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WNBA Report Card: Las Vegas Aces excelling, Connecticut Sun faltering

Huw Hopkins - @coach_huw

Friday 12 July 2019 07:44, UK

 Liz Cambage, Dearica Hamby and Sydney Colson of the Las Vegas Aces celebrate on the court
Image: Liz Cambage, Dearica Hamby and Sydney Colson of the Las Vegas Aces celebrate on the court

Which WNBA teams are mining rich veins of form? Which teams are struggling to meet expectations? WNBA analyst Huw Hopkins hands out his grades.

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As most WNBA teams are hovering around the mid-way point of the season, players are returning from injuries, some are coming back from international duty at FIBA EuroBasket, and the league is beginning to shake loose some of the weaker teams from the pack.

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Each week, Report Card will take a look at a selection of teams and grade their progress towards the ultimate goal of finishing the season with championship rings.

Las Vegas Aces - Grade: A

Liz Cambage attacks the basket against the Seattle Storm
Image: Cambage attacks the basket against the Seattle Storm

After losing three of their first five games of the season, the Las Vegas Aces fans were concerned. The team had brought in Liz Cambage during training camp via a trade with the Dallas Wings, and integrating the dominant big had proven difficult.

Since then, head coach Bill Laimbeer has guided his squad go 8-2 to sit at the top of the standings. He has constructed a balanced attack, with four players scoring more than 10 points per game, led by second-year power forward A'ja Wilson, who is averaging 17 points and seven rebounds.

Liz Cambage and A'ja Wilson celebrate an Aces win 1:32
Highlights of the Las Vegas Aces' trip to the Indiana Fever in the WNBA

The team are recording the second-highest points per game in the league (behind the Washington Mystics) and is sitting mid-table in terms of points allowed.

Cambage is settling in, Dearica Hamby is proving to be one of the most underrated players in the league, while Wilson and Kayla McBride establish their roles - in terms of scoring and leadership - with Kelsey Plum continuing to grow, and rookie Jackie Young rounds in to form.

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Veterans such as Carolyn Swords, Sydney Colson and Sugar Rodgers are happy to be the reliable role players, and this team is becoming dangerous.

As we approach the middle of the season, it seems like a good time to increase your bets on Las Vegas.

New York Liberty - Grade: C+

Kia Nurse fires a jump shot
Image: Kia Nurse fires a jump shot

Last year, the New York Liberty managed a total of seven wins. So far this season, they have already matched that feat.

That's not to say the Liberty have struggled at times. Under their new owner Joe Tsai (of the Brooklyn Nets ownership group) the team began the regular season with four straight losses, and looked set to struggle again as Tina Charles was the only player able to score - managing 32 points in the season opener.

But against Las Vegas and Minnesota, the likes of Bria Hartley, Amanda Zahui B and Kia Nurse stepped up to help in the scoring department - the latter of whom managed 26 points while playing every single minute of the game versus the Lynx. Against the Los Angeles Sparks a few days later, Zahui B managed 37 points before multiple members of the team travelled to Serbia for the FIBA EuroBasket tournament.

New York Liberty @ Atlanta Dream 1:17
Highlights from the New York Liberty's visit to the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA

Hartley and Zahui B joined the French and Swedish teams, respectively, where their contributions helped France earn a silver medal and Sweden secure an invitation to a pre-Olympic qualification tournament later this year.

During their absence, the Liberty went 4-1 to build up solid momentum in another competitive WNBA season. Now Hartley and Zahui B are set to return this weekend when New York take on the Chicago Sky on Friday night. Not just that, Hartley will bring Marine Johannes with her from the French side to play in her first WNBA season.

Minnesota Lynx - Grade: B-

Odyssey Sims probes on offense against the Indiana Fever
Image: Odyssey Sims probes on offense against the Indiana Fever

It is incredibly hard to win in the WNBA. There are only 11 other teams, so you are likely to face a team that beat you pretty quickly, and for that reason it gets difficult to build long winning streaks (which makes what the Aces are doing even more incredible). One team to struggle with this is the Minnesota Lynx.

For a franchise that looked set for their first losing season in a long time, head coach Cheryl Reeve has rebuilt and re-energised an ageing roster to squeeze as much life out of center Cylvia Fowles as possible. Reeve understands the 34-year-old Fowles might not have many years left at an elite level, but she has not fallen off the cliff yet, and the big is averaging just shy of 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.

The main reason the roster is able to tick over, despite the loss of Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore during the off-season, is thanks to Odyssey Sims. The guard has been a breath of fresh air this year, while Danielle Robinson is running the show at point, rookie Napheesa Collier has made up for some of what the team lost without Moore, and the growth of Lexie Brown has helped.

 Cheyenne Parker and Jessica Shepard battle for a rebound 1:34
Highlights of the Minnesota Lynx's visit to the Chicago Sky in the WNBA

Perhaps the most exciting part of the Lynx's remaining schedule is that Temi Fagbenle - the team's star center in waiting - will return from playing in EuroBasket with Britain. She earned a spot in the All-Star Five at the tournament and finished as the highest scorer, so Fagbenle will look to maintain that rhythm when she gets back in action for Minnesota.

The season started out so well and surprised everyone, before the team went into a four-game losing streak, but now the Lynx are regaining form at 8-6, and help is on the way.

Connecticut Sun - Grade: C

Jonquel Jones attacks against the Minnesota Lynx
Image: Jonquel Jones attacks against the Minnesota Lynx

This season looked like it belonged to Connecticut. The Sun came scorching out of the gate going 9-1, but since then have fallen to five straight defeats to bring them back in line with the rest of the chasing pack.

Jonquel Jones was tipped for great things as the go-to big for the first-time in her career, and began with 17 points per game in the team's opening eight, but in the past six she has averaged 12 points. Part of this will be due to adjustments made by other teams, honing in on Jones and Curt Miller's system. However, they have also played four of the five consecutive losses on the road, and despite the frustration, it has not led to panic.

Washington Connecticut 1:11
Highlights of the Connecticut Sun's trip to the Washington Mystics in the WNBA

Each of the past two years the Sun have finished with 21-13 record, and both of those seasons featured a slump. So the team will still be confident with some home cooking coming up as they play five of the next six in Connecticut, but the concerns are real, especially as this is a squad with high hopes of advancing beyond the first round after back-to-back years of being knocked out by the Phoenix Mercury.

To get deep into the playoffs, the team will need to right the ship, and learn how to win ugly games. They are clearly one of the best in the league, but when the going gets tough, they have not shown they are tough enough to get going.

Los Angeles Sparks - Grade: D+

Candace Parker drives at the Las Vegas defense
Image: Candace Parker drives at the Las Vegas defense

When Derek Fisher preached patience with the New York Knicks as a coach in the NBA, it was understandable. The team has been bad for essentially 15 years when he arrived with few bright spots on the roster and draft picks often being traded away for sub-par, win-now talent.

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But in Los Angeles, things are a little different. The Sparks are used to winning, having claimed the 2016 WNBA Championship with a similar core to what they have now. Implementing a new system that often takes time, incorporating fresh faces is not easy - especially with a list of quality bigs all chomping at the bit to get minutes - so preaching patience during a 34-game season is not the same as the NBA's 82 games, when the team wants to make the most of the elite talent it has before age creeps up on them instead of developing young talent for several years in the future.

Nneka Ogwumike rises to score against the Washington Mystics 1:11
Highlights of the Washington Mystics' visit to the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA

Fisher has managed the egos on his roster well so far, and even come away with wins over the Washington Mystics and the Las Vegas Aces. But the lack of improvement, and now another injury to Candace Parker, means it is unlikely to turnaround quickly.

Seattle Storm - Grade: C

Jewell Loyd attacks against the Indiana Fever
Image: Jewell Loyd attacks against the Indiana Fever

You have to feel for the Seattle Storm. Few reigning champions have had to deal with the injuries woes that have plagued this team. The fact the recent ESPY WNBA Player of the Year Breanna Stewart has not touched a basketball court this season would make any team struggle, but given the iconic starting point guard Sue Bird is also out this season after knee surgery, the young Storm team can be forgiven for slipping.

On top of all that, head coach Dan Hughes has been battling cancer and the season started without him on the sidelines.

Despite the obvious limitations, Seattle are showing the heart of a champion as Natasha Howard is leading the team with nearly 18 points and nine rebounds per game, perhaps making a case for a second consecutive Most Improved Player Award this season. Jewell Loyd is stepping up her consistency - which has been a knock on her young career - and Jordin Canada is learning a lot from Bird on the bench and providing an injection of youth and speed to the line-up.

Phoenix Mercury @ Seattle Storm 1:24
Highlights of the Phoenix Mercury's visit to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA

But most importantly, these are healthy bodies that are showing the grit and determination to keep their team in the playoff hunt. They are hovering around .500 and it is difficult to have expectations of anything higher considering the situation. They will continue to ride the storm out this season and hopefully return next year to clearer skies.

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