Quantifying a player’s improvement is tricky enough. Is a player’s increased statistical output just the product of expanded opportunity or is it due to genuine improvement?
However, qualifying improvement is even more difficult. What kind of improvement is most important? From fringe player to key rotational piece? From uneven reserve to a steady starter? Or, from possible star to burgeoning superstar?
Below, Eric Nemchock, Edwin Garcia and Cat Ariail make the Most Improved Player cases for three players, one who fits in each category: the Chicago Sky’s Alanna Smith, the Los Angeles Sparks’ Jordin Canada and the Dallas Wings’ Satou Sabally.
Alanna Smith (Chicago Sky)
When the Sky signed Smith to a one-year, $100,000 contract back in February, many assumed that it was a move made by then-head coach and general manager James Wade out of panic. Chicago had lost most of its frontcourt to free agency—Candace Parker and Azurá Stevens signed elsewhere and Emma Meesseman chose not to play in the WNBA in 2023—so Wade had lots of holes to plug in a short amount of time. In Smith’s first four WNBA seasons, she didn’t seem to be a player who could reliably fill the void left by Chicago’s numerous All-Star bigs.
Months later, not only does Smith’s contract look like a bargain, but it seems almost certain that she’ll get a hefty raise next offseason—whether it be from the Sky or someone else. Entering the 2023 season, it looked like Smith would play a similar role to Astou Ndour-Fall (who, like Meesseman, decided to take the summer off): a long-armed, rangy forward who could keep defenses honest with 3-point shooting. Smith, however, has proven to be much more versatile, leading the WNBA in 2-point shooting percentage at 61.9 percent, according to Basketball Reference. She’s also been one of the most impactful defensive players in the league; she’s just one of nine players to average better than one steal and one blocked shot per game. Smith’s 2.77 “stocks” (steals plus blocked shots) per game are good for fifth in the WNBA, putting her in the neighborhood of reputable defensive stalwarts like Ezi Magbegor, Napheesa Collier and Sky teammate Elizabeth Williams (Across the Timeline).
Again, Smith’s case for Most Improved hinges strongly on how suddenly her WNBA career broke out. During stops in Indiana and Phoenix, Smith started a total of one game, struggling with injuries and a lack of consistent playing time when she was healthy. Now, in Chicago, she’s a full-time starter, and it’s hard to imagine where the Sky (who are currently fighting for a playoff appearance) would be without her.— Eric Nemchock
Jordin Canada (Los Angeles Sparks)
Jordin Canada had only one offer during free agency, a training camp contract from the Sparks. She wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster and had to fight not to be cut. Now, she undoubtedly is the team’s starting point guard, has the second-highest number of steals in the WNBA and is putting up career numbers in points (13.5 per game), rebounds (3.2) and assists (5.9).
Without Canada’s defensive tenacity, ball pressure and improved 3-point shooting (up from last season’s 14 percent to 33.9 percent this season), LA would not be on track to make the playoffs for the first time since 2020. Her improvement has allowed the team to tread water while key players such as Lexie Brown, Chiney Ogwumike and Layshia Clarendon have missed significant portions of the season.
Canada always was known as a good defensive player, but the development on the offensive side of the ball has taken her to another level. Her handle and athleticism makes her a nightmare to defend. On more than one occasion, she has put her defender on skates while she attacks the rim. With her increasing offensive confidence, Canada’s taken more shot attempts, deferring a lot less in her second year with the Sparks. Her performance against the Indiana Fever is a prime example of this—she hit the game-winning 3 to put the Sparks past the Fever last month. Canada never would have never taken a shot like that last year.
Sure, Sabally is an All-Star-caliber player and Alanna Smith has been a pleasant surprise for a Sky team in a transition period. But go from a training camp offer to the starting guard having a career year? No one has taken the jump Canada has this season. — Edwin Garcia
Satou Sabally (Dallas Wings)
Yes, Satou Sabally, the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, already was really, really good. Availability, rather than ability, had been her limitation through her first three seasons in the W. Yet, her improvement this season is about more than the expanded opportunities that have come with increased availability. As ESPN’s LaChina Robinson noted on X/Twitter the other day, Sabally’s recent 40-point game captures how she has exceeded the high expectations that accompanied her into the WNBA.
Folks saying they had a 40 point WNBA game on their bingo card for Satou at ANY point since she arrived at Oregon is whack .. but go off tho— LaChina Robinson (@LaChinaRobinson) September 2, 2023
Sabally has sharpened her offensive game, both as a shooter and playmaker. After never reaching 33 percent from 3, she has shot a career-high 36.6 percent from deep on almost five attempts per game in 2023. This combination of volume and accuracy has not simply made her a more efficient offensive player, but it also has forced opponents to pay more attention to her behind the arc, which then opens passing opportunities. In turn, she’s averaging a career-best 4.3 assists per game, while also posting a career-best assist-to-turnover ratio.
Her offensive growth also has not come at the expense of her defense, as she has demonstrated increased activity with a career-high 1.8 steals per game. And on both ends of the floor, she has contributed to Dallas’ dominance of the glass, with her 2.4 offensive boards and 6.0 defensive boards combining for a career-best 8.4 rebounds per game.
In her fourth season, Sabally has rounded into a refined version of the five-tool player she has shown flashes of during her first three WNBA seasons. — Cat Ariail