WNBA Dissected: 2022 End of Season Award Picks
One writer's choices for everything from Most Valuable Player through to Executive of the Year
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Most Valuable Player
No one's ever quite sure what 'Most Valuable Player' means. There are competitions around the world that have 'Most Outstanding Player' or 'Player of the Tournament' awards, which are at least easier to define, even if they still lead to arguments about who should win. But everyone has their own definition once it comes to Most Valuable. The leagues like it that way, because it leads to lots of debate at awards time, and lots of articles like this. It generally ends up as some arbitrary combination of playing the best, meaning the most to your team, and your team winning. Because if your team didn't win much, how valuable could you have been? They probably could've lost just as much without you.
Ultimately, this year has ended up feeling like a two-horse race. The league had, broadly speaking, five good teams. Washington's primary candidate would've been Elena Delle Donne, but 25 games in a 36-game season just doesn't seem like enough when you're comparing her to players who were there for at least 33 or 34. Connecticut and Chicago both had success that was so dependent on multiple pieces this year that none of them leap out for MVP. Jonquel Jones was very good again, but both her numbers and her value were lessened by all the frontcourt pieces around her being healthy and available. Chicago were too balanced and unselfish for an MVP to step forward. Which leaves us with two good teams, and two superstars who've won this award before.
In a lot of ways, Breanna Stewart had a pretty boringly Breanna Stewart season. There was a slight uptick in her per-minute numbers compared to the last couple of years (with no drop in efficiency), but she’s largely the same player we've seen for years. But that player is an exceptional basketball player, so she's right back in the MVP conversation where we see her in any season where she's been healthy.
A'ja Wilson had to handle a little more change than Stewart this year. New coach, different system with a lot more perimeter shooting, and breakout years for both Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young that could've complicated Wilson’s role, or at least left her as one member of a multi-star team like Jones in Connecticut. But Wilson fit right in and remained Las Vegas's key piece. She started shooting threes (at a 37% clip), pushed her field-goal percentage to a career high 50.1%, and took on an even more vital role in the team's defense while playing center most of the season. Plum had a great year, but Wilson is the one the Aces would've fallen off dramatically without.
Either is a thoroughly worthy and reasonable choice. Falling back on 'value' doesn't help much because both Seattle and Las Vegas would've struggled to fill the hole if their star had been missing for an extended period. The on-court/off-court numbers are similar, showing very good teams when they play, and very poor when they don't (albeit fairly small sample sizes of off-court minutes, because they both play a lot). The Aces were the slightly better team, but Wilson had slightly more help. Stewart stretches the floor more and is a more flexible defender, but Wilson has become the greater interior presence.
I'm going with Stewart, because I think she's had the slightly greater load to carry in Seattle. Jewell Loyd's inconsistencies and the lack of offensive firepower elsewhere until Tina Charles arrived meant there was a heavy reliance on Stewart to be the one who stepped up when the Storm needed somebody to win them games this year. Wilson was often the one who did the same for Las Vegas - or who had already won them the game, removing the necessity for anyone to step up later - but with Plum, Young and Chelsea Gray around, it didn't always have to be her. That said, if I get to rewrite this again before publication, I might go the other way. It's a virtual coin flip.
Pick: Breanna Stewart, by a hair from A'ja Wilson
It makes sense to do this next, considering we just discussed the best players in the league. Also, as they've changed the rules this year to remove positions from All-WNBA ballots, first-team All-WNBA picks will presumably be the same as the 1-5 MVP list for a lot of voters (although there's no 'valuable' here, so maybe not). Stewart and Wilson are in, obviously.
20 players made my 'short' list for consideration, which makes this a pretty impressive year. The difficulty in picking these teams this year is how balanced several of the top teams have been. For Seattle, it's Stewart and then whether you think Loyd was good enough this season, but for the others there are lots of options. Plum, Young and Gray were an outstanding perimeter unit for Las Vegas. Courtney Vandersloot, Kahleah Copper, Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman all have great numbers and were significant contributors in Chicago. Alyssa Thomas's value to Connecticut was right up there with Jonquel Jones, while fans of advanced and per-minute numbers might even be tempted by Brionna Jones. These selections are much easier when most of the good teams have a superstar or two and role players around them.
Then there are the other open questions. How much do you weigh Delle Donne playing around 10 games less than most of her competition? Does the combination of missing six games and whatever the hell happened in Phoenix towards the end of the season knock Skylar Diggins-Smith out of the spot that seemed hers for most of the year? Does poor team performance count against the like of Diggins-Smith, Sabrina Ionescu, Nneka Ogwumike and Sylvia Fowles?
For me, Plum gets in for her electric play this season. Gray came to the fore later in the year and continues to be the primary creative force for Las Vegas, but that doesn't take away from the pure offensive production we saw from Plum (and she's not a terrible defender anymore, either). 42% from three when she's taking 7.5 per game is ridiculous, and the similar amount of two-point shots per game plus over five assists illustrates there was plenty more to her game than just standing around the arc.
I struggle to choose between Connecticut's primary two options. Jonquel Jones is perhaps the more obvious, as the former MVP who stretches the floor with her three-point shooting and protects the rim in a more traditional way with her size and length. But Alyssa Thomas drives the Sun forward. Her ability to snatch down rebounds and then run the floor as a creator, playing de facto point guard even more this year after they lost Jasmine Thomas, has been absolutely vital to Connecticut's success. Her physical defense on both posts and perimeter players is important as well, and she plays a huge number of minutes (showing how reluctant Curt Miller is to ask his team to survive without her on the floor). If forced to put one ahead of the other I think I'd actually pick Thomas, but the balance elsewhere left me comfortable with both on my first-team.
Diggins-Smith had a first-team resume for most of the year for her outstanding production with limited help in Phoenix, but she drops to my second-team for the late-season issues and missed games. Sabrina Ionescu was similarly exceptional as the primary piece carrying a relatively poor team and makes it as well. Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman both make my second-team, but it was honestly hard to pick between the Sky players. It could easily have been Copper or Vandersloot instead. I vacillated on Delle Donne. It's not just that she played 10 fewer games than most of the others, but also that the additional rest from missing those games would allow any player to expend more energy in the games where they do play. Some of the other players might've been even better if they got to take regular additional days off. She only played eight road games all season, so there was also much less travel. She was exceptional when she played, and I totally understand why some people will have her on one of these teams, but I can't do it. So the final spot goes to Chelsea Gray for her production, style and metronomic leadership of the team that finished top of the standings.
Picks: All-WNBA First Team
All-WNBA Second Team
Rookie of the Year
Let's get an easy one out of the way. Rhyne Howard had a very good rookie season. There are certainly still areas to improve - 36.1% from the field is a pretty ugly number, and the on/off stats never reflected well on her all year - but she came into a team with low expectations and lit the place up. Her all-court game and ability to fill the stat sheet in categories beyond scoring have transferred over from college, and she was a big part of changing the atmosphere around the Atlanta Dream. She could easily win this award unanimously.
That said, this class in general was a meaningful step up from recent times (although 2021 had set a very, very low bar). Shakira Austin showed why Washington were willing to trade down from the top spot, earning her starting position with her defensive presence inside and scoring efficiently when given the opportunity. NaLyssa Smith gave Indiana hope as well, looking like a genuine building block for their future even in yet another disappointing Fever season. Hell, if she'd had her rookie season last year, Rebekah Gardner would've threatened to win this award as well.
Pick: Rhyne Howard
Howard, Austin and Smith are easy picks, having illustrated that all the draftniks were right about the clear top three in the 2022 pool. Gardner earned her spot as well, playing an important role off the bench for one of the best teams in the league. The fact that she's 32 and has been playing professionally overseas for many years is irrelevant in my eyes - she's a WNBA rookie, and therefore eligible for this award. There may be a few voters who disagree and prefer to include only the youngsters.
The final spot gets murkier and more debatable. The AP Awards bizarrely announced Phoenix's Sam Thomas as the fifth member of their All-Rookie team, which made no sense to anyone, but there are still lots of options. Queen Egbo faded as Indiana's season dissolved, but that doesn't take away from the surprisingly strong year she had in the paint for the Fever. Kristy Wallace had a useful year on the perimeter for Atlanta, starting for half the season before losing her spot to veteran options. Naz Hillmon stepped in when various people got hurt for the Dream and was solid as well. Veronica Burton's defense was effective for Dallas, and she started to flash enough offense by the end of the season to suggest promising potential development in the future.
I'm going with Wallace, but any of the names mentioned above (except Thomas) would be reasonable inclusions.
Sixth Woman of the Year
While I don't think there's much debate here, I was perhaps a little too dismissive a couple of weeks ago:
Brionna Jones has been really freaking good this season (and the last two as well, but she wasn't eligible for this award back then). On many teams she'd be starting, and she has slid smoothly into Connecticut's starting lineup when they've needed her to, but thanks to the presence of Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas she gets a nice trophy and some extra cash. She's developed into an outstanding interior scorer, with impressive footwork and great hands. The Sun don't miss a beat when she comes into games, and in fact many of their best statistical lineups include her (although the numbers obviously get a boost from her facing other team's reserves for a chunk of those minutes). She's been too good to ignore.
Other players do at least deserve a mention. While most of her better games came after being moved into a starting role in Dallas, Teaira McCowan came off the bench often enough to remain eligible, and had a strong second half to the season. There are still inconsistencies, but her physicality inside makes her virtually impossible to stop when she's in the right mood. The closest thing the WNBA has to a "Kobe assist" is when Wings players toss the ball in the general vicinity of the rim, knowing there's every chance McCowan will grab it for the putback.
Aari McDonald also had a good sophomore season in Atlanta as their backup point guard, and Azurá Stevens was productive in Chicago after being pushed back to the bench by the arrival of Meesseman. But none of them had the impact of Jones.
Pick: Brionna Jones
Defensive Player of the Year
We all talk about this every year - defense is horribly difficult to assess. We have numbers for team defense, but beyond raw steal and block stats we still struggle to quantify individual defense. So a lot of it comes down to the eye-test, and who plays a key role on teams that are successful defensively. The best team defense by defensive rating this year was Washington, narrowly ahead of Connecticut, with Seattle a little behind them. Then there was a gap to Chicago and Atlanta, before another gap to Las Vegas and New York.
In all honesty, those numbers make things more complicated for me, because A'ja Wilson was my instinctive pick. The move to center put her in a more prominent defensive role, needing to talk more and lead the defense from the pivotal role in the middle of the paint without another big presence alongside her for most of her minutes. She's still definitely in the discussion, but Vegas's team defense actually finished very slightly below league average. Is a key role in that defense enough for Defensive Player of the Year?
Washington is complicated. Delle Donne is an important presence inside when she plays, Austin was good but raw, and the perimeter of Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark are so solid across the board that it's hard to pick one out. It also continues to be difficult to win this award from the perimeter, when the defensive impact of bigs is typically both greater and easier to perceive.
Breanna Stewart is in this conversation as well, protecting the paint for Seattle while also being comfortable defending in space on drives or the pick-and-roll. Ezi Magbegor was also in the conversation alongside her before losing her starting spot to Tina Charles and then fading in performance once she was coming off the bench. Both Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas deserve mention as well, for the reasons already discussed in All-WNBA.
Ultimately, I think I go with Stewart again. The award honestly seemed Wilson's - and she may well win the trophy - but the team numbers go against her for my pick. The Aces were both a mediocre defensive team in 2022 and statistically a significant step worse than in 2021. The gap between Vegas and the top teams defensively is too large.
Pick: Breanna Stewart
Not going to go into too much detail here, because most of the discussion has already been done above. However, I do have a fondness for the players that are trusted and tasked with specific defensive roles by their head coaches. Most visibly, this is often the perimeter player who either takes the primary scorer on every opposing team, or who is put at the point of attack guarding the point guard in order to disrupt the opposing offense. It's easier to stand out as a defensive interior presence, but those players have a key role as well.
Also, if you're going to make my All-Defensive squads on a bad defensive team, there better be some glaring numbers that the team is a lot better defensively when you're on the floor. This is why players like Allisha Gray, Brianna Turner and even Sylvia Fowles don't appear below, if you're wondering.
All-Defensive First Team
All-Defensive Second Team
Most Improved Player
I've talked about this a lot in previous years - I want to see visibly improved skills from a player in order to pick them for this award, not just someone who gets more minutes or bounces back to levels from previous seasons. Sabrina Ionescu, for example, obviously took a step forward this season. And that step from really good to genuine star can be the hardest one to make. But in a lot of ways, most of what she did was show up more often and more consistently. We'd seen these skills and these performances before, but this year they happened more frequently and she stayed healthy.
It's a similar story for Kelsey Plum. She'd never been this good, for this many minutes, over this extended a period before. There's huge value in being able to do the same good things equally efficiently over a greater span of time, but it's not what I'm primarily looking for in order to be 'most improved'. You already had these skills - you've just been able to showcase them on a more consistent basis.
So then we come to Jackie Young. If you look at her numbers, they're actually remarkably similar to previous years in many categories. In many ways, she's been the same useful player. But what a huge improvement in one area, and what a vital improvement it can be. After barely even being willing to take three-pointers in previous seasons, because she knew her range only realistically extended to 15 feet, this year she exploded from outside. 50-for-116 put her at 43.1% from three-point range, among the league leaders in accuracy while in the top-30 in attempts. It was a remarkable improvement, and made a huge difference to Las Vegas's perimeter play. No longer do they rotate the ball off movement knowing that Young will have to drive back into traffic or take two dribbles to turn a wide-open three into a contested two. She just fires with confidence.
There have been so many players over the years where we've all watched them saying "if only she could shoot" or "I wish she would move behind the arc for those jumpers", only for the same shots to go up season after season. Young knew what she needed to improve, and went away and did it.
Pick: Jackie Young
Coach of the Year
Tanisha Wright is the name creating debate here this year. It's impossible to deny that Atlanta performed beyond expectations. That's typically the biggest factor in deciding Coach of the Year. In her first season as a head coach, Wright took a group that everyone predicted to be battling with Indiana for last place to the brink of the playoffs, despite plenty of injuries and absences along the way. She also played a key role in changing the whole culture and atmosphere around the Dream, a franchise in desperate need of a reset after recent years.
The question is whether you're willing to give the award to the coach of a team that finished 14-22 and missed the playoffs. There are certainly other candidates, with Becky Hammon making meaningful changes in Las Vegas while finishing with the No. 1 seed, James Wade rolling last year's championship into a much stronger regular season this year in Chicago, and Curt Miller having another successful season in Connecticut. The fact that those three all finished within a game of each other in the standings probably helps Wright. They're all perfectly reasonable picks but none leaps out of the pack. I'm happy to vote for Wright despite the losing record. The Dream weren't supposed to be anywhere near this good.
Pick: Tanisha Wright
Executive of the Year
There are plenty of options here. James Wade brought the key pieces of the band back together in Chicago for another run. Mike Thibault made something of a gamble trade that's now looking positive thanks to the play of Austin and the collapse of the Sparks. Dan Padover's moves to hire Tanisha Wright, move up in the draft and retain most of his cap space for 2023 are looking smart.
However, my pick is Natalie Williams in Las Vegas, or at least the combination of Williams and whoever counted as Aces GM before she arrived in April. The vote is largely for the way they're set up to go into the future. Yes, they're a major contender to win the title in 2022, but most of that work was done before this year. Over the last eight months they re-signed Wilson (convincing her to sign for two years, rather than the single season that would've allowed her to get the supermax in 2023); signed Young to an extension before the deadline which immediately looked like a steal; then added further extensions with Gray, Plum and Dearica Hamby that are all below what might well have been on offer from other teams in free agency. Obviously, they're helped by the amount of money that Mark Davis has been willing to spend on this team, creating a place where players want to be and feel valued. But that has to translate through the whole franchise as well, and lead to these deals.
They're a contender in 2022, but unlike most of their competition, they're already set up to remain that way in upcoming years as well.
Pick: Natalie Williams (and other Aces personnel)