One of the most hyped WNBA seasons in some time is upon us, as the 2023 campaign kicks off Friday with eight teams taking the floor, while the other four make their debut in a pair of games Saturday.
Brittney Griner is back with the Phoenix Mercury following her wrongful detainment in Russia. And two superteams are expected to duke it out for the title: the defending champion Las Vegas Aces — who could become the first team to repeat since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02 — and the new-look New York Liberty — who acquired two former MVPs in the offseason and are hoping to win the franchise’s first title.
But don’t count out the likes of the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics, who have both been regular championship contenders the past few years, or squads like the Sparks and Dallas Wings, who are expected to make impressive stands with new coaches.
This season will look different: Legends Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird have retired. Skylar Diggins-Smith is out on maternity leave, while Tina Charles remains an unrostered free agent. Just when fans got used to seeing Candace Parker in a Chicago Sky uniform, the two-time MVP and league champion signed with the Aces. Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones had all played for one franchise prior to moving to the Liberty this offseason.
As the league enters its 27th season, buckle up for a summer of superstardom, intrigue, surprises and great basketball. Before the season tips, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel discuss what to expect, ESPN’s women’s fantasy basketball crew adds some insight and all the experts make their predictions on how the season pans out and which team will win the 2023 crown.
If neither the Aces nor Liberty win the 2023 title, which team will?
Pelton: Connecticut Sun. We’ve already seen Connecticut get within a game of the WNBA Finals without Jonquel Jones when she opted out of the 2020 Wubble season. As compared to that season, when the Sun made the playoffs with a below-.500 record before catching fire, this roster looks more dangerous offensively thanks to Brionna Jones‘ development and the addition of Tiffany Hayes.
Philippou: The Washington Mystics. The Mystics enter 2023 with a great combo of pre-existing chemistry, defensive prowess and an eye towards improving from last year on the offensive end. Finally healthy, Elena Delle Donne could be poised for a massive year, and it’ll be interesting to see how free agent addition Brittney Sykes is incorporated into the fold. Shakira Austin in year two will undoubtedly be a joy to watch. It would be wise not to count out a team with so many components remaining (or which has brought back Kristi Toliver) from its 2019 title run.
Voepel: Delle Donne was very good last season even though she had to take some scheduled breaks to rest and avoid some of the Mystics’ travel. She hopes to be able to play every game this season. If she’s anywhere close to that, along with all the talent Alexa mentioned, plus guards Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins, the Mystics could be their own “superteam” and take the title. It is Eric Thibault’s first season as head coach, but he learned from the best as an assistant to dad Mike Thibault, and Eric is ready to make his own mark.
Who are the leading candidates for MVP other than players on the Las Vegas and New York rosters?
Pelton: I know A’ja Wilson won with Kelsey Plum finishing second a year ago (the Liberty’s Breanna Stewart was third playing for Seattle), but I think it’s going to be harder for players on those two teams to win given the “superteam” storyline. That opens an opportunity for whoever leads their team into a top-three spot, including two-time MVP Delle Donne. With planned rest no longer a reality for Delle Donne, I think it’s realistic she could add a third trophy. My long-shot candidate is Napheesa Collier, who will be the go-to player on the Minnesota Lynx with Sylvia Fowles’ retirement.
Philippou: So true — can a “superteam,” by definition, produce a league MVP? MVP voting often favors the best player on the best team, but we’ll have to see. Delle Donne is a logical choice, but I’ll throw out Alyssa Thomas. It’ll be fascinating to see how the new-look Sun fare given the personnel and coaching changes, but it’s clear this is Thomas’ team now following the departures of Jonquel Jones and Jasmine Thomas.
For the Sun to continue to compete for a championship, Alyssa Thomas would undoubtedly have a massive role on both ends of the floor. Even though she doesn’t have much of a jump shot, perhaps making her an untraditional MVP candidate, few players boast her versatility and impact on both sides of the ball. In her introductory news conference, Sun coach Stephanie White compared Thomas’ toughness and grit to that of former MVP Tamika Catchings.
Voepel: Both are still young and still getting better, so Wilson and Stewart will be top MVP candidates for the foreseeable future. But if it’s not one of them or their teammates this season, Delle Donne is the best bet.
Which teams should make the biggest jump this season?
Voepel: Of the teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season, the Atlanta Dream might rise the most in 2023. With Rhyne Howard back after her Rookie of the Year season, Allisha Gray in a new environment and rookie Haley Jones with a chance to show how she adapts to the pro game, the Dream should be fun to follow. In Minnesota, Collier’s full-time return to the Lynx should have them back in the postseason, where we are so used to seeing them.
Philippou: The Dallas Wings are among the most intriguing teams heading into the season. They have a new coach in Latricia Trammell, some new players acquired via trade (Natasha Howard, Diamond DeShields, Crystal Dangerfield) and a good number of rookies to go along with familiar faces like Arike Ogunbowale, Teaira McCowan and Satou Sabally.
A bit of a blow came with the news that DeShields will be sidelined for an extended part of the season, and draftee Lou Lopez Senechal will also miss time after undergoing knee surgery, so the Wings will be shorthanded to start 2023. Dallas has been rather enigmatic for years, but could Trammell be the coach to fully squeeze the potential out of the roster and get the franchise on track for a deep playoff run?
Pelton: Phoenix Mercury. I’m old enough to remember when Phoenix was going to be the WNBA’s super team built through free agency, with Tina Charles joining Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi coming off a WNBA Finals loss. Griner’s wrongful detention in Russia scuttled those hopes, and now she’s returning to a very different Mercury roster with Diggins-Smith on maternity leave after giving birth to her second child, a daughter. Can a Taurasi-Griner-Brianna Turner core still lead Phoenix to the playoffs, or is the Mercury’s lack of proven depth too much to overcome?
Who will be 2023’s breakout stars who might get their first All-Star bid?
Pelton: Ezi Magbegor. The Aussie had a sneaky case last year, averaging 11.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG and a league-high 2.3 BPG in a starting role before Charles pushed her to the bench. Not only will Magbegor start this season in Seattle, she’ll be a top offensive option with the departures of Charles and Stewart.
Philippou: Allisha Gray. I’m already on the record as thinking she was snubbed last year. Now in Atlanta through 2025, she’ll be able to shine as one of the key players Tanisha Wright can build around and should thrive with Wright’s focus on defense. Other players to look out for: 2022 draftees NaLyssa Smith and Shakira Austin.
Voepel: Seattle’s Magbegor could really come into her own, and Indiana’s Smith likely will be even better this season with new teammate Aliyah Boston. It seems only a matter of time before all three are All-Stars. This year, Magbegor and Smith might get the nod.
Will we see Tina Charles, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Angel McCoughtry or Chennedy Carter play in the WNBA this season?
Philippou: Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said this week that Diggins-Smith is currently on maternity leave and the Mercury are allowing her space to enjoy time with her family. But when pressed on whether the team expects her to play for them this summer, Nygaard responded, “Those questions are probably better suited” to general manager Jim Pitman. She also argued the notion Diggins-Smith didn’t get along with teammates was untrue, and the tension we saw last summer in Phoenix stemmed from the stress of Griner’s detainment. Regardless of whether Diggins-Smith suits up this summer, the Mercury face a big decision this upcoming offseason as she’ll be a free agent in 2024.
Pelton: It’s also worth noting that Phoenix’s largest offseason addition was a point guard, Moriah Jefferson, who averaged 10.8 PPG and 4.9 APG as a starter after joining the Minnesota Lynx last year. Given the Mercury’s other needs, investing in Jefferson on a three-year contract seems like an indication the organization doesn’t expect to have Diggins-Smith this season. Of the free agents, I’d give Charles the best chance of joining a team midseason, similar to her move from Phoenix to Seattle last year.
Voepel: There was obvious tension at times last season between Diggins-Smith and Nygaard, and between Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi. It seems unlikely Skylar will suit up for the Mercury again.
Diggins-Smith, 32, had a very good 2022 season nonetheless and could be a good fit elsewhere at some point. She has kept a lot of her life and decisions very private, which is absolutely her prerogative. Trying to guess how eager she is to return this season after recently having her second child is somewhat a fool’s errand.
Charles was the league’s leading scorer in 2021 and is still an elite player at age 34. Her agent told ESPN recently that she is still considering what she wants to do this summer and that it’s possible she might join a team later in the season.
McCoughtry, at age 36 and having battled knee injuries, might have a tougher time getting an opportunity. Carter is an enigma. The No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft is talented and only 24. But after playing 51 games in three seasons and things not working out with the Dream or the Sparks, Carter faces an uncertain future in the WNBA.
Name a player you’re going after and one you’re avoiding in fantasy women’s basketball leagues this season.
Jennifer LaCroix: Marina Mabrey was traded to the Sky in the offseason, and it could be the perfect fit. She is a great 3-point shooter, exactly what Chicago needs after losing 71% of its 3-point production from 2022. She will be alongside Kahleah Copper, who is one of the best guards at scoring in the paint (8.1 PPG in paint, which ranks second in the league), which means lots of spot-up shooting for Mabrey. I expect her to put up career numbers and to be one of the league leaders in 3-pointers.
I’m staying away from Courtney Vandersloot due to the massive talent around her. She’s not an elite scoring guard or shooter, and her bread and butter is facilitating, but those numbers could drop since she will be sharing the distribution role with Sabrina Ionescu.
Eric Moody: Magbegor is a must-add player for all of my fantasy squads. In 2022, she soared to new heights and emerged as one of the brightest young stars with the Storm. Throughout her first 22 games, Magbegor showcased her impressive all-around skills, averaging 11.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.
I’m steering clear of drafting Delle Donne, despite her impressive per game averages last season. In fantasy sports, it’s not ideal to have a player who has a high average draft position and a history of missing games. It’s a suboptimal situation when you’re aiming for consistency and reliability when setting your starting lineup.
Liz Loza: Napheesa Collier is my personal 1.01 in this year’s redraft game. Stewart, Wilson and Ionescu might be brighter stars on contending squads, but Collier is primed to feast with Fowles retired. I have faith she’s shaken off any rust and is ready to bounce back to 2021 form, when she averaged a career-high 16.2 PPG.
I’m not intentionally avoiding any players, but I am prioritizing guards early due to how quickly the high-end backcourt producers thin out. The strategy has resulted in frequently fading Natasha Howard. The three-time WNBA champ is an absolute star, but she isn’t guaranteed the same playing time in Dallas that she had in New York. With rotational questions looming, and given the number of quality forwards who can be had in the second half of drafts, Howard is outside of my top 20.
André Snellings: I seem to draft Elena Delle Donne in every league this year because her injury history appears to scare others away. Delle Donne has had a long, grueling road to recovery since 2019. She load managed but played the majority of 2022 at a high level, and plans to play full minutes this summer. I’m typically able to draft her at the end of the second or third round, where her proven upside if healthy makes her incredibly valuable.
I have yet to draft Jonquel Jones. Because she played for my hometown Sun, I’ve watched her in person more than any other player, and she’s incredible. But I expect her numbers to be lower this season on a Liberty team with so much talent, including another high volume MVP in the frontcourt. Jones has been going in the top of the second round in the leagues I’ve drafted.
Pelton: I’ve been targeting Jones precisely because André and others have been avoiding her. Even with an adjustment for the stronger talent around her in New York, I think she can produce at a top-five level in terms of fantasy impact. I think Ionescu is the Liberty player with the biggest adjustment from a statistical standpoint, since the newcomers were all playing with stars beforehand. She was more clearly the go-to player in New York. Competitors have drafted Ionescu before I’m comfortable doing so this year.
Expert preseason picks
Which player is your preseason pick for MVP?
Jennifer LaCroix: Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty
Liz Loza: Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty
Eric Moody: Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty
Kevin Pelton: Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
Alexa Philippou: Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty
André Snellings: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
M.A. Voepel: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Who is your preseason Rookie of the Year?
LaCroix: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
Loza: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
Moody: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
Pelton: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
Philippou: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
Snellings: Diamond Miller, Minnesota Lynx
Voepel: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
Who is your preseason Defensive Player of the Year?
LaCroix: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Loza: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Moody: Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm
Pelton: Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm
Philippou: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
Snellings: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Voepel: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Who is your preseason Most Improved Player?
LaCroix: Marina Mabrey, Chicago Sky
Loza: Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix Mercury
Moody: Azura Stevens, Los Angeles Sparks
Pelton: Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm
Philippou: Teaira McCowan, Dallas Wings
Snellings: Aari McDonald, Atlanta Dream
Voepel: Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm
Which five players — two guards, three frontcourt players — will make the All-WNBA first team?
LaCroix: Kelsey Plum, Arike Ogunbowale, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Napheesa Collier
Loza: Sabrina Ionescu, Arike Ogunbowale, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Napheesa Collier
Moody: Sabrina Ionescu, Arike Ogunbowale, Breanna Stewart, A,ja Wilson, Napheesa Collier
Pelton: Sabrina Ionescu, Kelsey Plum, Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson
Philippou: Arike Ogunbowale, Kelsey Plum, Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson
Snellings: Sabrina Ionescu, Arike Ogunbowale, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Elena Delle Donne
Voepel: Kelsey Plum, Arike Ogunbowale, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Elena Delle Donne
Which teams will meet in the WNBA Finals?
LaCroix: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Loza: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Moody: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Pelton: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Philippou: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Snellings: Las Vegas Aces vs New York Liberty
Voepel: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Which team will win the 2023 WNBA title?
LaCroix: Las Vegas Aces
Loza: New York Liberty
Moody: New York Liberty
Pelton: New York Liberty
Philippou: New York Liberty
Snellings: Las Vegas Aces
Voepel: Las Vegas Aces