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2023 WNBA Awards: Headlined by A’ja Wilson and Alyssa Thomas, bigs dominate All-Defensive Teams

In the first year of positionless voting for the WNBA’s two All-Defensive Teams, bigs claimed the majority of spots, headlined by back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson and runner-up Alyssa Thomas.

2022 WNBA Finals - Game One
The Sun’s Alyssa Thomas and the Aces’ A’ja Wilson headline the 2023 WNBA All-Defensive Teams.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Congratulations to all 10 members of the 2023 WNBA All-Defensive Teams. The members of the First Team are:

  • A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces): The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year who led the WNBA in blocks per game in 2023 as she anchored the league’s best defense, Wilson earns her third All-Defensive honor.
  • Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut Sun): The two-time Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, Thomas, who led the league in rebounds per game in 2023, receives her fifth All-Defensive honor.
  • Brittney Sykes (Washington Mystics): Sykes, who finished third in the 2023 Defensive Player of the Year vote, claims her third All-Defensive honor after averaging the second-most steals per game.
  • Breanna Stewart (New York Liberty): Ranking second in defensive rebounds and fourth in blocks per game, Stewart takes her fifth All-Defensive honor.
  • Jordin Canada (Los Angeles Sparks): The runner-up for Most Improved Player, Canada, with a league-leading 2.3 steals per game, Canada earns her second All-Defensive honor.

The members of the Second Team are:

  • Betnijah Laney (New York Liberty): After often taking the toughest defensive assignment for the WNBA’s third-ranked defense, Laney receives her second All-Defensive Team honor.
  • Ezi Magbegor (Seattle Storm): Second in the league with almost two blocks per game, Magbegor helped her retooling team perform above expectations on the defensive end, claiming her second-straight All-Defensive honor.
  • Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks): The steadying force for the fourth-best defense in the W, Ogwumike earns her sixth All-Defensive honor after averaging nearly two and a half “stocks” (steals + blocks) per game.
  • Napheesa Collier (Minnesota Lynx): A top-10 defensive rebounder who provided floor-raising defensive impact for her team, Collier receives her second All-Defensive honor.
  • Elizabeth Williams (Chicago Sky): A rejuvenated defensive presence in 2023 who finished top five in blocks per game, Williams takes her second All-Defensive honor.

Positionless selection process sparks debate

Washington Mystics v Dallas Wings
Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes.
Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Because of the difficulty of quantifying a player’s defensive impact, All-Defensive Team selections can sometimes trend toward the wonky. For instance, 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Candace Parker was not named to an All-Defensive Team. Likewise, despite finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, Alyssa Thomas made All-Defensive Second Team, rather than First Team.

To provide more voting flexibility and, in turn, result clarity, the WNBA shifted to positionless All-Defensive Teams for the first time this season. However, the change instantly sparked other issues. Namely, the composition of the 2023 All-Defensive Teams, particularly the Second Team, could be criticized for overly favoring bigs and under appreciating guards.

Because of their size advantage, bigs are more likely to compile defensive counting stats: defensive rebounds, blocks and steals. Outside of steals, guard defense unlikely is to be reflected in the box score. Of course, the defensive aptitude of bigs, wings and guards extends beyond counting stats. Screen navigation, weakside rotations, timely help and clear communication are just a few of the valuable defensive traits that do not show up on traditional stat sheets and are inconsistently captured by advanced metrics.

Washington Mystics head coach Eric Thibault voiced his concerns about how positionless voting discounts guard defense in a thread on Twitter/X, while also arguing that, in addition to Brittney Sykes, Natasha Cloud should have represented the Mystics on an All-Defensive Team.

For now, it would be hasty for the league instantly to return to traditional position restrictions for All-Defensive Team voting. Another season or two of results are needed to better understand the advantages and disadvantages of positionless voting. Hopefully, while not discrediting the deserving players named to the 2023 All-Defensive Teams, the pushback to positionless voting can encourage fans, media and other observers to develop a greater appreciation for the nuances of defense across all positions.