The WNBA opened its season with last year’s Finalists battling it out until the last second, ending on Chelsea’s Gray’s game-winning buzzer beater.
With a deeper pool of talent than ever, including returning veterans and promising rookies, BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Sarah Cilea and Brady Klopfer discuss the start to this WNBA season.
1. What were your biggest takeaways from opening weekend?
Sarah Cilea: For one, the Los Angeles Sparks-Minnesota Lynx rivalry once again showed why it is the best rivalry in basketball right now.
First we had the news out of shootaround earlier in the day that Sparks players were subjected to the video prepared for Minnesota’s ring night celebration while they prepared for the game. In case anyone needed catching up, these teams have met in the playoffs each of the past three years and in the Finals the last two, with the Sparks winning in 2016 and the Lynx in 2017.
Both of those Finals series went the full five games. Both of those five-game series featured one game decided by two points, and one one-point game. They’re fairly evenly matched and take turns breaking each other’s heart. It’s what they do. So it made perfect sense when, even with the Sparks missing key contributors (including two-time MVP Candace Parker), the first meeting between these two teams in 2018 came down to the final play—a Chelsea Gray buzzer beater to boot.
Chelsea Gray knows a thing or two about buzzer-beaters to beat the Minnesota Lynx. pic.twitter.com/WX3uOJ3GgV
— espnW (@espnW) May 20, 2018
Speaking of, it’s been coming on since last year, but another takeaway is this: Gray is quite possibly the most important player in the WNBA who isn’t already a household name. Last year, she improved her three-point percentage a whole 18 percentage points—from 30 to 48—and became an irreplaceable weapon for the Sparks. She opens up the floor and does a little bit of everything. Look for her to build on her first All-Star season in her fourth year.
Brady Klopfer: The WNBA needs more teams. Opening weekend was simply stacked with talent. Not all 12 teams played well, but all 12 teams threw sizable portions of talent onto the floor. The product didn’t diminish when the subs came in, at all. Nearly every player lining a WNBA roster has a case for a starting role, which means there were a lot of high quality players watching from home. In the weekend’s pièce de résistance, the Finals rematch between the Sparks and the Lynx, rookie Karlie Samuelson played 13 pivotal minutes for LA. She was cut in training camp and only signed on Saturday with a cap exception following Candace Parker’s injury.
The WNBA has a large enough talent pool that it is clearly ready to grow and welcome in new players.
2. What were the biggest surprises from opening weekend?
Sarah Cilea: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise considering she is a highly touted international player who also played well in the WNBA previously, but Liz Cambage’s weekend was very impressive.
To see her return to the WNBA after a four-year hiatus—she played with the Tulsa Shock in 2011 and 2013—like she never left has to have put the rest of the league on notice. In her first game back, Cambage had to match up with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner. She more than held her own, outscoring Griner and playing a part in holding the formidable Phoenix center to 33 percent shooting.
Less than 24 hours later Cambage, along with Skylar Diggins-Smith, led the Dallas Wings in a blowout victory over the Atlanta Dream. In the first two games all she’s done is average 19.5 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks while shooting 60 percent from the field. The responsibility on her and Diggins-Smith only grows with forward Glory Johnson out for several weeks with a hamstring injury sustained on opening night, but it certainly seems like Cambage can handle it.
I was also surprised to see Shoni Schimmel with the Las Vegas Aces. I had not heard that she was back in the league, let alone with the team that used to play home games in San Antonio. Schimmel and the Aces both got off to a slow start but she looks to be in shape. Here’s hoping she can recapture some of that “Showtime” Shoni magic in 2018. Her twisting reverse layup over Griner in the 2014 All-Star Game is still my favorite All-Star highlight and her court vision is up there with the best.
Brady Klopfer: There weren’t many surprises, but it was pleasantly exciting to see just how good Liz Cambage could be. We’ve known Cambage is good for a very long time, but we haven’t seen her in the WNBA since 2013 and her short tenure in the league has featured her being overtly frustrated.
Now she’s back and in Dallas’ opener, she hung 18 points with immaculate footwork that left an elite defender in Brittney Griner thoroughly perplexed. Through two games she’s averaging 19.5 points per game while shooting 60 percent from the field and looks like a nearly unstoppable force in the post.
3. What was your favorite moment from opening weekend?
Sarah Cilea: Gray’s buzzer beater over Maya Moore is definitely at the top. The league couldn’t have asked for more from the Finals rematch on opening weekend.
Diana Taurasi becoming the fastest WNBA player to 1,000 three-point field goals runs a close second. Achieving the feat in 399 games, she joins Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Damian Lillard as the only players to do so in fewer than 400 games. Keep in mind, there are eight fewer minutes afforded per WNBA game to get those shots up. According to my very rough math, Taurasi hit 1,000 at somewhere around 12,530 minutes played while Curry did so at ~13,000, Thompson at ~12,040, and Lillard ~14,000.
— WNBA (@WNBA) May 19, 2018
Brady Klopfer: How can it be anything other than the ending to the Los Angeles – Minnesota grudge match? It was the two best teams in the league, who hate each other, on ring ceremony night, and it featured numerous huge moments (and technical fouls) down the stretch, culminating in a buzzer-beating game winner by Chelsea Gray. The game lived up to the hype, and then some.
4. What are you looking forward to from this season?
Sarah Cilea: A really interesting and, I imagine, challenging aspect of the WNBA season is the fact that it starts right on the heels of the school year. For rookies, there is no Summer League, it’s just THE league. In fact, most lottery picks go back and forth from college, to draft night, to graduation, to a very short training camp, then have to jump right in. It can be a difficult adjustment.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this year’s talented rookie class, including Diamond DeShields and A’ja Wilson, grow throughout the season. Additionally, I’m excited for the improvement of second-year players both in skill level and just confidence and comfort level of having been there before and knowing what to expect. Nia Coffey of the Aces already eclipsed her career-high in scoring in her first game of 2018. Her teammate Kelsey Plum is still playing overseas but will be looking to show out when she returns as well.
The WNBA is no more forgiving to vets, who ply their trade overseas during the WNBA offseason. For the most part, these players get no break between seasons unless they choose to sit out for a summer or their bodies force them to take one—and I wouldn’t say that counts.
This season sees the return of several players fans did not have the privilege of watching last season, including DeWanna Bonner (who gave birth to twins last July) and Chiney Ogumike, both of whom already reminded of their value during opening weekend.
Brady Klopfer: While I want the league to expand, the exciting part of only having 12 teams is the talent is stacked. This is the deepest, strongest talent pool in WNBA history, which makes every game like a playoff game. If you tuned in to the eight games this weekend, you saw more memorable moments than you can count and innumerable highlights. So my answer is simple: I’m looking forward to the best basketball in WNBA history. And also A’ja Wilson, if we’re being specific.