Are the Las Vegas Aces still the favorite to hoist the 2021 WNBA championship trophy? Are Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson the front-runners for MVP? Which player has emerged as the Rookie of the Year favorite?
As the WNBA prepares to pause its season for the 2021 All-Star Game and Olympic break, we revisit and update our preseason picks from mid-May. Whether it’s a new face unanimously ruling the Rookie of the Year conversation, or a 35-year-old veteran dominating the Defensive Player of the Year debate, ESPN’s panel — analysts Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson, play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco, ESPN’s Kelly Cohen, Dana Lee, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel, and The Undefeated’s Sean Hurd — dissects what we’ve seen so far as every team has played between 17-20 games of its 32-game regular-season schedule.
The 2021 All-Star Game — which pits the U.S. Olympic team against Team WNBA — will be played Wednesday in Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). The WNBA season resumes Aug. 15 with six games, including the Seattle Storm at the Chicago Sky (4 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).
Here are the biggest impact players of 2021 and how we see the season shaping up so far.
Navigate to each category:
Biggest surprises | MVP | Rookie of Year | DPOY | Most Improved | All-WNBA | WNBA Finals matchup | 2021 champion
Which team or player has been the biggest surprise — good or bad — so far in 2021?
Rebecca Lobo: The Connecticut Sun (12-6) have surprised me the most. Alyssa Thomas has been so important to their success that I thought they would have a longer adjustment period without her as she is out with a torn Achilles. Instead, they found an identity on the defensive end and a three-headed monster in the frontcourt with Bri Jones, Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner. They’ve been terrific and had success against a strong schedule.
Mechelle Voepel: Did I really pick the Phoenix Mercury to make the WNBA Finals back in May? Yeah, I did. I’ll now pick them as a mostly “bad” surprise so far this season, although Wednesday’s 99-90 overtime win at Las Vegas showed how good they can be. Phoenix has five Olympians — Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi for Team USA, Kia Nurse for Canada, and Alanna Smith for Australia — yet is 8-9 overall and 2-7 at home. Taurasi has been limited to seven games because of injury, and missed Wednesday’s game. There have been times when the Mercury seem disjointed on offense and/or disinterested on defense. Wednesday, though, Griner had a tremendous game — 33 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots — as did Diggins-Smith with 27 points and eight assists. Which is the real Mercury team? We saw them pull it together in the second half of last season in the bubble, so we’ll see if they can do the same this year, and build off Wednesday’s big win.
Kelly Cohen: I know the Dallas Wings don’t have the best record right now, but I am impressed by how poised the young team looks in their wins. Arike Ogunbowale is hitting shots from just about anywhere on the court and stuffs the stat sheet in every game. Allisha Gray, Satou Sabally and Most Improved Player candidate Marina Mabrey are also playing well on offense, helping Dallas rank third in the league with 85.8 PPG. And in addition to Sabally’s rebounding prowess, Kayla Thornton and Isabelle Harrison are the team’s top rebounders and a big reason Dallas is also third in the league on the glass at 36.8 RPG. I think if this well-rounded team can work out some kinks on defense and be able to hold onto leads late into the game, the Wings could go far in the playoffs.
Ryan Ruocco: The New York Liberty have been the biggest surprise to me, in a good way! They’ve put it together very quickly.
Kevin Pelton: I’m also going with Connecticut. The Sun seemed so thin coming into the season without Thomas, yet depth has only really been an issue during the period where Jonquel Jones was away from the team for EuroBasket. And the two Joneses, Jonquel and Brionna, have linked up more seamlessly than I expected given they barely played together in 2019 prior to Brionna emerging as a starter in Jonquel’s absence last season.
Dana Lee: Everyone else went with a team pick, but Tina Charles’ performance has been a delight to watch — and nearly impossible to have predicted before this season. At 32, the center is averaging a career best in points (25.8) and effective field goal percentage. A large part of that percentage stems from Charles looking more comfortable shooting from behind the arc this season — she’s attempting 5.4 3-pointers per game this season, compared to 2.9 in 2018. She’s also playing close to a career high in minutes (33.3) for the Mystics. The only two seasons she accumulated more minutes was in 2016 and 2011, when she was 27 and 22 years old, respectively. Now consider that Charles is doing this all after missing the 2020 season and with a new team.
LaChina Robinson: New York’s Betnijah Laney has been the biggest surprise. She has put together an all-star campaign after a breakout performance in 2020. To do that when all eyes are on you and expectations are high is not easy.
Sean Hurd: I’ll add a player to this list: Kelsey Plum. She missed the 2020 season with a torn left Achilles, but has since returned to the Las Vegas rotation this season as a real difference maker on the floor. Plum is having a career year coming off the bench for the Aces, averaging 13.0 points and 3.6 assists , and will surely be in the conversation for Sixth Woman of the Year. This time last year, Plum was rehabbing at home while players were arriving at the WNBA bubble. A year later, she’s weeks away from traveling to Tokyo to represent the United States as a member of the 3×3 Olympic team. The difference a year makes.
At this point of the season, which player is the front-runner for MVP?
In the preseason, Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson and Seattle’s Breanna Stewart each received three votes, while the Minnesota Lynx’s Napheesa Collier also got a nod.
Ruocco: Jonquel Jones is my favorite for MVP at this point.
Pelton: If everything plays out in the second half the same as the first half, I think it’s Jones. But she doesn’t have much margin to miss more games after the five she missed for EuroBasket. Even five games would be the most ever missed by a WNBA MVP — none have previously missed more than three.
Cohen: I know Jones is the front-runner, but I’m going with Tina Charles. Jones, Brenna Stewart and A’ja Wilson are all on winning teams that look like strong candidates to win the WNBA championship this year, but Charles is not and is still playing lights out. Because of Charles, the Mystics still have a chance to sneak into the postseason. The 32-year-old is playing like she did in 2012 when she won the MVP — but even better, averaging 25.8 PPG and 9.6 RPG.
Robinson: It’s Charles. I think we all can appreciate the excellence and skill that she brings to the floor, in addition to expanding her game. It goes back to her preparation coming into the season and how incredible her work ethic is.
Lee: I’d like to agree with Kelly and LaChina on Charles, but if you study the past five years of MVP picks, they have almost exclusively played for the top-ranked team of that respective season. The only exception is Nneka Ogwumike in 2016, and even then the Sparks finished second in league standings. Seattle’s Stewart, meanwhile, leads a team that looks like it can return to the Finals and is in the top five of nearly every individual category league-wide.
Voepel: For now, a slight edge to Stewart, with her 27-point, 11-rebound game Wednesday as evidence of the way she can put the Storm on her back and take over at crunch time.
Hurd: Jones is my front-runner for MVP.
Lobo: This is a tough one. Charles, Jones, Stewart and Wilson are my favorites right now.
Who is your pick at this point for Rookie of the Year?
In the preseason, Connecticut’s DiJonai Carrington was a popular pick, garnering four votes. April’s No. 1 draft pick, Charli Collier of Dallas, received two votes, and the Los Angeles Sparks’ Jasmine Walker, who suffered a torn ACL in late May, got one vote.
Robinson: New York Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere has a WNBA skill set and physique that combines power, athleticism and mobility that keeps her in plays on both ends of the floor.
Voepel: This draft class, as expected, hasn’t been as impactful as some rookie classes have been. Onyenwere is the clear choice now.
Pelton: Onyenwere. Remarkably, she’s played more minutes than the next two rookies (Charli Collier and Aari McDonald) combined, though McDonald should have more opportunity with Chennedy Carter’s suspension.
Cohen: I agree with Onyenwere but am looking forward to other rookies thriving in the second half.
Dana Lee: Unless things change drastically in the second half of the season, it’s Onyenwere for me, too. The No. 6 draft pick was named rookie of the month in May and June and leads all rookies with 10.2 points per game.
Who has stood out as the Defensive Player of the Year?
Phoenix’s Brittney Griner (three votes), Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier (two) and Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson (two) split the preseason votes.
Lobo: Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner are my favorites so far.
Robinson: Sylvia Fowles might be having one of the most impressive defensive seasons of her career. Leading the league in steals (2.1 per game) as a 6-foot-6 post player is mind-blowing.
Pelton: Besides Fowles, I’d also highlight the impact Jonquel Jones has had defensively. Per WNBA Advanced Stats, opponents are shooting just 39% against the Sun with Jones on the court as compared to 45% when she does not play.
Hurd: Fowles is the front-runner but I agree with Kevin that Jones’ defensive presence for the Sun should definitely be a part of the DPOY discussion.
Cohen: Fowles’ gritty play is part of the reason the Lynx have been able to turn around their slow start to the season.
Voepel: Fowles missed most of last season with a calf injury, but you wouldn’t know that by how she is playing this season. Always a defensive force, she seems as good as ever at age 35.
Who is your Most Improved Player?
ESPN.com’s preseason picks did not include this category.
Lobo: The 2020 season saw a couple players — Betnijah Laney and Myisha Hines-Allen — take huge leaps from the previous season. This year we have a few players who have improved, but in more incremental ways.
Marina Mabrey has thrived when asked to produce a bigger scoring load for Dallas. Theresa Plaisance has fit in nicely in Washington, no matter if she’s coming off the bench or starting. And Astou Ndour-Fall is playing well back in Chicago, after an odd year when her time was limited in Dallas.
Right now I’d give the nod to Mabrey. She has had some impressive performances so far.
Pelton: Crystal Bradford’s emergence as a key starter for the Atlanta Dream deserves recognition.
Voepel: Bradford, the former Central Michigan star, is a great story as someone who played briefly (15 games) in the WNBA as a rookie in 2015, and then didn’t return to the league until six years later. You have to root for someone with that kind of perseverance. But I think Brionna Jones’ journey to being an All-Star has her atop my MIP list now.
Hurd: My pick is also Brionna Jones.
Robinson: Brionna Jones is my front-runner. She’s an immovable, consistent force in and around the paint, but also seems to be playing with more fluidity and improved foot speed.
Cohen: Can I do something wild and pick Laney? I know she won the award in 2020, but her improvements in 2021 make me think she could win it again. The Liberty have been pretty inconsistent this year, but she’s consistent and consistently getting better, averaging 19.6 PPG, 5.3 APG and 3.9 RPG.
Ruocco: There are many great candidates, but I’d say Mabrey.
How does your All-WNBA First Team look different now?
Our preseason teams included one center, two forwards and two guards, a format we continued below. Phoenix’s Brittney Griner was included on three preseason lists. Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage, Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier, Washington’s Elena Delle Donne, Chicago’s Diamond DeShields, Las Vegas’ Chelsea Gray, and Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi also received preseason recognition but were not included on the midseason update.
Ruocco: My team has changed as Breanna Stewart is the only holdover from my preseason projection: Tina Charles, Jonquel Jones, Stewart, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jewell Loyd.
Pelton: Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot still make my First Team, but I’d round it out with Jones, Charles and Loyd.
Hurd: Stewart and Vandersloot also remain on my updated First Team, joined by Jones, Loyd and Charles.
Voepel: I’m struggling with too many post players, but who do you leave off? If I keep Stewart and A’ja Wilson from my preseason team and add in Jones and Charles, then there’s room for just one guard, and I’d lean toward Loyd. But to have two guards — keeping Vandersloot from my preseason picks — I might be forced to leave off Wilson, last year’s MVP. I really don’t want to do that, but it might just go to show the balance of the Aces.
Robinson: My updated First Team would be Jones, Sylvia Fowles, Charles, Loyd and Betnijah Laney.
Cohen: I wasn’t part of the preseason predictions, but my All-WNBA First Team right now is Stewart, Jones, Charles, Wilson and Arike Ogunbowale.
Are you sticking with the same teams to reach the WNBA Finals?
Ruocco: Yes, I am sticking with the Aces and the Storm.
Robinson: Yes, I have the Mystics and Aces. If Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman ever take the floor this season, I feel good about the Mystics and this prediction.
Pelton: Sure, I picked the Aces and Storm, right? Nevermind that it says Minnesota in the predictions, as that was a typo.
Hurd: I originally had Aces vs. Lynx. It has been hard to figure out the Lynx in the first half of the season, but heading into the Olympic break, Minnesota seems to have found a winning rhythm. When the Lynx play up to their potential, they’ve proven they can beat top teams (they have OT wins against the Aces and the Sun). The Lynx are 10-3 since starting the year 0-4 and have won five consecutive games. I’m willing to ride out the rest of the season on that pick. Why not?
Voepel: I’m sticking with one of them: the Aces. As mentioned earlier, I’m not feeling it with the Mercury anymore. I will go with the Storm, like I should have in the first place.
Cohen: Though I think there is a possibility that a team like the Wings or Lynx sneak in, the Aces and the Storm are just too good and are my pick right now.
Lee: I made the tragic mistake of not writing my picks down anywhere at the beginning of the season, so there’s no way to prove that I’ve stayed steadfast in my prediction. But yes, I’m ready to see part two of the Aces and Storm saga. Like we highlighted in previous roundtables though, outside of the core three, this Seattle team will look significantly different than it did in 2020.
Has your predicted champ changed?
Ruocco: I’m sticking with Seattle.
Pelton: Before the season, I was concerned about how much the Aces would miss Angel McCoughtry, a big part of their success last season. Now that Las Vegas is cruising with the best point differential in the WNBA — and the fourth best in WNBA history, just ahead of last season’s Storm — I’m picking the Aces.
Hurd: Nope, still picking the Aces.
Robinson: Vegas is still my champ.
Voepel: Wednesday’s loss in which nothing went right for Las Vegas in OT notwithstanding, I’ll stay with the Aces. And if A’ja Wilson doesn’t make the WNBA’s first team but does get a ring, I don’t think she will mind. She could get both, of course.
Cohen: The Aces are just so, so deep compared to the Storm and any other team. Las Vegas is going to win it all this year.