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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Regular Season Memories

The 2017 WNBA regular season is nearly in the books and it will be remembered as a season of streaks and records, a summer of activism and ascensions. The postseason bracket is also almost set, and it will be time soon enough for one-and-done thrillers and the march to the league’s 21st championship series.

While 2016 was a landmark season for the league in many ways – a 20th anniversary, punctuated by an Olympic gold medal and then perhaps the most exciting Finals series in the league’s history – 2017 has had its own flavor and plenty of its own memorable moments.

The 2017 regular season is going to be remembered for the breakout of new, young talented players at nearly every position who are proving to be the league’s bright future.

It will be remembered for a veteran, championship team that set an early pace and forced everyone to try to keep up.

It will be remembered for the dominance of the towering post players.  It will be remembered because, well, it was memorable.

There were some moments that stand out among the rest. Here is what 2017 in the WNBA will be remembered for:

Diana Taurasi setting the all-time scoring record on June 18, doing it at Staples Center, not far from her hometown of Chino, Calif. She did it in front of family, friends and Kobe Bryant. Taurasi broke Tina Thompson’s all-time scoring record, needing 119 (more than three seasons) fewer games to do it. The Phoenix Mercury star, in her 13th season, remains among the league’s scoring leaders, is as driven to win another title as ever and will lead Phoenix in to the postseason as one of the most dangerous teams. Taurasi is just adding to her record at this point, but what she really wants most is another title run.

The Rising Sun in Connecticut. Who would have figured that a Sun team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2012, got off to a 1-4 start and opened the season with injuries to two of its best young players in Chiney Ogwumike and Morgan Tuck would be the surprise of the league in 2017? Curt Miller adjusted his lineup, built unmistakable chemistry and got breakout seasons from second-year forward Jonquel Jones and guard Jasmine Thomas. Alyssa Thomas provides veteran presence and the Sun have reeled off two five-game win streaks and a six-game win streak this season to finish among the top four (currently third) in the league standings with a shot to challenge for a title.

Sylvia’s Turn. Sylvia Fowles has always been one of the WNBA’s most fearsome defensive players. But Syl found her scoring groove in 2017 and is having an MVP-caliber season while leading Minnesota to the best record in the league for most of the summer. The Lynx have been led in their title quests in past seasons by Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. Fowles joined the roster two years ago, but this time around she has been the center of their success. She is averaging 19.4 points and 10.4 rebounds and is shooting a career-high 65.3 percent from the floor. As Whalen recovers from an injury, returning in time for a postseason run, Fowles will be Minnesota’s engine.

New Media. The WNBA made some innovative new deals this season that increased the exposure and the stature of the league. On May 1, the league announced that Twitter would be streaming 20 WNBA games live. The Twitter games have brought more than a million views to some games and have increased the league’s visibility on social media, building off last year’s growth. The league’s foray into fantasy sports, with inclusion on the FanDuel and Draft King fantasy gaming platforms, was viewed as a significant step toward mainstream sports audiences. The season of innovation was capped with the early-August announcement that WNBA players would be featured on EA Sports “NBA Live 18” video game platform. Any one of these deals would have been a prominent step forward for the league, but taken together they represent a concerted opportunity to push the WNBA more into the mainstream.

Bird Soars in Seattle. The WNBA All-Star Game made its first trip to Seattle, long one of the WNBA’s best and most supportive markets. The game was marked by the inclusion of nine first-time All-Stars between the two teams, and the heartfelt tribute to Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, who was the hostess with the most-ess for the entire weekend. Not unlike her longtime friend and Olympic teammate Diana Taurasi, Bird’s place in the WNBA annals will be cemented before this season is out when she claims the league’s all-time assist record from Ticha Penicheiro. Bird needs just three assists to break the record and will get her chance Friday night as the Storm try to nail down the final Playoff spot in Washington.

Awards Season

It’s almost time to submit ballots for the WNBA end-of-season awards. Revealing my votes for the major awards with a thought or two on my choices…

MVP: Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota. Fowles, who was named the Western Conference Player of the Month in June, July and August, had a dominant season on the team that has been atop the league standings for much of the season. The MVP trophy will be the reward – at least the first reward – for the best season of her WNBA career.

Coach of the Year: Curt Miller, Connecticut. Miller coached the Connecticut Sun into the feel-good story of the WNBA season. They are young, but up-and-coming no more. Miller’s team has arrived.

Rookie of the Year: Allisha Gray, Dallas. It’s been a pretty good few months for Gray, who won an NCAA title with South Carolina in April and five months later, her impressive first-year play has helped to propel the Dallas Wings to the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Texas. Gray was the most consistent rookie of the season in the league, averaging 13.2 points a game.

Defensive Player of the Year: Alana Beard, Los Angeles. It’s not easy for a guard to win this award, which so often awards dominant inside play. But Beard is the Sparks’ glue player, particularly on the defensive end and she’s been superb this season in her role as perimeter stopper.

Sixth Player of the Year: Renee Montgomery, Minnesota. Montgomery has been increasingly critical to the Lynx, coming into to replace Lindsay Whalen at point guard. But Montgomery has always been such a valuable role player to Minnesota coming off the bench for energy, scoring and experience. In one of the league’s more competitive categories, she gets the nod.

Most Improved Player: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut. Jones, in her second year out of George Washington, is on her way to being a superstar in the WNBA. This breakout season, in which Jones led the WNBA in rebounding and impressive everyone in the All-Star game, showed her athleticism and versatility.

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