The Most Improved Player award is fundamentally about the gap between expectations and outcomes, which brings an inherent element of unpredictability to the process of picking one.
Chances are that if a player showed signs of improvement in the previous year, they don't have the strongest case for being the most improved player in the league as every year someone takes an unexpected leap.
However, when looking at the actual winners of the WNBA's Most Improved Player award in the past they have actually been quite predictable:
- With the exception of Janeth Arcain in 2001, every winner in the award's history has seen their minutes almost double from the previous season and had a big jump in points per game (of those in the last four seasons since I've been tracking it, Kia Vaughn could also be considered one that was less predictable).
- Most of these players went from reserves to starting at least the majority of their team's games and in at least the last four seasons that jump in minutes was due primarily to them being left as the only option on the roster at their position.
- There's really only one MIP award winner who would have been eligible for the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year award as well (meaning she came off the bench in more games than she started): Erin Perperoglou (nee Buescher) in 2006, when her scoring average also jumped about six points. But even including her, every winner has started more games than they did the year prior to winning the award.
- Only one winner (Janel McCarville in 2007) switched teams in the offseason prior to winning the award, which is actually an important principle to me: context matters in basketball and it can be hard to determine how much that type of improvement is about more favorable circumstances (coaching, role, teammates) instead of player development.
- Since 2005 (Nicole Powell) no second year player has won the award, which is actually something else that I think is reasonable. WNBA rookies now come into the league less than two months after the completion of the NCAA tournament (if they go that far). They then get a couple weeks of practice with the full team (after graduating from school) (under threat of being released) before competing in a 34 game season. After 8 months to go overseas to work on their game as a professional, we should expect improvement from rookies in their second year after they have more time to prepare for it.
- Staying with 2004 (an anomaly year?), that is the only year where the winner (Wendy Palmer, who tied with Miller that year) arguably had a better year prior to the season they won the award, which is also reasonable: it should be someone who really turned a corner rather than someone who just had a down year and then bounced back.
- Perhaps it's also worth noting that all but one (Kelly Miller in 2004) was on a playoff team, which isn't saying quite as much since the league was reduced to 12 teams, but is an interesting observation: consequential improvement might also be something to look for.
We don't want to take these as hard and fast "voting rules", but with the stronger tendencies you could probably predict the winner of the MIP award by identifying players who a) stand to get more minutes this season as a result of c) a move from the bench into the starting lineup c) on a team that could accommodate an alternate scorer and d) in position to have a career year.
However, looking at opening weekend starting lineups (and really the rotations as a whole), there are only two players who really even have a chance to fit that mold of the past (barring injury): Marissa Coleman and Kelsey Griffin.
1. "Traditional" candidates
Marissa Coleman, Los Angeles Sparks: We've discussed this multiple times on this site, but the Sparks need production from the small forward spot. If Coleman can emerge as a consistent defender and scorer from the wing - particularly as someone who can knock down threes to help with their spacing - she could certainly put herself in position to be a very visible MIP candidate. Whether she starts on that team might depend on other factors, but she'll have every opportunity to succeed this season.
Kelsey Griffin, Connecticut Sun: She was handed the starting job in Connecticut to start the season with Asjha Jones out with an injury. If the Sun are going to be successful with her as a starter, she'll have to improve as a scorer, rebounder, and cut down on turnovers. Yes, that's a lot, but it's already clear that she's going to have the opportunity to play and make those improvements.
So with that, I'm going lay out two additional categories of players for an initial MIP watch list: 1) those who showed signs of potential last season (above average VCR) and who might improve their productivity regardless of scoring average or starts and 2) players with the opportunity to make an "unexpected" leap from a below average VCR to an above average VCR (0.84+) in terms of how efficient they are with the minutes they're given.
2. "Breakout" candidates
Shenise Johnson, San Antonio Silver Stars: Although Johnson had a VCR right around average (0.86) last season, she had above average numbers almost across the board (including an outstanding 11.1% offensive rebounding percentage, which was nearly twice the league average last season). The exception: her true shooting percentage of 46.8% was below average despite shooting 41.2% from beyond the arc. She's not going to start and minutes in San Antonio are generally distributed evenly, but Johnson stands to show improvement if she can get herself to the line more often and work on her mid-range shooting.
Ivory Latta, Washington Mystics: Normally I wouldn't pay a whole lot of attention to players switching teams, but given the choices this season Latta might make a strong case for herself as a MIP candidate. Coming off of a career year last season in Tulsa, Latta has been given the reigns to run the Washington Mystics and will probably see an increase in minutes as the clear option at point guard. And if there's anything we know about Latta, it's that she's a willing scorer which means more minutes could lead to more points or, with the post players Washington has, more assists. It won't be Latta's first go-round as a starter, but could be her best performance in a starting role.
Danielle Robinson, San Antonio Silver Stars: With Becky Hammon and Sophia Young out for the Silver Stars to start the season, someone will have to step up as a leader and Danielle Robinson has been the one to publicly accept that role. And though it might seem like she doesn't have much room for improvement after two very good years in the league there is one thing that stands out: she's never had to be a scorer on this team and yet has been extremely efficient. Robinson will need to take on more scoring responsibility this season and if she can do that without sacrificing too much of her efficiency, she could be the type of player to see her scoring average jump a few points per game and it wouldn't shock me if her steal percentage increased a bit as well as it did last season.
Tanisha Wright, Seattle Storm: Some of you may remember that Wright is actually one of my favorite WNBA players. She's a no-nonsense, hard-working player, who has hit more big shots and made more big plays for the Seattle Storm over the years than she gets credit for. With both Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson out, someone will need to step up for the Storm. And Wright is as good a candidate to have a big year as anyone.
She has had some very good years in three of the last four, but what stands out in her numbers is that she hasn't had a year where everything was clicking: in 2009, she had a career-high scoring year and career-high free throw percentage; in 2010, she she had a career-high 4.5 assists and shot a career-high 41.1% from the 3-point line (in a bizarre year in which a number of Storm players shot over 40%); in 2011, she shot a career-high 49.2% from the field.
Although Wright won't have the luxury of Sue Bird this season, Temeka Johnson is a capable distributor and Wright has always been the player who the Storm coaching staff has been comfortable giving responsibility in crucial moments of big games.
3. Candidates with the opportunity for major improvements
Amber Harris, Minnesota Lynx: I already covered Harris at length elsewhere, but she has all the tools to become an above average contributor in the league. For her, it's all about bringing things together.
Allison Hightower, Connecticut Sun: The interesting thing about Hightower is that she was clearly a scoring prospect coming out of college and she has yet to really make a name for herself as a scorer. Having already established herself as a high level defender last season, the minutes and scoring opportunities will be there for her this season - it's just a matter of her showing that she can apply some of that scoring prowess that made her a strong draft prospect to the pro level.
Kayla Pedersen, Tulsa Shock: Pedersen either has to improve or it will get tougher for her to maintain a roster spot in a very competitive league. With Tiffany Jackson-Jones not yet playing and Liz Cambage working her way into shape before getting injured this past Friday, Pedersen is going to be given every opportunity to show what she can do. And she will almost certainly earn more starts while the team gets healthy. If she's able to keep a spot in the rotation after those other players return, it will probably be due to her improving upon the 29.7% shooting and/or 11% total rebounding rate from last season. Just doing that - which would help get her closer to being an average player - would be a huge improvement. Continued improvement on the defensive end wouldn't hurt.
Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky: Even though Chicago has added ball handlers this season, Vandersloot remains their best bet as someone who could potentially both distribute and shoot effectively. And with Epiphanny Prince scheduled to miss games due to her commitment for the Russian national team, Vandersloot will be put in a(nother?) make or break situation. Statistically, what Vandersloot has to improve is simple: turnovers. Last season, she was the most turnover prone starting point guard in the league (19% turnover ratio).
WNBA point guards usually commit turnovers for one of three primary reasons: poor decision making, poor ball handling skill, or some physical limitation. There are players who have improved upon their turnover ratio (Lindsey Harding and Leilani Mitchell are two current examples), but often it's because they found situations where they had less ball handling responsibility - Vandersloot is going to have a hard time finding less ball handling responsibility than the situation she's in now.
Vandersloot has already shown that she can put up assists, which is a good sign: with the teammates around her now she will have plenty of opportunities to record assists. The question, from the time she was drafted, is about strength: the strength to drive and kick through contact or even just navigate her way through aggressive pressure. We'll see what happens over the next few weeks without Prince. If she can succeed as the primary ball handler during this time, it might give her the confidence to be even more efficient once Prince comes back.