HARTFORD, Conn. — Months before WNBA players returned from overseas competition and training camps got underway, an announcement shook the league.
Maya Moore was going to sit out the WNBA season to pursue goals outside of basketball, including ministry. The realization quickly set in that the league would be without one of its legends, but it was only the beginning. In the next three months, WNBA stars would start to fall one after another.
After Moore came MVP Breanna Stewart, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury, then Diana Taurasi had back surgery that will make her miss 10-12 weeks. Soon after, Candace Parker suffered a left hamstring injury that will sideline her two to four weeks. Just days ago it was announced Sue Bird is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
Five of the WNBA's most notable stars are on the sidelines for part of, or the entire, season. They're some of the most recognizable faces who often draw big crowds and are displayed in many of the league's and their respective team's ads. It would be easy to look at the amount of talent that won't be playing in every single game this year and worry about what it means for the WNBA, but coaches and players are trying to keep a positive outlook.
"It's going to be interesting early," Connecticut Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller said. "Fortunately our league will get some of those elite players back, but you're going to find out quickly that there are fantastic women in this league that are going to step up. It's an opportunity for some other people to come to the forefront in this league. There's still a lot of star power."
Miller isn't wrong — there are still many stars in the league. Elena Delle Donne, Liz Cambage and A'ja Wilson are among the more prominent names that are going to play this season, as well as plenty of names from major college programs like UConn and Notre Dame.
The injuries and absence of Moore come at a time when the league has started the process of a "refresh" of its brand with a new logo. The league is aiming to draw in new fans, specifically from a younger generation.
Drawing in fans isn't the only concern when it comes to being without so many established players, though. Having someone like Taurasi or Parker on the court automatically makes games more competitive because playing against future Hall of Famers makes players want to perform at a higher level. The hope, Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones said, is that players keep that competitive spirit and drive this season no matter who they're playing against.
"I think when you're playing against those types of players you always want to play your best," Jones said. "We're competitors, and we want to play the best, so I think it's going to be the same approach. Everybody wants to win and we understand that the league is so competitive and there are still (a lot of) good players."
There will undoubtedly still be competitive games, but the league will be impacted by the absence of multiple greats. It was summed up by UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who coached four of the five players in college.
"It's not a great summer for the UConn icons," Auriemma said. "It's interesting that Sue and D and Maya and Stewie (are all out). That's a lot of WNBA championships on the sideline, and that's a lot of MVPs on the sideline, so I guess it's all a part of the game. It's kind of a really weird coincidence that it all kind of converged at the same time."
The five players have combined for 12 WNBA titles, five Finals MVPs and five league MVPs. Bird, Taurasi and Parker have all been in the league for more than a decade, and Stewart just won her first title and both MVPs.
It's hard to replace players with resumes that long, but young players like second-year New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse are pointing to the benefits the league could see. With stars sitting out part of the season, other players will get more attention, so when the stars come back there will be even more players fans have gotten to know and are willing to support.
"There are a lot of mainstay names that you already know in this league and that you'll see on commercials and see advertised, and I think this year gives (us) an opportunity and a little bit of space for others to step up and become one of those new names that people know," Nurse said. "And the more names that people know from the league the more growth that we have, the more fans that we can bring in. I think that's important for us."
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