I’ll be honest. I don’t really like the Most Improved Player award.
It’s not for the reasons most people say: the criteria is too muddy, second-year players are supposed to improve anyway (kind of a slippery slope, if you ask me), so-and-so was just given more minutes than last season…the criticisms go on.
No, I don’t like the award because it only credits one player. Unlike MVP, the MIP race isn’t very well-documented over the course of a season, which is a shame because there are always a handful of players who’ve put in a ton of hard work and show noticeable improvements in their games.
So I propose a new WNBA “best-of” team: an all-improved team. It’s time to give credit where it’s due and recognize a variety of players whose improvement has helped their teams in numerous ways. Welcome to the first-ever Today’s Fastbreak WNBA All-Improved Team.
Guard: Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky
When you talk about great WNBA point guards, there are always the big names: Whalen, Bird, Taurasi. Then you have the upcoming stars: Diggins, Sims, Bentley, Robinson. But where does Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot fall in this discussion? In 2015, she just may have been on a different level than everyone else.
Ever since the Sky drafted Elena Delle Donne in 2013, Vandersloot has been at the top of the league in assists. This is no surprise; on a team that’s had so many weapons since, Vandersloot had been (and rightfully so) deferring to Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles and Epiphanny Prince more often than not. When the Sky swapped Prince for Cappie Pondexter before 2015, many Sky fans expected this trend to continue. What they got was an immensely improved floor general who’d struck the perfect balance between passing and shooting.
What’s remarkable about Vandersloot’s 2015 campaign is how she’s dramatically improved her scoring and cut down on her turnovers, while still having the ball in her hands about as often as she did in previous seasons. Scoring-wise, her 2015 blows her career numbers out of the water: a true shooting percentage of 56.0 percent and an effective field goal percentage of 51.4 percent are both by far career highs, and both rank third among all WNBA point guards. She’s been much more willing to take advantage of favorable matchups, taking it to the hoop when she knows she’s able, and has been more likely to take an open three-point shot rather than overpassing the basketball.
As such, Vandersloot’s assist rate is down slightly this season (though at 30.8 percent, she still ranked sixth in the league in that area), but it’s also resulted in far fewer turnovers from the fifth-year pro. Vandersloot is turning the ball over just 17 times per 100 plays, by far a career low and significantly lower than her previous season’s mark of 26.9. In short, Vandersloot has been making the absolute most of her possessions, and it’s a major reason why the Sky rated as the best offensive team in the league in 2015.
Guard: Shenise Johnson, Indiana Fever
Johnson has always been one of those players with a ton of potential but questions concerning when she’d realize it. Those questions were answered after the Indiana Fever traded for her this past offseason, as the Miami product has flourished under first-year head coach Steph White.
Johnson’s 2015 season has been all about huge improvements in scoring efficiency. Her usage rate of 19.8 percent is right in line with her career number (slightly less, actually), but her PER has taken a massive jump from 14.8 to 18.8. She’s been absolutely lights out shooting the basketball this season, ranking third in the league in three-point shooting (41.3 percent) and eight in effective field goal percentage (52.7 percent), blowing away her previous career highs in both categories. She also ranks fourth in the league among perimeter players in true shooting percentage (57.4 percent), a number which you don’t typically see WNBA guards putting up.
And really, all it takes is a simple eye test to tell that Johnson is playing with a world of confidence. Her pull-up midrange game has become very nearly unguardable, and her 5’11” frame makes her a tough cover in transition. She’s even had to play some minutes at point guard as the Fever fought through injuries to Briann January and Layshia Clarendon, and wasn’t too shabby at that either. Though the Fever will be Tamika Catchings’s team until she retires next season, Johnson has stepped up her game to become one of the best #2 options in the league, and should garner some serious discussion for its most improved player.
Forward: Karima Christmas, Tulsa Shock
The burly, physical forward out of Duke has carved out a niche as one of the toughest defensive players in the league, but during her second stint in Tulsa, Christmas has upped her offensive game as well. She made the most of Tulsa’s injuries by turning herself into a dependable scorer, posting career highs in both volume (10.6 PPG) and efficiency (.539).
Of course, defense is still what Christmas does best, and there aren’t many in the WNBA who are better at it. Her ability to guard both the perimeter and the post has been invaluable to Tulsa (especially when on the floor with Plenette Pierson; the pair were able to switch their assignments at a moment’s notice without any drop-off). For a team that allowed the most points per 100 possessions last season, Christmas was a lifesaver.
Still, what stands out most about Christmas’s 2015 season is just how big of a role she played in Tulsa’s success. For a team with so much explosive offensive talent, it’s pretty surprising that the supposed defensive specialist would lead them in Offensive Win Shares (2.9). The same goes for ORtg: it’s not Riquna Williams, nor Odyssey Sims, but Karima Christmas leading the way for the Shock, registering a blistering 116 points produced per 100 possessions (good for third in the league).
Again, all of this is coming from someone who was hailed as, at most, a “3-And-D” type of player. Still just 26 years old, Christmas has even more room to improve, and it’ll be a problem for the rest of the league if she can sustain this production alongside a healthy Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims for the entire 2016 season.
Forward: Alysha Clark, Seattle Storm
OK, so it’s probably not a secret that I’m a big fan of Alysha Clark. She’s intelligent, a hard worker and versatile. The odds have been against Clark ever since she entered the league, but she’s defied them to the point of having one of the most efficient scoring seasons in WNBA history.
It’s, quite simply, a joy to watch Clark play. Storm coach Jenny Boucek emphasizes off-ball movement in her offense, which Clark excels at; her knack for making perfectly timed basket cuts has resulted in a ridiculous 79.3 percent FG% at the rim. And her TS% and eFG% (both league-leading) aren’t even in the same zip code as those of her first two full seasons in the WNBA.
Again, I’d like to point out how rare it is in the WNBA for a perimeter player to have such high numbers in these statistical categories. Only two other perimeter players in the history of the league (Penny Taylor and Jennifer Azzi) have led the league in TS%, and the last time that was accomplished was by Taylor in 2011.
Though Clark hasn’t scored with the volume Taylor did, what she’s been able to do this season has still been extremely impressive, as it’s come largely from hard work and basketball intelligence. Now arguably the best “role player” in the league, Clark is the ideal example of a player who has turned her entire game upside down for the greater good of her team, and has enjoyed stunning levels of success because of it.
Center: Kelsey Bone, Connecticut Sun
In many basketball circles, the third season of any player’s career is expected to be that player’s “breakout year.” While it’s not a steadfast rule (all players develop at different rates, and in the WNBA you have offseason ball to consider as well), Bone has broken out and then some, becoming the dominant center many expected her to be when she left Texas A&M a year early to play in the WNBA.
The Sun’s frontcourt looked to be in trouble when it was announced that Chiney Ogwumike would miss the entire 2015 season with a knee injury. Bone stepped up to the challenge, however, posting career-highs across the board. The Sun were able to lean on her in many games, as her sheer size combined with a much-improved post game made her hard to handle for most opposing frontcourts.
At 6’4” and 215 pounds, Bone is an imposing presence on the court, and she used it to her advantage in 2015. In the past, she tended to rush her layup attempts, but has since learned to take her time and use her size to get easy shots, as she shot 60.6 percent at the rim this season. She’s also become quite adept on the low block, using an array of pump fakes and step-through moves against the few defenders larger than she is.
But to become a truly dominant post player, Bone also needed to expand her passing game. She exceeded expectations in this area, improving her AST% to 15.2 percent, good for second among all WNBA centers. She worked particularly well with Camille Little in the high-low game (an element which was missing from the Connecticut offense last season), showing a great outside touch for a player of her size.
Bone will be only 24 years old when the 2016 season starts. With Ogwumike back in the fold, the pair figure to be one of the more dominant frontcourts in the WNBA. If Bone can keep up her low post dominance and her passing from the high post, they could be the ones to lead the Sun back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
And the winner is…
2015 WNBA Most Improved Player: Shenise Johnson
The Fever’s starting shooting-guard position was up for grabs early in the season, but Johnson seized it and didn’t let go. Turning out to be a perfect fit for Steph White’s uptempo system, Johnson is your textbook example of a player who simply needed a change of scenery to fulfill her potential. With White cutting back on Catchings’s minutes and guard Briann January battling injury problems, Johnson was asked to become the go-to player for Indiana in many situations, and she delivered, putting up career-highs in almost every category while shouldering the increased workload. The scary part is that she’s still just 24 years old, and with her outstanding 2015, has thrust herself into the conversation of the WNBA’s next generation of elite guards.