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Which WNBA players will lead the league into the next generation? They've got next

Gabriel Meza

The WNBA, in its 26th season, is in the midst of a transitional phase. There's a changing of the guard underway as some of the league's greats, including the WNBA's all-time rebounding and assist leaders, prepare to step away from the game.

Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird -- who combined have been on four of the last seven WNBA title-winning teams -- will retire at the end of the 2022 season. Briann January also has said this is her final season. Other legends could join them, or at the very least aren't too far behind: Two-time MVP Candace Parker has indicated 2022 might be her swan song, while 40-year-old Diana Taurasi, the league's all-time scoring leader, hasn't indicated she'll be stepping away but is in the final year of her contract with the Phoenix Mercury.

With the old guard on the outs, and the likes of recent MVPs Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne, A'ja Wilson and Jonquel Jones having already established themselves as the now, who's got next in the WNBA?

Which players will comprise the upcoming crop of WNBA MVPs? Defensive players of the year? Can anyone join Delle Donne in the 50/40/90 club? And which franchise is best positioned to become the next WNBA dynasty? As 22 of the league's best head to Chicago for the WNBA All-Star Game on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC), we looked at WNBA players drafted in 2018 or later, as well as current top college players, to answer those questions.

Future MVP: Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx

Collier is largely off the radar these days as she hasn't appeared yet in 2022 due to pregnancy/maternity leave, and there's no guarantee she'll make her return this summer. Whenever she retakes the hardwood, the Lynx will be building around her as their new franchise cornerstone in the post-Fowles era.

Collier came in fifth in MVP voting in 2020 -- the first player beyond the 2017 draft class to earn that distinction -- and according to Her Hoop Stats has finished in the top 10 of win shares each of her first three seasons in the league. Improving her shooting would boost her case, but Collier already has the motor, ability to impact the game in a multitude of ways, and a coach who knows a thing or two (or four) about winning championships that should help elevate her game to the next level.

Also promising from subsequent draft classes: former Oregon Ducks teammates Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally, as well as current rookie of the year frontrunner Rhyne Howard. Collier got the nod here because she's relatively more established and has a larger body of work in the league, but the potential the other three have shown indicates they too belong in this conversation.


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Sabrina Ionescu goes for 31-point triple-double to lead Liberty

Sabrina Ionescu goes 10-of-13 from the field, putting up a 31-point triple-double in the Liberty's big-time win against the Aces.

Future triple-doubles leader: Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty

Who could've seen this one coming, right? And Ionescu -- the NCAA leader in career triple-doubles with 26 during her four years at Oregon -- is expected to own this WNBA record by herself very soon. She tied Parker with her third career triple-double on Wednesday -- becoming the first player in WNBA history to get one with zero turnovers and to score 30 points in a triple-double -- and she has been within reach of recording more in a handful of games this season. When she recorded her second triple-double in June, the Liberty guard became the youngest player in league history to record multiple triple-doubles, joining Parker and -- including postseason play -- Courtney Vandersloot and Sheryl Swoopes. What's most impressive? Ionescu, who was recently named an All-Star starter for the first time, has played only 54 pro games, the bulk of her promising WNBA career well ahead of her.

Also considered: Caitlin Clark, Iowa Hawkeyes


Future double-double machine: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina Gamecocks

Fowles is the WNBA's career double-doubles leader with 187, so perhaps the future force in this realm is someone who broke a Fowles record from her college days: Boston, the reigning national player of the year in women's college basketball, surpassed Fowles' SEC record of 19 consecutive double-double in the 2021-22 season, ultimately recording 27 straight and 30 overall on her way to leading the Gamecocks to a second NCAA title in five NCAA tournaments. Across her three seasons under Dawn Staley, Boston has averaged 14.5 points and 11.2 rebounds per game -- well within the ballpark of Fowles' career averages of 15.5 and 10.9 at LSU. Following her senior season, Boston is projected by many to be the top pick in the 2023 WNBA draft.

Also considered: Teaira McCowan, Dallas Wings; Cameron Brink, Stanford Cardinal


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Satou Sabally somehow gets the and-1 to fall for the Wings

Satou Sabally has the crowd on its feet as she drives through multiple defenders to somehow drain the and-1.

Future WNBPA president: Satou Sabally, Dallas Wings

The No. 2 overall pick in 2020, Sabally has long excited basketball fans with her ceiling and versatility, earning her the nickname of "unicorn." But the former Oregon star has the potential to make an impact off the court as well. She might still be a relative newcomer to the league, but Sabally quickly immersed herself in the W's activism efforts and the WNBPA's work. She's the youngest player on the players' union's executive committee and was also a founding member of the WNBA social justice council, created in the wake of the country's racial justice reckoning in 2020. Her college coach, Kelly Graves, once told Sports Illustrated he'd never coached an athlete more determined to make a difference in the world, and Sabally could be poised to build on that determination as a leader of the WNBPA.

Also considered: Brianna Turner, Phoenix


Future international star: Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm

Australians have had pretty good track records in Seattle (see: Lauren Jackson's three WNBA MVPs, two titles and Finals MVP). Magbegor is the latest Aussie to add to that tradition. She has stepped up massively for the Storm with Mercedes Russell sidelined most of the season and is having an All Star-caliber year. It's easy to forget that Magbegor, who previously played professionally in Australia and appeared in the 2020 Olympics with the Opals, is just 22. As showcased by her stellar 2022, where she has led the league in blocks (2.6 per game) while also averaging 6.3 rebounds and 11.7 points and looking more and more comfortable with her 3-point shot, Magbegor has the potential to be a star in the WNBA, for the Storm or elsewhere; she'll be a reserved free agent after this season.

Also considered: Awak Kuier, Dallas; Marine Johannes, New York; Han Xu, New York


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Chelsea Gray hits her first 6 shots in perfect first half

Chelsea Gray comes out of the gate on fire for the Aces as she connects on all six of her shots in the first half.

Next dynasty: Las Vegas Aces

Proclaiming a future WNBA dynasty is tricky business, particularly as the league's new CBA has made player movement easier than ever before. Picking a franchise that hasn't won a title yet might be risky, but more than anyone else, the Aces have the makings of a potential multi-time champ. Vegas is going all-in on its experienced yet relatively young core, as Chelsea Gray, Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young have signed on through 2024, and 2020 MVP A'ja Wilson is locked in through 2023. Kelsey Plum, an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2022, is the outstanding member of Vegas' Fab Five who has yet to sign an extension and would be crucial to any dynastic run. Many are speculating she could end up in her old stomping grounds of Seattle, where she broke the NCAA Division I women's scoring record during her career for the Washington Huskies, to replace Sue Bird upon her retirement.

Seattle could win its third title in five seasons this summer, but might find itself in re-build mode if Breanna Stewart departs in free agency. Chicago is well positioned to repeat in 2022, but Parker is set to retire soon, and the majority of the Sky's top players will be free agents after the season. One other potential dynasty that comes to mind, under a very specific set of circumstances: New York, if Stewart opts to join forces with Ionescu. Liberty owners Joe and Clara Tsai already wined and dined Stewart this past offseason before she decided to re-sign with the Storm on a one-year deal.


Future scoring champ: Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings

Maybe this is a cop-out considering Ogunbowale has already led the league in scoring once before, her sophomore season in 2020 when she put up 22.8 points per game. Nonetheless, there's good reason to believe the former national champion for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish could finish as the WNBA's scoring leader many more times in her career, as she was the second-youngest player (behind Lauren Jackson) to earn the WNBA season scoring title when she did it at 23. A handful of players have topped the WNBA in scoring twice in their careers, but only three have done it at least three times: Jackson (three), Cynthia Cooper (three) and Diana Taurasi (five). Already, Ogunbowale has finished in the top five in scoring each season she has been in the league, and she currently ranks third this summer.

Also considered: Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream


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Ariel Atkins gets the steal and score

Ariel Atkins is all alone for a layup after the steal.

Future multi-time champion: Ariel Atkins, Washington Mystics

Sure, potential MVPs ought to be considered here, but countless players have demonstrated you don't need to take home the sport's top accolade to help teams win titles. After all, Rebekkah Brunson, who won a WNBA-record five championships, undoubtedly made her impact felt with the Sacramento Monarchs and Lynx despite never winning regular-season or Finals MVP. Atkins already has one title; she was a starter on the Mystics' 2019 championship squad, and is the sort of quiet star who seems destined to earn more rings in her future. The two-way threat -- who last year became the first WNBA player to be named to an all-defensive team each of her first four seasons in the league -- just earned her second All-Star nod and is fresh off her debut appearance for Team USA in the Olympics, where the Washington Post reported Bird and Stewart pleaded with coach Dawn Staley to give Atkins more playing time.

Also considered: Young players like Atkins who have already won a title have a leg up in this category. Azura Stevens, Chicago; Magbegor, Seattle


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Shakira Austin spins in the paint and drains step-back floater

Shakira Austin spins in the paint and drains step-back floater

Future defensive player of the year: Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics

Going with a rookie might be bold, but some have predicted that Austin, the No. 3 overall draft pick with a fabulous defensive foundation, could have the highest ceiling of anyone in the 2022 draft class. The 6-foot-5 center is a big reason why the Mystics allow the second-fewest points in the paint and boast the second-best defensive rating in the league, even with Delle Donne in and out of the lineup. Most memorably, Austin's performance on both ends against Tina Charles earlier this season showed she has the tenacity to compete with one of the sport's all-time greats, even at 21 years old. Onlookers might have been perplexed why Mike Thibault was willing to trade down and end up with Austin rather than Howard or NaLyssa Smith, but the former Ole Miss Rebels star has looked well beyond her years already, and is an exciting piece for the Mystics to have at their disposal as they build for the future.

Also considered: Brianna Turner, Phoenix; Magbegor, Seattle; Collier, Minnesota; Gabby Williams, Seattle; Boston, South Carolina


Future 50/40/90 club member: Azzi Fudd, UConn Huskies

More likely than not, anyone who joins Elena Delle Donne in the exclusive 50/40/90 club -- shooting 50% from the field, 40% from 3 and 90% from the free throw line on the qualifying numbers of attempts in each category -- is going to have to be an elite, if not generational, shooter. Fudd, Golden State Warriors great Steph Curry once said, "has more of a textbook jumper than anyone I've seen ... You go Ray Allen, Klay Thompson and Azzi Fudd, textbook." The rising sophomore dealt with a foot injury much of her freshman year, causing her to miss 11 games, but put up 45.7/43.0/91.2 splits in 2021-22, and there's ample reason to believe she can build upon those numbers as she settles in at the next level (and eventually the pros).

Also considered: Paige Bueckers, UConn (she just missed out on a 50/40/90 season her first year in Storrs); Diamond Johnson, NC State Wolfpack (prior to transferring from Rutgers, she hit 50/40/90 splits her freshman year)


Future game-winning bucket: Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream

Her stellar first season in the league has impressed even the biggest fans of the former Kentucky Wildcats star, propelling Atlanta, which traded up to draft her as its new franchise cornerstone, to what's shaping up to be its best regular season since 2018. The No. 1 draft pick proved capable of taking over late in Lexington, and shined as a player who thrives with the ball in their hands when the game is on the line. Her hot start has cooled down the last month or so as scouting reports have been able to hone in on her and as she has faced better defenders. But as Howard learns how to counter what opponents throw at her and has more help surrounding her, it seems only a matter of time until she will not simply be entrusted with the ball in late-game situations, but will hit the necessary shots for her team to win games.

Also considered: (Relative) youngsters Ogunbowale and Ionescu have already shown they can excel with the ball in their hands at the end of games. Next up? Look for college stars Boston, Bueckers and Clark to bring that same quality


Future 3-point contest winner: Lexie Brown, Los Angeles Sparks

Since 2018, Brown is the only player drafted that year or more recently who has appeared in the top 10 of the WNBA's 3-point shooting percentage leaderboard multiple times. A former Duke Blue Devils standout, Brown's 46% shooting on 3-pointers this season (on 4.0 attempts per game) would be a career high (her previous best is 38.5% in 2019, good for ninth-best in the league) and has been a boon offensively for the surging Sparks. Perhaps she'll even be among the players selected to participate in Saturday's 3-point shooting contest in Chicago.

Also considered: Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix; Marine Johannes, New York; Kelsey Mitchell, Indiana; Destanni Henderson, Indiana