Was Sabrina Ionescu the most valuable player statistically this season?

Breaking down the 2020 Wooden Award ballot by Win Shares

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Who was the most valuable player statistically in NCAA women’s basketball this season? For the second year in a row, we’ve broken it down by Win Shares.

Win Shares is an advanced statistic that approximates the total number of wins a player produces for their team through their play on the offensive and defensive end of the court. Unsurprisingly, winners of the WNBA and NBA MVP awards often lead the league in Win Shares, as they are contributing the most to their team’s success by this measure overall.

Using the methodology developed by Dean Oliver (Basketball on Paper) and outlined by Basketball-Reference, we looked at the Win Shares for the 15 players on the ballot for the 2020 Wooden Award. And you guessed it - Sabrina Ionescu comes out on top.

Ionescu finished with 11.22 Win Shares, meaning she produced approximately 11.22 of Oregon’s 31 wins this season. The only other player to finish in double-figures was the other half of the Ducks’ dynamic duo, Ruthy Hebard, with 10.10 win shares.

Ionescu’s accomplishments this season are incredible, as further evidenced by her leg up on the rest of the Wooden ballot above, but she did also play in all 33 of Oregon’s games and tallied over 1,100 minutes this season. Even before the events of the last week, this year has created large discrepancies in minutes played between many player of the year candidates. For example, players on the ballot missed games from injuries (like Lauren Cox and Chennedy Carter) and international play (in the case of Satou Sabally). Add in the impact of COVID-19 which led to varying lengths of postseason play, and you can see why it is also important to control for each player’s opportunity to pile up stats. As a result, we took a look at the rate they contribute Win Shares, shown below as Wins Shares per 40 minutes for each player on the Wooden Award ballot:

On a per-minute basis, Aliyah Boston led the way with 0.43 Win Shares per 40 minutes.  That’s remarkable for a freshman. She’s followed closely by the Ducks’ duo again, this time with Hebard on top. Does this mean that Boston was statistically more valuable than Ionescu this season? Not necessarily. There’s a number of reasons that Boston could have seen less minutes on the court  (she averaged 24 minutes per game), ranging from foul trouble, freshman struggles, conditioning, the depth of this year’s South Carolina team, or their margins of victory. Whether Boston could have been just as productive had she played an additional 10 minutes per game is unknown.

Cox, who played just 22 games this season due to her injury and the cancellation of the Big 12 tournament, fares much better in the per 40 metric. She checked in at 14th in total Win Shares, but catapults up to 8th when adjusted for minutes played.

As we all mourn what could have been in this year’s postseason, it is also promising to see three underclassmen in the top five players for win shares per 40 minutes this season. Boston, and the remainder of her top-ranked recruiting class, are just getting started at South Carolina. Rhyne Howard (Kentucky) and Elissa Cunane (NC State) both followed up outstanding freshman seasons with impressive sophomore campaigns. We can only expect them to keep getting better in their junior seasons, which is exciting.

In the case you are also interested in the full data set, here’s the breakdown of total Win Shares, as well as offensive and defensive Win Shares, and Win Shares per 40:

Ionescu and Hebard also dominated on the offensive win shares, with 9.88 and 8.69 respectively. Just an hour north in Corvallis, Mikayla Pivec also had a statement season, tapping in third at 7.46 offensive win shares. On the defensive end, Boston dominated, as she did from the start with her jaw-dropping triple-double debut. Megan Walker also deserves a nod for her defensive presence for the Huskies this season, with 2.39 defensive win shares in her junior and final college season (Walker declared for the WNBA draft this past weekend). 

Looking ahead, with Ionescu and Hebard’s college careers ending, will we see Boston lead all players in Win Shares and Win Shares per 40 minutes next year? What will Cunane and Howard add to their game for their junior seasons?  We're looking forward to tracking their development next year.

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