2021 WNBA Season Awards

The end of the 2021 season is upon us and that means awards for the 2021 season. I did not do every award possible, just a selection I thought worth noting. MVP, DPOY, ROY, MIP, and the All-WNBA teams. 

MVP:

Jonquel Jones

One of two easy choices along with rookie of the year. Jonquel Jones started the year on fire from 3 and made her case as MVP front runner early. Her 3 point shooting did not stay at 50% but 37% on healthy volume from your 6’6” big is still incredible. Jonquel is also the best defender among the MVP candidates. Jonquel replaced an All-Star and top 15 player in Alyssa Thomas and helped drive the Sun to new heights and favorites for the championship. There is basically nothing at the 4 or the 5 that Jonquel can’t do.  One incredible stat to sum up her year is that from 2019 to 2021 her usage jumped from 22% to 27% and yet she set a career high in TS% this season.

Defensive Player of the Year

Jonquel Jones

Since bigs tend to have a larger impact on team defense I tend to think this award should go to a big over a wing. So apologies to Brittney Sykes who had a great year, but this came down to Sylvia Fowles, Jonquel Jones, or A’ja Wilson. Fowles was great near the basket and remained among the best centers at defending the pick and roll. Jones gets the edge for her versatility. Her ability to shift between functioning as the 4 or the 5 in different lineups was elite, though Wilson could also do that.

What set Jones apart from Wilson was just how great the Sun were as a defensive team. The gap in defensive rating between the Sun and the 2nd place Aces was the same as the gap between the Aces and the Mercury in 7th. Of course Jones was surrounded by strong defenders, but this Sun team had the same good defenders last season just with Alyssa Thomas and not Jones. The Sun in 2020 had a defensive rating of 99.5 and in 2021 91.7. I’m not saying Jones is that much better a defender than Thomas, confounding factors like most of a year of Briann January this year contributed, but Jones is deserving of the DPOY.

Rookie of the Year

Michaela Onyenwere

Onyenwere averaged the most minutes per game at 22.5 of any rookie. On a per minute basis her numbers were not that much better than Aari McDonald, but Onyenwere’s ability to be an ok starter as a rookie sets her apart. She came off the bench at the end of the season, but still contributed. Her main statistical advantage over McDonald was her true shooting, where she was at 54% and McDonald was at 50%. McDonald did have a higher usage rate, which tends to hurt efficiency, but Onyenwere still gets the edge for me.

Most Improved Player

Jonquel Jones

So if I had an actual vote I’d strongly consider Kelsey Plum. Plum was not nearly this good last we saw her play in 2019 and managed to play this well after coming off a serious injury. Marina Mabrey and Brionna Jones are hurt by the vagaries of this award, as in my view both of them were quite good in 2020. Jonquel Jones, on the other and, made a real leap. Differences at the highest heights of basketball are magnified as they are often the difference between a good team and a favorite for a championship. In 2019 Jones was one all-star among a strong squad that pushed the Mystics to 5 games. This year, on another good team, Jones was the undisputed star of the team. Her ability to generate more offense for herself. As stated in her MVP case, her usage jumped from 22% to 27% and yet she set a career high in TS%.

6th Women of the Year

Natisha Hiedeman

Kelsey Plum would likely be my choice if I had an actual vote, but I resent this award going to Bill Laimbeer players because he refuses to start his best players for no apparent reason. Laimbeer is a good coach, but this tendency irrationally irks me. 

I also get to highlight how good Natisha Hiedeman was. She was the best offensive guard for the Sun and a key part of them surviving when either Briann January or Jasmine Thomas were out. Hiedeman shot 40% from 3 on 7.2 attempts per 36 minutes. 40% from 2 was not great, but good enough. She showed she could run the Sun offense with a more than 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. As we move towards the playoffs it will be interesting to see if Curt Miller will turn to more Hiedeman instead of January if the Sun struggle to score. Hiedeman has been good enough to make it worth at least considering.

Brittney Griner

First team All-WNBA

Jonquel Jones

Breanna Stewart

Jewell Loyd

Skylar Diggins-Smith

Second team All-WNBA

Sylvia Fowles

Tina Charles

A’ja Wilson

Kayla McBride

Courtney Vandersloot

Quick thoughts on All-WNBA teams:

Sylvia Fowles vs. Brittney Griner was a coin flip for me. I think Griner was just a bit more responsible for her team’s success and as the best offensive center in basketball she did enough to earn the spot. Fowles requires her teammates to get her the ball closer to the basket and is a bit more dependent on the team around her than Griner. Then again, even in a year where Griner looked better defensively, Fowles is better. Tough choices. If I had an actual vote and the positions rules were strict I might have had trouble since sneaking Wilson in as a small forward is definitely cheating, but whatever. She was clearly deserving of a spot.

The hardest choice was for the non-Courtney Vandersloot guard spot on second team. I considered players who spent a lot of time at the 3 like Kaleah Copper. If Copper had been closer to the 35% from 3 of 2020 she likely would have gotten it, but 30% was not good enough. Originally I had Arike Ogunbowale, but her lack of defense and relatively poor efficiency, 51% true shooting, made me reconsider. Jasmine Thomas was as great on defense as normal, but other than hitting the spot up 3s did not do enough on offense. Ariel Atkins defended and shot well and showed some growth as an on ball shot creator, but did not get to the rim much and had an even assist to turnover ratio as she did not make plays for others at the rate of others contending for this spot.

In the end, the efficiency of Kayla McBride paired with her decent defense got the spot for me. McBride did benefit from having the lowest usage rate of the players considered, but even then she had a pretty good assist rate. The ability to be as effective off ball as she was is a skill in its own right as she played next to Layshia Clarendon and Aerial Powers, two guards better with the ball in their hands.