Women's basketball gets a bad rap. Just because the players don't dunk as often as men's basketball players and aren't as tall on average doesn't mean the game isn't fun to watch. There are plenty of hyper-athletic women's players just like there are on the men's side, and there always have been. Maybe the WNBA doesn't often lead ESPN, but the women's game is way more fun to watch than most people want to give it credit for. The Olympics should make this perfectly clear; if you didn't enjoy watching Brittney Griner shed opposing players like a college star dealing with middle schoolers in the 2020 Olympics, we have very different ideas of fun.
But when you discuss the best women's players ever, you run into a historical oddity: while the NBA came into existence in 1946, the WNBA didn't exist until 1997. Much like how you definitely can't ever put a pre-1946 guy into the conversation for best basketball player ever, you can't really put any women's players into the conversation who had the misfortune of playing before the league existed. For most players, just their college career isn't really enough to properly evaluate their legacy; the field is just too easy to tilt due to strength of schedule and sample size. So we really have to rely on WNBA careers. There's one exception to this, and we'll get to her, but that's sort of an odd case.
The best women's players ever all have something in common, though: anybody who has ever followed the game will know every single one of their names.
You either love Diana Taurasi or you can't stand her; it's hard to find a more polarizing player in basketball history among either men or women. The league's all-time leading scorer and maybe the greatest women's basketball player of all time, Taurasi plays with an arrogant swagger that belongs to her and only her, possessing an almost Jordan-esque delight in tearing her opponents' hearts out and holding them aloft in front of them. She also might be the best college player ever after a spectacular career at UConn that featured three straight NCAA championships. A three-time WNBA champion and the 2009 MVP, Taurasi is also one of only two basketball players of either gender (along with longtime foil and fellow point guard Sue Bird) to win five Olympic gold medals.
Sue Bird has spent her entire career as a human metronome. Bird has displayed an eerie consistency during her career almost unmatched by any other player in league history, a lot like the NBA's John Stockton — only Stockton didn't win four championships like Bird has with the Seattle Storm. Diana Taurasi may be the greatest scoring guard in WNBA history, but Bird is unquestionably its greatest-ever floor general. The league's all-time leader in assists announced the 2022 season — her age 41 season — would be her last, and the league will be lesser without her.
Lisa Leslie was a charter member of the WNBA at age 24, then spent the next 12 years thoroughly trashcanning the entire league. The "first player to ever dunk in a WNBA game" thing just scratches the surface; Leslie won two championships and three MVP awards as the signature player on the Los Angeles Sparks, one of the league's signature teams (she also won three All-Star game MVPs, not that those count for anything). When you think of WNBA centers, as well as the discussion about the best WNBA player of all time, Leslie has to be one of the first names that comes to mind.
If there's a more physically unstoppable player in women's basketball history than Brittney Griner, I'm not aware of who it could be. The 6'9" Phoenix Mercury center often looks like a high schooler playing alongside middle school kids, and there's a reason she's led the league in blocks eight times. A hyperefficient player on both ends of the floor, it's honestly surprising Griner has yet to win a WNBA MVP. If Russia ever releases her from being a political prisoner, it seems certain she's going to add to her trophy case as a seven-time WNBA All-Star.
Time wasn't on Yolanda Griffith's side in the WNBA, but that shouldn't diminish what she accomplished. Already 29 when she made her first appearance in the league, Griffith immediately put on a display for the Sacramento Monarchs, winning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in her rookie season. The only NBA players to ever have won both in the same year are Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, so that should give you an idea of the company she was in. Griffith never quite achieved that success thereafter (again, age was the real factor here), but she did win a title and WNBA Finals MVP with the Monarchs in 2005.
If there's an award for most athletic player in WNBA history, it probably goes to Candace Parker. The first college player to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game — then became the first to do it twice in a game a few minutes later. A human swiss army knife as a forward-center, Parker has won two MVP awards (the only player to ever win an MVP and a Rookie of the Year in the same season), a Defensive Player of the Year award, and two championships — most recently in 2021 to deliver the Chicago Sky their first title in WNBA history.
It's early days yet, but it feels like Breanna Stewart is going to wind up on everyone's version of this list ten years from now. The Seattle Storm forward plays with a frenzied, unhinged energy unlike anyone else in the league, helping the Storm transition from the Lauren Jackson era with only a couple years of drop-off. Seriously, she plays like she's been told they'll kill her whole family if she loses. As good as she is in the regular season, Stewart is even better in the playoffs: she's won two Finals MVP trophies and she's still only 27.
The Minnesota Lynx dynasty featured a galaxy of stars, but none shone brighter than Maya Moore. Basketball's ultimate winner, from high school through college and her pro career, Moore's win-loss record sits at a staggering 515-94 — doubly impressive considering there was never a point in that entire span where she wasn't the best player on her team. The 2014 MVP and four-time WNBA champion was still one of the brightest stars in the game in 2018 when she made a decision precious few athletes in any sport ever have: she walked away at the peak of her powers, choosing instead to focus on criminal justice reform.
Lindsay Whalen is the classic example of the "stats don't tell the story" archetype. Playing on a team with an embarrassment of offensive talent (hence why she's third all-time in assists), Whalen never had to carry the scoring load for the Connecticut Sun or Minnesota Lynx — but she was extraordinarily efficient when she did shoot, for a career FG% of 46.1% that ranks 10th in league history. The worst thing you can say about Whalen is she was only the third-best point guard of her era (though "five-time All-Star" still isn't bad)...but her era included Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird (only the best two 1's in women's basketball history), so it's hard to ding her for that.
There wasn't exactly any suspense about whether the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame would give Tamika Catchings a call in her first year of eligibility. It's genuinely shocking the Indiana Fever only won one title during Tamika Catchings' career — but then, she never had a ton of help. Catchings was so good she barely needed it, though, with an absolutely absurd number of trophies to her name: a Rookie of the Year award, a WNBA Championship, a WNBA MVP, a WNBA Finals MVP, and a record five Defensive Player of the Year awards. At her best, Catchings was an unholy terror on both ends of the floor, an unguardable menace who could also guard anyone. She particularly lived for steals — at 1074 career, she has 300 more than her next-closest competitor.
If Yolanda Griffith's career had a ticking clock, Cynthia Cooper's was almost expired by the time the WNBA was formed. The Houston Comets star was 34 in the league's inaugural season, yet somehow, at an age when most basketball players are aging in dog years, she was just getting started. Cooper won the league's first two MVP awards along with its first four Finals MVP awards as the Comets won four straight championships to begin the WNBA's history — meaning you can't leave her out of any discussion about the greatest players of all time.
Elena Delle Donne
It's no secret that WNBA shooting numbers don't typically match up that well with NBA shooting numbers, which makes what Chicago Sky and Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne has been able to accomplish all that much more impressive. In 2019, she became the first player to ever shoot 50-40-90 for an entire WNBA season en route to her second MVP award. Steph Curry may seem like the obvious NBA comparison here, but there's a better one: Delle Donne is a lot like Dirk Nowitzki, an unstoppable offensive player who uses a combination of size and shooting ability to do whatever she wants on that end. She's the WNBA's all-time leader in free throw percentage at over 93.6% — not just a wide margin over her closest women's competitor, but a signifiant one over the NBA's best ever (Curry at 90.8%).
Putting Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper on the same Houston Comets team to start the WNBA's history feels extremely unfair in retrospect. Cooper won the league's first two MVPs, then Swoopes won three of the next seven; that sort of 1-2 punch has only been equaled a few times in NBA history (Russell-Cousy, West-Baylor, Shaq-Kobe, and Magic-Kareem are the only ones that come to mind), and that's a league with 50 years more of existence than the WNBA. The first player to ever record a WNBA triple double (and the only one to ever do it in the playoffs), Swoopes was an athletic marvel who, at her best, simply couldn't be guarded.
Reggie Miller is an NBA Hall of Famer, but he's not even the best basketball player sitting at the table for Thanksgiving every year. Cheryl Miller was impossibly dominant in college at USC, winning two national titles and accolades as the best basketball player in the college game — regardless of gender. Miller's knee injuries in the late '80s while playing overseas meant that unlike her college teammate Cynthia Cooper, she never got a chance to appear in the American pros.
There may not be a 2-guard with a better shooting stroke in WNBA history than Seimone Augustus. If she wasn't the best player on those four Minnesota Lynx championships teams from 2011-2017, it's only because they featured an unholy four-headed hydra of great players in Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen. The 2014 WNBA MVP was an electric scorer, and her career field goal percentage of 48% ranks 7th in league history — the only other guard in the top ten is her teammate Whalen at 10th.
Chicago Sky/Minnesota Lynx star Sylvia Fowles is still going strong at age 36. The 2017 WNBA MVP has always been the league's premier double-double machine, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP who won her fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021 (only Tamika Catchings has more) and sits atop the league's all-time rebounding chart by a comfortable margin. For all her defensive skill, Fowles might be even more efficient on the offensive end, with a career field goal percentage of just under 60% — the best in WNBA history.
What was the league even thinking from a competitive balance perspective in 1997 when they put Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson on the same Houston Comets team? No wonder they became the only WNBA team to win four straight titles. If Cooper hadn't been 34 when they started, they'd have won a half-dozen, easy. The inside muscle to go along with those two smooth perimeter scorers, Thompson may have never won an MVP, but she outlasted her two big-name teammates, making her 9th and final All-Star appearance at age 38, 17 years after she entered the league.
There's not a debate about the best foreign-born women's basketball player ever; Australia's Lauren Jackson settled it. Heck, there's probably not even an argument about the best power forward in women's basketball history, because Jackson settled that, too. A three-time league MVP and two-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm, Jackson was a shockingly efficient shooter, with 46/35/84 career numbers that would be great marks for the NBA, let alone the WNBA.
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