Five storylines to watch in the 2021 WNBA season include Candace Parker in Chicago, Atlanta's new Dream


The 2021 WNBA season — the league's 25th — tips off Friday. Here are five storylines to watch this season.

1. Rookies to keep an eye on

Charli Collier, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA draft , is an obvious choice here. The 6-foot-5 forward was praised for her rebounding (11.3 per game) and the development of her face-up game at Texas. She wasn’t always productive against top college competition though, so it’ll be interesting to see how consistently she scores in Dallas with the Wings.

No player improved her draft stock more during the NCAA Tournament than Aari McDonald , the No. 3 overall pick who went to the Atlanta Dream. The 5-foot-6 speedster out of Arizona became America's newest sweetheart during the Wildcats’ surprising run to the championship game , winning fans with her fearless play. But scouts were more impressed that McDonald was a significantly more reliable 3-point shooter in the postseason (29.6% in the regular season versus 47.8% in the NCAA Tournament). Does that continue in the pros?
Arizona guard Aari McDonald led the Wildcats to the NCAA championship game just six weeks ago. What does she do in her first pro season? Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports

Finally, keep an eye on DiDi Richards, drafted in the second round, No. 17 overall, by the New York Liberty. The 6-foot-2 guard isn’t a great shooter, but she facilitates well (6.3 assists per game at Baylor) and has long been considered a top defender. Her big frame should serve her well in the pros.

2. Candace Parker back home in Chicago

Candace Parker’s move from Los Angeles to Chicago during free agency was plenty surprising. And now that she’s back in her hometown — she graduated from suburban Naperville Central  — what are realistic expectations for someone who has long been one of the best players in the league but is closer to retirement than to her rookie season?

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Parker, drafted No. 1 by Los Angeles in 2008, is the Sparks franchise leader in points (5,684), rebounds (2,902) and blocks (545). In the bubble, the two-time WNBA MVP reminded everyone just how good she is, winning the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Award while averaging a league-best 9.7 rebounds, plus 14.7 points and 4.6 assists, shooting 51% from the field.

Now she’s with a different crop of talent, including standout guards Courtney Vandersloot and Diamond DeShields. Does that translate to a deep playoff run for the Sky, who are seeking their first championship and first finals appearance since 2014?
Candace Parker joins the Chicago Sky in 2021 after 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks. Chicago Sky

3. What’s next for the Atlanta Dream?

The short answer: new ownership , a new head coach and new causes to fight for. The last year was defined by off-court activity , from helping lead the league’s protests of racial injustice to ousting their former owner, Kelley Loeffler, from both the U.S. Senate and the league. Just a couple of weeks ago, head coach Nicki Collen left to coach at Baylor ; the team is now under the direction of interim coach Mike Petersen .

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The Dream have one of the most exciting players in women’s basketball in 5-foot-9 dynamo Chennedy Carter, a scoring machine who averaged 17.4 points in just 25 minutes per game last season. Expect for Carter to score in bunches from everywhere, and Elizabeth Williams to create problems in and out of the paint. Also expect the Dream to continue their activism, especially as new restrictive voting laws continue to emerge in Georgia and beyond .

4. How does the salary cap impact depth?

There’s no league harder to make than the WNBA, simply because there’s not much room. Twelve WNBA teams carry a max of 12 players each, which means at most, there is 144 spots in a league full of women who are playing well into their 30s. But because of the new salary cap rules, some teams will only be able to carry 11. That means there’s even fewer spots — and should someone get hurt, there are not a ton of options sitting on the bench.

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Just last week, the Las Vegas Aces lost veteran forward Angel McCoughtry to a torn ACL; she will be out for the entire season. What happens when someone suffers a major injury during the season? Integrating a brand-new player on an accelerated timeframe could be challenging.

5. What does Sabrina Ionescu do in her first full pro season?
Sabrina Ionescu and the New York Liberty will kick off the 2021 WNBA season with a game against the Indiana Fever on Friday, May 14. Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP

Perhaps no player’s arrival in the WNBA has been so anticipated as that of Ionescu, known simply as “Sabrina” — truly the sign of international fame. The former national player of the year shattered the NCAA triple-double record and became the first player, man or woman, to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds during her college career at Oregon but had barely settled into the league as a rookie when she severely sprained her ankle in her third game, sidelining her for the 2020 season.

Ionescu showed glimpses of greatness last summer; in just her second pro game she scored 33 points on 11 of 20 shooting, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out seven assists. Now the New York point guard is ready for her first full WNBA go-round. And she’s got an advantage over many of her counterparts who typically go overseas during the regular season — she’s rested. Expect big things from the 5-foot-11, do-everything Liberty guard.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Five storylines to watch in the 2021 WNBA season include Candace Parker in Chicago, Atlanta's new Dream

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