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Defensive Player of the Year Debate: Will A’ja Wilson take the honor for a second-straight season?

Can anyone top the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson’s case for a second-straight Defensive Player of the Year Award? Here’s how the credentials of the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas and Washington Mystics’ Brittney Sykes stack up against Wilson’s.

2022 WNBA Finals - Las Vegas Aces v Connecticut Sun
The Aces’ A’ja Wilson defends the Sun’s Alyssa Thomas during the 2022 WNBA Finals.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

Can the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards?

The last player to do so was Alana Beard, who won in 2017 and 2018 as the leader of the Los Angeles Sparks’ defense. If Wilson wins a second in a row, she’ll become the sixth player in WNBA history to do so.

Her fiercest competition may come from the player who finished second to her last season: the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas. Or, might a perimeter defender threaten Wilson’s claim and crash the Defensive Player of the Year party for the first time in five seasons? Maybe someone like the Washington Mystics’ Brittney Sykes?

Eric Nemchock makes the case for Wilson to win again, Edwin Garcia offers evidence for a Thomas triumph and Cat Ariail gives some shine to Sykes.

A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces)

Washington Mystics v Las Vegas Aces
A’ja Wilson.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Wilson’s candidacy for this award can be summed up simply: She’s already the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and she’s been even better in 2023.

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing Wilson near the top of the leaderboards in several key defensive metrics. In this respect, nothing has changed in 2023; she currently leads the WNBA in blocked shots per game (2.2) and ranks third in defensive rebounding (7.5), both areas in which the Aces—not coincidentally—have excelled since drafting Wilson in 2018.

A player’s case for Defensive Player of the Year often hinges on their team’s success on that end of the floor, though, and it’s here where Wilson truly proves her mastery as a defensive anchor. Not only does Las Vegas lead the WNBA in overall defensive rating (97.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), but the team does a phenomenal job of keeping opponents off the foul line when Wilson is in the game, allowing an opponent free throw rate of 0.205—a figure that jumps to 0.291 when Wilson sits. Similarly, the Aces’ top-ranked defense is significantly better at forcing turnovers when Wilson is on the court (17.4 percent) than when she’s on the bench (14.4 percent).

The Aces’ team defense was good when Wilson won Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, but not at this level. Given that both Wilson and the Aces as a team are performing even better on that end of the court in 2023, she should be a no-brainer candidate to win the award once again.— Eric Nemchock

Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut Sun)

Los Angeles Sparks v Connecticut Sun
Alyssa Thomas.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Alyssa Thomas has been the defensive anchor for the Connecticut Sun all season. She leads the team with 1.9 steals and 7.9 defensive rebounds per game, and is a big reason why the Sun have the second-best defensive rating in the WNBA at 98.8.

Her ball pressure, ability to jump passing lanes and just sheer force of power make her the epicenter of the Sun’s defense. Everyone needs to be aware of where Thomas is at all times.

She may not block many shots, but she’s savvy at forcing opposing players into tough shots and leading them into the Sun’s shot blockers. Thanks to Thomas’ defensive prowess, the Sun have not missed a beat, even with the departure of previous head coach Curt Miller and star big Jonquel Jones. Given the amount on her plate and the winning impact she has on the floor, I don’t see a better candidate for Defensive Player of the Year this season. — Edwin Garcia

Brittney Sykes (Washington Mystics)

Las Vegas Aces v Washington Mystics
Brittney Sykes.
Photo by KeShawn Ennis/NBAE via Getty Images

Alana Beard, referenced above as the last player to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards, also was the last perimeter defender to be named Defensive Player of the Year. Previous to Beard capturing the league’s ultimate defensive honor in 2017 and 2018, Sheryl Swoopes, also a back-to-back winner, was the last perimeter defender to win the award, winning in 2002 and 2003. Of the 26 Defensive Player of the Year Awards distributed by the WNBA, only seven have gone to guards or wings.

In short, the award has been dominated by bigs. It is a pattern that accurately reflects how rim protection is the most valuable defensive attribute in basketball. However, the award is not Most Valuable Defensive Player or Most Impactful Defensive Player; it’s Defensive Player of the Year.

So while a perimeter defender, like Brittney Sykes, may not provide as much measurable defensive value as a mobile rim protector, like A’ja Wilson or Breanna Stewart, Sykes’ devotion to maximizing her defensive aptitude, just as Beard and Swoopes did before her, qualifies her for award consideration, or least hearty appreciation for her effort.

As our Josh Felton has documented, the Mystics have been ravaged by injuries in 2023. Sykes, however, has played every game for Washington, emerging as the heart beat of the team in her first season in the District. Due to injuries up and down the DC roster, Sykes has played a career high in minutes and assumed a larger offensive burden. Yet, her defensive effort has not waned; it has intensified. Her career-high 2.1 steals per game trails only Jordin Canada’s 2.2 swipes. Among guards, she ranks in the top six in both defensive rebounds and rebounds per game, notching career bests with 4.0 defensive boards and 4.9 total boards.

Beyond her counting stats, Sykes is tireless, regardless of time or score. She exerts focused effort when pestering ball handlers at the point of attack or sticking to opposing wings off the ball. Sykes’ overall approach to defense is a testament to her elite physical and mental capacities. — Cat Ariail