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WNBA MVP: Why Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson all have a case

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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.”

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(Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Jonquel Jones

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

Pros

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.”

Cons

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.”

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(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Breanna Stewart

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

Pros

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.”

Cons

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.”

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(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A’ja Wilson

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

Pros

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.

Cons

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.”

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Tina Charles (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

On the outside looking in

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.”

Final thoughts

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.

Nelly Korda Continues Unprecedented LPGA Run

LPGA golfer Nelly Korda poses with Mizuho Americas Open trophy
Nelly Korda took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open on Sunday. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Nelly Korda continued her unprecedented LPGA run on Sunday, winning her sixth tournament in the last seven starts. 

The 25-year-old Florida native took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open, becoming the first LPGA player to record six wins in a single season since 2013 — and that’s with three majors and a little over half the season left to play.

"Oh, my gosh, six," Korda said after the win. "I can't even really gather myself right now with that, the head-to-head that Hannah and I had pretty much all day. Wasn't my best stuff out there today, but fought really hard on the back nine."

Korda is just the fourth player on tour to win six times before June 1st, joining LPGA Hall of Famers Babe Zaharias (1951), Louise Suggs (1953), and Lorena Ochoa (2008).

Should her victory run continue, Korda could break the current record for single-season wins, currently set at 13 by Mickey Wright in 1963.

Korda ended Sunday's tournament one shot ahead of Hannah Green, finishing the 18th with a par putt to win it all.

"I mean, to lose to Nelly kind of like is — it's sad, but then it's also Nelly Korda," Green said of her second-place finish. "You know, like she's obviously so dominant right now. To feel like second behind her is quite nice. Unfortunately the bogey on the last has a little bit of a sour taste."

Next up is the US Women’s Open, a tournament that Korda has yet to win in her career. 

"Obviously it's on the top of my priority list," she said. "I just know there is never any good when you put more pressure on yourself. Just going to stay in my bubble that week and take it a shot at a time."

Earlier this year, Korda became the fastest player to collect $2 million in prize money over a single season. This latest win earned her an additional $450,000, bringing her season total up to $2,943,708.

Caitlin Clark Signs Multi-Year Deal with Wilson, Gets Signature Basketball Collection

caitlin clark poses with wilson basketball
Clark is just the second athlete to get a signature basketball collection with Wilson. (Wilson Sporting Goods)

Caitlin Clark has signed a multi-year endorsement deal with Wilson Sporting Goods that will include a signature basketball collection, the brand announced early Tuesday. 

According to Boardroom, Clark is just the second athlete to develop a signature collection with Wilson, with the first being Michael Jordan in the 1980s. In addition to her basketball collection, she will also "test, advise and provide feedback on a range" of related products. 

Three Clark-branded white-and-gold Wilson basketballs have already dropped. Each ball features laser-cut engravings of some of the guard's most memorable moments at Iowa, where she became the all-time leading scorer in Division I college basketball history.

Three Wilson basketballs from Clark's collection have already dropped. (Wilson Sporting Goods).

"I think it is super special, and it's been fun for me," Clark told Boardroom. "I feel like I was just that young kid who had those basketballs that I would store in the garage. I'm just very lucky and fortunate to partner with Wilson to create something that everyone can enjoy. It connects with a lot of generations, and it'll be fun to see kids walking around holding them."

The No. 1 overall pick at the 2024 WNBA Draft, Clark has been building up a slate of major endorsements since turning pro. Current partnerships include Gatorade and Panini, and she’s also close to signing a signature shoe deal with Nike worth a reported $28 million.

New York Liberty off to First 4-0 Start in 17 Years

sabrina ionescu of the new york liberty on the court
Sabrina Ionescu led the undefeated Liberty to a 74-63 win over Seattle Monday night. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty are 4-0 on the season for the first time since 2007. 

The 2023 WNBA title finalists notched a 74-63 win over Seattle on Monday night, with Sabrina Ionescu dropping 20 points alongside eight assists. After the game, Ionescu told reporters she thought the team was coming together a bit easier than they did last year.

"I think having a year together, we don't nearly have to communicate as much on the court anymore," she said. "Because we can just play off one another and read. And that's obviously been the growth of this team, is being able to play a season together last year."

The team’s defense has also contributed heavily to the season's winning start. Last night, the Liberty held Jewell Loyd to just 13 points and nine rebounds. Loyd let the Storm in scoring, with only two other players in double digits, while Nneka Ogwumike missed her second straight game with an ankle injury. 

Storm free agency acquisition Skylar Diggins-Smith had eight points, and is averaging 14.5 points and 5.8 assists per game this season. In her postgame remarks, Storm head coach Noelle Quinn called on others to give her grace in her return. 

"There needs to be respect about the fact that she's had two children and hasn’t played in 20 months," said Quinn. "She’s not going to come overnight and be who she was 20 months ago and we have to respect that and honor that. And I do.

"My grace as a coach is to know she’s working her butt off every day. You guys don’t see it. Every single day. Two children. Not one, two. Not many can do that."

Australia’s Sam Kerr Ruled Out for 2024 Paris Olympics With ACL Injury

sam kerr playing for the australian womens national team
A longtime Matildas mainstay, Kerr has made 128 appearances for Australia alongside 69 career goals. (Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

Australia has confirmed that captain and star striker Sam Kerr will miss the Paris Olympics due to an ACL injury suffered early this year. 

Kerr, who also stars for Chelsea, tore her ACL in January. While unlikely that she would recover in time for the Olympics, Football Australia (FA) hadn’t confirmed her status until Tuesday when the team revealed its squad for upcoming warm-up games. 

In a statement, the FA said that Kerr remained on the sidelines and will continue her rehab program at Chelsea. 

"Attacker Amy Sayer (ACL) and forward Sam Kerr (ACL) remain on the sidelines with long term injuries," the report read. "Kerr and Sayer will continue their rehabilitation programmes in their home club environments and subsequently will not be available for selection for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games."

Tuesdays 23-player squad is a "strong guide" to the final Olympic lineup, according to coach Tony Gustavsson, but others like injured midfielders Katrina Gorry and Aivi Luik could potentially figure into the conversation. 

"[They] most likely will be physically available to be part of an Olympic roster," Gustavsson said of Gorry and Luik. "This window will be a tough one for me and my staff in terms of evaluating players, where they are, and then the final selection process for Paris."

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