College basketball: Top five player of the year candidates
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are clear front-runners.
As we approach the midway point of the WNBA regular season, the Chicago Sky have risen to the top spot in our power rankings. Sitting one game back of the Las Vegas Aces in the standings, the Sky made up ground last week while the Aces lost two consecutive games for the first time this season, including to Chicago.
Also this week, all eyes were on the Valley as Tina Charles and the Phoenix Mercury mutually agreed to part ways in an unusual midseason contract divorce. The Mercury responded to the adversity of losing a key starter halfway through the season with an 83-72 win over the Dallas Wings the same day and an 83-71 win over the Indiana Fever on Monday night.
While the Washington Mystics remain inconsistent, their 87-86 road victory over the Aces was their best win of the season. At 12-9 and No. 5 in the standings, they’ve positioned themselves to remain in striking distance despite missing their top scorer for eight games so far. When Elena Delle Donne is on the floor, leading their offense at 15.6 points per game, the Mystics have as good a shot of contending for and in the playoffs as any team.
After a tough loss to the last-place Indiana Fever, the Sky bounced back last week, finding a rhythm and confidence with their production on the floor and setting some new records in the process. Chicago has now won three in a row, most notably a comeback 104-95 win over the top-seeded Aces and a 82-59 win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
In that game in Los Angeles last Thursday, Candace Parker finished with 10 points, 10 assists and 14 rebounds. The two-time WNBA champion became the first player in league history to record three triple-doubles, the first to record multiple triple-doubles in the same season and the second to record a triple-double in just three quarters.
Alongside Parker, Courtney Vandersloot has elevated her play and production in the last three games, averaging 19.3 points compared to just 11.2 points through the first 15 games of the season. Vandersloot continues to be one of the league’s best facilitators, but recently she has become more aggressive with her own shot selection and at hunting opportunities to take two additional shots per game. Her percentages have increased significantly as a result, with the guard shooting an impressive 65.7 percent from the field and 57 percent from 3-point range.
The increased production earned her Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday for the seventh time of her career. Take a look at Vandersloot’s numbers from the last three games compared to the first part of the season:
First 15 games vs. last three games
PPG: 11.2 — 19.3
APG: 7 — 5
RPG: 4.2 — 3.6
FG %: 43.3 — 65.7
3-point %: 34.2 — 57.1
Shot attempts: 9.5 — 11.6
3-point attempts: 2.3 — 4.6
On Sunday night, Vandersloot played the hero when she hit a buzzer-beating 3 to lift the Sky over the Minnesota Lynx 88-85. The sideline out-of-bounds play the Sky ran to win the game epitomizes the creativity and confidence Vandersloot is playing with right now.
In the play outlined above, we see Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman come together to set an elevator screen for Rebekah Gardner to run through (think of it like the two closing doors of an elevator). Allie Quigley inbounds the ball to Gardner, and at the same time, Messeeman screens for Vandersloot, who rolls off the action and quickly gets the ball back.
On the backside of this action, Quigley baits the defense and causes Kayla McBride to hesitate, while Parker sets an effective back screen to open up Quigley, who’s cutting to the corner. While the ball never finds that side of the floor, the backside action is important because it helps occupy the Lynx’s defense. The play did not directly result in the open shot Vandersloot took to win the game, but the complexities of the action combined with the Sky’s constant movement and screening positioning kept the Lynx scrambling and allowed Chicago to create an open look.
While the Sparks haven’t exactly overwhelmed anyone with their 7-11 record and 10th place in the standings, Nneka Ogwumike has been a bright spot for a team that still has a lot to figure out.
Ogwumike is putting up some of the best numbers of her career, leading the Sparks in scoring at 18.2 points per game and rebounding at 7.4 per game. Her scoring average is the third-best mark of her 11-year career, and her 57.8 shooting percentage from the field is the second-best.
The Sparks have found ways to get Ogwumike 15-20 touches in the paint per game, and from there, the former MVP has done what she does best — run the floor, take advantage of positioning and get to her sweet spots in the paint to be a highly efficient and productive scorer. In the Sparks’ biggest win of the season over the Seattle Storm last week, Ogwumike also had arguably her best game, finishing with 24 points on 12-for-18 from the floor.
A two-game skid shouldn’t set off any alarm bells, especially when the losses come against two other potential contenders. Before last week, the Aces had an 8-1 record at home. Then, they dropped two in a row in Las Vegas — a 104-95 overtime loss to the Sky and a 87-86 loss to the Mystics.
In the Sky game, the Aces rode a 24-4 run to a 62-51 halftime lead, scoring 41 points in the first quarter alone. The Sky clawed back by erasing a 28-point deficit, setting a new record for the largest comeback in league history. The Aces’ shooters turned cold and the team scored just 11 points in the third quarter, while Chicago seized the opportunity to go on an 18-0 run.
The Mystics have been the most potent defensive team in the WNBA this season, allowing a league-low 76 points per game. While Las Vegas has led the league in scoring all season, offensive production was not necessarily the issue in the overtime loss. The Aces struggled to stop Washington’s duo of Delle Donne and Alysha Clark, who combined for 39 points. The Aces have relied on their offense all season, but when they go cold for long stretches, they have to find a way to get consistent defensive stops and tip the scales back in their favor.
Las Vegas got back into the win column with a 79-73 victory over the Sparks on Monday night. While they tapped into their depth with the return of Riquna Williams and more minutes for Iliana Rupert, consistent contributors A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum combined for 54 of their points.
They’ll have have an opportunity to prove themselves even further in a tough swing of road games, one against the Storm and a back-to-back series against the Lynx.
Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.
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