With the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game coming Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC) in Chicago, it’s a good time to look at how the season is shaping up and revisit and update our preseason picks. The Chicago Sky, Las Vegas Aces, Connecticut Sun, Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics appear to be the title contenders, while no other team has better than a .500 record. That said, it is worth noting again that the defending champion Sky were 16-16 going into the playoffs last season, so don’t count out any team just yet.
The All-Star Game will feel like another celebration for the Sky, with four players — Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Kahleah Copper and Emma Meesseman — playing. Each is having a strong season, and there are a lot of other players leaguewide making noise individually. Which one of them are best positioned right now for league awards? Which teams are favored to make the WNBA Finals? Which will be the last team standing?
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel look at who and what have stood out most to this point.
Which team or player has been the biggest surprise — good or bad — so far this season?
Pelton: This was supposed to be a building season for the Atlanta Dream, who maintained cap flexibility for 2023 with one-year deals in free agency and trades for players on expiring contracts. Instead, behind a top-tier defense and the production of No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard, the Dream are well positioned for their first playoff trip since 2018.
Voepel: Agree on Atlanta. The Dream were last in many preseason lists, including our ESPN Power Rankings. With a new coach (Tanisha Wright) and after parting ways with last season’s leading scorer, Courtney Williams, among other contributors, Atlanta was projected as a franchise almost starting from scratch. That has been a good thing, with the dividends paying off earlier than expected. Along with Howard’s strong first season, an older WNBA rookie — 26-year-old guard Kristy Wallace — also has been a contributor. Cheyenne Parker, who played 13 games last year before pregnancy leave, has started every game this season. Franchise stalwart Tiffany Hayes has just returned from injury, which helps, and Georgia native AD Durr has responded well to being traded to the Dream.
Philippou: The Minnesota Lynx coming in at 11th in the standings as the All-Star break nears, impacted in part due to bad injury luck early on in the season, was not on my bingo card. The Lynx have started to find their stride as of late offensively, coming off a 102-71 win over the Aces on Sunday. I’m curious to see whether they can string together enough wins at this point (and get some help from other teams) to still make the playoffs. It would be disappointing to basketball fans everywhere if Sylvia Fowles‘ career ends unceremoniously in the regular season.
At this point of the season, which player is the front-runner for MVP?
Breanna Stewart puts up 20 points as the Storm go on to blow out the Fever 73-57.
Voepel: Seattle’s Breanna Stewart is the front-runner in terms of individual performance, but we’ll see how much team results impact the winner of this award. Chicago seems like the hottest team now, but the Sky are also very balanced with six players averaging between 13.9 and 10.3 points. Who is Chicago’s team MVP? Parker is second on the team in scoring and assists and leads in rebounding. Even with a lower scoring average than we’re used to seeing from MVPs, might Parker get the third such honor of her WNBA career?
What about Las Vegas? A’ja Wilson, the 2020 MVP, is the top candidate there, but Kelsey Plum will get some looks, too, although a true guard hasn’t won the honor since Diana Taurasi in 2009. The Los Angeles Sparks‘ Nneka Ogwumike is also playing at MVP level, but the Sparks will need a big climb to give her a legitimate shot at it.
Pelton: Stewart. In terms of advanced stats, Stewart is outpacing her 2018 MVP performance thanks in large part to sure-handed play. Stewart’s 1.3 turnovers per game are a career low and she has the league’s lowest turnover percentage (6.5% of plays she finishes), per Basketball-Reference.com. The Storm haven’t played at a 2018 level, the biggest obstacle to Stewart’s MVP chances, but that’s largely because the team has struggled without her. The 25-point differential per 100 possessions in Seattle’s net rating with Stewart on the floor and on the bench, according to WNBA Advanced Stats, is the WNBA’s largest.
Philippou: To me it’s a “1A” and “1B” situation, and I keep going back and forth between Wilson and Stewart. Wilson is the centerpiece of so much of what Vegas does, while putting up career highs in field goal percentage and rebounds and developing a very respectable 3-point shot in the offseason (34.8%). Stewart, meanwhile, kept afloat a Seattle team that saw a lot of lineup flux early on and, even since, hasn’t consistently gotten a lot from others offensively. While a lot of advanced stats — such as Her Hoop Stats’ win shares or Kevin’s WARP metric — slightly favor Stewart, I’m hoping the final five weeks of the regular season will give us a more definitive answer.
The past five seasons, the MVP has gone to the best player on the best team in the league. My question, as Voepel noted, is if Chicago maintains the top spot, who do you choose from such a well-balanced group?
Who is your pick at this point for rookie of the year?
Rhyne Howard knocks down the shot for three points.
Pelton: Rhyne Howard, and although Washington’s Shakira Austin has played well for a rookie, it’s not even close.
Voepel: The pro game has agreed with Howard. Credit to Atlanta and general manager Dan Padover for trading up to assure they could pick her. So far, she has been what the Dream were hoping for and is definitely the ROY front-runner.
That said, No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith has been a bright spot in another difficult season for the Indiana Fever, as she leads all rookies and is in the top eight overall in rebounding, plus has a double-figure scoring average. This season some older players, like Chicago’s Rebekah Gardner, are also among the WNBA rookies. Gardner has been a really important factor off the Sky’s bench. The fact that she is a WNBA rookie even though she turns 32 on Sunday shows yet again how hard it is to get a roster spot, since she has been a professional player a long time overseas.
Philippou: I’d go with Rhyne Howard as well given how excellent she has been for the Dream, who have had to rely on her even more than expected with Tiffany Hayes missing the majority of the season to date with a knee injury. But I don’t think this race is entirely over due to Austin’s outstanding play for the Mystics. The former Ole Miss standout might not put up the gaudiest stats but is such a difference-marker — especially on the defensive end and on the glass — for Mike Thibault’s squad as it has navigated the absence of Elena Delle Donne at various points this season.
Who has stood out as the defensive player of the year?
Philippou: For now, Stewart. She’s the anchor for the top defense in the WNBA. The Storm allow 12.7 points per 100 possessions more with her off the court than on it — the best mark on her team. I think Wilson is also in the conversation, as well as Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones.
Pelton: Stewart. This award remains wide-open, not least because the Storm — who boast the WNBA’s best defensive rating — have a pair of contenders in Stewart and Ezi Magbegor, the latter the league’s leading shot-blocker. Seattle coach Noelle Quinn playfully refused to pick last week when asked who she thinks is the team’s best candidate. Stewart leads the WNBA in steals per game and the Storm have played better defensively with her on the court, even after accounting for the random draw of opponents’ 3-point shooting. So I’d lean Stewart over Magbegor and Jones.
Voepel: Part of why Stewart is such a strong MVP candidate is how effective she is on the defensive end. This is one honor she hasn’t received yet in her WNBA career, but 2022 could be the year she does it. As Kevin said, though, it could be interesting if she and Magbegor end up splitting votes. Jones is always in the running, as is Fowles, who has won it four times, including last year. If Fowles wins again in 2022, her final season, she would tie retired Indiana legend Tamika Catchings for the most DPOY awards.
Who is your most improved player?
Sabrina Ionescu attacks the rack for an impressive basket.
Philippou: I’ve been pretty vocal on the Jackie Young train since her hot start to the season and am sticking with her. Young’s emergence helped turn Las Vegas into a sure-fire title contender, and it has been quite the thrill to see the former Notre Dame star, known more for her midrange game, light it up from 3 this season; she has made more 3-pointers thus far in 2022 than she hit across her previous three WNBA seasons combined, and she shot just 25% from the arc in 2021! Players like Wilson and Plum get the majority of headlines out of Vegas, and understandably so, but Young’s shooting splits of 48.7% from the field, 45.2% from 3 and 83.6% from the free throw line, especially given she’s working so hard on the defensive end, are worth the recognition, too.
I also wouldn’t mind a look at Magbegor here.
Pelton: I’m going with my preseason pick, Sabrina Ionescu of the New York Liberty. Fully healthy, Ionescu has played at an All-WNBA level this season, a dramatic change from an uneven performance in 2021.
Voepel: After her second triple-double this season, Candace Parker said she thought some players were going to make that stat a pretty regular occurrence in the WNBA, and named Ionescu first. Parker is right: For a healthy Ionescu, triple-double watches are much more common, just like they were for her at Oregon. A terrible ankle injury in her third game as a rookie in 2020 delayed her development, but she has caught up.
How does your All-WNBA First Team look different now from your preseason picks?
Pelton: My frontcourt is still the same — Jones, Wilson and Stewart — but I’d have Ionescu and Plum as my two guards at the moment.
Voepel: The big three post players have been what we expected and stay put on the first team. For guards now, let’s go with Plum and Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot.
Philippou: I’d still go with Stewart and Wilson, but I’d replace Jones with Nneka Ogwumike (Jones would make my All-WNBA second team). For guards, Plum and Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury.
Are you sticking with the same teams to reach the WNBA Finals?
Candace Parker leads the fast break and dishes to Kahleah Copper at the end of the court for her 1,500th career assist.
Philippou: I’ll go with Chicago-Las Vegas, a total change from my Connecticut-Seattle preseason prediction. To me, the Sky and Aces are the two best teams in the league so far this season. But I also wouldn’t be shocked if the Sun and Storm make a run to the Finals.
Pelton: I picked Connecticut-Chicago, and they are both in my top tier of contenders, joined by Las Vegas. Of those three, I’d take Chicago and Las Vegas as the most likely to get to the Finals.
Voepel: I had Connecticut-Seattle, and I’m switching up on one. In the preseason, there was the standard uncertainty of how Chicago would respond as the defending champion. But the Sky have erased that and now look like strong contenders to end the back-to-back WNBA champions’ drought. And while Las Vegas has been one of the most impressive teams thus far, I’ll still go with Seattle making the Finals in Sue Bird‘s final season.
Has your predicted champ changed?
Voepel: Chicago vs. Seattle could be an epic Finals matchup. Seattle’s Bird would be going for her fifth and last title, while Tina Charles tries to win her first. The Sky would attempt to match the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks as back-to-back champions and give Parker her third title. I picked Connecticut in the preseason, but the Sky right now are hard to pick against.
Pelton: I had Connecticut in the preseason, too, but I’m going with Chicago to be the first repeat champions in two decades. Since Copper returned from overseas play, the Sky are 13-3 with a plus-5.9 point differential — both of those marks are tops in the league.
Philippou: I’m also leaning toward the Sky after tabbing Seattle in the preseason. I think their depth in a series against the Aces, say, or even the Storm or Sun, could be a difference-maker. Also, with Parker indicating this could be her final season, Chicago will want to send her out on top, and it has three Finals MVPs in its starting five to help get them there.