Wilt Chamberlain in 1960, Wes Unseld in 1969 and Candace Parker in 2008.
Basketball players who won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP in the same season are rare. There are fewer recipients than there were members of the Jackson 5. More Horseman of the Apocalypse have appeared than joint ROY-MVP candidates. Even d’Artagnan hung out with the Three Musketeers to give them an extra person.
It’s just Wilt, Wes, and Candace. That’s it.
But this season, in the WNBA, A’ja Wilson could change all that.
Rookie of the Year
Let’s get this out of the way. Wilson has the Rookie of the Year sewn up.
Going into Sunday’s clash against Parker and her Los Angeles Sparks, the Las Vegas Aces center ranked first among all rookies in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, free throw attempts and free throws made. She has even sat second or third for most of the season in assists. Wilson averages nearly 7 points more than her nearest rookie rival and is leading her team in the category.
She is a dangerous lady in the triple threat position and will happily school some of the best defenders in the WNBA with a hook shot or a spin move, drop step and lay-up in the paint.
Few players have made such an impact in their first year in the WNBA, only Seimone Augustus had a higher scoring average of 21.9, and there will be few, if any, that vote for any other players in this decent rookie class.
Most Valuable Player?
There is a generally accepted principle in the NBA that the MVP will go to the best player on a top-two team in one of the conferences. With the recent exception of Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2016-17 team that reached 47 wins, good for sixth in the Western Conference, each year it goes to a top team’s player. It was James Harden in 2018 and Stephen Curry in 2016 and 2015. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant’s Thunder finished second in the West in 2014, and prior to that LeBron James’s Miami Heat finished with the best and second-best records in 2013 and 2012, respectively, while the 2011 MVP Derrick Rose lead the Chicago Bulls to conference supremacy. It goes on.
But the WNBA MVP is slightly different. With fewer teams, the league has conferences but, since 2016, doesn’t break down into East and West when it comes to qualifying for the playoffs.
The award is occasionally given to the best player on the team with the best record, but that isn’t always the case. Elena Delle Donne of Chicago Sky finished the season with the highest scoring average in 2015 by nearly three points per game, while the team could have slipped to fifth place were it not for one game. In 2007, one of the game’s elite scorers, Lauren Jackson, barely scraped her Seattle Storm to a .500 winning percentage and a place in the playoffs, but took home the MVP convincingly.
The award, has to be given to an elite player, but it will occasionally be presented to someone who has been brilliant across the board. When Candace Parker won her MVP as a rookie in 2008, she had some incredible moments: scoring 34 in her debut along with 12 rebounds and 8 assists; becoming just the second woman to dunk during a WNBA game; and hitting a season-high 40 points. There were also other memorable moments, including throwing Plenette Pierson of Detroit Shock to the floor after an aggressive boxout that kick-started the Sparks-Shocks Brawl and led to a one-game suspension for Parker.
This blip was forgotten about half way through the season when the WNBA halted action for the Olympics, where Parker helped the USA win gold.
On the whole, Parker had a solid year as a member of the elite WNBA players. She was fifth in the league in points per game with 18.5, led the league in rebounds, finished in the top 20 in assists, and attempted 5.7 free throws per game to culminate in the greatest Player Impact Estimate in the WNBA.
Wilson has already recorded a massive game of 34 points and 12 rebounds, and did it in style. She often scrunches up the shoulders on her jersey to look more like a vest top, and wears short shorts with a full-length leg sock, making her unmissable on the floor.
Going into the game on Sunday, Wilson was tied for third in scoring and rebounding. And while she is only just inside the top 40 in assists, she is first in the WNBA in free throw attempts and free throws made. Wilson is a beast on defense, blocking 1.8 shots per game for fifth in the league, and of the players who have played in 20 games this season, Wilson is eighth in Player Impact.
Going back to the list of previous WNBA MVPs, the rules are clearly more open to interpretation – value is placed on other areas. If we dismiss Cynthia Cooper’s back-to-back MVP runs in the inaugural and secondary WNBA seasons, simply because there is nothing to compare them with, MVPs led their teams to an average improvement of three games on the previous season. There are some highlights, including Nneka Ogwumike turning around L.A. Sparks fortune from 14-20 in 2015 to 26-8 in 2016, and occasions where the team’s record has decreased but still managed to earn an MVP, such as the Houston Comets earning eight fewer wins than the previous season but still managing to secure the individual award for Sheryl Swoopes. However, for the most part there was a decent improvement on the prior year’s performance.
The Aces arrived in Las Vegas after relocating from San Antonio and renaming the woeful Stars after posting an 8-26 record in 2017. This year, Wilson is fighting to secure a place in the playoffs for the league’s newest franchise.
The team was 1-1 on the season against L.A. Sparks, and pushed the team with two MVPs to a heated contest that saw 18 lead changes over three-and-a-half quarters on Sunday. Then, the experience of Parker, doing everything she can to keep the WNBA ROY-MVP title as her own, came into play. In heartbreaking fashion, CP3 hit three after three in the final quarter and relied on the experience of her teammates to help secure what was, in the end, a blowout victory.
The run-and-gun style of Las Vegas is tough to keep pace with, and the Aces are taking 69.3 shots per game, tied for second in the league. The team is also scoring 82.7 ppg, three more than the Sparks. They love to get up the floor, just take a look at how many Aces players are already in the paint with only three seconds removed from the shot clock (there are also only four L.A. players back on defense). This is a typical view when watching Las Vegas get up the court:
But the youth and inexperience showed up when this great defensive team turned on the clamps. Parker, Ogwumike and the rest of the team allow their opponents to score just 77.4 ppg, and when they slowed the Aces down, Wilson struggled to score in the halfcourt.
These are the moments that make or break a player’s MVP case. But the impact of A’ja Wilson on the WNBA cannot just be broken down into a box score or win-loss record.
The way she communicates off the floor has garnered a lot of attention, interacting with the public and other players in a candid manner. Her outspoken personality on wanting greater pay for players in the WNBA has sparked plenty of media debate, and seen many high profile NBA players offer support.
154M ……….. must. be. nice. We over here looking for a M 🙃 but Lord, let me get back in my lane pic.twitter.com/IFDZLlI53z
— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) July 2, 2018
The likes of DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard have been spotted courtside to watch the rookie play, L.A. Lakers Josh Hart has worn Wilson’s jersey as a post-game outfit, and profiles of the star have appeared on numerous big name media outlets.
Add this to the fact that ESPN is reporting a rise in viewership of the WNBA, after the league announced last year that attendance had improved, as well as an all-time scoring performance from Liz Cambage of Dallas Wings, the GOAT-worthy career of Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore becoming just the second WNBA player ever to feature on the cover of SLAM!, and the continued excellence of Candace Parker – the league is coming of age in its 21st year. Wilson might already be the face of it.
If her position isn’t confirmed at the end of this season, and if she is not crowned MVP along with the guaranteed ROY, it is only a matter of time before Wilson collects what is due to her. And her continued growth will help the Las Vegas Aces become one of the best teams in the league in a few years.
Featured photo – via Ryan E. Young / SLAM / Double Clutch illustration