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This Week in the WNBA
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate Basketball Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The 2014 All-Star Game magnified the transition the WNBA is currently going through, as the younger talent continued to outshine the more familiar names.
Atlanta rookie point guard Shoni Schimmel was awarded the All-Star Game MVP after she set a new record with 29 points. The eighth overall pick out of Louisville has made a surprisingly gigantic impact on the league in her first year with the Atlanta Dream -- both on and off the hardwood. Schimmel has the top-selling jersey among all players, and the Dream hold a five-game lead for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Schimmel was joined in the Eastern Conference's starting lineup by teammates Erika de Souza and Angel McCoughtry, along with former MVP Tamika Catchings, who made the game-winning layup with just under seven seconds remaining in overtime. Chicago's second-year phenom Elena Delle Donne sat out due to her ongoing struggle with Lyme disease despite being voted in as a starter.
Although the fans' votes ultimately did not decide the starting five for the Eastern Conference, Atlanta deserved to have three players on the floor at tip-off. The Dream are the only team in the East with a winning record, and also seem to be the only squad capable of competing with one of the Western Conference powers in a playoff series. Coach Michael Cooper, who won the 1987 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award and earned a spot on eight All- Defensive Teams during his 12-year stint with the Lakers, has implemented a successful system in his inaugural tour with Atlanta. The Dream are leading the WNBA in field goal percentage defense (.417) and rebounding differential (3.47), and rank second with 10 steals per game.
The West also displayed how youth is making a big-time impact, as Tulsa second-year guard Skylar Diggins led the team with 27 points on 10-of-18 efficiency from the floor. The former Notre Dame star has become one of the league's most popular players, as she owns the second-highest selling jersey in the WNBA behind Schimmel. Diggins posted only 8.5 ppg as a rookie in 2013, but she has drastically improved to pour in 21.0 ppg this summer.
"It just shows you the future of our league is so bright," Diggins said. "We have vets who have helped us out so much and done so much for our league. You see the passing of the torch, if you will, and tonight was a great example of that."
Maya Moore, who is now in her fourth campaign with Minnesota, netted 24 points and eight assists. Phoenix's Brittney Griner also made a mark in her second All-Star game with 17 points, five boards and three blocks.
Moore is averaging a WNBA-best 24.1 ppg this season. The former UConn standout has already collected a pair of WNBA championships in her first three years at the professional level and could very well make it three, as her Lynx have the second-best record among all teams behind Phoenix.
The Mercury already had a superstar in veteran point guard Diana Taurasi, who is leading the team with 17.8 ppg and 5.9 apg this year. The addition of Griner did not yield immediate results, but Phoenix has transformed into an unstoppable force this season due to the former Baylor center's presence. Griner made a name for herself during her collegiate career right away by setting the all-time single-season record with 223 blocked shots during her freshman season. She went on to win an NCAA championship, a Final Four Most Outstanding Player accolade while becoming the first NCAA basketball player ever to finish a career with 2,000 points and 500 blocks. Griner's record- breaking trend continued in the WNBA. She is the only player to dunk twice in one game and earlier this season, the 6-foot-8 tower rejected 11 shots in a three-point win over Tulsa.
The Ogwumike sisters also participated in this year's All-Star Game and both contributed eight points for their respective squads. Nneka, who won the 2012 Rookie of the Year award, also tallied 11 rebounds and six assists. Chiney has a great chance of following her sister's footsteps to be named the WNBA's top rookie, as she is recording 15.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg to lead all-first year players in both categories.
Nneka Ogwumike and last season's MVP Candace Parker will face a new challenge as they return to the City of Angels from Phoenix. Los Angeles fired the 2012 WNBA Coach of the Year Carol Ross on Sunday because of the team's 10-12 start. Sparks general manager and executive vice president Penny Toler will take over the head coaching responsibilities for the remaining of the season.
"I'd like to thank Carol for her contributions to the Sparks organization, team and Los Angeles community," said Toler in a news release. "Carol is a tremendous coach, but we felt it was time to bring in a different energy to this team. Decisions like this are never easy, and we wish Carol the best."
Toler, who has never served as a head coach at any level, inherits a team that is currently in the playoff picture as the last seed in the Western Conference. Toler has shown she can overcome a lack of experience in the past. Following her retirement in 1999, she was hired as the Sparks' general manager. She quickly assembled a dominant roster that led to WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002.
1. Phoenix (18-3)
2. Minnesota (17-6)
3. Atlanta (15-6)
4. San Antonio (11-12)
5. Indiana (11-12)
6. Los Angeles (10-12)
7. Washington (10-13)
8. Connecticut (10-14)
9. Seattle (9-15)
10. Tulsa (8-15)
11. Chicago (8-14)
12. New York (8-13)
THIS WEEK'S KEY MATCHUPS
Tuesday, July 22
Phoenix at Seattle - The Mercury will look to continue their franchise-record 12-game winning streak on Tuesday as they head to Key Arena to tangle with Sue Bird and the Storm. Phoenix has dominated Seattle this season, winning the first three matchups by an average of 17.3 ppg. The Storm, who hold their opposition to a WNBA-low 75 ppg, are capable of pulling off an upset as they have managed to down Minnesota twice.
Atlanta at Minnesota - Two of the top three teams in the WNBA will square off once again. The Dream edged Minnesota, 85-82, when the Lynx visited Georgia on June 13. Schimmel was held scoreless in that contest, but Angel McCoughtry and de Souza combined for 39 points to lift Atlanta to the win. Moore felt the wrath of Cooper's defensive scheme in the first tilt, as she was limited to 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the field. The Lynx had Seimone Augustus for the first meeting between these teams, but she has missed seven games in a row with bursitis in her left knee.
Wednesday, July 23
New York at Los Angeles - Toler's debut on the bench will come this week as Bill Laimbeer's Liberty visit the Staples Center. New York enters the week just a half-game out of the playoff picture and with a pair of All-Stars on its roster. The Sparks will need to adjust to Toler's new philosophies quickly to maintain their fourth-place position in the West.
07/21 14:29:59 ET