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8 WNBA players to watch headed into the playoffs

Here’s a player from each playoff team that you’ll want to keep an eye on during the upcoming WNBA postseason.

WNBA: Los Angeles Sparks at Minnesota Lynx Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The WNBA playoffs begin Wednesday, and it will be the second year of the new playoff format. For a detailed look at the pros and cons of that, look over here. But no matter how they shape the postseason, the players are still the same players.

It seems like a Lynx-Sparks rematch might be inevitable, but it only takes a couple sensational performances from a lower seeded team’s star to change that. For that, let’s take a look at one key player to watch from all eight playoff squads, ranging from some of the biggest stars to names you might not have heard of recently.

Click here for a full playoff picture and bracket.

No. 1 Minnesota Lynx: Lindsay Whalen

Whalen is hardly the flashiest player on the top-seeded Lynx, and six teammates scored more points than her this season. But her presence and importance to the team was clearly felt when the 14-year veteran broke a finger on Aug. 3 and rest of the season.

The Lynx, who had been 20-2, lost five of their final 12 games in Whalen’s absence. Fortunately, she will return to practice on Wednesday and once again provide a steady hand for Minnesota.

“She has been the head of the snake,” Cheryl Reeve told TwinCities.com earlier this month. “We feed off her energy.”

Whalen’s effectiveness coming off her injury will be crucial for Minnesota as the playoffs progress.

No. 2 Los Angeles Sparks: Candace Parker

Parker is 31 now and has taken a secondary scoring role to teammate Nneka Ogwumike, but she’s still as dangerous as ever. The 2017 regular season was her most prolific three-point shooting year yet, averaging almost 1.4 made threes per game, which is only the third time in 10 seasons that she has averaged more than one make per game. As Parker goes, so do the Sparks.

No. 3 New York Liberty: Tina Charles

If not for Sylvia Fowles’ incredible July, Charles might be the MVP frontrunner this season. She already has one, and has consistently played up to that level once again this season, averaging almost 20 points per game on 44 percent shooting while continuing to stretch out her range to the three-point line. She’s the biggest reason for the Liberty’s march to the third seed this season, edging out the Sun by just a single game.

No. 4 Connecticut Sun: Jonquel Jones

While Charles is having an incredible season, she did see one of her records fall. Jones was the one responsible, pulling down 402 total rebounds this season to snap Charles’ record — set her rookie season — of 398. Jones isn’t a rookie, but she’s also young, a 23-year-old in her second season in the league. This is her breakout year, seeing her minutes double (14.1 to 28.5) and her scoring do the same (6.8 to 15.4). Her 11.8 rebounds per game, though, tops it all, and now there’s a new record that WNBA forwards can attempt to topple.

No. 5 Phoenix Mercury: Brittney Griner

You all know who Griner is, but you might not realize she’s having her breakout WNBA season, too. With 21.9 points per game, Griner set her career high and led the league this year, too. It came at the expense of her other counting stats — her defensive impact isn’t as notable this season, which has caused her to fall to No. 6 in WNBA.com’s MVP rankings. But when Griner gets going, she’s a force like no other in the league.

No. 6 Washington Mystics: Elena Delle Donne

Delle Donne missed part of August with an injury, but 37-point performance in the season’s penultimate game will hopefully reassure Mystics fans that she’s doing just fine. That game — a win against Seattle — showcased Delle Donne at her best, needing just 18 shots to rack up the 37 points. (She shot 11-of-18 from the field and 6-of-9 from three.)

Sue Bird broke the WNBA’s all-time assist record in that game, overshadowing Delle Donne. But she’s back and doing just fine. For Washington to make a run in the postseason, much of the responsibility will fall on her back.

No. 7 Dallas Wings: Skylar Diggins-Smith

The newly married Diggins-Smith struggled during her first season in Dallas last season, and this year started off with more of the same. Fortunately, Diggins has put together her three best months as a Wing starting in June, finishing with averages of 18.5 points and a career-high 5.8 assists per game. Dallas will need her to keep that going.

No. 8 Seattle Storm: Breanna Stewart

It’s clear Stewart is a star, and she averaged nearly 20 points per game during her sophomore year. Seattle, however, scored exactly as many points as they gave up, finishing with a 17-17 record. That may be a clear sign that the Storm are still missing a piece of the puzzle, especially with Sue Bird’s eventual retirement somewhere on the horizon.

But with Stewart, the Storm have the most important piece in place. Stewart may be headed towards MVP consideration in another season or two, and Seattle can bank on her paving the way for everything else.