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Minnesota gets WNBA All-Star Game when 'league has probably never been better'

USA guard Diana Taurasi (12) and USA guard Sue Bird (6) celebrates after beating Spain in the women's basketball gold medal match during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. File photo / RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Rebekkah Brunson, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi posed for photos together Friday, July 27, in the Target Center press conference room, three record-breakers who have proven to be the best at what they do.

Taurasi is the WNBA record holder for points scored, Bird is the all-time assists leader and Brunson is the career rebounding leader.

All three will play in Saturday's WNBA All-Star game in Minneapolis.

"That's pretty cool," said Taurasi, a Phoenix guard. "That probably will never happen again."

Those records will, however, be broken, Taurasi noted, perhaps by some of their younger teammates this weekend. Las Vegas Aces rookie forward A'ja Wilson, Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart and Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray are a few of the 25-and-under all-stars who could rewrite the books.

"That's the beauty of it," Taurasi said. "The higher the bar, the more satisfaction the league will get when the record is broken."

The all-star game comes to Minnesota this weekend at perhaps the best possible time. The league's talent pool is as deep as it's ever been, and ESPN reported that ratings for nationally televised games are up 38 percent over last year. This is the most-watched season to this point since 2012. The league's old guard is still a prominent fixture and the new wave of talent is prospering.

"From a talent and product standpoint, the league has probably never been better," Bird said. "We have a great product right now. There's so many story lines, so many players hitting milestones. ... There's teams that have great stories. So right now, the WNBA, in terms of its actual product, is in the best shape it's ever been."

Bird, who's making her 11th all-star appearance, would know. She's seen the league's on-court evolution since she entered the pro ranks in 2002. Taurasi backed up that assertion. Usually, Taurasi said, there are two to three players truly performing at an elite level; now, she said, that number is up to about 10.

"Every night there's crazy highlights that happen — 'SportsCenter' Top 10-type plays — and it just makes, I think for the fans, it that much more exciting," Bird said.

That, Taurasi said, is what the league needs.

"It's about performance, making basketball plays, it's about a lot of people playing at a high level, and I think you see that," she said.

No longer is the WNBA a two- or three-team league. You can't pencil the Sparks and Lynx into this year's WNBA Final. Heading into the season's homestretch, nine teams are within 6.5 games of first place. Parity is present, a result of player movement, but also a deeper talent pool.

"I think that's the great thing about competing in this league is that every night you're getting everybody's best," Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said. "You're getting the best in the world. Iron sharpens iron. So, I think the better the product is in the WNBA, we're competing against each other, it just continues to raise the bar higher."

The league, and its fans, are seeing the results of that process. In Year 22, the WNBA is the best it's ever been.

"I think overall the talent level is just super strong right now," Mystics guard Kristi Toliver said. "It's all about putting a good product out on the floor. There's not a night where it's going to be an easy game for somebody, or it's not going to be competitive. I think it's definitely a positive."