- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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The fans have the final say.
But before the WNBA announces the starters for the 2006 All-Star Game, which are determined by fan balloting, here's a look at the players who most deserve to be on the court at tipoff next Wednesday at Madison Square Garden (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET):
Alana Beard, Mystics
Becky Hammon, Liberty
Katie Douglas, Sun
Tamika Catchings, Fever
Cheryl Ford, Shock
Sue Bird, Storm
Diana Taurasi, Mercury
Seimone Augustus, Lynx
Lauren Jackson, Storm
Lisa Leslie, Sparks
Yes, despite being a rookie, Augustus deserves a spot. She is unquestionably the best 3 in the West right now. Augustus also ranks second in the league in scoring (her 22.4 ppg trails only Taurasi) but first in total points (358) and made field goals (138).
Douglas is the only other All-Star newbie on my list. She had a career year in 2005 and is even better this summer. She has improved her game off the dribble and in attacking the rim, and as a result is getting to the foul line about 2½ more times per game than last season. She hurts you on both sides of the ball, ranking second in 3-pointers made (40), third in total steals (34) and steals per game (2.0), fourth in 3-point percentage (47.1 percent) and ninth in scoring (16.2 ppg).
Players such as Leslie -- who with the Sun's Nykesha Sales lead all players with six All-Star Game selections -- and Lauren Jackson (four appearances) were easy picks. So who's missing? Plenty of superstars, beginning with Houston's five-time All-Star, Sheryl Swoopes, and four-timer Tina Thompson.
Thompson is playing well, but not as well as Jackson or Leslie. And so far in Houston, it has been an average season for Swoopes, who last season was the regular-season MVP and All-Star MVP.
The hardest part was finding a true post in the East, but Ford is having a great season and could wind up with the regular-season rebounding title. She leads the league with 12.2 rebounds per game and is currently the only player in the WNBA averaging a double-double (15.1 ppg), though the Sun's Taj McWilliams-Franklin isn't far behind with 11.0 ppg and 9.7 rpg.
The official starters are scheduled to be announced Wednesday and were determined by online and in-arena fan balloting from May 28 through June 25. Reserve players, selected by each team's coach, will be named on Saturday.
The WNBA All-Star head coaches -- who are automatically selected based on their team's finish as the previous season's conference champions -- are Sacramento's John Whisenant and Connecticut's Mike Thibault.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
Before the league announces the fans' picks for All-Star starters, our expert tells us who really deserves those spots.