Monday, May 23, 2022

2021 WNBA award picks, Finals prediction: Jonquel Jones runs away with MVP; Sun over Aces in Finals

Another exciting WNBA season has come to a close, and on Thursday the playoffs will begin with the single-elimination first round. But before we get to the games, it’s time to recognize this season’s best performers. Here’s a look at who should win each award, as well as a Finals prediction. 

MVP: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

Some seasons there are real debates about who should be the MVP, and some seasons there are not. This is one of the latter. Jonquel Jones is going to be the 2021 WNBA MVP, it’s just a matter of when they officially make the announcement. 

Statistical accomplishments, importance to her team, team success — Jones checks all the boxes. She put up a career-high 19.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. That was good for fourth in scoring, first in rebounding and made her one of just two players to average a double-double. With Jones in the lineup, the Sun went 24-3, and when she was out they were just 2-3. Overall, the Sun closed the season on a 14-game winning streak to claim the best record in the league and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Jones was, without a doubt, the best player in the league this season. 

Defensive Player of the Year: Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

In the history of the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, only three players have won it three times: Tamika Catchings, Sheryl Swoopes and Sylvia Fowles. Soon, Fowles should join Catchings, who won it five times, as the only players with four such trophies. 

After a frustrating 2020 season in which she was limited to just eight total games due to a calf injury, Fowles bounced back with her best season since 2018. In particular, she was relentless on the defensive end, where she anchored a Lynx unit that finished fourth in the league with a 98.0 defensive rating. At 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, Fowles finished second in the league in both categories and wasn’t far away from becoming the first player in WNBA history to average two steals and two blocks per game. 

Rookie of the Year: Michaela Onyenwere, New York Liberty

There’s no contest here. Michaela Onyenwere began her WNBA career with an 18-point, five-rebound performance on opening night, and has been the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year ever since. Even as her production faded a bit down the stretch, she still did more than enough to hold off any challengers, largely by being one of the only rookies to actually play regular minutes at 22.5 per game. (No one else averaged more than 16.5 minutes.) Onyenwere also led all rookies in scoring at 8.6 points per game, which made this the first rookie class since 2005 not to have any double-digit scorers. 

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6th Woman of the Year: Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby, Las Vegas Aces

OK, perhaps this is cheating a bit, but it’s almost impossible to make a clear distinction between Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby, so we’re going to pick both of them for Co-6th Woman of the Year. 

Plum led all bench players with 14.8 points per game, and did more in the scoring and playmaking departments. Hamby, who wasn’t far behind at 11.6 points per game, did more when it came to crashing the glass and playing defense. If you want to look at advanced metrics, they are almost dead-even there, too. Plum finished with 3.2 win shares, while Hamby had 3.3. And, of course, they both play for the Aces so there’s no way to make any distinctions in terms of team performance. 

Most Improved Player: Brionna Jones, Connecticut Sun

Jonquel Jones earned most of the headlines in Connecticut this season, but she wasn’t the only reason for the Sun’s success. In fact, she wasn’t even the only Jones doing work in the frontcourt. Building off her success in the bubble last season, Brionna Jones put together a career year, finishing with 14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. With Alyssa Thomas out for most of the season due to a torn Achilles tendon, Jones took full advantage of the extra opportunities afforded her. Her ability to step up and provide another scoring threat and interior presence was an important part of the Sun’s success this season. 

Coach of the Year: Curt Miller, Connecticut Sun

Back in 2017, Curt Miller was named Coach of the Year for leading the upstart Sun to their first playoff appearance in five seasons. Now, Miller should win the honor again, though this time for turning the Sun into the best team in the league. Under Miller’s guidance, the Sun closed the season on a franchise-record 14-game winning streak to claim the best record in the league (26-6) and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. If Miller is named Coach of the Year, he’ll become the sixth coach in WNBA history to become a multiple-time winner. 

Finals: Sun over Aces in four

Continuing a theme of Sun dominance, we’re taking the Sun to win their first title in franchise history over the Aces in four games. The Sun have been strong all season long, and particularly dominant since the Olympic break. Of their 14 straight wins to close the season, 12 of them came by double-digits. 

They have the presumptive MVP in Jonquel Jones, the best defense in the league by some margin, a bye to the semifinals, homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs and just got Alyssa Thomas back in a surprise return. Everything is lining up for the Sun to win it all this season, and that’s before you take into account that they were 3-0 this season against the Aces — the main challenger — and led for a large majority of all three of those games. 

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