2022 Women's CBB Player of the Year: Is It Aliyah Boston or Caitlin Clark?

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IFebruary 18, 2022

COLUMBIA, SC - JANUARY 09: South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) during a women's college basketball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the South Carolina Gamecocks on January 9, 2022 at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

In the span of fewer than 48 hours, the two best players in women's college basketball were both on display in two ranked matchups. On Sunday afternoon, it was No. 1-ranked South Carolina's 6'5" versatile and dominant forward, junior Aliyah Boston, taking on then-No. 17 Georgia. And then Monday evening, sensational sophomore point guard Caitlin Clark and her No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes took on No. 12 Maryland.

"Well, Caitlin Clark has the ball in her hands all the time," color commentator Debbie Antonelli said during Sunday's game. "Five triple-doubles. Leads the nation in scoring and assists. And Aliyah Boston is quite simply the most powerful low-post person in our game and she can dominate inside; she's got a high-post game. She has a lot of talent around her as well." 

While the broadcast referred to Boston on Sunday as the "front-runner" to walk away with the national player of year hardware by early April, the case was also made on Monday for Clark, who leads the country in points per game, assists per game and assist rate, according to Her Hoop Stats.

The two broadcasts brought to light the complex notion of what it means exactly to be the women's college basketball player of the year. Is the rightful winner of the coveted award determined by being the best player on the nation's best team, or it is a matter of who individually is producing like no one else in the country? Does it matter that the best player could be on a team that is ranked outside of the Top 15?

Both broadcasts were accompanied by a graphic that compared Boston's and Clark's numbers:

  • Clark's over 27 points per game was next to Boston's 16.8. 
  • Boston's near 12 boards a game was next to Clark's 8.1. 
  • Clark has five triple-doubles this season, while Boston has none. But Boston has 19 double-doubles this season to Clark's 12. 

But let's look at some statistics that weren't put up on either broadcast earlier this week. Boston leads the country in total win shares with 11.3 to Clark's 9.1, although the offensive win shares edge belongs to Clark with 7.8 to Boston's 7.0.

Iowa's assist percentage with Clark on the floor is at 48.5 and ranked No. 1 in the country, according to Her Hoop Stats. With Boston on the floor for the Gamecocks, that number is lower at 45.2 percent.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 06: Caitlin Clark #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes walks up the court during the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Arena on February 06, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Clark's defensive rating has improved by over 12.75 percent since her freshman year. But Boston still takes the cake. According to Synergy Sports, Boston gives up 0.615 points per possession, a number that puts her within the 85th percentile. Clark, who gives up 0.698 points per possession, sits in the 67th percentile. 

Pivot Analysis, another basketball analytics platform, declared on Twitter that Boston is the "most important player" on her team, deeming her the "front-runner" for NPOY. The Gamecocks' net rating, which determines how much better or worse a team is when a certain player is on the floor, conveyed that South Carolina without Boston is staggeringly less effective compared to what it is with her.

Without Boston on the floor, South Carolina has a net rating under two, while with Boston, its net rating is above 40 at 42.41. Boston's overall net rating, the difference between her individual offensive and defensive ratings, is 68 to Clark's 25.2. 

When asked to imagine what her team would be like without Boston on the floor, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley didn't want to imagine it. "It's hard for me to imagine not having her and her contributions, and it's just in so many different areas outside of the stat sheet because she's a communicator, she's a captain, she's a leader, she's a great teammate," Staley said. "She's a great competitor." 

If the deeper analytics are declaring that this is indeed Boston's award if the season were to end today, where does Clark really stand in this race and what led to Staley reacting on Twitter to what was said on the broadcast on Monday night?

dawnstaley @dawnstaley

To clarify….why don’t commentators talk about @aa_boston on other national televised games like they talk about other NPOY candidates on @GamecockWBB national televised games. And halftime too!

While commentators aren't not mentioning Boston, they made sure they mentioned Clark multiple times during the South Carolina vs. Georgia broadcast on Sunday, including during the halftime show when there was a segment called: "What makes Caitlin Clark so special?" 

COLUMBIA, SC - JANUARY 09: South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley during a women's college basketball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the South Carolina Gamecocks on January 9, 2022 at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Dishing jaw-dropping assists, pulling up and draining threes from half court with unparalleled confidence, that's what. But also, what can't go unmentioned is the race and ethnicity of both players. The women's basketball media apparatus has at times struggled to give star Black players equitable coverage in comparison to their white counterparts. 

Meredith Cash and Russell Steinberg of the Brawl Don't Lie podcast discussed another reason Clark might be garnering a ton of NPOY attention. While Clark isn't the best player on the best team like Boston, her style of play is bringing more eyes to women's basketball.

"Being a flashy, exciting, engaging player makes you more talked about, more known and necessarily puts you in these conversations more," Cash said on the podcast. "... There are things about Caitlin Clark's game that are just so fun to watch that ... basically flashiness is going to factor in more than fundamentals, which is tough for players who are playing the game right and playing it really well and are benefiting their teams more." 

Players playing the game the right way have been given less attention in the past and sometimes have even been snubbed. In 2019, former UConn and current Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier was excluded as a finalist for the Naismith Trophy. Collier had more win shares than the player who'd end up winning the honor in Megan Gustafson, who was the top scorer in the country with 27.8 points per game that year.

But now in 2022, what is the race going to come down to? Win shares or points scored? Step-back threes or consecutive double-doubles? According to play-by-play commentator Beth Mowins, it's a tale as old as time. 

"It's an argument since we first hung the peach baskets up," she said Sunday afternoon. "Who's the more important, the more valuable? Is it that guard that has to initiate everything with the ball in their hands. Is it the big girl that everything has to go through? ... Or go above and beyond on the other end of the floor? It's great to be able to watch both do their thing."

As to who's the most important player in women's college basketball right now, it's Clark. But the player who provides the most on-court value is by far Boston. The body of work that she has presented in her junior season proves that she is impacting both sides of the ball in ways that no other player in women's college basketball is.