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JWS WNBA end-of-season awards: Our picks for MVP, Rookie of the Year and more

The No. 1 Connecticut Sun were up for a lot of end-of-season awards. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

The 2021 WNBA regular season is in the books, meaning it’s time to recognize those in the league who stood out above the rest.

In a 12-team league where roster spots are limited and individual talent becomes more concentrated every year, this exercise requires much observation and in-depth analysis.

Just Women’s Sports’ Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, Rachel Galligan and Hannah Withiam took on the challenge, making their picks and arguments for the WNBA’s end-of-season individual and team awards. What follows are our consensus picks for each major award as well as our individual choices and justifications.

Most Valuable Player

Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

(Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lyndsey: Jonquel Jones

With an average of 19.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, Jonquel Jones has been the most consistent and productive MVP candidate all season long. Yes, Brittney Griner has come on strong since the Olympic break and is averaging more points than Jones, but the way in which Jones impacts the game on both sides of the ball cannot be overstated. She leads the league with 7.3 win shares and 3.0 defensive win shares. Jones has had just one game this season where she scored fewer than 10 points (eight) and didn’t have a steal or a block, and she still managed to grab 10 rebounds. That’s MVP-level play.

Rachel: Jonquel Jones

No matter which way you slice it, from team success to individual skill to production, the WNBA MVP race comes back to Jones. The Sun forward finished the regular season with 18 double-doubles while averaging a league-leading 11.2 rebounds per game. She also shot 51.5 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from the 3-point line. Jones has evolved into a player capable of scoring in so many ways (she competed against guard Allie Quigley in the 3-Point Contest, after all), and she’s as dominant on the offensive end as she is on defense. Jones’ impact became even more obvious when she missed five games in June to compete in FIBA EuroBasket and the Sun went 2-3. There are cases to be made for Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles, but Jones finished a head above the rest.

Hannah: Jonquel Jones

In some years when the race comes down to multiple players who are valuable to their teams, you have to make the difficult choice between the best player in the league and the best player on the best team (see: A’ja Wilson versus Breanna Stewart in 2020). Jonquel Jones makes it easy this season because she carries both titles. The Sun haven’t lost a regular season game since July 3, riding a 14-game win streak to the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Jones is the biggest reason why, using her power to dominate opponents on the boards, her footwork to beat players off the dribble and her shooting stroke to hit more 3-pointers on more attempts than she has in any other season in her career.

Rookie of the Year

Michaela Onyenwere, New York Liberty

(Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

Lyndsey: Michaela Onyenwere

It wasn’t much of a competition stat-wise among rookies in the 2021 class. Onyewere landed in the right system, with the right coach and the right team, and she made the most of the opportunity. She won WNBA Rookie of the Month in June, July, August and September. That’s really all that needs to be said.

Rachel: Michaela Onyenwere

This was a no-brainer. Onyenwere was drafted into a situation in New York where the Liberty needed her to come in and compete right away. What impressed me the most about Onyenwere, outside of the efficient numbers and 12 double-digit scoring outings, was how comfortable she appeared on the court and how seamlessly she fit into the league. New York turned the ball over a league-worst 16.9 times per game this season, but Onyenwere has been one of the best ball handlers on the team while playing over 20 minutes per game.

Hannah: Michaela Onyenwere

The Rookie of the Year race wasn’t much of a competition this year. Only five first-year players averaged more than 10 minutes per game. Onyenwere led all rookies in minutes, points, rebounds and blocks per game, starting 29 of 32 for the Liberty. Onyenwere and her head coach, Walt Hopkins, both spoke last week about the improvements she’s made in matching the physicality of WNBA opponents and finishing through contact. The sixth overall pick was a steal on draft day and should be a strong contributor for years to come.

Coach of the Year

Curt Miller, Connecticut Sun

(Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Lyndsey: Cheryl Reeve

The Minnesota Lynx started off the season 0-4. Reeve was without her first-round draft pick, Rennia Davis, who suffered a leg injury in training camp. Free agent pickups Natalie Achonwa and Aerial Powers also went down with injuries early in the season. And Napheesa Collier didn’t join the team until three games in. The Lynx were out of sync and looking for answers until Reeve brought in Layshia Clarendon as a veteran presence to run the offense, and Sylvia Fowles took her game to another level defensively. Minnesota went on an eight-game winning streak and moved up steadily in the standings along the way.

Now, the Lynx (22-10) head into the playoffs as the No. 3 seed. They finished the regular season fourth in points scored per game with 82.7 and third in points allowed with 78.7. Reeve took the cards she was dealt and turned them into a winning hand with coaching savvy and smart roster moves. That deserves to be acknowledged.

Rachel: Curt Miller

Curt Miller made a decision before this 2021 season to keep his commitment to Alyssa Thomas and not suspend her contract in order to clear cap space while she recovered from an Achilles injury. As a result, the Sun rostered just 10 players for 95 percent of the season. Nearly every player on the team has improved and bought into what Miller and his staff have asked of them, most notably Natisha Hiedeman and Brionna Jones. Their defense is the best in the league, speaking to both the high standards Miller has set and the players’ ability to put the team above themselves. It’s no wonder they set a new franchise win-streak record at 14. Their defense gives them a legitimate chance to win a championship regardless of offensive struggles. That’s thanks to what Miller has built in Connecticut.

Hannah: Curt Miller

Few predicted the Sun to finish the year in the top five, let alone go 26-6 to earn the No. 1 seed outright. They were coming off a season in which they went 10-12 and rode Alyssa Thomas’ hot hand to the semifinals. This year, they were without Thomas, their leading rebounder and second-leading scorer in 2020, and with Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner teaming up for the first time since Jones sat out of the bubble season. Beyond their starting five, third-year guard Natisha Hiedeman had the most WNBA experience. Miller hit all the right notes to beat those odds, empowering Hiedeman and Brionna Jones to play the best basketball of their careers, setting Jonquel Jones up for greatness and guiding the best defensive team in the league to the best record in the league. That’s a Coach of the Year in my book.

Defensive Player of the Year

Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

(David Berding/Getty Images)

Lyndsey: Sylvia Fowles

If you look at the season stats as well as advanced stats on defense, Sylvia Fowles finished in the top three of almost every category. She’s tied for first in steals with 1.8, second in blocks with 1.8, third in defensive rebounds with eight, second in defensive player rating at 88.3 and tied for second in defensive win shares with 2.7. In her 14th season in the league, her ability to wear down opponents, force them into bad shots and dominate the paint is incredible. Her defensive play is a big reason Minnesota has been able to turn its season around and contend for yet another championship.

Rachel: Jonquel Jones

This was a tough decision between Sylvia Fowles and Jonquel Jones, who are the anchors of their respective teams’ defenses. Connecticut has been a powerhouse as the best defensive team in the league with the best defensive rating. The Sun’s ability to limit points in the paint is largely due to the rim protection, versatility and rebounding capabilities of Jones. The forward’s 11.2 rebounds per game leads the league, and the Sun would not be as successful as they have been defensively without her.

Hannah: Sylvia Fowles

Jonquel Jones has a strong case for this award as the most productive defensive player on the WNBA’s best defensive team. Sylvia Fowles, however, has helped turn the Lynx’s defense into a force without as much help around her. Fowles leads the team with 10.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. The next closest player is Napheesa Collier with 6.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Fowles is the main reason Minnesota allowed a third-best 78.7 points per game during the regular season and a fourth-best 32.8 points in the paint per game, guiding the Lynx to the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

Sixth Woman of the Year

Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas Aces

(M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lyndsey: Kelsey Plum

The Sixth Woman of the Year Award could have easily gone to Dearica Hamby, again. Her numbers off the bench are consistently strong and she makes an immediate impact on the game whenever she steps on the court. But her teammate, Kelsey Plum, has been just as valuable if not more, especially during the second half of the season. Plum is averaging 14.8 points off the bench and is in the top 20 in the league in assists with 3.6 per game. Her game has evolved and her 3×3 gold-medal win with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics has clearly boosted her confidence. Plum is also an asset in late-game situations, shooting 94.4 percent from the free-throw line, which is second in the WNBA.

Rachel: Kelsey Plum

Kelsey Plum made a major leap this season in her confidence and edge on the court, especially as the season went on. While sitting out in 2020 to recover from an Achilles injury, Plum worked on her mental game, studied and elevated her professional career to new heights. Her numbers speak for themself: She’s averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game, shooting high percentages, hunting opportunities to score and being more aggressive offensively. Despite missing part of the season with USA Basketball, Plum has come on late, averaging 21.7 points per game in September. Anyone who has followed Plum’s career since college knows she has the ability to take over games, and that identity is shining through in her fifth WNBA season.

Hannah: Kelsey Plum

It says something about the Aces that the two runaway candidates for this award both come off their bench. While Dearica Hamby, the two-time winner of this award, was as consistent as ever this season, Kelsey Plum helped change games for the second-place Aces with her shooting and playmaking. The guard finished second on the team with 38.6 percent shooting from the 3-point line, just behind deep-ball specialist Riquna Williams, and second with 3.6 assists per game, trailing only Chelsea Gray, who’s one of the best distributors in the league. Plum cemented her case for the award by closing out the season with seven straight double-digit scoring performances.

Most Improved Player

Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun

(M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lyndsey: Brionna Jones

Brionna Jones was already trending upwards last season, when she made the leap from averaging 8.4 minutes per game in 2019 to 26.1 minutes and 11.2 points per game in 2020. The increase in her minutes was due in part to Jonquel Jones opting out of the bubble. And even though Jonquel is back in the lineup this season, Jones has continued to improve at every level. She’s averaging 30.6 minutes, 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and has become one of the most efficient players in the league with 6.5 win shares (third overall) and a 22.2 player efficiency rating (eighth). If Jones is on a different team, those numbers are good enough to put her in the MVP conversation.

Rachel: Brionna Jones

Besides the Connecticut Sun staff, who expected Brionna Jones to be having this dominant of a season? Playing alongside Jonquel Jones, she’s seized the opportunity and solidified herself as one of the most consistent bigs in the league. Jones’ efficiency has been most impressive, with her improving from averaging just 3.5 points per game in 2019 to 14.7 in 2021. Her field-goal percentage of 57.1 ranks fourth in the league, and her average points, rebounds, free-throw percentage, assists and minutes have all improved this year.

Hannah: Brionna Jones

In the end, these awards races didn’t present much competition, and the battle for Most Improved wasn’t any different. Brionna Jones didn’t play more than 10 minutes per game in each of her first three seasons with the Sun from 2017-19. Now on the best team in the league, with the most representatives on JWS’ All-WNBA Teams, Jones took another massive leap this season and separated herself as not only the most improved player but also one of the most valuable. Third in win shares, Jones finished the season ahead of Sylvia Fowles, A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and teammate DeWanna Bonner in that category.

WNBA First Team

Jonquel Jones F
Breanna Stewart F
Brittney Griner C
Skylar Diggins-Smith G
Jewell Loyd G

Brittney Griner (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The official WNBA ballot requires voters to select two forwards, one center and two guards to the All-WNBA teams. As play in the league has become more positionless over the years, this requirement often means some of the best players get boxed out due to positional conflicts, especially this season when bigs dominated with their versatility. It also leaves room for technicalities, such as Tina Charles being listed as a forward on the Mystics’ starting lineup releases but as a center on every other official roster and box score. With all that said, this is our best attempt at selecting the players most deserving of recognition while meeting the requirement.

Lyndsey: Jonquel Jones F, Breanna Stewart F, Brittney Griner C, Skylar Diggins-Smith G, Jewell Loyd G

Rachel: Jonquel Jones F, Breanna Stewart F, Sylvia Fowles C, Skylar Diggins-Smith G, Jewell Loyd G

Hannah: Jonquel Jones F, Breanna Stewart F, Brittney Griner C, Skylar Diggins-Smith G, Jewell Loyd G

WNBA Second Team

A’ja Wilson F
Brionna Jones F
Sylvia Fowles C
DeWanna Bonner G
Courtney Vandersloot G

A'ja Wilson (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Lyndsey: A’ja Wilson F, Brionna Jones F, Sylvia Fowles C, DeWanna Bonner G, Courtney Vandersloot G

Rachel: A’ja Wilson F, Brionna Jones F, Brittney Griner C, DeWanna Bonner G, Arike Ogunbowale G

Hannah: A’ja Wilson F, Tina Charles F, Sylvia Fowles C, DeWanna Bonner G, Courtney Vandersloot G

All-Rookie Team

Michaela Onyenwere F
DiDi Richards F
Charli Collier C
Aari McDonald G
Dana Evans G

Lyndsey: Michaela Onyenwere F, DiDi Richards F, Bernadett Hatar C, Aari McDonald G, Destiny Slocum G

Rachel: Michaela Onyenwere F, DiDi Richards F, Charli Collier C, Aari McDonald G, Dana Evans G

Hannah: Michaela Onyenwere F, DiDi Richards F, Charli Collier C, Aari McDonald G, Dana Evans G

All-Defensive Team

Breanna Stewart F
Jonquel Jones F
Sylvia Fowles C
Brittney Sykes G
DeWanna Bonner G

Lyndsey: Breanna Stewart F, Jonquel Jones F, Sylvia Fowles C, Brittney Sykes G, DeWanna Bonner G

Rachel: Breanna Stewart F, Jonquel Jones F, Sylvia Fowles C, Brittney Sykes G, Briann January G

Hannah: Jonquel Jones F, Breanna Stewart F, Sylvia Fowles C, Brittney Sykes G, DeWanna Bonner G