Awards season is just around the corner as the WNBA regular season wraps up, and the hardware up for grabs is a tight race as many players have stepped up to make an impact for their team.
Though nothing is set in stone, each award has seemingly found its winner as teams take playoff shape, and these players will be ones to watch during the post-season.
Most Valuable Player – Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun
Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones, left, celebrates after her basket during the first half of Game 5 of basketball’s WNBA Finals against the Washington Mystic. (Alex Brandon/AP)
To have one of the biggest impacts on a team while missing a month’s worth of play during EuroBasket is not something many players could do, but JJ made it look easy. Leading the league in double-doubles, Jones is an unstoppable force on the floor. Even Seattle Storm veteran Sue Bird mentioned during the Commissioner’s Cup that with JJ on the floor, an entire team’s game plan has to change.
The Sun have won 13 straight regular season games since coming back from the Olympic Break, and have relied heavily on Jones for much of their success. Though the Sun is a very well-rounded team, star Alyssa Thomas made her return for the first time this season against New York while Brionna Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Jasmine Thomas have been showing up for Connecticut all season, the 19.5 points and 11.3 rebounds on 52 per cent shooting that Jones has contributed this season has been the biggest factor in the league-leading Sun’s success.
She can shoot from anywhere on the floor and is a threat no matter where she has the basketball which makes her basically impossible to stop. A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart are still top candidates for the award, but it looks like Jones has separated herself from the pack.
Most Improved Player – Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun
Connecticut Sun’s Brionna Jones (42) shoots against Indiana Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell (0) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game. (Darron Cummings/AP)
The Sun may be coming up big this awards season with not one but two winners, as Brionna Jones has made her case as to why she should follow up Betnijah Laney’s 2020 campaign for the MIP award.
Jones has been working towards this since 2020 though, when her MVP-candidate teammate Jonquel Jones opted out of the “wobble” season, and when many players on the Sun were working through injury and hardship that came with the season, Jones stepped up and tripled her minutes and points per game average, which saw her find a more secure role coming into the 2021 campaign.
Using that stepping stone to her advantage, the numbers Jones has put up this season, playing on a team filled with a lot of talented and versatile players, the case has been made for Jones to earn the award. Averaging 14.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, on top of stellar defence that is all around on the Sun, Jones has refined her game to become one of the league’s best.
Despite already having a massive season last year, Jones is still averaging an extra two points and two rebounds more than before, and, recently, she’s come up with three double-double performances in a row to help lift the Sun over tough squads like Las Vegas and Washington and inch Connecticut closer to the double-bye in the playoffs.
Defensive Player of the Year – Brittney Sykes, Los Angeles Sparks
Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes, left, blocks a shot by Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner during the first half of a WNBA basketball game, Saturday, July 25, 2020, in Ellenton, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
Though Los Angeles is fighting tooth and nail to secure a final playoff spot after going on a six-game losing streak in August that allowed Washington to catch up, Brittney Sykes has been one of the best defensive players on the court for her team this season. With a net defensive impact rating of plus-8.6, she has helped lead her team to a top three defensive rating in the league.
Contributing to her stalwart on-ball defence is Sykes’ uncanny ability to swipe at the ball as she’s the top steals leader in the league, coming away with 1.8 per game and a total of 56 on the season.
The Sparks are the only team in 12 seasons that have had the worst offence yet still rank in the top three defensively, which speaks to how Sykes’ defence has kept the Sparks in many close games.
Both Jonquel and Brionna Jones from the Sun as well as Brianna Turner and Brittney Griner from Phoenix are in the running for the award, but as those teams split their defensive duties it’s hard to decipher who is making a bigger impact, whereas Sykes’ impact for the Sparks is above and beyond anyone on the rest of her team.
Sixth Woman of the Year – Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas Aces
Las Vegas Aces’ Kelsey Plum reaches for the ball during the first half of a WNBA basketball game. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
It seems evident that this award will be going to someone on the Aces regardless, just whether or not it will be going to Kelsey Plum or two-time award winner Dearica Hamby.
Hamby’s season hasn’t looked much different than her 2020 game did, though she has tightened up many parts of her game including long range shooting and has become one of the most reliable players for Las Vegas.
As for Plum, coming off missing the 2020 season due to a torn Achilles, she had usually been a starter on the team before comfortably fitting into a bench position. Scoring 14.3 points per game while still shooting 38.2 percent from the three-point line – a specialty of her – Plum’s defence has also made a case for why her impact off the bench is a league-best.
Rookie of the Year – Michaela Onyenwere, New York Liberty
New York Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere (12) shoots the ball while being blocked by Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones (35) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game Sunday, July 11, 2021, in New York. (Brittainy Newman/AP)
This year’s rookie class has seen a lot of ups and downs, with the first-overall pick Charli Collier only averaging 12.3 minutes per game, leaving the door wide open for New York Liberty rookie Michaela Onyenwere to take the title as she had to step up into a big role in New York – and she understood the assignment.
The only rookie averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Onyenwere has also played 200 more minutes than any other rookie, leading her first-year class in scoring (8.7 per game), is currently also leading in field goals made for rookies (89) and is second in total rebounds (90). A versatile defender, Onyenwere is most likely guarding some of the league’s best and is slowly finding her rhythm on the boards, tallying her first double-double against Minnesota with an 11-point, 10 rebound performance.
Her 18-point debut for the Liberty should have been the signifier that the rookie was destined for big things this season, but on a team with 2020 first-overall pick Sabrina Ionescu and 2020 MIP Laney, Onyenwere still can be a starter or come off the bench and make a big impact for New York.