When the 2019 WNBA season tipped off, much of the discussion was about the players that would not be in uniform this year. And rightfully so. Anytime the best women’s basketball league in the world doesn’t include Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry or Skylar Diggins-Smith, there’s reason for concern.
While the absence of top tier star power is never welcomed, it does open the door for other players to fill the void, take the stage and earn the spotlight. There were plenty of examples of this throughout the season. The 2019 All-Star Game featured five first-timers, including MVP Erica Wheeler, who stole the show in Las Vegas.
But All-Star and the regular season are now in the rearview. The Playoffs are underway with the second round set to tip off on Sunday. This is the time to take the next step and establish a reputation as a player not only destined for stardom, but ready to join the likes of the players that missed 2019.
Many of these players are young. There was the Rookie of the Year battle between Napheesa Collier (the only rookie to selected as an All-Star this season) and Arike Ogunbowale (who tied the league record for most consecutive 30-point games). And there are plenty of sophomores that have shined in their second professional seasons, including two that dominated play in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs – Chicago’s Diamond DeShields and Seattle’s Jordin Canada.
Before the second round tips off, here are some sophomores to watch.
Seattle Storm at Los Angeles Sparks (Sunday, 3 ET, ESPN2)
Jordin Canada – Seattle Storm
Mercedes Russell – Seattle Storm
The Seattle Storm epitomize the theme of “Next Woman Up” as the defending champions were dealt what appeared to be an insurmountable blow of losing both Breanna Stewart (2018 MVP and Finals MVP) and Sue Bird (all-time leader in assists and games played) for the season. And don’t forget that head coach Dan Hughes missed the first nine games following cancer surgery and Jewell Loyd missed seven games during the season. No team had more holes to fill this season than the Storm.
In addition to Natasha Howard making a huge leap on both ends of the floor – she ranked top six in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks and was just named WNBA Defensive Player of the Year – the Storm had two sophomores that made tremendous strides in Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell.
Stats Comparison: Jordin Canada
As a point guard, there are no bigger shoes to fill in WNBA history than Sue Bird’s. Canada not only accepted the challenge but thrived with her added responsibility. She did not try to emulate Bird; they are not the same player. Instead, she elevated her game to new heights, using her speed and quickness to frustrate opponents on both ends of the court.
The All-Defensive First Team honoree is an outstanding on-ball defender, hounding opposing guards all over the court. She plays the passing lanes to gain deflections and steals and takes advantage of live-ball turnovers to score easy baskets in transition.
In Wednesday’s first-round win over Minnesota, Canada scored a career-best 26 points as she shot 10-21 from the field, while also dishing out four assists. In 2018, she posted five double-digit scoring games in 41 games between the regular season and playoffs. In 2019, she has 15 double-digit games, including two 20-point games. She finished the regular season as the Storm’s third-leading scorer at 9.8 points per game, but her 2019 playoff debut showed the kind of dual-threat she can be for the Storm moving forward.
Stats Comparison: Mercedes Russell
After being selected with the 22nd pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, Mercedes Russell was waived by the New York Liberty just two games into the season. The Storm signed the 6-6 center from Tennessee and she played sparingly in her rookie season, averaging just 5.6 minutes per game. Here is what Hughes said when the team resigned her during the offseason: “Mercedes was an exciting pick up for the Storm last year and we can’t wait to watch her growth in year two.”
Russell’s growth in year two has exceeded expectations as she was thrust into a much larger role – starting 30 of 34 games as center for Seattle this season. Her minutes jumped to nearly 26 per game and her averages came right along for the ride as she posted 7.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game during the regular season. After playing a total of four minutes during Seattle’s run to the 2018 title, Russell played 32 minutes in Seattle’s 2019 playoff opener against Minnesota, scoring 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting and grabbing a team-high nine rebounds.
Maria Vadeeva – Los Angeles Sparks
The Sparks have a sophomore of their own in Maria Vadeeva, who appeared in 15 games for the Sparks this season as she missed time due to national team commitments in Russia. The Sparks are loaded with frontcourt talent between the Ogwumike sisters, Candace Parker and rookie Kalani Brown, but Vadeeva has made the most of her 12 minutes per game as she has averaged 7.8 points and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 49 percent from the field.
She finished the regular season with back-to-back double-digit scoring efforts, two of her six such games this season. Vadeeva offered a glimpse of what she could do in the Sparks’ season opener as she started in place of the sidelined Candace Parker. Vadeeva scored 24 points in 24 minutes – both career highs – and also grabbed five boards and blocked three shots against Las Vegas.
Chicago Sky at Las Vegas Aces (Sunday, 5 ET, ESPN2)
Diamond DeShields – Chicago Sky
DeShields was a unanimous pick for the 2018 All-Rookie Team and picked up right where she left off for her sophomore season. The Chicago guard scored a game-high 25 points in the Sky’s first-round win over Phoenix on Wednesday, but putting up points is something Diamond has done all season long.
Stats Comparison: Diamond DeShields
She finished eighth in the WNBA in scoring at 16.2 points per game and scored at least 20 points nine times. Of course, scoring isn’t her only skill as she also averaged 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Here’s the list of players to put up at least 15 points, five boards, two assists and a steal per game: Natasha Howard, DeWanna Bonner and DeShields – a trio of All-Stars.
Chicago led the WNBA in pace (99.50) and finished second in fast-break points (10.7 per game) with DeShields leading all WNBA players with 3.7 fast break points per game. Her explosive athleticism is not only key to scoring transition, but makes her a constant threat to drive to the basket and either score or draw fouls. This season, DeShields finished seventh in the league in free throw attempts (140) and shot 83.6 percent from the line.
Gabby Williams – Chicago Sky
Chicago’s other talented sophomore is going through a bit of a makeover in her second season. After showcasing her versatility on the wing as a rookie, Gabby Williams has made the move to backup point guard as a sophomore thanks to new Sky coach (and Coach of the Year) James Wade.
It helps to have a record-setting point guard in Courtney Vandersloot to learn from, but that also leaves big shoes to fill when its time to sub her out. Williams averaged 5.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists during the regular season and had four points, three assists and two steals in 12 minutes during the Sky’s first-round win over Phoenix.
A’ja Wilson – Las Vegas Aces
We can’t forget about the reigning Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson, who had another strong season as she helped lead the Aces to their first playoff appearance in Las Vegas. Wilson posted gaudy numbers as a rookie – 20.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 blocks per game – as the phenom earned her first All-Star nod and finished eighth in MVP voting.
The offseason addition of Liz Cambage raised expectations for Las Vegas this season and gave the Aces one of the most intimidating frontlines in the league. While Wilson’s per-game numbers dropped a bit while playing next to a fellow All-Star – she still averaged 16.5 points (7th in WNBA), 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 blocks (4th in WNBA) – her efficiency improved as Wilson shot 47.9 percent from the field and 79.2 percent from the free throw line.
Stats Comparison: A’ja Wilson
Wilson suffered an ankle injury near midseason that sidelined her for a month. She returned to the court on Aug. 18 and led the team in scoring (19.1 points per game) over the final eight games of the regular season. What will she have in store in her WNBA Playoff debut on Sunday?
Awaiting the Semifinals
Ariel Atkins – Washington Mystics
The Washington Mystics will not be in action on Sunday as they earned a double-bye to the semifinals as the No. 1 overall seed in the WNBA Playoffs. But we would be remiss not to give a shout out to Washington’s own super sophomore Ariel Atkins, who earlier this week was named to the All-Defensive Second Team for the second straight season.
Atkins put up strong numbers across the board for the Mystics this season – 10.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 steals (sixth in the WNBA), 1.5 3-pointers made and 35.7 percent shooting from deep.
But keep an eye on her during the playoffs. During last year’s run to the Finals, Atkins averaged 15.2 points on 48.0 percent shooting from the field and 42.4 percent from 3-point range. The rookie showed no fear of the postseason stage and now with another year of experience, could another strong playoff run be on the horizon for the sophomore?