|Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury puts up a shot against the Los Angeles Sparks during the second half of the WNBA game at US Airways Center on Aug. 16, 2014 in Phoenix.
With the 19th WNBA campaign commencing Friday and superstars like Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker nowhere to be found, much preseason attention has been focused on absence rather than presence.
But take a broader look around the league, and those who navigate it every day will explain the women’s talent pool is deeper than ever. And more than two dozen of its members could be in the mix to represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro at next summer’s Olympic Games.
“The gap certainly has closed, from a talent perspective,” Minnesota Lynx coach and Team USA assistant coach Cheryl Reeve said.
A total of 24 players who have appeared on the U.S. roster since it won the 2014 FIBA World Championship gold medal will open the season on WNBA teams. That number doesn’t include Phoenix Mercury guard Taurasi and Los Angeles Sparks center Parker, who will rest for at least the season’s first half. (Both players are expected to join Team USA for next year’s Olympic Games.)
But even as conversation swirls about the direction of a league where top players — most of whom have overseas and international commitments in addition to their WNBA contracts — aren’t playing, the 2015 season should serve as an appealing preview for next year’s Games.
It starts with the defending champion Mercury, who bring back center Brittney Griner and forwards Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner. Griner is suspended for the season’s first seven games, but that doesn’t shrink the target on Phoenix’s back much, Bonner said, especially after the Mercury won a league-record 29 games and swept Chicago 3-0 in the 2014 WNBA Finals.
“We’ve got some of the best players in the league right now, so if I was them, I’d try to smash us, too,” Bonner, who was invited to last year’s world championship training camp but missed out due to the WNBA finals, told Phoenix’s team website. “This year will be tough, because we’re missing key players, but I think [coach Sandy Brondello is] getting us in great position to win another one.”
Reigning MVP Maya Moore and the Minnesota Lynx remain strong contenders in the West after falling to the Mercury in last year’s conference semifinals. London 2012 Olympians Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus helm a seasoned core that’s claimed championships two of the past four seasons.
Reeve joined Moore, Augustus and Monica Wright at last month’s USA Basketball minicamp in Las Vegas.
“Every time a new season starts, I’m extremely excited, and I know my teammates are just because of what we’ve created here,” Moore said. “It’s just a special place from the top down, starting from our owner (Glen) Taylor all the way down to the workers that help us with hydration and laundry.”
In the East, Chicago eyes a return to the finals with a healthy Elena Delle Donne and the offseason acquisition of guard Cappie Pondexter. The Sky went 5-12 when Delle Donne was out with a bad back and Lyme disease but tore through the postseason before coming up against a red-hot Mercury squad.
Chicago made just its second-ever playoff appearance and advanced past the first round for the first time in franchise history.
|Elena Delle Donne #11 of the Chicago Sky moves against DeWanna Bonner #24 of the Phoenix Mercury during game three of the WNBA Finals at the UIC Pavilion on Sept. 12, 2014 in Chicago.
“My biggest thing (this offseason) was trying to get healthy,” said Delle Donne, the 2013 WNBA rookie of the year, in an interview with the Sky website. “I am really excited about this young team, and we have Cappie with us now and she’s a veteran. It’s so nice to have that presence here.”
The Atlanta Dream (which has perennial MVP candidate and USA Basketball veteran Angel McCoughtry leading the way), New York Liberty (led by Olympian center Tina Charles), Washington Mystics (guard Bria Hartley) and Indiana Fever (guard Briann January) all could challenge Chicago in a wide-open Eastern Conference. The West features a rising Tulsa Shock squad that includes guards Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims, and the Sparks are still deep with Jantel Lavender and Nnemkadi Ogwumike in the fold.
Reeve, the Lynx coach, saw them all up close and personal May 4-6 at UNLV. She walked away impressed enough to support WNBA expansion, a topic that’s gathered steam in the past year as television ratings climb and the skill level of female players increases.
“That’s great for the league,” Reeve said. “I think expansion is something that prior to maybe the evolution over the last few years of talent, that I don’t that we were ready for, but I think we’re ready for it now. I think we can field a couple other teams and still be a very quality league.”
An Omaha native, Phil Ervin now lives in the Twin Cities and writes for FOXSportsNorth.com. In the past, he covered sports in the Atlanta and Kansas City metro areas. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.