Picking WNBA MVP, Rookie of the Year and other big awards

Wilson's late bucket helps Aces hold off Storm (0:33)

A'ja Wilson caps off a 23-point game with a late fourth-quarter score as the Aces clinch the top seed in the playoffs with an 86-84 win over the Storm. (0:33)

The WNBA's 2020 season will be memorable for many reasons, as the league navigated a pandemic and put more focus on social justice initiatives than ever before.

But there were also many outstanding performances, including a tight MVP race between the two brightest young stars in the league: Las Vegas' A'ja Wilson and Seattle's Breanna Stewart. Wilson led the Aces to the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, which begin Tuesday, and highlights the ESPN awards as our pick for MVP.

Analysts LaChina Robinson and Rebecca Lobo, play-by-play announcers Ryan Ruocco and Pam Ward, ESPN's Katie Barnes, Melanie Jackson, Kevin Pelton, Ramona Shelburne and Mechelle Voepel and The Undefeated's Sean Hurd voted on our panel.

(All player analysis written by Mechelle Voepel.)

MVP: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer knew A'ja Wilson was ready to play at the highest level this WNBA season, but even he was impressed by how consistently she did it. Laimbeer points to her talent and maturity blossoming even more fully in her third year in the league.

"She knows who she is, she knows where she's going," Laimbeer said of the 6-foot-4 forward. "She knows that she's in charge, and she's responsible for our team. She has taken this upon her shoulders."

Wilson, who averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 blocked shots for the top-seeded Aces (18-4), also was part of the WNBA's social justice council this summer.

"She misses her family, her dog, her boyfriend, the whole bit," Laimbeer said of the two-plus months that Wilson and others have spent in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida. "But one thing she said was, 'I am a professional basketball player, and I'm going to go do my job.' That says volumes."

Wilson, who turned 24 in August, had 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in Sunday's 86-84 regular-season finale victory against Seattle, which pushed the Storm to the No. 2 seed. That was Wilson's 15th game this season with at least 20 points, tying her with Dallas' Arike Ogunbowale for most such games in 2020. No other player had more than 10 games of 20 or more points.

Wilson became just the fifth player in league history to average 20 or more points in at least two of her first three WNBA seasons, joining Cynthia Cooper, Katie Smith, Seimone Augustus and Angel McCoughtry. Of that group, Cooper and Smith both had played professionally before entering the WNBA.

So Wilson is in a trio of players who came in as true rookies and had that much scoring success so consistently. The No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year in 2018, Wilson averaged 20.7 points as the Aces finished ninth at 14-20 in their first year in Las Vegas. Last season, she averaged 16.5 points playing alongside center Liz Cambage (15.9 PPG) as the Aces finished fourth at 21-13 and reached the semifinals.

Despite all the uncertainty in the spring and early summer because of COVID-19, Wilson was ready for the season when it started July 25. She also credited her teammates and the coaching staff, including former WNBA player Tanisha Wright, for her progress this season.

"It's good to see hard work pay off," she said. "[My teammates] give me that confidence and let me be who I am and let me just play free. It also comes from Tanisha just saying that I've gotta adjust very quickly. To see what they give me and just go for it.

"I've seen so many different things in this bubble defensive-wise from other teams. So I have to do what I can do to help still produce for my team."

Wilson's success boosted the Aces as a whole. McCoughtry, back in the league after a knee injury cost her the end of the 2018 season and all of 2019, averaged 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in her first season in Las Vegas.

And with Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young leading the way, Las Vegas had the most productive bench in WNBA history. They are first in percentage of the team's scoring (35.0%) and assists (10.6%) and second in rebounds (15.7%).

Laimbeer wanted the Aces to be able to beat teams with waves of production, led by Wilson averaging a career-high 31.7 minutes. And while her offensive production stands out, Wilson has contributed a lot on the other end of the court, too.

"She's been the big anchor of our defense, protecting the paint," Hamby said. "She gives us a lot of momentum and confidence and energy."

Also receiving votes: Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

Rookie of the Year: Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx

The lowest draft pick ever to officially win the league's top rookie honor was No. 7 Tracy Reid in 1998. If Dangerfield is the official winner, she will far exceed that. The Lynx selected Dangerfield with the No. 16 overall pick (fourth pick in the second round) in April.

Maybe her 5-foot-5 stature caused some teams to pause. She went to a team that needed point guard help, and she got the chance to play alongside former UConn teammate Napheesa Collier, who was the 2019 Rookie of the Year.

Coming into the season, No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu of New York, No. 2 Satou Sabally of Dallas and No. 4 Chennedy Carter of Atlanta were considered the Rookie of the Year front-runners. But Ionescu's season was over after just three games because of an ankle injury. Carter, who dealt with an ankle injury that kept her out six games, was the top rookie scorer at 17.4 PPG.

But Dangerfield was second at 16.2 PPG, and she was also second in average minutes played (30.0) and assists per game (3.6) to Indiana rookie Julie Allemand. Sabally led all rookies in rebounding (7.8 RPG), but she missed six games to injury as well. Of the top five rookies in scoring, Dangerfield was the only one whose team made the playoffs.

Dangerfield played every game until the regular-season finale, when coach Cheryl Reeve opted to rest her in preparation for the playoffs with Minnesota's No. 4 seed already secured.

"The most impressive part of Crystal's season is not having practice time to work on things and improve in practice," Reeve said of the compacted schedule in the bubble. "She had to go through growing pains in games while we're trying to win. Maybe something happened in the first quarter and we would give her some information, and she would be able to quickly apply that information to find success later in the game. Really impressive fourth-quarter player, not just of rookies but the entire league."

Also receiving votes: None. Dangerfield was the only unanimous winner in any category of ESPN's picks.

Coach of the Year: Cheryl Reeve, Minnesota Lynx

The Lynx started the season with just one player left from the core of their last two championships teams in 2015 and '17, center Sylvia Fowles. Then Fowles had a calf injury and played just seven games during the regular season.

That meant going to a different game of chess for Reeve, and she made it work. The Lynx finished 14-8 and got the No. 4 seed.

It wasn't just Fowles' absence that made this season challenging. Minnesota saw Augustus leave in free agency to Los Angeles, and Maya Moore sat out this season again as she focused on social justice work. Odyssey Sims, Minnesota's leader in scoring and assists in 2019, was out for the start of the season after giving birth in April. The Lynx also lost one of their captains, Karima Christmas-Kelly, to an Achilles tendon injury in the second game of the season.

Reeve went to Dangerfield as the starting point guard early on. And Fowles' absence necessitated having Damiris Dantas play center, Collier go to power forward and Bridget Carleton -- a little-used rookie in 2019 -- come in as the starting small forward. When Sims was able to play again Aug. 13, Reeve worked her into the rotation as well.

There were a lot of moving parts and some problems the Lynx couldn't have anticipated. Until this year, Fowles had not missed a game for Minnesota since joining the team midseason in 2015. But Reeve found the answers and helped guide the Lynx to their 10th consecutive playoff berth.

Also receiving votes: Bill Laimbeer, Las Vegas; Mike Thibault, Washington

Most Improved Player: Betnijah Laney, Atlanta Dream

With some prominent players opting out of the bubble and some delayed entering it because of COVID-19 protocols, other players had opportunities to step forward.

Several did just that, but Laney stood out for her performance with the Dream, who signed her after she'd been cut in June by Indiana. Laney finished the regular season with a 27-point, six-rebound performance Sunday in a loss to Washington.

Laney, a 6-foot guard/forward, played all 22 games for the Dream and led them in minutes played (33.3) and assists (4.0). She was second in scoring average (17.2) to Chennedy Carter but played six more games. Laney also averaged 4.9 rebounds.

Laney, the No. 17 overall draft pick out of Rutgers in 2015, began her career in Chicago. She was derailed early in the 2016 season by a knee injury and didn't play in the WNBA in 2017. She spent 2018 with Connecticut and 2019 with Indiana before having career-high numbers this season with the Dream. Her previous high scoring average was 5.6, last year in Indiana. Laney scored more points (378) this season than in her previous four seasons combined (371).

With Laney shooting 48.1% from the field, 40.5% from 3-point range and 82.7% from the line, Dream coach Nicki Collen praised how complete a player she was offensively.

"And on top of that, she guards the best perimeter player," Collen said. "She takes that on. She wants it. The numbers speak for themselves, and they're not just good because she scored more points. It's all the way around."

Also receiving votes: Myisha Hines-Allen, Washington

Defensive Player of the Year: Alysha Clark, Seattle Storm

This can be one of the most challenging awards to decide every season, as there is a lot defensively that might not be fully appreciated except by coaches and players studying film. But especially with two of the league's best-ever rim protectors and former winners of this honor -- Fowles and Phoenix's Brittney Griner -- out for much of this season, the award this year tilted more toward all-purpose defenders who are able to guard multiple positions.

Clark, Seattle's 5-11 forward, has been one of the best at that for several years now.

The Storm led the league in defensive rating (93.3), helped a lot in that category by forwards Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard, who was the 2019 defensive player of the year. But Clark's versatility and high energy make her indispensable for Seattle's defense. A scoring sensation in college at Middle Tennessee, Clark transformed herself at the pro level into an elite defender.

"She puts in a lot of work and time, and she's been consistent for years," Storm teammate Jewell Loyd said. "If you understand the game of basketball, you understand that she deserves this award more than anyone else in this league."

Also receiving votes: Natasha Howard, Seattle; Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut; Brianna Turner, Phoenix