July 16, 2021
WNBA’s young talent has arrived
The league's up and coming stars took center stage at the 2021 All-Star Game
Every four years, the WNBA doesn’t hold an All-Star game. Every four years coincides with the Olympics and with it, many of the league’s stars find themselves suiting up for Team USA or other countries as well right around the time the All-Star game would be held.
But this year was a little bit different. The WNBA originally didn’t have a game scheduled for 2020. The Olympics were set to take place last summer, but the festivities were canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
With the 2020 WNBA season being held in Bradenton, FL in a bubble, the league decided to follow through with their plans to not hold an All-Star game as it wasn’t feasible in a bubble despite the Olympics being postponed.
The Olympics were pushed back to the summer of 2021, but rather than not host a game for the second straight year, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert knew that canceling the All-Star game just wasn’t going to be a possibility.
“It was really important to have an All-Star game not only for fan engagement and media engagement but also for the players. It struck me when Sue Bird was in that CarMax commercial talking about how many years she was an All-Star,” Engelbert told media before the game. “That’s the one thing the NBA doesn’t have, they play one every year. We don’t play one every fourth year. I wanted to make sure these players could call themselves an All-Star this year.”
And although the game itself was a more scaled-down version without a skills competition and with the three-point shootout held at halftime, there was certainly one overarching theme of the night, the continued ascent of a new crop of WNBA stars.
The game itself differed in format from the past with a select group of All-Stars going head to head with Team USA who will represent the United States later this month in Tokyo. Team USA is filled with veteran stars who have carved out names for themselves on stages such as this before. Seven out of the 12 players featured on Team WNBA were first-time All-Stars.
And that’s really what the event was about, the league’s up and coming stars announcing to the world that they’ve arrived, that their time is now.
So it was fitting that the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale, only in her third year in the WNBA and one of the league’s leading scorers through the midway point, was named All-Star Game MVP.
Ogunbowale mentioned to reporters the day before the game that she would be happy just being able to score at least ten points. But from the get-go, it was evident that she was going to surpass that quite easily. She came out aggressive early and at times kept Team WNBA within striking distance while Team USA tried to impose their will.
Throughout the game, she hit an array of jumpers and made several forays to the rim, scoring 26 points and showing what’s made her one of the WNBA’s toughest covers and a nightmare for opposing players to defend. After the game, Ogunbowale credited her teammates with recognizing the hot hand and she relished the opportunity to play alongside and against some of the league’s elite.
“Nobody is selfish on this team so they’re going to feed whoever is hot. J.J [Jones’] was knocking shots down, we’re feeding her, we’re feeding whoever is hot. It just turned out I scored a little more points,” Ogunbowale said. “There’s a lot of great players in this league, for us to be chosen as All-Stars, that means we’re at the top of the game. It’s just a blessing to be here.”
Suiting up alongside Ogunbowale on Team WNBA was fellow first-time All-Star’s Kahleah Copper, Dearica Hamby, Brionna Jones, Betnijah Laney, Satou Sabally, and Courtney Williams. The group made up the entire team’s bench except for Ogunbowale who started the game, with each of them contributing key plays throughout the game.
Williams was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Ogunbowale, with 15 points and only missing one shot. Her offensive explosion in the second half was a big part of what powered Team WNBA to the win. She played the role of distributor in the first half and then was able to get herself going.
“I never like to force anything, so if I can pick my spots that’s what I try to do. I was out there having fun,” Williams said. “It was fun just being around all these great players and playing the game that we love. I enjoyed myself.”
In the case of Laney, this moment meant quite a lot to her. Having bounced around the league and now being able to carve out a role for herself as one of the WNBA’s elite scorers, it was very important.
She had her New York Liberty teammates Reshanda Gray and Michaela Onyenwere sitting courtside cheering her on as well as Liberty owner Joseph Tsai and his family, and Liberty assistant coach Jacki Gemelos.
“It felt amazing to just be here in this moment after everything,” Laney said. “And then to have the support I had from my team, from my family and friends, it was a really good experience for me.”