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2022 WNBA season: Thoughts from each opening-night game

2022 WNBA season: Thoughts from each opening-night game

Year 26 of the WNBA is finally here! There will be plenty of storylines to follow this year: Swan songs for long-time legends (Sylvia Fowles, Sue Bird), highly anticipated returns (Elena Delle Donne), new faces in new places (Tina Charles and Liz Cambage among others), and plenty of young stars looking to make leaps. It's a great time to get invested in the W if you haven't already.

Opening night was a doozy: four games featuring eight teams with wildly different expectations. Every game got my brain churning in some capacity, and the same can be said for my pal Mark Schindler.

So, naturally, we decided to team up and share our takeaways from each game. Let's dig in!

INDIANA FEVER VS WASHINGTON MYSTICS

THE SCORE: 84-70 MYSTICS

THE STORY: MYSTICS' OFFENSE SCARY HOURS

This was a weird game to say the least, something that will likely be the norm for an extremely young Fever team that started three rookies and had five who played significant rotation minutes last night.

The youth was apparent, but so was the budding potential. NaLyssa Smith finished her first game in the pros with a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double while showcasing the footwork, fluidity and athleticism that make her a remarkable prospect.

Destanni Henderson carved up the floor with passes, hitting cutters with ease and operating out of ball screens with the guile that made her a joy to watch at South Carolina.

Most importantly, seeing a healthy Elena Delle Donne back was just awesome. She's gone through an insane amount medically in the past few seasons, and to come in without a minutes restriction was great.

The 84 points scored by the Mystics last night undersells the brilliant flashes they put together offensively. While noting again that this Fever team is of course inexperienced, Washington put them through the ringer. They threw so many actions and looks at the wall in the first game that impressed, and it felt like a playoff gameplan at times. The second Crystal Dangerfield checked into the game, sets were called to run lead guard Natasha Cloud off screens or cuts to post the much smaller Dangerfield up and draw a foul or easy bucket.

Cloud saw the court extremely well last night, and her control of the offense and ability to shift east and west to find better angles to attack was impressive. 

For a roughly five-minute stretch in the second quarter, the Mystics went to Delle Donne at the 5 with Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Tianna Hawkins. All five players can shoot, pass, handle and attack the floor. While it's not a look that the Mystics can fully embrace for large chunks of the game, the run they went on (outscoring Indiana by 8 in a 4:47 stretch, per InStat scouting) showed glimpses of a potent lineup.

With Delle Donne up screening this high and three shooters fanned out, Fever rookie big Queen Egbo has to play at the level. Cloud is capable of hitting a pull-up two against drop. Delle Donne is too good of a shooter from *checks notes* everywhere to give her any modicum of space. It's hard to draw help from any of the off-ball defenders given the personnel the Mystics are employing.

Washington went repeatedly to a 5-out look with this group. Space Delle Donne and use Hawkins as a popper off a pick for Cloud, as she can drive to the basket off a hard close. This is a stout group defensively as well! There's length and mobility. While they'd likely struggle against a true post, the offense feels like it could be so good that it can dictate matchups and opposing lineups.

This Mystics team has a chance to really pop, and it's great to see them whole again. - Mark

STRAY THOUGHTS

I was a bit surprised by how straight-up the Fever defended the Mystics in this one. Pick-and-rolls were defended two-on-two, often allowing Delle Donne to pop into open space or, if the Fever executed a late switch, drivers to get one-on-ones against bigs. Delle Donne saw plenty of single coverage on post-ups, including a notable up-and-under against NyLyssa Smith. Bless her heart. 

- On the pick-and-roll front, I'm curious to see how teams defend the Cloud-Delle Donne duo moving forward. Drop is a non-starter, and switches aren't ideal considering the scoring ability of both. Do you really want to give Delle Donne short-roll opportunities with traps? Good luck.

- The post-up bullying aside, it was nice to see Dangerfield scooting around out there. I'm still a little shellshocked by the Lynx waiving her, especially considering the struggles they had generating offense in their game against the Storm. - Nekias

Custom Patch Hats

LOS ANGELES SPARKS VS CHICAGO SKY

THE SCORE: 98-91 (OT), SPARKS

THE STORY: DANA EVANS!!!!

The most competitive game of the evening was also a cagey affair! Both teams have new faces in prominent roles, and it was clear that both coaching staffs were trying to pinpoint these new areas early to test the waters of their personnel.

Chennedy Carter had great flashes as a scorer out of transition and in the halfcourt, but she was also on a very different rhythm than the rest of the team, which was to be expected in her first game in LA. Derek Fisher rode with Jordin Canada down the stretch, as she cut up the Sky in the halfcourt on drives and set up her teammates extremely well. They don't win the game without her shotmaking (and that call on the last shot).

Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike were both fantastic — Parker with her playmaking and defensive freneticism, Ogwumike with her aggression on offense and defense as well. It was great to see Nneka look this fluid and fully healthy.

The story of the game for me was backup guard Dana Evans. A member of the Sky's title team as a rookie last season, Evans shined bright, going for a career-high 24 points, easily surpassing her 14-point outing that paced her scoring last season.

Evans toggled on and off the ball, which made her performance all the more impressive. She got to her pull-up and operated well as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll. She canned some deep threes, which opened up even more for her off the catch. She was great intiating sets and then relocating and making herself involved in play, which is essential playing alongside star players.

Evans was great drawing contact, finishing through it and making herself a weapon as a secondary scorer and advantage attacker last night, feasting off of initial plays in sets. 

With Julie Allemand (part of the Diamond DeShields trade in the offseason) coming over from overseas to play soon, it'll be interesting to see how the backup guard rotation shapes up in Chicago. Allie Quigley was out last night and Kahleah Copper (who is also finishing up overseas play) is really the only true wing on the roster. As Peter Kilkelly pointed out last night, we should expect a lot of 3-guard sets from the Sky this season. This was a special, special performance from Dana that perhaps signified even more reason for excitement this season. - Mark

STRAY THOUGHTS

Consider me intrigued with Chicago's frontcourt. Starting big with Parker, newcomer Emma Meesseman, and Azura Stevens is sure to pose problems for everyone. That combination of size and ball skills can only be matched by... two other teams? Maybe three? To the three-guard point, I'm excited to see more of the Parker-Meesseman duo. They already showcased some high-low chemistry in the opener.

- How about Jordin Canada, Starting Point Guard? It's about darn time! She's been one of the W's best drivers and point-of-attack defenders for quite some time. Watching her direct the offense and call her own number down the stretch was pretty fun. I don't think she's a 21-and-8 player, but there's clearly more in the bag than she was able to show in Seattle.

- Chennedy Carter is playing basketball again! Her shot creation should pop in this bench role. One might say she'll provide a Spark. - Nekias

LAS VEGAS ACES VS PHOENIX MERCURY

THE SCORE: 106-88, ACES

THE STORY: OFFENSIVE FREEDOM

Let's get the caveats out of the way early. It's one (1) game. The Mercury, in particular, were missing a ton of talent. There was no Brittney Griner (GET BRITTNEY HOME) as she's still detained in Russia. Brianna Turner, one of the best young frontcourt players in the W, is still playing overseas. The same is true for Diamond DeShields, one of the most athletic wings in the W. That's a pretty large chunk of the Mercury's defensive infrastructure missing. 

With that said: whew, buddy, did the Aces put the ball in the basket.

Not only did they drop 106 points, a mark they eclipsed just twice last season, the way they went about it was encouraging. 

With A'ja Wilson starting alongside Dearica Hamby, there was more space to operate with. The pace was pushed more frequently they won the fastbreak points battle, 15-6 and the tempo was up in the half-court. More pace and space means Wilson and Hamby getting busy as screeners or post hubs. Actions with an empty corner have a little more juice now.

Ah, and then there were the threes. 

The Aces were the league's most efficient offense last season, but did so in the most predictable, traditionalist way. They fed the block and brutalized opponents inside. This wasn't a team that shot threes often; their 13.5 attempts last season ranked last in the league by a pretty decent margin. 

The tide seems to be turning for the group under new head coach Becky Hammon. They attempted 23 triples in their lone preseason game. They took 21 on Friday night, making 11 of them. It was, per the broadcast, the third time in franchise history that they made 11 or more threes in a game. 

Between Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray bombing away from deep (hitting a combined 6-of-11 from three), and the complementary play styles (and general mobility) of Wilson and Hamby, it should come as no shock that Jackie Young (20 points on 8-of-10 shooting) was also able to shake loose.

Good freaking luck with this group. - Nekias

STRAY THOUGHTS

- I've already started the Kelsey Plum All-Star campaign, and Kelsey has done so accordingly with her play!

- I was so so impressed by Las Vegas' ball movement and connective passing. While it's important to note that the Mercury were pretty depleted heading into game one, the Aces exacerbated all the advantages they could find and make.

- Jackie Young!!! Entering her fourth season, I have really high expectations for who Jackie can be. With a new coach and system, I think Friday night was a glimpse of her bright spots from past years as well as how beneficial pacing and an even more spread floor benefits her game. She's so strong on her power-drives to the rim and such a fantastic mid-range shooter on a variety of self-created looks. Her defense on Diana Taurasi was extremely fun and effective as well, really sticking to her off the ball. - Mark

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SEATTLE STORM VS MINNESOTA LYNX

THE SCORE: 97-74, STORM

THE STORY: GABBY WILLIAMS IS BACK

It's been a tumultuous stretch from Gabby Williams, a UConn standout turned gap-filler for the Chicago Sky. She had her contract suspended for roster-spot reasons you can get a breakdown of that ordeal here and was then traded from the Sky to the Los Angeles Sparks before the 2021 season began.

She was traded again over the offseason, this time to the Seattle Storm for Katie Lou Samuelson and the pick (#9 overall) that became Rae Burrell.

We're only a game in, but this is already looking like one of the best moves of the offseason for the Storm.

Wiilliams can do just about everything but shoot from deep (as she's a career 24.8% from three), which bodes well for a Storm team as active as this one. 

Offensively, she's able to get the machine churning with her passing ability. Whether it's making entry passes, making kicks off the dribble or running the occasional ball screen, Williams can find her teammates. Off the ball, she's a willing screener and heady cutter. You can't really afford to "gap" her because she'll make herself or a teammate a threat.

The real appeal comes on the other end. Williams is a true multi-positional defender. She has the mobility to slide with guards, can deal with virutally any wing you throw at her, and is pesky enough to bother bigger players as well. Watching her slither across screens and mirror ball-handlers is a joy. 

For people who aren't familiar or needed the reminder of what she can do defensively, look no further than her work in the second quarter of this game. These are just three examples of her versatility.

You get it all here. Active hands, timely rotations off the ball, switchability, contesting without fouling. She's a beast. - Nekias

STRAY THOUGHTS

- I'm super intrigued by who Jessica Shepard could be for this team. Her shot was there and she looked confident in it. She displayed some really fun and tantalizing ball skills and court vision as a DHO operator and high-post playmaker. With the Lynx this depleted to start the season, they'll need as much as she can offer as well.

- The Storm miss Mercedes Russell's post presence without a doubt, as Sylvia Fowles bodied them early (a norm for W frontcourt players the past decade-and-a-half). Yet, their ability to rotate backline and flash recovery skills and communicate as a defense throughout the game was impressive. Williams and Briann January bring extra pop at the point of attack and this team shows real capability early to be a more stout defense. - Mark

Mark Schindler contributed to this article.

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