WNBA MVP: Debating Breanna Stewart or A'ja Wilson for MVP, plus expert picks for every major award

Thursday, August 11, 2022

There is no bigger individual award in the WNBA than MVP, and the race for the honor for the 2022 season is once again between theLas Vegas Aces'A'ja WilsonandSeattle Storm'sBreanna Stewart, both of whom are seeking their second regular-season MVP.

Wilson turned 26 on Monday, while Stewart will be 28 later this month, so we will probably see this duo competing against each other for this honor for the foreseeable future. They were Olympic teammates last year and the top vote-getters and captains of this season's All-Star Game. In 2018, Stewart was the MVP and Wilson the Rookie of the Year. In 2020, they were the top two MVP candidates, with Wilson getting the nod. But Stewart was the WNBA Finals MVP as the Storm beat the Aces for the championship.

Both players are locks for the All-WNBA First Team, which starting this season is moving to a positionless format and no longer must consist of two forwards, a center and two guards.

A media panel votes on all of the WNBA honors except Executive of the Year.

The regular season winds down Sunday, and we've seen some impressive performances this summer, especially on the offensive end from teams and individuals, along with a playoff race that will go down to the wire. ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel -- who each vote as part of the media panel -- share their picks now for all the major awards, which the league will begin giving out Aug. 25 with Rookie of the Year.

Who's your pick for MVP?

Voepel: In a season with some great guard candidates, it's still likely to be a post player who takes this honor. For her overall play and impact, it's Seattle's Stewart, who was my preseason pick.

Wilson's Aces are already guaranteed to finish ahead of the Storm, regardless of how Sunday's regular-season finale (3 p.m. ET, ABC) between the two in Las Vegas turns out. That will be the teams' fourth meeting in 2022; the Aces currently lead 2-1. If Las Vegas makes it 3-1, that could seal the honor for Wilson.

She's a great choice, too. But efficiency tends to be something highly valued by a lot of the voters, and Stewart has an edge there, with a league-best Player Efficiency Rating of 29.4 to Wilson's 28.7. Wilson has added the 3-point shot to her repertoire this season, which is a great thing to see. Still, Stewart has hit a little more than twice as many 3s as Wilson.

Pelton: I'm also picking Stewart. Wilson is having the best season of her career, ahead of the 2020 bubble campaign when she edged Stewart for MVP, and would be a deserving winner as well. But Stewart has an edge in terms of advanced stats because of her slightly better efficiency on a larger share of the team's offense, as well as a superior assist rate and lower turnover rate. (Stewart's 2.4 assist-to-turnover rate wouldn't be bad for a guard, let alone a power forward.)

Philippou: As I alluded to in our midseason picks, this has been an agonizing decision for me. I am still torn between Stewart and Wilson and will likely wait until the last day of the season, when we get one final regular-season Stewart-Wilson battle, to cement my pick. I don't totally know how to square the fact that both Wilson and Kelsey Plum have cases for MVP, and whether that detracts from either/both cases. Some of this, too, comes down to the age-old MVP philosophy: Do you lean toward the player who makes the best (or one of the best) teams great? Or someone who does a ton with less help around them?

Since my colleagues picked Stewart, I'll offer an argument for Wilson: The way the 2020 MVP has expanded her game offensively (shooting 3s, and at a respectable clip at that!) and grown defensively into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, all while switching positions from the 4 to the 5 -- and adjusting to a new system under a new coach -- arguably makes her production this year all the more impressive.

Rhyne Howard is our unanimous pick for Rookie of the Year. What has impressed you most about her first season?

Philippou: Rhyne Howard's strong start to her pro career wasn't entirely shocking, but the way in which she has largely propelled theDreamwithin reach of making the postseason for the first time since 2018 -- and just the second time in six years -- is what's most impressive. She has, for the most part, been such a reliable force for Atlanta, which has had Tiffany Hayes for just 11 games and has been pretty banged up the last few weeks.

And while her scoring numbers and 3-point shooting get the most attention, Howard's ability to affect the game in so many way -- including on the defensive end and not captured on the stat sheet, her off-ball movement -- has translated well from the college level to pros, something that was also on display in last month's All-Star Game. The fact that, as a rookie, this could be the worst we see her as a pro has Atlanta and WNBA fans incredibly hyped for her future, and for good reason.

This sequence from last week's win over the Indiana Fever demonstrates exactly what I'm talking about:

Pelton: It's the defensive playmaking in particular that stands out to me. Howard is one of five players who have recorded at least two steals per 100 plays and blocked at least 2% of opponents 2-point attempts in 500-plus minutes, a group that also includes Defensive Player of the Year candidates Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson, All-Defensive pick Brittney Sykes and is rounded out by Emma Meesseman.

Voepel: Credit to Howard for coming to the WNBA so ready to go, and also to general manager Dan Padover and the Dream brain trust for making the trade to move up to No. 1 to pick her. They believed in Howard, and she has turned out to be exactly what they were hoping to get.

There isn't going to be a debate about this award, nor should there be. But the No. 2 draft pick, NaLyssa Smith, has played well for an Indiana team that will be in the lottery once again. She is the top rookie rebounder (8.1 RPG), which also puts her in the top 10 among all players. Smith has eight double-doubles for the last-place Fever.

The Washington Mysticswere willing to trade down from the No. 1 pick because they felt sure they could still get the player they wanted at No. 3, and they did in Shakira Austin. Her size and strength inside has been a big boost to Washington.

And we should mention the Chicago Sky's Rebekah Gardner, too, but with the caveat that while she is a WNBA rookie, the 32-year-old is a seasoned pro overseas. She has been a key reserve for the defending champion.

Who is your pick for Coach of the Year?

Philippou: If the Atlanta Dreammake the playoffs, I plan on voting for Tanisha Wright. For the Dream, under a first-year head coach, to make the postseason for just the second time in six years would be a significant accomplishment, especially given last year's roller-coaster summer, the limited availability of Hayes in 2022 and injuries to multiple other rotation players to conclude the regular season. There has been some talk about whether a coach with a losing record is a worthy Coach of the Year pick; that should be overlooked if Wright ushers the Dream into the playoffs.

If Atlanta misses out, things become a bit murkier. Depending on how things shake out with the Dream and other teams, Wright could still get my vote, or the nod might go to Becky Hammon, who has had an excellent first year in Las Vegas. James Wade probably deserves consideration, too, and he'd definitely get my Executive of the Year vote if I had one. He has an argument for Coach of the Year as well for helping the Sky look well within reach of becoming the first repeat champions since the Sparks did it in 2001-02.

Pelton: I'm going with Wright either way. Although Howard deserves a lot of credit for Atlanta's six-win improvement, I think much of it needs to go to the defensive turnaround under Wright. Ninth in defensive rating a year ago, the Dream have improved to fourth this season despite relatively limited rim protection. For me, Wade's best work came last offseason, but media doesn't vote for Executive of the Year. (The executives themselves choose that.)

Voepel: Raise your hand if you thought Atlanta would finish dead last this season (raises hand). Just the fact that the Dream are still in the playoff conversation in the last week of the season, let alone have a chance to make it, says a lot about Wright. She is a strong choice for this award, especially after the hot mess that the Dream seemed to be at season's end last year.

Hammon has had a really good season, too, and that should garner her some well-deserved votes. There were a lot of expectations for Hammon coming back to the WNBA as a head coach, and she has proved very much up to the task.

As for which coach will most need to decompress after this season, it is Vanessa Nygaard. So much has gone on in Phoenix, yet the Mercury could still be a playoff team. Either way, whenever the Mercury's season ends, Nygaard will probably feel like she has just gotten off a roller coaster that just wouldn't stop.

Who's your Most Improved Player? And what criteria do you consider when voting? Are former No. 1 draft picks weighed differently than other players?

Philippou: Young was my midseason pick for Most Improved and still gets my vote now. Ionescu is also a respectable choice, but it's more difficult to suss out how much of her "improvement" in 2021 vs. 2022 is true growth versus actually being healthy, which she has made clear she wasn't last year. And for this award I'm personally prioritizing the former. Young has transformed from a role player to a bona fide star in this league from last year to this summer, while adding new dimensions to her game (her 3-point shot, for example) and truly being a difference-maker on both ends of the floor.

I don't mind considering No. 1 picks because not all top overall picks are created equal (consider: Jackie Young, Sabrina Ionescu and Charli Collier were all drafted in consecutive years!).

Pelton: I don't generally like to put additional criteria into awards besides what's explicitly there. My thoughts on Young vs. Ionescu are similar to Alexa's. Although Ionescu's performance has almost certainly improved more than any other player this season, I think that's more a matter of being able to play up to the level she would have been at if healthy than actual improvement. By contrast, Young's development as a 3-point shooter is a clear example of offseason work translating into better play.

Voepel: Some voters might look at certain No. 1 picks as just fulfilling expected potential as they improve. As opposed to players further down the pecking order whose improvement is, perhaps, less anticipated. Others don't think of it that way at all. Thus, this is the most "eye of the beholder" award of any of the season honors, and there are good cases to be made for different players. It would actually be cool to have a "Most Improved" team of five players that could reflect the different ways one could assess improvement.

Alexa and Kevin have made a compelling case for Young, who had to remake her shot as a pro. You don't often see that be this successful, and she is to be commended. Young has spent the time needed for repetition, the only way you can accomplish this.

Ionescu being healthy is a big part of her improved numbers, which she herself says. Still, getting healthy and regaining strength and skill takes work, too. It's a toss-up between Ionescu and Young, and at this point I lean a bit toward Young specifically for her new success from behind the arc.

But Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham, the first pick of the second round in the 2019 draft, really does deserve consideration. Because the Mercury have been without Brittney Griner all season and Tina Charles left the team, Phoenix has had to rely on "small-ball," and Cunningham has thrived with greater playing time and a bigger role while being out of her standard position. She's averaging 29.4 minutes, 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds, all significant improvements over her previous three seasons. For Cunningham, more time on court has helped translate to improvement, but she has had to play well to take advantage of that opportunity. The Mercury would not still be in playoff contention without her.

Who is the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year?

Pelton: Wilson. I went back and forth between Stewart and Wilson, while also considering Jonquel Jones and Candace Parker. Ultimately, Wilson's dominance as a rim protector carried the day even though the Aces' defense hasn't been quite as stout as some of those teams.

Voepel: Wilson, too. Coach Becky Hammon hasn't always been pleased with the Aces' defense; in fact, it has driven her bonkers at times. But Wilson is the rock there. Neither Wilson nor Stewart have won this award yet, but one of them seems very likely to do so this year.

Philippou: Stewart will likely get my pick here as the centerpiece of such a strong defensive unit. Yes, she has many great defenders around her, but she still is doing so many good things on that end of the floor. I had a similar group to Pelton's that I was considering, plus Alyssa Thomas.

Who gets your vote for Sixth Player of the Year?

Philippou: Brionna Jones has had this award locked up pretty much all season. A former starter for two seasons, Jones now comes off the bench due to the Sun's embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt now that they finally have Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones back with the team. Brionna Jones' per-40 points per game mark is actually the highest of her career (21.5 in 2022 vs. 19.2 in 2021 and 17.1 the season prior), and she's still shooting at an efficient clip, hugely impactful on the defensive end and effective on the offensive glass. She was so critical to the Sun's success when Jonquel Jones and Thomas were out, and has continued to show her importance this year alongside them. Of lesser immediate importance: It will be fascinating to see what happens to Brionna Jones in free agency this offseason.

Pelton: Teaira McCowan has made a late push, but I agree that this has always been Brionna Jones' award to win as a rare reserve All-Star.

Voepel: Brionna Jones is a player who will make the most of every minute she gets on court and doesn't play any different as a starter or reserve; she is just that mature and team-oriented. She will get this honor. But let's also give a shoutout to two reserves on the league's leader and deepest team: Chicago'sAzura Stevensand Gardner have mostly come off the bench for the Sky and averaged a combined 19.1 points and 7.3 rebounds.

The league announced last week that it's shifting to a positionless format for its all-league teams. Which players are on your first team?

Pelton: Stewart, Wilson, Jonquel Jones, Candace Parker, Kelsey Plum.

Philippou: Wilson, Stewart and Plum were no-brainers. Then Parker is my next pick. And for the fifth and final selection, Sabrina Ionescu.

Voepel: Stewart, Wilson, Plum, Parker, Ionescu.

Who's the first player left off your All-WNBA First team since we aren't bound to positions? And is this new format a good change?

Pelton: Nneka Ogwumike was right there for me. Although there's a deep group of guards, including two on my second team and several others who would be on an imaginary third team, I think the frontcourt pool remains a bit better at the top, and moving away from positions gives us an opportunity to honor all of them.

Philippou: I also considered Skylar Diggins-Smith, but gave the nod to Ionescu following such a strong two-thirds of the season that featured some truly sensational basketball. I also thought about including Ogwumike on my first team, and didn't quite know what to do with Elena Delle Donne given her minutes compared to other players. These players could make my second team.

I still ended up going with two guards and three bigs. I like the flexibility to pick whichever players you want, although I do wonder if this new format will continue to favor frontcourt players given the league's evolution and what mold of players tend to dominate these days (for example, the Wilsons and Stewarts and Jonquel Joneses and Parkers).

Voepel: Ogwumike and Diggins-Smith could very easily be first-teamers and are hard to leave off. Going positionless makes sense because it doesn't box in the voters, who are still likely to think in terms of making sure backcourt and frontcourt are fairly represented.

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