2019 season preview: Top 25 Players in the WNBA

The 2019 WNBA season tipped this past weekend. Even with so many stars sidelined for either the duration of the 2019 WNBA season or a decent chunk of it, now is a good time to take stock of where players stand individually among the league’s hierarchy.

These lists are never perfect. They’re often used to drive screaming-head debates on television that don’t accomplish much. It will always be a subjective exercise.

So why do it, then?

Discussions and the forming of these lists can still be fun! The mere idea of the bad ones shouldn’t ruin it for everybody.

Some insight on the approach in forming this one:

  • Everybody is being included, even Breanna Stewart (Achilles) and Maya Moore (taking the season off)
  • This is all about one goal—winning a championship right now, in 2019
  • Relative good health and full availability are assumed for all, meaning Angel McCoughtry (knee), for example, was seen as if she were entering this season fully healthy
  • Team context is weighed heavily. Some players are already in absolute ideal situations to maximize their talent. That can’t be assumed for every roster. Others that thrive largely independent of team context become even more valuable in this exercise
  • This is essentially the first two rounds of a one-season expansion draft. Elite, efficient offensive hubs are the most valuable commodity
  • No honorable mentions. It’s a top-25 list. The list, by definition, is only going to include 25 names
  • Body of work in totality matters as does recent performance, but opinion and some degree of forecasting will shine through in some cases. Again, this is a subjective exercise
  • Stats were obtained via Synergy Sports and Basketball-Reference and are from the 2018 regular season unless otherwise noted

The boundaries have been set. Let’s jump right in.

25. Elizabeth Williams, Atlanta Dream

Filling the last few spots on this list, as expected, was quite difficult. A slew of good scorers didn’t make it. Without complete confidence in saying that one of those players could be a rock-solid No. 2 scoring option on a championship team with what we know today, Williams emerged as the best choice.

There’s a lot to like in an elite defensive center that can hold up in isolation against elite face-up bigs, switch out some or cover ground quickly enough to help and recover, keep up in an up-and-down game and finish efficiently slicing to the rim on rolls or cuts. No, you aren’t getting lights-out 3-point shooting or high-volume efficient low-block scoring on top of it all, but the lack of those elements shouldn’t be seen as a knock with so many other things that can be taken to the bank.

24. Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut Sun

Thomas is another player that brings a level of certainty in enough areas that make this an easy inclusion. She’s one of the league’s best defenders at either guard position, is more effective getting to the rim than she gets credit for and knows how to run a team. Her hot 3-point shooting in 2017 remains a bit of an outlier.

Here’s a Thomas stat worth tucking away: She used 231 possessions (third-most in the league) as a pick and roll ball handler and scored 0.93 points per possession—right on par with the efficiency of DeWanna Bonner with nearly twice as big a workload. The idea of jump shots not falling enough for Thomas is a fair concern, just not at this point in the exercise.

23. Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky

Vandersloot is a wonderful passer—an artist, even. But the ‘best point guard in the league’ stuff doesn’t hold up.

She and fellow star in the backcourt Allie Quigley don’t get a pass for how awful the team has been defensively in recent years. Yes, that team lacks an imposing, physical, shot-blocking center to clean up messes at the rim, but there are also more messes to clean up because they’ve been weak at the point of attack.

Vandersloot’s shooting makes her an easy pair with any type of shooting guard. Her usage can be scaled up or down from quarter to quarter, even. But in running the show the last few years in Chicago, turnovers have become an issue, too. Sloot turned it over on a whopping 32.7 percent of her 147 pick and roll possessions. 26 players used at least 100 possessions in pick and roll last season. She and Quigley (30.4 percent) were two of the four players league-wide that turned it over more than 23 percent of the time.

22. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm

Winning the 2018 championship with the Storm, or even going scorched-earth in Game 5 of the semifinals wasn’t even needed to solidify a spot for the logo. Bird should be seen as the second-biggest reason that the Storm were able to put together a top-two offense last season.

She shot nearly 45 percent from deep and teams always have to respect her ability to pull off the dribble behind or inside the arc. Bird is invaluable as a spacer without the ball and a threat that can be worked into actions running off of screens to open up seams for more dependent players.

21. Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun

AT was a tough player to rank. Connecticut’s system and roster construction do a lot of heavy lifting for her. You probably need a stretch 5 that can credibly defend big centers and protect the rim next to Thomas to build a true title contender. Lucky for the Sun, they just might have the best one. More on that player later.

If you can put Thomas in a position to be the main roll threat, you’re golden. The smallest crack in a defense will net something good for your team. She’s an All-Defense-caliber player defending either forward spots, something few players can truly do well.

But there’s still some mystery to the idea of Thomas as a playoff player. Her free throw shooting—this is not a typo—has gotten worse by the season since she entered the league in 2014. Are teams going to hack her intentionally late in games? Opponents may whack her in those 4-on-3 advantage situations, too, to just send her to the line before risking an open layup or kick-out 3-pointer.

20. Diamond DeShields, Chicago Sky

This is probably one of the names most likely to be all over the place depending on who you ask for a list like this. This is only year two for DeShields. She wasn’t very efficient last season and will need to continue to prove it as a 3-point shooter to make the most of her tantalizing explosiveness off the bounce.

But in this range, you really want a No. 2 option or a two-way player with a bunch of rock-solid strengths that may or may not include high-volume scoring. DeShields is the top up-and-comer with the tools to get there, collapsing defenses to make plays for others and parade to the foul line and locking down all three guard spots on a regular basis.

This is not a pick saying that DeShields is all of those things right now. It’s a suggestion that among the other names in this range, the level of player she can become has to carry just as much weight.

19. Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm

It’s all about repeating last season’s performance for Howard and possibly sharpening her ability to score off the bounce and more often from the post with Stewart out for the entire season.

Howard’s activity level leads to so many positive things on both ends of the floor. She isn’t the level of playmaker of an Alyssa Thomas, but there’s at least the threat of the jumper with some ability to face up slower bigs to take them off the dribble.

18. Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks

The most common talking points used to discuss Ogwumike are interesting (and all true). We often hear about the efficiency, the scoring, the defense. Sometimes I think it’s also important to just come right out and continue to say that she’s one of the best athletes in the league and at just 6-foot-2, plays with a ton of force while holding up against the day-to-day scraps in the paint with much bigger players.

She’s a devastating cutter and roller with her acceleration and core strength to get a defender going one way, stop on a dime and read their reaction to step through or shoot right over the top before they can blink (or get caught up in the air and foul her).

17. Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta Dream

McCoughtry was another tough player to place. She’s 32 and is not a Diana Taurasi- or Bird-level of shooter. Some may still view her, when healthy, as the Dream’s best player. I happen to think that mantle now belongs to somebody else.

The demonstrated ability to show up in the playoffs and churn out killer performances still has to matter. The physical nature of her game is so tough to plan for and even some of the top wing defenders can’t put up much of a fight when she gets a chance to put her head down or back down from the low block.

16. Kayla McBride, Las Vegas Aces

If you think this is too high for McBride, you probably think she’s getting too much credit for her 2018 season. If you think it’s too low, you might be going out on a limb just a tad in assuming all the best things about last season will continue at the same level or better.

Hopefully this is close to a happy medium. McBride is a wonderful fit as a co-star next to literally anybody thanks to her shooting, and she has really responded well to the challenge from Bill Laimbeer to take on more of the toughest guard/wing assignments defensively.

Her 2019 performance on shots coming off screens—one of her biggest and most unique strengths—will be worth monitoring. She used 102 possessions off screens last year to the tune of 1.01 points per possession. McBride kept some elite company, trailing only Allie Quigley and Taurasi in volume and/or efficiency.

15. DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix Mercury

The league’s most overqualified third banana would work quite well as a hypothetical team’s No. 2 option for a variety of reasons. Her ability to slide up to the 4 spot unlocks so many doors for a team to get another shooter on the floor on top of the extra seams her teammates will be able to explore in attacking the paint.

Bonner also works wonders for a defense looking to combat some of the top pick and roll combinations. If you play two bigs and have at least one that can switch comfortably onto guards, you can jigger the matchups to more-less erase one of those combinations as a threat to completely throw your defense into rotation.

14. Skylar Diggins-Smith, Dallas Wings

Maybe I’m old school for this, but the fact that Diggins-Smith dragged the ‘17 Wings to the playoffs matters—a lot. And it will continue to matter for a long time.

Go back and look at who was on that team! She had Glory Johnson, Karima Christmas-Kelly, some young and unproven guards, a flawed center rotation and the continual churn that was the back end of their roster.

Maybe this ranking isn’t all that strong of a statement. Hopefully it does. If you remember to look at this as a one-year expansion draft, this is a player in heavy consideration to be somebody’s best player on a team whose only priority is to win a title right away.

13. Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

Now that we’re done with the one-year charade of pretending like Jones isn’t already both the best and most important player in Connecticut, the 6-foot-6 stretch 5 has garnered some early MVP buzz.

And deservedly so. Jones is the only true center out there that has the length, even if she might not have the extreme physical strength, to compete and contest the league’s top centers inside while pushing them to their limits on the other end with her proficiency as a pick-and-pop scorer.

12. Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta Dream

Hayes is one of those players getting a context bump. She’s the league’s most explosive one-on-one guard/wing. Why doesn’t that bear itself out more in the numbers? The Dream as constructed can’t put very much shooting around her.

Imagine Hayes on the Mercury, Sun, or even the Storm. How many extra layups/free throws is she shooting per game? How many of her drives will result in kick-outs to the kind of 3-point shooters opponents never want to have to leave wide open?

11. A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

I’ll relay the same sentiment that’s been said plenty already. Wilson is only scratching the surface. The difference: Her surface is walking right in to become one of the league’s top scorers while getting to the free throw line at a rate (46.8) that only her newest teammate in Las Vegas could replicate.

10. Tina Charles, New York Liberty

Tina Charles is a clinician. Given the chance to do it, she’ll hammer that shoulder into you as she works her way in. As you absorb those blows and do all you can to just not get sent into the stanchion, she’s calmly waiting for the best window to turn and toss in a feathery hook with either hand or fall back into that unblockable fadeaway jumper.

Charles stepped right into the league and made eight consecutive All-WNBA teams. That will go down as one of my favorite nuggets of this decade. The Liberty did take some interesting fliers on some shooting heading into the season, which should open up the floor—exactly what needs to happen to put Charles in a position to lead another team to the playoffs.

9. Chelsea Gray, Los Angeles Sparks

It’s interesting to imagine Gray as the undisputed best player on a championship hopeful, not to say that she hasn’t done her share of the heavy lifting in recent seasons with the Sparks.

But the Sparks didn’t necessarily need just one name to don that title on a night-to-night basis. Gray has gone supernova late in games to completely crush the will of an opponent because in a way, part of her comfort zone is the best case scenario for a defense—forcing her to hoist a semi-contested jumper late in the clock.

What would happen over the course of an entire season, though, if Gray absolutely had to tilt closer toward that mode across all four quarters on a nightly basis for her team to win games?

That’s where this gets fun. We’ll certainly get a look at that early in the season as the Sparks wait on Candace Parker (hamstring) to return from injury.

8. Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

I look at the center position today this way: There are three names that other teams have no other choice but to bend entire gameplans just to match their combination of skill, size and strength. Syl is one of those three. (The other two are coming up soon.) And Jonquel Jones in the abstract probably belongs in that conversation now as a fourth, just not for the same reasons—namely the strength.

Fowles is another player that deserves a context boost. Lynx opponents won’t standby to give her chances to work one-on-one and she often sees a swarm on or before the catch. But the separator for me between the next two at the position is the shooting and skill level that elevates both players into more efficient and dynamic scoring threats to build an offense around.

7. Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx

Moore is another tough name to place, and not just because she’s stepping away from basketball this season. She’s coming off one of the least efficient shooting seasons of her career. Many pointed to the year-round grind she has been a part of as a heavy contributing factor.

I haven’t seen so much as a case laid out to think otherwise. The overall body of work drowns out some of last season’s clunkers.

Moore has an unbelievably quick release, making her a near-impossible cover running around screens. Upon her return, seeing her pull even more off the dribble would be fascinating and in theory, it’d be welcomed in higher volume as she ages.

6. Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks

What more can be said about Parker’s game? She’ll go down as one of the players that changed the game forever with her fluidity, skill level and vision at her size.

As she enters her age 33 season, as with some of the other current greats, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to buy the notion that she doesn’t have her fastball anymore until she reaches back in a key playoff moment and can’t find it.

Parker is unpredictable in a completely unique fashion. It can’t be quantified. You’ll regularly see passes from her on a regular basis that nearly every other player won’t see or have the guts to try. She’s ramped up the volume from behind the arc—34.5 percent or better on 110-plus attempts each of the last three years—which will help her game tremendously in these latter stages of her prime.

5. Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury

Taurasi, a screener and three shooters is going to be a top-four halfcourt offense. That was one of the key takeaways from last season when she famously came into camp in great shape. We probably should have seen that as more than a trope because it is Taurasi, but her complete command of all 10 moving parts on the floor at the age of 36 was as good as it gets.

Her 2-point percentage, free throw rate and assist totals had all been on the decent for four consecutive seasons. She reversed those trends, cut out some of the tough pull-up twos and had the Mercury knocking on the door of a Finals appearance despite falling down 2-0 to the group that had been the best team in the regular season from start to finish.

Taurasi used more possessions (274) in pick and roll than anybody last season. Only 16 players used at least 130. Taurasi was the most efficient (1.117) and it wasn’t particularly close. Bonner came in second among that group at 0.939 PPP.

Will she follow that up? We don’t know. Some skepticism would have been fair even before the preseason back surgery. Taurasi just has to be in this range until we see for a fact that she doesn’t have it anymore in a series on the biggest stage.

4. Liz Cambage, Las Vegas Aces

Cambage had a season for the ages, shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor while posting a 48.5 free throw rate with the highest usage rate in the league (30.1). Even conventional doubles do little to get in the way, in part because most of the time you expect at least one of those players to hold their ground. Cambage can overpower just about anyone.

The underrated or often under-discussed part of her game is her skill level and ability to face up. Expect it to show itself in a very big way at some point this season for the Aces—late game, clock winding down, maybe A’ja Wilson has fouled out and they need to get it to Cambage to get a bucket.

Even if a defender manages to push her out to an elbow or even the 3-point line, you can still throw it to her with little reservation. Cambage have a chance to face up and see the double coming and if you have shooters stationed around the arc, she’ll be able to create a direct line to kick it out to somebody for an open triple.

Why not have Cambage even higher? I think the other three are more match-up proof. Now, Cambage probably still puts more pressure on those opponents than the other way around, but one of these names also got the nod into the top three precisely because they are the best hope anybody on earth has of guarding Cambage one-on-one.

3. Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury

I’d rather not boil it down to this one point, but yes, I am putting a very, very heavy premium on Griner’s ability to bother Cambage with her length. I charted every 2018 Cambage post-up possession against Griner and Fowles. Cambage averaged 0.933 points per possession (45 possessions) compared to her season-long 1.15 PPP mark.

In just the four games (including playoffs) against Griner: 19 points on 27 possessions (0.70 PPP).

It’s a small sample. One dominant game by Cambage would blow it up. But Griner, even when Cambage does manage to get two feet in the paint, is big and long enough to contest shots that are otherwise gimmes against the rest of the league. That has to matter when you’re chasing championships because Cambage is one of the most important players you have to scheme for.

With Griner? ‘Don’t get in foul trouble’ will do. Relative to the rest of the league, that say a whole lot.

Griner somehow tends to also get lost in the shuffle as a dominant post scorer. She was right on par with Cambage’s regular season mark on post ups (1.14 PPP) while using 319 possessions (most in the league) to Cambage’s 257.

Griner will break your defense, too, just in a very different manner. Take a look at some shooting a data via WNBA.com:

2017: 68.2 percent in the restricted area, 55.4 percent on non-restricted area paint shots, 43.6 percent midrange

2018: 64.5 percent RA, 47.2 percent non-RA paint, 49.7 midrange

Griner’s baseline turnaround/hook and overall spot-up midrange shooting have reached a point where even those shots have to be seen as layups for her. Some may not like the fact that Griner’s game is more skill than sheer strength. It doesn’t matter. Who else draws double teams on the catch because defenses are scared to death of giving up a 10-foot turnaround jumper?

2. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

What a season for Stewie and the Storm. After scraping by just to make the playoffs in her first two seasons, everything clicked in year three as she established her standing as one of the undisputed best players in the world.

It is not her only strength by a long shot, but I always choose to highlight Stewart’s 40-plus percent 3-point shooting and high, unbothered release because it forces teams into impossible decisions. Stewart will probably get off a clean look over you if you recover in time and will beat you off the dribble if you slip up on a closeout.

She can drag you down to the block (1.13 PPP in 91 post-up possessions) if you’re forced to switch. While Stewart was very good in those situations last season, that’s still the next frontier to be explored to a greater degree upon her return for the sake of this conversation, because…

1. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

Delle Donne, in a word, is the choice here because you can do everything right—force them to burn clock, wall off the rim and get your preferred defender on her—and it still won’t matter.

It doesn’t matter who that defender is. Delle Donne is the league’s most dangerous isolation scorer. She still draws doubles against top-tier defenders, never turns it over (4.8 turnover percentage) and forces teams to play in rotation.

Only five players used at least 60 possessions (roughly two per game) in isolation last season. Cambage (0.95 PPP on 79 possessions) and Delle Donne (0.88 on 106 possessions) were the only ones to use more than 64.

EDD gives a team ultimate flexibility. You can go big to play her nominally as a 3 at times or more as a 4 or 5. She brings the healthiest balance of sturdiness to bang in the post, mobility to cover ground and rotate and length to do whatever her team needs against a given opponent.

In theory, you’d also want the freedom to give your best scorer some of the less taxing defensive assignments from time to time. Delle Donne’s tools make it easier to do so against more opponents and allow her to match the various challenges different opponents will bring when she really has to dial it up.

In reality, Delle Donne is a guard that happens to be very tall. The end of game stuff gets easier because of that. Give it to her at the top of the key and you’ll be in great hands. She gives you some of Stewie’s gravity as a pick-and-pop or spot-up threat that also feasts as the trailer in transition. Teams will never have an answer for those situations. The pull-up triple will be there if she wants it and if you press up too far she’s taking two hard dribbles to get fouled at the rim.

There isn’t just one acceptable answer for this No. 1 spot. This also is not a cop-out in reaction to her knee injury in last year’s semifinals. There would have been no shame losing to the Storm at full strength, either.

There are plenty of good options out there to choose from in starting a team from scratch. Right now, for my money, Delle Donne is that player. The Mystics hope so, too, as they look to run it back this season to get another chance in the Finals.

For more 2019 WNBA season preview content at BBall Index, check out our two-part ‘Things to Watch’ series on one key issue for each team:

Part 1: Eastern Conference teams

Part 2: Western Conference teams

Graphic by Akshay Ram

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