Now that the WNBA regular season has come to a close and the playoffs are knocking at the door, we turn our attention to the next most popular debate: the race for the Most Valuable Player award.
Multiple names have come up in the MVP discussion over the course of the season. At this point, some consider it to be a three-player race, others two. I’ve narrowed it down to one myself, making my pick on the official WNBA ballot and the Just Women’s Sports end-of-season awards list.
With the help of former WNBA head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman and ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli, I take a closer look at the leading MVP candidates — Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson — and break down the cases for and against each player.
“Every year, it seems that the MVP race is tight and it comes down to the last regular season game,” Antonelli said. “That never changes because the competitiveness of the league is so good, but I do think there are two players in the race right now in Jonquel Jones and A’ja Wilson. Those are the two to me that are the strongest and most compelling candidates.”
19.4 PPG, 51.5 FG%, 80.2 FT%, 36.2 3-point%, 11.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.3 BLK, 27 games
Connecticut Sun: 26-6, No. 1 seed
Jonquel Jones is the favorite to take home the MVP award after leading the Sun to the best record in the league and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Jones has redefined the game as a 6-foot-6 post player who can initiate the offense, knock down 3-pointers and dominate the paint on both ends of the floor. She has emerged as an elite franchise player who can reinvent her own game and consistently expand her skill set.
“Jonquel is the one for me and has been exceptional in every facet of the game,” said Chatman, who coached both the Sky and Fever in the past decade. “It’s not a knock on anyone else. It’s just the way she can affect every aspect of the game on either side of the floor and in every phase is what separates her. It’s her shooting and ability to pass, her length, her rim protection.”
Jones’ impact on both the offensive and defensive ends was a major factor in the Sun closing out the regular season on a franchise-record 14-game win streak. Jones finished the season with 18 double-doubles while averaging a league-best 11.2 rebounds per game and ranking fourth with 19.4 points per game.
With her versatility and overall knowledge of the game, she is a mismatch nightmare for opponents, regardless of whether they choose to trap, double team or switch on her. Jones made a habit this season of punishing young players who subbed in or switched on to her and lacked an elite understanding of defensive schemes.
“She’s a two-way player and she has incredible versatility, with her pick-and-pop game and ability to shoot a 3 in transition from a lot of different actions,” Antonelli said. “She does everything. She handles it up the floor, she gets them into their transition game. I love her offensive game. I love the way she protects the rim.”
The most obvious hurdle to Jones’ candidacy is the five games she missed in June to compete with Bosnia and Herzegovina in the FIBA European Championships.
Some saw the game absences as an opportunity for others to surpass Jones in the race. Others looked at the Sun’s 2-3 record during that stretch as adding to Jones’ case for being the most valuable player to her team.
Jones also wasn’t the only MVP candidate to miss games this season. A’ja Wilson is the sole player on our list who started and played in every game for the Aces.
“Honestly, that can be a surface argument. To me, it’s also a positive,” Chatman said. “While she missed those games, that’s when others were able to figure it out.”
The other potential knock on Jones in the MVP race is that she hasn’t shown a consistent ability to close out tight games.
“A’ja and Stewie are more closers to me than Jonquel,” Antonelli said. “There are other players who make plays at the end of the game for Connecticut. I, quite frankly, think she should be the one making the play.”
20.3 PPG, 44 FG%, 84.7 FT%, 33.3 3-point%, 9.5 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.8 BLK, 28 games
Seattle Storm: 21-11, No. 4 seed
Like many this year, I projected Breanna Stewart to be crowned MVP in the preseason. Her ability to win in nearly every situation seems like a foregone conclusion at this point.
“I mean honestly, where is her deficiency? I don’t know what it is,” Antonelli said.
Stewart finished third in the league with 20.3 points per game and posted career-bests in rebounding and possession, turning the ball over just 1.6 times per game. Her stats and accolades speak for themselves, but her ability to impact the game and those around her is what catches people’s eye.
“It’s undeniable, her length, her range — and I’m talking on both sides of the floor — her range to defend and her range to score,” Chatman said. “For me, it’s the consistency in her actions. She’s going to play the game in a manner in which you might scout it for one possession, but her IQ is going to lead to something really good for Seattle, and it’s not necessarily to Stewie.
“She knows when to roll, when to fade, when to trust a pass or fake to the corner. She knows those nuance parts that we teach, but it’s just innate and it’s always going to keep her at the top of the game.”
We were growing accustomed to Seattle being on top of the standings, but their 3-5 record in August resulted in a fourth-place finish and only a single-game playoff bye. For many franchises, that would be considered a success. That’s not the case in Seattle based on the standard the Storm have set, and it also doesn’t help in the MVP discussion.
“I think a lot comes down to Connecticut and Las Vegas winning and they’re going to be seeded higher,” Antonelli said. “I mean, it’s like splitting hairs between the three of them honestly. They are all so good.”
A left foot injury forced Stewart to miss the final two games of the regular season and evened the playing field a bit in the “games missed” department.
Another comparison point for our analysts is the evolution of a player’s skill set. In that department, Chatman sees Stewart in a different category.
“I think Stewie has gotten better at the pieces she’s already good at,” Chatman said. “I’m always looking at people that have evolved. Jonquel Jones did that 3-point contest with Allie Quigley? Get out of here! The areas of her game she has added to and elevated have really shined this year, to go along with the dominance of Connecticut.”
18.3 PPG, 44.4 FG%, 87.6% FT, 9.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.3 BLK, 32 games
Las Vegas Aces: 24-8, No. 2 seed
A’ja Wilson is the only MVP candidate on our list who played in all 32 games. The reigning WNBA MVP finished sixth in the league with 18.3 points per game and led the Aces to the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
“A’ja has not missed a game. She definitely checks the box of games played and consistency,” Antonelli said. “If I had to put money on any player from 10-15 feet, it would be A’ja. I have marveled at her continued improvement in the elevation of her skill set from there.
“She’s just so good from that spot on the floor. You can’t keep her from catching it there, and when she does catch it, she’s going to make a play. She’s gotten a lot better going right.”
With Liz Cambage in health and safety protocols and sidelined for the final six games of the season, the Aces ran their offense through Wilson even more. The responsibility seemed natural for Wilson, who has consistently succeeded when throwing her team on her back.
“I love the lineup now with A’ja and four guards, because that’s the way she won a national championship at South Carolina,” Antonelli said.
Wilson made a killing at the free throw-line this season, shooting a career-best 87.6 percent. She also finished with career-highs in rebounds and assists per game.
It’s tough to compare Wilson to Stewart and Jones because she is a different type of player. The one glaring difference, however, is Wilson’s lack of a 3-point shot.
“You can’t look at value only because they’re all three so important,” Antonelli said. “You have to look at their skill set: Who can do the most? And A’ja doesn’t shoot the 3. That’s the only thing.”
“I think A’ja is nipping at their heels. She is right there,” Chatman said. “She is doing more with less in some ways. She’s on the cusp of being there, and I am saying that because she doesn’t have a 3-point shot.”
Brittney Griner demands consideration for the award because of her MVP-like numbers. She finished the season second in scoring, averaging 20.5 points per game, and her five-time Player of the Week honors are a personal best. The Mercury finished in fifth with a 19-13 record, hurting Griner’s case for the award, but her dominance caught everyone’s attention this year.
“She’s been average at times, and now she’s just like an animal,” Chatman said. “I’m looking at Griner like, oh my god, she is dominating. With Brittney Griner, you feel her, you see her, you sometimes fear her.”
Tina Charles put up the best scoring numbers of her 11-year WNBA career, leading the league with 23.3 points per game. That was no easy feat considering every team knew the Mystics were going to run the ball through her due to their depleted roster. Charles was just that efficient offensively and even came close to breaking Diana Taurasi’s single-season scoring record of 25.3 points per game.
Washington, however, went just 12-20 this season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016 after losing their last two regular season games.
“They just didn’t win enough,” Antonelli said. “I think that’s what it comes down to, if you’re going to split hairs on the other three [Stewart, Jones and Wilson]. If you went with the points, rebounds, assists, blocks and the things you can count, that’s one thing. But then you have the things you can’t count — the intangibles, the value of winning.”
Chatman echoed Antonelli’s sentiments, adding that Charles’ candidacy also takes a hit on defense.
“It’s less about what she’s not doing, and more about what other players have done individually that has elevated their teams,” she said. “You don’t deny what Tina has done — she’s getting a lot of opportunities and touches. You have to slide into the defensive aspect of it. If it’s only about offense, that’s one thing. But for me, the Most Valuable Player is the entire game.”
Sylvia Fowles was in a category of her own this season, averaging a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double for the Lynx. Her steady play was the main reason Minnesota bounced back from an 0-4 start to finish the season 22-10 and with the third seed. Fowles’ longevity in her 14th WNBA season doesn’t surprise Chatman, who coached the 35-year-old for four seasons with the Sky.
“Sylvia is doing Sylvia things,” she said. “I don’t ever remember her being a liability. I think her consistency sometimes feels like a given. You know what she’s going to give you. Her dominance comes because she has speed, power and quickness. Those are the terms that aren’t always talked about with Syl. They just think she’s tall, she’s fast, she’s quick, she’s powerful and that translates to both sides of the basketball.”
What will likely keep Fowles from winning the award is similar to the comparisons of other candidates. Fowles had a great year; others were just a little bit better.
“I don’t feel like she’s in the same category because she’s more around the rim than she is face-up,” Antonelli said. “I don’t even see a lot of teams bringing a double to her because they can’t. Cheryl (Reeve) does such a good job of getting her the ball where she’s isolated away from help.”
I asked Antonelli and Chatman to make their picks for MVP. In the end, we all agreed on Jonquel Jones.
“Jonquel Jones is a stretch-five with guard-like skills and Allie Quigley-like shooting. It’s crazy,” Chatman said. “She is redefining this game. We’ve got players that are averaging points, stopping points, snagging rebounds and helping other people get points. It’s the totality of Jonquel Jones’ and Breanna Stewart’s game that elevates them to heights that others need to get to. We didn’t see this five to seven years ago in this manner.”
“I feel like Jonquel Jones is the MVP because they’re going to finish first, and if you are splitting hairs, I feel like Jonquel has had the best year,” Antonelli said. “I’m trying to remember the last time we had a discussion over three players who all could legitimately win without anybody having a complaint about it, without someone arguing they didn’t deserve it. They all three do.”
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.