Now that All-Star Weekend is officially over, teams are gearing up for the second half of the season. Most of the award races will come down to the final week of the season, but the closest race might be the Sixth Woman of the Year race. Here are some of the leading candidates and their cases for the award.
DiJonai Carrington (Connecticut Sun):
Despite losing Jonquel Jones this summer and Brionna Jones last month to an Achilles injury, the Connecticut Sun have been just fine and DiJonai Carrington has emerged as one of the team’s most valuable players. Averaging just under nine points and three rebounds, Carrington is shooting a career-best 39 percent from three, and although it is on very few attempts, it makes a big difference when she plays off the ball with a great passer like Alyssa Thomas.
One of the most underrated parts of Carrington’s game is her movement off the ball. In Connecticut’s last game before the All-Star break against the Chicago Sky, Carrington flashed her off-ball abilities. Here, Marina Mabrey over-commits to the incoming DeWanna Bonner screen. Carrington senses this and flashes backdoor, and Alyssa Thomas finds her for an uncontested layup. The cut makes Mabrey spin the opposite way.
DiJonai Carrington senses Mabrey overplaying her so she turns this intended screen play into a timely backdoor cut pic.twitter.com/4eBWBbAOMy— ᴊᴏꜱʜ ꜰᴇʟᴛᴏɴ ♛ (@jfeltonnn) July 19, 2023
This connection between Thomas and Carrington has been on display the entire month of July and it might explain why the Sun have a 109 offensive rating and 93 defensive rating when those two share the court. Granted the sample size is small, but a +16 net rating in almost 250 minutes suggests that something is working.
This brings us to the other valuable aspect of Carrington’s game: her defense. Carrington is a great on-ball defender going back to her Baylor days; however in a league where players are constantly screening and cutting, it is off-ball defense and screen navigation that has become even more valuable. Even when she gets slightly beat backdoor, having active hands in the passing lanes actually forces a lot of turnovers.
Connecticut switches the pick-and-roll between Mabrey and Elizabeth Williams here. Even though Carrington doesn’t fully recover, she keeps her hands active in the play and forces a turnover.
Carrington keeps active hands and forces a turnover. Excellent off ball defense. pic.twitter.com/u6l0XuSsdD— ᴊᴏꜱʜ ꜰᴇʟᴛᴏɴ ♛ (@jfeltonnn) July 19, 2023
Carrington makes a very strong case for Sixth Woman of the Year because of her potent defense, valuable 3-point shooting and timely cutting, which raise the ceiling of this Connecticut team that has lost one of its most valuable players.
Dana Evans (Chicago Sky)
The Sky haven’t had the best season, but that certainly shouldn’t take away from the season Evans is having. She is averaging 8.8 points per game and 3.2 assists while playing solid perimeter defense on a nightly basis.
Evans makes a compelling case as perhaps the best perimeter defender of all major Sixth Woman of the Year candidates. As good as Carrington’s off-ball defense is, Evans might be the best screen-navigating guard in the league. She averages just under a steal a game, but she gets several deflections simply by anticipating screens and action off the ball.
Here Evans anticipates Kristy Wallace is coming off a NaLyssa Smith screen and she meets Wallace at the 3-point line, perfectly anticipating the pass. This anticipation allows for Evans to be in perfect position to get the steal and start the transition offense for Chicago.
Dana Evans anticipates the NaLyssa Smith screen and forces a turnover on Kristy Wallace pic.twitter.com/eKCGVyzZbr— ᴊᴏꜱʜ ꜰᴇʟᴛᴏɴ ♛ (@jfeltonnn) July 19, 2023
Even when she’s on the ball, Evans uses her smaller frame to her advantage, forcing turnovers on guards with a looser handle. Anticipation on these types of plays starts Chicago’s transition offense, which activates another aspect of her game that is so valuable: her passing.
Now, three assists may not sound like a lot for a guard, but Evans creates countless more shot opportunities that can’t be tracked in the box score. Whether it’s in the pick and roll, or in transition, Evans has a natural feel for where her teammates are on the floor at all times.
One of her best passes of the season came against the Sun. Here she runs the pick and roll with E. Williams and Connecticut, in a semi-drop coverage, reads the play very well. Tiffany Hayes slightly over-commits to Marina Mabrey and Evans finds her cutting with a beautiful bounce pass that had to be perfect in order to get to her.
Dana Evans punishes Connecticut for overcommiting to Mabrey by making an extremely accurate bounce pass. pic.twitter.com/zyGlf3Jd0o— ᴊᴏꜱʜ ꜰᴇʟᴛᴏɴ ♛ (@jfeltonnn) July 19, 2023
Capitalizing on the other team’s defensive lapses is something Evans does very well, and although she hasn’t shot the ball well from three this season, she certainly is going to keep shooting, as 46 percent of her shots come from behind the arc. Because of this, teams still play her as a dangerous shooting threat, which allows for her to provide spacing even when her shot isn’t falling.
Evans’s value as a perimeter defender and instinctual passer makes her one of, if not the most valuable reserve player in the WNBA this season.
Alysha Clark (Las Vegas Aces)
If there’s one player in the WNBA who epitomizes the term “3-and-D” it might be Alysha Clark. She has shot over 36 percent from three at least six times in her career and this year has been no exception. Clark took a much lesser role coming to Vegas as opposed to her time in Washington last year and she has fit in perfectly.
Clark is averaging 6.6 points per game while shooting 37 percent from three, but her impact is deeper than this. The Aces currently have the best offensive rating in WNBA history and one of the biggest questions many felt they needed to address was the small forward role, specifically a wing who could shoot and defend.
Clark has done what she’s been doing her entire career: make shots. Vegas is known for their ball movement, and when Clark is open in the corner after teams have been forced to overcommit to one of Vegas’ many All-Stars, she is always ready to make the open shot. Granted, it helps playing on the most talented team in the league. But it is still undeniable that Clark has played a valuable role in Vegas getting off to one of the greatest season starts in WNBA history. The Aces versus Liberty matchup earlier this month was expected to be a Finals preview and Vegas made easy work of their opponent.
Clark’s defense at this stage in her career is still impressive. Against a team like the Liberty who ran a lot of high pick-and-rolls, Clark was tasked with switching onto some of the game’s best players routinely and she handled it well. One of the highlights of the game was when Clark started the possession on Breanna Stewart, switched effortlessly onto Sabrina Ionescu, and used her length to force a turnover as Ionescu tried to force an entry pass back to Stewart. Plays like this are why she is regarded as one of, if not the best 3-and-D player in WNBA history.
Alysha Clark's swiss army knife defense on full display against Breanna Stewart and Sabrina Ionescu pic.twitter.com/BzfQ38ziSH— ᴊᴏꜱʜ ꜰᴇʟᴛᴏɴ ♛ (@jfeltonnn) July 19, 2023
Clark’s ability to shoot, move off the ball and still defend at a high level allows for her to coexist in virtually any offensive system there is. When the term value is brought up in basketball, there is nothing more important than a role player being maximized in virtually any environment. This is why Clark has played such a crucial role on multiple championship teams in her career.