All In On Five: So, who is going to win Rookie of the Year?

·13 min read

Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.

In the 11 years between 2008 and 2018, nine of the Rookie of the Year winners were No. 1 overall draft picks. And exactly half (12 of 24) of all award-winners came into the league as No. 1.

That isn't likely to be the case this year, extending the two-year streak of non-No. 1 picks winning it. That hasn't happened since 2001-03 when the league was in its infancy. But unlike in years past, there's no riveting race for the award or college star balling out. It's, to be honest, a lackluster affair.

Michaela Onyenwere, the New York Liberty forward and No. 6 overall pick, is leading the competition without any staggering numbers. She's averaging 9.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 23.3 minutes per game as of Thursday. That's less playing time than any other Rookie of the Year the past five seasons, when at least one rookie has hit 30 minutes per game.

Onyenwere's production has also fallen off from her debut, opening the door for former Arizona superstar Aari McDonald. The Atlanta Dream's No. 3 overall pick has seen more playing time in the guard-heavy ATL after Chennedy Carter's suspension. She's averaging 6.7 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 0.9 steals in 10 fewer minutes per game (14.4) as of Thursday.

No. 1 overall pick Charli Collier is seeing only 12.3 minutes per game as the Dallas Wings hover around a playoff spot under first-year head coach Vickie Johnson. She's averaging 3.7 points — though on a rookie-best 49.3% shooting — with 3.6 rebounds per game. After a career-starting double-double, she's hit double-digit points three times in 23 games and never hit double-digit rebounds again.

Those are all staggeringly low numbers for a Rookie of the Year candidate, let alone winner. Wings guard Allisha Gray, the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft, put up the smallest numbers of the past five years, but still hit 13 points, 3.9 rebounds and 27.2 minutes per game.

What all of these previous seasons had was a riveting race between two talented rookies seeing quality minutes. Brittney Sykes, the No. 7 overall pick in 2017, led various categories while No. 1 Kelsey Plum was close to the mix. All three averaged 23.9 minutes or more.

In 2019, it was down to the wire between Arike Ogunbowale (19.1 PPG, 32.1 MPG) and winner Napheesa Collier (13.1 PPG, 33.3 MPG). They went No. 5 and 6 in the draft, respectively, with No. 1 pick Jackie Young, who was buried on a hyper-talented Aces squad.

And last season, the Lynx's Crystal Dangerfield (16.2 PPG, 3.6 APG, 30 MPG) became the first winner outside of the first round. That race blew open for her when No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu went out with an ankle injury. But the Dream's Carter, who also suffered an ankle injury, gave Dangerfield a run at it, and would have been tight with Ionescu, too.

When you're not a generational talent, such as Breanna Stewart in 2016 or A'ja Wilson in 2018, where a rookie lands matters a whole heck of a lot. Look at Young and Plum in Las Vegas.

But, again, this is yet another reason to look forward to expansion. And fans knew this going into a draft that had less talent than previous and future years. There are fewer than 144 spots on WNBA rosters, and even when rookies are fortunate enough to make the league, there are cases when they aren't getting the playing time.

The All-Rookie team is going to be a tough ask and could consist entirely of players below 10 points, four rebounds and two assists. I'm tempted to put DiDi Richards on the team for her clutch 3-point shooting alone in a needed performance against the Phoenix Mercury.

And why did it happen? Because Sami Whitcomb, the league's leading 3-point shooter, is out for 10-14 days with an ankle injury. That opened a spot for a rookie to fill.

Broadcasts have work to do

This week was another case of the WNBA and broadcasters doing themselves a disservice to viewers and their own growth by scheduling every game to tip at the same time on both Tuesday and Thursday. Fans noticed it, and players noticed it.

“My teammates and I were like, why are we all playing at 7 o’clock? It doesn’t make sense,” Sparks forward and WNBA Players Association president Nneka Ogwumike told Yahoo Sports’ Vinciane Ngomsi on a video call about a new campaign with Michelob Ultra.

To be fair, scheduling is no easy task. And all but one of the seven games on these days was played in Eastern Standard Time, so 9 or 10 p.m. ET tips are pushing it. But even staggering two of them to tip 30 minutes later would have been helpful. Or do an ESPN doubleheader with a game at 7 p.m. ET — how about the No. 1 and 2 teams of Connecticut and Las Vegas — with Seattle-Minnesota at 9 p.m. ET. It would be 8 p.m. local for the Lynx and 6 p.m. for Storm fans back home, which is better than the afternoon.

The hardcore fans among us pulled out all the screens, or used the League Pass feature to watch two or all four at once. But we didn’t really get to focus on one game and every halftime took place simultaneously. Plus, what casual sports fan even does that? They’re — at best — watching one, and the all-favored TV ratings are taking a hit.

Those ratings don’t happen in a vacuum. There are various considerations: What else was on at the time? What channel is airing it? Is there a good lead-in? Was it marketed or advertised anywhere? How was it promoted?

Yet people still blindly use TV ratings as a way to gauge interest and viability. We do it; they do it; the WNBA even does it. And despite the ratings jump, it’s things like this that hurt how high that number can truly climb and thereby the attention the league receives afterward.

Ogwumike, unsurprisingly, gets it and it's why the WNBPA is in good hands. 

“For us to be able to develop more visibility, not just through campaigns like [Michelob]," she said, "but also [we have] to hold broadcasting companies accountable to not just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to put 100 games on TV. But how are those games on TV? How are those games being promoted? It’s more than just committing a number to something. It’s putting planning and intention behind that to ensure that the visibility and the accessibility is there.”

Because yes, we all celebrated when the WNBA announced ahead of the season it would air 100 games nationally. But if they’re all on at the same time, or buried on a back channel or shoved into a strict time slot behind a game that runs over, forcing channel surfing, what was the point?

Liberty-Mercury brings all the drama

Speaking of marketing, the set of New York-Phoenix games this week boasted stellar storylines.

It was the first WNBA meeting between GOAT Diana Taurasi and collegiate triple-double queen Sabrina Ionescu. Taurasi famously called her shot after the 2020 WNBA draft when on an Instagram Live she explained, “Every time you play rookies, you just wanted to f***ing kill ’em.” Ionescu played only three games in 2020 due to a sprained ankle and considers this more of her rookie year.

Even more heat was added after the teams met in Phoenix when the Mercury’s Skylar Diggins-Smith got into a Twitter spat with the Liberty’s Jazmine Jones. It was a WNBA Twitter Monday for the ages.

The Mercury won, 106-79, Wednesday night as Brittney Griner dunked for a third time this season and pulled off this fun play with Brianna Turner.

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They meet again at Barclays Center on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network, only this time Griner is questionable with an ankle sprain suffered in the final two minutes. Playoff positioning is on the line for both. And while broadcasters certainly aren't looking to headline their coverage with a player saying they'll kill someone, all the trash talk should be marketed.

Sylvia Fowles crashes MVP talk

It did not matter who — or even how many — Seattle Storm players were on her. Sylvia Fowles did not care.

The Minnesota Lynx center finished with a stat line never before seen in the WNBA when the fourth-place squad took down reigning champion Seattle on Tuesday night.

Twenty-nine points, 20 rebounds, four steals, three blocks, zero turnovers, zero fouls and shooting 58.8%. She became the fourth player in history with at least 25 points and 20 rebounds in a regular-season game. It was her fourth 20-20 game in her career, joining 15 other such contests.

One great night does not an MVP make, though. And that’s not the case here. With the Lynx (15-9) holding on to fourth place in the standings and steadily encroaching on the top tier of Sun-Aces-Storm, it’s past time to look at Fowles as a long shot MVP contender. BetMGM dropped her chances this week from +4000 to +5000, tied for fifth-best with Brittney Griner, Liz Cambage and Jewell Loyd.

The 14-year veteran is one of three players to average a double-double (16.6 PPG, 10 RPG) over the length of the season heading into Thursday night’s games. She’s also on track to be the first player to average at least 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting better than 60%, per Her Hoop Stats. Two of the four players who have averaged at least 1.5 and 1.5 in a season won MVP that year (Yolanda Griffith, 1999 and Lisa Leslie, 2006).

The other two players in 2021 averaging a double-double are easy to guess: the Sun’s Jonquel Jones (19.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG) and Storm’s Breanna Stewart (20.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG).

Jones took full control of the MVP race weeks ago (she moved from -125 to -165 this week) and the Sun’s move to the top of the standings has only bolstered that over the past week. The 6-foot-6 center has the highest efficiency rating of the three (26.2), is shooting 52.6% (second) and 38.8% from 3-point range (Stewie is shooting 34.3%). She adds 3.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game, but also has the most turnovers of the three.

Stewart (+150) is averaging more shots, making fewer and getting more points at the line. Four of the past five MVPs (including Fowles in 2017) have won the championship, showing it’s not the determiner but is a factor. If the Lynx can keep up their hot streak, and maybe even slide into a top spot, consider Fowles a solid bet for the trophy. And if the Mercury overtake them, consider Griner.

When one MVP returns, another exits

The two-time MVP is back. Elena Delle Donne, the 2013 No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year, returned following a two-year absence and immediately lifted the Washington Mystics as they chase a playoff berth.

Over her first two games, she averaged 17 points and four rebounds on 50% shooting on a minutes restriction of about 20. The Mystics lost to the Storm, but took it to the wire, and followed it up by blowing out the Los Angeles Sparks. But on Thursday night she was pulled for "precautionary" reasons, coach Mike Thibault said, after 12 minutes. She didn't feel right after rebound attempts under the basket and Thibault said they'll see how she feels on Friday.

Unfortunately, the Mystics can't catch breaks. MVP candidate Tina Charles, who has done all the heavy lifting for this squad, will miss three-to-five games with a left gluteal strain she suffered in Sunday's game. She did not play against the Sparks.

That could be half of the games Washington has left on the schedule while they sit a half-game out of a playoff spot. But beyond the chase for the playoffs, this is part of what fans throughout the WNBA have been waiting for since the week of the 2020 WNBA draft.

Charles and Delle Donne, two MVPs who could go down as some of the greatest of all time, playing off of each other. Robbed again.

What you might have missed

What to watch this weekend

  • Mercury at Liberty, Friday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — I thought we already established this.

  • Sky at Storm, Friday at 10 p.m. ET on NBA TV and Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on Facebook — Candace Parker returned after a concerning ankle injury of her own while the Sky (12-12) fight to stay in the middle tier. The Storm (18-8) are suddenly third in the league.

  • Sparks at Sun, Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBA TV — The Sparks (10-15) need wins to overtake the Liberty (11-15) and Wings (11-14). They're currently ninth.

  • Wings at Mystics, Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on Facebook — The Mystics (9-15) are a half-game back of the Sparks and now 1.5 games back of the Wings. This is critical for each team seeking the playoffs.

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