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WNBA Most Improved Player rankings with ESPN's Carolyn Peck: Whose improvement has contributed most to team success?

When I spoke with New York Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski this past off-season, she indicated that their point guard situation was something they would have to "re-evalutate".

Ultimately, that meant waiving veteran Loree Moore shortly before the draft after picking up All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter in a trade with the Phoenix Mercury. They drafted University of Georgia point guard Ashley Houts and eventually traded her for veteran point guard Nikki Blue who was coming off a 31.4% turnover percentage in 2009 with the Washington Mystics, by far the least statistically productive season of her career.

In other words, barring a scenario in which the Liberty started Pondexter at point -- not entirely outside the realm of possibility given her demonstrated ability as a distributor in 2009 -- Mitchell entered this season as the team's best option at point guard. In 12 minutes per game last season behind Moore, Mitchell struggled in her sophomore season after having a strong rookie year.

"Leilani, she just, yeah, she struggled last year, which I think any second year player who's coming off a big first year, especially when you're unknown," said Liberty coach Anne Donovan in an off-season interview. "Lei, kinda, her rookie year was the unknown and really took people by surprise. Next year, you're not surprising people and really have to step your game up and I think she struggled at times for us."

Donovan attributed Mitchell's struggles to personal challenges entering training camp in 2009, which included the loss of her mother Ellie Majid, who died of breast cancer while Mitchell was in France playing basketball for Arras Pays D'Artois, a team north of Paris in the countryside.

"Let's not forget, Leilani - when she had a uniform on last year - she was able to push through," said Donovan about Mitchell's 2009 season. "She had tremendous personal challenges when coming into training camp. So a great deal of respect for her to get through the season and to recognize that she needed to go off and do well this off-season, which she's doing overseas in France."

Apparently that's exactly what she did, currently having the best season of her young career in 2010.

As Blazejowski expected, something about Mitchell's strong play overseas ended up translating into success for the Liberty, who are currently second place in the Eastern Conference.

"She's playing very well overseas," said Blazejowski in the off-season interview. "And it's very usual that a player goes through a sophomore slump -- you've been around the game long enough to know that. So, I expect a better performance certainly than last year from Leilani. And again it's that seasoning, that experience, getting her confidence back playing overseas. So I think she'll be much more effective for us this year."

Yet ironically, when asked to pick a player who might improve or breakout in 2010, neither Blazejowski nor Donovan mentioned Mitchell. Nevertheless, something happened and Mitchell currently stands as one of the league's strongest candidates for the WNBA's Most Improved Player award.

"Leilani Mitchell, in New York, has totally taken advantage of an opportunity that has been given her and been a major impact for New York," said ESPN's Carolyn Peck in a conversation with Swish Appeal on Monday morning.

Although her advanced point guard numbers are down a bit in bigger minutes, the biggest area of improvement for Mitchell has been her scoring ability. She has more than tripled her scoring average from 2009 (2.4) with a scoring average of 9.0 thus far this season. Part of that is certainly that she has more than doubled her free throw rate this season, which demonstrates a little bit of that confidence that Blazejowski spoke about. However, most impressive is her vastly improved shooting 43.7% this year compared to 30% in 2009. A large part of that is her much improved three point range -- Mitchell has gone from shooting 26.9% in 2009 to a league-leading 46.8% this season.

Those improved efficiency numbers have given her the second largest increase in production this season, second largest leap in the percentage of valuable contributions made to her team, and the third largest leap in per-minute production efficiency. In some ways, Mitchell is the ideal candidate for Most Improved Player -- although her improved basic stat line could be attributed to the opportunity for more minutes with Moore's departure, she has also become a much more well-rounded player and has actually increased the efficiency of her output when on the floor while starting for the second place team in the Eastern Conference.

Overall, Mitchell's season might be the ideal representation of what it means to be a Most Improved Player -- not just more stuff in more minutes, but an improved contribution to the team in addition to a tangible improvement in performance.

"Well, I think the contribution to their team and how that's improved from last year to this year," said Peck. "Then looking at what category that is. If that's in amount of points scored or if that's something they've done defensively, rebounding-wise. If they've improved their game. Percentages, from shooting to free throw. That kind of thing."

However, what makes this award so interesting is that there are not only a variety of ways that players demonstrate "improvement", but also a number of circumstances that might influence why or how they produced what they did.

So after producing a list of the strongest statistical candidates for Most Improved Player, I had the opportunity to have a Monday morning conversation with Peck, who was in between flights to Los Angeles for last night's Sparks vs. Indiana Fever game, who helped me sort out some of the contextual factors and provide some insight into what voters for the MIP typically look for.

Combining Peck's description above and statistical criteria for improvement (click here to see that criteria), I came up with the following rankings.

Using a mix of observation, Peck's comments, and statistics, I came up with the following rankings for MIP (click here to read more about these criteria), which demonstrate the diversity of types of "improvement" across the league.

Name 2009 Games Mins Diff ValPct Diff VCR Diff MEV Diff Biggest improvement
1 Mitchell, Leilani 34 15.13 0.11 0.12 7.98 + 21.5 TS%
2 Currie, Monique 34 5.21 0.05 -0.26 3.25 + 6 TS%
3 Fowles, Sylvia 24 3.38 0.19 0.34 10.50 - 11 tov%
4 Taylor, Penny 14 10.62 0.15 -0.01 9.90 - 5 tov% (PPR)
5 Black, Chante 33 8.63 0.21 0.07 5.68 + 16 oreb%
6 Lacy, Jennifer 32 6.44 0.10 0.30 4.59 + 12 TS%
7 Snow, Michelle 34 9.12 0.10 0.08 6.90 + 7 oreb%
8 Wisdom-Hylton, Lindsay 29 9.50 0.07 0.01 4.32 +11 oreb%
9 Dupree, Candice 34 -3.93 0.00 -0.06 4.93 +21 TS%
NR Langhorne, Crystal 28 4.20 -0.36 -0.35 4.25 + 6.5 oreb%

The bottom line is this: what makes the race for this particular award so exciting (especially compared to other awards that are essentially decided) is that you could make a strong case for a number of these players, including Langhorne who might get a few votes simply because people are watching her after winning last year's MIP. She is on the list not because she's 10th, but to show that as much as she has improved, there are a number of other players who have improved more.

"I'm looking forward to these next couple of weeks because it's toss-up," said Peck, referring to the playoff race but saying something that could be applied to the Most Improved Player race. "It's anybody's ballgame for these next two weeks, which I think makes the WNBA very exciting."

Commentary on the rankings:

  1. Leilani Mitchell: All-Around Improved player

    The Basics: +6.6 ppg, + 13.7 fg% (+20 3p%), +1.3 spg

    As described Mitchell's greatest improvement by far has been in her shooting efficiency, which is why her assist rate (29.52%) and pure point rating (2.92) have gone down, though still solid -- she has tended to look for scoring opportunities more often (a 3% increase in usage percentage) and that is reinforced by the fact that she is making shots at a higher percentage. However, part of being a point guard is decision-making and that's a key part of what Mitchell is doing better this season.

    Partially due to her increased scoring efficiency, Mitchell has great improved her points/empty possession from 1.08 to 2.00. To put that in context, it means Mitchell has gone from a well below average scorer among point guards to well above average in terms of her ability to create scoring possessions compared to non-scoring possessions (missed free throws, missed field goals, and turnovers). Let's not forget the 4% increase in offensive rebounding percentage.

    "A number of players this season have take advantage of an opportunity," said Peck. "You look at the changes New York made and the opportunity that Leilani Mitchell has had and the improvement of contribution that she's been able to make."

  2. Monique Currie: Stepping up when her team needed her

    The basics: +6 ppg, +7% fg% (+6% 3p%), +.5 spg

    After the announcement that Mystics guard Alana Beard would be out for the season, I wrote the following about the team, essentially assuming their high hopes for 2010 were fading at best.

    How might Alana Beard’s injury affect the Mystics? - Swish Appeal
    There is certainly no way to account for how an injury of this magnitude might affect a team's morale or how a team will respond to this by individually or collectively raising their level of play and "overachieving".

    One player that has responded and well exceeded expectations this season is Currie. Like Blazejowski regarding Mitchell, Mystics GM Angela Taylor hinted at improvement for Currie in the off-season.

    "We are looking for her to be more consistent but if you look at her numbers and if you look at her efficiency over 40 minutes, Monique was in the top 5 or top 6 at her position," said Taylor in an off-season interview. "She's had a great off-season overseas, she's working on her game, I think that she has a perfect complement. She's a slasher, that's what she's most comfortable with and our coaches are working with her on her mid-range game as well as her being confident in taking threes. I think that she's kind of either put it on the floor and get to the basket first type pf player...but because she shoots such a high percentage from three we want her to be more aggressive and look for her offense on more occasions."

    In 2010, it's not just that Currie has been more aggressive, but that she's been more efficient. Similar to Mitchell, if perhaps more predictably, it's been Currie's improved three point shooting that stands out -- her three point percentage has increased about 4% to 38.5% this season. She has also improved her offensive rebounding, which was already solid for small forwards in 2009 and nearly doubled to 12.01% in 2010.

    But most importantly she has stepped up and arguably been a leader for a Mystics team that has to be considered one of the league's more impressive teams given that they lost Beard. That her usage percentage has increased from 19.80% in 2009 to 31.94% this season as she's become a more efficient scorer is quite amazing.

    "It's an opportunity not playing in the shadow of Alana Beard," said Peck. "Suddenly you know you are the go-to on the wing, on the perimeter and play with a lot of confidence without questioning or comparing herself to Alana. And when you're playing a great player and you're that kind of sidekick, you don't know when your shots or opportunities are going to come. Well, when you're no longer in that role and you're a go-to, now you know and there's more of a consistency and an understanding, 'These are the things I'm supposed to do.'"

    The reason why I have Currie at #2 despite having an outstanding season -- she was an early-season MVP candidate for most people -- is that she hasn't necessarily improved more than Mitchell. Mitchell's 21.5% increase in true shooting percentage dwarfs Currie's 6% increase and that is the most significant increase for both of them. Yet the number that really stands out is the negative VCR, suggesting that her rate of productivity actually has improved that much. A large part of that is that while Mitchell's tendencies have generally stayed the same, Currie's have shifted rather substantially -- whereas she was something of a utility player in 2009 that was less of a scorer in 2009, she has become more of a well-rounded versatile player this year.

    Of course, becoming more versatile is a good thing but what's "suffered" as a result is her passing numbers -- her assist rate has dropped from 15.9% in 2009 to 9.4% thus far this year. That combined with a 2% increase in turnover percentage to 16.43% means that she has a relatively low assist ratio and high turnover percentage, which is not necessarily indicative of improved ball handling.

    The reason to vote for Currie should be obvious: the Mystics needed someone to step up with the loss of Beard and Currie did it. Her improvement has to be considered a large part of the reason why the Mystics are so successful this year. While that is not necessarily a fair criteria for the award (it could be considered just a different type of opportunity as opposed to a more favorable type opportunity), it's the type of narrative that could certainly catch the eye of voters and it would definitely be well deserved. And what she's done might not be captured well in numbers.
  3. Sylvia Fowles: A matter of health or actual improvement?

    The basics: +6.9% ppg, +2.3 rpg, +1.2 bpg, +13.4 ft%

    Looking at Fowles' numbers what should stand out is that the numbers strongly favor her for MIP this year. And strictly by the numbers, it's not even close. However, there are a number of caveats for Fowles.

    First, she missed 10 games last year and Sky coach Steven Key suggested that impeded her ability to establish a rhythm last season.

    "If we can keep Sylvia - which is a huge deal to us - anchoring the middle for us, if we can keep her healthy, if we can get her a complete season, if she gets into a rhythm over 34 games as opposed to maybe 10 games at a time - being out for 3 or 4 game or maybe 10 games or whatever it's going to be - I think it will help us to get us to that first hump of making the playoffs," said Key in a pre-season interview.

    Although the Sky don't appear to be playoff-bound, his suggestion about her getting into a rhythm simply because she was healthy has to be taken into account.

    Second, with Candice Dupree traded to Phoenix, the Sky just relied on Fowles more for scoring this year (when they've played well) -- Fowles' usage percentage shot up from 19.33% to 28.56%.

    Third, and the thing that could work against Fowles most, is that it might be somewhat difficult for voters to imagine an All-Star center that anchors the middle for Team USA and is a strong MVP candidate as MIP. However, that shouldn't diminish the numbers she's putting up.

    "Being healthy definitely helps," said Peck. "I think the impact of playing with USA Basketball has an effect on Sylvia Fowles because when she comes back from playing with one of those teams she is beastly. And in preparation and trying to secure a spot for the World Championship team might be a little bit of motivation and an influence on her and how she's playing this season."

    The biggest improvement for Fowles hasn't just been her frequently praised free throw percentage, but her turnover percentage. In 2009, Fowles had a well below average 24.9% turnover percentage in 24 games. This season, she's almost cut that in half to 13.38%. She's also improved her offensive rebounding percentage and simply gotten more minutes, but that vastly improved turnover percentage accounts for a large portion of why her MEV and thus VCR have improved so drastically. And given that turnover percentage is a pace free metric, it means that Fowles has just improved that much at handling the ball.

    The only reason I would not put her above Currie or Mitchell is because the matter of her past history of injury and the continuity Key speaks of seems to be as big an influence - whereas Currie and Mitchell have made observable leaps in ability, it appears that Fowles is doing what we might have expected her to do if healthy.

  4. Penny Taylor: Filling the void of a superstar

    The basics: 5.7% ppg, +2.9% apg, +4.8% fg%

    It might seem odd to have Taylor ranked so high. She didn't play a full season last year, she was obviously good prior to this season, and she has a negative VCR that seems to imply her "improvement" this season is a matter of minutes, not necessarily actual improvement. But her role on the team has changed significantly and she has stepped up.

    "I think that Penny's role, scoring-wise, has increased when Cappie Pondexter moved to New York," said Peck. "I was wondering where those points were going to come. I think it's been an evolution of understanding when and how those points were going to come without Cappie. If other teams' defense was going to be able to take away Diana, who was going to be that scoring threat? Candice Dupree, yeah, but she's in a different position and she only handles the ball once it's give to her -- she's not someone who can bring the ball down the floor and that's what Penny is able to do, playing on the wing, and when teams focus so much on Dupree, on Taurasi, and now they've got Kara Braxton inside, that's allowed Penny to do a number of things on the perimeter."

    However, what stands about Taylor is simple -- she's putting up career-high numbers across the board. She has transitioned from a perimeter scorer in 2009 into one of the league's most efficient distributors. That starts with her turnover percentage dropping 5%, but is really shown in her assist ratio increasing nearly 8% to 16.6%. The result is a flip in her pure point rating from -3.5 to 3.26. For context, that is going from a below league average ability to create plays for others to exceptional point guard level. That's noteworthy independent of minutes or having gotten healthy if a player is putting up career numbers.

  5. Chante Black: Will people notice improvement in a bad situation?

    The basics: +14.9% fg%, +3.6 rpg, +2.8 ppg

    The immediate impulse might be to say that Blacks has improved simply by switching teams, getting more minutes, and adjusting to the league in her second year. Those reasons explain why she isn't higher, but she is by far the most improved second-year player in the league and her rather dramatic 16% increase to 26.80% in offensive rebounding percentage has been impressive for most of the year. In addition to her improved rebounding she has increased her true shooting percentage about 7% and quietly increased her assist ratio to 10.45%.

    Working against Black is that she has had her minutes cut recently and is no longer starting as a result of Richardson trying to find a combination of players that works for him. In addition, playing for a bad situation -- particularly one that produces a number of rebounding opportunities -- will probably not get her noticed by many voters.

    "One of the areas that I look at is contribution and she's changed teams and went to an expansion team," said Peck. "I don't know if that will affect the voters when you look at Most Improved. And when you've improved, has that improvement helped your team."