Monday, May 27, 2024 May 27, 2024
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How Will the Young Wings Handle Life Without Satou Sabally?

Dallas tips off its new season without its best player. How a young roster steps up will determine the course of the Wings' season.
The All-Star forward will miss much of the regular season after suffering an injury playing overseas. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Wings tip off the 2024 season with momentum: fresh off their best season since relocating to North Texas in 2016 and riding the buzz of an announced move to Dallas in 2026. The franchise’s 22 wins were the most since 2008, when the franchise played in Detroit. Their first-round sweep of Atlanta was the team’s first playoff series win since 2015, when it was based in Tulsa, OK.

But these Wings already face an uphill battle to repeat last season’s success, as star forward Satou Sabally is expected to miss a large chunk of the season after suffering a shoulder injury while playing overseas. Simply put, Dallas isn’t built for this.  

Let’s rewind. The Wings got to where they were in 2023 by being especially reliant on their starting unit. The lineup of Sabally, Teaira McCowan, Natasha Howard, Arike Ogunbowale, and Crystal Dangerfield played a combined 404 minutes, the third-most in the league. That’s despite the fact that because of injuries, that lineup appeared in just 26 of the 40 games. Among lineups to appear in 20 or more games, that quintet averaged the most minutes in the WNBA.

Sabally was especially important to the team’s success. The Wings outscored opponents by 6.04 points per 100 possessions when she was on the floor. When she was off the floor, that number plummeted to minus-4.46. In other words, with Sabally on the floor, the Wings played like a top-three team. Without her, they played like a team that would have been in a fight to get the eight-seed.

Now with Sabally out for an extended period and Dangerfield no longer on the team, the Wings have holes to fill, especially after the team moved on from Veronica Burton on Sunday, releasing a player who many expected would be a starter after Dangerfield was traded to Atlanta.

Making matters worse, Dallas wasn’t very active in the free-agent market in the offseason, opting instead to run things back with virtually the same roster, at least as far as the veteran players go. Awak Kuier’s contract was suspended, and 2023 draft choices Stephanie Soares and Lou Lopez Sénéchal joined the team after missing the season due to injuries, but there were no splash moves to be found. Kalani Brown, who played last season on a hardship deal, was signed to a three-year extension, while Sabally signed a one-year deal.

Even before news of the Sabally injury broke, the offseason was curious for how little the Wings did to improve the roster compared to other teams around the league. Seattle signed Skylar Diggins-Smith and Nneka Ogwumike. Phoenix added Kahleah Copper, Natasha Cloud, and Rebecca Allen. Those teams finished at the bottom of the league last year, and an argument can be made that both teams are better than the Wings now even before taking the Sabally injury into consideration. Atlanta, Minnesota, and potentially Indiana could jump the Wings, too.

Without Sabally available to paper over holes, the shortcomings at other spots only become more obvious. Already an issue heading into the season, the point guard position is now an even bigger question mark. Rookie Jacy Sheldon, the fifth pick in the draft, will probably start, but she is more of a combo guard. It might be more realistic for Sheldon and Ogunbowale to share the job, with Sénéchal getting backup minutes at both guard spots. Beyond those three, the only other guard on the roster is rookie Sevgi Uzun, a 26-year-old from Turkey who spent last season with Fenerbahçe of the Turkish Super League. It’s not a great spot to be in on the eve of the season.

Then there’s small forward. Contrary to what the name of their mascot might suggest, Dallas doesn’t have a lot of depth on the wing. It looks like Latricia Trammell will rely on some combination of Maddy Siegrist and Jaelyn Brown at the three, which is asking a lot of two players who haven’t done much in the WNBA. 

Siegrist was the third pick in the draft last season, but she averaged just 8.2 minutes per game and scored 3.7 points. She was an elite scorer at Villanova, but she never found a role last year. She was more of a four in college, although her skill set should work at the three as well.

Brown took a much more circuitous path to the WNBA. She graduated from Cal in 2020, but when she went undrafted, she headed overseas, most recently playing in Turkey. When the Wings signed her to a non-guaranteed deal in February, most fans expected her to be just a training camp body. Instead, Brown started at the three in the Wings’ only preseason game. She made the most of that opportunity, scoring a team-high 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting. She was 3 of 7 from deep and added five rebounds. Still, what does it say about a team with so many early first-round picks over the last half decade that a free agent with zero WNBA experience might walk into a starting role on a playoff semifinalist?

That speaks to a larger issue. Of the 11 players on the roster, only six have played in a WNBA game, and one of those is Sabally. Barring a veteran addition, the Wings will probably spend the majority of every game with at least one rookie on the floor. There’s no telling how that will go, but it makes me think of the 2020 New York Liberty, a team that rostered six rookies and finished with a 2-20 record. The Wings have too much talent in the starting lineup to be that bad, but they’re another injury or two from things turning ugly.

The good news for Dallas is that three teams are going through major rebuilds, so a playoff spot is still within grasp. The team just has to stay afloat until Sabally returns. A healthy No. 0 for even 15 games at the end of the regular season can be huge in getting the Wings back into the postseason.

Perhaps the best case for optimism can be found across town in Arlington. The Rangers followed up their World Series win with a quiet offseason, instead banking they could stay afloat in the first half of the season until the injured Max Scherzer, Tyler Mahle, and Jacob deGrom can return to rescue a threadbare rotation. So far, it’s working, as Texas has occupied first place in the American League West for the bulk of the year despite even more injuries mounting

Maybe that can be the Wings, too, with other players raising their games enough to buy time for Sabally to carry them down the stretch. Then again, the Rangers still have four starting pitchers who are 32 or older, and those veterans have been huge in terms of keeping the team on the right track. The Wings don’t have that luxury. The first 25 or so games will be an uphill battle this year. Whether it’s too steep to overcome will depend on how quickly the young players can flatten their learning curves.