The WNBA has some strong front-runners for Most Improved 2023—let’s go through some of them and why they deserve to be in contention!
This WNBA season has been full of superstar performances, close games, and upsets as league parity becomes clearer and clearer. While the MVP race is getting the most eyes, there’s another award that will be increasingly difficult for awards voters to decide upon: Most Improved Player.
This award—given to the player who has made the biggest leap, performance-wise, from the previous season—has been given to players over the years who’ve gone on to become WNBA champions and MVP winners. Here’s a look at the last decade of Most Improved Player winners:
2013: Shavonte Zellous – Indiana Fever
2014: Skylar Diggins-Smith – Tulsa Shock
2015: Kelsey Bone – Connecticut Sun
2016: Elizabeth Williams – Atlanta Dream
2017: Jonquel Jones – Connecticut Sun
2018: Natasha Howard – Seattle Storm
2019: Leilani Mitchell – Phoenix Mercury
(her second, after winning the award in 2010 with the New York Liberty)
2020: Betnijah Laney – Atlanta Dream
2021: Brionna Jones – Connecticut Sun
2022: Jackie Young – Las Vegas Aces
Obviously, there are many stars on this list. Like most WNBA awards, it’s hard to quantify what it takes to win Most Improved Player, and the definition is a little ambiguous. If you strictly compare a player’s current stats to a year or two ago, maybe you think it’s someone like Napheesa Collier—but she’s coming back after a pregnancy and was fantastic before; so, does that count? Do you look at someone who has drastically improved for the first time in their career? Someone who is finally getting regular playing time for the first few years of their career?
However you decide to quantify what it takes to win Most Improved Player, there are some clear front-runners as we approach the halfway point in the WNBA season. Let’s take a look at them now, and maybe revisit this once the season is coming to a close!
In a Winsidr staff poll, Satou Sabally was the overwhelming frontrunner for Most Improved Player so far this season. The University of Oregon forward was the second pick in the 2020 WNBA draft and joined the Dallas Wings with a ton of promise. Unfortunately, her first few seasons of professional play were plagued by injuries.
Prior to the 2023 WNBA season, Sabally had never played more than 17 games in a WNBA regular season. Now, she’s finally been healthy enough to start every game she has played in 2023 and has been a key factor in the Wings’ successes. She was also awarded her first All-Star Starter nod for the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game (second career All-Star nod), where she played on Team Stewie, drafted by her Turkish league teammate Breanna Stewart.
Sabally is currently managing a massive statline, averaging 17.8 points (PPG), 9.1 rebounds (RPG), 3.7 assists (APG), and 1.5 steals per game (SPG). Unsurprisingly, she has a career-high average in nearly every stat available. Her season-high came on July 2 when she scored 27 points to help the Wings defeat the Washington Mystics.
Satou always had the potential to play at this level and likely would have, if not for the string of injuries marring the start of her pro career. She is currently the undisputed frontrunner for Most Improved Player, and we’re excited to see how the rest of the season plays out for Sabally.
Alanna Smith of the Chicago Sky came out hot this year and was in early contention for Most Improved Player. The Australian, who played at Stanford, was drafted eighth overall by the Phoenix Mercury in 2019. Since then, she has played for the Mercury, Indiana Fever, and now the Chicago Sky.
Before this season, Smith had never averaged more than 6.1 PPG in a season, a stat she achieved in the 2020 WNBA bubble. Last season with the Fever, she averaged 4.3 PPG. In the first half of this season alone (pre-All-Star Break), Smith averaged 10.0 PPG for the Sky.
There is a lot to be said about opportunity. As a 6’4” forward, Smith has played on teams with some really great bigs. On the Mercury, she was behind both Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner for minutes. Her best season (prior to 2023) was in the bubble, where Griner left early to focus on her mental health—meaning Smith got more minutes. Last year, another good year for her, was on the Fever, where her experience was beneficial on a team of extremely young players.
Now, in her best season yet, Smith is on a Chicago team that yet again needs her help. The Sky have gone through immense change this season, starting with the loss of Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker in free agency, along with Allie Quigley, who stepped away from the WNBA this season. Then, just a few weeks ago, their head coach and general manager James Wade accepted an NBA assistant coaching position with the Toronto Raptors, leaving the Sky.
With these ups and downs, Smith’s takeovers in-game can be very helpful. She has scored 10+ points in eight games this season, paired with averages of 7.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, and 1.4 SPG.
The Sky have been slipping since their strong start to the season. They now sit in eighth place in the WNBA standings, with a record of 9-13. She may be drifting in the Most Improved talks, due to a lack of scoring consistency, and with competition like Sabally and Allisha Gray (see below!), Smith would have to step it up in the second half of the season to win this race.
Allisha Gray is playing her first season for the Atlanta Dream after being traded in the offseason from the Wings. Drafted fourth overall in the 2017 WNBA Draft by the Wings, Gray, in six WNBA seasons, has yet to reach her full potential.
Prior to the 2023 WNBA season, the Gray’s highest season average was 13.3 PPG. She fluctuated as a starter on and off over her six years, as Dallas struggled to break into the top of the WNBA standings. A fresh start was exactly what Gray needed, and it seems like Atlanta was the right landing place for her.
The Dream as a whole are on the rise. The franchise’s culture is extremely exciting, with a young energetic roster to boot, and Gray’s veteran presence has been very welcomed. She’s having a career year, averaging 17.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 3.4 APG, while playing the most minutes of her career at 33.2 per game.
The Dream sit in sixth place overall in WNBA standings at 12-10. Even after a six-game winning streak entering the All-Star break, they are by no means catching up with the big three of Las Vegas, New York, and Connecticut. However, they are holding strong on the “second tier” of WNBA teams. Comparatively, they ended the 2022 season in 10th place overall with a record of 14-22, missing the playoffs entirely.
The Atlanta Dream are clearly on the up, and Gray’s presence and performance is surely helping. She’s rising in the ranks of Most Improved Player conversations, and it will be interesting to see how she and the others perform in the second half of the season.
Who do you think will win the 2023 WNBA Most Improved Player Award? Let us know on Twitter by tagging us @winsidr!
Stats courtesy of ESPN, WNBA.com, and Basketball Reference