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UConn in the WNBA: Eastern Conference preview

What to expect from the seven former Huskies in the Eastern Conference.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The WNBA season tips off this Saturday. With Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes opting out of the season with the Atlanta Dream and Tina Charles (Washington Mystics) having her medical waiver approved, UConn is represented on three of the six Eastern Conference teams. Here’s what to expect from each of those teams and the former UConn stars that will be in action for them.

Chicago Sky

2019 season: 20-14, lost in second round of playoffs

Former Huskies: Stefanie Dolson, Gabby Williams, Azura Stevens

With nearly its full team from 2019 in the #Wubble, Chicago belongs in the title conversation for this year’s WNBA season. Its off-season was relatively quiet with the biggest move being the trade of Katie Lou Samuelson to Dallas to acquire fellow former Husky Azura Stevens. With the teams ahead of the Sky last year all missing important pieces of their lineups, Chicago has a clear bath for success.

Much of that success this season will hinge on the performance of their elite trio of 2018 draft picks elevating their games. While Diamond DeShields has garnered the most attention after a breakout sophomore season, Gabby Williams and Azura Stevens are also important elements of the Sky’s success.

Williams struggled a bit last year, starting just two games after starting in 30 during her rookie season. However, Williams had a strong international season in France and was named to the All-Euro League second team alongside Sky teammate Courtney Vandersloot. If Williams can carry her international performance over to this WNBA season. she should have a bounce-back year.

Stevens, meanwhile is a welcome addition to the Sky’s frontcourt. She missed most of the 2019 season with a foot injury but had a standout rookie season in Dallas as a member of the 2018 All-Rookie team. The Sky fell in the middle of the pack for defensive rebounding last season and were one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league. The addition of Stevens should help them close that gap.

Alongside Stevens in the frontcourt is also former Husky Stefanie Dolson. Dolson was an All-Star in her first season with the Sky in 2017 but her 2018 season was injury riddled. Last season, she returned to start all 34 games for the Sky. If she can elevate her game closer to her All-Star level production this season, the Sky will have an even better shot in the title race.

Connecticut Sun

2019 season: 23-11, lost in WNBA Finals

Former Huskies: Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis

The Connecticut Sun are coming off a Finals appearance in 2019, where they lost to the Mystics in a decisive Game 5. After a blockbuster off-season for the Sun, this year’s team looks quite a bit different. In addition to trading Morgan Tuckwhich landed former Husky Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis back in Connecticut — the Sun also acquired three-time All-Star DeWanna Bonner. Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen, who were both integral parts of the 2019 Finals run, are now in Atlanta.

The Sun looked poised for another Finals appearance in 2020 but potential MVP candidate Jonquel Jones opting out for the season lowers their stock. Still, they look like a playoff team and will benefit from Mosqueda-Lewis’ three-point shooting. Stricklen served as the Sun’s three-point specialist last year, coming off the bench to average 2.2 threes per game and shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.

With Jones — an elite three-point shooter for a post player — out as well, that role will be even more important this season. Mosqueda-Lewis, who has a career three-point percentage of over 34 percent and hit a career-high of 42 percent in 2018, is an excellent fit to fill that role for the Sun this year.

New York Liberty

2019 season: 10-24, missed the playoffs

Former Huskies: Kiah Stokes, Kia Nurse, Megan Walker

In a unique approach to the off-season, New York’s roster rebuild features seven rookies and just two players with five or more years in the league. While the young talent they acquired on draft night, including No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu and Megan Walker, could bring some long term success for the Liberty, the return will not be immediate. They will likely miss the playoffs once again with a finish towards the bottom of the league.

From a UConn perspective, Kiah Stokes will return to the court for the Liberty after sitting out the 2019 season as one of the few veterans on the team. Stokes’ minutes and role have been limited in the last couple of seasons, but her veteran status and leadership along with the small size of New York’s roster (just three players are listed at 6-foot-3 or taller) should set her up for a larger role this year.

Kia Nurse, just two years into her WNBA career, is a veteran on this squad. Coming off an All-Star appearance and strong sophomore season, Nurse is one of the biggest keys to the Liberty’s success this season. New York also added veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon from the Sun this off-season, who could help anchor the backcourt next to Nurse. If the Canadian elevates her game again this season, the Liberty could improve on last year’s 11th place finish. Even still, the playoffs seem very unlikely.

Lastly, Megan Walker is a part of New York’s esteemed seven-player rookie class. Walker arrived in Florida on Thursday morning after recovering from COVID-19 (she was asymptomatic) and will join the team after following quarantine procedures. While the Liberty initially felt like an odd fit for Walker on draft night, the young roster provides an opportunity for her to standout. With so many new pieces, the Liberty’s rotation will likely be in flux for most of the shortened regular season, leaving Walker with plenty of chances to earn substantial minutes — potentially as a stretch four given the roster’s small size and depth in the backcourt.