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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: My League Award Ballot

In this most extraordinary WNBA season, there have been many extraordinary performances, with many more to come as the regular season gives way to the WNBA Playoffs presented by AT&T beginning on Sept. 15 in Bradenton, Florida.

Twenty-two games to find a team’s chemistry, to settle on a rotation, to break out from the pack or fall back. It’s been fast and furious. It’s been fun. This season’s most thrilling moments have been countered by moments of sadness at injuries or departures. It has been unforgettable.

And, as much as it’s ever been, the 2020 season has been about the WNBA players and what they were willing to sacrifice and work for to hold their season in the middle of both the COVID-19 pandemics and a clarion call to end racial injustice.

They have been leaders, and voices of hope and change and world-class athletes all at the same time.

As proudly as ever, I’m sharing my votes on my ballot for the WNBA 2020 Awards.

Coach of the Year 

Cheryl Reeve, Minnesota. Why Reeve over Derek Fisher, Gary Kloppenberg or Bill Laimbeer? They are teams stacked with talent who were expected to be where they are right now. Not sure you can say that about the Lynx, considering the injuries they have sustained and the in-season roster and starting lineup changes that Reeve has had to make. The fact that the Lynx could well finish as a top four team in this league, making the postseason for the 10th straight season (the longest streak in the league) with Sylvia Fowles having played just seven games, with injuries to Karima Christmas-Kelly, Shenise Johnson, Lexie Brown and Rachel Banham is something of a surprise. But here they are. Crystal Dangerfield proved to be a steal as a second-round pick as she blossomed into a go-to scorer, Napheesa Collier solidified her status as an All-Star caliber pro, Damaris Dantas and Bridget Carleton made the most of their roles, and Odyssey Sims came into the fold in mid-August and has made some important contributions down the stretch, just in time for the postseason. The Lynx have wins over Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and Connecticut. Thursday’s game with Las Vegas will be a barometer check heading into the postseason. But Reeve has made all the right moves. Again.

PALMETTO, FL – AUGUST 31: Napheesa Collier #24 and Head Coach, Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx smile during the game against the Los Angeles Sparks on August 31, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Defensive Player of the Year

Napheesa Collier, Minnesota. A close pick between Collier, Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas and L.A.’s Candace Parker. Collier’s length makes her one of the most difficult defensive matchups in the WNBA. As her coach Cheryl Reeve says “you can’t go around her.”  She is has become one of the league’s top rebounders (No. 2 behind Candace Parker), among the league leaders in steals (No. 3) and blocks (No. 8) and is the pace-setter for a Minnesota team that has built its identity and success around its ability to play strong team defense. Thomas’ 17 steals over the past six games and Parker’s dominance on the defensive boards makes this such a close race. Collier came away with it thanks to a bigger load to carry without Fowles on the floor.

PALMETTO, FL – SEPTEMBER 2: Damiris Dantas #12 high-fives Crystal Dangerfield #2 of the Minnesota Lynx on September 2, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Rookie of the Year

Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota. Given all of the injuries to the Lynx roster, where would they be without the second-round pick out of Connecticut? Certainly not looking at a first-round playoff bye. Dangerfield, with 17 starts under her belt, is Minnesota’s leading scorer at 15.6 points a game. She has scored more than 20 points in a game six times this season. She has only failed to reach double figures twice and she is learning to be a strong distributor, finishing with at least five assists in four of the Lynx’s last nine games. No second-round pick has ever been selected Rookie of the Year. That streak may well end in 2020. Dallas’ Satou Sabally has also had an outstanding debut season, showing a versatile game that will make her a star in this league moving forward, but playoff position in 2020 made the difference here.

Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award 

Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles. As the President of the WNBA Players Association, Ogwumike has carried so much this season that her back is quite fittingly hurting her and limiting her time on the floor. Ogwumike’s leadership, her coalition-building and her role as the spokesperson for the players in the league has never been more important, more relevant and more critical to the players. She never fails to represent the players with a thoughtful calm and confidence and she will be remembered for what she did this season to unite the WNBA behind social justice.

Comeback Player of the Year

Angel McCoughtry, Las Vegas. McCoughtry left the only WNBA team she’d ever played for, pulling a new uniform over her head for the first time in 10 years. She missed the entirety of the 2017 season and played one game in 2019. Known as one of the league’s most mercurial players, she signed on to play for Bill Laimbeer, one of the most tell-it-like-it-is coaches around. And it’s worked out beautifully for both McCoughtry and the Aces, who are continuing to push hard for an all-important top-two seed. McCoughtry is picking up the offensive slack with the absence of Liz Cambage by averaging 14.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists in approximately 21 minutes a game on the floor. She brings experience, leadership and a disruptive presence to the floor on the defensive end. All are welcome for the Aces as they make a title run.

6th Player of the Year

Dearica Hamby, Las Vegas. A repeat win in this category for the player that sets the standard across the league for coming in and proving her team whatever it needs. Hamby leads an Aces’ bench crew on the way to setting the league record for offensive production. She is averaging a career-best 13.2 points a game, career-highs in assists (2.3 per game) and steals (1.8 per game) to go with 7.3 rebounds. She ranks among the top 10 in the WNBA in field-goal percentage (.554), three-point percentage (.464), defensive rebounds (5.9) and steals (1.78).

Most Improved Player

Betnijah Laney, Atlanta. This has been nothing short of a game-changing season for the fifth-year guard/forward out of Rutgers. Laney was cut from the Indiana Fever roster before getting picked up by the team, who needed help in the backcourt because of the absence of Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes (both decided to sit out the 2020 season). And they got much more than the defensive stopper they were expecting. Laney is averaging 16.5 points a game, her career-best by a factor of three. She has five 20-point plus games this season and two 30-point games. Against Las Vegas on Sept. 5, she finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four steals. Laney averaged 5.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season in Indiana. She scored a season high 11 points against Seattle. This season has changed her pro career for good.

MVP

A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas.

Wilson by a nose over Stewart, who finished by a nose over Parker. This was not an easy season to pick an MVP. How do you not reward the best player on the best team with the kind of numbers and both-ends-of-the-floor impact that Stewart has? How do you not acknowledge the incredible all-around numbers that Parker has put up? But Wilson has the slightest of edges here because of the burden she had to take on without Liz Cambage and because of her consistency game in and game out and particularly down the stretch. Over the last seven games, Wilson has six 20-point-plus games and is shooting 50 percent from the floor. She hasn’t taken a 3-pointer all season and leads the league in free-throw attempts for the third time in her three years in the league. Stewart has struggled from the floor of late, going 23-for-96 in her last four games, a difficult 24 percent. Wilson has scored in double-digits every game this season and in a barometer game against Seattle on August 22, she finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds in an Aces’ win.

PALMETTO, FL – AUGUST 22: A’ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces drives to the basket against the Seattle Storm on August 22, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

First Team All-WNBA

Breanna Stewart, Seattle. An amazing return from her Achilles injury. Seattle needs her to get her offensive groove back from the floor in time for the postseason.

A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas. Steadily brilliant all season and the key to an Aces’ title run.

Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago. Best point guard in the league, and at 9.8 assists per game, headed for the record books with Sue Bird.

Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas. Flat out scoring machine and a future MVP. If the Wings eek into the playoffs, as it looks like they will, she could make it very interesting in a single-game format.

Candace Parker, Los Angeles. Rejuvenated and as versatile and dangerous as ever. Watching her play at this level is joyful.

Second Team

Diana Taurasi, Phoenix. The GOAT could will her team to a long playoff run at this rate. 32 3-pointers in her last seven games.

DeWanna Bonner, Connecticut. Tone-setter and go-to scorer in Connecticut. 18 double-doubles this season and 14 in a row.

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Phoenix. A change did Diggins-Smith very good in Phoenix. Settled and stellar over the past few weeks. Five of six games with 20-plus points.

Napheesa Collier, Minnesota. Showing herself to be an elite talent.

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut. Filling the stat sheet as always. Six 20-point games and an 19.5 ppg average in the last six games.


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.