An unprecedented 2020 WNBA season led to several high-profile names electing to opt-out of the season in the Bradenton bubble due to health and safety concerns surrounding COVID-19. A handful of teams were left without some of their best players, resulting in an odd season for many squads who were hoping to make the playoffs or win a championship.
While the 2021 season will still be played in the middle of a pandemic, the WNBA decided to move forward this year without a bubble and allow each team to play in their own arena. There will still be testing, and protocols will still be in place to ensure the season goes off safely, but it won't be nearly as strict as last season was. With some restrictions lifted, most of those names who sat out last season will be returning to the court after being away from the league for a year. So, ahead of the 2021 WNBA season tip-off, here are five of the biggest names returning to the league who could have a major impact.
1. Elena Delle Donne -- F, Washington Mystics
When Delle Donne is fully healthy, she's one of the most talented scorers in WNBA history, and the last time we saw her she was leading the Mystics to their first-ever championship while putting up 17 points, 6.6 rebounds, two assists and over a block a game in the postseason. She capped off that season by winning league MVP, but she's since had two back surgeries and gotten two years older while sitting out last season as a health precaution because of her pre-existing health condition of Lyme disease.
There were originally concerns on when exactly she would make her debut this season, as she was limited in training camp while still recovering from back surgery in December. But the six-time All-Star said she expects to play in the Mystics season opener against the Chicago Sky on May 15.
That's great news for a Mystics team that sorely missed Delle Donne's talents last season in trying to defend its title. Her offensive versatility, being able to score inside and out while offering a shot-blocking presence on the defensive side of the ball is invaluable. Perhaps, with the extra time off and repaired back, Delle Donne will be able to get back to playing at the MVP level we saw her playing at in 2019, and can help get the Mystics back in the WNBA Finals.
2. Jonquel Jones -- F/C, Connecticut Sun
If Jones played last season, the Connecticut Sun would've been considered a bigger threat in the postseason but, nevertheless, after opting out of last season she'll be returning and hoping to get Connecticut back to the Finals after losing to the Mystics in 2019. Jones was an MVP candidate that season and finished third in voting after putting up 14.6 points, and leading the league in rebounds per game (9.7) and blocks (2.0). She's a true two-way threat and has the ability to be a perennial candidate for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
While the return of Jones will be a huge boost for the Sun, it's somewhat diluted by the fact that forward Alyssa Thomas will miss the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon. Losing Thomas is a big blow for Connecticut, and it will mean more offensive responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Jones. Fortunately, Jones is certainly capable of putting up more than 14 points a game, and if she can carry the Sun to another playoff appearance, and perhaps even a deep run in the playoffs, she could very well be in the running for MVP and DPOY again.
3. Liz Cambage -- C, Las Vegas Aces
The Aces enter the season as the title favorites, and welcoming Cambage back to the lineup after opting out of last season is certainly one of the reasons why. Individually, Cambage is one of the most formidable forces in the league and is nearly unstoppable down in the post on offense. The last time we saw her in the WNBA, she had her worst statistical season since she was a rookie and still put up 15.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists per game while figuring out how to play with A'ja Wilson.
That's going to be the most interesting aspect of her return to the Aces: how do she and Wilson co-exist in the starting lineup to maximize their potential? When Cambage sat out last season, Wilson won MVP with the increase in opportunity and being the focal point on offense. Wilson is a better player than Cambage, so she will still take precedent over her, but both had to sacrifice quite a lot when they shared the floor together.
When those two shared the floor in 2019, they combined for just 34 points a game and generated an offensive rating of 95.3. It may be something that coach Bill Laimbeer decides that the team would be better off if Wilson and Cambage's minutes are staggered a bit more so each of them has a chance to shine without dimming the light of the other. Either way, it's a good problem to have, and getting Cambage back only boosts Las Vegas' title chances.
4. Tiffany Hayes -- G, Atlanta Dream
It's safe to say the Atlanta Dream sorely missed Hayes' scoring ability last season in the bubble where they went 7-15 and finished with the third-worst record in the league. She'll be returning to a team that saw some significant changes from the last time she suited up, starting with new team owners, a new head coach, the departure of long-time franchise cornerstone Angel McCoughtry and the addition of two new young guards in Chennedy Carter and Aari McDonald. The backcourt in Atlanta is incredibly crowded now, but Hayes' spot in the starting lineup isn't in jeopardy as one of the league's biggest scoring threats.
With all the new pieces in Atlanta, one stat that Hayes may see a decrease in is her usage rate, which would be a good thing for her and the Dream. In her last season, she ranked eighth in the league in usage rate on a team that struggled to generate offense around her. But with other dynamic scorers around her like Carter and Courtney Williams, it will take some pressure off of her to do everything for this team. Hayes is a dynamic dribble-drive threat, and will now have some other weapons around her to carry the load.
5. Tina Charles -- F/C, Washington Mystics
Rounding out this list is perhaps the biggest question mark among these names, as it could be argued that Charles lost a step or two the last time we saw her in 2019. She barely made our Top 25 list, as she's a former league MVP, multiple-time All-Star and can still generate a ton of points on offense. But her efficiency took a dive in 2019, shooting a career-low 38.9 percent from the field, and grabbing just 7.5 rebounds a game, the second-lowest of her career.
On the bright side, though, she was playing on an abysmal New York Liberty team that won just 10 games that season, and will now be joining the Mystics after being traded there before the start of the 2020 season. She'll be surrounded by incredible talent and share the frontcourt with Delle Donne where they could form one of the biggest post threats in the league.