Teams across the league will look to calm the reigning champion Seattle Storm as a pivotal 25th season of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) starts on Friday.
Finals MVP Breanna Stewart, who averaged 19.7 points per game in 2020, two-time All-Star Jewell Loyd and four-time champion Sue Bird - one of the league's most enduring figures as she enters her second decade in Seattle - headline a powerful Storm hungry for a repeat victory.
"(Stewart and Bird) are truly some of the toughest competitors that I've ever been around," head coach Dan Hughes told reporters, comparing the duo's killer instincts to that of six-time WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon.
"I remember exactly when I walked up to Stewie and I just said, 'You know, I appreciate how talented you are but I, even greater, have an appreciation for the toughness that you bring with that talent' and Sue is exactly like that."
The pair will have to do without sharp-shooting forward Alysha Clark, who left the Storm in free agency after nine seasons to join the Washington Mystics and two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne.
Delle Donne and seven-time All-Star Tina Charles are among the highest-profile players to return after opting out in 2020 due to health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and are expected to bring added firepower back to the Mystics after a disappointing nine-win and 13-loss season.
Elsewhere in the league, 2020 defensive player of the year Candace Parker rocketed the Chicago Sky into contention after signing with her hometown team in a stunning off-season move after 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Highly touted guard Sabrina Ionescu, a one-time protege of the late Kobe Bryant and the only Division I player to record 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists, returns to the New York Liberty after an ankle injury cut her debut season short in 2020.
The 25th season of the WNBA begins on Friday with the Liberty playing the Indiana Fever in Brooklyn at 7 p.m. ET (2300 GMT).
(Reporting by Amy Tennery Editing by Toby Davis)
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