Once rare, 40-point games are surging in the WNBA
By Evan Easterling
The 40-point game had disappeared from the WNBA over the past several years. This season, it has made a comeback.
Ten times this year a player has scored at least 40 points in a game, by far the most in a single season in the league’s 27-year history. Before this year, there had been no such regular-season showings since 2018, when star center Liz Cambage had two. And with at least nine games left for every team, as the WNBA stages its longest regular season ever, there is still time for more scoring outbursts.
“You see a lot of 40-point games this year, and I think that we’re just continuing to get eyes on women’s basketball,” Breanna Stewart, the star New York Liberty forward, said Sunday in a television interview after notching the league’s most recent 40-point game in a 100-89 victory over the Indiana Fever.
Stewart scored 30 of her 42 points in the first half on the way to her third 40-point game in 2023, becoming the first player in WNBA history with three in a regular season. (In 2015, Elena Delle Donne recorded two 40-point games in the regular season and one in the postseason for the Chicago Sky.)
True to her versatile style of play, Stewart scored Sunday in myriad ways: backing down the smaller Kristy Wallace and finishing with a left-handed layup; making a turnaround fadeaway over Lexie Hull from the baseline; knocking down a long 3-pointer after trailing the play.
Although she had not scored 40 points in a regular-season game until this year, Stewart had shown she was capable. She had 42 points, tying a postseason record, in her final game with the Seattle Storm, and that kind of output has continued in her first season with New York.
In May, in her first home game with the Liberty, she scored a career-high 45 points against the Fever, who are very likely grateful that New York is no longer on their regular-season schedule. She also dropped 43 points in a win over the Phoenix Mercury in July.
Stewart’s outing Sunday came only two days after Las Vegas Aces center A’ja Wilson had her first career 40-point game, shooting 17 of 25 in a blowout win over Washington. Wilson and Stewart, past MVP award winners, are both in the top five in points and rebounds per game this year and are among the leading contenders for another MVP.
“I don’t know, there’s something in the water,” Stewart said when asked if there was a “40-point rivalry” developing.
Their teams are atop the league standings, too. The reigning champion Aces (27-3) are within striking distance of the 1998 Houston Comets’ record for best single-season winning percentage, and the Liberty (24-6) are off to their best start in franchise history as they look to win their first title. The teams have split their two games, including a romp by the Liberty earlier this month, but they play three more times in August, including today and Thursday.
The Liberty made a splash by signing top players this offseason, but the Aces have elite talent, too, and one of those players, two-time All-Star Kelsey Plum, has also recorded a 40-point game this season. While the sharpshooting Plum made six 3-pointers as part of her performance against the Minnesota Lynx in July, the 6-foot-4 Wilson racked up her points by overpowering defenders, maneuvering in the post and swishing midrange jumpers.
Like Wilson, Plum had never scored 40 points in a regular-season game until 2023. Neither had Rhyne Howard of Atlanta, Jewell Loyd of Seattle, Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas or DeWanna Bonner of Connecticut.
But one player who did it this year had.
On Aug. 3 against the Atlanta Dream, Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi needed 18 points to become the first player in WNBA history to score 10,000 in a career. She reached the milestone with a deep 3-pointer over Howard in the third quarter, and she finished with 42 points — her first 40-point game since 2010 and the fourth of her career.
“Tomorrow I’ll feel like I’m 50,” the 41-year-old Taurasi said in a postgame news conference.
She added later: “I came here a little bit nervous. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I just wanted to get it over with for a sense of relief, but at the same time I was just focused on trying to win a game.”
Although the 40-point game has had a renaissance in the WNBA, much like the triple-double did last season, the 50-point game remains exceedingly rare. There have been only two: Cambage’s 53 in 2018 and Riquna Williams’ 51 in 2013. Only three other players — Taurasi, Lauren Jackson and Maya Moore — have come within 3 points of it.
But if this season shows anything, there are plenty of candidates to get there again.