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This week, Above the Break is taking stock of the WNBA Awards races and adding a few new awards of our own to recognize special seasons.
The WNBA regular season ends on Sunday. The final two playoff spots are still up for grabs heading into the weekend, with Minnesota, Atlanta, New York and Phoenix all vying for that spot.
It’s also a good time for us to think about WNBA awards. The official awards voters are probably filling out their ballots now (I assume at least—just want to take a second to say that if anyone working for the league is reading, I’d love a vote next year!), and we’ll soon know who wins things like MVP and DPOY.
So, today I’m getting into the awards game. Some of these will be real awards. Some of these will be fake awards that I wish were real. Let’s talk awards, y’all.
WNBA Awards: MVP
The way I see it, MVP is down to two players right now: Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson.
There are great arguments for both players.
Stewart leads the league in points per game at 22.0, the highest mark of her career. She’s also adding in 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Maybe more importantly though is that Stewart has had to do that on a Storm team that’s gotten progressively less talented over time. When Stewart won her first MVP, it was on a team that had Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard. Now, she’s doing this on a team where the talent drops a little quicker as you go down the roster.
Then there’s A’ja Wilson. She’s fifth in points per game, with one of her teammates, Kelsey Plum, ahead of her. But she’s also second in the WNBA in rebounds per game and leads the WNBA in blocks per game. Stewart’s a great defender too, but Wilson has been incredible on that end.
Ultimately, I’m being pulled in Wilson’s direction. For the reasons above, but also because Wilson has had to do all this while learning a whole new scheme. Normally, adjusting to a new coach wouldn’t factor much into something like this, but when you go from the old-school system of Bill Laimbeer to the spread-out Becky Hammon system and you don’t miss a beat, that matters to me, especially in a race as close as this one.
WNBA Awards: Defensive Player of the Year
Oh hey! Another race between A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.
What Stewart has done defensively this year with Seattle has been so impressive, but sometimes you have to lean back on the numbers. Stewart has 0.1 more defensive win shares this season than Wilson, but Wilson’s shot-blocking ability gives her the slight edge here, just like in the MVP race.
But how great is it that the two MVP candidates are also the two DPOY candidates!
WNBA Awards: Sixth Player of the Year
This is an easy one. The Aces had two perennial candidates for this role for the last few years, but Becky Hammon decided to start her best players in Vegas, taking Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby out of the picture.
This means that the runway is clear for Brionna Jones to walk out there and take this award. She started seven games this year but has largely played off the bench. Jones is averaging 13.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
WNBA Awards: Seventh Player of the Year
This award goes to the best player who is seventh on their team in minutes per game. Unlike the 6POY award, I’m not basing this on whether a player starts games or not.
Rebekah Gardner gets this award. The 31-year-old, who also earns the hypothetical “Rookie of the Year Among Players Not Drafted In 2022” award, has been a key piece for the Chicago Sky on both ends of the floor. She’s averaging 8.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game. She’s second in the league in steal rate behind Brittney Sykes
WNBA Awards: Most Improved Player
This might be the toughest awards. Part of me wants to go with Teaira McCowan, but let’s save her for another award. Part of me says I should look at Sophie Cunningham since she’s had a huge increase in her numbers, but I partly wonder if that’s just because she got more minutes. To be, “improved” means a player got better, not just that their numbers improved. And I think there’s someone who “improved” at a higher rate than Cunningham:
The former No. 1 overall pick shot 25 percent from deep last year. This season, she’s shooting 43.1 percent from behind the arc. Her points per game have jumped from 12.2 to 16.4 and Young has turned from a rotation piece into an actual star this season. Her true shooting percentage has risen from 56.4 to 59.4 percent. Her Win Shares per 48 minutes jumped from .174 to .234. She’s more than doubled her Offensive Win Shares from last season.
WNBA Awards: Most Improved Player (In-Season Edition)
As much as I want to name Teaira McCowan as the Most Improved Player, I really can’t, because she spent the first half of the season barely on the court. I don’t think we should fault McCowan for the team’s rotations though and I want to acknowledge how well she’s played over the last month or so in some form.
So, we’ve got the Most Improved Player (In-Season Edition) award, which reflects the player who grew the most from the beginning of the season to the end.
In May, McCowan averaged 4.1 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. So far in August, she’s averaged 18.2 points and 12.8 rebounds.
Earlier in the season, Dallas was playing Izzy Harrison at the 5 a lot, which made sense, because Harrison is really good. But the Wings traded for McCowan for a reason: they needed a long-term answer at the 5. And then for two months, they ignored that need and didn’t give McCowan a real shot. I’m sure that her being a liability in space on the defensive end was part of that, but there’s literally no one in the WNBA who can seal off the paint like McCowan.
WNBA Awards: Retiring Player of the Year
We have some players retiring this season and some other players rumored to be retiring. Because I don’t want to go off of rumors, players eligible for this award must have announced already that this is their final season, which means Candace Parker isn’t eligible, even though a lot of people believe she’ll be done after this season.
That leaves us deciding between Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles.
Bird has played 29 games this season, averaging 8.0 points and 6.0 assists per game.
Fowles has missed time with injury, but in the end has caught back up with Bird, playing just one fewer game. Fowles is averaging 14.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game while shooting 63.6 percent from the floor.
Let’s go with the numbers here and add another trophy to Fowles’ case.
WNBA Awards: Rookie of the Year
No disrespect to NaLyssa Smith and Shakira Austin, who both had great seasons, but my Rookie of the Year vote goes to Rhyne Howard.
I’m not even sure I really need to explain this pick. Howard has been the best player on a team that might still make the playoffs. Smith has been really good for a struggling Fever team and Austin has been a great piece for a good Mystics team. In a normal year, those two would be locked in a great battle for the award where we’d end up having some deep conversations about how to value stats vs. winning.
But with Howard, we get to value stats and winning — or, at least, competing, since the Dream will definitely be finishing under .500 and may still miss the postseason.
Howard has averaged 16.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game. She hasn’t been very efficient, shooting just 36.7 percent from the floor, but that inefficiency will happen when a rookie is asked to do as much as Howard was, and I’m not going to hold that against her. Howard had so many expectations to live up to after being declared the 2022 No. 1 pick back when she was a freshman at Kentucky. She’s lived up to it.