The WNBA season resumes this week after the Olympic break, and a drama-filled stretch run is all but guaranteed. Twelve teams are still alive in the eight-team playoff race, with the Indiana Fever, currently 12th, among the hottest in the league and just four games back of the final postseason slot.
But the race for individual awards may be even more chaotic. Most are entirely unresolved at roughly the halfway point of the campaign, with exciting finishes destined among the best players in the league. Let’s take a look at the front-runners for each honor.
We’ll start with Most Valuable Player, where it looks like a three-person race from this vantage point. In win shares so far, Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm leads the way with 4.3, A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces — last season’s MVP — is just behind her at 4.2 and Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun checks in at 4.0.
But Jones accumulated her value over just 15 games, with an international sojourn playing for Bosnia in the FIBA European women’s basketball championship interrupting her WNBA schedule. It’s clear the Sun rely on her to a greater extent than the Storm do Stewart or the Aces do Wilson, who each earned their win shares over the full 21-game slate. If these elite players can maintain their first-half excellence over the second half of the season, this race might come down to which player guides her team into the top seed for the playoffs — this is a regular-season-only award, after all.
While MVP is tight, the Rookie of the Year race is largely undefined so far. In a league where 82 players have clocked over 300 minutes, only one of those players is a member of the 2021 WNBA draft class. (This is a useful data point for why the WNBA needs more teams, but I digress.)
That player is the New York Liberty’s Michaela Onyenwere, who, if the season ended today, would be my choice for Rookie of the Year. She has started all 21 games for the team, averaging 9.8 points per game and providing desperately needed wing versatility when Rebecca Allen was playing overseas and then fighting through injuries, and Jocelyn Willoughby lost for the season with an Achilles tear.
Still, Onyenwere’s early efficiency from the field has fallen off a bit over the grind of the WNBA schedule, and she’ll need to find her form again to get both her field-goal and, critically, 3-point percentages up from the current season marks of 38.8 and 31 percent, respectively.
That opens the door for players like Charli Collier of the Dallas Wings, the top overall pick in the 2021 draft and current leader in win shares among rookies. Aari McDonald, too, could make a run at the award — even with her Atlanta Dream now on their third head coach this season in Darius Taylor, and the incumbent point guard, Chennedy Carter, suspended indefinitely.
The Sixth Woman of the Year award, meanwhile, is surprisingly competitive, seeing as how Dearica Hamby is still very much in the league and, thus, the presumed winner of the award as long as Aces coach Bill Laimbeer continues using her as an essential contributor off the bench. But she has competition this year. Though Hamby is the leader in win shares among non-starters, her teammate Kelsey Plum, queen of the 3-on-3, is just behind her and, as we saw in Tokyo, in fine form as well. Perhaps Laimbeer will eventually find a way to begin games with all his best players on the bench and go undefeated. I wouldn’t put it past him.
His success with this strategy has been emulated by Chicago’s James Wade, who has a pair of elite contributors in his rotation but not his starting lineup — versatile big Azurá Stevens and reigning 3-point contest winner Allie Quigley, who has come to define instant offense off the bench once more after four seasons as a regular starter. Any of the four could take home the award with a strong second half, though all run the risk of someone else’s untimely injury thrusting them back into the starting lineup.
As for Most Improved Player, the clear leaders at this time are in the East. Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun center, has been as vital to her team as anyone this side of Jonquel, with the fourth-most win shares in the league and an effortless upscaling of her efficient around-the-rim two-way game for Curt Miller this season. This follows a similar level of play in terms of her efficiency numbers, but for her to do it while carrying the starter minutes this season only reinforces the caliber of player she has become.
In a similar vein, Sami Whitcomb of the Liberty is as valuable as she’s ever been, shooting a career-best 48.9 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three even as she’s easily reached a career high in minutes per game, a robust 29.1 minute average. My personal favorite Whitcomb stat, however, is her 5.4 defensive rebounds per game, an absurd number for a 5-foot-10 guard who’s been asked to serve as a primary ball-handler and distributor during New York’s first half. To put that in perspective, 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner has averaged 5.8 defensive rebounds per game in her career.
If I’m being honest, I object to this award’s entire premise: Both Jones and Whitcomb have been, to my mind, obviously capable of this level of play long before 2021. It’s simply a matter of opportunity. Still, if we’re using the criteria of improved production, both have to lead the conversation.
The Defensive Player of the Year is the only award that seems to be set, barring significant change, and it is a familiar name to carve into the award: the Minnesota Lynx’s Sylvia Fowles, who previously won the honors in 2016 with the team and in 2011 and 2013 with the Chicago Sky.
Fowles didn’t get much of a break, anchoring the USA Basketball defense in Tokyo, but when she returns, she’ll be the biggest reason Cheryl Reeve’s Lynx look like title contenders, winners of seven straight games with the league’s second-best defensive rating over that span. There are many stats to support Fowles’s candidacy — she is, for instance, the league leader in defensive win shares — but my favorite one is that among players with at least 500 minutes played this season, she’s the leader in steals percentage, normally the province of the smaller WNBA contingent. No other centers are in the top 10.
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.