For years, the Dallas Wings were a rebuilding franchise, acquiring a healthy amount of draft capital and infusing their roster with young players who the team hoped would eventually become a cohesive group and lead the franchise to postseason success it had not seen since relocating to Dallas in 2016.
Viewed through that lens, most would consider the Wings’ 2021 season a step in the right direction. In its first season under head coach Vickie Johnson, Dallas went 14-18 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2018, dropping its opening-round matchup to the eventual champion Chicago Sky. The team’s perennial leading scorer, Arike Ogunbowale, was then given a hefty contract extension, while the acquisition of 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan summed up a short-but-sweet Wings offseason.
In extending Ogunbowale and making just one change to their roster to this point (Bella Alarie will not suit up for Dallas in 2022 for personal reasons, so McCowan is essentially taking her spot), the Wings are making it clear that they believe in the players they have and they expect 2022 to be a year of progress.
It’s definitely not an unreasonable expectation. Ogunbowale and collegiate teammate Marina Mabrey have reunited to form a sweet-shooting duo in Dallas that’s among the best WNBA backcourts at scoring the basketball. Multi-talented forward Satou Sabally continues to ooze with potential on both ends of the court, looking every bit the future star the Wings anticipated her to be when they drafted her in 2020. Veterans Isabelle Harrison, Allisha Gray and Kayla Thornton all fill valuable roles, too, with Harrison in particular playing the best basketball of her WNBA career last season. It’s a solid core of players, and it should theoretically have the Wings back in the hunt for a playoff appearance in 2022.
There’s a stark difference between a playoff team and a championship contender, though, and while the young Wings should continue to improve, they still have a long way to go before they’re going to compete for a WNBA title. Dallas may have doubled down on its roster heading into 2022, but the theoretical in-house improvement expected of young players doesn’t always go exactly as planned, and the Wings still have some questions to answer about those players if they’re going to take another step forward.
One thing that the Wings have going for them is good depth, particularly in their frontcourt. As most of their players will still be on their rookie-scale contracts in 2022 (Her Hoop Stats), Dallas has temporarily avoided the salary cap crunch that has affected most other WNBA teams, making the Wings one of just a few teams in the league that can currently carry a full 12-player roster.
That doesn’t mean all 12 of those players need to be full-time contributors, though. In 2021, Johnson fielded a multitude of lineups, giving each of her inexperienced centers a handful of minutes here and there but seemingly losing patience with each of them. Last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick Charli Collier’s rookie season was characterized by wildly fluctuant playing time; both she and Alarie, no matter who started games, often got a quick hook from Johnson, and neither averaged more than 14 minutes played per game. No. 2 overall pick Awak Kuier, while noticeably raw at 19 years old, didn’t fare any better, playing just 8.9 minutes per contest.
With McCowan now on board, the future of the Wings’ 2021 draftees looks even murkier. The former Fever hasn’t been too much of a workhorse herself, but she certainly brings a kind of defined skillset yet to be exhibited by either Collier or Kuier. Harrison, meanwhile, has earned herself a consistent spot in Johnson’s rotation; she played 23.8 minutes per game off the bench in 2021 and, if Dallas is trying to reach its competitive window as soon as possible, she’d probably be a better candidate to back up McCowan than any other Wings youngster.
Further complicating things is one undeniable fact: Sabally needs to play as much as she can. A 6-foot-4 forward who glides across the court with effortless athleticism, Sabally has perhaps the highest ceiling of any Wing, and if she’s going to reach it, Dallas must utilize her in ways that best take advantage of her positional versatility — even if it comes at the expense of players who the Wings invested significant draft capital in just one year ago. While she’s plenty skilled enough to play small forward, Sabally’s talents are best used in the frontcourt, which would bump her ahead of any other Wings big depending on the situation.
There’s a similar logjam in the Wings’ backcourt, too. Dallas selected point guard Veronica Burton with the No. 7 pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft, and on the surface, she fits right in: The team lacked a point-of-attack defender last season, which is a role the three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year will have no problem playing.
But whose spot will Burton take? In 2021, the Wings’ point guard minutes were split almost evenly between Moriah Jefferson (17.2) and Tyasha Harris (16.3), with combo guard Mabrey soaking up the rest. One would assume that in drafting Burton, the Wings plan on eventually letting one of Jefferson or Harris go, but we have no indication of which one they’ll choose.
To be clear, there are worse problems for a WNBA team to have than needing to shorten its rotation. It’s something the Wings will need to figure out, though, on their way to becoming one of the league’s top teams. While young stars like Ogunbowale and Sabally are already established and will be the faces of the Dallas franchise for years to come, the Wings still need to determine which players best complement them. The Wings’ rotation for 2022 is something to keep a close eye on, and how it shakes out could determine the team’s hierarchy in the near and distant future.