Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Midseason MVP Candidates

At the halfway point of the WNBA season, the ‘Wubble’ is intact and the season-long grind is well underway.

In this unprecedented WNBA season — with unique challenges almost every where you look — the separation of teams has begun in earnest, as has the clear delineation of elite talent that will likely challenge for the league’s MVP Award.

Let’s break it down into three main categories:

The Front Runners.

A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas. The third-year post has some of the best individual numbers in the league on one of its hottest teams. The Aces have won seven straight games, and while some might want to credit the juju coming out of Bill Laimbeer’s headband, the play of Wilson deserves more than its share as well. Wilson currently ranks second in the league in scoring at 20.3 points per game and among the league leaders at 8.5 rebounds. She had a rare tough shooting game on Saturday against Washington, going 4-for-13 from the floor, but she contributed four steals to her 12-point effort and made it clear that even on the days that she isn’t going to score quite as much that she sets the tone for Las Vegas. It’s more than her play on the floor, however, as Wilson is one of the league’s most demonstrably joyful players. That kind of energy can’t help but rub off.

Breanna Stewart, Seattle. The only team that’s hotter than Vegas right now is Seattle, which has won eight in a row on way to posting the league’s best record at 10-1. The Storm were viewed as preseason favorites by many because they had so many pieces back in place, and none were bigger than Stewart, who looks as smooth and confident as ever in her return season after missing 2019 with an Achilles tendon injury. Stewart is doing it all and making it look a little easy. She is averaging 18.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game in less than 30 minutes a game on the floor. Decisive wins in its last three games against Atlanta, Dallas and Connecticut (a combined averaging winning margin of 26 points) have allowed Stewart to get some rest and save up all of that world-class basketball for the second half of the season and the long playoff run that looks like Seattle’s destiny at this point.

Candace Parker, Los Angeles. At 34, Parker’s game this season looks to be rejuvenated. The Sparks have won four in a row and staying near the top of the league standings thanks to Parker’s do-everything performances. She is averaging 12.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. She made up for a difficult shooting night against Indiana Saturday with five assists and two steals. On August 9 against Minnesota, she came up one assist short of a triple-double (11 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists). Parker needs just 12 points to reach 5,500 for her career. She is playing elite-level defense, ranking in the top 3 in the league in rebounding, blocks and defensive win shares. Whatever issues there might have been last season with head coach Derek Fisher look as if they have been put in the past and Parker seems set on making sure that the future is bright for a Sparks team that has the experience to make a run at winning it all.

The Contenders:

DeWanna Bonner, Connecticut. Bonner moved on to Connecticut from a long career in Phoenix where she shared the spotlight with Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner for most of her career. But Bonner has a lot of the spotlight – and the scoring responsibility – to herself for the Sun. Bonner is averaging 18.2 points a game, the second highest scoring average of her career. Her 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game are career-highs. She averaged 27.5 points a game out of the gate, but has scaled back her scoring of late as the Sun have found their offensive balance and have won four of their last six games. Against Chicago, a team that looks destined for the Playoffs, Bonner finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and three steals.

Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago. One of the top point guards on the planet, Vandersloot is the engine that makes the Sky go. Vandersloot has had four games already this season with double-digit assists and leads the league in assists at 8.7 per game. She is shooting 47.5 percent from the floor and 37 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. The Sky are looking for a long playoff run and they are looking for ‘Sloot to lead them there.

Naphessa Collier, Minnesota. Considering their injuries and absences this season, the Lynx have been something of a surprise near the top of the standings and Collier is their anchor. The second year forward is building on her Rookie of the Year campaign in 2019 to put up three double-doubles, including a season-high 26 points on Saturday against New York. She added 13 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks to a stellar game. Collier has scored 47 points and pulled down 27 rebounds in the past two games.

Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas. Ogunbowale is already one of the league’s most consistently explosive scorers in just her second pro season. She is the league’s leading scorer at 21.5 points a game after her 33-point game against Phoenix on Sunday in which she hit a season-high six 3-pointers. She has scored in double digits in every game this season and at least 20 points in seven of 11 games. The Wings are a very young team and would likely have to find a way to get to .500 for Ogunbowale to make a run at an MVP Award.

Brittney Griner, Phoenix. It’s hard to count BG out of an MVP conversation ever. She is averaging 18.1 points and 7.6 rebounds a game in less than 32 minutes on the floor and she is leading in new and more assertive ways in her 8th WNBA season.

The Outside Shots.

Diana Taurasi, Phoenix. The G.O.A.T. is back this season after missing most of 2019 and despite a back injury that caused her to miss two games last week, she is playing like someone who expects to take another shot at a title. Taurasi is averaging 16.5 points and 5.8 assists in a little less than 28 minutes a game while getting plenty of backcourt support from Skylar Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley. The Mercury are 6-5, but a second-half rally behind Taurasi could vault her quickly into the upper tier of MVP talk.

Kelsey Mitchell, Indiana. Mitchell was one of the greatest college scorers in the history of the women’s game when she came to the Fever and she has found her scoring stroke for a young, but improving Indiana squad this season. Mitchell has scored at least 20 points in five games this season, and is coming off a 25-point game against Las Angeles in which she hit seven 3-pointers. She leads the league in minutes played (33.3 per game) and is currently third in scoring at 19.6. But the Fever would have to make a Playoff move in order for Mitchell to move up to the contenders list.

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