WNBA 2020 tip-off - Six players to watch

College superstar Sabrina Ionescu makes her big league debut as the Washington Mystics defend their WNBA title starting Saturday 25th July.

By Ashlee Tulloch and Rory Jiwani

For basketball fans, the wait is over as WNBA 2020 gets underway.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the Washington Mystics begin the defence of their league title in a unique 24th WNBA campaign taking place at a single site.

All 12 teams are based at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida to play 22 regular season games apiece starting Saturday (25 July).

As in the men's NBA, the league has created a WNBA bubble - affectionately known as the 'Wubble' - with everyone regularly tested and no fans allowed.

The regular season ends on 12 September with the playoffs beginning later that month and the 2020 champions crowned in October.

Here are the names you need to keep an eye on.

Washington Mystics' WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman shoots during Game Five against the Connecticut Sun on 10 October 2019

Sabrina Ionescu

Rarely has a rookie attracted hype like that surrounding Sabrina Ionescu.

The 22-year-old point guard was a college superstar at the Oregon Ducks and picked number one by the New York Liberty in April's draft.

She was already being talked about as a lock for a place at Tokyo 2020 with the only decision whether she would play 5x5 or take part in the first Olympic 3x3 competition.

When Ionescu spoke to Olympic Channel late last year, it seemed like 3x3 was just winning out.

Of course, the Games' postponement has thrown everyone's plans up in the air and now she will have at least a full season, albeit a shortened one, in the top 5x5 league.

Ionescu is known as the 'triple-double queen' for regularly achieving double figures in three statistical categories - usually points, assists and rebounds - in a game.

She has a college record of 26 career triple-doubles and in February became the first player - woman or man - in NCAA history to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.

High praise has come her way from big names as well.

Three-time NBA champion Steph Curry told NBC Sports, ''When you see her on the floor, stats may mean a lot but when you watch somebody and the passion that she brings. It’s in her eyes and the competitive nature that she had, you can’t teach that.''

Boston Celtics' forward Grant Williams also gave an indication of how widespread Ionescu's appeal could be.

With the Liberty's combined record of 17-51 from the last two seasons, Ionescu has plenty to do if they are going to be competitive this season.

They could not have asked for a much tougher start with Saturday's opener pitting them against league favourites Seattle Storm.

But Ionescu - one of seven rookies on the Liberty roster - is pretty relaxed about her new team's prospects, telling ESPN, "It reminds me a lot of my freshman year at Oregon. The ability to learn and adapt and not really know any better. We're playing with no pressure, honestly.

"No one expects us to be very good. I think having that underdog mentality that we're all going to have, it's going to help us. Maybe teams are gonna overlook us." - Sabrina Ionescu talking to ESPN about New York Liberty's prospects

Breanna Stewart

This is a return you do not want to miss.

Seattle Storm's 2018 MVP and WNBA Championship winner Breanna Stewart is back after being sidelined for the entire 2019 season with an Achilles tendon injury.

In late January, nine months after rupturing her Achilles, the Rio 2016 gold medallist returned to action with the USA national team and played in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg before COVID-19 hit.

The power forward/center told Minnesota's Star Tribune, "I was really happy that I got the opportunity to play USA Basketball and overseas and Russia just because I got some minutes and reps under my belt.

"I played 36 minutes. So to get to that point for me was amazing because I knew my leg would last and my body would last, and it just helped from a confidence standpoint."

The very first match of the season should be a thriller with Stewart and her Seattle Storm facing Sabrina Ionescu's New York Liberty.

Ionescu has a great example to follow with Stewart winning Olympic gold on the back of becoming Rookie of the Year in 2016 having been drafted first overall by Seattle.

That year also saw Stewart win the ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete, beating Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and fellow WNBA star and Olympic champion Elena Delle Donne to the honour.

Stewart was MVP and Finals MVP in 2018 and looks set to be in the running for more accolades after her 26th birthday in August.

For now, she's just glad to back telling Associated Press, "Getting back on the court, these past few days, it’s been weird. To be honest it was weird.

"I haven’t been around the team like that since 2018 and you look back and now 2018 was two years ago. But I’m excited." - Breanna Stewart to Associated Press

Sue Bird

With four Olympic gold medals, an unprecedented four FIBA World Cup titles and three WNBA Championships to her name, Sue Bird has legendary status in women's basketball.

Like Breanna Stewart, she was forced to miss the whole of the 2019 season after undergoing knee surgery.

But with the pair back to fitness, the league's all-time assist leader has a great chance to add to her long roll of honour with Seattle Storm.

The point guard begins her 17th WNBA season with the Storm but, despite all that experience under her belt, she admitted to Associated Press, that she is a little nervous about returning to action.

Bird said, "I know what to expect, but it doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to be prepared for it."

A mouthwatering head-to-head with Sabrina Ionescu awaits on opening day with both players, at opposite ends of their career, hoping to make the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games.

The teams being based at a single site is new for all the players and 39-year-old Bird - the partner of USA football hero Megan Rapinoe - has been enjoying the new environment.

“The bubble is part summer camp, mixed in with the Olympic village, playing overseas and in a tournament with a little bit of college life thrown in.” - Sue Bird talking to Associated Press

A’ja Wilson

This could be A'ja Wilson's season in the limelight.

Entering her third WNBA campaign, Wilson will be the key player and point scorer for the Las Vegas Aces with Australian star Liz Cambage out for the season.

Cambage's absence places a bigger workload on the 23-year-old and, in a squad being talked about as potential title contenders, Wilson has the potential to be one the biggest stars in the league.

But she's also making a name for herself off the court with her piece for The Players' Tribune entitled 'Dear Black Girls' detailing the racism she experienced as a child.

Wilson also explained her anger at what she saw as minimal media coverage of her winning the NCAA Championship with South Carolina Gamecocks claiming it was due to all 12 players, working under three-time Olympic champion Dawn Staley, being black.

She said, "When we won the NCAA championship in 2017, you know what we heard almost immediately? We're talking about the first women's basketball championship in the state of South Carolina. 'Coach Staley doesn't recruit white players. Why doesn't she recruit our white girls?'"

WNBA is supporting Black Lives Matter with all players' jerseys bearing the name Breonna Taylor in memory of the woman shot dead by police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky in March.

Wilson is determined to make herself heard and raise confidence among Black women and girls.

"We don’t want to be some meme or whatever. We don’t want to be the Angry Black Woman or the Aggressive Black Woman. We just want to be seen as human beings in this world.

"We just want to be heard when we speak. We just want to be respected." - A'ja Wilson talking to The Players' Tribune

Diana Taurasi

Like Sue Bird, the WNBA's all-time leading scorer Diana Taurasi is seeking her fourth championship title and a fifth Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

The Phoenix Mercury guard is also on the comeback trail having played just six games in the 2019 season after a back operation and a hamstring injury.

Taurasi is robust though and, heading into her 16th season, acknowledges the sacrifices she and her fellow players are making to play their sport.

The 38-year-old has spent long periods of her career in Russia and Turkey, and knows what it's like to not be around friends and family.

Her wife Penny Taylor, a silver medallist at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 with Australia, was an assistant coach with the Mercury but stepped down this month to focus on being a full-time mother to their two-year-old son Leo.

Taurasi told Arizona Republic, "I know being in an apartment by yourself for many months and not having many people to talk to. For me, that's nothing unusual. And you take solace in being on the court for two hours. That's the only part of life that's normal for us being in here."

Players have had a choice of staying in team villas or in hotels on site, and can either have grocery deliveries to cook for themselves or eat in the hotel restaurant.

Speaking to USA Today, Taurasi said, "Food has been great. Service has been great. People have had issues with their housing, but there is no protocol for this, and the league took care of it."

Taurasi is one of three AllStars leading the Mercury along with Brittney Griner and new signing Skylar Diggins-Smith.

She said, "These are times where you need a lot of people to lead. That's what we tried to do with putting this team together with people who have high character. But it's fragile.

"Any little thing of irresponsibility, any attitude of thinking your actions don't affect the next person. At any minute this thing could shut down if you make a wrong decision." - Diana Taurasi to Arizona Republic on the WNBA season

Brittney Griner

2019 MVP runner-up Brittney Griner is coming in fresh and fierce.

The Mercury center returned home to USA, two months earlier than planned after the EuroLeague shut down in February and the Russian League followed suit in March.

She told Arizona Republic that the pandemic may have been a "blessing in disguise" for her, saying, ''I feel better than I've ever felt at the beginning of the season. I got the time to actually rest and I took advantage of it. I don't get this very often."

Coach Sandy Brondello admits, "BG's in great shape. She's probably as lean as what she was in 2014 when I first took over this team.

"The biggest change for her is nutrition. She's eating healthy and actually eating broccoli now."

Griner is also seeking more individual honours having led the league for scoring in the regular season and been second to Connecticut Sun's Jonquel Jones for blocks.

As well as Taurasi and new acquisition Skylar Diggins-Smith, the Mercury should be among the contenders as they bid for a first title since 2014.

Like A'ja Wilson, Griner is determined to use her status to effect change.

"There's so much anger in me honestly. I want to use my platform and every game I want to do try to something. Every chance I get, I want to touch on some social injustice. That's why I'm here." - Brittney Griner speaking to Arizona Republic