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Race to MVP: Brittney Griner Leads Preseason Rankings

Note: WNBA.com’s Race to the MVP, released every Wednesday during the season, is the opinion of this writer and does not reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.

The 2018 WNBA season tips off this weekend, as the Dallas Wings visit the Phoenix Mercury on Friday (10 PM ET, NBA TV) and all 12 teams are in action Sunday. As it is every year, the race for the MVP trophy figures to be an exciting one, featuring many familiar faces and some looking to win the award for the first time. Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles earned the honors in 2017, becoming the ninth different WNBA MVP in the last nine years.

With the vast young talent in the league today, it wouldn’t be shocking to see that trend continue. Could the next in line be Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones or Seattle’s Breanna Stewart? Two more candidates – Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liz Cambage – barely miss the cut on this list. It’s likely at least one of them will end up being in the conversation.

Another potential first-time MVP is the player we rank as our preseason favorite.

1. Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury

If not for a pair of injuries suffered late in the season, Griner may have challenged Fowles for the award last year. Phoenix’s star center led the league in scoring (21.9 points per game) and finished sixth in MVP voting despite missing eight games. She exploded for 30-plus points six times, and the Mercury won all six of those games.

After guiding Phoenix to the semifinals, Griner will benefit from the return of DeWanna Bonner, who is back after a one-year absence. The Mercury also traded for veteran guard Briann January and figure to improve on their 18-16 regular-season record from last year. With a stronger supporting cast, Griner’s dominance on both ends of the court could propel Phoenix near the top of the standings and land her some individual hardware.

2. Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

By the end of the 2017 season, there was only one logical choice for MVP. Fowles received 35 of 40 first-place votes, and then capped off the memorable year by earning her second Finals MVP trophy. During the regular season, Fowles led the WNBA in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, defensive rating and field goal percentage, among others. She averaged 18.9 points per game on 65.5 percent shooting and set Minnesota’s single-season rebounding record by grabbing 10.4 per contest.

With Fowles playing the best basketball of her illustrious career, it’s not hard to imagine a repeat performance. It would put her in rare company, as Cynthia Cooper-Dyke is the only player in league history to win back-to-back MVPs (1997, 1998).

3. Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks

After winning her first WNBA title in 2016, Parker nearly led the Sparks to glory once again as part of a dominant individual season. L.A. came up short in Game 5 against Minnesota, despite Parker’s 19 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and two steals. It’s that type of all-around brilliance that keeps her in this conversation every year.

Parker is the only player to rank in the league’s top 15 in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in each of the past two seasons. She and fellow former MVP Nneka Ogwumike finished third and fourth in the voting last year, respectively, and will likely take votes away from each other again this season. But the Sparks have a very good chance of finishing with the league’s best record. If that happens, it could be Parker securing her third MVP award.

4. Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

Save for Angel McCoughtry, Jones is the only player on this list who wasn’t part of it to begin last season. She emerged as the breakout star of the year, and peers raved about her at the All-Star Game, touting Jones as the future of the WNBA. Could she challenge for MVP as soon as this season, at age 24?

Connecticut is so loaded in the frontcourt – with fellow 2017 All-Star Alyssa Thomas and the returning Chiney Ogwumike – that it could depend on her touches. But Jones has all the tools to be an MVP. She’s already the league’s best rebounder, having set a new WNBA record with 11.9 per game last season. The 6-6 forward also made a ridiculous 44.6 percent of her three-pointers.

Expectations are high entering her third year with the Sun. Jones may miss some time to start the season, as she is still home in the Bahamas attending to family matters.

5. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

Delle Donne made her presence felt in D.C. right away, as she posted just under 20 points per game and guided the Mystics to the semifinals last season. Before she arrived, Washington had finished with a winning record just once in six seasons. This year, they will be without star forward Emma Meesseman, Delle Donne’s partner in the frontcourt who will be focusing on Belgian National Team duties. That could help Delle Donne statistically, but also hurt the team’s record.

Another key factor is Delle Donne’s health. She has yet to complete a full season in her five-year career, and the 2015 MVP has missed at least six games due to injuries each of the past two years. If she can stay on the court, there’s no reason to believe Delle Donne can’t contend for another MVP.

6. Tina Charles, New York Liberty

Each year, it seems Charles has a much different case for MVP than most candidates. She doesn’t have a co-star in New York and carries a heavier load for her team than most players on this list. And yet, the Liberty have finished third in the overall standings each of the last two years. They were eliminated from the playoffs right away, but that regular-season success has helped Charles earn runner-up in the MVP voting both years.

Under Bill Laimbeer, Charles anchored a defense that boasted the league’s best defensive field goal percentage for three straight seasons. The Liberty will look to maintain their defensive prowess with first-year coach Katie Smith. On the offensive end, Charles has recently added the three-point shot to a versatile skill set that makes her as unstoppable as anyone in the game.

7. Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta Dream

One of the best scorers in league history returns to Atlanta after sitting out the 2017 season to rest. Since we last saw McCoughtry, three new All-Stars have emerged for the Dream – Layshia Clarendon, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams – and the team revamped its roster ahead of its first season under coach Nicki Collen. McCoughtry will have fresh legs as Atlanta sets its sights on a deep playoff run.

A two-time scoring champion, McCoughtry owns a career average of 19.5 points per game. In her most recent WNBA season, she posted that exact average and followed it up with a memorable playoff performance. McCoughtry torched Seattle for 37 points and seven assists to advance to the second round, where Atlanta lost to Chicago despite her 27 points and nine dimes. She also earned a spot on the All-Defensive First Team in 2016, the sixth such honor of her career.

8. Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks

After enjoying one of the most dominant individual seasons we’ve ever seen in 2016 – and winning her first MVP – Ogwumike predictably took a step back last year. Still, she averaged nearly 19 points per game on 56.1 percent shooting and finished fourth in the MVP voting. The Stanford product is shooting 56.3 percent for her career, which ranks fourth all-time.

If Ogwumike can step up in the biggest moments for the Sparks, she could find herself in the hunt for another MVP. Last year, she was inconsistent against Minnesota during the regular season, posting totals of three points (1-8 FG) and eight points (4-9 FG) in their final two matchups. Ogwumike and the Sparks get their first crack at the defending champions on Sunday (5 PM ET, ESPN2).

9. Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx

If you ask any of her teammates, Moore was the biggest supporter of Fowles, as Big Syl became the focal point of Minnesota’s title-winning team. A former MVP herself, Moore saw her numbers dip across the board last season, and it’s been that way since Fowles arrived in 2015. She averaged her fewest points per game (17.3) since 2012 and her fewest rebounds per game (5.0) since her rookie year.

Moore did improve to 41.1 percent from three-point range, partly because of Fowles’ dominant presence in the paint. Perhaps she will be even more efficient this season. Moore is still arguably the most talented player in the league, and it would surprise no one if we saw her in MVP form again. In fact, the league’s general managers picked her to win the award.

10. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

Stewart’s first two years in the WNBA have gone as most expected after her record-breaking college career. She is a versatile force at both ends of the court, and the UConn product was rewarded with her first All-Star selection last season. At age 22, Stewart scored 20 or more points in 12 straight games, matching Diana Taurasi’s single-season record.

For Stewart to truly be part of this conversation, the Storm will need to make a leap in the standings. They have finished below .500 in each of her two seasons. One major reason is their lack of bench production, as Seattle has ranked last in scoring from reserves each of the last two years. With their offseason acquisitions, the Storm have reason to believe this could change.