Changing of the Guard: Next stars in line post-Bird-Taurasi era

Published July 27, 2022, 11:00 AMPolo Bustamante

Sabrina Ionescu, Arike Ogunbowale, and Rhyne Howard are ready to step into the big shoes that will be left by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

Last month, Sue Bird announced that the 2022 season would be her final one. Just a couple of days ago, Bird matched up against her close friend and fierce competitor, Diana Taurasi. After that game, Taurasi admitted that Bird calling it quits has her thinking about retirement as well.

It really feels like the end of an era of the league. Bird and Taurasi are true legends of the game. They’ve held the league down for more than a decade, collecting trophies and setting records. With Bird retiring and Taurasi nearing the end of her own Hall of Fame career, the WNBA needs a new set of superstar guards to fill in the huge hole that the two will leave. 

Enter Sabrina Ionescu, Arike Ogunbowale, and Rhyne Howard. These three young guns will usher in a new era in the WNBA.

Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty

Ionescu was the most hyped prospect coming out of college in recent years. She was a superstar even before she set foot in the league. It’s a shame that Ionescu was limited in her rookie season by an ankle injury. If she played a good chunk of her rookie season, she probably would have won the Rookie of the Year award.

After her slow start, Ionescu has ramped it up this season. She’s currently averaging 17.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists. More importantly, she’s played all 27 games for the Liberty so far. Everything Ionescu was doing so well in college is finally in full display in her third year in the league.

There’s no question Ionescu can score. She’s got a killer jump shot that she can get off in nearly any situation and from practically anywhere on the court. She’s also a gifted passer who’s able to see the angles on the court differently to deliver her passes. Even if she’s only 5’11”, Ionescu isn’t afraid to mix it up in the paint to haul down rebounds. Individually, all these skills are amazing. But Ionescu is most dangerous when she puts it all together.

Just this season, Ionescu has tallied two triple-doubles, giving her three in her short career. That’s a number good enough to tie for the top spot for most triple-doubles in WNBA history (Candace Parker is the other player with three). It’s safe to say that Ionescu is on pace to not only break the record, but set the number that everyone else will be chasing.

The next thing Ionescu needs to do to further her career is translate her big numbers into wins. New York is currently outside of the playoff picture at the 10th spot.

Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings

Ogunbowale is a bucket.

She was known for her back-to-back game-winners in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, leading Notre Dame to a championship that year. She hasn’t stopped hitting shots since then.

Ogunbowale entered the league soon after, taking her high-scoring ways with her. She was the third-best scorer in the league as a rookie and led the league in scoring back in 2020, averaging 22.8 points per game. This season, she’s currently fourth in the league in scoring, putting up 19.9 points a game. She has the highest scoring game of any player this season after she dropped 37 points in May against the Phoenix Mercury. Since she entered the league in 2019, no other player has more 30-point games than Ogunbowale who has eight.

Ogunbowale is a shifty scorer that uses a variety of moves to get her shots off. Her release is cat-like quick, that itself is a weapon. But she also understands how the defense is defending her and she applies the same kind of quickness to get herself free for a shot. Ogunbowale can fire immediately after receiving the pass, or she can use a couple of dribbles to move to an even better scoring position. She’s such an entertaining player to watch because she never stops moving on the court. She’s always looking for an open spot to get her shot off.

Last year, the Wings made the playoffs after a three-season absence. This season with Ogunbowale leading the way, the Wings are once again looking for a playoff appearance. Currently they’re in seventh place in the standings.

Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream

This year’s top draft pick started out on fire. She scored 102 points in her first five WNBA games, including a career-high 33 points in her fourth game. Her production translated to wins as Atlanta got off to a dream start with a 4-1 record.

Her production has slightly tapered off. From that 20.4 average in her first five games, she’s now putting up 15.2 points per game, still good enough to lead all rookies in scoring. Howard is also averaging 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.8 blocks. 

Simply put, Howard is a unicorn in today’s game. She’s a 6’2” guard that can do it all on the court. Offensively, she’s such a smooth player. She doesn’t look like a rookie on that end of the floor. She never looks like she’s rushing or that the game is too fast for her. Howard looks comfortable in everything she does, whether it be a pull-up 3, a fastbreak layup, or a one-legged fader.

Defensively, Howard wears her emotions on her sleeve. She’s long and athletic enough to play the passing lanes, which helps with her steal numbers. She really gets hyped whenever she’s able to block a shot. Howard goes after shots in her vicinity by timing her approach from behind. Offensive players never know what hit them when Howard swats away their shots.

If Howard can keep up her production and the Dream can hold on to a spot in the playoffs (currently eighth in the standings), she most likely will run away with the Rookie of the Year award.