3 Biggest Premier Division Storylines for 2023 Major League Pickleball (MLP) Season 1

With the 2023 MLP season set to kick-off on Thursday, we are getting everyone fired up with a set of MLP preview articles featuring the biggest storylines to follow throughout season 1. It’s day two of our preview series and we have the biggest storylines from the Premier division – you can see our Challenger storylines from yesterday.

1. Anna Leigh Waters vs. Ben Johns

In the almost forgotten inaugural MLP event, Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters faced off in the finals against one another. Anna Leigh Waters carried Lee Whitwell to an undefeated women’s doubles performance, but Ben was the ultimate victor of the event. With Anna Leigh and Ben partnering up almost exclusively, the MLP team structure is the closest thing that we get to help us determine whether a #1 male or a #1 female is more valuable.

The general consensus for this new world of genderless MLP drafting is that Anna Leigh Waters should be the #1 overall player. There should be no question that AL is currently the biggest edge because of the depth of the women’s field. The 5’s had the first pick and unsurprisingly made the decision to go with Anna Leigh Waters. 

On the other hand, we are currently of the mind that getting a top guy is preferable to getting Anna Leigh at the very top of the draft. If Riley was playing for a full season and we were doing a re-draft today, we would have Ben #1, Riley #2 and Anna Leigh #3 on our big board. Seeing how our mock draft and the real draft played out, we are more convinced than ever that having one of the best men at the top of the draft makes for optimal team construction.  

The reason for our thinking is that, more often than not, there should be two strong women in the snake portion of the 2nd and 3rd round for the team that goes guy first or second. Ben Johns’ team decided to trade out of that spot for a higher 4th round pick, but they likely did so on the basis that they knew they could get a higher end guy after so many good ones fell. From a pure player standpoint, even the foundation of the 3rd overall ATX is really solid with JW Johnson anchored by the Kawamoto twins. 

In our view, the top guy approach leaves a team with more options available. Anna Leigh does not need a higher end woman to get wins in women’s doubles, but you are resigned to taking a female with one of your next two picks because you don’t want to be left with one of those bottom females. The 5’s going with Anna Leigh Waters has left their team praying that two non-tier 1 males can find a way to get results whereas Ben and Riley can carry those guys you would have to take at the end of the draft.

Regardless, it is a very realistic notion that we could see the 5’s led by Anna Leigh and the Seattle Pioneers led by Ben Johns facing off in a final against one another yet again. If that is the case, maybe it just doesn’t matter who you take first, as long as you get one of them. 

2. Late Round Steals

One of the most talked about storylines from MLP in 2022 has been Parris Todd as a steal of the draft being a key part of BLQK’s 2 championships last year. Even though Parris Todd was one of the more obvious “steals” to identify after the 2022 draft, it is not always easy to identify the draft “steals”. However, it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be players who perform above their draft position and those players may end up being the real difference maker when it comes to winning in 2023.

The way the draft worked out with the early run-on women, we expect it will be difficult to call any of the women in the draft a true steal. Etta Wright and Lea Jansen went a little lower than we had her on our board, but they still didn’t fall to the level making her selection a heist of any sort. The question for the women is whether any of the late round selections can overperform expectations where the consensus is that the depth is limited?

The Seattle Pioneers traded out of a spot that would have allowed them to take Lauren Stratman, instead opting for a better guy in Tyler Loong. They ended up with Meghan Sheehan-Dizon. This will be the biggest stage by far for some of the women like Sheehan-Dizon and we have to think someone will step up to the plate to make their presence known. 

The early run-on women also meant that a number of guys fell a lot farther than we expected. Andrei Daescu, Tyler Loong and Thomas Wilson could all be considered “steals” at their respective draft slots. Wilson’s fall may have salvaged a poorly constructed team with Catherine Parenteau, Irina Tereschenko and Julian Arnold. Tyler Loong could be the player to push the Seattle Pioneers into championship territory. Daescu could be the reason you take two top women early and, on paper, is a strong anchor for Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith. 

While the above guys have the most obvious case to become a late round steal, the kids, Hayden Patriquin and Gabriel Tardio, are both in positions to be the X-factor on their respective teams. The 5’s lead by Anna Leigh Waters are expecting to contend for titles and, if Patriquin can somehow play above his draft slot, they should be ultra scary.

Not all steals are created equally and it will be fascinating to see which players that we don’t often get to see on the big stage will find a way to prove their worth. 

3. Group Stage Advantage

Luck always plays some part in any sport and that can definitely be the case where you have random draws for a round robin stage. With 3 events, there’s going to be mixing and matching, but there’s going to be advantages and disadvantages for certain teams, including the possibility of first event momentum. Last year, the top 3 teams from the previous event were split up into each of the 3 groups with a random draw determining the rest of the teams.

Similar to the Challenger Division, there does not appear to be a clear group of death for event 1. The strongest overall group is likely Group A featuring BLQK, Milwaukee, the 5’s and the replacement ownership of the St. Louis Shock. The Shock are unlikely to be good, which leaves 2 spots for 3 teams in this group. The 5’s will be the consensus favorite with Anna Leigh Waters but it would be a mistake to sleep on the Mashers team consisting of Callie Smith, Lucy Kovalova, Andrei Daescu and DJ Young. That’s two strong late round men that can support two higher end women. The question here is whether the safely constructed BLQK team with Frazier, Koop, Staksrud and Maggie Brascia have enough firepower to find their way past the group stage. 

While there is not a group of death, Group B is the obvious softball group to start the year in Premier. The Hard Eights are a complete wild card without Riley Newman, and forecasting anything more than one win for them without knowing who their replacement is would be foolish. Frisco Clean Cause is likely a bottom feeding team with question marks across the board with Zane Navratil, Matt Wright, Yana Newell and Lina Padegimaite. The Smash should be the favorites in this group even though the Mad Drops are frisky with Wilson and Arnold rounding out their higher than should have been taken women of Parenteau and Tereschenko.

Group C is nothing to write home about either. Seattle is the NML odds on favorite to win the event, but then you have 3 teams with big time question marks. ATX has energy concerns with JW, the Kawamotos and Gabe Tardio. Las Vegas has chemistry and upside uncertainty with a squad composed entirely of 2022 MLP players that may or may not all get along. New York is the opposite of chemistry issues, but there’s nothing elite about this team beyond hype. The 2nd spot in this group is a total crap shoot. 

Without any opportunity for adds and drops for the Premier teams, the momentum heading into event 2 could be a very real factor in how these teams perform across all 3 events. A bad start leaves less room for optimism while a hot start creates positivity and good vibes all around.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at nmlpickleball@gmail.com. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too!

13 thoughts on “3 Biggest Premier Division Storylines for 2023 Major League Pickleball (MLP) Season 1

  • January 24, 2023 at 2:25 pm

    This is somewhat related to “steals”, but to me one of the most interesting aspects of MLP is when new people shine, they have a better chance of picking up a new, strong partner for PPA play. It’s hard to evaluate some of the mid-tier pros because they’re all stuck with each other!

    • January 25, 2023 at 7:35 am

      100%. It gives those later round players an opportunity to show their worth against top competition with top partners. The Meghan Sheehan-Dizon case is one of the most interesting as she will pair with Etta Wright.

      • January 26, 2023 at 5:42 pm

        Dizon is the weak link and should’ve fallen mid challenger draft. But she won’t ever leave premier because of PPA power.

  • January 24, 2023 at 6:47 pm

    You mentioned “without any opportunity to drop or add”…does that mean no player trading is allowed between events? That’s a bummer for the challenger league players hoping to hop divisions mid season.

    • January 25, 2023 at 7:36 am

      Player trading is allowed between events for Premier but no add/drops in Premier. There is only add/drop AND trading in Challenger. The only way Challenger players can get to Premier in 2023 is after the 3rd event there will be a brand new draft with the 12 teams flip flopping divisions.

      • January 25, 2023 at 10:58 am

        NML: “brand new draft” Season 2 of 2023 has a completely new draft for all 24 teams? I didn’t realize that. So is it only the owners that flip flop but many players would stay in Premier? (and then play for a different owner).

        • January 25, 2023 at 12:47 pm

          No, they redraft all the players. Season 1 Challenger owners are now Premier owners and draft first. When those 48 players are drafted, the new Challenger owners draft their 48 players from the remaining pool.

          A player who was in the Challenger league in Season 1 may be drafted for Premier in Season 2, and vice versa.

          One prediction you can lock in: no Challenger league owner in Season 1 drafts Sam Querry in the first or second round.

  • January 24, 2023 at 8:48 pm

    Can you explain how Riley Newman is going to be replaced for this weekend’s matches?

    • January 25, 2023 at 7:19 am

      His team will get to pick an alternate from one of the 6 Challenger level teams that’s eliminated after pool play.

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