Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.
Seimone Augustus dialed up her parents to discuss the battle. Her body didn’t feel right. Her mind wasn’t there. She was thinking of hanging up her basketball shoes and calling it a career three days before her 16th season would tip off.
Her mother told her they didn’t know what else she was trying to accomplish.
“Me and your daddy are just sitting here like, ‘What else is it that you want to do? You’ve done ev-er-ee-thing,’” Augustus recalled her mother telling her on that call, emphasizing for impact.
And she truly has. Augustus, who turned 37 last month, is a legend in the game, her name forever etched in dynasty lore by winning four titles in seven years with the Minnesota Lynx. Her retirement was abrupt last week, but no less significant for a superstar who won over fans with her swag, quick handles and selfless acts that are still clear off the court.
“As a player that’s in the later years of her career,” Augustus said Wednesday at a retirement media conference, “I’m looking around and I’m like, as I said, if I’m not able to give what I’m used to giving, then I have to allow someone else to carry this torch and live out their dreams.”
It started on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Women as a teenage phenom, the magazine asking if she was the next Michael Jordan. She went on to a two-time Wooden Award-winning collegiate career at LSU and the No. 1 pick in the 2006 WNBA draft by the Lynx.
Her Rookie of the Year campaign is one of the best all-time as she averaged 21.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists a game. It was her first of eight All-Star nods and the start to becoming a beloved figure in Lynx lore.
She played out rough years, finally breaking through and leading the “core four” to the 2011 WNBA championship where she was named Finals MVP. The guard-forward added three more WNBA titles to the case over the years and opted to continue her career with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2020 free agency.
That was only the WNBA. Augustus is a three-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA and overseas accumulated two EuroCup titles, a EuroCup MVP and a Turkish Cup trophy.
All of that success, sometimes year-round, takes its toll. The 48 sprints her trainer had her run in ramp-ups to training camp left her exhausted at the car after her ego pushed her through it. Three days before the Sparks' season opener, the battle was decided.
“In my mind and my body started to have spite,” Augustus said. “My body was saying that it couldn't go anymore, like the aches and pains, the discomfort that I was experiencing was a little bit too much to bear.”
Her mind, always selfless, turned to two teammates. Nia Coffey and Bria Holmes, who Augustus noted is a mother, are both fifth-year players who had bounced around the league. Both had great training camps but they were on the cusp of roster cuts, not because of lack of talent but because there simply aren’t enough spots. The WNBA is the most difficult league to make a roster in percentage-wise.
“Why should they have to cut minutes with me and I’m sitting here like, having a tug-of-war battle with my mind and my body when they have two able bodies that can go out there that are young, that are fresh, that are trying to find a home here in L.A.,” Augustus said. “And they want to play, and they can play at the highest level. It’s time for me to walk away because I’ve seen everything that I’ve needed to see.
“Players will, as they get in their later years, start to see that the league is now in good hands, and we have great young talent that’s ready to carry the torch forward,” she added.
Augustus, a surefire future Hall of Famer, may have carried as far as she could as a player, but now she’s carrying another torch that the WNBA has been focused on advancing.
Trending: Players turn immediately to coaching
The WNBA has faced a diversity issue in coaching as well as a lack of former players hired into the role over the years. Augustus is one of a growing number of players retiring and joining the coaching ranks, a refreshing move for a player-driven league.
Coaching was initially mentioned to Augustus a handful of years ago by a random person in the store. From then on she heard about it, but fought it. After helping a young man learn how to use a pogo stick at a party, a friend approached her and asked when she was finally going to retire and enter coaching.
To be as transparent as possible, Augustus called Sparks head coach Derek Fisher last week to discuss where her mind was at in retiring. When he mentioned joining his coaching staff, she said she felt she had “no other choice.”
“I was tired of fighting the battle as well with being a coach or whatever it is I thought I was going to do after basketball,” she said.
She’s not the only one. This spring alone, Jacki Gemelos (New York Liberty) and Sugar Rodgers (Las Vegas Aces) went immediately from court to clipboard. Crystal Langhorne (Seattle Storm) and Morgan Tuck (Connecticut Sun) retired and entered their team’s front offices.
There are at least 16 former players on the sidelines as assistants this season, including all three for the Lynx under head coach Cheryl Reeve. That includes Augustus’ former championship-winning teammate Rebekkah Brunson, who retired and started coaching in February 2020.
And two head coaches are former players in the Dallas Wings’ Vickie Johnson and the Phoenix Mercury’s Sandy Brondello.
Instead of hire an outside firm to look into it, report back, and do little, the league made a policy adjustment last year to address the lack of players able to enter the coaching pipeline. Teams can now hire and pay a third assistant coach if at least one of the four coaches, head coach included, are a former player.
It’s a big deal and a refreshing one. Players, especially recent ones, can connect in ways a non-professional player couldn’t. They also have an intimate knowledge of the game and its players. More than that, if they want to join the coaching ranks and have the mind for it, they should receive the opportunity.
“It was just a great opportunity to continue to be a part of the ecosystem here in the WNBA and continue to grow and make this better,” Augustus said.
The league is better off with Augustus in it. Her first successful coaching story may be a pogo stick, but it doesn’t stop there. Who better to teach the next generation, to keep passing on the torch of knowledge, than someone who, in her own mother’s words, has done “ev-er-ee-thing.”
Sabrina Ionescu opens super-rookie season in style
The first game had the storybook ending and the third was the inevitable sequel. Sabrina Ionescu is everything we thought and dreamed she would be, but it's unfair to the game to not take the time and point out how incredible that is in the first place.
The WNBA is the hardest professional league in the country to make and the competitive jump from collegiate to pro is a large one. When Ionescu came out of Oregon, it was a flood of "weeeellll." Well, she's still a rookie. Well, it takes time to adjust. Well, be patient.
Well, it took a mere six games (more like five considering she barely played in her third) for Ionescu to hit the rarified air of a triple-double. The question should never have been if; it's always been when and how many? The WNBA is, of course, a far more difficult league than even the stacked Pac-12. But it's worth mentioning now that she averaged a triple-double about every sixth game in college.
The greatest part was not that she accomplished it, but how Barclays Center reacted to it. They stuck around for her YES Network interview and roared when Ionescu waved goodbye. In two games at the Liberty's new home, she drilled a winning 3-pointer in the final second and entered the record books in an entry that had only eight names.
Ionescu, who BetMGM lists at +1000 odds to win the 2021 MVP, is averaging 21 points, nine assists and seven rebounds through three games. It's the most assists per game in the league and tied for fifth in points. Her 10 3-pointers per game are a league best and come on 19 average attempts (52.6%).
Well, the queen is here.
This week in the WNBA could support expansion
The WNBA is, as noted, the most difficult league to gain entry. It came as little surprise to most, but still to some, when the New York Liberty waived ninth-year veteran guard Layshia Clarendon on Thursday.
Clarendon signed a two-year deal with the Liberty in February 2020, months ahead of the team making it official and drafting Sabrina Ionescu at No. 1. General manager Jonathan Kolb said then they brought Clarendon into the fold for natural leadership abilities and to be an extension of the “coaching staff on the floor.”
At the time, it made sense. There were plenty of concerns about how Ionescu would transition to the pro level, and the Liberty needed a loud, veteran voice to pair with the young team they were building.
But what about now?
As for Ionescu, she’s clearly transitioning fine. The point guard is spending most of the game on the court, and three games into the season, she is already showing why she was dubbed a generational talent. As for leadership, Betnijah Laney has taken on that role and been the vocal player. She’s also the team’s most productive scorer at 23.3 points per game. The reasons the Liberty brought Clarendon in in the first place are now being taken on by others or voided.
Clarendon played only three minutes in the first three games, total, and the Liberty are soaring at 3-0. The team needed to open up a spot for Natasha Howard, who is returning from her overseas commitment. There isn’t really another option outside of Clarendon as the team turns to developing its young talent and growing that foundation.
Yet they are still a leader and can eat quality minutes at the point guard spot. Unfortunately, there aren’t many places for them to land right now like there would be in the NBA. Rosters are bursting with talent and other teams are in the same position of figuring out who to waive to bring back stars from overseas. This will continue until the WNBA expands. It’s clearly shown it can support it. This week, it was shown both through Augustus' retirement story and Clarendon's release.
Still in awe of the point gawd
The Las Vegas Aces avenged their double-digit loss to open the 2021 campaign with a double-digit win. It was Aces point gawd — sorry, "guard" — Chelsea Gray who stood out above the rest, which is saying something given the talent on these squads.
Seriously, take a look again at these assists. That behind-the-back dish to A'ja Wilson at the elbow? Stunning.
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) May 19, 2021
The new schedule structure to cut down on travel is fun and gave us a nice home-and-home between the Aces and Storm to open the season. It's too bad we couldn't get a third to tilt the tides and leave us with more questions than answers.
New York Liberty (3-0): The Liberty are playing well, but have no doubt benefited from two games against the Indiana Fever and a Minnesota Lynx team still jelling with new pieces and missing Napheesa Collier. How far can they take this streak?
Bet on it: BetMGM has the Liberty at +2500 odds to win the WNBA title.
Friday at Washington Mystics (0-2), 7 p.m. ET — Commissioner's Cup game
Sunday at Chicago Sky (2-0), 1 p.m. ET (ESPN) — Commissioner's Cup game
Monday vs. Dallas Wings (1-0), 7 p.m. ET (Twitter)
Las Vegas Aces (1-1): This squad is loaded and figured out how to pop the reigning champions' bubble in the rematch on Tuesday. Watch for theatrics against the Sparks.
Bet on it: BetMGM has the Aces at +325 odds to win the WNBA title.
Friday vs. Los Angeles Sparks (0-1), 10:30 p.m. ET (CBSSN) — Commissioner's Cup game
Sunday vs. Connecticut Sun (3-0), 6 p.m. ET (Facebook)