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Inside the W: Handicapping the Rookie of the Year Race

In eight of the past nine seasons, the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick has been the league’s Rookie of the Year winner, making it clear that the league has done a good job of making room for its best young talent and that impact has been significant and immediate.

In 2017, Kelsey Plum was the league’s No. 1 pick, coming off a record-shattering collegiate career including the NCAA’s all-time women’s basketball scoring title.
And after a slow start, Plum has built a strong rookie resume in the WNBA, leading the San Antonio Stars to four wins in their last five games. The Stars are 5-0 this season in games in which the dynamic young guard plays at least 30 minutes.

But Plum hasn’t been the only rookie this season to propel her team.

Brittney Sykes has been something of a surprise breakout performer for a young Atlanta team moving through the season without star Angel McCoughtry.
And Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray jumped out to a great start and has settled into an impactful season.

Let’s handicap this interesting race as the season enters its stretch run.

Kelsey Plum

  • Credentials: Plum is averaging 7.7 points a game for the Stars, but that doesn’t tell the full story of her impact of late. In the last two weeks she has had a 12-assist game in a win over Washington and a 23-point scoring effort against Seattle.
  • Impact: After starting the season late because of a sprained ankle, Plum didn’t get much traction at the start of her professional career, with limited playing time and limited contributions. She didn’t score double figures in a game until July 5. But as the season wore on – and injuries to Kayla McBride and Moriah Jefferson pushed her into more minutes, Plum has begun to find her groove. She’s doing what she does best, forcing the action, getting into the lane, going to the line and becoming a problem for opposing defenses.
  • Award Prospects: Fair. If she wins, it’s going to be something of a surprise. The Stars’ struggles for much of the season had people questioning Plum’s impact from afar, not to mention how San Antonio was using her. There’s no doubt they are more successful with her on the floor. The more she plays, the better she gets.

Brittney Sykes

  • Credentials: Sykes, the Syracuse product who led her college team to a Final Four in 2016, currently ranks second in scoring for the Dream at 13.1 points per game, the best rookie scoring average in the league.
  • Impact: Sykes, who has scored in double figures in 18 of the last 19 games, has turned into the Dream’s most consistent scoring threat over the second half of the season. Atlanta has lost eight in a row, but Sykes has done her part on the offensive end. In the last two games, she’s scored a combined 51 points.
  • Award Prospects: Good. Sykes has been a difference maker for the Dream on the floor; part of the issue is that she hasn’t been the difference between winning and losing on many nights, but in the margin of defeat.

Allisha Gray

  • Credentials: Gray has averaged 27.8 minutes a game averaging 13.1 points a game, Gray, who has scored in double figures in 23 games this season, is coming off two of her best games of the year, a 19-point game against Phoenix, and a 21-point effort against Connecticut. Unfortunately, they were both losses for Dallas.
  • Impact: Gray, coming off her national championship with South Carolina, started strong for Dallas, jumping in and making an immediate impact over the first few weeks of the season while the Wings settled in for the season. Now, with Skylar Diggins-Smith and Glory Johnson asserted themselves and put the Wings in strong position for the Dallas franchise’s first playoff appearance.
  • Award Prospects: Very good. Gray, because of her quick start, probably is running neck-and-neck with Sykes as the frontrunners for this award. The vote will be close. But she may be the only one of the three to make the playoffs and that may just put her over the top.

The Path to the Playoffs

Los Angeles 19-8. The Sparks are trying hard to hold on to the No. 2 seed and the end of the season schedule bodes well. Los Angeles is 12-1 at home this season and will play four of their last five at home after ending a five-game road trip against Chicago on Friday night. But that final stretch includes games against Phoenix, Minnesota and Connecticut, three of the league’s toughest outs right now.

Connecticut 18-9. The Sun, on a six-game win streak, have punched their playoff ticket, but are hoping to pass Los Angeles to snag that No. 2 seed. Connecticut plays its next four games at home before closing on the road against Washington, Phoenix (who they will face twice in the final 7 games) and Los Angeles, a game that could decide that precious No. 2 spot.

Washington 16-10. The Mystics have eight games to go and have been playing since July 30 without Elena Delle Donne with a injured thumb. She should be back soon, just in time for the Mystics to solidify their playoff position. Washington will play five of its final eight at home, and five of those final eight games will come against Western Conference teams who are in playoff position.

New York 15-12. The Liberty, who have won three straight, now have to feel secure about their playoff prospects, but want to solidify their spot in the top half of the bracket. With seven games to go, the Liberty are facing just three road games. But it’s going to be a tough upcoming weekend with back-to-back matchups against Connecticut and Minnesota.

Phoenix 14-13. Brittney Griner is back just in time for the Mercury to make a push into the top half of the playoff bracket. Five of their final seven games come against teams on top of them in the standings. Just the kind of challenge Diana Taurasi and Co. would love on their way into the postseason.

Dallas 13-16. The Wings only have five games remaining and a three-game road trip still to go. The Wings had momentum with a three-game win streak, lost it and need it back in order to claim their first playoff spot in Dallas.

Chicago 11-16. The Sky are rallying back into the playoff conversation with a three-game win streak, but the seven games left on the schedule won’t be easy. They will face Los Angeles, Connecticut and Minnesota during this stretch run, as well as a Seattle team (twice) that’s equally desperate for wins. The Sky play four games at home in the closing stretch.

Seattle 11-16. The Storm made a coaching change hoping to change the team’s momentum and earn a playoff spot that many assumed was a given at the start of the season. There is opportunity here for Seattle, with four games against teams with losing records. Seattle is 3-10 on the road this season, and will play four of their final seven games away from home.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2017 season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.

INSIDE THE W ARCHIVE