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Our 2021 WNBA Award Picks

Jonquel Jones and Sylvia Fowles lead the way.
Sylvia Fowles holding a basketball

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know. This week, he does it on Wednesday.

WNBA award selections are never easy. As if anyone needed any reminding, yet again this year’s regular season showcased just how much talent is in the league. I was among the 50 national and WNBA-market media members who voted on the league’s end-of-season awards. Here’s a look at my selections:

MVP: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

By the end of the regular season, Jones had emerged as the front-runner. She finished the year first in both win shares per 40 minutes and overall win shares, despite playing more than 100 fewer minutes than Phoenix’s Brittney Griner, who was No. 2 in win shares. Jones was No. 4 in scoring (averaging 19.4 points per game) and led the league in rebounding (with 11.2 rebounds per game). She also anchored Connecticut's stifling defense, which was the WNBA’s best by a significant margin.

What makes Jones’s campaign even more impressive is that she put up the kind of production she did after electing not to play last season. After opting out of the Wubble, she emerged as not only a more prolific force around the basket, but also from the perimeter, shooting a career-high 4.3 three-pointers per game. The Sun enter the postseason as clear favorites to take home this year’s WNBA title, having earned the top seed behind a 26–6 campaign. In addition to forthcoming individual accolades, Jones will hope to see some championship hardware.

Other Candidates: Breanna Stewart (SEA), A’ja Wilson (LAV), Sylvia Fowles (MIN), Tina Charles (WAS), Brittney Griner (PHX)

Defensive Player of the Year: Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

I voted for Fowles after the future Hall of Famer was a dominant force in the middle of Minnesota’s defense. Fowles finished the season tied with Los Angeles’s Brittney Sykes with 1.8 steals per game and just two blocks shy of Griner’s league-leading 58 mark. Fowles was tied with Jones for first in defensive win shares, per Basketball-Reference, and helped Minnesota improve on a defense that surrendered more than 101 points per 100 possessions last season, largely without her on the court.

Before the 2020 campaign, Fowles had never missed a game as part of the Lynx. And as we reported in June, Fowles and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve exchanged their thoughts on what realistic goals the 6' 6" center could achieve before this season. They wanted to see an improvement in Fowles’s steals, blocks and deflections totals as well as her communication level on defense. The added attention to detail certainly paid off.

On official ballots, we voted for only one player, but if I were going to include a second-place finisher, it would be Jonquel Jones, who was the centerpiece of a Sun defense that allowed just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. Los Angeles’s Brittney Sykes was also a terror for opposing guards all year long.

Here’s what the rest of what my WNBA all-defensive teams looked like:

First Team:
F: Jonquel Jones
F: Breanna Turner
C: Sylvia Fowles
G: Brittney Sykes
G: Jasmine Thomas

Second Team:
F: DeWanna Bonner
F: Breanna Stewart
C: Brittney Griner
G: Briann January
G: Courtney Vandersloot

Sixth Woman of the Year: Kelsey Plum, Las Vegas Aces

Plum edged out Aces teammate and two-time winner Dearica Hamby, Sky guard Allie Quiqley and Wings forward Isabelle Harrison. In her first season back after tearing her Achilles before the 2020 campaign, Plum starred, scoring a career-high 14.8 points per game off Las Vegas’s bench. Eight times this season she scored 20 or more points, proving to be both an efficient and effective jolt for the league’s No. 2 seed. By September, Plum was playing her best basketball of the season, averaging 21.7 points, 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game. For her efforts, earlier this week she was named the Western Conference Player of the Month.

Most Improved Player: Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun

Jones put up a solid campaign in 2020, emerging as a steady starter for the Sun, but she further elevated her play this season. She logged career highs in minutes (30.6 per game), points (14.7 per game) and rebounds (7.3 per game), all while shooting a career-high 10.6 times per contest. While her field goal percentage dropped slightly, she still finished third in the WNBA, at 56.0%. The 25-year-old center also ranked third among players across the league in win shares and eighth in PER, of players who notched at least 100 minutes. She made her first-career All-Star team this past July and is fully deserving of more accolades this fall.

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Other candidates: Marina Mabrey (DAL), Sami Whitcomb (NYL), Kelsey Plum (LAS)

Rookie of the Year: Michaela Onyenwere, New York Liberty

I covered the Rookie of the Year race last week and made the case for why Onyenwere was the clear choice to take home the award.

On the prospect of being the Rookie of the Year, she told me: “It would definitely be an honor. I definitely didn’t come into this season like, ‘This is what I want to do,’ but to potentially have it, and just see how far I’ve come, and with the growth that I’ve seen in myself—I am proud of myself.”

Here is what my All-Rookie team looked like. (Note: The official ballot instructions were to select five rookies regardless of position.)

Michaela Onyenwere, NYL
Aari McDonald, ATL
Charli Collier, DAL
DiDi Richards, NYL
Dana Evans, MIN

Coach of the Year: Curt Miller, Connecticut Sun

I also covered my Coach of the Year choice in full last week. But in short, what made the Sun’s season so impressive was how they transformed into a defensive juggernaut.

All-WNBA Teams

Among the most challenging parts of the awards process was selecting the All-WNBA teams. One reason is that the league is so rich with top-end talent that there’s a seemingly endless list of high-level players who deserve consideration. The other is that the ballot instructions call for voters to select the player at the “position in which she is a starter,” making an already difficult process even more onerous.

The greatest omission as a result of the latter rule comes at the center position, where one of Fowles, Tina Charles and Griner will be omitted as a result of the positional requirement. All three start at center. Figuring out how to rank each of the three players was perhaps the most difficult decision of all, as each is deserving of making one of the league’s two All-WNBA teams.

Fowles, as I stated above, was my choice for Defensive Player of the Year. But on top of her defensive prowess, she remained a force on the offensive end, averaging 16 points per game on 64% shooting from the field. Charles led the WNBA in scoring for the second time this season, averaging just under 24 points per game. For much of the year, she was among the league’s MVP front-runners, but her play tailed off ever so slightly down the stretch of the season as she dealt with a gluteal strain. It should also be noted that even though Washington missed the playoffs, Charles did just about everything she could all year just to put the Mystics on the precipice of the postseason. Griner finished second in scoring, averaging 20.5 points per game. The Mercury center was also tied for fifth in rebounds per game, but averaged 9.5 boards per contests, just 0.1 less than Charles, who was tied for fourth. For her efforts—especially on offense, she was also No. 2 in the league in overall win shares.

In the end, in what was a series of coin-flip decisions, I put Fowles on my first team and Charles on my second team, giving the Mystics’ center the slightest of edges for often being the lone dominant force on her team and for nearly willing Washington to the playoffs. I don’t feel good about it, though.

Here’s a look at my full first and second teams:

First Team:
F: Jonquel Jones
F: Breanna Stewart
C: Sylvia Fowles
G: Skylar Diggins-Smith
G: Courtney Vandersloot

Second Team:
F: A’ja Wilson
F: Napheesa Collier
C: Tina Charles
G: Jewell Loyd
G: Arike Ogunbowale

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