WNBA ready to hand out its awards as playoff set to begin

NEW YORK (AP) With the playoffs set to begin later this week, the WNBA will start handing out its season awards.

Here's a look at the major awards and the top candidates to win them:

MVP: Elena Delle Donne looks to add to her hardware collection. The league's rookie of the year in 2013 has put up stellar numbers this season, guiding Chicago to the two-seed in the East. She won the scoring title for the first time, averaging 23.4 points per game. She also grabbed 8.4 rebounds - more than double her total from the previous year - and blocked 2 shots a game. Maya Moore could pose the biggest challenge to Delle Donne winning the award. The reigning MVP had another really strong season averaging 20.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists to help Minnesota get the No. 1 seed in the West.

Other contenders include Tina Charles of the New York Liberty, who was the best player on the league's best team. Candace Parker sat out the first half of the year to rest and Los Angeles' star came back refreshed. She helped the Sparks rebound from a 2-12 start to reach the playoffs. Parker averaged 19.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists which are easily MVP worthy numbers. The only drawback against Parker is that she played in only 16 games.

AP Pick: Delle Donne.

COACH OF YEAR: Fred Williams did a remarkable job getting the Tulsa Shock into the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Oklahoma. Williams was able to help the team overcome the preseason soap opera surrounding Glory Johnson, losing Skylar Diggins to a torn ACL after just eight games and the franchise's impending move to Dallas next season. His main competition will come from Bill Laimbeer and Stephanie White. Laimbeer, who was out of a job after New York missed the postseason for the second straight year last year, returned to guide the Liberty to the top record in the WNBA and the best mark in franchise history.

White in her first year in charge of Indiana guided the Fever to a third place finish in the East while navigating a host of injuries that caused the team to use 10 different lineups.

AP Pick: Laimbeer.

ROOKIE OF YEAR: Jewell Loyd left Notre Dame with a year of eligibility remaining to challenge herself in the WNBA. The first pick in the draft got off to a slow start, scoring in double figures only once in her first eight games. She turned it around reaching double figures for Seattle in eight of her final 10 contests. Kiah Stokes didn't come out with the same expectations as Loyd, but has been nearly as good. Stokes led all rookies in rebounds (6.4), field goal percentage (54.7) and blocks.

Indiana's Natalie Achonwa and Connecticut's Chelsea Grey were also rookies this year after missing last season due to injuries. Both deserve consideration for the award, but Achonwa missed a handful of games to help Canada qualify for the Olympics next year.

AP Pick: Loyd.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR: Brittney Griner missed the first seven games of the season after getting suspended by the league for a domestic violence arrest. She's the most dominant player in the WNBA on the defensive end, changing or altering shots. She averaged more than 4 blocks a game this season, the most in league history. It's only a matter of time until the league name's the award after Tamika Catchings. The five-time winner continues to play at such a high level on the defensive end of the court even as her minutes drop.

Stokes has helped give the Liberty the best interior defense in the league, averaging 2 blocks a game. While she may not be as dominant as Griner, she definitely made her presence felt. The rookie had a franchise-record eight against Connecticut earlier in the season.

AP Pick: Griner.

Other awards:

SIXTH-MAN: Stokes has been a consistent force for New York and while she probably won't win rookie of the year, should be the league's sixth-man. The UConn grad's main competition could come from the reigning winner Allie Quigley, who continued excelling in her role for the Chicago Sky.

MOST IMPROVED: This might be the toughest category to choose with four really good candidates in Stefanie Dolson, Kelsey Bone, Courtney Vandersloot and Shenise Johnson. Can't go wrong with any of the four. So going with eeny meeny miney moe, we'll choose Dolson, who raised her scoring and rebounding this season.

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