’ biggest game of the season came with a career-high 34-point showing against Washington on June 13, in which she made 15 field goals. Williams has taken her athletic gifts and turned them into a string of consistent performances — and she finds herself averaging 13.1 points a game in a season that will define her for years to come.

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.