Ranking the top 25 WNBA players for 2021

Breanna Stewart helped lead the Storm to the 2020 WNBA championship. Seattle swept Las Vegas in the WNBA Finals. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

A year ago, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn't certain the WNBA would have a season. But the league completed it with a bubble scenario in Bradenton, Florida. Despite some high-profile opt-outs, the basketball was top-notch. The Seattle Storm, led by Breanna Stewart, won their fourth WNBA title, while the Las Vegas Aces reached the WNBA Finals for the first time and star A'ja Wilson was named the season's MVP.

Now, entering the WNBA's 25th anniversary season, where do those two young stars rank among the league's best players in 2021? Here's our preseason WNBA top 25 list as we get ready for Friday's tipoff.

There were some difficult decisions. We gave the benefit of the doubt based on several years of great performances to some players who missed last season. Other players, such as 2020 top pick Sabrina Ionescu -- who played in just three games before missing the rest of her rookie season with an ankle injury -- will have the chance to play their way onto the list when we revisit it later in the season.

Our voting panel included ESPN analysts Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson, ESPN writers Kevin Pelton, Mechelle Voepel and Katie Barnes, and The Undefeated's Sean Hurd.

1. Breanna Stewart

  • Seattle Storm | F | 6-foot-4

  • 2020 stats: 19.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.6 APG

Wilson won the 2020 MVP, but Stewart reclaimed her throne as the best player in the world during the Storm's WNBA Finals sweep. All Stewart did to cap her incredible comeback from an Achilles rupture in April 2019 was average 28.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG and 2.3 BPG while shooting 63% from the field and 13-of-20 on 3s in the championship series. Since then, Stewart added EuroLeague Final Four and Russian Premier League MVPs to a trophy case that is already overflowing at age 26. -- Pelton

2. A'ja Wilson

Wilson has blossomed into a bona fide WNBA superstar. Sure, there's the statue installed on South Carolina's campus in the offseason, but don't forget that she's also the league's reigning MVP. Coming into her fourth season, Wilson has already proved that she's an absolute force. She's money in the lane, and if she keeps adding to her game -- as preseason footage of 3-point jumpers suggests she might be -- look out! -- Barnes

- Preseason WNBA Power Rankings: Aces start on top
- 12 must-see games of the WNBA regular season
- Aces' McCoughtry injures right knee in preseason game

3. Elena Delle Donne

The last time Delle Donne walked off a WNBA court was as a league MVP and first-time champion after overcoming three herniated discs to power the Mystics to their first title. In 2019, Delle Donne orchestrated a historic season, averaging 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 51.5% from the field and 43.0% from deep. After opting out of the 2020 season and undergoing two back surgeries, Delle Donne will make her long-awaited return. If the six-time All Star remains healthy -- Delle Donne is expected to miss at least the first three games of the regular season -- she could deliver another MVP-caliber season and reclaim her position as the top player in the league. -- Hurd

4. Candace Parker

  • Chicago Sky | F/C | 6-foot-4

  • 2020 stats: 14.7 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 4.6 APG

Parker's move from Los Angeles, the team that drafted her first in 2008 and with which she spent 13 seasons, was the kind of high-profile free-agent signing we didn't used to see in the WNBA. For Parker, it is a chance to return to her hometown and potentially be the missing link to the Sky's first championship. Winning the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year award was proof the two-time MVP is still setting and attaining lofty goals. Parker can be a good mentor this season, too, with younger post players such as Azur√° Stevens. -- Voepel

5. Napheesa Collier

Two seasons into her WNBA career, Collier is on the path to all-time greatness. Her 12.6 wins above replacement player by my WARP metric are the 12th most in league history over a player's first two years and the most since Stewart in 2016 and 2017. If not for the depth at forward, Collier easily could have made the All-WNBA First Team in 2020. Now, the Lynx have added to their starting five, positioning Collier to potentially lead them back to the WNBA Finals for the first time since their 2017 championship. -- Pelton

6. Diana Taurasi

Taurasi was limited to six games in the 2019 season and played very little in the winter of 2019-20. Even as great as she is, it was uncertain how she would perform in 2020. But she led the Mercury in scoring. She had a season-high 34 points on Aug. 23, which would have been Kobe Bryant's birthday, wearing a No. 8 jersey in tribute to him. Her true shooting percentage (62.5) was the second-best of her career, and her offensive rating of 118 was also second-best (she has been at 120 three times). When Brittney Griner left the bubble early, Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith took over to guide the Mercury to the playoffs. Taurasi will be 39 in June, but she said her daily offseason focus is about preparing for the WNBA. -- Voepel

7. Arike Ogunbowale

  • Dallas Wings | G | 5-foot-8

  • 2020 stats: 22.8 PPG, 3.4 APG, 41.2% FG

Ogunbowale knows how to score on a level unmatched in the WNBA. She was the 2020 scoring champ, and what's more impressive is that she continues to score at such level while being the defensive focus each night. The Wings haven't been a strong team the past few seasons, but if they have a breakout season in 2021, Ogunbowale will be leading the charge. -- Barnes

8. Jonquel Jones

Jones is returning after sitting out the 2020 season, and she's coming back to a very different looking Connecticut team. How she will fit in with the new Sun remains to be seen, but Jones brings a diverse skill set back to Uncasville that Curt Miller could certainly use. Jones can finish from anywhere on the floor, whether she's going toe-to-toe with league's best in the paint, or stretching the floor with her perimeter shooting. In four seasons, Jones is a two-time All-Star. She has been in the MVP conversation multiple times, but just hasn't quite gotten herself (or her team) over the hump. Don't be surprised if 2021 is that year. -- Barnes

9. Courtney Vandersloot

  • Chicago Sky | G | 5-foot-8

  • 2020 stats: 13.6 PPG, 10.0 APG, 49.1% FG

A clear choice as the WNBA's best point guard, Vandersloot earned back-to-back All-WNBA First Team nods on the strength of her record-setting assist rates. She has broken the WNBA mark for assists per game four years running, though 2020's average (rounded up to 10.0) could be tough to top -- particularly with the arrival of Parker perhaps moving Vandersloot off the ball more at times this season. Don't be surprised if that allows Vandersloot to surpass her career high of 45 3-pointers from 2018. -- Pelton

10. Liz Cambage

While Las Vegas competed for a championship in the bubble, Cambage, who received a medical exemption for the 2020 WNBA season, competed for a title of her own with the Southside Flyers of Australia's WNBL. Over 15 games, Cambage averaged a league-leading 23.5 points as well as 8.7 rebounds. One question surrounding Cambage as she returns to the Aces is what her production will look like on a team like Las Vegas, which has a star-studded roster. The Aces have the most players of any team on this list, two of whom Cambage has never played with (Angel McCoughtry and Chelsea Gray) and another in Wilson. Regardless, there is rarely a game in which Cambage's impact isn't felt on the floor, and when she's playing her best basketball, she's one of the most dominant players in the game. Year two in Vegas should be more of the same. -- Hurd

11. DeWanna Bonner

After 10 seasons in Phoenix, Bonner went to Connecticut in a sign-and-trade deal. It cost the Sun two first-round draft picks in 2020 and one in 2021, but Bonner did everything that Connecticut expected: leading the team in scoring, finishing second in rebounding and making a strong 1-2 punch with Alyssa Thomas. The Sun hoped to have Bonner, Thomas and Jones all on the floor together. But Jones opted out last season, and Thomas will miss this one with an Achilles injury. So Bonner is likely to be as indispensable this season as she was in 2020, and she brings a championship mentality to the Sun from her days with the Mercury. -- Voepel

12. Nneka Ogwumike

It was a challenging season for Ogwumike, who had much to manage in the bubble as president of the union's executive committee. Mentally and physically drained, she dealt with back pain and migraines, the latter of which kept her out of the Sparks' playoff loss to Connecticut. She had her best field goal percentage since her 2016 MVP season, but her scoring and rebounding averages were the lowest of her nine-year career. The Sparks (third place, 15-7 in 2020) saw two major free-agent departures with Parker and Gray. But with Ogwumike and her sister Chiney Ogwumike (who opted out last season) healthy, the Sparks still have a lot of talent. -- Voepel

13. Brittney Griner

  • Phoenix Mercury | C | 6-foot-9

  • 2020 stats: 17.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.0 APG (12 games)

Year in and year out, Griner is at the top of preseason MVP conversations. The award has been the one elusive accolade thus far in Griner's career. Prior to leaving the bubble last season, she appeared poised to be in contention once more and dropped a season-high 29 points just two games before she departed. The Mercury will also be happy to have their defensive anchor and two-time DPOY back protecting the paint. Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said Griner is entering the season "motivated." Translation: Expect Griner to be in the MVP conversation again in 2021. -- Hurd

14. Skylar Diggins-Smith

After losing two key pieces in Griner and Bria Hartley in the middle of the 2020 season, the Mercury needed a boost in production from their remaining rotation. Diggins-Smith led that charge. In the final 10 games of the regular season, she averaged 20.9 points per game. She finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 in scoring and assists. In the Mercury's first-round playoff matchup against Washington, Diggins-Smith led an 11-point fourth-quarter comeback, scoring 10 points in the final frame while making the game-winning assist. Diggins-Smith made it clear that there was nothing lost from her missed 2019 season and that she is undoubtedly one of the great players in the league. -- Hurd

15. Tina Charles

For the majority of her tenure in New York, Charles shouldered the responsibility as the Liberty's primary producer and playmaker. That responsibility, in part, led to five All-Star appearances and a scoring title. How much of that responsibility will follow Charles to Washington this season remains to be seen following the departure of Aerial Powers, the pending return of Emma Meesseman and the uncertainty surrounding the health of Delle Donne. At some point this season, Charles will enter the top 10 on the WNBA's all-time scorers list and likely move into the top three in all-time rebounds. As Charles continues her quest for her first championship, the New York basketball legend's return to the court and her next chapter in Washington is a highly anticipated storyline of 2021. -- Hurd

16. Sylvia Fowles

After going to Minnesota in a midseason trade in 2015, Fowles was the essence of durability as part of two WNBA championship teams. But a nagging calf injury limited her to just seven games last season. The Lynx still advanced to the semifinals, and Fowles is eager to be back in action and build on that this season. At 35, she said she has had to dial back on taking part full-bore in every practice drill and conserve some of her energy. But when healthy, she's still as dominant a low-block force as there is in the WNBA, and someone who commands great respect from her teammates. -- Voepel

17. Jewell Loyd

  • Seattle Storm | G | 5-foot-10

  • 2020 stats: 15.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.2 APG

Loyd's development was the single biggest difference between the 2018 Storm championship team and the more dominant 2020 version. After struggling at times in her first deep playoff run, Loyd was terrific in the Wubble, averaging 17.8 PPG and shooting an effective 63% after accounting for her 11 3-pointers in six postseason games. The next task for Loyd is taking on a larger defensive role with the departure of WNBA Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Alysha Clark, who handled defending the best opposing perimeter player. -- Pelton

18. Sue Bird

  • Seattle Storm | G | 5-foot-9

  • 2020 stats: 9.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 46.9% 3FG

At age 40, Bird still might be as indispensable as any member of the defending champs. The Storm went 10-1 with Bird on the court during the regular season and swept through the playoffs with her running the show and handing out 11 assists per game in the WNBA Finals. Bird rightfully points out that the injury she missed time with last year (a bone bruise in her left knee) was one that had nothing to do with her age as she prepares for season 19 in Seattle. -- Pelton

19. Diamond DeShields

  • Chicago Sky | G | 6-foot-1

  • 2020 stats: 6.8 PPG, 1.5 APG, 43.4% FG (13 games)

Though DeShields had a disappointing 2020 season -- playing just 13 games without any starts before departing the bubble with an injury -- her 2019 All-Star campaign showcased her potential to be a star performer in the league. Her explosive ability to get to the rim and finish at an elite level sets her apart. Her athleticism is unparalleled, and when she is executing at the top of her game, there are few more complete players in the WNBA. -- Barnes

20. Chelsea Gray

While Gray's 2020 season can't be considered an off year -- her averages were close to her 2019 All-Star campaign -- it wasn't exactly a step forward that likely cost Gray a few spots on this list. She struggled from 3-point range in the bubble and scored just four points with no assists in the Sparks' first-round playoff exit to Connecticut. But Gray is still one of the top playmakers in the WNBA. Her 5.3 assists per game last season were the second-best average of her career and ranked fifth in the league in 2020. With a fresh start and surrounded by new weapons in Las Vegas, Gray has an opportunity to step forward and further solidify herself as one of the top guards in the league. -- Hurd

21. Natasha Howard

Howard would've ranked far higher on this list a year ago, when she was coming off winning Defensive Player of the Year honors and making the All-WNBA First Team in a breakthrough 2019 season. Howard never got to that level in the Wubble, as early conditioning issues and Seattle's depth limited her to 21 MPG, but her impact on the league's No. 1 defense was as strong as ever. After an offseason sign-and-trade, Howard should play a role closer to 2019 on offense, where she and Sabrina Ionescu could form an elite pick-and-roll duo. -- Pelton

22. Angel McCoughtry

McCoughtry made our list with a vote before her knee injury in Saturday's preseason game against Los Angeles. It will be a big blow to the Aces if McCoughtry is out for significant time or the entire season, because she was such an important piece of the puzzle last year when Las Vegas reached the WNBA Finals. Her 51.8 field goal percentage was the best of her career. And although she didn't shoot a lot of 3-pointers (16 of 34), that 47.1 percentage also was a career high. McCoughtry, who turned 34 last September, was exactly what the Aces hoped for when they signed her after 10 seasons in Atlanta. -- Voepel

23. Kristi Toliver

Toliver made headlines in the 2020 free agency period when she returned to the Sparks after playing the previous three seasons (and winning a championship) with the Mystics. She ended up opting out of the 2020 season, so we haven't seen her play since she lifted the 2019 WNBA championship trophy. The 12-year veteran will surely bring her trademark flare back to L.A., where she previously spent seven seasons (2010-16). She's lethal with the ball in her hands, whether she's dishing to teammates or knocking down perimeter shots. With the Sparks losing Gray to Vegas in the offseason, Toliver has become even more critical to the team's success. -- Barnes

24. Chennedy Carter

  • Atlanta Dream | G | 5-foot-9

  • 2020 stats: 17.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.4 APG

She missed six games because of an ankle injury. That, and Atlanta missing the playoffs, tilted the WNBA Rookie of the Year race away from her, but Carter still made an impact in her first season. She had 35 points vs. Seattle on Aug. 6, making her at 21 years, 9 months the youngest player in WNBA history to score 30 points or more, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. She had three games in which she scored 26 points, including the Dream's season finale. Carter, who competed in Turkey in the offseason, also showed her playmaking and defensive abilities. -- Voepel

25. Betnijah Laney

Laney wasn't just one of the best stories of last season, but of any WNBA season. After an ACL injury cut short her second season with Chicago in 2016, she missed 2017, was a reserve for Connecticut in 2018, a starter for Indiana in 2019 and then was cut by the Fever on June 17, 2020. But a week later, Atlanta picked her up and she was the WNBA's Most Improved Player and made the all-defensive first team. The former Rutgers star parlayed that into a free-agent contract with New York, where she'll try to help the Liberty rebound from a league-worst 2-20 record in 2020. -- Voepel

Also received votes: Ariel Atkins, Washington; Charli Collier, Dallas; Natasha Cloud, Washington; Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota; Damiris Dantas, Minnesota; Dearica Hamby, Las Vegas; Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta; Myisha Hines-Allen, Washington; Kayla McBride, Minnesota; Kelsey Mitchell, Indiana; Kia Nurse, Phoenix; Sabrina Ionescu, New York; Satou Sabally, Dallas; Courtney Williams, Atlanta