WNBA midseason superlatives: MVP picks, biggest surprises and more

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The tides are shifting as the WNBA enters All-Star weekend, with teams like the Chicago Sky and Minnesota Lynx on hot streaks and others like the Las Vegas Aces that could use the break to reset.

Before the festivities begin in Chicago, Just Women’s Sports WNBA experts Rachel Galligan and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo got together to answer some questions about the league and hand out superlatives at the halfway point. Their discussion ranged from the frontrunners for team and individual hardware to the biggest surprises coming out of the offseason.

Which team has the best chance to win it all?

Galligan: Chicago Sky

This is a tough one because I think there is a case to be made for the Sky, Aces and Sun at this point in the season. But if I have to choose, based on how well the Sky are clicking right now — having won eight of their last 10 games — I am leaning toward a repeat in the Windy City. This is a veteran team that has a unique chemistry on the court. Candace Parker is playing some of the most well-rounded basketball of her career, Courtney Vandersloot looks like the best point guard in the league and the addition of Emma Meesseman has done wonders for their offense. What’s more, I still think this team can play even better as other players hit their strides.

D’Arcangelo: Chicago Sky

I’ve been all in on the Aces for a few weeks now, but it’s hard to ignore the Sky’s recent emergence as the frontrunner. Chicago leads the WNBA with 24 assists per game and is playing excellent team basketball overall. The offensive and defensive chemistry is palpable, and the Sky have one of the most experienced and deepest benches in the league. Bringing in Meesseman might end up being regarded as the best move of 2022 free agency. All of this adds up to a championship-caliber team on a mission for a repeat title, and it’s looking more and more like Chicago will be able to see it through.

Who is your midseason MVP?

Galligan: Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas Aces

The Aces guard has been putting up the best numbers of her career through the first half of the season. She is currently second in the league in scoring and leads the Aces at 19.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line. Plum plays more minutes than any other player on the Aces at 34 per game, and she has the ball in her hands the majority of the time. Plum’s scoring production is obvious, but it’s her ability to create, pass and facilitate — averaging 5.7 assists per game — that makes this team significantly better.

Kelsey Plum is having her best season across the board for the Aces. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

While there is an MVP argument to be made for a couple of Las Vegas players, Plum has been the engine that drives this team. The Aces wouldn’t be having nearly the same level of success without her on the court. Besides, it’s time for another guard to win WNBA MVP (the last to do it was Diana Taurasi in 2009).

D’Arcangelo: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

I agree with Rachel’s choice of Plum. She’s been unconscionable this season for the Aces. The confidence she’s showing with her shot is off the charts, and she can pick apart a defense with the precision of her dribbling and passing. But I also think A’ja Wilson is deserving. Her numbers on offense are similar to what we’ve seen from her in the past — 18.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Beyond that, for me, it’s what Wilson is doing on defense. She’s second overall with 2.1 blocks per game, tied for first with 1.2 block attempts and first with 8.1 defensive rebounds. Her performance on both ends of the floor is MVP-worthy in my book.

Which team has been the biggest disappointment?

Galligan: Minnesota Lynx

Back in the offseason, I expected the Lynx to be at least a top-five team based on how the roster was shaping up heading into Sylvia Fowles’ final season. And yet, nobody could have predicted the roster turnover the Lynx dealt with early in the season. From multiple injuries to parting ways with Angel McCoughtry, Layshia Clarendon and Odyssey Sims, and then adding and waiving players, the Lynx had a turbulent start to the WNBA season. The good news is, despite their 8-15 record and 11th place in the league standings, this team is starting to show some promise and consistency at the halfway mark. Entering the All-Star break having won five of their last seven games, the Lynx have the potential to make a run at the playoffs in the second half.

D’Arcangelo: Los Angeles Sparks

After bringing in Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter and Katie Lou Samuelson in the offseason, the Sparks looked like a contender on paper. But those forecasts don’t always translate to the court. The Sparks are currently in 10th place in the standings with a 7-11 record, and are operating under an interim head coach after the team moved on from Derek Fisher. Brittney Sykes recently told me that Los Angeles just needed time to get its on-court chemistry going, especially with Kristi Toliver now back in the lineup, and that the team is capable of making a playoff push. They’re on the right track after winning their last three games.

Which team has been the biggest surprise?

Galligan: Phoenix Mercury

Phoenix has gone from the WNBA Finals just 10 months ago to near the bottom of the standings in what feels like the blink of an eye. From an unexpected coaching change, to the heartbreaking situation with Brittney Griner, to chemistry concerns and Tina Charles leaving midseason, the Mercury have had to overcome their fair share of adversity. Through the turmoil, they’ve made it clear that they won’t go down without a fight and that, regardless of the circumstances, leaders like Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith will continue to compete. Diggins-Smith recently has been at the center of internal tension and reported trade discussions, but the 2022 All-Star has been one of Phoenix’s best players on the court.

AD Durr has thrived since joining the Dream in a trade in June. (Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)

D’Arcangelo: Atlanta Dream

Someone forgot to tell Atlanta that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Instead, Rhyne Howard has made a seamless transition to the WNBA, leading the team in scoring with 15.1 points per game and making her first All-Star game as a pro. Led by head coach Tanisha Wright, one of the top defensive players in the league during her playing days, the Dream are incredibly scrappy. Relying on hustle and defensive intensity has them holding on to the eighth and final playoff spot, but they’ll need to clean up their turnovers and find additional offense from other players besides Howard to stay there. With 12.2 points per game in 10 total games for Atlanta, AD Durr is looking like a great option to fill that hole since coming over from New York.

Which offseason move has paid off the most? The least?

Galligan: Emma Meesseman, Rebekah Gardner (most); Angel McCoughtry (least)

The additions of Emma Meesseman and Rebekah Gardner to replace Stefanie Dolson and Diamond DeShields have actually made the Sky better. Getting Meesseman to come back to the WNBA and play in Chicago was the first big move, and now she is third on the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game, while also contributing 5.9 rebounds per game and shooting 54.2 percent from the floor. It has worked out just as expected for the reigning champs. Then, James Wade went out and signed Gardner, the 31-year-old rookie who has given the Sky depth and a consistent threat on both ends of the floor.

The Lynx’s decision to sign Angel McCoughtry to a protected contract was a stretch in hindsight. Not only did McCoughtry hardly get the chance to compete in a Lynx uniform, but her divorce contract agreement has greatly limited Minnesota’s cap space and maneuverability this season.

Rebekah Gardner has been a revelation for the Sky and their depth this season. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

D’Arcangelo: Meesseman, Gardner (most); Tina Charles (least)

I agree with Rachel on Meeseman and Gardner — two excellent moves by Wade that not only made his team better, but also made sense within the salary cap. Meeseman fits well in the Sky’s system and is a great frontcourt complement to Candace Parker. And what more needs to be said about Gardner? After going undrafted in 2012 and playing overseas before signing a training camp contract with the Sky in preseason, she is in the running for Rookie of the Year.

I don’t know that anyone saw the implosion of the Mercury’s season coming. The Brittney Griner situation is horrible, Kia Nurse is still out after tearing her ACL in the playoffs last year, and Sophia Cunningham was sidelined for a while with an injury. But as far as what was in their control, bringing in Tina Charles for $105,000 only to mutually part ways halfway through the season because of on- and off-court conflict feels like a big misstep for both parties.

Who is your midseason Coach of the Year?

Galligan: James Wade, Chicago Sky

It’s a very tight race right now between Becky Hammon and James Wade. I’ll give the nod to Wade for the combination of his offseason work, roster management and success through the first half of the season. The Sky’s depth, experience and style of play have all been on display of late, and they’ve proven they can come from behind to win big games, with the WNBA-record 28-point comeback win over Las Vegas at the top of the list.

James Wade has picked up right where he left off after winning the 2021 championship. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

D’Arcangelo: James Wade, Chicago Sky

I’ve been on the Hammon train all season long. What she’s unleashed with this Aces team has been incredibly fun to watch, and Plum’s breakout season can be directly attributed to Hammon handing her the keys to the offense. But again, I have to agree with Rachel. Wade’s coaching and management of the Sky has worked well all season, but they have reached another level lately and are looking like the best team in the league right now.

Which player has surprised you the most this year?

Galligan: Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces

I have long said that Jackie Young is the X-Factor for the Aces, and the improvements she’s made to her offensive game have really impressed me. Before this season, Young was not necessarily viewed as a perimeter threat, shooting just 21 percent from the 3-point line in 2021. This year, not only is Young flat-out scoring more, she’s also shooting a career-best 46.9 percent from beyond the arc. While she has always been a Swiss army knife who can stuff a stat sheet, her 3-point efficiency and confidence have surprised me more than anything else.

D’Arcangelo: Moriah Jefferson, Minnesota Lynx

I don’t know that Young necessarily surprised me. She’s been trending in this direction for the past few seasons. Moriah Jefferson — aka Ms. Triple-Double — has stood out for me, albeit recently. After being waived by the Wings, who are guard-heavy and couldn’t find a fit in the rotation for Jefferson, she was picked up by Minnesota. The Lynx had a glaring need at point guard, and Jefferson has filled it and then some in 17 games with the team. The 28-year-old is averaging 13.2 points and 5.6 assists per game on 48.5 percent shooting (and 51 percent from 3). It’s been a perfect fit.

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.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.