All too soon, the WNBA is barrelling towards the end of its regular season. With playoffs on the horizon, we decided to stop and recognize the elite players who took their game to the next level in 2021.
For a campaign that has had its share of ups and downs across the W, our panel of writers—Dani Bar-Lavi, Myles Ehrlich, Mitchell Hansen, James Kay, and Owen Pence—often agreed unanimously on these awards. As we approach the playoffs, most of the players below have consistently continued to distance themselves from the field of award candidates. Below, we break down our rationales on who should take home the award hardware for the 2021 season.
Rookie of the Year (Myles)
Michaela Onyenwere (New York Liberty)
No debate at all for our first staff pick. Michaela Onyenwere has been everything the New York Liberty could have possibly asked for when they picked her sixth out of UCLA this past spring. To this point, Onyenwere has swept all three Rookie of the Month awards, and she leads the 2021 class with 23.0 minutes per game (MPG) and 8.6 points per game (PPG). After a preseason injury to Jocelyn Willoughby, slated to start at the 4, Onyenwere immediately cracked the starting lineup and has been one of only two members of the Liberty (Betnijah Laney) to play in each of the team’s 32 games, on the floor for opening tip in all but three contests. While Onyenwere has had her share of shooting slumps, especially since the Olympic break, she’s offered range and athleticism to a New York team that thrives when it’s moving the ball around the perimeter to open shooters.
What has really impressed me is Michaela Onyenwere’s willingness to take on any challenge, especially on the defensive end. On the season, she’s surrendering 0.76 points per possession (PPP), according to Synergy, which places her in the 88th percentile. Opponents are shooting just 31.8 percent against the rookie, which ranks seventh in the WNBA among all players with at least 50 shot attempts against, not just those defending in the post. Onyenwere sees every star matchup as an opportunity to improve. “In, like, 20 years I’m gonna tell my kids I really matched up with A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker, Jonquel Jones,” Onyenwere told me a few weeks ago. “Some of the hardest people in the WNBA to ever guard, I’ve gotten it.”
She’s an easy teammate to root for, charismatic and supportive. And it has been that way since day one. “I’m just having a lot of fun,” Onyenwere said at the end of training camp. “It’s genuine joy from me every single day.”
Honorable Mentions: Aari McDonald (Atlanta), DiDi Richards (New York)
Executive of the Year (Dani)
Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota)
Hello everyone. pic.twitter.com/noXiNaqMu6
— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) September 10, 2021
Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx is our panel’s consensus pick for Executive of the Year this season. This would be Reeve’s second Executive of the Year, having first won the award, which was established during the 2017, in 2019. In the offseason, Reeve took advantage of the abundance of cap space created for Minnesota by Sylvia Fowles’ team-friendly contract and Napheesa Collier still being on her rookie deal to fill out the Lynx’s roster with several marquee free agents: namely, Natalie Achonwa, Aerial Powers, and Kayla McBride, who has become one of the Lynx’s leading scorers this season.
But more impressive than the Lynx’s free agency haul, in my opinion, has been Reeve’s decision-making and ability to respond to adversity as a general manager during the season. Starting the season 0-4—and with a swath of injuries sidelining Aerial Powers, Natalie Achonwa, and rookie Rennia Davis—Reeve, both Minnesota’s general manager and head coach, was forced to wear her “GM-hat” a bit more than she likes to during the season. “It’s just not what you want to be doing,” Reeve told media back in July, “When you have the dual role, you prefer to spend most of your time in-season coaching, not navigating the nuances of the CBA, and hardship players, and releasing them and resigning them over and over.”
Despite Reeve’s chagrin at having to play GM mid-season, she has done exemplary work in that role. Reeve not only kept the team afloat with injury-replacement hardship contracts, she was able to actively improve the team. Most notably, Reeve signed a then-recently waived Layshia Clarendon early in the season to a hardship deal after Aerial Powers injured her hamstring. It quickly became apparent that Clarendon, and his playmaking and leadership, were the missing link for the Lynx, organizing their offense and providing the morale boost they needed to turn their season around. Reeve has absolutely earned the Executive of the Year nod with her ability to turn adversity into opportunity using roster construction.
Honorable Mention: Curt Miller (Connecticut)
Coach of the Year (Dani)
Curt Miller (Connecticut)
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 2, 2021
Curt Miller, head coach of the first seed Connecticut Sun, is the Winsidr staff’s pick for 2021 Coach of the Year. For the second consecutive season, Miller has managed to coach the Sun to be a top-tier title contender in the absence of one of the team’s All-Stars (no Jonquel Jones in the Bubble, no Alyssa Thomas in 2021).
Miller is the architect of what is unquestionably the best defense in the WNBA. The Sun are able to control games using their defensive dominance, dictating the pace, slowing the other team down, and outpowering them on the backboards. Connecticut holds the top ratings in several defensive stats by a wide margin. The Sun hold opponents to a league lowest 70.1 PPG, 41.0 percent field goal percentage, and 27.2 rebounds per game (RPG). The Sun are also top-five in opponent turnovers per game (14.5 per game), opponent three-point percentage (31.7 percent), and opponent free throw attempts (15.5).
All season long, Miller has lauded his veteran team’s ability to rise to any and all challenges, a big reason why they’re currently on a league-best 13-game win streak. Why have the results been so consistent? “Effort. Flat effort,” Miller said. “My staff is crazy talented with video, and it’s a pillar, but they go out with all that effort and tenacity. Their desire every night is really impressive.”
Honorable Mentions: Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota); Sandy Brondello (Phoenix)
Sixth Woman of the Year (James)
Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas)
Unlike the other potential winner, Allie Quigley, who has started 10 games for the Sky since the Olympic break, Kelsey Plum has come off of the bench in every game she has played this season. When the Aces went on a 9-1 run from June 2 to July 4, Plum looked like she was going to run away with the award, putting up 13.8 PPG on 45.1/39.5/93.5 shooting. She also leads bench players this season with seven games of 18 or more points.
In five September games, she’s taken her game to yet another level, scoring 21.4 PPG on 49.3/44.8/96.6 splits. On September 13, Plum scored 30 points — 26 in the second half — to help Vegas overcome a nine-point halftime deficit to the Dallas Wings.
Her contributions providing an instant spark off the bench can be summed up best by Aces’ head coach, Bill Laimbeer:
“There’s no question she’s the leading candidate for Sixth Woman of the Year—by far,” Laimbeer told Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Sam Gordon on August 17. “She has games like this where she keeps us in the game and carries us. She’s doing what she’s supposed to do.”
Allie Quigley (Chicago)
Out of all of the awards this year, this race is by far the closest, though a majority of our panel leans towards Plum. However, Allie Quigley’s production this season coming off the bench has been the most impactful. The two-time Sixth Woman of the Year has been phenomenal in her second team role (13.1 PPG) and is shooting 44.6 percent from three-point range on 4.5 attempts a game. According to Across the Timeline’s database, she would be the first player to repeat on this narrow list of terrific shooters.
Quigley also leads the league in points coming off screens (118), despite missing six games due to a hamstring injury (Kayla McBride is second to Quigley with 85 points). Teams have tried to swarm her off the ball, but she continues to excel as the Sky’s focal point on the offensive end. To quote her teammate and wife, Courtney Vandersloot, Quigley is “instant offense” and deserves the nod here after she helped revitalize Chicago’s season.
Honorable Mention: Dearica Hamby (Las Vegas), Izzy Harrison (Dallas)
Most Improved (Myles)
Brionna Jones (Connecticut)
When Alyssa Thomas went down with a ruptured Achilles ahead of the 2021 season, many wrote off the Sun as a contender. While Jonquel Jones has rightly gained the lion’s share of the attention for the team’s success—and more on JJ shortly—Bri Jones has been one of the most consistent post scorers in the league. Shooting 57.5 percent from the floor, she ranks fifth among qualifiers in field goal percentage. According to Synergy, Jones’ 1.02 PPP puts her just outside the top 10 percent of all WNBA players on the offensive end.
Even though she made a major leap last season, stepping up when Jonquel opted out of the 2020 season, Breezy has taken on even more responsibility this time around, and the team’s inside-out identity has a lot to do with her efficiency. Her 14.7 PPG are up 3.5 from last season, and her 7.2 RPG are a 1.6 increase on last year’s average. The league and its fans recognized Jones’ improvement earlier this summer, voting her to her first All-Star Game.
Her effort in boxing out can’t be overstated for a team that leads the league in rebounding percentage by a significant margin. Earlier this season, after the Jones/Jones frontcourt outboarded the Mercury’s Griner/Brianna Turner duo 22/12, Curt Miller heaped praise on his players. “[We have] JJ, one of the premier rebounders in the world,” Miller said. “And Bri Jones, when she gets you boxed out, she’s hard to get around.” That grit and perseverance has become this team’s identity, and it’s a major reason why the Connecticut Sun have the best record in the WNBA, and have already locked up a double-bye.
If you’re somehow not convinced yet, back in July, I wrote in further detail about Bri Jones’ evolution as a strong third star and a catalyst for Connecticut’s success.
Honorable Mentions: Crystal Bradford (Atlanta), Marina Mabrey (Dallas), Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas), Sami Whitcomb (New York)
Defensive Player of the Year (Mitchell)
Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota)
Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles has not only received a strong vote from her head coach Cheryl Reeve to be named Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) this season, but others have also noticed the dominance of Fowles on that end of the floor. She was, too, the consensus pick among our panel. As the clear frontrunner, Fowles would take home the DPOY award for a fourth time in her career (2011, 2013, 2016). As of this publication, Fowles ranks second in the WNBA in RPG (10.0), tied for first in steals (1.8), second in blocks (1.9), tied for first with Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner in defensive win shares (2.8), and second in defensive rating (90.1).
Sylvia Fowles with a little bit of everything in the Lynx win:
She's just the 6th player with 10+ PTS, 7+ REB, 3+ AST, 4+ STL, and 5+ BLK in a WNBA game.https://t.co/vU7ac1USu5
— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) September 11, 2021
In her 14th season, Fowles has been one of the more dominant players—especially on the defensive side of the floor—in the WNBA. Anchoring the Lynx defense once again in 2021, Fowles should take home her fourth DPOY award when the regular season concludes, and she’ll likely also claim a spot on the WNBA All-Defensive First Team for the eighth time.
Honorable Mentions: DeWanna Bonner (Connecticut), Briann January (Connecticut), Jonquel Jones (Connecticut), Brittney Sykes (Los Angeles), Breanna Stewart (Seattle)
Further Acknowledgements: Rebecca Allen (New York), Nia Coffey (Los Angeles), Jewell Loyd (Seattle), Jasmine Thomas (Connecticut)
Most Valuable Player (Owen)
Jonquel Jones (Connecticut)
There isn’t a more obvious award case than Jonquel Jones for MVP. Naming anyone else the Most Valuable Player in 2021 would be blasphemy. This isn’t about Connecticut having the best record in the league, or being the best team in the league. It’s about how the Sun reached such a peak.
One could make the case that Jones is both the best offensive and defensive player in the WNBA. Though I voted Sylvia Fowles for Defensive Player of the Year, Jones was on my short list. Her contributions in every facet of the game are colossal.
The all-inclusive advanced statistics agree. Jones leads the league in PER, Win Shares, and Kevin Pelton’s Wins Above Replacement per game metric. The traditional numbers further support Jones’ bulletproof case. She leads the league in rebounding with 11.3 RPG and has posted 52.1/36.4/79.6 shooting splits on 19.5 PPG.
Jonquel Jones being able to hit 3's out of Spain PnR's off movement is pretty unfair lmao pic.twitter.com/dZ2h86oStr
— Mark Schindler (@MSchindlerNBA) September 10, 2021
“She’s had an unbelievable year,” said Sun head coach Curt Miller after a win over Los Angeles on Thursday night. “She’s MVP-worthy when you look at her numbers: leads the league in rebounding, top five in scoring, the centerpiece on the top team in the league. It’s what the MVP does and it’s been really special to watch.”
Honorable Mentions: Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota), Brittney Griner (Phoenix), Breanna Stewart (Seattle), A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas)
Did we miss any of your faves? Do you think another player is poised to make a late push? Sound off on Twitter and let us know!
Illustrations by Rhea Patel