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Swish Appeal awards roundtable

The members of Swish Appeal pick their Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Woman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and MVP.

Connecticut Sun v New York Liberty
Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller giving instructions to Jonquel Jones during a 2019 contest.
Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2021 WNBA season started off with some thrilling buzzer-beaters and the excitement continued all the way through in what was a successful campaign amid COVID. The Connecticut Sun were the best team in the regular season and have four individuals in the running for major awards: Brionna Jones (Most Improved Player), Briann January (Defensive Player of the Year), Curt Miller (Coach of the Year) and Jonquel Jones (MVP). Did the Swish Appeal crew pick them all or did they spread the love around to other teams? Read on to find out.


Rookie of the Year

Zack Ward: Michaela Onyenwere. It’s been an off year for rookies, but Onyenwere and Aari McDonald have been comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack, which includes Charli Collier, DiJonai Carrington and Arella Guirantes. Onyenwere put up the best numbers and was on a team in the New York Liberty that finished four games better than McDonald’s Atlanta Dream. She played in every single game, starting in 29 of them and averaging 22.5 minutes per game. She started off red-hot from beyond the arc, which made a statement after her 3-point shooting was questioned in college. She did cool off from out there, but the athleticism, strength and grittiness that made her great at UCLA translated and allowed her to live up to her potential.

Cat Ariail: Michaela Onyenwere. Michaela Onyenwere wins by default. That is not a discredit to Onyenwere, who instantly looked like a future “star in her role” and should enjoy a long career in the W. Not only did she average the most minutes and points among rookies, but she also had the best single game — a 29-point performance in late May. However, other potential ROYs just did not play enough. Had Aari McDonald started for the Dream since the season’s first game, she could have made this a more interesting race. Some of the flashes Dana Evans showed suggests, had she landed in a different situation, she also could have made some noise. Instead, Onyenwere deservedly will add the ROY trophy to her collection of Rookie of the Month trophies.

Eric Nemchock: Michaela Onyenwere. This is going to be a landslide, and though I think McDonald has a case based on per-minute production (she made more of a defensive impact than Onyenwere in her time on the floor and brought the added value of making plays for her teammates as well), no other player in this class can touch Onyenwere’s statistical totals. She was a starter for New York from day one and was the only 2021 rookie to play a consistent and meaningful role for her respective team over the course of the season. Blame a poor showing by the 2021 draft class if you’d like; at the end of the day, Onyenwere is the Rookie of the Year, and it won’t be close.

Most Improved Player

Zack: Crystal Bradford. She averaged just 2.7 points in her rookie season of 2015 and didn't return to the WNBA until this season when she scored 8.8 points per game and was a key contributor for the Atlanta Dream. Her rebounding (+2.5), distributing (+0.8) and stocks (+1.1) were also up. I’ll classify this as a sophomore jump, not a rookie performance, because she did play the one season six years ago. There were a number of other good candidates this year such as Sami Whitcomb, Brionna Jones, Rebecca Allen, Nia Coffey, Marina Mabrey and Kelsey Plum. In addition, Te’a Cooper showed some solid improvement as a sophomore.

Cat: Brionna Jones. It’s Bri Jones. Even though she enjoyed significantly more opportunity, her improvement is not just a product of opportunity. Her numbers — whether broken down by per game, per 36 minutes or per 100 possessions — have ticked up across the board. Furthermore, her qualitative improvement is more significant than her quantitative improvement. In previous seasons, Jones was a “fine,” reliable-enough rotation piece. This season, she was a trusted, crucial contributor. You now should feel confident when Bri Jones is on the court; in seasons past, that was not always true. That speaks to her improvement.

Eric: Kelsey Plum. Even if you discount that Plum is coming back from an Achilles injury that kept her out for the entirety of last season, she’s doing things that she just hasn’t done before at the WNBA level. Per 100 possessions, Plum is blowing away her previous scoring numbers while retaining her status as a playmaking threat, finally becoming the best-of-both-worlds combo guard the San Antonio Stars envisioned when they drafted her in 2017. The criteria for this award are murky at best, but I think Plum has the best all-around case that considers volume, efficiency and role on her respective team.

Sixth Woman of the Year

Zack: Kelsey Plum. I’ll give her the edge over Mabrey and Dearica Hamby. She has two 30-point games to her credit this season and finished strong with seven-straight games in double figures. At the press conference after Plum’s 30-point effort on Sept. 13, Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer said that Plum wanted to start this season, but that she has accepted her role and done her job. As mentioned above, she is also in the running for most improved player in my opinion, and we don't yet know what the limit to her stardom is. She is the NCAAW Division I all-time scoring leader, a former No. 1 pick and could be a superstar.

Cat: Kelsey Plum. The Sixth Woman of the Year award should stay in Sin City. Although back-to-back 6WOY Dearica Hamby has a solid case to claim her third trophy, her teammate Kelsey Plum should edge her for the award. In contrast to Hamby, whose status as an all-around, two-way disruptor made her the league’s super-est sub, Plum almost perfectly fulfills the more typical 6WOY model — an explosive off-the-bench bucket getter. Plum injected the Aces with a swaggering offensive aggressiveness, frequently swinging the momentum of sagging games towards Vegas. She sealed her case down the stretch of the season, when the Aces were without Hamby and/or Liz Cambage for a number of games. In six September games, Plum averaged 21.7 points per game, shooting almost 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from behind the arc.

Eric: Kelsey Plum. She may not be a shoo-in for Most Improved, but Plum is a very solid choice for Sixth Woman of the Year. She’s one of the best playmakers in the WNBA, and the fact that the Aces are still able to thrive when they rest several of their starters at the same time speaks to her ability to run the team. You won’t find Plum’s scoring and assisting numbers from any other reserve in the league, which is as clear-cut of a case for this award as one can make.

Defensive Player of the Year

Zack: Sylvia Fowles. Brittney Sykes and Briann January have been phenomenal, but, like I said midseason, it’s too hard to ignore Fowles’ stock numbers in addition to the sound defense she provides that doesn't show up on the stat sheet. So, if it were my choice, Fowles would be winning her fourth DPOY award, with the first coming a decade ago.

Cat: Sylvia Fowles. In her 14th WNBA season, Sylvia Fowles should earn her fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, which would put her second all time to Tamika Catchings and her five DPOY trophies. While the WNBA features a number of fabulous perimeter defenders — Zack mentioned two of them above — the best teams in the WNBA are the best teams because of the play of their bigs, thus enhancing Fowles’ value. She not only patrols the paint, but, even though she soon will turn 36, can slide her feet and contain most perimeter players. And, not that she needs them, it’s hard not to give her bonus points for her incredible longevity.

Eric: Sylvia Fowles. She remains perhaps the best rim protector in the league, and her fingerprints are once again all over Minnesota’s success: With Fowles on the floor, the Lynx secured 74.6 percent of available defensive rebounds (Fowles herself ranked second in the WNBA in defensive rebounding percentage, per Basketball Reference) and allowed a free throw rate of just 0.214. As Zack alluded to, Fowles was also the only big in the WNBA to rank in the top ten in steal percentage (three percent); a remarkable feat for a player of her size, and one that speaks to her basketball IQ on the defensive end of the floor.

Coach of the Year

Zack: Curt Miller. I don’t want to get too disrespeCTful here and say that Miller carried a team nobody expected to be great to the No. 1 seed, because the talent of his players deserves credit too. But even with that talent, it’s hard to bounce back from a blowout loss in a midseason championship game and go undefeated post-Olympic break. The Sun won by an average margin of 15.8 during that stretch. Miller got his team to regroup at a time when there was chatter that they couldn’t be true contenders and the fact that they are winning comfortably, not just winning, is a testament to great chemistry fostered by Miller. The Sun believe in themselves and are having fun. Miller deserves a lot of credit for that.

Cat: Curt Miller. The Coach of the Year award traditionally goes to the head coach whose team most exceeded expectations. This year should be no exception, as Curt Miller deserves to win his second COY award. Much of the women’s hoops world, including us here at Swish Appeal, woefully underestimated the Sun. While the MIP and MVP favorites, along with their experienced vets, certainly drove their excellence, Miller deserves credit for how he maximized his personnel. In the absence of Alyssa Thomas, Miller shifted the Sun from an offense dependent on its transition game to a deliberate, halfcourt offense.

Eric: Curt Miller. Yes, the Sun exceeded preseason expectations (again!), but it’s how they did so that impresses me. Miller turned his team’s identity upside down, opting to play dual-center lineups and leaning on his players’ strengths (defense and rebounding, in particular) as they overcame the loss of one-woman fast break Alyssa Thomas. That plan, of course, was undeniably successful: The Sun led the WNBA in defensive efficiency (91.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) by a country mile, and while much of that can be attributed to the team simply being loaded with plus defenders, it’s Miller’s tactics that shine through in Connecticut’s overall discipline as a unit.

MVP

Zack: Jonquel Jones. She has the numbers (just 0.6 behind Tina Charles in terms of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game when assists are multiplied by 1.5) and has led the best team in the league on the court and in the locker room. She held the Sun to a higher standard after the Commissioner’s Cup championship game and we saw the result. Jones was No. 6 in our player rankings entering the season, but we knew she had all the tools to be No. 1. Now we can put some respect on her name like she asked us to at the All-Star break.

Cat: Jonquel Jones. Once again, I can’t disagree with Zack. More often than not, the MVP recipe is the best player on the best team. This season, there is no reason to deviate. While Tina Charles’ numbers were outstanding, reigning MVP A’ja Wilson was a consistent force and Brittney Griner put together a fantastic season, this year’s MVP award should belong to Jonquel Jones. Her absence most simply illuminates her importance. Without Jones, the Sun were 2-3; with her, they were 24-3. Her 20.0 net rating and 22.1 player impact estimate (PIE) were tops in the league, while she ranked second with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 28.28.

Eric: Jonquel Jones. Is this just another case of giving MVP honors to the best player on the best team? Maybe. But it’s tough to argue against Jones’ statistical case: She’s put up a 61.4 percent true shooting percentage on the highest usage rate of her career (26.3 percent) while once again dominating the glass (22.3 total rebounding percentage, per Basketball Reference). Factor her team’s wire-to-wire success into those numbers, and it’s a well-deserved MVP award for Jones.