A'ja Wilson or Breanna Stewart for WNBA MVP?

ByM.A. Voepel ESPN logo
Friday, June 23, 2023

After the Las Vegas Aces moved to 11-1 with another blowout victory Wednesday, reigning WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson was asked if it sometimes felt as if the team's starting five were all MVPs.

"It's what you dream of," Wilson said. "I think it's a beautiful thing. It doesn't have to be one individual person every single night. It's a lot of fun."

Wilson, the Aces' top rebounder (9.3 RPG), has twice been named MVP, as has teammate Candace Parker. Las Vegas assists leader Chelsea Gray (6.3 APG) was the WNBA Finals MVP last year. Jackie Young is currently leading the Aces in scoring (21.0 PPG), with Wilson (18.6), Kelsey Plum (16.3) and Gray (13.6) also averaging in double figures for the defending WNBA champions.

With a little over a quarter of their 40-game schedule complete, the Aces have scored at least 90 points in all but two games and lead the league at 92.5 PPG. They are second in scoring defense at 76.3. If you're looking for Las Vegas' vulnerability, you won't find one.

Does that mean, should things stay on a similar path the next three months, that Wilson will join the select group of players -- Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Lauren Jackson -- who have three WNBA MVP honors?

A month into the season, let's take a look at the races -- or lack thereof -- for the WNBA's major honors.


Last year, Wilson prevailed against Breanna Stewart, then with the Seattle Storm, 478-446 in MVP balloting, with Wilson getting a 31-23 edge in first-place votes. Plum was third with 181 points.

Plum's high finish didn't prevent Wilson from winning. And as Plum was in the MVP race last season with Wilson, Young is in it this year. Teammates on successful teams at times split votes for such honors. Or some voters might lean toward a player who seemingly has more weight on her shoulders.

But other voters -- and this proved the case last year -- aren't going to value a player's accomplishments any less because she has a lot of talent around her. Wilson and Stewart have that this season.

In ESPN's preseason predictions, Stewart, now with the New York Liberty, had a 4-2 edge over Wilson, with theWashington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne also getting a vote.

Stewart (23.9 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 2.1 BPG) is having the best season statistically of her seven-year WNBA career, with the Liberty at 7-3. The race seems likely to come down to the two superstars again as it did in 2020 and last year; Wilson won both times.

Who else is in the running right now? Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas has emerged as the league's top triple-double threat with averages of 14.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG and 7.6 APG.

Los Angeles Sparks forwardNneka Ogwumike's scoring (19.6) and rebounding (9.7) averages are very similar to her 2016 MVP season. Her goal is getting the Sparks back into the postseason after a two-year absence. Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale is third in the league in scoring (23.2 PPG) and in the top 15 in assists (4.2 APG), which will garner her some top-five MVP votes.

And Wilson isn't the only former South Carolina Gamecocks star in the MVP race. Indianarookie Aliyah Boston (15.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, league-leading 64.3 FG%) could lead the Fever back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Only one rookie has ever won WNBA MVP: Parker in 2008.

Seattle's struggles (3-9) might make it tough for guard Jewell Loydto be in the MVP conversation even though she's the WNBA's leading scorer (25.2 PPG). But with Stewart and Sue Bird no longer with Seattle, no team is more reliant on one player to win than the Storm are on Loyd.

Coming close in that department is Napheesa Collier, who missed most of last season on maternity leave. Behind her 20.9 PPG and 7.5 RPG averages, the 4-9Minnesota Lynxhope to return to the playoffs after missing the 2022 postseason.

Current pick: Dead heat. Team success is almost always crucial in winning MVP in any sport, and Wilson has the edge there. Statistically, Stewart leads the way. With her playmaking at such an elite level along with scoring and rebounding, Stewart might get the nod from some voters, while others keep the incumbent Wilson as MVP front-runner as she is the best player on the best team.

The closest MVP race in WNBA history was in 2005, when Swoopes edged Jackson by two points, 327 to 325 -- although Jackson actually received four more first-place votes than Swoopes that year. If this season continues as it has, Wilson and Stewart will be in another MVP battle to the finish.

Rookie of the Year

In ESPN's preseason picks, Boston was the near-unanimous choice to win this award, getting all but one vote. Now, there wouldn't even be one holdout.

Boston, the No. 1 pick, transitioned quickly to the pro game as expected. She has formed a good young post tandem with NaLyssa Smith, the No. 2 pick in 2022. Boston's poise and leadership are already evident in the first month of her pro career.

The one non-Boston vote in our preseason picks went to No. 2 selection Diamond Miller of the Lynx. Miller has averaged 10.4 PPG and 3.0 RPG, but has been limited to five games due to injury.

Current pick: Boston. Provided she stays healthy, this award is a lock.

Defensive Player of the Year

We previously mentioned Alyssa Thomas' triple-double ability, but she is also having another stellar year defensively. She is second in the WNBA in rebounding, second in steals (2.0) and tied for the lead in defensive win shares (1.2) with Wilson.

"Defensively, from an execution standpoint, she's like another coach on the floor," Sun coach Stephanie White said of Thomas.

Thomas is known for her physical style of play, relentlessness and ability to guard all over the court. She has been on the WNBA All-Defensive second team three times and the first team once.

But Wilson leads in defensive rating (88.4) and is third in blocks per game (2.2) behind thePhoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner(2.5) and Seattle's Ezi Magbegor(2.3). Griner, currently sidelined with a hip injury, has won the DPOY award twice.

Current pick: Wilson. As the incumbent, winning the DPOY honor for the first time last year, Wilson is at the heart of Aces coach Becky Hammon's even more intense focus on defense this season.

Most Improved Player

This honor sometimes goes to a second-year player who makes the expected improvements with a season of experience. Other times, it's someone who had to wait awhile to get the opportunity to play enough to merit the award.

Last year, Las Vegas' Young won not just because she raised her scoring and rebounding averages to career bests, but also because of her immense improvement in one specific area: 3-point shooting. Young, who made 22 3-pointers over her first three WNBA seasons, had 50 last year. Currently, she has 27 and is shooting 50% from behind the arc, second in the league to teammate Gray's 51.2%.

This year, a player who was drafted No. 2 in 2020 and has been slowed at times by injuries is looking like the star most thought she could be.Dallas Wingsforward Satou Sabally is averaging career bests in scoring (20.0), rebounding (10.4), assists (3.2) and steals (1.5) and already has a career-high 21 3-pointers.

The former Oregon Ducks standout has been key in complementing the scoring brilliance of Ogunbowale, as has forward Natasha Howard, a former winner of the Most Improved Award (2018).

Magbegor, the only player to get at least two votes in ESPN's preseason predictions for MIP, is also in the running. The Australian entered the WNBA at age 19 in 2020, playing in the pandemic bubble in Bradenton, Florida. She has displayed maturity beyond her years, and with Stewart no longer in Seattle, Magbegor is now the Storm's top post player at 14.7 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 2.3 BPG.

Chicago Sky guard Marina Mabrey is having the best of her five seasons, averaging 16.7 PPG and 4.1 RPG. Same for Sky teammate Alanna Smith, a forward averaging 10.5 PPG and 6.9 RPG.

Among those also having notably improved seasons statistically are Atlanta Dream forward Cheyenne Parker (15.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG), Los Angeles guard Lexie Brown (13.3 PPG, 2.9 APG) and Phoenix guard Sug Sutton (12.0 PPG, 5.5 APG, 2.7 RPG).

Current pick: Sabally. Sabrina Ionescu and Sabally were the 1-2 draft picks in 2020, after they didn't get the chance at a second consecutive Final Four run with Oregon because the pandemic canceled the NCAA tournament. Ionescu lost virtually all of her rookie season to an early ankle injury, and Sabally hasn't played more than 17 games in a season. But 2023 looks like a big season for both former Ducks.

Ionescu has been dealing with a hamstring issue but is in her third season as a starter for New York. Sabally has started every game this season for Dallas. Ionescu was an All-Star and made the All-WNBA second team for the first time in 2022. Sabally is on track for similar honors this season, along with the Most Improved award.

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