Alyssa Thomas (with ball) had 23 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals in Game 3 of the semifinals just two days after dislocating her shoulder. | Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
In a WNBA season that saw two players make unreal statistical leaps, others put on postseason performances for the ages and a handful of young guns step up for non-playoff teams, we present the difference-makers for the champion Seattle Storm all the way down to the last-ranked New York Liberty.
It’s easy to point out the best players in the WNBA based on statistics. At Swish Appeal, we decided to go further and explore the unique classification of players who are difference-makers. We named one for each team based on 2020 regular-season and postseason performances.
With only 144 players, the concentration of talent in the WNBA is very high. Any starter or key bench player could step up and be the best player on the floor on any given night.
But who has that “it” factor that makes them a clear-cut difference-maker?
It could be players who give their team more than expected, who are X factors in terms of intangibles or who are the reason their team advanced to, or in, the playoffs. Here’s a look at 12 players who fit one or more of those descriptions in the 2020 WNBA season. The list is organized by the teams’ regular-season standing and the order in which teams finished in the postseason, starting with the champion Seattle Storm and ending with the last-ranked New York Liberty.
Seattle Storm — Alysha Clark
In 2020, Clark had the best statistical season of her career. She recorded a double-digit scoring average for the first time, with 10 points per game, and led the league with 52.2 percent shooting from distance. She also was a unanimous pick for the All-Defensive Team. Always a great team leader, Clark did all the little things right, yet again, and her 3-point shooting took the team’s dominance to new heights.
Las Vegas Aces — Angel McCoughtry
The goal of adding McCoughtry was to have her play fewer minutes in the regular season and then come up big in the playoffs. She played her role perfectly. A’ja Wilson was the star, but McCoughtry made a big difference in playmaking to carry the Aces past the Sun in the semifinals. And she continued her legacy of playing well in the Finals with averages of 18.5 points and 8.5 rebounds for the first two games of the championship series versus the Storm.
Connecticut Sun — Alyssa Thomas
Thomas put the Sun on her back in the playoffs for the second-straight season. She averaged 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the team’s second-round win over the Los Angeles Sparks before an amazing performance in Game 3 of the Sun’s semifinals series against the Aces. Vegas defeated Connecticut in the series, but Thomas proved once again how valuable she is. Her amazing defensive skills take the Sun to another level because she can limit even the best offensive players in the league.
Minnesota Lynx — Crystal Dangerfield
Bridget Carleton, Napheesa Collier, Damiris Dantas and Dangerfield all overachieved in 2020 and, with Sylvia Fowles injured, they had to. Carleton’s contributions were impressive and unexpected, but Dangerfield’s performance was even more important considering the leadership role she had to take on as a rookie point guard. She was not afraid to have a score-first mentality and her scoring propelled the Lynx to a first-round bye.
Phoenix Mercury — Brianna Turner
Turner was expected to have a breakout sophomore season and, even though she didn’t score a whole lot, her rebounding (nine boards per game) and shot-blocking (two rejections per contest) were incredible. Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith certainly stepped up as well, but Turner quietly made the difference for a team that was without its best post presence in Brittney Griner for a chunk of the season.
Los Angeles Sparks — Candace Parker
The Sparks didn’t have an X factor that made a huge difference so Candace Parker, the team’s best player, gets the nod here. When you think about someone who raised the team’s level of play, you think of Parker. She filled out the stat sheet this year and was the Sparks’ emotional leader as well. If the rest of the team hadn’t struggled so much in their playoff game against Connecticut we could be talking about Candace Parker and not Alyssa Thomas taking A’ja Wilson and Las Vegas to five games.
Washington Mystics — Myisha Hines-Allen
Hines-Allen’s versatile skill set was already in place before this season, but few expected her to put up the numbers that she did. She averaged 17 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, making her deserving of the All-WNBA Second Team honor she received. In 2019, she averaged just 7.8 minutes and 2.3 points. Hines-Allen changed the trajectory of the Elena Delle Donne-less Mystics with her phenomenal play, which led them to the playoffs.
Chicago Sky — Kahleah Copper
The Sky came into this season expecting Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Diamond DeShields to be their big three. But Copper ended up filling in for DeShields, who was never 100 percent because of a calf injury. Vandersloot had at least four assists in every game in 2020 and Quigley was fourth in the league, with 46 made threes. Their consistency was invaluable, but Chicago needed an extra boost from somewhere and Copper — a dynamic guard who can score from anywhere — gave it to them.
Dallas Wings — Marina Mabrey
Mabrey turned it up a notch in 2020 and became a starter halfway through the season. Her 3-point shooting percentage improved dramatically — from 27.3 percent in 2019 to 41.8 percent this year — and her minutes per game went up from 11.5 to 21.3. At times, it seemed she was the second-best player on the Wings after Arike Ogunbowale, her college roommate at Notre Dame. Mabrey also had a calming influence on Ogunbowale, who was under a lot of pressure this year and had some rough outings in terms of efficiency. When Mabrey was on, the Wings were hard to stop.
Atlanta Dream — Betnijah Laney
Laney, whose scoring average went from 5.6 points in 2019 to 17.2 points in 2020, gave the Dream far more than they expected. Atlanta came into the season hoping for an immediate impact from Chennedy Carter. What they got was that, plus the rise of a new star in Laney, who provided veteran leadership to back up Carter and make up for the losses of Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery to opt-outs. The Dream may not have made the playoffs, but Laney had them battling until the end of the regular season.
Indiana Fever — Julie Allemand
Mystics forward Emma Meesseman, who plays with Allemand on the Belgian national team, knew Allemand had a “beautiful game” prior to her entry into the league. But the Fever rookie exceeded expectations with 47.8 percent shooting from long range and 5.8 assists per game. Outside of their upset of the Storm on Aug. 20, the Fever didn’t have much to celebrate in 2020, but Allemand gave them an edge by forcing other teams to game-plan for her and not just for Kelsey Mitchell and the other established players.
New York Liberty — Amanda Zahui B.
Zahui B. was one of the most overlooked players in the WNBA this year. Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins’ high volume 3-point-shooting strategy is not working very well so far, but Zahui B. was one of a few bright spots. She is a big who can knock down shots from beyond the arc and she led the team with 34 triples — at a solid 34-percent clip. Layshia Clarendon was a great veteran leader, but Zahui B. was better — she averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds in New York’s two wins, so she gets the nod.