A’ja Wilson for MVP, and more WNBA Awards picks

By Tamryn Spruill

Talent in the WNBA runs so deep that many teams have bench players who would start on other teams. With some of the league’s most familiar faces sitting out or having received medical exemptions for this season because of the coronavirus pandemic, under-the-radar players have seized their increased minutes as opportunities to shine. And while lesser-known players were compiling breakout seasons, some established stars were helping their teams win in unexpected ways.

The success these players created on the courts at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where the WNBA has played its season in a so-called bubble without fans, is a testament of their mettle in a most unusual year.

With the regular season over, here are my picks for the winners of the top season awards, plus a bonus award I created.

All statistics were current entering Sunday’s games.

Most Valuable Player: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

In a season of outstanding performances by the league’s stars, A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces stood out as an exemplar of the complete player. Powered by her basketball IQ and ready hands, she created shots for herself and others. Her 20.3 points per game have been critical to the team’s success. She also contributed 8.6 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game, more than anyone except Phoenix’s Brianna Turner. Plus, as a 6-foot-4-inch post player, she was remarkably light on her feet — spinning beautiful, even balletic, moves on the way to dropping in graceful left-handed layups.

Responsible for bringing a hairdresser into the IMG Academy bubble, Wilson was also surely deemed an MVP by her peers — and Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, whose shaggy hair in the early going kept his team, and fans, laughing.

Rookie of the Year: Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx

Not long into her rookie season, Crystal Dangerfield, a 5-foot-5-inch, 122-pound guard, made three things clear: first, she is not intimidated by the size and strength of her opponents; second, her speed matches the pace of WNBA play perfectly; and third, her fall to the second round in this year’s draft was an underestimation of her pro potential.

Dangerfield’s versatility and consistency made her an immediate asset for the dynastic, although retooling, Minnesota Lynx. In 30 minutes per game, she averaged 47.1 percent field-goal shooting, 33.3 percent 3-point shooting and 16.2 points per game. She also averaged 3.6 assists per game. Dangerfield can draw fouls, too, and converted an impressive 92.2 percent of her free throws. Her first-year highlights include a 29-point performance against the Aces.

Defensive Player of the Year: Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks

Candace Parker has always been well rounded, but she is revered more as an offensive threat. This season, 12 years into a surefire Hall of Fame career in which she has twice won the league MVP Award, Parker has carried the defensive load for the third-seeded Los Angeles Sparks. She averaged a league-leading 9.7 rebounds and recorded 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per outing, all while compromising little on offense (14.7 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field). Her 4.6 assists per game rank second for the Sparks behind Chelsea Gray’s 5.3 per game.

Parker accomplished these feats all while moonlighting as a basketball analyst for TNT. She pulled down double-digit boards in 12 games, including 17 last Thursday against the Washington Mystics, and recorded 10 double-doubles.

Most Improved Player: Angel McCoughtry, Las Vegas Aces

Brionna Jones (Connecticut Sun), Betnijah Laney (Atlanta Dream), Kahleah Copper (Chicago Sky), Jackie Young (Aces) and others have had breakout performances, with increased minutes bringing increased production. Angel McCoughtry, however, upgraded her production in fewer minutes per game and seemed to make an impact on almost every offensive and defensive possession for the Aces.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2009, McCoughtry signed with Las Vegas this year after a decade with Atlanta. In 2018, she led the Dream to the playoffs before sustaining a knee injury that caused her to miss the 2019 season. Now, with the Aces, she is blistering opponents with scoring efficiency well above her 2018 and career averages, and she is doing it in seven fewer minutes per game.

McCoughtry was already an elite player, but her improvement and the impact her efficiency has had on the Aces make her the undeniable, although unconventional, most improved player.

Sixth Woman of the Year: Dearica Hamby, Las Vegas Aces

No player reflects a blue-collar work ethic more than Dearica Hamby, who rose from the bench, rolled up her proverbial sleeves and sank 54 percent of her field goal attempts and 43.8 percent of her shots from beyond the arc. In 28 minutes per game, Hamby appeared to embrace the workhorse role assigned to her — keeping her head down and getting it done on both ends of the court for 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game.

Hamby was named sixth woman of the year in 2019. If honored again, she will be the first player since the Sky’s Allie Quigley (2014 and 2015) to repeat for the award.

Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year: Bill Laimbeer, Las Vegas Aces

When your 6-foot-9-inch All-Star center (Liz Cambage) isn’t playing because of the medical risks posed by the coronavirus, your zippy starting point guard (Kelsey Plum) tears her Achilles tendon weeks before the regular season and you still manage to secure one of the best records, you just may be on to something. Bill Laimbeer, coach of the Aces, definitely is.

Sure, he has the All-Star Wilson in his favor and Hamby consistently putting in gritty work off the bench. But he has had just 10 players suiting up this season, and he has used them wisely. Having Lindsay Allen start at the point guard position in limited minutes, and the 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jackie Young come off the bench in longer, energy-packed stretches, has helped the Aces avoid offensive stagnation.

As an executive, Laimbeer shored up the Aces’ depth by adding veteran Angel McCoughtry, whose reinvigorated play has been central to the team’s success. Bringing in guards Danielle Robinson and Sugar Rodgers further deepened the Las Vegas bench, with Robinson — amid a breakout season of her own — doing wonders with her passing, speed and ability to slice through seams.

With center Ji-Su Park opting out of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, Laimbeer lured Carolyn Swords out of her brief retirement. Swords has quietly adhered to her role of affecting every possession on both ends of the floor — similar to what Daniel Theis does for the NBA’s Boston Celtics — enabling her teammates to thrive.

Bonus Award: Social Justice Queen: Layshia Clarendon, New York Liberty

Layshia Clarendon signed with the New York Liberty in 2020 with the expectation of providing veteran leadership to a team with seven rookies. Off the court and in meeting rooms, she has been a vocal leader in support of equal rights for women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals.

As first vice president of the WNBA players union, Clarendon helped negotiate the league’s landmark collective bargaining agreement announced in January. And when it came to the season being played amid the coronavirus pandemic and social justice protests, Clarendon pushed for the season to be dedicated to initiatives supporting racial justice and the African American Policy Forum’s Say Her Name campaign, which focuses on Black women and girls affected by violence and police brutality. In an impassioned speech before the first game of the season, Clarendon said the season would be dedicated to Breonna Taylor and other Black women “who so often are forgotten in this fight for justice, who do not have people marching in the streets for them.”

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