B/R's WNBA Expert Awards Ballot: A 2-Player Race for MVP

Jackie PowellAugust 10, 2022

B/R's WNBA Expert Awards Ballot: A 2-Player Race for MVP

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    A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces shoots against Breanna Stewart #30 of the Seattle Storm during their game at Michelob ULTRA Arena on June 27, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by: Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

    The WNBA regular season ends Sunday, Aug. 14, and it's officially awards season. B/R was asked to serve on the committee of 56 national and local market media members to help decide the W's 2022 awards.

    While some awards were more obvious than others, the most prestigious—the Most Valuable Player award—is maybe the most competitive it's been in years. It's a two-person race between Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson, who've been jockeying for the MVP edge all season long. Also, both players were opposing captains in the 2022 All-Star Game.

    The following slides will reveal my votes for the individual awards. Something worth explaining is not all awards featured here are voted on by the media committee. When that is the case, I will include a note at the top. We will have a follow-up that reveals my votes for the All-WNBA, All-Defensive and All-Rookie teams.

Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award

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    Sylvia Fowles #34 of the Minnesota Lynx and Katie Lou Samuelson #33 of the Los Angeles Sparks hug before the game on July 31, 2022 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California. Photo by: Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images.

    This is the only award on my ballot that doesn't have any quantitative measures, but rather will all be based on qualitative attributes. According to the WNBA, the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award honors a player who "exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship on the court."

    Each WNBA team nominates a player from its roster, providing the media panel 12 options. Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, also the president of the WNBPA, has won this award for three straight years, dating back to 2019.

    To make this decision, I looked at the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, which included the phrase "graciousness in winning or losing." And in 2022, that attitude has been exhibited most by Lynx nominee Sylvia Fowles, who will retire at the end of this season.

    Fowles' team has been through it all this year. Injuries and dramatic roster changes were the only constants in her final season, but she didn't give up on the Lynx or head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve.

    Fowles, who could have requested to be traded so she could win in her final season, approached the 2022 season with grace and gratitude. It isn't a coincidence that every time a team honored Fowles, opposing players and coaches brought up her character and capacity for compassion off the court. "Thank you for being the most genuine person I've ever met," New York Liberty guard DiDi Richards said in June.

    Honorable Mentions: Seattle Storm guard Briann January and Phoenix Mercury guard Shey Peddy

Sixth Player of the Year

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    Brionna Jones #42 of the Connecticut Sun boxes out against the Chicago Sky on August 7, 2022 at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by: Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images.

    According to Synergy Sports, there is only one player with a better points per possession (ppp) efficiency with at least 400 possessions than Sun center Brionna Jones, and that's Breanna Stewart with 1.135 ppp in 598 possessions. Jones has been dominant and incredibly efficient with less. Jones, the 2021 Most Improved Player, stepped into the starting lineup last year while Alyssa Thomas continued rehabbing from her ruptured Achilles. With Thomas back in the starting lineup this season, Jones was relegated to the bench.

    Jones plays on a team with a crowded frontcourt that includes Thomas and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones. Brionna Jones has 5.7 win shares (a statistic "to divvy up credit for team success to the individuals on the team," according to Basketball Reference) this season, which is not only the highest number on the Sun but also the third-highest in the league. No player who comes off the bench has scored more total points (346) and registered more total rebounds (124) than Jones.

    Honorable mentions: Chicago Sky wing Rebekah Gardner and Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald

Coach of the Year

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    Head Coach Tanisha Wright of the Atlanta Dream looks on during the game against the Connecticut Sun on July 15, 2022 at Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia. Photo by: Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images.

    You know a team buys in when the players' remarks often match what their coach says. And that couldn't be more apparent with the Atlanta Dream. First-year head coach Tanisha Wright's go-to phrase all season long was she wanted this team to be the "hardest working, toughest team." It's the Dream's mantra, and it's difficult to find a press conference when this phrase isn't spouted by a player or Wright.

    To be quite honest, I didn't know what to expect from Wright. When she and general manager Dan Padover discussed their plan at the helm of the Dream, it revolved around having high-character people first. There usually wasn't a specific discussion of the Dream's style of basketball. But that skepticism I had has been wiped away as Wright has delivered at least 14 wins to a rebuilding team with much less talent. Close observers of the W, including me, entered the season assuming the Dream and the Fever would be at the bottom of the standings. With less than a week to go, Atlanta is battling it out for one of the final playoff spots, a position that few could imagine months ago.

    Honorable mention: Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon

Executive of the Year

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    Head coach and General Manager James Wade of the Chicago Sky reacts against the Dallas Wings during the first half at Wintrust Arena on August 02, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by: Michael Reaves/Getty Images.

    Note: This is an award that the national media panel does not vote on.

    There is a reason no WNBA franchise has been able to run back a championship since 2002, and the fact that the Sky look seasoned to do something that no team has done in 20 years is just scratching the surface when it comes to the case for James Wade as Executive of the Year.

    Wade found a way to keep the core of his 2021 championship team (Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Kahleah Copper) while adding players to that core who are just as good as, if not better than, the players the Sky lost to free agency in Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson. The Sky signed 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and got Belgian point guard Julie Allemand in the Diamond DeShields sign-and-trade. Also, Wade replaced DeShields with Rebekah Gardner, a 32-year-old rookie who has emerged as one of the most skilled wing defenders and slashers in the league.

    Here's the kicker: Wade also made sure the Sky would have talent in their pipeline past 2022. In the DeShields trade, the Sky received the Mercury's 2023 first-round pick. As of now, the Mercury are only one game up on both the Lynx and the Liberty for the final playoff spot. If the Mercury don't make it into the postseason, the Sky will have a shot at the 2023 draft lottery.

    Honorable Mention: Atlanta Dream GM Dan Padover

Rookie of the Year

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    Atlanta Dream guard Rhyne Howard (10) looks on during a WNBA game between the Atlanta Dream and the Chicago Sky on July 12, 2022, at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, IL. Photo by: Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

    Remember way back when word was getting around that WNBA talent evaluators believed Rhyne Howard didn't have a pro-ready motor? What does that phrase even mean? My understanding was that scouts weren't sure Howard would have the competitive fire and selflessness to add to another team, especially one where she wasn't the No. 1 scoring option.

    The first overall pick has silenced all those naysayers this season, proving that she's not only a franchise player but can also play alongside another dynamic scorer in Tiffany Hayes. Howard has averaged the most points (16.1) and assists (2.7) per game and made the most threes (67) of all rookies. (Reminder: Howard isn't a point guard, but rather a shooting guard or small forward.)

    No. 2 overall pick NaLyssa Smith and No. 3 overall pick Shakira Austin have had impressive first years in the league. Smith leads all first-years in total rebounding, and Austin could land on the All-Defensive Second Team. But Howard and her dynamism right out of the gate will earn her the ROY.

    Honorable Mentions: Indiana Fever forward NaLyssa Smith, Washington Mystics center Shakira Austin and Chicago Sky wing Rebekah Gardner

Most Improved Player

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    Jackie Young #0 of the Las Vegas Aces looks on along with Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on July 12, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images.

    Like MVP, I find there to be multiple ways to interpret Most Improved Player (MIP). Is the MIP the one who improved into the better overall player, or is it the player who showed the most dramatic jump between the span of two seasons?

    The league defines the MIP as the "player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons." The W also stresses that this isn't a "comeback award."

    Why do I ask these questions? Jackie Young has shown this season that she's developed into a more complete player. She had always been known to defend well, facilitate and shoot a mean mid-range jumper. But this season, the player who once was shooting less than one three a game now shoots over three threes at a clip of over 42 percent. When Young entered the league in 2019, she shot 31.8 percent from beyond the arc.

    Sabrina Ionescu might not be as complete as a player as Young is right now, but Ionescu has dramatically altered her statistical output from 2021 to 2022. While she said she wasn't completely healthy or herself in 2021, let's take a look at the way in which she's impacted the Liberty and how that's changed this season. In 2021, she had 1.8 win shares, and this season she has 4.8, per Her Hoop Stats. That's a 166.7 percent increase. Young's win shares increased from 3.9 to 5.5, a 41.0 percent increase. Ionescu also ranks beneath only the two MVP candidates in Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson for third in wins above replacement player (WARP) with 6.07.

    Kevin Pelton @kpeltonWBB

    Entering the final week of the regular season, latest WNBA wins above replacement player (WARP) by my metric, explained here: <a href="https://t.co/CYcamWtVls">https://t.co/CYcamWtVls</a> <a href="https://t.co/egL8oFoQVR">pic.twitter.com/egL8oFoQVR</a>

    Ionescu has elevated herself from a talented young player into one of the most impactful players in the league. That's how she gets my vote.

    Honorable mentions: Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young and Seattle Storm center Ezi Magbegor

Defensive Player of the Year

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    Sue Bird #10, Breanna Stewart #30 and Ezi Magbegor #13 of the Seattle Storm look on during the game against the Los Angeles Sparks on June 25, 2022 at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington. Photo by: Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images.

    Measuring defense can be incredibly tricky. Stats such as rebounds, blocks and steals don't say enough, and they often short-hand what it means to be an excellent defender. Defense is a lot about knowing tendencies and denying passes and shots, qualities that are hard to quantify in a single number. With Breanna Stewart, her impact is measured by watching her guard other post players in conjunction with what her team looks like defensively without her.

    Em🌹🏳️‍🌈 @em_adler

    Stewie -&gt; DPOY<br><br>just the strength and quick-twitch required to position herself to cut off the pass before ripping the ball away from one of the strongest players in the league <a href="https://t.co/Ebc9bJEsXe">pic.twitter.com/Ebc9bJEsXe</a>

    Some believe that Defensive Player of the Year should be the best defender on the best defense in the league. That is almost the case here as the Storm have the third-best defense behind the Mystics and Sun (96.9 defensive rating).

    Per WNBA.com, Stewart has 6.0 defensive win shares, the most in the league. She's trailed slightly by Alyssa Thomas with 5.8. But Stewart separates herself from Thomas in her on-off numbers. According to PBPStats, without Stewart on the floor, the Storm have a defensive rating of 103.81. With her, however, that number drops to 95.92. PBPStats shows that Thomas' time off the floor doesn't alter the Sun's defense all that much. When Thomas is on the floor, the Sun's defensive rating is 96.95, and when she's off, it rises to 97.93.

    Honorable mentions: Connecticut Sun foward Alyssa Thomas, Seattle Storm center Ezi Magbegor and Seattle Storm wing Gabby Williams

Most Valuable Player

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    A'ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces, Breanna Stewart #30 and Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm look on during the game on August 7, 2022 at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington. Photo by: Lindsey Wasson/NBAE via Getty Images.

    Both Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson have consistently provided for their teams on both sides of the ball with each player serving as her team's anchor on defense and sometimes as the go-to scorer when their respective offenses get stagnant and cold.

    While Wilson has a better field-goal percentage than Stewart (50.5) and more rebounds per game (9.5), Stewart has had less consistent scoring production around her all season long compared to Wilson's Aces.

    Wilson has Chelsea Gray putting up over 13 points per game, Jackie Young with over 16 points per game and Kelsey Plum with just under 20 points per game. Stewart has three teammates putting up double-digit scoring, but their output is much less. Jewell Loyd has put up 15.5 points per game, Ezi Magbegor has averaged 10.0 points per game and midseason signee Tina Charles averages 12.3 points per game.

    While Wilson might be this season's most outstanding player because of her growth on defense and impressive three-point shooting, the Aces play a more guard-oriented style of basketball. Not to mention, Plum is in the MVP discussion as well, which potentially takes some of the votes from Wilson. The Storm, however, would not be able to compete as mightily with the upper echelon of the WNBA without Stewart.

    Honorable mentions: A'ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Alyssa Thomas and Skylar Diggins-Smith

    *The reason I name four more here is because the official ballot calls for a voter's top five MVP candidates. Ten points are awarded to the first place votes, seven are awarded for second-place votes, five for third place, three for fourth place and one for fifth place. The player with the highest cumulative point total is crowned the MVP.

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