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UConn in the WNBA: Western Conference preview

Breanna Stewart’s return to the court highlights the UConn story lines in the Western Conference.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The WNBA’s Western Conference boasts even more former UConn stars than the Eastern Conference, with nine on the rosters of four teams. Here’s what to expect from each of those teams and the Huskies that will be in action for them:

Dallas Wings

2019 season: 10-24, missed the playoffs

Former Huskies: Moriah Jefferson, Katie Lou Samuelson

The Dallas Wings are extremely young team, much like the New York Liberty. While their roster has just three rookies compared to New York’s seven, there is not a single player expected to suit up for the Wings with more than four years of experience in the league. Dallas also has many new pieces this season, so it could take them a while to find their stride. However, there is a lot of strong, young talent in the lineup to build a solid foundation and to try and make a push for a playoff spot in 2020.

A story line that should be getting more attention for the Wings, and perhaps the league as a whole, is Moriah Jefferson’s return to the court. Her last two seasons have been injury-riddled, making it easy to forget her impressive rookie season in 2016 with the San Antonio Stars (now Las Vegas Aces). Jefferson started every game of her rookie season, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and averaged 14 points and four assists. Now that she’s healthy, Jefferson will be a huge asset to the Wings at the point and allow their shooters (of which they have plenty), including Arike Ogunbowale, to play off the ball more.

Another one of those shooters is former Husky Katie Lou Samuelson, who was traded to Dallas this off-season for Azura Stevens. The move was an interesting decision for the Wings but ultimately a good move for Samuelson who struggled in her rookie season in Chicago. After playing just seven minutes per game in Chicago, a younger team will present opportunities for more minutes and a bigger role. Dallas will especially look to Samuelson for her three-point shot but making strides on improving her defense will earn more minutes on the court.

Minnesota Lynx

2019 season: 18-16, lost in first round of the playoffs

Former Huskies: Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield

Minnesota is one of the most intriguing teams in the league this season. The Lynx made mostly small off-season moves after a mediocre 2019 season, with their biggest change being the loss of Seimone Augustus to Los Angeles. Much of their success this season will hinge on if their guards can step up, especially in the absence of Odyssey Sims.

Still, the Lynx’s frontcourt, anchored by former MVP Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier, is a force to be reckoned with. Collier’s rookie season was impressive to say the least. In addition to taking home the Rookie of the Year hardware, she started all 34 games for the Lynx and finished fifth in the league for Win Shares. Collier also noted that she’s been working on her three-point shot in the off-season, which could elevate her game to the next level. With or without being more consistent from beyond the arc, Collier’s name should be on everyone’s watch list for the All-WNBA team this year.

In the backcourt, Crystal Dangerfield finds herself with a good opportunity as a rookie. In the absence of Sims, Dangerfield is really the only true point guard on the roster but Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve has noted that probably won’t translate to many minutes off the bat. However, having Dangerfield on the floor will allow Minnesota’s other guards to play off the ball more. A short season may make it difficult, but if she performs well in her limited minutes to start, having Dangerfield on the floor more could benefit the Lynx later in the season.

Phoenix Mercury

2019 season: 15-19, lost in first round of the playoffs

Former Huskies: Diana Taurasi, Bria Hartley

Expectations for Phoenix this season don’t match up with last season’s results — the Mercury had one of the many blockbuster off-seasons during free agency. While they already had a “big three” with Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and DeWanna Bonner, replacing Bonner with Skylar Diggins-Smith gives them a just as dangerous trio.

Perhaps the most important change from last season, however, is Taurasi being healthy. After playing in just six games last season while dealing with a back injury, Taurasi is ready to go in the #Wubble. If Taurasi gets back to her typical level of play, the Mercury’s backcourt is among the best in the league.

While Diggins-Smith is the blockbuster add to Phoenix’s roster of guards, they also acquired former Husky Bria Hartley from New York, who Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello noted “is hitting her potential”. In her past two seasons, she earned a fairly consistent starting role for the Liberty and averaged 10 points and three assists per game in 2019.

Even with the strength of Phoenix’s backcourt, however, they sit slightly outside the title conversation. Even with Brittney Griner on the roster, the Mercury were the worst rebounding team in the league last season. Without an off-season move which corrects that problem, someone will need to step up and help Griner on the glass for Phoenix to be in the elite tier of teams this year.

Seattle Storm

2019 season: 18-16, lost in second round of the playoffs

Former Huskies: Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck

It’s fair to say Seattle is the unanimous overwhelming favorite to win the 2020 WNBA title. It returns nearly every piece from the 2018 title team and has the deepest team in the league. When Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart missed the season with injuries in 2019, multiple players on their roster stepped up and the Storm exceeded expectations — such that this year’s squad may be even better than the 2018 team (which you might remember swept the Mystics in the finals).

Of course, the 2020 title quest runs through Breanna Stewart. After 2018 was the year of Stewie when she racked up the WNBA MVP, WNBA Finals MVP, and FIBA World Cup MVP trophy, to name a few, Stewart missed all of the 2019 season after tearing her Achilles at the end of her season abroad. In scrimmage and practice highlights, Stewart looks to be moving well. Even if she is not quite back in MVP form yet, with the pieces the Storm has around her, they’re still championship favorites.

One of those pieces is Sue Bird, who is also returning to the court after sitting out with injury last year. In addition to cherishing every minute Bird is on the court — she mentioned that if she did not head to the #Wubble this year she may have been done playing — it’s worth a reminder that Bird averaged a career high seven assists per game in 2018. Even in the final stages of her playing career, Bird is still one of the most elite playmakers in the WNBA. However, it will not be surprising to see some reduction in Bird’s minutes this season as Jordin Canada proved to be excellent at the point for the Storm in Bird’s absence last season.

Lastly in former UConn greats out west, Morgan Tuck is reunited with her fellow teammate in Seattle as the Storm’s only free agency acquisition from this year. Tuck, who spent her first four years in the league in Connecticut, mostly played a limited bench role for the Sun. Given the depth of Seattle’s roster, including players that started and excelled last season that will not be coming off the bench, Tuck’s role in Seattle can be expected to be similar.

Stewart’s return to the court, alongside Bird and Tuck, is the WNBA opener this weekend at Noon ET on ESPN, Saturday.