UConn injuries: Ducharme close to return, Fudd further out
UConn has struggled with injuries all season.
The WNBA playoffs are here, pitting the league’s top eight teams against each other in an expanded postseason format starting with Round 1 on Wednesday.
Now that the regular season is in the rearview mirror, Just Women’s Sports’ WNBA experts got together to make their picks for every major award. While Rachel Galligan, Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and Eden Laase reached a majority decision on most of their selections, they differed on others and explained why.
Let’s dive into the selections, including a bonus lightning round on the WNBA playoffs at the end.
A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Galligan: A’ja Wilson
Choosing between Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson for MVP was one of the most difficult decisions on the ballot. What it came down to for me was Las Vegas finishing the season as the No. 1 team in the league. While the Aces have a lot of weapons, Wilson’s consistency, durability and dominance are unmatched. The 2020 MVP finished first in the league in double-doubles, efficiency per 40 minutes and blocks per game, and she came in second in rebounds per game. Wilson is the Aces’ anchor, and she has shown time and time again that she can throw the team on her back in crunch time.
D’Arcangelo: A’ja Wilson
The WNBA hasn’t had an MVP race this tight in quite a while. I was close to flipping a coin and letting fate decide between Stewart and Wilson. Ultimately, I picked Wilson for similar reasons, with consistency on both ends of the floor being at the top of the list. We’ve known what Wilson can do offensively for Las Vegas, but she’s also raised her defensive game in the absence of Liz Cambage, finishing second overall with 7.6 defensive rebounds per game and shouldering 64.2 percent of the Aces’ total blocks for the season while averaging 1.9 per game. She’s been a complete player all season, with the league’s best +/- rating at 8.7.
Laase: A’ja Wilson
I oscillated between Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Breanna Stewart, but ultimately my gut said Wilson. As Rachel and Lyndsey explained, the stats point to Wilson’s dominance, but so does the eye test. If you watch Wilson on any given possession, she’s making an impact even if she isn’t directly involved in the play. Whether it’s setting an off-ball screen, sealing a lane for a driving guard on offense, preventing a post-entry pass or impacting a guard’s decision to drive because of her shot-blocking ability, the Aces star affects every play for the better.
Rhyne Howard, Atlanta Dream
Galligan: Rhyne Howard
Rhyne Howard maintained a seamless level of production from college to the WNBA this season, averaging 16 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 31 minutes per game. The 2022 No. 1 pick proved herself to be a generational talent and cornerstone for the rebuilding Dream. Her contributions to Atlanta, which bounced back from three straight single-digit win seasons to come within a game of the playoffs this year, makes her my Rookie of the Year.
D’Arcangelo: Rhyne Howard
Howard’s transition from college to the pros was so smooth, there were times when I forgot she was even a rookie. The combination of her production and immediate impact she made on the Dream is something we haven’t seen for a few years now from a player straight out of college. Howard has been a clear-cut choice for ROY all season long, winning every Rookie of the Month Award throughout the season.
Laase: Rhyne Howard
There were games this season where, despite the better competition, Howard looked more dominant on a WNBA court than she did playing in college. That speaks to her readiness athletically, mentally, physically and skill-wise. Being the only rookie selected as an All-Star adds another layer of proof to her Rookie of the Year-worthy season.
Becky Hammon, Las Vegas Aces
Galligan: Becky Hammon
This was the second hardest-decision to make on the ballot this year. In fact, I changed my mind on the final day of the regular season. There is a major argument to be made for James Wade, who took the Chicago Sky from a .500 regular season team last year to a top seed this year despite losing two starters from their championship run. But I went with first-year head coach Becky Hammon largely because it is her first season in the WNBA. Hammon integrated herself into a very talented space, quickly earned the respect of her players and found ways to mold this roster in a way that showcases all of the players’ strengths. It’s easy to take for granted how difficult all of that is to achieve in Year 1.
D’Arcangelo: Becky Hammon
Like Rachel, I had Wade as my initial pick. The Sky were the best team in the league for the greater part of the season, and at times it looked like a repeat championship win was destined to happen. But what Hammon has done with the Aces in her first season as head coach — starting the year on a 13-2 run and unleashing a high-octane offense that brought out the best in Wilson, Dearica Hamby, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray — was impressive. Yes, the Aces already had talent, but it takes a certain kind of coach to harness that talent in the right way so players can thrive. Hammon was able to navigate the ups and downs of the season so that Las Vegas finished as the No. 1 team in the league.
Laase: Becky Hammon
As much as I wish I could bring some originality to this discussion, I agree with Rachel and Lyndsey once again. Hammon, in her first season with the Aces, showed an incredible ability to understand her players’ skill sets and how to use them effectively. It’s no coincidence that both Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young made major jumps this season. That talent has been there; Hammon just figured out how best to use it.
Galligan: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
Alyssa Thomas has had to be a Swiss Army knife for the Sun this season between scoring, rebounding, creating and defending. Thomas is fifth in the league in overall rebounding, pulling down 8.2 per game, including 6.1 on the defensive glass. The forward is also second in the league with 1.8 steals per game, contributing heavily to the Sun’s league-leading 8.8 per contest. Connecticut, second in the league in defensive rating at 96.3, allows 77.8 points per game to opponents, the second-fewest in the WNBA. None of those numbers would be possible without Thomas and her ability to guard position 1 through 5 and impact every game for the Sun on the defensive end.
D’Arcangelo: Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
Breanna Stewart’s defense has always been a key factor for the Storm. This season, she is second overall in defensive win shares with 2.3, fourth in defensive rebounds with 6.2 and fifth in steals with 1.6. As a team, Seattle is third overall in defensive rating at 97.4, and Stewart is a big reason why. Her length and agility in the paint and ability to close out shots make her one of the toughest defenders in the league. There were a lot of standouts on defense this year, including Thomas, but I give Stewart the edge.
Laase: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
My criteria for MVP is a player who is elite on offense and defense — that’s how I landed on Aliyah Boston for NCAA Player of the Year, for example. So generally, my MVP pick will also be my defensive MVP choice. The same logic applies here. A’ja Wilson averages 7.6 defensive boards (grabbing a defensive rebound 28 percent of the time for her team), 1.4 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game. Wilson is also impactful in ways that don’t show up on a stat sheet. Her post defense, ability to box out and shot-altering presence are just a few examples of her defensive prowess.
Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun
Galligan: Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun
Brionna Jones is an easy choice for Sixth Woman of the Year. The center finished the regular season averaging 13.8 points per game while shooting a highly efficient 57 percent from the field. She also pulled down 5.1 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. Her role with the Sun has been that of a steady interior force who can impact the game right away off the bench. When the Sun struggled to score, Jones could get the job done in the paint. With the talent to be a starter on any other roster, the back-to-back All-Star has accepted her role with grace this season, and that is impressive in and of itself.
D’Arcangelo: Brionna Jones
Jones was the only player I had on my list for Sixth Woman of the Year. Her value coming off the bench easily stands above the rest. She’s the third-best player in the league when it comes to win shares, with her 6.3 trailing only Stewart and Wilson, and she has the sixth-highest player efficiency rating at 23.1. Jones has worked on her game since she entered the league in 2017, adding certain elements that have made her a top post player and a two-time All-Star selection. She may start on the bench, but she’s a starter-quality player in every way.
Laase: Brionna Jones
Jones is the obvious pick here. Efficiency is one of the most important qualities a player can have, and Jones certainly has that. The ideal bench player also brings something different to the court, qualities that the starters may not have. For Jones, that’s her incredible strength and size. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, she defends differently than Sun forwards Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner. She’s also able to out-muscle opponents on offense and on the glass, giving Connecticut a unique and potent weapon.
Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas Aces
Galligan: Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces
Jackie Young made a decision last offseason to commit to extending her range while becoming more offensively versatile and productive from the perimeter. Young went from connecting on 25 percent of her 3-pointers in 2021 to 43.1 percent this season, an unbelievable jump and vital tool for the Aces. While there is an argument to be made for Kelsey Plum, she played seven more minutes per game for Las Vegas this season, giving her a greater opportunity to produce. In 1.4 more minutes per game, Young went from averaging 12.2 points to 15.9 this year. Her rebounds, assists, steals and free-throw percentages all increased this season as a result.
D’Arcangelo: Kelsey Plum
I was torn between Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum for this award. Young has been so impressive in her evolution for all of the reasons previously mentioned. She can not only still get into the paint and drive to the hoop, but she has also added a consistent mid-range jumper and three-point shot to her game. But the leap Plum has made this season, especially after coming back from an Achilles injury in 2020, is just too hard to ignore. She’s the second-leading scorer in the league at 20.2 points per game, first in 3-pointers made with 3.1, and ninth in assists with 5.1. In a better place physically and mentally this year, Plum is having the best season of her career.
Laase: Kelsey Plum
Plum’s jump from Sixth Woman of the Year to an MVP candidate is enough for me to give her the Most Improved Player nod. Her minutes went up, so it makes sense that her number have too, but the way Plum approaches the game also stands out. She carries herself like she’s the best player on the floor and she has a true scorer’s mentality. Her 3-point shooting has been key for an Aces team that more than doubled its 3-point makes, from 162 last season to 342 in 2022.
The WNBA implemented a new process for the All-WNBA teams this year, in which voters did not have to take a player’s position into account when making their selections. Voters previously chose two guards, one center and one forward per team. The results of our selections are as follows:
Galligan: A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, Candace Parker and Skylar Diggins-Smith
D’Arcangelo: A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, Alyssa Thomas, Skylar Diggins-Smith
Laase: A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, Candace Parker, Jonquel Jones
Galligan: Emma Meesseman, Kahleah Copper, Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot and Alyssa Thomas
D’Arcangelo: Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Sylvia Fowles, Chelsea Gray
Laase: Sabrina Ionescu, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Alyssa Thomas, Emma Meeseman, Courtney Vandersloot
Galligan: Rhyne Howard, Shakira Austin, NaLyssa Smith, Rebekah Gardner, Queen Egbo
D’Arcangelo: Rhyne Howard, Shakira Austin, NaLyssa Smith, Rebekah Gardner, Queen Egbo
Laase: Rhyne Howard, Shakira Austin, NaLyssa Smith, Rebekah Gardner, Queen Egbo
Galligan: Alyssa Thomas, Breanna Stewart, Sylvia Fowles, Natasha Cloud, Aerial Atkins
D’Arcangelo: A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Natasha Cloud, Sylvia Fowles, Courtney Vandersloot
Laase: A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Sykes, Natasha Cloud
Top seed most likely to be eliminated
Galligan: Las Vegas Aces
It pains me to say it, but the Aces’ depth issues give me pause. It will also be interesting to see if the Sun can hit a new gear and finally get over the hump in the playoffs. If they can, they have a shot at winning it all.
D’Arcangelo: Connecticut Sun
I don’t want to say the Sun, but I’m going to have to say the Sun. As good as they can be, if they have a tough series with a hungry lower-seed, such as the Dallas Wings in the first round, they might be packing their bags early yet again.
Laase: Connecticut Sun
The Sun, strictly because of the matchup. The Wings are playing excellent basketball right now, winning six of their last eight games. Teaira McCowan has blossomed down the stretch and Marina Mabrey is thriving. If Arike Ogunbowale comes back from injury, this team will be even more dangerous.
Bottom seed most likely to surprise
Galligan: Dallas Wings
The Wings have a ton of confidence right now entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Marina Mabrey and Teaira McCowan have been a force down the stretch, combining for 35 points per game as the Wings won seven of their last 10 games in the regular season. The Wings integrated McCowan more heavily into their system the second half of the season and it has paid off. Dallas beat Connecticut two of the three times the teams faced each other in the regular season, so they know what it takes.
D’Arcangelo: Dallas Wings
I agree with Rachel. The Wings have come alive in the closing weeks of the regular season, and their matchup against the Sun couldn’t be better. They are playing together as a team and have shown they can excel with and without top scorer Arike Ogunbowale on the floor. Back-to-back wins against the Sky and the Aces in the first week of August are indicative of what this team is capable of against formidable opponents.
Laase: New York Liberty
I’ll also throw out the Liberty as a team to watch. They clinched their playoff bid with back-to-back wins over a talented Atlanta squad and ended their season on a 7-3 run. Betnijah Laney is back and the team is certainly gelling. Plus, the playmaking of Sabrina Ionescu and Marine Johannès is always going to give opponents trouble. If they can secure a first-game win over the Sky, the Liberty have a shot at getting out of the opening round.
Player to watch
Galligan: Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas Aces
Plum’s ability to rise to the occasion with an unwavering sense of poise makes her unique, and in the playoffs she has the potential to take her game to another level. I also am keeping my eye on Kahleah Copper, who earned the spotlight last year after elevating her play in crunch time.
D’Arcangelo: Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty
Sabrina Ionescu has reached another gear this season. The guard was a big reason why the Liberty were able to move up and secure the seventh playoff spot during the final weekend of the regular season. In the beginning of August, she scored 31, 20, 20 and 32 points in games, respectively, and now enters the postseason leading her team in scoring (17.3) and assists (6.3). She has the ability to rise to the occasion and show up in big games when the Liberty need it most.
Laase: Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
I left Elena Delle Donne off my WNBA awards list because she played only 25 games this season due to injury, but the Mystics star is playing at an All-WNBA level. Delle Donne is averaging 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. Three years removed from her heroics in the 2019 WNBA Finals, a playoff run would be a great way to cap her comeback from multiple back surgeries.
Galligan: Aces over Sky in 5
I could go so many directions with this, but my best bet right now is Las Vegas and Chicago in the Finals. Even though Chicago has been the deepest and most consistent team in the league, it is hard to repeat, and the Aces have one of the most dangerous squads despite their short bench.
D’Arcangelo: Aces over Sky in 5
An Aces-Sky Finals matchup would be an incredible series. Both teams have dominated in league play but also struggled at times, with the Aces hitting a rut midseason and the Sky getting off to a slower start. Now, it almost seems destined for the two best teams in the league to be playing the last games of the season.
Laase: Aces over Sky in 5
It feels like the season has been leading up to the Aces and the Sky, and I can’t envision it going any other way in the Finals. Both teams are loaded with talent, and even as I’m typing this out, I don’t know who I’m going to choose. My gut says the Aces, and if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on it being a five-game series.
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.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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