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A’ja Wilson leads a handful of candidates for the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award

Defense in basketball is a hard thing to quantify, so there’s rarely a clear-cut winner for the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Here are a few midseason candidates who might have a shot at winning it in 2023.

Las Vegas Aces v Seattle Storm
Everyone loves a blocked shot, and the Aces’ A’ja Wilson currently leads the WNBA in that department. But her candidacy for another Defensive Player of the Year award goes far beyond any one individual statistic.
Photo by Maddy Grassy/NBAE via Getty Images

The WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award often is difficult to determine. Defense in basketball is hard to quantify, and with several statistics usually in play—a player’s defensive playmaking, defensive rebounding, on/off court stats, team success, and so on—there are almost always a handful of candidates for the award, and who wins depends on which of those criteria the voters prioritize.

For that reason, it’s tough to draw the line between a great individual defender and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. There are certainly more than a handful of top-tier defenders in the WNBA, and a lot can happen between now and the end of the 2023 season. That being said, there are a few players who probably have the best chances to win the award. Let’s try to narrow things down and look at each of their cases.

A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces)

WNBA: JUN 02 Las Vegas Aces at Atlanta Dream
A’ja Wilson is among the best in the WNBA at contesting shots without fouling.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wilson took home both Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2022, and she could very well do it again this season. Statistically, the Aces have been far and away the WNBA’s best defensive team to this point; it would be hard not to consider Wilson for her second-straight DPOY honor if that holds up. Las Vegas currently allows 94.9 points per 100 possessions, by far the fewest in the league, and while the addition of one of the best defenders in league history in Candace Parker has certainly contributed to that, Wilson’s own defensive numbers have either held steady or improved from a year ago. She’s currently leading the WNBA in blocked shots (2.2 per game) and ranks No. 4 in defensive rebounding (7.4 per game), and she remains one of the most impactful players in the WNBA at controlling the foul game in her team’s favor. With Wilson on the court, the Aces are allowing a minuscule opponents’ free throw rate of 0.189.

There’s a chance that voters see Parker as more important to the Aces’ defensive improvement than Wilson. But Parker’s currently suffering from injuries to both feet, and Aces head coach Becky Hammon doesn’t expect her back anytime soon. The longer Las Vegas continues to dominate on both ends of the floor with Wilson as the fulcrum, the greater the chance of her going back-to-back as the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year becomes.

Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut Sun)

Las Vegas Aces v Connecticut Sun
Alyssa Thomas powers the Sun on both ends of the court.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

There aren’t many WNBA players who mean more to their respective teams than Thomas. While her triple-doubles and knack for making big plays will put her on highlight reels, the work she puts in on defense shouldn’t be ignored. Thomas’ 2023 season has been, in a word, a masterpiece; the forward is leading the Sun in rebounding (9.5 per game), assists (eight) and steals (1.9), and even has taken on the role of playing as a small-ball center since Brionna Jones suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

If any player can add such a task to an already-massive workload, it’s Thomas, whose motor seemingly never stops despite averaging 36.5 minutes per game. She’s not going to block many shots as a defender, but she’ll do just about everything else: pressure the ball, jump passing lanes and out-muscle taller players she’s frequently matched up against. Thomas’ activity on the defensive end also ignites the Sun’s fast break, as her handle and strength with the basketball make her tough to handle in transition. As long as the Sun rank near the top of the WNBA in defensive rating (currently No. 2, allowing 97 points per 100 possessions), Thomas will be a candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year.

Breanna Stewart (New York Liberty)

WNBA: JUN 23 New York Liberty at Atlanta Dream
Breanna Stewart has once again been one of the WNBA’s top defensive playmakers.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unlike the Aces and the Sun, the Liberty have been merely decent on defense, ranking firmly in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency (100.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). Stewart’s case for Defensive Player of the Year, then, is more of an individual one; she’s a player who will always be in the conversation for the award, with her length, mobility and anticipation giving her unrivaled defensive playmaking ability. Stewart is currently averaging 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game—she, Wilson, and the Storm’s Ezi Magbegor are the only players in the WNBA averaging three combined “stocks”—and her 8.2 defensive rebounds per game lead the league.

The key for Stewart’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy likely lies with her team. If the Liberty can improve their defense and finish in the upper-third of the WNBA by the end of the season, she’ll have a chance to win the award for the first time in her career. If not, it may be difficult to justify voting for her over Wilson or Thomas.

Shakira Austin (Washington Mystics)

Washington Mystics v Seattle Storm
Shakira Austin’s individual defensive numbers don’t do her on-court impact justice.
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Mystics are absolutely loaded with talented defensive players, with Brittney Sykes, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud making up arguably the WNBA’s best group of perimeter defenders. Each member of the trio has made the league’s All-Defensive team multiple times. So to no one’s surprise, the Mystics have fielded one of the best defenses in the WNBA this season, allowing 98.3 points per 100 possessions, which currently ranks No. 3 in the league.

That number increases dramatically, however, when Austin isn’t on the floor. The second-year center has missed Washington’s last eight games with a strained hip, a span during which the Mystics have allowed 109 points per 100 possessions—the most in the WNBA. Austin’s wingspan combined with her advanced understanding of positional defense (particularly for a young player) makes her a superb rim deterrent. And even if her individual defensive numbers (6.2 defensive rebounds, 0.8 steals, and one block per game) aren’t as impressive as the other players on this list, her recent absence and Washington’s corresponding defensive drop-off proves just how important she is to making one of the WNBA’s best defenses work as intended. Specifically, the Mystics have been considerably better at keeping opponents off the free throw line with Austin on the court (0.280 opponents’ free throw rate) than on the bench (0.345); similarly, the Mystics have allowed an offensive rebounding rate of 27 percent with Austin, which jumps to 31.8 percent without her.

The one thing working against Austin is her health. Mystics head coach Eric Thibault recently said there’s no timetable for her recovery. No matter how great a player’s impact, they’re not going to get much consideration for a regular-season award if they miss too many games.