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Do The WNBA’s Most Improved Players Keep Up Their Success?

The 2020 WNBA season was unlike any other, in its bubble on the campus of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. In just 74 days of games, we saw A’ja Wilson outduel Breanna Stewart for Most Valuable Player, Courtney Vandersloot and Sue Bird set single-game assist records, and many other players surprise us with their improved performance from a season ago. One of the biggest of those surprises was the performance of Atlanta Dream guard/forward Betnijah Laney.

In 2019, Laney had averaged a then-career-high 5.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for the Indiana Fever, but a few weeks before teams reported to Bradenton this year, the team cut her. A week later, the Atlanta Dream signed Laney, hoping she could bring defensive energy and versatility.

Laney did that and much more, defying the preseason scouting reports that labeled her an offensive afterthought. She started all 22 games for the Dream and averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game en route to winning the 2020 WNBA Most Improved Player award.

The MIP award has been given out since 2000, when New York Liberty forward/center Tari Phillips won the inaugural award. Since then, there have been co-MIPs once (Connecticut’s Wendy Palmer and Indiana’s Kelly Miller in 2004), and only one player has won the award multiple times (Leilani Mitchell in 2010 with New York and in 2019 with Phoenix).

But what, exactly, does a player have to do to be Most Improved? And do winners usually use the award as a springboard to even better performances in the next season, or do they regress to their previous level of performance? To answer those questions, we compiled data from Her Hoop Stats on all 22 award winners in their MIP season and the seasons directly before and after.

What is the profile of a Most Improved Player?

Most Improved Players tend to win the award relatively early in their careers. On average, MIPs are in their fourth WNBA season, but eight of the 22 winners (36 percent) have been second-year players.

During their winning season, Most Improved Players played an average of 29.5 minutes per game and averaged 12.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. In 2001, Houston Comets guard Janeth Arcain was the iron woman of this group, averaging 36.0 minutes per game, while Erin Buescher in 2006 (19.6 minutes per game) remains the only player to win the award while averaging less than 20 minutes per game.

On average, winners played 13.4 more minutes per game than in the previous season and recorded 7.5 more points, 2.7 more rebounds and 1.0 more assists. Every MIP increased her statistics in all four categories except for Indiana guard Shavonte Zellous in 2013, whose 1.7 assists per game equaled her 2012 average.

Almost all MIPs got better in every major category

Change in per-game stats for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player from the year before winning the award to the winning season

Season Player Minutes Points Rebs. Assts.
2020 Betnijah Laney +7.5 +11.6 +0.7 +2.3
2019 Leilani Mitchell +15.5 +8.4 +1.6 +1.7
2018 Natasha Howard +13.9 +8.9 +4.0 +0.3
2017 Jonquel Jones +14.4 +8.6 +8.2 +0.9
2016 Elizabeth Williams +23.0 +8.6 +4.9 +0.8
2015 Kelsey Bone +5.8 +6.1 +1.0 +0.6
2014 Skylar Diggins-Smith +8.8 +11.6 +0.6 +1.2
2013 Shavonte Zellous +9.0 +7.2 +0.7 +0.0
2012 Kristi Toliver +7.9 +6.3 +1.3 +2.0
2011 Kia Vaughn +20.0 +8.0 +5.3 +0.8
2010 Leilani Mitchell +16.0 +6.9 +1.4 +1.6
2009 Crystal Langhorne +14.2 +7.2 +3.9 +0.5
2008 Ebony Hoffman +13.6 +6.2 +3.8 +1.0
2007 Janel McCarville +7.0 +5.9 +1.3 +0.3
2006 Erin Buescher Perperoglou +10.6 +6.4 +2.6 +0.4
2005 Nicole Powell +16.7 +6.4 +1.3 +1.3
2004 Wendy Palmer +10.5 +4.3 +2.2 +0.4
2004 Kelly Miller +16.8 +4.6 +1.6 +1.7
2003 Michelle Snow +15.3 +5.3 +4.0 +0.8
2002 Coco Miller +21.4 +7.6 +3.1 +2.2
2001 Janeth Arcain +5.5 +10.1 +0.5 +1.0
2000 Tari Phillips +21.1 +9.7 +5.9 +0.6
Average +13.4 +7.5 +2.7 +1.0

Source: Her Hoop Stats

Increased playing time can account for some of the increased production, but MIPs were also generally more efficient on offense. Winners’ effective field-goal percentage increased by an average of 4.2 percentage points, while their player efficiency ratings rose from 13.0 in the previous season — slightly below the league average of 15.0 — to well above average at 18.8. Some winners, such as Arcain and Laney, took on much larger offensive roles, but on average, winners’ usage rates increased by less than 3 percentage points, and five winners actually had lower usage rates than in the previous season.

Finally, offensive and defensive ratings — which indicate the number of points a player scores and allows, respectively, per 100 possessions — have risen steadily since the WNBA’s inception in 1997, making them less informative measures of player effectiveness for this analysis. However, the winners’ net ratings — the difference between their offensive and defensive ratings — show that these players have been an average of 12 points per 100 possessions better in their MIP-winning season than in the season prior.

This year’s candidates

Laney’s minutes increased only modestly from 2019 to 2020 (+7.5) compared to previous award winners, but her leap from 5.6 points per game in 2019 to 17.2 in 2020 was tied with Skylar Diggins-Smith’s 2014 surge as a member of the Tulsa Shock for the largest increase ever among Most Improved Player award winners. She also recorded the largest increase in assists (2.3), narrowly beating out Washington’s Coco Miller (2.2) in 2002, and the second-largest increase in usage rate (9.4 percentage points) behind Arcain (13.0 points) in 2001.

Yet Laney did not run away with the award, winning just 25 of a possible 47 votes (53 percent). Washington’s Myisha Hines-Allen, who got 21 votes, was also doing unprecedented things in the WNBA bubble. One season removed from playing fewer than eight minutes per game, Hines-Allen was named to the All-WNBA Second Team and averaged 17.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 29.9 minutes per game.

Had Hines-Allen won the award instead of Laney, she would have had the largest increase in points per game (14.7) of any winner and the second-largest increases in minutes, rebounds, assists and effective field-goal percentage.

How do MIPs fare the following season?

For the most part, players who won the Most Improved Player award performed at the same level the following season. Their average minutes (-0.9), points (-1.1) and rebounds (-0.4) per game all barely decreased, while their assists per game held steady.

However, those averages could obscure dramatic changes in individual performance, if about half of winners continued to improve their performance while the other half returned to their previous level of performance. Instead, most winners saw their performance plateau in the season after winning Most Improved Player. Fifteen of 21 winners1 averaged within five minutes per game of their average the season before, and 17 averaged within 4 points of their average in the previous year. Fourteen increased or decreased their rebounding by less than one per game, and 15 did the same in assists.

Some surges were easier to maintain than others

Change in per-game stats for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player from the year of winning the award to the subsequent season

Season Player Minutes Points Rebs. Assts.
2019 Leilani Mitchell +0.2 -3.3 -0.2 +1.4
2018 Natasha Howard +5.7 +4.9 +1.8 +1.1
2017 Jonquel Jones -8.0 -3.6 -6.4 +0.2
2016 Elizabeth Williams -3.1 -1.5 -0.9 +0.2
2015 Kelsey Bone -13.6 -9.3 -2.6 -1.1
2014 Skylar Diggins-Smith -3.0 -2.3 +0.2 +0.0
2013 Shavonte Zellous -3.9 -3.7 -0.6 +0.4
2012 Kristi Toliver -1.5 -3.4 -0.6 -1.5
2011 Kia Vaughn -5.2 -3.7 -1.7 -0.2
2010 Leilani Mitchell -3.4 -3.7 -0.5 -0.9
2009 Crystal Langhorne +4.3 +4.3 +1.8 +0.2
2008 Ebony Hoffman -1.1 -0.5 -1.9 -0.3
2007 Janel McCarville +5.2 +3.3 +0.6 +1.0
2006 Erin Buescher Perperoglou +8.1 +1.6 +2.2 +1.2
2005 Nicole Powell -2.8 -1.1 +0.3 +0.0
2004 Wendy Palmer +2.1 +0.6 +0.2 +0.1
2004 Kelly Miller -1.2 +0.0 -0.7 -0.7
2003 Michelle Snow -1.4 -0.3 +0.0 -0.2
2002 Coco Miller +4.2 +3.2 +0.2 +0.0
2001 Janeth Arcain -1.1 -7.1 -0.3 -0.2
2000 Tari Phillips +1.2 +1.5 +0.0 +0.2
Average -0.9 -1.1 -0.4 +0.0

Source: Her Hoop Stats

One recent exception to this rule is Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard. Howard won Most Improved Player along with a WNBA title in 2018, averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 22.2, 12th-best in the league. The following season, with Seattle stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird sidelined by injuries, Howard took her game to an MVP level, ranking in the top seven in the WNBA with 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and a 24.0 PER.

Who might win MIP in 2021?

Several players had stat lines in 2020 close to the average for a pre-MIP season and could be poised for a breakout in 2021. Here are a few of those candidates:

Kennedy Burke, Indiana Fever: In her first season playing in new head coach Marianne Stanley’s system, the second-year guard averaged 7.2 points and 1.1 assists in 18.3 minutes per game. Burke had 23 points and 17 points in two games against the WNBA champion Seattle Storm, showing that she can be a scoring threat against even the toughest defenses.

Te’a Cooper, Los Angeles Sparks: The rookie guard averaged 7.0 points and 2.0 assists in 17.2 minutes per game this season and could see much more playing time if the Sparks don’t retain one or more of Chelsea Gray, Seimone Augustus and Riquna Williams, who are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. (Cooper must also re-sign with the Sparks, but the team has exclusive negotiating rights.)

Lauren Cox, Indiana Fever: The No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft had an underwhelming rookie season, playing in only 14 games and averaging 3.6 points and 3.3 rebounds. If she’s fully healthy next year after missing time this season because of COVID-19 and a knee injury, she and young center Teaira McCowan could be the nightmare for opponents that many have been anticipating since Cox was drafted.

Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix Mercury: Like Cooper, Cunningham could be poised to play more minutes next season depending on what Phoenix general manager Jim Pitman decides about free agent guards Diana Taurasi, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Shey Peddy and Yvonne Turner. Cunningham averaged 5.0 points and 0.8 assists this season, but she scored nearly 2,200 points in her college career at Missouri and is a much better 3-point shooter than her 23.5 percent accuracy this season suggests.

Footnotes

  1. Excluding Laney, who has not had her subsequent season yet.

Jenn Hatfield is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Her work can be found on Her Hoop Stats and The Next.

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