The 2019 WNBA season is upon us, and it’s an Australian who has created the biggest storyline of the off-season. Flipping the league on its head was Liz Cambage who was granted a trade away from the Dallas Wings, heading to Las Vegas and instantly turning the Aces into a championship contender.
Meanwhile, Steph Talbot’s stint at Phoenix has come to an end after being traded to Minnesota, but the selection of Alanna Smith in the recent WNBA Draft ensured that there remained an Aussie on the Mercury’s playing roster even after Leilani Mitchell was the last player to miss the final 12 due to salary cap pressures.
Sami Whitcomb and Rebecca Allen return to Seattle and New York respectively, with their franchises coming off campaigns that could not be more different as Seattle come in as defending champions, whilst New York finished a dismal 7-27 in 2018 and will be hoping to rebound this season.
Liz Cambage – Las Vegas Aces
Arguably the biggest star of the league right now is Liz Cambage. Even moreso now given the hype surrounding her recent trade to Las Vegas, Cambage’s arrival at the Aces brings to an end a tumultuous stay at the Dallas Wings whilst also turning Bill Laimbeer’s side into one of the championship favourites.
Finishing in second place in MVP voting behind Breanna Stewart in 2018, Cambage led the league with 23.0 points per game and was second in rebounding behind Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles with 9.7 per game. The dominant centre also broke the WNBA single-game scoring record with a monster 53 points outing in a 104-87 win over New York in July. That performance saw Cambage knock down 4 of 5 from deep.
Having shot the three at 32.4% last season, the Aces are in an interesting position whereby their starting centre shoots the three at a reasonable clip but their expected starting power forward, 2018 Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson, rarely shoots from any further than 12 feet and has never even attempted a shot from three-point range in the WNBA. It may be a moot point though as Laimbeer has never been the biggest fan of the three-ball, but watching the pair develop chemistry throughout the season could be one of the most interesting storylines of the season and may deliver the Aces a championship come the conclusion of the season.
Rebecca Allen – New York Liberty
Rebecca Allen is in an interesting position at the New York Liberty. At no point has there been any serious discussion regarding waiving or trading the Opals wing, but by the same token her minutes across the last three seasons with the team have rarely suggested anything more than a minor role was in the works.
However, an 18-point outing against Connecticut in a generally disappointing pre-season for the Liberty served to remind head coach Katie Smith of the 26-year-old’s class as the team looks to silence the doubters after being picked to finish 11th in the 12-team league by AP voters.
Allen knocked down 3 of 6 from deep in that game, and with the Liberty already one of the worst teams in the league in terms of three-point percentage, an uptick in efficiency to coincide with an increase in volume could lead to a positive swing in playing time for Allen, particularly as her per minute numbers are already relatively solid and has already been all but ever-present off the bench across the last two seasons.
Regardless of what happens in the early part of the season, Allen will receive an increased opportunity during July during EuroBasket, with three Liberty players slated to take part. Whilst none of the trio – Marine Johannes, Bria Hartley, and Amanda Zahui B – play Allen’s position, the inevitable shuffling of minutes with a shortened rotation will open up increased chances for the entire roster.
Alanna Smith – Phoenix Mercury
Putting shooters around 6’9 centre Brittney Griner has been the Mercury’s modus operandi for several seasons now. If the idea of trotting out the likes of Diana Taurasi and Briann January wasn’t enough, how about adding a stretch four who knocked down the three-ball at near enough to 40% in her final college season in arguably the toughest conference in the nation? That’s exactly what the Phoenix Mercury have added in Opals starlet Alanna Smith, who links up with national coach Sandy Brondello in her first WNBA season after completing her four years at Stanford.
Exactly what role Smith plays in her opening campaign remains to be seen, but her game certainly appears to complement Griner’s perfectly. Her ability to step out, not only to midrange but to the perimeter, will help clear space for the 6’9 All-Star at the offensive end. Smith has also proven time and again that she can more than handle herself when things get physical in the paint too. It will also almost certainly come to pass that Smith spends time partnered with fellow rookie and recent Adelaide Lightning signing Brianna Turner, giving Aussie fans yet another reason to watch a Mercury side that is well-positioned to be among the championship contenders.
Steph Talbot – Minnesota Lynx
The Aussie trio of players at Phoenix became a duo as Talbot was traded to Minnesota on Wednesday, securing the wing’s WNBA future for the season at a time when competition for the final spots on the Phoenix roster was intensely fierce.
Having flourished in last season’s playoffs for the Mercury after being inserted to the starting rotation, Talbot will be hoping to pick up where she left off.
The Lynx are a side looking for players to come in and pick up the slack left by the absence of perennial WNBA All-Star Maya Moore and Rebekkah Brunson in the forward spots. The make-up of the Lynx roster suggests that Talbot will spend more time at the three spot, but this is where the 24-year-old has played her best basketball in the WNBA to date. It will take a quick adjustment for Talbot to develop chemistry with her new teammates.
Should Talbot reprise her form from the latter stages of last season and also maintain 2018’s vastly improved scoring efficiency, this could yet develop into a real break-out season before the Olympian returns to Adelaide for the 2019/20 WNBL campaign.
Sami Whitcomb – Seattle Storm
Sami Whitcomb has been an integral piece of the Seattle Storm roster in recent seasons. Despite not regularly playing massive minutes, she has shown a knack for coming up with exactly what the Storm need at the time to get them over the line. A perfect example was her 11-point, 4-assist outing off the bench in their Game 5 victory over Phoenix in last season’s semi-finals on the way to a championship.
Whitcomb returns to the Storm fresh off an outstanding season in France with BLMA where she helped lead the team to runner-up finishes in both the French league and EuroCup. Her third campaign with the Storm will bring with it increased responsibilities, at least in the early stages of the season.
Veteran star Sue Bird will miss time due to arthroscopic knee surgery, and whilst the procedure will not rule her out for the entire season, the point guard is set to miss significant time. Minutes for the entire backcourt rotation will obviously reduce once Bird returns, but Whitcomb at least now has the opportunity to press her case for an increase from 2018’s 8.5 minutes per contest, with her ability to play both guard spots certainly working in her favour.