The WNBA playoffs just started, and we've already had our fair share of unforgettable moments.
The New York Liberty boast a pair, with guard Marine Johannes' ridiculous Game 1 pass and her star teammate Sabrina Ionescu's five-point burst in five seconds. I'm still not over the overwhelming defensive possessions from the Chicago Sky to close out Game 3 against the Liberty. Chelsea Gray and the Aces set a three-point record in Game 2 of their series against (what's left of) the Phoenix Mercury; the tactical warfare of the Seattle Storm-Washington Mystics matchup was too good for a first round series.
As if there isn't enough to talk about, regular season awards are beginning to drop. On Monday, Chicago Sky head coach and general manager James Wade was named Executive of the Year for his offseason work. We'll be getting word on the rookies — Rookie of the Year and the All-Rookie team — on Thursday. You can see the rest of the schedule for announcements here.
Before the official awards are announced, here's who I would've chosen on my fictitious ballot. Part I will be focused on first batch of awards: Rookie of the Year, the All-Rookie team, Coach of the Year, and Most Improved Player.
(If someone from The W's league office is reading this: Hi, hello, I'd love to vote next season if you'll have me!)
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR (AUGUST 25)
Honorable Mention (HM): Rebekah Gardner — Chicago Sky
Gardner's averages (8.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists) don't scream off the page, but she's one of the league's best role-players. She's a spirited driver with a blend of physicality and graceful footwork that allows her to bully weaker defenders. Her nose for the ball is uncanny for a guard; she's good for at least one "Where did she come from?" rebound in a crucial point of a game.
And then there's the defense.
She led all rookies in steals per game (1.4), but that honestly doesn't do her justice. Gardner is a nasty screen navigator, and she pairs that with an unrelenting motor. Turn on a Sky game and you'll see her hounding the opposing team's best perimeter player to the point of needing screens in the backcourt. Here's some of the work she did in the Liberty series — and note that the last clip is a bad foul call.
Her quickness, aggression, and ability to anticipate help make her one of The W's best defenders. Spoiler alert: She got an All-Defensive First Team nod from me because of her work.
3. NaLyssa Smith — Indiana Fever
I don't begrudge folks for looking at the Indiana Fever's record (5-31) or their score differential (minus-11.1) and deciding to pass on watching 20-plus games of theirs. This was an incredibly young team that also went through an early season coaching change. They ended the season on an 18-game losing streak; trust me, I get it.
But man, there was some fun in there if you gave them a chance. The play of NaLyssa Smith was certainly one of the bright spots.
Though listed at 6-foot-4, Smith doesn't operate much like a true big. There's a fluidity and shiftiness present that makes her a matchup nightmare. Players her size shouldn't be able to use their handle to get to spots at a whim and shoot from distance if given the space.
Smith led all rookies in rebounds (7.9) and ranked second in scoring (13.5) behind Atlanta Dream wing Rhyne Howard (16.2). Smith racked up eight double-doubles on the season; the rest of the rookie class combined for nine.
2. Shakira Austin — Washington Mystics
Rookie bigs aren't supposed to be as good as Austin is defensively. To be a key cog as a rookie is wildly impressive; to be a key cog on the best defense in basketball — the Mystics had a sterling 96 defensive rating — is absurd, frankly.
Austin was tasked with banging with post brutes like Sylvia Fowles while also being asked to play multiple coverages against ball screens. Her activity and footwork pops in space. She was a shortlist All-Defensive team candidate for me (ultimately didn't make it) this season, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if she becomes a mainstay moving forward. She's that good already.
The offensive flashes are intriguing. The same footwork she displays defensively allows her to be a productive roll threat offensively. She's already flashed the ability to make short roll reads, and she's comfortable putting the floor on the deck for a dribble or two. I'm not sure if the finishing or the jumper expands first, but growth in either area would take her to another level offensively. The fact that there's a pathway to both happening ... the Mystics have a good one on their hands.
1. Rhyne Howard — Atlanta Dream
Though I wouldn't be opposed to Austin winning the award, I think the answer is Howard.
Leading all rookies in scoring is an easy thing to point to. The efficiency numbers — 37.9% from two-point range, 34.3% from three, 48.9% True Shooting — are an easy counter for people who think Austin should win it. I think either argument is missing the forest for the threes.
In year one, Howard was good enough to be the number one option on a just-missed-the-playoffs team. She got the opposing team's best defender from day one while playing in an offense lacking multiple dribble-drive threats for most of the season.
The context wasn't easy, and Howard found a way to score at a high clip, display in-season growth as a creator, and be a plus-wing defender at the same time.
Howard is a pull-up artist, a moving target off the ball, a willing passer against aggressive ball screen coverages, and someone who closed the year getting to the rim at a high clip. Over her last seven games, she averaged 8.6 three-point attempts (35% efficiency) and 7.7 free throw attempts. That is incredibly difficult for someone in her position to do.
I can't wait to see her with more offensive talent around her. The foundation for Howard is already strong.
ALL-ROOKIE TEAM (AUGUST 25)
Rhyne Howard, Shakira Austin, NaLyssa Smith, Rebekah Gardner, Queen Egbo (Indiana Fever)
Egbo (and her frontcourt teammate Emily Engstler) got less attention than Smith, but it's hard not to be excited about the defensive prowess. Egbo has pretty wild timing as a shot-blocker. She generally leaves the floor after her opponent goes up, giving her a cleaner window to swat shots.
I'm a fan of her mobility, and I think there's real potential for her to be a scheme-diverse weapon once she cleans up some of her technique. Foul trouble was a bit of an issue, and a large part of that was because she coudn't contain herself when asked to play more aggressively in PnR. She'd often run into the ball-handler when hedging out, or swipe down at the ball and get caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
A year of seasoning will do her some good, as would gaining some upper body strength to help with her finishing and post defense.
COACH OF THE YEAR (AUGUST 26)
3. James Wade — Chicago Sky
You have to give Wade, The W's Elevator Emperor, his coaching chops, too.
The Sky led The W in assist rate (70.7% of field goals assisted) by a healthy margin and posted a top-three offensive rating (105.8). Their high-octane defensive system led to an elite mark once again (99.7 defensive rating). The only player on the roster to appear in all 36 games was new addition Emma Meesseman, and Wade made sure her versatility was highlighted in his inverted offensive attack.
2. Becky Hammon — Las Vegas Aces
Hammon will likely win the award, and it'll be well deserved if/when she does. Though there was plenty of talent on the Aces roster when she took over, it is not easy to implement drastic scheme changes on both ends of the floor. It takes a high-level of trust and buy-in to make that happen; for Hammon to garner that much respect in her rookie* season as head coach is outstanding.
The Aces went from a team that infuriatingly ignored the three-point line (ranked last in three-point rate in each of the past four seasons) to one that bombed away (4th this season). A'ja Wilson was finally empowered (I'm not mad, I promise) to fire from deep, and she answered the bell with a 37.3% clip on moderate volume. The freedom given to Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray was on full display all season long. Jackie Young was trusted with more responsibility.
Quietly, the defense arguably looked more different than the offense did. Gone were the consistent deep drops against ball screens as a way to encourage pull-ups and wall off the paint. The Aces ramped up the pressure this year.
To begin the year, their bigs were tasked with playing at the level of the screen. That shifted to more drop coverage towards the middle of the season, but the drop was maybe a step below the screen -- still much higher than last season.
We saw more switching, and scram-switching to get smaller guards out of mismatches. The result wasn't always clean, but we saw a level of versatility from this group that was nearly unheard of under the previous (and to be fair, pretty successful) regime.
1. Tanisha Wright — Atlanta Dream
It's hard to overstate just how much of a mess the Dream were last season. On the court, they were rough; they finished with the second-worst record in the league (8-24) while finishing ninth in offense (97.5 ORTG) and defense (104 DRTG). Off the court, it was even worse.
They cycled through multiple head coaches last season and faced front office turnover. There was a Chennedy Carter...suspension? Erasure? Placement in purgatory? We're still not 100% sure what happened. There was video of a fight posted that featured several members of the Dream roster. Last season was an absolute mess.
For Wright to come in and help establish structure and culture — on and off the floor — impressed the heck out of me. She was tasked with building an offense around a rookie (Howard), and managed to do so while also empowering Cheyenne Parker as a post hub. It's hard to stress how few rim threats Wright and the Dream had to work with; Aari McDonald, 11 games of Tiffany Hayes (who then left during the playoff push) and 15 games of AD Durr was the best she had.
I think there would be more of a groundswell of support for Wright's case if the Dream made the playoffs. Missing out by a game isn't enough to deter me, though.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER (AUGUST 29)
HM: Sophie Cunningham (PHX), Aari McDonald (ATL)
- Speaking of McDonald, she deserves flowers for her work as a driver, improved shooting, and fiesty point-of-attack defense. It's pretty hard to lose her because of her speed and ability to navigate screens. She's also (annoyingly) good at drawing fouls/selling contact. I'm excited for Year 3 Aari.
- Cunningham saw her role change midway through the season. Suddenly slotted as a small-ball 4, Cunningham thrived as a spacer, embraced on and off-ball screening, and punched above her weight defensively.
3. Sabrina Ionescu — New York Liberty
I went back and forth with Cunningham and Ionescu for the third spot. Do you reward Ionescu's bump in production with a healthier campaign, or do you reward Cunningham's bump in production due to the heightened role?
I landed on Ionescu, who saw increases in virtually everything; no, seriously, the only box score stat that didn't improve (or decrease, when it comes to turnovers) from last year was her foul rate (1.8 to 2.1 this season).
She was a first-time All-Star with averages of 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. Spoiler: she was the only player in The W to average at least 17-7-6 this season, and only the second player in W history (Candace Parker, 2015) to accomplish the feat.
Ionescu is one of the most dynamic ball screen operators in the sport. She's a daring passer, aggressive driver, and fearless pull-up shooter. When the latter is going, there isn't much you can do with her.
2. Ezi Magbegor — Seattle Storm
Don't let the Seattle Storm's midseason addition of Tina Charles — and her insertion into the starting lineup eight games after her debut — throw you off the scent. Ezi Magbegor balled out this year.
Magbegor was a Day 1 starter for the first time in her career and flourished with more playing time. Her defensive prowess was evident early on, making life incredibly difficult for her foes. Because of her length and timing, teams didn't have much luck challenging her at the rim. And because of her mobility, attacking her in space — either with ball screens or in isolation — wasn't a fruitful endeavor, either. She was building out a legitimate DPOY case through the first month of the season.
That dwindled as the year went along. While she was and is more disciplined than she was last season, Magbegor still dealt with bouts of foul trouble. Bulkier centers can still move her on the block when given those matchups. Overall, Magbegor remains a high-level defedner that should be in DPOY or All-Defensive team talks for years to come.
What's gone under the radar is her growth offensively. She became a more willing jump-shooter, though the volume isn't at the point where teams have to worry altering her gameplan against her yet. I found myself floored by some of her self-created shots this season.
Color me intrigued moving forward.
1. Jackie Young — Las Vegas Aces
Young's case is pretty straightforward -- her numbers jumped across the board, she defended at an All-Defense level for a large chunk of the season, and she's turned herself into a reliable shooter. The latter point, her shooting growth, has spearheaded a lot of what she's now able to accomplish offensively. Aside from Sixth Player of the Year, this may be the slam dunk-iest award selection of the season.
For a deeper dive into her on and off-court growth, I'd highly recommend this piece from my guy Mark Schindler of WNBA.com.