You might be one of many fans lamenting the approach of a long summer with "no basketball," but here's the thing: There will be basketball. World-class basketball, in fact, courtesy of the ballers of the WNBA, who are tipping off the league's 22nd season Friday.
Start with 12 teams, a 34-game season, and one rivalry—the Los Angeles Sparks vs. Minnesota Lynx—that resulted in one of the highest-rated finals ever last year. Add stars such as Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, who've returned stateside after dominating overseas, and rookies such as A'ja Wilson, Azura Stevens and Jordin Canada, who are bringing the buzz from the NCAA tournament as they prepare to make their WNBA debuts. Now, all that's left is to sort things out on the hardwood.
Sure, you could read what the WNBA general managers think. But for some real talk, B/R invited a panel of experts to share their picks and predictions for the 2018 WNBA season—so expect copious takes.
Most Valuable Player
Tamryn Spruill: Brittney Griner should be considered a heavy favorite for MVP because she has the building blocks in place for the best season of her career. Coming off a EuroLeague Championship just weeks ago with Russia's Ekaterinburg, Griner is healthy and in peak condition. Additionally, the Phoenix Mercury have put stellar playmakers like Briann January around her to assist on offense. After winning Defensive Player of the Year awards twice (2014, 2015), Griner has expressed a desire to take home MVP honors this season—and we shouldn't question that she can.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: Though Maya Moore was picked in a recent WNBA.com GM survey to be the 2018 MVP, I'm going to go against the tide and pick Brittney Griner instead. I really believe Griner found herself last season as far as becoming a complete player on both ends of the floor, and she still led the league in scoring with 21.9 points per game despite being hampered by injuries. If she can stay healthy, she has a good chance of repeating last season's success all the way through.
Howard Megdal: Knee and ankle injuries cost Brittney Griner eight games last season, and the way the season turned out obscured what was essentially a draw between Griner and Sylvia Fowles all season. Griner finished with a career-best 28.7 player efficiency rating, dramatically increasing her usage, which was a vital step forward for a player who too often hadn't been asserting herself offensively. She is a weapon defensively the likes of which the league simply hasn't seen, and she's on a Phoenix roster built to play at a pace that favors her: with the center surrounded by shooters and fed in the half court by Briann January. I like her chances of again redefining what her ceiling is.
Whitney Medworth: You could have argued this was Brittney Griner's award last season. Injuries really hurt your case in a shorter season like the WNBA has, so that kept her out of the running. I expect Griner to fully bounce back, and not only is she going to have a huge year, the Mercury will too.
Meredith Minkow: Candace Parker. After last year's Finals loss, I expect the Sparks to have a really strong season. Obviously they've added some really good pieces, and we know CP3 is the head of the snake. I see her taking initiative again this year to be the go-to scorer.
Rookie of the Year
Tamryn Spruill: Reigning Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray was named to the 2017 WNBA All-Rookie Team along with her Dallas Wings teammate Kaela Davis. Given that Gray and Davis both studied under Hall of Fame coach Dawn Staley at the University of South Carolina, it is hard to argue that incoming rookie, No. 1 draft pick and Staley protege A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces will not be the leading candidate for this award.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: I was torn between A'ja Wilson and Jordin Canada here. Even though Canada is averaging 16 points per game in the preseason, which is third overall on the WNBA leaderboard, Wilson has more opportunity to make an immediate impact on the court since she'll be starting with the Aces while Canada will probably be coming off the bench to relieve Sue Bird and/or Jewell Loyd. That gives Wilson the edge in my book.
Howard Megdal: This may be the best rookie class in league history, certainly since 2004 (Diana Taurasi/Alana Beard/Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson all picked in the first round), and expect big things right away from Kelsey Mitchell, Diamond DeShields, Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse. But the jewel is A'ja Wilson, who it is clear Bill Laimbeer is centering his offense around. She'll operate mainly out of the 4, and lord help the forwards who try to keep up with Wilson's size, quickness and strength, while teams throwing 5s at her are just asking for Wilson to lure them out of the paint and open things for Las Vegas' penetrating guards. She'll be the latest in a line of elite rookies who come in and post star stats right away, from Tamika Catchings to Maya Moore to Breanna Stewart. That's the level we're talking about here.
Whitney Medworth: If another rookie can steal this from A'ja Wilson, it will be the biggest storyline of the season. And that's saying something because this rookie class is stacked! But, yeah, Bill Laimbeer is ready to build that entire offense in Vegas around her. She's going to be great.
Meredith Minkow: A'ja Wilson. At this point it's kind of hard to pick anyone but her. She averaged like 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the preseason. This rookie class is insanely stacked, so I think it will be as close a race as ever, but A'ja's game is super polished, so I expect her to hit the ground running.
Most Improved Player
Tamryn Spruill: If her regular-season play even remotely resembles her performance during the preseason, the MIP honors will go to Chelsea Gray of the Los Angeles Sparks. Against Team China on May 12, Gray scored 17 points, dished 10 assists, pulled down four rebounds and grabbed a steal! It doesn't matter if the performance was "just against Team China"—it shows promise for the season, especially considering Gray's career highs: 25 points against Atlanta (May 27, 2017), 10 assists against Chicago (August 18, 2017), eight rebounds against Dallas (August 6, 2017) and four steals against Chicago (also August 18). Her preseason performance was not a fluke: Gray is poised for a monster year.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: Kelsey Plum's rookie season wasn't what she or we expected it to be. It was rocky from the get-go, but I think she's in a much better space this season to just relax a bit and let the game come to her. I'm banking on her making a huge leap in all categories, but especially her points per game and assists.
Howard Megdal: I came away from the recent preseason games in Connecticut struck by Sydney Wiese, whose game I already liked in college. She's got elite court vision, has a season under her belt, sinking 40 percent of her threes, and can play an expanded defensive role for Brian Agler with her size (6'0") and improved quickness and strength. Wiese looks to me like a prototype of where the league is going, guardwise.
Whitney Medworth: I think Kelsey Plum is going to have a breakout season in her sophomore stint. New city (Las Vegas), new coach (Laimbeer), new incredible rookie (Wilson). Her rookie year was rocky and arguably was not all her fault. I think it's all going to come together, and we'll get back to seeing the Plum we were used to in college.
Meredith Minkow: Kind of strange to award MIP to a sophomore, but after she struggled last season I fully expect Kelsey Plum to break through this season. She's been looking more like her college playing days overseas, and I think she'll bring that same energy back to the Aces.
Team Most Likely to Exceed Expectations (Or, Who's Your Sleeper Pick?)
Tamryn Spruill: It's hard to imagine a planet on which a team led by Sue Bird and rounded out by Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd does not enter many championship discussions. But, here we are. While everyone is talking about whether the Lynx and Sparks will meet in the Finals for a third straight season, the Seattle Storm are plotting destruction. Seattle has won two WNBA championships with Bird; 6'4" Stewart averaged 19.1 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the 2017 season; rookie phenom Jordin Canada is in the house; the Storm have locked up their talent by signing Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to multiyear contracts this week; and Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark bring the kind of grit championships require. Plus, the Storm exhibited dominant play over the Phoenix Mercury during the preseason, clinching both wins. On May 12, the Storm beat the Mercury in a 23-point drubbing.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: The Atlanta Dream finished last season with a 12-22 record. But with Angel McCoughtry coming back, Elizabeth Williams locked up with a contract extension and Renee Montgomery adding more versatility at guard, I don't just think the Dream will finish with a winning record this season; I think they'll make a solid run in the playoffs.
Howard Megdal: Either the Connecticut Sun, assuming Jonquel Jones returns imminently, or the Dallas Wings, should Liz Cambage be what I think she can be for them at center, represent the best chances to upend the Minnesota/Los Angeles Finals duopoly.
Whitney Medworth: Well let's put it this way: I really hope it's the Washington Mystics. I'm ready for some Elena Delle Donne postseason success. The Sun are the clear favorite in the East, but I'd love to see this Washington team come together and make some noise in the playoffs. We need more EDD in our lives.
Meredith Minkow: I'm going to keep rolling with my Las Vegas Aces spotlight here. I've been following them pretty closely this offseason because I found it super-interesting to be able to follow a team through a relocation process. They have so much young talent: Kayla McBride, Plum, Moriah Jefferson, Nia Coffey, Isabelle Harrison, Wilson—I could go on and on. With Laimbeer as the coach, I see this team being really good for a really long time.
Most Overrated Team
Tamryn Spruill: It's not that the Minnesota Lynx are overrated, it's that they've ball-hogged the championships. Sure, it's best to get it while the gettin' is good, but this team is downright greedy. In all seriousness, if anything befalls this team this season it will be its own success. Maya Moore had a long overseas season, and Lindsay Whalen will coach a women's basketball team while playing elite WNBA ball. The grind can even catch up with the most elite players in the world, and I wonder if this combination of circumstances is what thwarts the Lynx's return to the Finals.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: Looking at the top-tier teams in the league, it's hard to throw the New York Liberty in with the mix and feel secure about it. They really didn't do much in the offseason that has me believing they'll do as good or better than they did last season.
Howard Megdal: Sure hope I am wrong about this, but New York does not look to me like the third-best bet to win a WNBA title, as one Vegas line has it. Tina Charles remains a transcendent star of our time, but does she really have enough around her? I'm not convinced; though, expect Kia Nurse to contribute immediately. And New York remains, therefore, a Tina injury away from the lottery.
Whitney Medworth: God bless the Liberty, but I'm afraid they are not all they are cracked up to be. They have the best jerseys in the league and one of my favorite new rookies in Kia Nurse, but the team was ridiculously shipped out to Westchester County. They have a new coach (Katie Smith)...it just doesn't feel good.
Meredith Minkow: The Liberty will always be intriguing to me because of Tina Charles. But last year they definitely underachieved, and I see them doing something similar this season—they didn't add any major pieces that would tell me otherwise.
Your Appointment TV Team or Player
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: I am so here for Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury this season, it might be considered unhealthy. After speaking with her and hearing her say she's not only in the best shape of her career, but that she's also focusing on just having fun again, I can't wait to see how that translates on the court. Taurasi was visibly frustrated last season, when the Mercury lost Alex Harden and Brittney Griner to injury and were also without DeWanna Bonner. This year, the vibe just feels more positive all around.
Howard Megdal: I have way too many appointments, which makes for a limited social life during the summer, but a short list of what I'm most eager to see specific to 2018? The never-ending chess match of superstars between Brian Agler and Cheryl Reeve that is every L.A.-MN matchup. The evolution of the next-level stars like Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones. Alana Beard guarding anyone. What Chicago looks like with Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams at the wings. If we ever get Kelsey Plum and Moriah Jefferson playing in the same Las Vegas lineup with Kayla McBride. Really, there are about a dozen reasons to watch every team. So much for going to the beach.
Whitney Medworth: I'm personally going to be following Gabby Williams' rookie season very closely. I can't wait to see what she does alongside Diamond DeShields in Chicago. I also think this is the year Breanna Stewart makes another leap into elite status, so watching her and Jewell Loyd with the legend Sue Bird in Seattle is always must-watch for me. There is so much to look forward to this season that it's hard to pick.
Meredith Minkow: Minnesota Lynx. I may be biased, but I don't care. Between their team chemistry and the sheer talent, the Minnesota Lynx play beautiful basketball, and I would say that every game is must-watch—especially if they're playing the Sparks, Storm or Mercury. Appointment TV player on that team would be Sylvia Fowles. Syl always shows up and gives you a quiet 18 and 12, every single game.
Tamryn Spruill: With so much on the schedule for #WNBAAllDay, it is hard to think past Sunday, May 20. So here are the #WNBAAllDay can't-miss matchups: 1. Given that Phoenix lost both preseason games to Seattle, this is a definite can't-miss. Did the Mercury lose in an attempt to trick Seattle into complacency for the teams' first regular-season matchup of the season? Or is Phoenix in trouble? 2. The debut of the Las Vegas Aces as a team, and A'ja Wilson in her first regular-season WNBA game is a hot ticket. The Aces face a Connecticut Sun team that has Chiney Ogwumike back after she was forced to sit out the 2017 season with an Achilles injury. 3. Lynx-Sparks, of course.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: If you're not tuning in for the Minnesota Lynx-Los Angeles Sparks rivalry, please do not even call yourself a basketball fan. I'm also intrigued by the Phoenix Mercury matching up with either of the Lynx or Sparks as well, because I think those are going to be both competitive and fun games to watch. I'm also curious to see how the new Las Vegas Aces fare against pretty much any of the other teams, and to see how Atlanta does out of the gate with McCoughtry back.
Howard Megdal: See above: L.A.-Minnesota. But I want to see Dallas and Liz Cambage, how they handle Minnesota with Sylvia Fowles and Phoenix with Brittney Griner. I want to see whether Dan Hughes can play slow in Seattle and make that work, though it runs counter to the faster pace of the league, against teams like Connecticut and Chicago. And I want to know how all the pieces fit in Atlanta, where Nicki Collen is a smart rookie coach.
Whitney Medworth: Never miss a Lynx-Sparks game. Ever.
Meredith Minkow: Obviously Minnesota-L.A. Also I would say Wings-MN and Wings-Mercury. I too am super-excited to see how Griner and Fowles will match up with 6'8" Cambage. I would also add in Lynx-Mercury, which is always fun. Also looking forward to watching the Sky play. I like a lot of the pieces they had last year, and who doesn't want to watch Gabby Williams do what she does? I would honestly guarantee that this season of WNBA basketball is going to be must-watch—there are so many good teams with interesting rosters. It's gonna be an awesome summer.
2018 WNBA Champions
Tamryn Spruill: With both Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi in their mid-30s, time is running out for them to add another championship notch to their belts. Although various factors, on paper, could count either of these players and their teams out, it is best not to bet against greatness—GOATs have immeasurable will to make the seemingly impossible happen. So I see either of these teams (Seattle or Phoenix) returning to the 2018 WNBA Finals to do battle against—you guessed it—the Minnesota Lynx.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo: It's hard to imagine two teams other than the Lynx/Sparks in the 2018 WNBA Finals, but I could see Phoenix/Lynx happening, too. The Lynx have won the WNBA championship every two years since 2011, which means 2018 should be an off year for them if history repeats itself. And that's pretty much the only reason why I'm going with the Phoenix Mercury to take home the title this season. Don't quote me.
Howard Megdal: I'll need proof that someone can topple LA-MN before I pick it. And never bet against the Lynx.
Whitney Medworth: I have to go Lynx-Sparks here because, 1. the WNBA seeds its playoffs correctly so the two best teams make it each year, and 2. these are the two best teams until someone proves otherwise. That said, I think L.A. rebounds this year and wins this thing.
Meredith Minkow: Minnesota Lynx over the Sparks. Maya goes for 30 in Game 5. Boom, another championship, baby.
Tamryn Spruill is editor-in-chief at Swish Appeal, and the first woman to hold this leadership position at the site. Her basketball-related writing has appeared in Teen Vogue, Golden State of Mind and High-Post Hoops. She has been a fan of the WNBA since its 1996 inception. Follow her on Twitter at @tamrynspruill.
Lyndsey D'Arcangelo is a freelance writer and author on sports, features and other things for Deadspin, TheFootballGirl.com, The Guardian and various other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @darcangel21.
Howard Megdal is the co-founder of The IX Newsletter and editor-in-chief at High Post Hoops. He's the author of the books The Cardinals Way and Wilpon's Folly and a freelance writer with an emphasis on women's sports.
Whitney Medworth is the NBA/WNBA Deputy Editor at SB Nation. Follow her on Twitter at @its_whitney.
Meredith Minkow does Social Media for Bleacher Report. Formerly of the Minnesota Lynx and Timberwolves. Follow her on Twitter at @Murrminks.