The Las Vegas Aces have been the most dominant team so far in the 2022 season, topping the WNBA standings with a 7-1 record and league-best net rating of 15.4. First-year head coach Becky Hammon's flashy pace-and-space offense and some personnel shifts -- such as A'ja Wilson playing center and Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby no longer coming off the bench -- have the team shooting more 3-pointers than ever before and thriving with more freedom and space in which to operate.
Plum and teammate Jackie Young have particularly thrived under Hammon's more perimeter-oriented offense, taking the most shots per game on the roster. While there's little doubt that Young, who averaged 12.2 points per game in 2021 (plus 11.0 in 2020 and 6.6 as a rookie in 2019) is a frontrunner for Most Improved Player, her name deserves to be included on the shortlist in early MVP conversations, too.
Young is scoring a league-best 19.3 points per game on 56.4% shooting, which are career-best marks. She is also one of three players in the league shooting 50% from both the field and 3-point arc (minimum two 3-point attempts per contest). While her mid-range game and ability to get to the rim have long been her strong suits, Young has expanded her versatility this season by becoming a knockdown threat from deep. The former Notre Dame standout and No. 1 overall pick is taking more 3s than ever before and hitting them at a 50% clip after just 25% accuracy last season; she has made more treys (12) in eight games this summer than in the 2020 and 2021 seasons combined (eight). She's also getting to the line more often than in previous seasons, averaging 5.1 free throw attempts per game this season vs. 2.8 in 2021.
What makes Young special isn't just her emerging offensive prowess, but that it's paired with her positional versatility and defensive impact, as she's generally assigned to guard an opponent's toughest perimeter player.
"Her ceiling is, there is no ceiling," Hammon said Sunday of Young. "She's just coming into her own. This is her time and I think she's been elite, really, really elite, on both ends of the floor."
The advanced metrics showcase her immense value as well: Young's 2.2 win shares pace the league (with 1.8 coming on the offensive end), with teammate Wilson coming in second at 1.7. Young is also top five in Kevin Pelton's wins above replacement player per game rankings through Tuesday's competition, just narrowly behind Alyssa Thomas, Candace Parker, Rhyne Howard, and Elena Delle Donne.
No WNBA player has ever won Most Improved Player and MVP in the same season; in 2021, the Connecticut Sun's Jonquel Jones became the first MIP to win MVP in a later year.
For better or for worse, WNBA MVPs of late tend to boil down to the best player on the best team, and Young could fit that mold at the moment. But with the Aces' balance -- all five starters score in double figures and four shoot above 45% from the field -- it can be difficult for Young to stand out when she shares the court with the likes of Wilson (the 2020 MVP) and Plum, and it's possible the team's hot shooting start, or her own, will regress to the mean. Nonetheless, a thriving, increasingly multifaceted Young bodes well for the Aces as they look to compete for a WNBA championship.
Young can bolster her case this weekend, starting against the Chicago Sky (4-2) on Saturday (noon ET, ABC) in what could be a WNBA Finals preview, and next week in back-to-back meetings against the Connecticut Sun (4-2), starting Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
As the Sky head into their matchup with the Aces, keep an eye on how Kahleah Copper continues to settle into things in Chicago. The reigning Finals MVP, who just wrapped up an outstanding overseas season with Perfumerias Avenida, is averaging 12 points across her first two games of the season on 8-for-22 shooting from the field. The Sky's scoring balance -- six players average double figures, not including Allie Quigley -- takes the pressure off Copper to be "on" every night for Chicago to win, but the more she finds her rhythm on both ends, the more threatening the Sky look as they seek to repeat.
With Copper re-inserted into the starting lineup, coach James Wade has been bringing in Azurá Stevens off the bench while starting his three former Finals MVPs in the frontcourt, and that's not even taking into account the addition of the 6-foot-7 rookie Li Yueruc, who just arrived in Chicago from China -- quite the luxury!
How must the Sun adjust after Jasmine Thomas' season-ending injury?
The Connecticut Sun received devastating news this week when it was confirmed that Jasmine Thomas suffered an ACL tear in the team's win over the Fever over the weekend. Not only is Thomas the second-longest tenured player in Uncasville and their longtime starting point guard, but she's a five-time WNBA all-defensive pick who has established herself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.
Moreover, this was supposed to be the year that the Sun, who were without Jonquel Jones in 2020 (opt out) and Alyssa Thomas for most of 2021 (Achilles injury), were finally healthy, giving them their best shot of bringing home the franchise's first championship.
"We've done such a great job at playing through starter injuries since 2017. But I'm frankly tired of that narrative," coach Curt Miller said prior to Tuesday's 85-77 loss to the Dallas Wings. "I'm angry. I'm frustrated that we have to pivot again. And we will, and we will compete and will compete hard. Not enough credit has gone to this group through the pivoting."
The Sun have indeed demonstrated that they can adjust through key player absences. They advanced to the semifinals without Jones in 2020 and finished with a league-best 26-6 record in 2021 with Alyssa Thomas out all but two regular-season games. What will they need to do to keep alive their hopes to win a title?
Miller said that Natisha Hiedeman and Yvonne Anderson will assume point guard duties with Jasmine Thomas sidelined, the former a key fixture off the bench for the Sun the last three seasons, and the latter a 32-year-old WNBA rookie who has had some nice moments since Thomas went down. DiJonai Carrington's minutes will also increase with the backcourt depth having taken a hit; she has shined so far her sophomore season (averaging 8.7 PPG), particularly when DeWanna Bonner was still away from the team.
Expect, too, to see Alyssa Thomas playing the point -- yes, it's happening, folks. Thomas has been known to facilitate the offense despite typically playing the "4," often bringing the ball up the floor after grabbing a defensive rebound. But Miller said Thomas could slide to the "1" alongside a lineup of Courtney Williams, Bonner, Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones -- a grouping the coaching staff discussed rolling out prior to the season but hasn't had time to tinker with in practice (and that has only played three minutes together in games).
It might be tougher to compensate for Jasmine Thomas' absence on the defensive side. Miller said the Sun will have to take a by-committee approach and scheme differently, but it won't be easy considering they already took a hit on the perimeter defense front with the departure of Briann January this offseason. While it helps to have the likes of the Joneses and Alyssa Thomas on the court to cover any deficiencies, Hiedeman and Carrington will need to step up as solid, disciplined defenders.
If there's one thing working in their favor, it's that the Sun have time to figure out how they can best succeed without Jasmine Thomas -- and the experience to know that they can still win without key pieces.
Sparks end skid, but extend Mercury's losing streak
The Los Angeles Sparks finally got in the win column Wednesday with a 99-94 victory over the Phoenix Mercury, snapping a five-game losing streak. While the Mercury are depleted personnel-wise (Shey Peddy and Sophie Cunningham were ruled out, on top of Kia Nurse and Brittney Griner) and struggling defensively with the pieces they do have, Los Angeles still came out like a more cohesive offensive unit that can hurt you in different ways than we've seen much of late.
It helped that Katie Lou Samuelson, in her first start with her new team, got going from the arc, where she made a career-high four 3-pointers and finished with 17 points, also a career-best. The Sparks definitely need Samuelson as a threat from deep who can space the floor, which only helps the likes of Liz Cambage and Nneka Ogwumike operate inside plus get Jordin Canada and Chennedy Carter to the rim. After seeing limited time off the bench, Carter scored 12 points in 17 minutes Wednesday, her second-highest mark of the season; how she continues to carve out a role for herself on a team still looking to solidify its identity will be something to monitor.
The Sparks still have a lot to prove, particularly against better teams in the league, but they can make some ground in the standings with wins over the 2-7 Fever on Friday and 2-6 Lynx on Sunday.
The Mercury face what feels like a must-win game against the Dream on Sunday, where they will try to avoid a fifth consecutive loss. While Phoenix has dealt with a swath of absences this season due to injury, illness or other extenuating circumstances, its sole wins to date came over a Seattle Storm team that was missing Breanna Stewart, Mercedes Russell and Epiphanny Prince -- which isn't a great distinction a fifth of the way into the season.
Who to start: Phoenix's Skylar Diggins-Smith returned Wednesday after missing the two previous games due to a non-COVID-19 illness. She was a top-five player in ESPN's latest fantasy rankings, and is a no-brainer to re-insert into your lineup.
Breanna Stewart (No. 1 in ESPN's fantasy rankings) was back in tow for the Seattle Storm last Wednesday, exploding for 28 points in their win over Los Angeles on Friday. As she regains her rhythm following her bout with COVID, expect her to have big nights this week against the struggling Liberty, who are without multiple defensive anchors.
A less-obvious player to start: With Jasmine Thomas out for the year, Hiedeman -- the two announced their engagement last September -- will see an outsized role running the point. She has scored at least nine points for Connecticut in each of its last four games.
Indiana Fever rookie NaLyssa Smith has missed four consecutive games and is day-to-day with an ankle injury, while teammate Bria Hartley (hamstring) and Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes (rest) have yet to suit up since returning from overseas. It's unclear when they will take the court; it's probably best to keep those three on the bench for the time being.