Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.
As teams continue to split into different strata, the Chicago Sky are still the team with the most potential and question marks. That only gets more complicated with concern around veteran Candace Parker's ankle.
The Sky skidded in the beginning of the season with Parker (ankle), Allie Quigley (hamstring) and Stefanie Dolson (Olympic qualifying) missing time and a 1-7 run that put them in the standings basement. But it's a tight, competitive league up and down the standings, so that didn't count them out. They rattled off seven consecutive victories with their roster back intact.
That first two-thirds of the season elicited a C- grade from Parker at the All-Star break, noting that Rome was neither built nor torn down in one day. And while she's right, there are days running out to move up the playoff positioning while days are long to lose it.
Can the Sky do the former without Parker? That might become a real problem after the reigning Defensive Player of the Year re-injured her ankle against the Dallas Wings on Tuesday night. Coach James Wade is optimistic that it's not as bad as what kept her out of eight games. But let's be pessimistic.
The Sky had more issues early than only Parker being gone. Yet there's no question she's a critical part of not only their defense, which ranks second in the league, and their offense, which ranks in the non-playoff group of bottom-four teams. The Sky can stop teams, but they can't score enough to overcome them and that's why we've seen so many heartbreakers in Chicago.
Parker is also their key defensive rebounder by a long shot, averaging 6.9 per game. Ruthy Hebard is second at 3.7 in 19.5 minutes per game. That's a large gap to fill when you need it most.
The Sky shot to title contenders by signing Parker and she was rightly viewed as the final piece of a puzzle to get Chicago over the title-game hump. Losing her now could sink any chance of the postseason, or a path to it that avoids single-round elimination games.
Sky fans and those rooting for the hometown hero to return in fairy-tale fashion and bring her city its first title should be concerned.
Buzzer can grow the WNBA, if WNBA helps itself
The mobile sports platform Buzzer announced Thursday it reached an agreement to distribute live WNBA game content, making the W the first professional women's league to be offered on the platform. It will alert fans of leagues, teams and individual players to tune in and watch a specific part of live games, like historic moments, player breakouts and buzzer-beaters.
Buzzer CEO Bo Han, who founded the company in 2020, is clearly excited about the deal, which joins previous ones for the NBA, PGA Tour and NHL.
"Every market signal indicates that there's an incredible appetite for women's sports, yet there are still massive barriers to entry for fans to discover and watch," Han said in a release. "Buzzer serves as a bridge to bring the magic of live sports to more fans. Through this partnership, we hope to help convert the incredible awareness and cultural currency the WNBA is experiencing into actual tune-in, bringing an even larger live audience to the league and its players."
The concept is smart and will lend itself well to the season the WNBA is having so far given even more overtime and buzzer-beater moments its first week back from the break. Alerting fans to that in real time will only be a good thing. But the league has to truly lean into better marketing, as it has been talking about doing for years, for this to peak.
Not everyone wants or has time to tune into two-hour games, let alone a night full of action six days a week. Those loosely interested might not take the time or be able to find content clicking through channels. And the TikTok generation lives by snippet content.
Buzzer caters to both by alerting when there's a big moment fans can watch briefly in real time rather than the viral moment later. Accessibility is key, and Buzzer provides for it.
“As someone that spends so much time on my phone, Buzzer is a product that caters to how I, and many other Gen Z fans, consume sports," New York Liberty point guard and Buzzer investor Sabrina Ionescu said in a release. "Buzzer recognizes the importance of amplifying women’s sports and reaching younger generations of sports fans, and this partnership with the WNBA is just the first step in realizing our mission to advance visibility of women’s sports.”
But for fans to tune in, users must first click their favorite players or teams to receive the alerts. The WNBA needs to maximize its marketing and storytelling so that users want to click on those names in the first place. There are a lot of casual Sabrina Ionescu fans, but not as many for some of the league's best players.
Keep the Sparks at Staples
Not only did All-Stars Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver make their returns from injury last week, but their Los Angeles Sparks finally made it back to Staples Center for the first time since September 2019. Not only did the Los Angeles Convention Center, where they played the first half of 2021, have heavy IMG Academy vibes, it was demeaning to what players of this talent deserve.
The convention center was used because the Lakers and Clippers played later than usual given the change in the NBA schedule last season. Of course, NBA and NHL teams share arenas simultaneously all the time — people eat up those time-lapse switchover videos.
This week was the first time many Sparks players were able to settle into what it truly meant to be where Ogwumike called "home."
“I’m glad that we have some new members of the family getting acclimated to this being home,” Ogwumike said Tuesday in their first game back. “It always feels so familiar to me, it feels so great to be back in Staples Center. All the gratitude to transforming the Convention Center, but Staples is really where it’s at for us, and I hope that we continue to use that energy being at home to play well.”
The Sparks came back with an overtime bang thanks to a turnaround jumper by Toliver at the buzzer in regulation on Tuesday. Ogwumike neared a triple-double despite heading to the locker room at halftime with a knee injury. She had 13 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in 36 minutes while shooting 85.7% from the field. Her typical efficient self.
Ogwumike one-upped her Tuesday performance with a buzzer-beating winning bucket Thursday to sweep the two-game set against the Dream. She finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
They will return for a two-game homestand on Thursday, Sept. 9 and Sunday, Sept. 12. That's not enough time at the home arena, and it's a shame it played out that way. But if the Sparks do make the postseason, it will be nice to see them in front of a crowd at Staples. And it would be the right move to make.
There will only be potential double bookings if the Sparks make it through the first and second rounds. The Lakers begin their preseason schedule on Oct. 3, the Clippers' hasn't been released yet and the Los Angeles Kings start on Oct. 5.
Jonquel Jones keeps hold of MVP race
Stock hasn't gone anywhere but up for MVP front-runner Jonquel Jones since the break. In three games, she's averaged 18.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists. The only real negative is she missed all of her 3-point attempts in back-to-back games for the first time this year, and only the second and third times of the season. But can you really fault a center for that. BetMGM lists her at +140 odds.
Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart (+200) took time off after her Olympic gold, birth of her first child and Commissioner's Cup MVP win. While Stewart is an important piece and one of the greatest basketball players in the world, the Storm rely on her less than the Sun rely on Jones.
Tina Charles is still carrying the load for the Washington Mystics, placing her solidly in the MVP race (+300) with another 30-point, 10-rebound performance. It's the 14th of her career, breaking a tie with Lauren Jackson for most in WNBA history, and the fifth of 2021, tied for most with Jackson (2007) and Liz Cambage (2018). The problem for Charles' chances is the Mystics are on the outside of the playoffs bubble.
The Aces' A'ja Wilson (+500) is the only other player with chances better than +1000. As with Stewart, she has more assets around her in Las Vegas. Though make no mistake, she has been key to their wins.
Where other award races stand
Defensive Player of the Year: Sylvia Fowles is in line to win her fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. It would trail only Tamika Catchings' record five wins in the category. The Minnesota Lynx forward is first in defensive win shares (1.9), second in defensive rating (90.6), second in defensive rebounds percentage (29.4) and fifth in block percentage (5.0). In those areas she ranks second, she trails only Jones.
The Connecticut Sun's DeWanna Bonner, Aces' Liz Cambage, Sparks' Brittney Sykes and Sky's Candace Parker are top contenders, as well.
Sixth Woman of the Year: The Sixth Woman of the Year race is a pleasant surprise. (We'll take the "L" here.) Two-time award-winner Dearica Hamby of the Aces (11.3 PPG, 7 RPG, 53.1% FG) is still a front-runner, her teammate Kelsey Plum is also coming off the bench to contribute in big ways (13.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 3.4 APG). And Allie Quigley has come off the bench to be a spark for the middling Sky following four seasons as a starter. She scored 27 in a loss Tuesday, hitting seven of nine 3-pointers.
Most Improved Player: Sun center Brionna Jones is a favorite for MIP, subbing in for MVP favorite Jonquel Jones while the star was away at EuroBasket. Brionna earned her first WNBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week award in July and was named to her first All-Star team. The fifth-year player out of Maryland is averaging career-bests in points (14.4), rebounds (6.8), assists (2.0) and is shooting 55.6%. She ranks fifth in the league in win shares and eighth in player efficiency rating.
Sami Whitcomb is experiencing an uptick in production in New York, where she has been key behind the arc and on defense. And heck, can New York Liberty's Betnijah Laney win it a second consecutive year?
Next week, we'll take a deeper look at the Rookie of the Year race and how first-year players are being used around the league.
What you might have missed:
Meet Ruby Mae Stewart Xargay. She's already flexing with an Olympic gold medal.
The WNBPA keeps leading the way in social justice reform. They added a Social Responsibility Partner.
Storm-Sky was the most-viewed WNBA regular-season game anywhere since 2012.
The WNBA is changing its COVID-19 testing protocols, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault told reporters.
Kristi Toliver is joining the Dallas Mavericks' coaching staff.
The Seattle Storm are going to the bleeping White House. It's the first time a WNBA team has attended since 2016.
What to watch this weekend
Storm at Liberty, Friday at 7 p.m. ET on Amazon Prime — The Liberty came back to win earlier in the week with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart sidelined after the Olympics.
Mercury at Dream, Saturday at noon ET on ESPN — The Mercury are holding loosely to the fifth seed as one of three teams with 11 wins heading into Thursday night.
Lynx at Sky, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBA TV — The Lynx want to keep the No. 4 seed. The Sky (No. 6) want to keep in the playoffs.
Sparks at Liberty, Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN3 — Coach Walt Hopkins called the Liberty's game against the Storm a "must-win" and it feels like most are going to be that from here on out.
Storm at Mystics, Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN — Will Elena Delle Donne return with Washington back at home?
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