2012 WNBA Most Improved Player Watch: Five Players Who Have Had Early-Season Success

Chicago Sky guard Epiphanny Prince is the league's leading scorer and has dramatically approved her 3-point percentage to 52.8%. If she maintains this pace, it will be hard not to consider her the WNBA's Most Improved Player. Reid Compton-US PRESSWIRE

All reports out of Chicago are that the Sky were more than happy not to endure another thriller in beating the Seattle Storm on Wednesday evening.

Nevertheless, Sky guard Epiphanny Prince still found a way to demonstrate that she's taken her game to a new level this season.

Despite a 6-for-16 shooting night, Prince was 4-for-8 from the 3-point line to finish with 17 points, a season-high 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. Although it wasn't her most spectacular game in terms of needing to carry the team to victory in the waning moments of the game, it was arguably her most well-rounded game of the young season.

What was so special about Wednesday night's performance statistically is that Prince wasn't just a scorer, which could be frightening if she keeps it up. She already leads the league in scoring, which is an amazing statement on its own given that she's playing with a dominant MVP candidate in Sky center Syliva Fowles. If she can continue to be as efficient as she was on Wednesday as a distributor, the Sky will become an even bigger threat in the Eastern Conference.

But the question is whether Prince has actually improved or simply benefiting from getting a few more minutes per game and a brighter green light. And if there's some actual improvement there, where might she stand among Most Improved Player candidates?

Valuable Contributions Ratio

It's awfully early to begin ranking MIP candidates, but it's not too early to begin identifying and narrowing the field with Valuable Contributions Ratio (VCR).

VCR was described at length yesterday, but a brief description of how it can be used for MIP candidates is as follows.

Every year there are players who improve their productivity and by extension their value simply because they got more minutes. However, the best way to define "improvement" is by looking at whether a player did more with the minutes they got - did they actually demonstrate improvement in terms of contributing more in the minutes they got or did they just contribute at exactly the same rate in more minutes?

Taking that question of whether she's actually doing more with the minutes she's playing, Prince's VCR suggests that she definitely has improved her game substantially and made herself a top candidate for the MIP award.

Player Name 2011 VCR 2012 VCR Change MPG
Karima Christmas, Tulsa Shock 0.67 2.02 1.35 9.9
Ewelina Kobryn, Seattle Storm
0.66 1.61 0.95 10.5
Epiphanny Prince, Chicago Sky 1.16 1.85 0.69 35
Jasmine Thomas, Washington Mystics 0.68 1.34 0.66 16.2
Matee Ajavon, Washington Mystics 1.02 1.56 0.54 22.6
Plenette Pierson, N.Y. Liberty 1.18 1.64 0.46 21.3
Kristi Toliver, L.A. Sparks 0.94 1.38 0.43 32.6
Tamika Catchings, Indiana Fever 1.52 1.92 0.40 29.8
DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix Mercury 1.18 1.54 0.36 35
Tamera Young, Chicago Sky 0.76 1.05 0.29 24.1
Rebekkah Brunson, Minnesota Lynx 1.12 1.39 0.27 27.88
Monica Wright, Minnesota Lynx 0.68 0.94 0.26 20.11
Sylvia Fowles, Chicago Sky 1.81 2.07 0.26 33.57
Tan White, Connecticut Sun 0.75 0.99 0.24 9.25
Sophia Young, S.A. Silver Stars 1.12 1.32 0.20 32.42

Top 15 increases in VCR from 2011 to 2012.

Observations

  • Minutes matter: Does Karima Christmas have an argument for being the league's most improved player? Maybe, statistically at least. The problem is she still has yet to play in more than 20 minutes in a game despite earning two starts this season. Although the improvement - especially the 40% 3-point shooting - is noteworthy, a player that plays so few minutes would have a tough time making a case for the award. Christmas, Kobryn, and White should probably be knocked off the list for that reason alone.
  • How much did you really improve if your minutes went down? Jasmine Thomas is having a solid season, with her scoring efficiency shooting way up due to a 44.4% 3-point percentage as well as becoming a more efficient distributor. However, in addition to being a second-year player - meaning some improvement should be expected with experience - Thomas is one of six players on the above list whose minutes have gone down this season (Ajavon, Catchings, Fowles, Pierson, and White are the others). A decline in minutes would inflate a player's VCR, particularly if they improved their contribution to the team. However the bigger question for some of the non-starters in that group is whether we can really say they're among the most improved players in the league if they're losing minutes. It's worth noting that Pierson has been playing through an injury that has impacted her minutes.
  • Brunson, Catchings, Fowles and Young? Does it really even make sense to include a player that has been a MVP candidate, All-WNBA performer, or All-Defensive First Team in the last five years as a MIP candidate? That question might especially apply to Brunson, who was an All-Star starter last season and had a pretty strong case for All-WNBA honors but has improved her scoring efficiency quite dramatically in similar minutes this season. It would seem like the MIP award should reward players who went from marginal to valuable contributors moreso than those who might just be adding to their All-Star portfolio this season.

Top Candidates

Prince, G, Chicago Sky

Wows: Prince really has improved so dramatically that it's hard to ignore her as a candidate. Most notable in the early going is her 52.8% 3-point shooting, which would be a WNBA record if she were to keep it up for 34 games. For some context, she shot only 37.3% last season. Knocking down all those threes more often has certainly helped in becoming the WNBA's scoring leader this season with 24.3 points per game; statistically has gone from a relatively inefficient volume scorer to an efficient MVP candidate. That's ignoring all the clutch shooting.

Wonders: Like the stars above, you could probably say that Prince isn't truly a MIP candidate - she was an All-Star last season and started all but 7 games last season. The bigger question for Prince is whether she can maintain

Toliver, G, Los Angeles Sparks

Wows: While Prince has improved her 3-point shooting this season, Toliver has seen a big jump in her 2-point percentage (from 41.9% to 52.6%) thus far this season while maintaining a 3-point percentage above 40%. It's also worth noting that she has increased her assist ratio slightly to 22.56%, which puts her more in the range of a true distributor as the Sparks' starting point guard.

Wonders: People have been calling this a breakout season for Toliver, but she also started last season extremely well. The difference was that the Sparks had more options in the backcourt and she struggled when she went from reserve to starter. So the majority of that improved VCR is accounted for by declining over the course of last season after a strong start. That makes you wonder a) if she can maintain her progress this season and b) if she would really be the most improved player even if she does maintain that progress.

Bonner, G/F/C, Phoenix Mercury

Wows: Bonner is certainly the beneficiary of increased opportunity, but she as seized it and is truly making the most of her minutes. The most interesting thing about her improvement this season is that she's picking up assists more often, improving her assist ratio about 4% to 11.67%. The Mercury have relied upon her heavily and she's just stepped up while increasing her VCR.

Wonders: The majority of her improvement in terms of tempo-free and efficiency statistics is a matter of those assists and taking more shots with a higher 3-point percentage (career-high 37.1%) so she's scoring more points. Will these numbers begin to taper off once Taurasi returns?

Young, F, Chicago Sky

Wows: Unlike many of the players above, Young has improved in small ways across the board while averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, steals, and field goal percentage. As far as VCR is concerned, shooting less threes - and thus missing less - is probably also boosting her efficiency a bit.

Wonders: If there is any player likely to maintain their improvement over the course of the season, it's probably Young because thus far she is improved in so many areas. The question is whether those multiple career-highs by small margins catch anyone's eye.

Wright, G, Minnesota Lynx

Wows: As a starter this season (two games) Wright is averaging 12 points on 56.3% shooting from the field, 4.5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.5 steals in 32 minutes. There's been a feeling for some time that Wright could start on more than a couple teams in the league and she's showing that this year.

Wonders: The problem is that she's averaging half as many minutes off the bench when starting shooting guard Seimone Augustus is in the lineup. Even if she has made strides in her game, finding the minutes to truly show off could just be hard on a loaded Lynx team.

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