WNBA

Who Are the Way-Too-Early WNBA MVP Contenders?

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Numerous legends have claimed the WNBA’s illustrious Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award, from the likes of Lisa Leslie to Maya Moore.

Last year we saw A’ja Wilson prevail over the rest, receiving the honor for the second time in her young career. Now, with the 2023 WNBA season right around the corner — and an abundance of talent spread around the league — let’s take a look at who this year’s top contenders are.

In the WNBA’s 26 seasons, the MVP award has only been won by a player on a team that did not finish in the top three of the regular-season standings four times. The last player to do so was Candace Parker in 2008. Therefore, this article will primarily focus on players whose teams are projected to finish at the top of the standings.

Without further ado:

A’ja Wilson

Wilson, the reigning MVP, exerts her dominance on both sides of the floor, as she also earned Defensive Player of the Year last season. The first time a player won both awards in the same season since Lauren Jackson in 2007.

During her MVP campaign, the Las Vegas star averaged 19.5 points on 50.1% shooting to go along with 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.9 blocks (led the league) per game.

At 6-5, Wilson’s athletic build combined with a relentless motor allows her to dominate the paint. On offense, she has great footwork and finishes through contact with ease. On defense, she serves as a looming threat due to her exceptional shot-blocking ability.

Since her days at South Carolina, Wilson has always been a great back-to-the-basket player. In recent years, however, she evolved her game to meet the current climate of basketball. A type of basketball where “traditional” centers are rare.

Her midrange and pull-up game improved considerably and she’s also stretched her game out to the three-point line. In Wilson’s first four seasons in the WNBA, she attempted only two three-pointers. In the 2022 season alone she took 83, making an admirable 37.3% of those treys.

If Wilson can slightly improve her scoring numbers — a stat in which she trailed behind Breanna Stewart (the other top MVP candidate last season) by 2.3 points per game — there’s no reason she can’t repeat.

Breanna Stewart

If there were a modern-day counterpart to the famed warrior of Greek mythology, Achilles, it would be Stewart.

The Greek legend was practically invincible except for one weak spot — his heel — or what we now know as the Achilles tendon. The same could be said for Stewart. There’s nothing she can’t do on the basketball court. At 6-4 with a 7-1 wingspan, the 2018 MVP and two-time Finals MVP is quite the unicorn.

The only thing that’s held her back is two Achilles injuries. In 2019 the Seattle star ruptured her Achilles tendon playing overseas, causing her to miss the 2019 WNBA season. Then, at the end of the 2021 regular season, she injured her other (left) Achilles and missed the playoffs.

Stewart, however, bounced back with a vengeance. She stood neck and neck with Wilson all season long in the 2022 MVP race. Stewie led the league with 21.8 points per game on 47.2% shooting. She also averaged 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.

With her sizable wingspan and a high release point, Stewart’s shot is virtually unguardable. Additionally, there’s a certain finesse and flow to her game that is nearly impossible to disrupt when she’s locked in.

To go along with considerable range — shooting 37.9% from beyond the arc on 177 attempts — she also has a nice touch around the rim. Although, the mid-range shot is her quintessential move.

Stewart is also an exceptional defensive player and a member of the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team last year. If there’s one skill that Stewart excels at, however, it’s winning. At UConn, she won a record-breaking four-consecutive national championships. And she’s already won two WNBA championships in 2018 and 2020.

Seattle fell short to Wilson’s Aces in the semifinals of last year’s playoffs. The Storm fell in four of a possible five-game series, ending Sue Bird‘s career. But with Stewart now back in her home state of New York surrounded by stars Jonquel Jones and Sabrina Ionescu, it may be the perfect recipe to once again rise to the top of the podium.

Chelsea Gray

Last season, Gray had perhaps the greatest individual playoff run in WNBA history.

The “point gawd” shot an incredible 61% from the field in the post-season (including 54% from three) to go for 21.7 points per game. She also averaged seven assists, helping lead Las Vegas to its first-ever title. Gray was named Finals MVP, elevating her game at exactly the right time. If there’s a clutch gene, she certainly has it.

In a league with a plethora of quick-footed and explosive guards, Gray does not quite match that criterion, rarely blowing by her opponents. Rather, she uses elite ball-handling skills including a killer crossover to create space.

Defenses may try but they’re rarely able to prevent her from getting to her spots. Once she gets there, it’s the final horn for opponents. Her pull-up game is nearly unstoppable and she’s also mastered the fade-away jumper. Ask anyone who watched the 2022 WNBA playoffs and they’ll say she simply couldn’t miss.

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Gray, now 30, is a successful veteran and won a title with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016. She commands the offense with composure and pace, rarely allowing the defense to speed her up. If the opponent schemes to lock down her scoring arsenal, she’ll find her teammates.

The champion seemingly has eyes in the back of her head, with her no-look and behind-the-back passes being the center of many a highlight reel.

Although her regular-season stats last year weren’t quite as impressive — 13.7 points and 6.1 assists per game — if she can carry over the momentum from her dominant playoffs showing, she’ll for sure be in the MVP conversation.

Alyssa Thomas

If there were a dark horse in this race, it would be Thomas.

While her offensive prowess alone won’t necessarily astonish you — averaging 13.4 points per game last season — the Connecticut Sun star does every little action to will her team to victory. At 6-2, the point-forward finished top five in the league in rebounds (8.2), assists (6.1), and steals (1.7) per game last season.

Like Gray, Thomas has extraordinary court vision, as her assist numbers demonstrate. She can facilitate from all positions on the floor and especially loves to create in transition. With a brawny build and a tendency to throw full-court passes, she could be likened to the Sun’s quarterback.

At first view, Thomas’s game looks quite unorthodox. Having suffered torn labrums in both of her shoulders, she’s altered her shot to adapt to the injury. One could equate her form to a shot-put release. The veteran forward is also ambidextrous, allowing her to finish and facilitate in numerous ways.

Few players embrace the physicality of the game as much as Thomas does. She’s earned herself the nickname “the engine” due to the sheer grit and toughness she plays with every night. One can observe that hustle effortlessly, as she is the league’s all-time leader in triple-doubles. All four of her triple-doubles came last season, including the first two in WNBA Finals history.

She’s also been on the WNBA All-Defensive first team once and the second team three times. Thomas finished second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year last season, trailing only behind A’ja Wilson. She also led the league in defensive win shares (2.6), per Her Hoop Stats.

Thomas’s game often falls underappreciated in comparison to the other stars due to her unconventional style of play. But if Connecticut can remain near the top of the standings, her name will be in the MVP mix.

Elena Delle Donne

Anyone who’s followed Delle Donne’s career knows it has been quite the adventure.

The two-time league MVP has battled Lyme Disease for over a decade and has dealt with chronic back issues. In an open letter released by the Player’s Tribune in 2020, Delle Donne shared that she takes 64 pills a day to deal with Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome.

Following a 2019 season where she led the Washington Mystics to its first-ever title and won MVP, she sat out the 2020 bubble season due to Lyme-related health concerns. She then played only three games in 2021 due to back problems.

The 6-5 phenom made her return last year — playing 25 out of 36 regular-season games while still nurturing her back — and had one hell of a season. The Delaware native averaged 17.2 points on 48% shooting as well as 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. Washington eventually fell short of Seattle in the quarterfinals.

Fast forward to February of this year when USA Basketball had its first camp in preparation for the Paris Olympics, and Delle Donne said she has had the “greatest offseason” of her career. With no back surgeries to recover from, she has been able to solely focus on her craft.

The last time we saw Delle Donne in top shape (2019) she achieved the WNBA’s first-ever 50-40-90 season, joining an elite club of players which includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. One could plausibly compare Delle Donne’s game to Nowitzki’s. Both have one of the smoothest shooting strokes you’ll ever see combined with a signature one-legged fade away. Like Stewart’s and Nowitzki’s, Delle Donne’s shot is fairly unguardable.

Washington could have a great season. Four of the five starters from the 2019 championship are currently under contract and they’re also helped by the inclusion of defensive-juggernaut Brittney Sykes, 2022 third-overall draft pick Shakira Austin, and Chinese superstar Li Meng. With Delle Donne leading the helm, the six-time All-Star is positioned to have her best season of the decade.

Jonquel Jones

In 2021 Jones joined Lauren Jackson as just the second international player to win MVP. The Bahamas native, aka the “Bahamian Beast” led the Connecticut Sun to a league-leading 26-6 record that year before falling short to the eventual-champion Chicago Sky in the semifinals.

During her MVP campaign, the 6-6 power forward averaged 19.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.

Last season (2022), Jones’s numbers saw a bit of a decline, averaging 14.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. Part of this was due to the incorporation of Alyssa Thomas back into the lineup, who had missed the 2021 season due to an Achilles tear. One could also attribute the dip to point-guard Jasmine Thomas — a great post-entry passer — missing nearly the entire season with a torn ACL.

Nevertheless, in a blockbuster trade, Connecticut sent Jones to the New York Liberty where she now has Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu as teammates. Vandersloot and Ionescu were number two and three respectively in assists per game last season. So, Jones can look forward to getting fed in the post consistently.

Make no mistake though, Jones is not solely a paint player. Back in a 2021 interview with Insider, Kevin Durant said that Jones “reminds me of myself with her length and how she shoots the ball. I’m a huge fan of her.” Both have guard-like skill sets but in a post-player’s body. They also stretch the floor with their mid-range and three-point shooting abilities.

Jones also separates from other forwards with her relentlessness on the glass. In 2017 she set a league record in rebounds per game with 11.85. A record that legend Sylvia Fowles broke a season later.

One caveat that may prevent Jones from entering MVP territory is the amount of talent on New York’s roster. With only one ball to go around, she likely won’t be afforded the same amount of field-goal attempts as she had at Connecticut.

Honorable mentions

Kelsey Plum: Plum was second in the league in scoring last year at 20.2 points per game. Although her offensive skillset and efficiency are top-notch — unless she can greatly increase her scoring output — there may not be enough else going on with her game to propel her into firm MVP candidacy— especially with two other MVP front-runners already on Las Vegas.

Brittney Griner: With Skylar Diggins-Smith’s playing status uncertain, it’s unclear how competitive Phoenix will be this year. However, fans still couldn’t be more excited to see Griner back in action. The eight-time All-Star is one of the most prolific scorers and rebounders in the league’s history.

Griner has been the topic of international news after being detained in Russia for ten months last year. BG has admitted that getting back into top form has been a difficult process. In a pre-season press conference for the Phoenix Mercury, she stated, “as an athlete, you always want to be where you left off and I left off playoffs – you know – Finals, Chicago. I wanted to be that player when I started back. Everybody is telling me to give myself grace and it’s gonna take time.”

There’s no doubt she’ll get back to prime game shape, it’s just a matter of when.

Sabrina Ionescu: On triple-double watch nearly every night, Ionescu is one of the top up-and-coming faces in the league. But with two former MVPs now playing alongside her, the former Oregon star will no longer be New York’s primary option.

WNBA training camp is underway and the regular season tips off on May 19th.

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About Ethan Arcata

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