Despite a two-week extension due to COVID-19 delays and a current military conflict in Eastern Europe, the EuroLeague regular season has officially wrapped up, the playoffs are set and several WNBA stars are in contention for league MVP.
While WNBA players who were competing in Ukraine, such as the Washington Mystics’ Ariel Atkins, have safely returned home after Russia invaded Ukraine last week, those posted in Russia and elsewhere in Europe remain abroad. As of Sunday night, several athletes in Russia were making plans to return stateside through their agents.
As the wartime situation unfolds, Jonquel Jones and Natasha Howard, both playing in Russia but on different teams, are on the list of MVP hopefuls and are set to face off in the first round of the playoffs in a best-of-three series starting March 8. Jones and Howard are joined by Kahleah Copper, Brionna Jones and Kayla McBride as those who have set themselves apart in EuroLeague action this season.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the top five WNBA candidates for MVP as they look to lead their teams to the EuroLeague championship game scheduled for April 10.
The 6-foot-6 Bahamian-Bosnian power forward, in her fourth consecutive season with Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, is striving to match Breanna Stewart’s 2018-19 feat by following up the WNBA MVP crown from the fall with EuroLeague MVP honors in the spring. Jones is tied with Howard for the most double-doubles this season with seven and is averaging 17.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. She’s first in the league in both overall shooting percentage (62.3 percent) and second in average efficiency per game (23.5).*
📊 24 PTS | 10 REB in 22 minutes@jus242 is sending a message to the rest of the league ahead of the Quarter-Finals! 😤#EuroLeagueWomen pic.twitter.com/G4XlBbP5en— EuroLeague Women (@EuroLeagueWomen) February 23, 2022
📊 24 PTS | 10 REB in 22 minutes@jus242 is sending a message to the rest of the league ahead of the Quarter-Finals! 😤#EuroLeagueWomen pic.twitter.com/G4XlBbP5en
On a stacked UMMC roster that includes Brittney Griner, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Emma Meesseman, Jones has had to improve her accuracy in order to rise above the rest. One factor working against Jones in the MVP race is that she missed a couple of games at the start of the overseas season. Still, the fact that she’s followed up her stellar WNBA MVP season with a solid run at the EuroLeague equivalent speaks volumes to what her WNBA colleagues have known for some time: Jones is the real deal.
It also aligns with her “win now” mentality. After receiving the Connecticut Sun’s core designation guaranteeing her a one-year, $228,094 supermax deal, Jones agreed to a two-year deal for less than the supermax. Her team-first decision gave the franchise the cap space to bring back Courtney Williams, a player Jones believes is crucial to the Sun winning a championship in 2022.
The reigning WNBA Finals MVP has continued to shine over in Europe. After taking some time off after leading the Chicago Sky to a WNBA championship in October, Copper joined Perfumerias Avenida and has been a dominant force with the Spanish club.
Through eight games, Copper is leading her team in scoring, rebounding and efficiency. Her 23.3 points per game also lead the league by a large margin (Brionna Jones is in second at 20.9 points per game), and she’s earned it while maintaining a 54.2 shooting percentage, seventh best in the league. Her 21.5 efficiency is tied for fifth overall, proving she’s doing her part on the defensive end while minimizing turnovers.
📊 32 PTS | 7 REB@kahleahcopper was born to be unstoppable in basketball.@CBAvenida | #EuroLeagueWomen pic.twitter.com/hltDm8OlhS— EuroLeague Women (@EuroLeagueWomen) February 24, 2022
📊 32 PTS | 7 REB@kahleahcopper was born to be unstoppable in basketball.@CBAvenida | #EuroLeagueWomen pic.twitter.com/hltDm8OlhS
Copper’s claim to the 2022 EuroLeague MVP trophy faces the same problem as Jones’ since she has played only eight games, while other stats leaders are now at 13 or 14 games apiece. Still, it’s fun to speculate whether the WNBA’s seventh overall draft pick from 2016, who exploded into the national spotlight last season, could have maintained these numbers if she’d played the full season this year. Her Avenida team is a solid bet to make it to the EuroLeague championship game, so we could still get the pleasure of watching her earn another Finals MVP award.
Kayla McBride, averaging 19.3 points per game in 14 EuroLeague games, was the league’s leading scorer for the majority of the regular season until Copper and Brionna Jones very recently caught up to her. She’s tied for 10th overall in average efficiency with 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. The three-time WNBA All-Star played on four different European squads before joining Fenerbahce in Turkey last season and returning this year.
The former Notre Dame sharpshooter spent her first seven WNBA seasons with the Las Vegas Aces (previously the San Antonio Stars) before being traded last offseason to the Minnesota Lynx. Head coach Cheryl Reeve worked McBride into her system right away and she was the only player to start all 32 games for the Lynx last year. Across the water, McBride and her Fenerbahce teammates, including Elizabeth Williams, Satou Sabally and back-to-back reigning EuroLeague MVP Alina Iagupova, secured their spot in the playoffs as the top team in Group B.
In addition to leading all scorers for most of the year, the 5-11 guard joined the exclusive 50-40-90 club by shooting 54.7 percent from 2, 46.7 percent from 3, and 97.4 percent on free throws. Joining the 50-40-90 club is easier to do in the EuroLeague’s 14-game regular season than when Elena Delle Donne did it in 31 games in the 2019 WNBA regular season, becoming the first player in the league to achieve the feat before leading the Mystics to their first WNBA championship. Despite the asterisk, a 50-40-90 season gives McBride a strong case to win EuroLeague MVP.
The WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2021 is the third WNBA award-winner from last season who has carried the momentum into Europe this winter. Currently first in the EuroLeague with a 24.1 average efficiency rating and fourth with a 60.1 total shooting percentage, Jones surpassed McBride to finish the season second in points per game at 20.9 while also snagging just under eight rebounds per game.
📊 32 PTS | 5 REB | 4 STL | 36 EFF@_bjones18 had herself a night as ZVVZ USK Praha finish the #EuroLeagueWomen Regular Season on a high note! pic.twitter.com/Vi6POgCaMW— EuroLeague Women (@EuroLeagueWomen) February 19, 2022
📊 32 PTS | 5 REB | 4 STL | 36 EFF@_bjones18 had herself a night as ZVVZ USK Praha finish the #EuroLeagueWomen Regular Season on a high note! pic.twitter.com/Vi6POgCaMW
Stateside, Jones has been with the Sun since they drafted her eighth overall in 2017 and earned her first WNBA All-Star appearance last season by putting up 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game alongside frontcourt teammate Jonquel Jones. Brionna Jones highlighted her strong showing this season for the Czech Republic’s Praha with a EuroLeague MVP honor for the month of December. Praha clinched their playoff berth weeks ago, giving Jones a chance to add to her rising stock.
Howard is the only EuroLeague MVP contender whose team was very much on the cusp of not qualifying for the postseason. Thanks in large part to Howard’s on-court efforts, Dynamo secured its playoff berth with a 2-0 head-to-head advantage over Group B’s Spar Girona.
Returning to Russia’s Dynamo Kursk after a half-season stint with the club in 2019, Howard has been surging in the second half of the season and was named EuroLeague’s MVP for the month of January. Currently tied for fourth with 19 points per game, and right on Jonquel Jones’ heels with a 22.5 average efficiency rating, Howard is leading all players in rebounding (11 per game) and is tied for first in double-doubles (seven). Coming off a knee injury that caused her to miss 15 games in 2021, her first season with the New York Liberty, Howard will ride the momentum of her MVP-caliber EuroLeague campaign into the WNBA season, where she’ll share the paint with free-agent signee Stefanie Dolson.
Points per game
1. Kahleah Copper
2. Brionna Jones
3. Kayla McBride
4. Natasha Howard
8. Jonquel Jones
Efficiency per game
1. Brionna Jones
2. Jonquel Jones
3. Natasha Howard
T5. Kahleah Copper
10. Kayla McBride
Rebounds per game
1. Natasha Howard
6. Jonquel Jones
12. Brionna Jones
36. Kahleah Copper
T44. Kayla McBride
Natasha Howard and Jonquel Jones (7)
Brionna Jones (2)
Kayla McBride (1)
*Efficiency is a total performance statistic that attempts to measure a player’s performance by adding positive actions (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) and subtracting negative actions (missed field goals, missed free throws and turnovers).
Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.