In our first look at individual WNBA statistics this season, we take a look at some of the players who have made the biggest improvements and might be candidates for the 2014 WNBA Most Improved Player Award.
It’s generally pretty easy to narrow down candidates for the WNBA MIP award because it has the least fluid criteria in the league.
To even be considered for the award, a player must a) at the very least, exceed their performance of the previous season and b) shows signs of earning a role on their team that will allow them to demonstrate improvement.
That means that even if you absolutely hate statistics to talk about sports you’re stuck having to use numbers – even if it’s the traditional per game averages – for support if you wish to enter the discussion about Most Improved Player. And it’s a really simple operation: [2014 stat] – [2013 stat].
I’ve described the VCR metric I use for this award and why I like to use it previously – this year, that number already pretty much narrows things down to 15 or so candidates that we’ll get to below. Yet beyond the numbers, there are a few additional subjective, but reasonable, criteria that help narrow things down further.
1. Improved players, not situations: Some might consider this semantic, but if we’re going to honor the *most* improved player as an individual award we should be looking at the player’s individual growth rather than a player who found a situation that better suited them. Usually that means I immediately take players who changed teams off the list, but an argument could probably be made that getting a new coach that just does a better job maximizing one’s skills would also count as an improved situation.
2. More than increased minutes: Minutes are an important part of the MIP award (as we’ll get to below), but we also want to know that a candidate for the award is not just doing the same thing with more minutes to inflate their stats. As a simple example, if someone scored five points per game in 10 minutes in 2012 and 10 points per game in 2013 that doesn’t mean they actually improved – it means they played more. That could certainly be the result of offseason improvements that earned them those minutes; it could also be because their coach simply under-utilized them previously.
The example so far this season is Courtney Paris, who has already gotten some national attention
She has gone from a fringe player to a starter in the state where she was a college star and she’s averaging career-highs. Statistically, she has always been a player who has been productive in limited minutes, but production was never the problem – it was her long-term battle with conditioning. Just yesterday, she had a career-high 16 rebounds.
While that seems to frame a perfect narrative for MIP, the problem is that she’s actually not producing at a higher rate his year. In other words, her production per minute has been very similar through the Shock’s first seven games:
Courtney Paris’ Per 36 statistics (via Basketball-Reference.com)
There is a narrative there to support Paris’ candidacy and it’s difficult to imagine her not getting votes if she keeps up her early season performance. But, without at all dismissing her improvement, there are others who have improved more.
3. Veteran players: There will always be second-year players who make huge improvements, but that’s pretty much what you would expect: their previous year was their rookie year, which everyone in every sport acknowledges as an adjustment year. Skylar Diggins is the clear second-year candidate who has made a huge leap this year, but even she (or Brittney Griner) would probably acknowledge that simply adjusting to the new competition and making necessary improvements was a large part of why they didn’t meet (ridiculously) lofty expectations last season.
In short, any player who’s any good is expected to improve between their first and second year, especially given the WNBA’s timeline. The spirit of the award is more about players exceeding expectations they’ve established over the long term.
4. Career-years: The danger of looking too narrowly at year-to-year improvement is ignoring a player who just had one terrible year and bounced back with a year that was better but not necessarily their best. This can get dicey in situations where there was a long gap between their pinnacle and a great year, but exceeding reasonable expectations has to be part of this award and having a career year is the easiest way to tell.
5. Going from below average to above average: This is the most subjective item of the bunch, but I’m always partial to players who go who don’t just improve their numbers but their relative standing within the league’s hierarchy of players. So for example, if two players improve by 30 percent and one has already been an All-Star while the other was previously a deep reserve, I’d probably give the nod to the latter all things being equal.
With that, here are the top 15 biggest year-to-year improvements through games played on Sunday and you’ll notice examples of all the above:
Erika de Souza
The top 15 player PER and VCR differentials for the 2014 WNBA season.
The top candidates
After taking a closer look at what the players above are doing, a few stand out as the top candidates for the award along with a couple who probably fit criteria five.
3/4. Erlana Larkins, F, Indiana Fever/Kia Vaughn, F/C, Washington Mystics: I’m not going to dig too deeply into these two because they have very similar stories: they’ve pretty much established themselves in this league and are improving upon very good seasons last year. Yet the reason to take note of both before moving on is that there’s an argument that both of these players have moved from solid starters to team MVP – whether by PER or MEV%, both would be their team’s MVP.
Larkins might not keep all of that production up as Natasha Howard develops and Tamika Catchings returns (hopefully sooner than later for the sake of basketball fans everywhere), but it’s easy to imagine Vaughn posting some of the best numbers of her career – although she’s not shooting well at all for a post player, her rebounds and assists are up while her turnovers are down.
Normally, Vaughn’s season would be enough to put her at the top of the list. Of course, some of you might not even entertain that: she has already won the MIP award once (2011). I don’t believe there’s any rule about a player winning this award twice…except that it’s sort of weird. There will certainly be an argument for her getting the award again if she has another career year, but sharing the wealth is always preferable.
2. Alysha Clark, F, Seattle Storm: I could probably go on for a while about what makes Clark’s story particularly compelling relative to this award: she’s a player who a number of fans counted out because she had to make the transition from college post to pro wing, she was cut twice after being drafted in the second round of a weak draft, and has worked her way from being a fringe player to a starter for the Seattle Storm.
Right now, the thing really holding Clark back is two-fold: she’s still a low-usage player and a lot of her improved efficiency comes from not turning the ball over as much, which is important but not something that will likely leap out at those voting. Add to that the fact that her defensive work against MVP candidate Maya Moore in the Storm’s surprising win over the defending champion Minnesota Lynx is the sort of thing that almost never gets noticed and it might be hard for Clark to get much traction.
1. Briann January, PG, Indiana Fever: January is the one player on this list whose somewhat dramatic improvement can be discussed without caveats and, right now, she might be considered the lone candidate.
She’s off to a career year in almost every category relevant to a point guard, including an impressive 62.5% shooting from three point range. But even if her numbers deflate back to normal a bit as she plays more games, the numbers to watch are probably her assists and turnovers.
Right now, January is just above a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, which is well beyond where she has been for her career. For reference, right now her pure point rating of 3.01 is not only significantly better than where it was last year or throughout her career but also puts her in the conversation as one of the league’s best point guards so far this year.
Again, she has to keep it up and there’s plenty of time for others to raise their game, but she’s a strong candidate for the MIP award early on.