Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The early part of this season has indicated that the 2013 WNBA Draft may be considered the best in the league's history when all is said and done.
Brittney Griner, selected first overall in last year's draft, has matured into a force as dominant as former NBA All-Star Shaquille O'Neal in the paint for the Mercury. The 6-foot-8 center has improved across the board in her second campaign, posting 17.4 points, 8.6 boards and a WNBA-leading 3.3 blocks per outing to help Phoenix to a 9-3 start. After tallying 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the floor and pulling down 18 rebounds on Wednesday in a win over Minnesota, Griner recorded a career-high 28 points and swatted six shots on Friday, as the Mercury coasted to a 91-80 victory over the Shock.
Griner's teammate, Diana Taurasi, notched her third-straight double-double with 14 points and a personal-best 12 assists on Friday. She now ranks sixth all-time in WNBA history in assists.
"She's a great rim protector," Taurasi said of Griner. "She lets us have the ability to put a little more pressure on the guards, knowing that Brittney is back there pretty much holding it down. You know, this year she just kind of has figured it out and where she can be effective on both ends, and it�s been amazing."
Thanks to Taurasi, Griner and Candice Dupree (14.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Phoenix is neck and neck with Minnesota for first place in the Western Conference race.
With the second pick of last year's draft, Chicago took the eventual Rookie of the Year, Elena Delle Donne out of Delaware. Delle Donne guided the Sky to five wins in their first eight games, as she averaged 22.3 ppg while converting 54-of-56 attempts at the free throw line. The Sky's elite forward has been sidelined for the past five games due to her struggle with Lyme Disease, and Chicago's back-to-back losses to Indiana (83-75) and Tulsa (105-99 in OT) over the weekend lowered the team's record to 1-4 without Delle Donne.
While Delle Donne has been working her way back onto the hardwood, Tulsa's Skylar Diggins has been simply amazing. Diggins, who was selected third behind Griner and Delle Donne, had a career game on Sunday in the Shock's 105-99 overtime triumph in the Windy City. The second-year guard out of Notre Dame poured in 33 points in the nationally televised contest, while Glory Johnson and Odyssey Sims contributed 22 and 18 points, respectively, to push Tulsa to its first road win in seven tries.
The fourth overall selection of the 2013 draft was Tayler Hill, but the Washington Mystics guard has not stepped onto the floor this season. Hill delivered her first child on Wednesday, which means she will need a healthy period of time to get back into shape before returning to action. The Mystics could certainly use all the help they can get, as their current four-game losing slide is the longest active skid in the WNBA. Hill's absence has allowed Washington's rookie guard Bria Hartley to take on a more vital role right away. Hartley tallied a season-high 26 points in Washington's 89-86 overtime loss to Seattle on Sunday.
"She's fantastic," veteran Mystics guard Kara Lawson said of Hartley. "Forget that she's a rookie. She really doesn't have many weaknesses and is really good at every phase of the game. She's a good defender, a really good passer and, obviously as you saw tonight, she's a really good scorer. ... She gave us a lot of offense tonight, which is what we needed."
The decision snapped a two-game skid for Seattle, which received 43 total from Camille Little and Sue Bird. Little knocked down 3-of-4 shots from the floor in the extra session after missing all seven of her field goal tries in the second half of regulation.
Kelsey Bone, the fifth pick in last year's draft, is also making headlines this season. Bone and the first overall selection of the 2014 draft, Chiney Ogwumike, have paired up to give Connecticut a tremendous edge on the interior over the majority of the competition. The Sun have risen all the way to second place in the Eastern Conference standings while compiling their longest winning streak in two years. Ogwumike scored all 18 of her points in the second half and Bone chipped in 16 points on Tuesday as Connecticut pulled away for an 89-67 win over Indiana.
The influx of young talent still has a giant obstacle to overcome before any of them will take home their first-ever WNBA championship ring. Minnesota's big three of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen make the reigning champions virtually impossible to defend. Moore finished with 25 points, while Augustus and Whalen contributed 16 points apiece in the Lynx's 83-77 victory over Indiana on Sunday. Moore's average of 23.5 ppg is the highest in the league.
Atlanta is in the driver's seat in the East despite its 85-78 setback in the Big Apple on Sunday. The Dream's success has come due to a strong team effort as they entered Sunday with WNBA-leading averages of 38 rebounds and 19.8 assists per outing. Coach Michael Cooper has a handful of weapons at his disposal, highlighted by scoring machine Angel McCoughtry (20.3 ppg) and Brazilian forward Erika de Souza (16.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg).
San Antonio has won three games in a row to improve to 7-6 and the Fever are currently sitting at the .500 mark. Both squads are in third place in their respective conference standings.
New York and Los Angeles both continue to be the biggest disappointments of the 2014 season. The Liberty's much-needed win over Atlanta on Sunday ended a five-game losing streak. Coach Bill Laimbeer's goal of directing New York to its first winning season since 2011 is very unlikely to be accomplished, as six of the Liberty's 10 losses have come by eight points or more.
The Sparks, who won 24 games in each of the past two seasons, have dropped five of their last six games. Los Angeles came up short again on Sunday, falling 72-69 to the Stars despite a season-high 24 points and 11 rebounds from Nneka Ogwumike. Candace Parker managed only 17 points and committed seven turnovers against San Antonio, while Becky Hammon connected on three attempts from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter to lead the Stars to the decision.
1. Atlanta (9-4)
2. Phoenix (9-3)
3. Minnesota (11-4)
4. Connecticut (7-6)
5. San Antonio (7-6)
6. Tulsa (5-7)
7. Indiana (6-6)
8. Seattle (6-9)
9. New York (4-10)
10. Chicago (6-7)
11. Washington (5-9)
12. Los Angeles (4-8)
THIS WEEK'S KEY MATCHUPS
Wednesday, June 25
Tulsa at Indiana - The Shock will look for their second win away from home against an up-and-down Indiana unit on Wednesday. Diggins' return to the state where she played her collegiate career will be intriguing, but could be spoiled by the Fever's Hall of Fame head coach Lin Dunn, who is an expert game-planner and motivator. Indiana is 3-2 at home this season.
Thursday, June 26
Atlanta at San Antonio - The Dream will try to bounce back from Sunday's loss in New York as they visit the Lone Star State. San Antonio is the deepest team in the WNBA with five players scoring 9.0 points or more per contest. The battle between rookies Kayla McBride and Shoni Schimmel will pit two guards with potential to be perennial All-Stars against one another for the second time this season. Atlanta defeated the Stars, 79-75, in its season opener on May 16.
Sunday, June 29
Connecticut at New York - The Sun downed New York twice earlier this month to avenge the 21-point loss they suffered to the Liberty in their season opener. New York clearly has the talent needed to compete, as Tina Charles and Cappie Pondexter are both capable of scoring 20 on any given night. However, the Liberty have not had an answer for Connecticut's young forward tandem of Bone and Ogwumike, and will have trouble tying the season series if either of their veteran leaders has an off-game.