WNBA rookie progress report: Talented duos reminding hoops world there are 1st-year players other than Caitlin Clark

The WNBA playoff race is shaping up, with Caitlin Clark and the Fever currently sitting in eighth place, which would earn them the final postseason bid, thanks to a win over the Sky on Sunday. Clark, who is leading the Rookie of the Year race, finished that game with 23 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. There’s a lot of basketball left to play, but if the season ended today, the Fever would earn a playoff spot for the first time since 2016.

The Chicago Sky (ninth place), L.A. Sparks (10th place) and Washington Mystics (12th place) are currently out of the playoff field. But each team has its own high-performing rookies who are continuing to improve. Postseason-bound or not, these six first-year players are shaping the futures of their respective teams. And if they continue to progress, the playoffs may not be out of reach.

The Chicago Sky are on a four-game slide with losses to Atlanta, Connecticut, Washington and Indiana, but there is a bright spot. Reese and Cardoso are establishing themselves as the future of the franchise.

One of Reese’s biggest draws as the No. 7 pick in the draft was her motor, and that’s translated to the WNBA. Reese was a rebounding machine in college, averaging 13.4 rebounds per game as a senior. Now, she’s hitting the glass for the Chicago Sky, grabbing 10.2 boards per game, which is fourth in the league behind established stars A’ja Wilson, Dearica Hamby and Napheesa Collier. And when it comes to offensive rebounds, Reese leads the league with 4.6 per game. That’s 1.5 offensive rebounds better than Ezi Magbegor, who is second.

For Reese, the next step in improving her game is efficiency. Despite putting up 12.1 points per game, she’s struggled to finish around the rim, shooting just 37.1% from the field. In her last outing, a 91-83 loss to the Fever, Reese went 4-of-13 from the field. But those numbers seem to be improving overall. In the three games prior to the Fever loss, Reese shot 53% from the field.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 04: Kamilla Cardoso #10 of the Chicago Sky and Angel Reese #5 of the Chicago Sky during the second half against the New York Liberty on June 4, 2024 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/ Icon Sportswire)
Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese celebrate during the second half against the New York Liberty on June 4, 2024, at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/ Icon Sportswire)

If Reese improves her efficiency, she will also improve her Rookie of the Year chances. Indiana’s Clark is the current favorite, but Reese is playing herself into contention. She’s recorded six double-doubles in a row since the start of June, and despite the shooting numbers, Reese had a stellar game Sunday against the Fever overall, finishing with 11 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block.

Cardoso also had her best game of the season against Indiana, finishing with 10 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and a block for her first double-double as a pro. Cardoso has a smaller sample size than Reese after missing the first six games of the season with a shoulder injury, but now that she’s healthy, the South Carolina grad is establishing herself as a key piece for Chicago. Cardoso has played in seven games, earning a starting spot in the last four and is averaging 8.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest.

The wins aren't coming right now for the 4-9 Sky, but Reese and Cardoso are establishing themselves as a powerful pair in the paint. Even if Chicago misses the playoffs, the future is bright with the SEC duo as the team’s foundation.

Because the Mystics started the season 0-12, Edwards hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves. In her debut, an 85-80 loss to New York to open the season, Edwards played just 12 minutes off the bench, but made the most of it with six points, two rebounds and a blocked shot. Since then, her numbers have increased, with a career-high in both points (23) and rebounds (14) in a 79-71 loss to the Sky on June 6.

After a disheartening start, the Mystics have won their last two games, with Edwards playing a key role. In an 83-81 win over Chicago on Friday, the UConn product finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a steal. She is also shooting 52.1% from the field and has gotten more efficient as the season progresses. In the month of June, Edwards has made 63% of her attempts.

Washington’s other first-year player, Vanloo, is often forgotten when it comes to rookie conversations because her path to the WNBA is more unconventional. The Belgian guard is 31 and had spent her entire pro career overseas until now. Vanloo has played at the highest level as a member of the Belgian national team, and her experience earned her a spot on the Mystics. She has started 11 games for Washington and is averaging 8.4 points and 5.4 assists per game. She’s starting to hit her stride as a 3-point shooter, making 44% of her attempts over the Mystics’ last four games and shooting 34.6% on the season.

The Mystics are definitely at the start of a rebuild. Natasha Cloud, who spent eight seasons in Washington, signed with the Mercury this offseason, and Elena Delle Donne is taking the season off. Her return to the Mystics seems unlikely. That means Washington’s future is uncertain, but both Edwards and Vanloo could play a part for years to come.

Jackson has one of the highest ceilings of anyone in this season’s draft, and her potential is starting to actualize. The No. 4 pick is averaging 10.3 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, and earned a starting spot after coming off the bench for LA’s first five games. Jackson’s length and creativity around the rim make her a mismatch for defenders, even as she figures out her place in the league. She can finish over defenders in a variety of ways, including with turnaround jumpers and floaters.

Jackson has taken her play to another level recently, scoring in double figures in three of her last four games. She came up big in an unexpected win over the defending champion Las Vegas Aces on June 9, finishing with 16 points and five rebounds and going 7-of-11 from the field. And in a loss to Minnesota on Friday, the Tennessee graduate recorded her first double-double of the season with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists.

Plenty of rookies are struggling with efficiency as they adjust to quicker defenders and increased physicality in the WNBA, but not Jackson. She’s shooting 47.3% from the field, which is nearly identical to what she shot in college.

Brink, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, has started every game this season. She’s averaging 8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. Brink had 10 points and 10 rebounds in a win against Dallas on June 7 and another solid performance of 16 points and seven rebounds in a loss to Atlanta on Sunday.

But her biggest impact comes on the defensive end, where Brink is blocking 2.5 shots per game. She’s had a season-high five blocks twice, both coming against the Aces. In her team’s win over Las Vegas on June 9, Brink had an all-around performance with eight points, six rebounds, five blocks and one assist, holding her own against Kiah Stokes and A’ja Wilson in the paint. The Stanford graduate is also third overall in blocks per game this season.

When L.A.’s rookies are playing well – like they did against Las Vegas – the Sparks are a capable team, which bodes well for their future despite a 4-10 record.