10 key players to watch in 2022 WNBA playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The chase for the WNBA title is on.
With the regular season coming to a close on Sunday, eight teams advanced to the 2022 WNBA playoffs. The postseason will feature a new format that removes byes for the top seeds and immediately puts them in the mix.
There is an abundance of storylines coming into this year’s playoffs. After Sylvia Fowles capped off her career in the regular season, another WNBA legend will hang up her kicks after the playoffs. Meanwhile, other young stars are looking to build their own legacies with a championship run.
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With the first round tipping off on Wednesday, here are 10 star players who will shape the 2022 WNBA playoffs:
A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
It all starts with the best player on the best team.
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Wilson is one of two primary 2022 WNBA MVP contenders, giving her the chance to win the award for the second time in three seasons. She ranked fifth in the league in scoring with 19.5 points per game, but she was equally impactful on the other end of the court. Wilson was second in the WNBA in rebounds (9.4) and first in blocks (1.9) per game, setting her up as the favorite for WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.
The Aces were on the wrong end of a 2020 WNBA Finals sweep during Wilson’s first MVP season. They followed that up with a five-game, semifinals defeat against the Phoenix Mercury in 2021. Now that Las Vegas earned the No. 1 seed, a similar playoff exit won’t cut it for Wilson this time around.
Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas Aces
Wilson may be the best player on the Aces, but she wasn’t their top scorer in the regular season.
Coming off a gold medal in Tokyo for the inaugural women’s 3x3 basketball event, Kelsey Plum made a major leap in her fifth WNBA season. She ranked second in the league in points per game (20.2) while also making 42% of her 3-pointers and earned her first WNBA All-Star selection.
Plum’s improved scoring ability was a major factor in getting the Aces the No. 1 seed. Should it continue, the team could be well on its way to its first WNBA title.
Candace Parker, Chicago Sky
Kahleah Copper is the reigning WNBA Finals MVP. Courtney Vandersloot continues to climb the WNBA’s all-time assists leaderboard. Allie Quigley is one of the league’s best sharpshooters. Even with those stellar players on the roster, the Sky’s success begins with Candace Parker.
Parker, a two-time league MVP, led Chicago to a championship in her first season with her hometown team. In her second season with the Sky, she averaged 13.2 points, 8.6 boards and 4.5 assists per game on her way to another All-Star appearance.
It’s been 20 years since a WNBA team repeated as champions. By tying the Aces with the league’s best record, Parker and the Sky appear ready for a title defense.
Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
Alyssa Thomas is nicknamed “The Engine” for a reason.
The two-way forward played just seven games in 2021, an impressive feat after returning to the court nine months after an Achilles tear. In 2022, Thomas was back in full, playing all 36 games for the Sun while averaging 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. On top of that, she finished tied for second in the league with 1.7 steals per game and is a lock to make the WNBA All-Defensive first team.
Thomas is joined by reigning WNBA Jonquel Jones, scoring threat DeWanna Bonner and Sixth Woman of the Year Award frontrunner Brionna Jones in one of the league’s most daunting frontcourts. That group finally got a full season under its belt, and Thomas will be the tone-setter as Connecticut chases its first WNBA title.
Sue Bird, Seattle Storm
A WNBA legend will walk off the court for the last time during the 2022 playoffs.
Sue Bird announced prior to the start of the season that this would be her final run. She has made the most of it so far, becoming an All-Star Game co-captain and helping guide the Storm to the No. 4 seed.
Bird already owns the league records for regular season games played (580) and assists (3,234). Now, she will aim for a fifth WNBA championship before she calls it a career.
Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
Bird will get the ceremonious sendoff during the playoffs, but Breanna Stewart is the one who can carry the Storm.
The AP WNBA Player of the Year is side-by-side with Wilson in the MVP debate. Stewart led the WNBA with 21.8 points per game while making an all-around impact with 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, as well. Stewart’s memorable 2022 also included the debut of her first signature shoe and a WNBA All-Star Game co-captainship.
Stewart and the Storm were unable to defend their 2020 championship after falling in the second round of the 2021 postseason. There are strong teams above the Storm in the standings, but Stewart is one of the transcendent talents capable of single-handedly carrying a team to the mountaintop.
Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
The last time Elena Delle Donne played a full season, she won a championship.
Following Washington’s title-winning season in 2019, the two-time MVP did not take part in the 2020 bubble season and played just three games in 2021 due to injuries. She got back in the swing of things in 2022, averaging 17.2 points and 6.3 rebounds across her 25 regular season games.
Delle Donne is joined by Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud as key Mystics players chasing another WNBA title, giving them championship experience to match the Storm in their first-round matchup.
Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings
Simply put, Arike Ogunbowale is a bucket.
The two-time All-Star finished tied for third in the WNBA in scoring with 19.7 points per game. Though it’s not the highest average of her career, it contributed to the franchise’s first .500 or better record since it moved from Tulsa to Dallas in 2016.
She only has one game of WNBA playoff experience in her career, but the Wings have matched up well against their 2022 first-round opponent. Dallas went 2-1 against Connecticut in the regular season. Ogunbowale will miss the first-round series with an injury, but if the Wings can advance, look for the scorer to put on a show.
Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty
Sabrina Ionescu is tied for the league record with three triple-doubles – and it only took her 69 career games. An injury-shortened rookie season and an immediate playoff exit in 2021 set up an important third year for the top pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. She more than delivered, earning her first All-Star appearance and helping the Liberty clinch a playoff spot during a wild race for the final two seeds.
Ionescu and Co. are back in the playoffs for the second straight season. They have a tall task in front of them with a matchup against the defending champion Sky, but Ionescu is capable of shining on the big stage.
Diamond DeShields, Phoenix Mercury
An emotional and draining season for the Mercury included an improbable postseason berth. An early seven-game losing streak put the team at 2-8, but it went .500 the rest of the way to clinch the WNBA’s No. 8 seed.
Along with star center Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison on Aug. 4, the Mercury lost leading scorer Skylar Diggins-Smith for the final two regular season games due to personal reasons. Diana Taurasi also suffered a quad injury on Aug. 2, taking her out for the remainder of the regular season.
In stepped Diamond DeShields. The fifth-year guard scored a season-high 25 points in an Aug. 6 win over the Liberty and dropped 24 points in an Aug. 12 win over the Wings. Those last two victories were enough to get Phoenix into the playoffs, where they will now look to pull off a major upset against the top-seeded Aces.