Pundits are filing their lists of 2021’s top WNBA players and teams – who will win it all, and who should go ahead and fire up the bin of bouncing ping pong balls and hope their team’s logo is pulled last from those weird, giant envelopes?
But as key to the 2021 season as who can contend to be this year’s best is the anticipated naming of the league’s “W25,” the top 25 players in league history. Several of the players who will undoubtedly make that list will also have spots on the lists of this season’s best active players, but for now, as I most often do, let’s focus on honoring the league’s history overall.
As a warning: I’m not going to come away today with my Top 25 Players; I want to start by narrowing the pool and discuss some interesting facets of these players’ careers and where the WNBA stands more generally. I’ll have my final list in a future post.
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I’ve yet to see many specifics on how the W25 will be chosen, so I’m going to assume it will mirror 2016’s Top 20@20 in both qualifications and selection process.
First, it’s important to remember that the WNBA has deemed this a list of the “greatest and most influential” WNBA players, with consideration given to “sportsmanship, community service, leadership, and contribution to the growth of women’s basketball.” It’s not all about on-court success, who won the most games, or who racked up the best stats over the years. The league wants to honor its most impactful players across the board.
That said, to qualify as a candidate for the list, you also must have played in at least two seasons and meet at least three of the following criteria:
Note: The WNBA announced its official criteria for the W25 on August 3, 2021, so these criteria no longer apply. The Top Players tool on the website no longer reflects what is written here.
Given that specific set of criteria, I have a page on Across the Timeline which will pull together the players that meet these criteria and what their accolades look like. As of today, it will give you 94 eligible candidates, listed here alphabetically:
|Janeth Arcain||Seimone Augustus||Elena Baranova||Alana Beard||Tully Bevilaqua||Sue Bird|
|Ruthie Bolton||DeWanna Bonner||Jessica Breland||Rebekkah Brunson||Liz Cambage||Swin Cash|
|Tamika Catchings||Tina Charles||Natasha Cloud||Napheesa Collier||Cynthia Cooper-Dyke||Erika de Souza|
|Elena Delle Donne||Skylar Diggins-Smith||Tamecka Dixon||Katie Douglas||Candice Dupree||Margo Dydek|
|Cheryl Ford||Sylvia Fowles||Jennifer Gillom||Chelsea Gray||Yolanda Griffith||Brittney Griner|
|Becky Hammon||Tiffany Hayes||Chamique Holdsclaw||Charde Houston||Natasha Howard||Lauren Jackson|
|Briann January||Shannon Johnson||Temeka Johnson||Vickie Johnson||Asjha Jones||Jonquel Jones|
|Crystal Langhorne||Jantel Lavender||Kara Lawson||Betty Lennox||Lisa Leslie||Jewell Loyd|
|Sancho Lyttle||Mwadi Mabika||Angel McCoughtry||Taj McWilliams-Franklin||Emma Meesseman||DeLisha Milton-Jones|
|Renee Montgomery||Maya Moore||Deanna Nolan||Nneka Ogwumike||Wendy Palmer||Candace Parker|
|Ticha Penicheiro||Jia Perkins||Tari Phillips||Plenette Pierson||Cappie Pondexter||Nicole Powell|
|Epiphanny Prince||Ruth Riley||Danielle Robinson||Sugar Rodgers||Nykesha Sales||Sheri Sam|
|Katie Smith||Tangela Smith||Michelle Snow||Dawn Staley||Breanna Stewart||Tammy Sutton-Brown|
|Sheryl Swoopes||Diana Taurasi||Penny Taylor||Nikki Teasley||Jasmine Thomas||Tina Thompson|
|Kristi Toliver||Courtney Vandersloot||Teresa Weatherspoon||Lindsay Whalen||Elizabeth Williams||Natalie Williams|
|A’ja Wilson||Tanisha Wright||Sophia Young-Malcolm||Shavonte Zellous|
I went in to more history, numbers, and details on these “Top Players” lists in my post from November, and toward the middle of that page you’ll also find an interactive tool that allows you to explore who is eligible for this year’s list and who has been eligible in past years and view their accomplishments at any of those times. Keep in mind: All Stars were not named in the league’s first two seasons and are not typically named in Olympic years, All-Defensive and All-Rookie teams were not named until 2005 and Sixth Woman of the Year was not awarded until 2007.
As much handwringing as there can be in formulating this list, I think there is a decent group of players who are hard to argue against. We get 16 of the 25 just with this group, here in alphabetical order:
|Seimone Augustus||Sue Bird||Tamika Catchings||Cynthia Cooper-Dyke|
|Elena Delle Donne||Sylvia Fowles||Lauren Jackson||Lisa Leslie|
|Maya Moore||Candace Parker||Cappie Pondexter||Katie Smith|
|Sheryl Swoopes||Diana Taurasi||Tina Thompson||Lindsay Whalen|
That’s quite a group: Olympians, multi-time champions, defensive juggernauts, and players who defined styles of play. I’m not going to run through all their accomplishments here – check out the player explorer in this post for more of that – but I do want to touch briefly on what makes these players stand out.
The set of candidates includes many fantastic players in the history of the WNBA; to have met the criteria to even be considered means they have won championships and/or individual accolades to vault them to the top of the league at some point in their careers. That said, there are some candidates I think we can generally agree do not quite fit in the top 25 all-time (yet). Again, in alphabetical order:
|Elena Baranova||Tully Bevilaqua||Ruthie Bolton||Jessica Breland||Liz Cambage||Natasha Cloud|
|Napheesa Collier||Erika de Souza||Skylar Diggins-Smith||Tamecka Dixon||Jennifer Gillom||Chelsea Gray|
|Tiffany Hayes||Chamique Holdsclaw||Charde Houston||Briann January||Shannon Johnson||Temeka Johnson|
|Asjha Jones||Jonquel Jones||Crystal Langhorne||Jantel Lavender||Kara Lawson||Betty Lennox|
|Jewell Loyd||Sancho Lyttle||Mwadi Mabika||Emma Meesseman||Renee Montgomery||Wendy Palmer|
|Jia Perkins||Tari Phillips||Plenette Pierson||Nicole Powell||Epiphanny Prince||Ruth Riley|
|Danielle Robinson||Sugar Rodgers||Nykesha Sales||Sheri Sam||Tangela Smith||Michelle Snow|
|Tammy Sutton-Brown||Nikki Teasley||Jasmine Thomas||Kristi Toliver||Elizabeth Williams||Natalie Williams|
|Tanisha Wright||Sophia Young-Malcolm||Shavonte Zellous|
Some of the top active players are in that group, and many players in this list may have a great case when we’re talking about a top 30, but I think there are 25 players who fit this year’s list better.
16 players are in.
51 players are out.
Ultimately, I think filling out the W25 comes down to selecting nine players from this set of 27:
|Janeth Arcain||Alana Beard||DeWanna Bonner||Rebekkah Brunson||Swin Cash||Tina Charles|
|Katie Douglas||Candice Dupree||Margo Dydek||Cheryl Ford||Yolanda Griffith||Brittney Griner|
|Becky Hammon||Natasha Howard||Vickie Johnson||Angel McCoughtry||Taj McWilliams-Franklin||DeLisha Milton-Jones|
|Deanna Nolan||Nneka Ogwumike||Ticha Penicheiro||Dawn Staley||Breanna Stewart||Penny Taylor|
|Courtney Vandersloot||Teresa Weatherspoon||A’ja Wilson|
I know some people will call some of these easy cuts and some of them shoe-ins, and I could still whittle this down a bit, but I want to think out loud about what kind of player fits on this list.
Some of the players on this list had very long careers: DeLisha Milton-Jones played 499 regular season games over 17 seasons and is behind only Sue Bird in total games played. Becky Hammon played 16 seasons, while Candice Dupree is entering her 16th. Rebekkah Brunson, Swin Cash, and Ticha Penicheiro each played 15. It stands to reason that the longer you play, the better chance you have of accumulating awards and move up statistical leader boards, so should efficiency be factored in to better measure their impact?
On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that doing what it takes to remain valuable in the WNBA for 15+ years is a special accomplishment in and of itself; consider that only 16 of the 981 players who have appeared in at least one WNBA game have played 15 or more seasons.
What about players whose time in the league was on the shorter side, but they were on the top of their game throughout? Remember that Cynthia Cooper’s WNBA career was just five seasons. Five! There’s no question she makes this list, because in that short time she was a two-time MVP and four-time champion (and four-time Finals MVP, to boot). Some others can feel slightly less certain.
Deanna “Tweety” Nolan and Cheryl Ford are linked in this conversation. Ford played seven seasons for the Detroit Shock and was Rookie of the Year, a four-time All Star, a three-time champion, and is still 2nd overall in rebounds per game (9.7) and rebound percentage (20.5). Nolan played two more years but had her most successful run from 2003 to 2009 with Ford, also winning three rings, but was a All-WNBA First Team selection and a Finals MVP along the way. Nolan was a much more potent offensive player while also being respected defensively to the point where she was honored among the Top 20@20.
We can sit around and bemoan the years of “Tweety” we missed out on after the Shock moved from Detroit to Tulsa, but for the purposes of this discussion: how do you consider her career? It’s unfair to project forward what she might have been had she continued playing in the WNBA, but just as Cynthia Cooper could have had an even more absurd résumé after a few more years, will the nine years of Nolan always fully represent the player she was?
Lastly, how do the younger, active players fit in here? In particular, let’s focus on the two young stars: Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson. Stewart has played four seasons, and Wilson has played three. Both were Rookie of the Year, both have been regular season MVP, and both are two-time All Stars. Both quickly helped take their respective teams to the Finals, but the biggest difference is that Stewart has two championships (and two Finals MVPs), while Wilson is still seeking her first title. If – and I hate even typing it – either of these players were to stop playing today, would they make the list? Or, if you’re considering including them, are you projecting forward a bit?
It’s worth considering that Stewart’s career entering the 2021 season is pretty similar to Maya Moore’s entering the 2016 season, when Moore was named to the WNBA’s Top 20@20. At that time, Moore had three championships where Stewart now has two, but Stewart has been Finals MVP one more time than Moore. Both have been All Stars and All-WNBA First Teamers and have been top players in the league since they were drafted. This is not my way of suggesting one is better than the other or even that they are the same, just a note that the selection process for the Top 20 seems to indicate Stewart’s accomplishments are likely enough.
In all honesty, I don’t think Margo Dydek has any chance of making this list, but it’s interesting to know that the league’s all-time leader in blocks (and still top 20 in rebounds 10 years since her unfortunate passing) isn’t really in consideration. She was a two-time All Star and two-time All-Defensive Second Team selection, but when you look at the rest of the players on the list or to be selected from, Dydek’s overall game just doesn’t measure up, as special as she will always be to the WNBA and women’s basketball more broadly.
How about Ticha Penicheiro and Courtney Vandersloot? They will forever be linked together by their uncanny ability to rack up assists, with Penicheiro setting the bar early in the league with her flashy play that led to season-after-season of 7-to-8 assists per game, followed by Vandersloot, who has carried that on, smashing those records each of the past four seasons to become the first player to average double-digit assists over a full season last year.
(Full table available here)
Penicheiro carries a bit more clout as a respected perimeter defender as well, and her 2005 title with the Sacramento Monarchs put some nice shine on her career, whereas Vandersloot may be fighting an uphill battle to make a Top Players list despite redefining what it means to be a top point guard in the league year after year.
I mentioned how Penicheiro’s title (and Vandersloot’s lack of one) can help push a player one way or the other, but how much should it matter?
On the one hand, I think about Rebekkah Brunson (the only WNBA player with five rings) and Janeth Arcain (four with the Houston Comets). How do you not include the only five-time champion (and one-time rebounding leader) on a list of the league’s greatest players? I think the argument is that Brunson was a key cog, particularly defensively, for two successful franchises (Monarchs and Lynx), but that as an individual player her game doesn’t stack up to the rest of the field. My retort, though, would call on her being relied on as an impactful player for championship teams and for 15 seasons, and she stacked up stats, especially rebounds, along the way.
Similarly, just as much as Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson won the league’s first four titles, so did Janeth Arcain. She just wasn’t ever her team’s best player until Swoopes and Cooper were out. In 2001 she was the league’s Most Improved Player, an All Star, and an All-WNBA First Team selection, but before that she was a key role player, not a star of the league, so she’s another rare WNBA player with four rings who won’t make the W25.
You can say much of the same for Penny Taylor. One of Australia’s greatest basketball players and an undeniably great player in the WNBA, I don’t see how she makes this list if she didn’t make the Top 20, but she was a key part of all three titles for the Phoenix Mercury. Five years after her last season, she’s still in the top 30 all-time in points, assists, and steals, so she has the numbers to boost her case, too.
What about the players who never won? Tina Charles is still going after a WNBA championship, and hopefully Angel McCoughtry will once again return from injury to do the same, but Becky Hammon, Vickie Johnson, and Teresa Weatherspoon walked away without one. All three were teammates for the early New York Liberty who were perennial contenders who just couldn’t get past the great Comets and Sparks in their best seasons, but all three were stars of the league in their times.
Johnson was the league’s leader in games played for several years, Hammon is still one of the greatest to combine scoring and passing, and Weatherspoon was perhaps the toughest guard on both sides of the ball early in league history. Does the lack of a ring hurt their chances?
I want to bring this back around to how the list is defined, as a group of the “greatest and most influential” WNBA players, with consideration given to “sportsmanship, community service, leadership, and contribution to the growth of women’s basketball.”
It’s a mistake to think of this as a list of players who were just the greatest on the court. What these players did as leaders and as game-changers matters, and what they continue to do in that sense long after they stop playing has to be factored in. What weight you put on it is up to you, but I think about some of the great things players I’m still considering have done off the court, including:
Cash, Hammon, and Weatherspoon were on the Top 20@20, while Ogwumike and Staley were not. I think all five have strong cases for the W25.
While I don’t think their respective WNBA playing careers quite stand up to the others on this list, Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery also force reflecting on just how far after their playing career a player can continue to add to their “top player” résumé. Lawson has made a major impact on the game as a studio analyst, NBA coach, Team USA coach with the 3x3 team, and now head coach at Duke, and Montgomery has become a major face in the players’ social justice efforts, an NBA analyst, and now the first player-turned-owner/executive.
I’ll be narrowing this final group down to round out my choices for the W25 very soon. In the meantime, let me know who’s on your list! Eligible candidates (based on Top 20@20 criteria) are listed on the Across the Timeline Top WNBA Players tool, and you can expand/contract any criteria to help make your list. Some of the breakdown and the player explorer in this post may also help.