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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Most Improved Player Candidates

By circumstance, hard work or opportunity, the number of players who could make a strong case as the WNBA’s Most Improved Player this season is long. The thing that many of them have in common, a significant injury on their teams opening up the possibility that they could play a bigger role.

But opportunity is only one part of the equation. Then you still have to step up and do it.

And these seven players have. This might be one of the closest votes in league history for this award. So many good choices. So many good players. So many good performances.

And a really good problem to have.

Jordin Canada, Seattle
2018 Stats: 5.7 ppg, 3.3 apg
2019 Stats: 9.8 ppg, 5.0 apg

The case to be made: The second-year point guard was thrust into the starting lineup in the absence of Sue Bird, asked to play a bigger offensive role with the injury issues of Jewell Loyd and has battled a couple of injuries of her own this season. Canada is a burgeoning floor general in this league. Her explosiveness is almost unsurpassed around the league and her confidence is growing. Canada’s 14-point, six-assist, three-steal effort against Minnesota earlier this week is a sign that she is ready to lead her team into the postseason.

Dearica Hamby, Las Vegas
2018 Stats: 7.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg
2019 Stats: 11.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg

The case to be made: Hamby is also making a case to be the 6th Woman of the Year in a breakout fifth WNBA season. Hamby has been the answer for the Aces as A’ja Wilson missed more than a month with an ankle injury. Hamby has made nine starts in Wilson’s absence, scoring in double figures in seven of those games. Hamby is shooting a career-best 49.2 percent from the field, playing in tandem with All-Star Liz Cambage. Hamby’s biggest game of the year so far is a 23-point, 16-rebound performance against Atlanta on August 13.

Tianna Hawkins, Washington
2018 Stats: 6.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg
2019 Stats: 9.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg

The case to be made: While Hawkins has tailed off a bit offensively as the Mystics lineup has reincorporated Emma Meesseman, her contributions to the Mystics’ success this season has been huge. Hawkins, having the best season of her career at the age of 28, is also a candidate for 6th Player of the Year honors.

Leilani Mitchell, Phoenix
2018 Stats: 4.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 2.3 apg
2019 Stats: 13.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.2 apg

The case to be made: In her 11th WNBA season, Mitchell has never made a bigger impact than she has this season for the Phoenix Mercury. With Diana Taurasi sidelined most of the season with back and hamstring injuries and veteran point guard Briann January hampered by injury, the Mercury needed Mitchell, who was cut at the start of the regular-season and then brought back and quickly inserted into the starting lineup. She has made 21 starts, averaging 31.1 minutes a game – compared with 14.9 minutes a game off the bench last season. And she has established career-highs in scoring, rebounding, assists and field-goal percentage. Mitchell, who has played with Phoenix four of the last five seasons, had scored in double figures in 11 straight games prior to Sunday’s game against the Chicago Sky. She also tied a WNBA single-game record with eight 3-pointers on July 30.

Kia Nurse, New York
2018 Stats: 9.1 ppg, 29.4 3P%
2019 Stats: 14.3 ppg, 35.0 3P%

The case to be made: In her second WNBA season, Nurse has established herself as a reliable scoring option to complement Tina Charles in New York. Nurse started just seven games last year as a rookie out of UConn, but has been in the starting lineup for every Liberty game this season. Nurse, who won two NCAA titles at Connecticut, has seven 20-point scoring game this season, including her latest effort, a 24-point effort on Aug. 25 against Washington that included a career-high six three-pointers. And she ranks among the league’s top free-throw shooters. After a strong start to the season, Nurse had tailed off offensively until her breakout against the Fever on August 20. She’d love to finish this season the way she started, with an offensive flourish.

Mercedes Russell, Seattle
2018 Stats: 1.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg
2019 Stats: 7.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg

The case to be made: Russell, the 6-foot-6 center from Springfield, Oregon is pretty close to local-girl-made-good status. She has gone from a player looking for a way off the end of the bench to an integral part of the Seattle Storm lineup in every game. And the Storm have needed her in the absence of MVP Breanna Stewart this season. Russell boasts perhaps the most drastic change in role, from zero starts and 5.6 minutes a game a year ago to 25 starts and 25.7 minutes a game this season. She posted her career-high with 19 points against New York on June 3. She’s scored in double figures in three of her last six games as the Storm make their playoff push, and she’s not even the only player on her team in line for this award.

Odyssey Sims, Minnesota
2018 Stats: 8.2 ppg, 2.8 apg
2019 Stats: 14.0 ppg, 5.3 apg

The case to be made: Odyssey Sims has had bigger scoring years, and she’s helped a team win a championship, but this year she turned her fresh start in Minnesota into an opportunity to prove that she is once-again a go-to scorer and leader. With no Maya Moore in the lineup this season and Seimone Augustus coming in late after an injury, Sims has been the Lynx’s most consistent perimeter scoring option. Sims put up her career-best scoring day when she scored 30 points against Seattle on August 18.

My pick: It’s down to Mitchell, who has changed the trajectory of her career in her 11th season or Russell, who rose to the occasion of a major role change this season to become a big factor in Seattle’s ability to make the playoffs without Stewart or Bird on the floor.

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