2020 WNBA Preview: Sabrina Ionescu and The Era of the Superteam

Sabrina Ionescu and her entire family crowd around a television, a staged background of flower arrangements and star-shaped balloons behind them. Satou Sabally’s sister tosses a water bottle off-screen amid a hasty camera cut. Megan Walker hushes her family, who could not contain their excitement at her selection by the New York Liberty. “We couldn’t really hear when they said my name,” Ionescu, also headed to New York as the first overall pick, told reporters days later.

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On April 17, the WNBA held its 2020 Draft. Due to the social distancing rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ESPN-hosted event happened in a virtual format. There was no orange carpet rolled out, as is tradition. Instead, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert emceed the event from her basement, holding up team jerseys with each selection, while the broadcast jumped from home to home, offering looks into the living rooms of each draftee.

In place of the glamour, we glimpsed human moments.

Before New York made its selection, Engelbert drafted three to the W family as honorary picks: Alyssa Altobelli, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, and Payton Chester. It was a beautiful tribute for the three teammates, who died in a helicopter crash back on January 26 alongside Kobe Bryant and others. “We had been planning that,” Engelbert said to Sports Illustrated. “We were going to honor them no matter if it was live or virtual.” Bryant, who has been posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, was a huge supporter of women’s basketball.

The league itself, like all other major sports, is at a pause due to the pandemic, though there’s hope on the horizon. The WNBA is exploring all avenues to salvage the season, including single-site games without fans in attendance.

This was a particularly rough weekend: opening tip had been set for Friday, May 15. Still, though, there’s momentum to capitalize on.

The 2020 Draft’s viewership numbers reflected the league’s growth and the excitement surrounding the W. The event averaged 387,000 viewers, a 133% increase from the year before, and was the league’s most watched draft since the Diana Taurasi-led class of 2004.

Much of the hype this year surrounded Ionescu (whose new jersey sold out within an hour of her selection). The four-year point guard out of Oregon boasts one of the strongest college basketball resumes ever compiled. She is the only collegiate athlete—in both the men’s and women’s game—to score 2,000 points, pull down 1,000 rebounds, and dish out 1,000 assists. Before Sabrina, nobody in the NCAA had ever totaled more than a dozen triple-doubles in his or her college career; by the time she left Oregon, she had notched 26.

Ionescu’s selection heralds a new era of New York Liberty basketball, as the team completes a top-to-bottom rebuild. Last year, Joseph Tsai, also governor of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, bought the franchise. New coach, Walt Hopkins, has talked up a dynamic offense centered around interchangeable athletic wings and a three-point barrage.

After spending the last two seasons marooned at the substandard Westchester County Center, the Liberty are moving to Brooklyn. According to Across the Timeline, the Liberty ranked dead last in attendance in 2019, pulling in just 2,239 fans a game, far below the league average of 6,528. However, the new home provides future promise. In the one regular season game New York played at the Barclays Center last season, 7,715 spectators filled the lower bowl.

Days ahead of the draft, the team completed its first ever rebrand, retaining the seafoam green of its namesake, while also incorporating the black and white that dominate their co-tenant’s aesthetic. “While this new logo pays homage to our franchise history and the history of New York City, it also nods to our future and modernizes the team’s overall look,” said Liberty Chief Operating Officer Keia Clarke in a press release.

The last big transition came days before the draft. New York traded the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, Tina Charles, to the 2019 champs, the Washington Mystics. The Charles transaction is the latest in an offseason full of player movement. This year’s free agency frenzy offers another avenue of excitement, thanks in part to the league’s recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement.

The new CBA substantially increased both individual salary floors and team salary caps. With the salary cap ballooning to $1.3 million per team and already-contracted players grandfathered in at their current rates, many teams had the financial flexibility to make significant offseason improvements. Several teams are all-in.

The Los Angeles Sparks, who already boasted former MVPs Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, poached Kristi Toliver from the Mystics. The Mystics, with a pair of MVPs of their own in Charles and Elena Delle Donne, signed 2019 Sixth Woman of the Year Leilani Mitchell away from the Phoenix Mercury. Phoenix, after trading All-Star forward DeWanna Bonner to the Connecticut Sun, flipped picks to the rebuilding Dallas Wings for four-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith (who slots in alongside Taurasi and Brittney Griner).

What does all this mean? The free agency game of musical chairs has created formidable title-ready squads, and whatever your preferred style of gameplay, there’s a team to follow.

The era of the WNBA superteam has arrived.

A season removed from their 2018 title, the Seattle Storm are coming off a sabbatical year, of sorts. After missing all of 2019 due to injuries, Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird return to an experienced squad. The three-point blueprint New York is looking to employ comes after the last two title winners—Seattle and Washington—set records for long-distance makes in consecutive years.

Down in Las Vegas, the addition of five-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry to the bruising front court of Elizabeth Cambage and A’ja Wilson further shores up their defense, with household names Kelsey Plum and Kayla McBride rounding out an imposing starting lineup.

Atlanta’s new-look Dream will trot out the most confident backcourt in the league, after drafting Chennedy Carter out of Texas A&M and acquiring self-proclaimed walking bucket Courtney Williams. Williams’ father, Don, the W’s most enthusiastic fan, will bring his courtside energy into State Farm Arena.

No team played at a faster pace last season than the Chicago Sky, led by perennial assist leader Courtney Vandersloot. Allie Quigley, her backcourt partner and wife, is a three-time All-Star who recently took down Chris Paul in ESPN’s H-O-R-S-E competition. Rounding out Chicago’s talented trio is the impossibly cool Diamond DeShields, decked out in her unique goggles, high bun, and shooting sleeve.

Even the youth movements are compelling. The Indiana Fever’s high-low combo of Lauren Cox and Teaira McCowan will make them a matchup nightmare; the Dallas Wings’ newly drafted Sabally (together with other high picks Bella Alarie and Tyasha Harris) will slot in alongside sophomore Arike Ogunbowale, who is never afraid to take the big shot; Cheryl Reeve’s Minnesota Lynx are always in contention, with veteran Sylvia Fowles leading last season’s Rookie of the Year, Napheesa Collier, and the rest of a developing core.

There are only 144 spots across 12 WNBA rosters—breaking into this competitive league is no easy task. Each season sees first round picks that are unable to crack the rosters out of training camp. Every player that crests that tier is an elite athlete, as are the ones who don’t make the cut. Turn on any game and you are treated to an All-Star matchup. Attend any game and you will be in close proximity to the stars.

And you’ll see other things, simultaneously familiar and foreign: intermission shout-outs to local businesses that have become Gender Fair certified; older fans in vintage team gear reminiscing about Sheryl Swoopes or Lisa Leslie; a pair of Girl Scouts in full uniform dancing in the aisles during timeout breaks. You’ll hear Coach Bill Laimbeer chew out a referee, or Chiney Ogwumike call out a screen. You’ll follow the ping-ponging trash talk on Twitter. You’ll watch games overseas at obscure hours to support your favorites that need to play through the WNBA offseason to make their passion a career.

“I’m excited to get [to New York] and grow the fan base,” Ionescu said during an interview on ESPN’s First Take. “I want more and more players to reach out to fans and try to get them as part of our family.”

So when we’re back on track, if you enjoy the game of basketball, give the WNBA a shot. Pick a squad that fits you and watch a game, watch a quarter, watch a possession. You won’t regret it.