Entering the 2022 WNBA season, opinions varied widely on a range of issues. The only place with consensus? There were, potentially, 10 teams fighting for the playoffs. Indiana and Atlanta would be heading for the lottery.
A week into the season, the Atlanta Dream are one of two remaining undefeated teams, at 2-0, while the the Indiana Fever has already earned a win over a member of last season’s top-four squads, the Minnesota Lynx. Moreover, there are encouraging signs within the data to suggest that both teams can be better than anyone thought.
Let’s dig in.
The first thing to consider, while we acknowledge that it is extremely early and the sample size is extremely small, is that we’re still looking at a sizable chunk of the WNBA season. Washington, for instance, has already played three games, which, in a 36-game slate, is 8.3 percent of the team’s year. Have you formed any ideas about a Major League Baseball team after 13 games? An NBA team after seven games? That’s a similar point of comparison.
So it’s not everything, but it’s also not nothing. For instance: “She is a generational talent,” a WNBA talent evaluator texted me about Rhyne Howard after her Dream beat the Los Angeles Sparks, who came into Atlanta’s home opener Wednesday with a win in hand over the defending champion Chicago Sky.
“Her IQ, her confidence, just coming in knowing that we need her, and she’s a big part of this team,” Atlanta’s Cheyenne Parker said about what makes Howard different following the game Wednesday night. “Her just embracing that, and taking it full head-on.”
This is no exaggeration. Howard averaged 35 minutes per game in the first two contests, with no other Atlanta player reaching over 30. She is also the team’s second in assist percentage, at 18.2 percent, and she is shooting 40.9 percent from three.
The other half of her two-way game is translating instantly as well. She leads her team in block percentage, at 5.5, and is one of three Dream defenders with a steal percentage north of two. She’s a big reason the Dream are sporting an 81.7 defensive rating, second in the league, so far.
As for Indiana, their sixth-in-the-league 99.6 defensive rating may not seem very impressive, but it represents a massive improvement over last year’s 107.8, by far the worst in the WNBA. This is a fundamentally different roster, thanks to the jump-started rebuild from interim general manager Lin Dunn, but it is paying off early on the defensive end, no easy feat for a team featuring five rookies. Four of those rookies — Emily Engstler, Lexie Hull, Queen Egbo and Destanni Henderson — feature positive defensive on/off ratings so far.
And the Fever don’t need to find out who their star is. It’s Kelsey Mitchell, who has a career-best assist percentage north of 24 so far, is efficient from the field while taking the most threes per game of her career, and is in every way the player 2022 seems built to finally let bloom.
It is notable that the Fever win came against Minnesota, who have some things to figure out for sure. While Sylvia Fowles is a devastating offensive force in the middle, the Lynx have yet to find the point guard best suited to get her the ball. The three primary point guards to date — Rachel Banham; Yvonne Turner, who had been signed on a hardship deal; and Odyssey Sims, who was waived Thursday — were all at 23 percent or below in assist percentage, while defenses aren’t paying a price for leaving them alone to shoot, either. Turner leads that group from the field, and she’s shooting 32 percent.
That said, I’m not particularly concerned about the Lynx. For one thing, they’ll be getting Damiris Dantas and Kayla McBride back soon from injury and overseas commitments. For another, coach Cheryl Reeve always seems to figure it out — her teams have made the playoffs every year since 2011. And the development of Jessica Shepard is already paying huge dividends: The unconventional star-to-be is actually Minnesota’s leader in assist percentage, at 29.3, and is shooting the ball from everywhere, effectively, taking a leap forward that will put her in the Most Improved Player conversation.
Finally, the Washington Mystics are making an early claim for team-to-beat status in the WNBA. They’re 3-0, and the underlying metrics support this topline result. The Mystics dominated the league in 2019, with a net rating of +14.8. So far in 2022, they’re at +16.3. Natasha Cloud is hitting 36.4 percent of her threes, another level up in her remarkable journey since playing at St. Joseph’s, while Shakira Austin is making an immediate impact at both ends, with an on/off net rating that trails only Cloud and underrated superstar Ariel Atkins among her teammates.
They’ve done it without Alysha Clark playing a minute, something that is expected to change tonight. They’ve done it while giving Elena Delle Donne a game off in between Games 1 and 3 on the schedule, and playing her only 29.5 minutes per game in the two she did participate in. And they’ve done it without Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, a strong 3-point shooter, making a single shot from beyond the arc yet.
It’s early. But I’ve seen enough to maintain my championship ceiling for the Mystics and revise their floor upward.
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.