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WNBA Decade In Review: 2019

League Champion: Washington Mystics (First WNBA title)

Top Draft Pick: Jackie Young (LVA, University of Notre Dame)

 

Awards

 

Top Players

  • All-WNBA First Team: Elena Delle Donne (WAS), Chelsea Gray (LAS), Brittney Griner (PHX), Natasha Howard (SEA), Courtney Vandersloot (CHI)
  • All-WNBA Second Team: Liz Cambage (LVA), Diamond DeShields (CHI), Jonquel Jones (CON), Nneka Ogwumike (LAS), Odyssey Sims (MIN)
  • All-Rookie Team: Napheesa Collier (MIN), Teaira McCowan (IND), Arike Ogunbowale (DAL), Brianna Turner (PHX), Jackie Young (LVA)
  • All-Defense First Team: Jordin Canada (SEA), Natasha Howard (SEA), Jonquel Jones (CON), Nneka Ogwumike (LAS), Jasmine Thomas (CON)
  • All-Defense Second Team: Ariel Atkins (WAS), Alysha Clark (SEA), Natasha Cloud (WAS), Brittney Griner (PHX), Alyssa Thomas (CON)

 

Stats Leaders

  • Points Per Game: Brittney Griner (PHX): 20.7
  • Rebounds Per Game: Jonquel Jones (CON): 9.7
  • Assists Per Game: Courtney Vandersloot (CHI): 9.1
  • Steals Per Game: Jordin Canada (SEA): 2.3
  • Blocks Per Game: Brittney Griner (PHX) / Jonquel Jones (CON): 2.0

 

Regular Season

A new season also brought new leadership to the WNBA as Cathy Engelbert was appointed as the Commissioner of the WNBA on May 15. She joined the WNBA on July 17 when her four-year term as the CEO of Deloitte concluded.

For the first time in league history, one franchise held the No. 1 overall draft pick for three consecutive years. After drafting Kelsey Plum with the first pick in 2017 and A’ja Wilson as the top pick in 2018, the Las Vegas Aces selected Notre Dame’s Jackie Young with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft. Young was followed by Asia Durr (New York), Teaira McCowan (Indiana), Katie Lou Samuelson (Chicago), Arike Ogunbowale (Dallas) and Napheesa Collier (Minnesota) in the top half of the first round.

Some players can go an entire career without ever making a buzzer-beater to win a game. Fever rookie Teaira McCowan did it in her professional debut as her layup at the buzzer off a great pass from Candice Dupree upended the Liberty 81-80.

While many rookies showed flashes of their potential throughout the year, the Rookie of the Year race came down to two players – Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier and Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale.

Collier showcased her all-around game as she averaged 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.9 steals (tied for 3rd in WNBA) and 0.94 blocked shots while starting all 34 games for the Lynx and logging a WNBA-high 33.3 minutes per game.

Ogunbowale entered the WNBA after being a scoring machine in college and showed she could get buckets on the professional level as well.  She led all rookies in scoring and ranked third in the WNBA at 19.1 points per game. Ogunbowale tied the WNBA record with four straight 30-point games – the most ever by a rookie, but it was Collier that took home the award as she won the ROY vote 29-14.

Seattle’s title defense hopes were dealt a pair of huge blows in the months leading up to the 2019 season. First, reigning league and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart suffered a torn Achilles while playing in the EuroLeague championship in April that would force her to miss the entire season. Then, during training camp, the Storm announced that Sue Bird would undergo knee surgery, and while there was hope that she could return, she also ended up missing the entire 2019 season.

The phrase “next man up” is often overused in sports, but the Storm showcased that mentality, as the loss of both Stewart and Bird did not derail them from competing on a nightly basis. Behind a career-year from Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard and a strong sophomore season from Jordin Canada, who had the near-impossible task of filling in for the veteran Bird, the Storm went 18-16 on the year and still qualified for the playoffs.

The 2019 season also saw a pair of All-Star switch teams as Connecticut traded Chiney Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks, where Chiney reunited with her sister Nneka for the first time since their college days together at Stanford. The Dallas Wings traded Liz Cambage to the Las Vegas Aces, where she teamed up with reigning Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson to form one of the most imposing frontlines in the league.

But it was a team that stayed together from the previous season that found the most success as the Washington Mystics adopted the motto of “Run It Back” in their quest to not only get back to the WNBA Finals but also finish the job and capture their first WNBA title.

Washington finished atop the standings at 26-8, followed by Connecticut (23-11), Los Angeles (22-12), Las Vegas (21-13) and Chicago (20-14) as those five teams all finished with at least 20 wins.

Leading the way for the Mystics was Elena Delle Donne, who put together a historic season en route to winning her second Most Valuable Player award. After winning the 2015 MVP with the Chicago Sky, Delle Donne became the sixth player to win multiple MVPs and the first to win MVPs with two different franchises.

Delle Donne finished second in the league in scoring (19.5 PPG), fifth in rebounding (8.3 RPG) and tied for 10th in blocks (1.3 BPG). She also became the first WNBA player to join the exclusive 50-40-90 club as she shot 51.5% from the field, 43.0% from 3-point range and a league-record 97.4% from the free throw line. Only eight NBA players have ever reached that level of shooting efficiency and all of them were quick to welcome EDD to the club.

Phoenix’s Brittney Griner won her second scoring title and extended her streak of leading the league in blocks for every season of her career. In 2019, Griner shared the league lead with Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, who flourished as she returned to a full-time starter after the departure of Chiney Ogwumike.

Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot once again led the league in assists as she became the first player in league history to dish out 300 assists in a single season (9.1 per game). Vandersloot now ranks sixth in career assists behind Sue Bird, Ticha Penicheiro, Lindsay Whalen, Diana Taurasi and Becky Hammon.

Whalen – who retired in 2018 to become the head women’s basketball coach at her alma mater, the University of Minnesota – had her No. 13 jersey retired not only by the Minnesota Lynx, which she helped lead to four championships, but also the Connecticut Sun, where she spent the first six seasons of her career and led to two Finals appearances.

Another legendary guard was honored in 2019 as Teresa Weatherspoon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year was welcomed to the Hall by a trio of Houston Comets – Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke – whom Weatherspoon shocked with her famous half-court game-winning shot in Game 2 of the 1999 WNBA Finals.

 

All-Star

Las Vegas hosted the WNBA All-Star Game for the first time and the city known as the entertainment capital of the world lived up to that reputation as they put on an incredible show. All-Star 2019 was a two-day event with the introduction of WNBA All-Star Friday Night, which featured the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest, beach concert and party.

Chicago’s Diamond DeShields won the Skills Challenge as she came from behind to edge out Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones in the final round. Connecticut’s Shekinna Stricklen won the Three-Point Contest as she scored 23 points in the final round of the to edge hometown favorite Kayla McBride by a single point.

In Saturday’s All-Star Game, it was Indiana’s Erica Wheeler that stole the show as she led Team Wilson to a 129-126 win over Team Delle Donne to take home Most Valuable Player honors. Wheeler finished with 25 points, seven assists and record-tying seven 3-pointers, as she became the first undrafted player to ever win WNBA All-Star MVP.

 

Playoffs

  • First Round: (5) Chicago Sky def. (8) Phoenix Mercury, 105, 76
  • First Round: (6) Seattle Storm def. (7) Minnesota Lynx, 84-74
  • Second Round: (3) Los Angeles Sparks def. (6) Seattle Storm, 92-69
  • Second Round: (4) Las Vegas Aces def. (5) Chicago Sky, 93-92
  • Semifinals: (2) Connecticut Sun def. (3) Los Angeles Sparks, 3-0
  • Semifinals: (1) Washington Mystics def. (4) Las Vegas Aces, 3-1
  • Finals: (1) Washington Mystics def. (2) Connecticut Sun, 3-2

 

In the first three years of the new playoff format that featured single-elimination games in the first two rounds, there were always upsets that knocked higher seeds out earlier than expected. In 2019, it was chalk through the first two rounds as the semifinals featured the top four seeds in the league – No. 1 Washington, No. 2 Connecticut, No. 3 Los Angeles and No. 4 Las Vegas.

In the opening round, Phoenix’s undefeated run in single elimination playoff games came to an end with a 105-76 loss to Chicago. Seattle knocked off Minnesota in a battle of last two WNBA champions.

In the second round, Los Angeles routed Seattle to end the Storm’s title defense. The other second-round matchup between Las Vegas and Chicago gave basketball fans a moment they’ll remember for years to come.

Trailing by two with 13.5 seconds left and Chicago inbounding the ball, Las Vegas would need a miracle to come back and win this game. Enter Dearica Hamby. After Courtney Vandersloot took the inbounds pass and circled back to avoid the quick foul by Kelsey Plum, Sydney Colson came to help and forced Vandersloot to make a pass across half court. Hamby intercepted the pass, tight-roped the sideline to avoid going out of bounds and launched a 38-footer (with seven seconds still on the clock) that went in with five seconds to play, giving the Aces a one-point lead that they would hold to pull off the improbable win.

Las Vegas’ magic ran out in the semifinals as they were ousted by the top-seeded Mystics in four games. In the other semifinal, the Connecticut Sun swept the Los Angeles Sparks in a series that may be most remembered for this quote from Sun guard Courtney Williams: “Tell ‘em a bunch of role players did that!”

The Sun were tired of hearing about how other teams had more superstars than they did and how the Sun were a great bunch of role players. The Sun adopted the theme of “DisrespeCT” with a series of hype videos and had the phrase emblazoned across their warm up shirts.

The Finals matchup between the Mystics and Sun guaranteed that a new WNBA champion would be crowned as the Mystics were 0-1 in the Finals (2018) and the Sun were 0-2 (2004, 2005).

The Mystics held home court in Game 1 as Elena Delle Donne (22 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists) and Ariel Atkins (21 points) led Washington to a 95-86 win. The Sun struck back in Game 2 behind a monster game from Jonquel Jones, who had 32 points and 18 rebounds, including a Finals record nine offensive boards, while the Mystics played much of the game without Delle Donne, who left in the first quarter with back spasms and never returned.

After a four-day break between Games 2 and 3, Delle Donne was able to return for the Mystics and helped Washington take a 2-1 lead with a 94-81 win in Connecticut. The Mystics tied the Finals record with 16 3-pointers made during the game as Emma Meesseman, Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver combined to shoot 10-12 from deep.

With their season on the line, the Sun battled to earn a 90-86 win to force a winner-take-all Game 5 back in D.C. Connecticut got double-doubles from Jones (18 points, 13 boards) and Alyssa Thomas (17 points, 11 assists, which tied the Finals record) as they stayed alive.

After using the motto of “Run It Back” all season long, the Mystics achieved their goal of winning their first WNBA title as they took Game 5 89-78. Washington got huge games from Elena Delle Donne (21 points, nine boards), Emma Meesseman (22 points), Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud (18 points each) to win the title on their home floor. Meesseman made history as the first reserve player to be named Finals MVP after she averaged 18 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 57.1% for the Finals.