WNBA award season: Should Most Improved be replaced with Comeback award, such as Sabrina Ionescu?

It's inching closer to award season in the WNBA and the looming question is which one of Breanna Stewart or A'ja Wilson will win a second MVP. Secondarily, can a team (Las Vegas Aces) have two MVP candidates (Wilson and Kelsey Plum)? Should Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith be in contention?

While MVP is atop everyone's minds, there's plenty going on down the ballot for Sixth Player, Rookie, Defensive and Most Improved player awards. Plus there's Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year.

Outside of Sixth Player, which Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones has appeared to lock up, it is far from a consensus decision. And there is one award in particular that poses frustration for this particular voter season after season.

Most Improved Player should be scrapped from the ballot. It is the most subjective of them all and can hinge largely on usage and roster construction over a player's year-over-year improvement. And isn't everyone improving anyway? Most players make that "jump" to pro-level play at some point.

The 2021 ballot for Most Improved Player stipulates with a note that the award is "designed to honor a player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons." (The 2022 ballots are not out yet.) What is often analyzed is a player's increase in scoring and production. Most likely that's as a result of a move from the bench to the starting lineup and/or the reliance on that player after the loss of a high producer.

Jackie Young's Most Improved candidacy 

Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young is largely viewed as the leading candidate for this award and the No. 1 draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2019, has certainly improved.

Her 16 ppg are up 31% from 12.2 ppg in 2021 playing about the same number of minutes. Her average points per play of 1.07 ranks in the 94th percentile of the league, up from 0.99 and the 84th percentile in 2020, per Her Hoop Stats. And the most glaring change is her 3-point percentage, which skyrocketed from 25% (5-of-20) to 43.6% (41-of-94). That's the third-best clip in the league.

But here's the bit about using that stat. It's largely because Becky Hammon, a coach who pushes the pace and emphasizes space, took over for Bill Laimbeer, who falls far below almost anyone in wanting to shoot 3s. That's the bit about "Most Improved" — it can largely fall out of a players' hands and into circumstance.

Sabrina Ionescu for ... Comeback Player? 

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu is the other leading contender and her candidacy opens up an interesting ripple. One that shows a category that should at least be added to the docket in the coming years, if not replace Most Improved all together.

"[Most Improved Player] is not intended to be given to a player who has made a 'comeback,' " the ballot stipulates, and that's a label Ionescu might fall under. The No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft played three games her rookie year and was still dealing with her ankle recovery in year 2. So, technically making a comeback even though most would attribute that as being out for the year or portion of it prior.

Her 17.5 ppg are up 49% from 11.8 ppg in 2021 and again at around the same minutes played. She's hitting at a better clip overall, from 3 and at the free throw line. Her rebounds (7.1) increased 25% (5.7 to 7.1) as did her steals by nearly double (0.6 to 1.16).

What Ionescu is doing all around the stat sheet is rare even if the sample size is small. She is the only player to average at least 10 points, six rebounds and six assists over a career (14.8/6.3/6.1), per Across the Timeline data. Fifteen players have averaged 10/3/3 and only nine players have averaged at least 14/3/3.

Ionescu joins Candace Parker (2016) as the only two players to reach 500 points, 200 rebounds and 150 assists in a season in WNBA history, per ESPN. She stands at 541/220/199 currently, up from 352/171/183 last year. That's certainly an improvement, too. The knock against her is often "but this is what we expected from Sabrina," which seems wholly unfair to put that on a player.

Instead, if we're to keep Most Improved (because it's probably never going away), we should add a Comeback award. There are unfortunately so many high-profile injuries — Paige Bueckers' torn ACL is an unfortunate reminder — that a ballot could easily support it every season. And players might be more closely honored for their growth.

Schedule of WNBA awards

The league announced Friday when the end-of-season awards will be announced, including "positionless" All-WNBA teams. The first and second teams will be voted on regardless of the player's position, scrapping the previous format of two guards, two forwards and one center.

Aug. 15: Peak Performers

Aug. 19: Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award

Aug. 22: Executive of the Year

Aug. 25: Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie Team

Aug. 26: Coach of the Year

Aug. 29: Most Improved Player

Sept. 1: Sixth Player of the Year

Sept. 2: Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive Team

Sept. 7: Most Valuable Player

Sept. 15: All-WNBA Team

Play of the week 

The Las Vegas Aces and Chelsea Gray give a whole new meaning to the Sunday scaries.

This assist by Gabby Williams was also filthy.

And you know we love a good block party.

Check out the angle from under the basket.

What you may have missed

  • That was quick. The Connecticut Sun's Alyssa Thomas is the third player with multiple triple-doubles in WNBA history. She joins Sabrina Ionescu and Candace Parker, who each notched their third this season. Sheryl Swoopes had two. For those still counting, there have been 18 triple-doubles in WNBA history and seven so far this season. 

  • WNBA-adjacent news: UConn star Paige Bueckers will miss the entire 2022-23 collegiate season with a torn ACL in her left knee she sustained playing pick-up basketball. Bueckers has worked through injuries almost her entire Huskies career and remains eligible to enter the 2023 WNBA draft if she chooses. But that timeline could be pushed back now. 

  • In an expected, but still heart-wrenching, decision, Brittney Griner was found guilty of drug charges in a Russian court on Thursday and sentenced to nine years in prison. The verdict is largely considered a formality as a negotiations on a prisoner swap remain the most likely way to bring her home. 

  • Players around the league reacted in support of their teammate and friend. The first game of the night was held in Connecticut with Griner's Mercury team in town. They held an emotional 42 seconds of solidarity and players wiped tears as they took the court for tipoff. 

Playoff picture 

Five teams are in, but no positions are locked yet. And only one is eliminated. It's going to be a fight down the final week of the season (and yes, we know we've been saying that for weeks).

The top of the standings became more jumbled when the Wings upset the Aces on Thursday night. There are three games this weekend between top-five teams.

TV schedule 

Friday

Sparks (12-19, No. 10 in the standings) at Dream (13-18, No. 7), 7:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — The Sparks are one game back of the Dream and could use this win. Los Angeles still has to play the Mystics once and Sun twice in the climb to the playoffs.

Mystics (20-12, No. 5) at Sky (23-8, No. 1), 8 p.m. ET on NBA TV — The Sky lead the standings by one game and have a tough final stretch with the Sun, Storm, Aces and Mercury. They're 2-1 against the Mystics.

Saturday

Fever (5-28, eliminated) at Wings (15-16, No. 6), 8 p.m. ET on NBA TV — The Wings have defeated every team above them in the standings at least once after their win against the Aces on Thursday night. Their winning streak has them holding the sixth spot, the highest they could clinch.

Liberty (13-18, No. 7) at Mercury (13-19, No. 9), 10 p.m. ET on NBA TV — The Liberty are two games out of the sixth seed, but more importantly are only one-half game ahead of the ninth-place Mercury. Phoenix is clawing for its spot.

Sunday

Sun (22-10, No. 3) at Sky (23-8, No. 1), 1 p.m. ET on ABC – The Sun took care of the Mercury on Thursday night while the Wings gave them some help. The Sun and Aces are now each 1.5 games behind the Sky. Connecticut has lost all three to Chicago.

Sparks (12-19, No. 10) at Mystics (20-12, No. 5), 3 p.m. ET on ESPN3 — The Sparks are a full game out of a playoff spot and are on a five-game losing skid. Only the Fever (15 in a row) have it worst right now.

Aces (22-10, No. 2) at Storm (20-12, No. 4), 3 p.m. ET on ABC — It's Sue Bird's final regular season game in Seattle and the national broadcast is in town for a sold-out crowd of more than 18,000 fans. They split the two games so far and will meet again in the season finale on Aug. 14.

Dream (13-18, No. 8) at Lynx (12-20, No. 11), 7 p.m. ET on Amazon Prime — The final matchup of the weekend could be a large decider in the final playoff spot. The Dream are trying to hold onto it while the Lynx frantically attempt to climb back from 1.5 games out.

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