September 20, 2023
The Next’s 2023 WNBA Awards: Most Improved Player
Jordin Canada takes the internal vote from The Next staff
Welcome to The Next’s official* 2023 WNBA awards, continuing with Most Improved Player. A panel of 19 of our WNBA beats, analysts, and reporters submitted full awards ballots, selecting their top three candidates for Most Improved Player. We use the NBA’s method of scoring ballots, where players receive five points for a first-place vote, three for a second-place vote, and one for a third-place vote. (The WNBA only asks for one name per ballot in its official voting, which can skew how we think of runners-up.)
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With a relatively tight 56.8% vote share (the percentage of the maximum possible points a player received), The Next’s 2023 WNBA Most Improved Player is Los Angeles’ Jordin Canada. She received a plurality of first-place votes with nine, while Dallas’ Satou Sabally earned three first-place votes and Chicago’s Alanna Smith received two. Washington’s Brittney Sykes, Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, and Los Angeles’ Layshia Clarendon also received a first-place vote each.
Long known as a premier guard defender with spotty offensive contributions, Canada this year suddenly rediscovered the jumper that had eluded her since her UCLA days, and hitting a third of her 3.2 3-pointers per game opened up the game in ways that allowed her to average career-highs in scoring (13.3 points), playmaking (6.0 assists) and minutes (32.6) for the Sparks. Sabally had the first healthy season of her career for the Wings, allowing her to put up a down-ballot-MVP type of season (18.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.8 steals per game) while making massive gains in 3-point shooting and playmaking. After three spotty seasons in Phoenix and just nine games last year with the Fever, Smith emerged as a borderline All-Star-caliber player in 2023 with the Sky, and finished third in the WNBA in 2-point shooting while more than doubling her career marks across the board.
The only other Los Angeles player to have won Most Improved Player was Kristi Toliver in 2012. Canada marks the eighth player in the past 12 years to win the award after changing teams; the two winners before her (Jackie Young in 2022, Brionna Jones in 2020) did not.
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Our voters also shared why they selected who they did atop their ballot:
The case for Jordin Canada
In recent seasons, Canada was considered a middle-tier starting point guard with major questions about her utility come playoff time, due to her glaring shooting limitations. In 2023, she reinvented her game under first-year head coach Curt Miller, improving her 3-point percentage from 14% on 1.6 attempts [per game] to 33.3% on 3.2 attempts. Canada also averaged a career-high in points, assists and rebounds, in addition to her stellar play as a top guard defender in the league.
The case for Satou Sabally
We had seen flashes of the player Sabally was before, but injuries have hampered her. We saw it night after night this year, and she’s added to her game too. Her scoring efficiency went up as she’s added an effective outside shot to her game. She’s become a better ball-distributor while keeping turnovers relatively in check. She’s solidifying herself as a force on the boards, and also getting into passing lanes like never before. This year, Sabally ascended from a talented mystery to a perennial MVP candidate — and she seems really likely to win one in her career.
The case for Alanna Smith
To me, Most Improved Player is all about who had the biggest gap between themselves at the end of last season and most of this season — and Alanna Smith went from being cut after nine games by what would be a five-win Indiana team to ranking around the top 25 in rebounding, block and steals rates and scoring efficiency. It’s hard to make much more of a jump than that.
The case for Brittney Sykes
Sykes has been a good WNBA player for a long time, but she gets my vote for Most Improved Player because she transformed how she is viewed and guarded in the league. In three seasons in Los Angeles from 2020-22, she was known as an elite defender and a slasher but not a shooter — in fact, she was sometimes told during her career not to shoot threes.
Now, in Washington, she is someone defenses can’t sag off of on the perimeter, she has developed her point guard skills and she has kept up her slashing and defensive abilities, making her an All-WNBA-caliber player. She is having one of her most efficient offensive seasons despite increasing her usage, and she has carried a Mystics offense that was decimated by injuries. She has risen to the occasion in every way imaginable, and that’s why she tops a long list of candidates for MIP.
The case for Jewell Loyd
It’s not often that a perennial All-Star and certified bucket is the best fit for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award, but when I think about the spirit of what this award means, it’s hard for me to think of anyone better suited for the honor than Jewell Loyd. This was Loyd’s first season in the W without the benefit of playing alongside Sue Bird and her first since 2015 without Breanna Stewart, meaning Loyd drew the ire and all-encompassing attention from every opposing team she faced and all she did was put up the highest per game scoring total since 2006. In 38 games this season, Loyd eclipsed the 20-point mark 25 times and finished the season with a comfortable lead as the WNBA scoring champ. The runner-up this season was her former teammate in Stewart, who averaged 1.7 ppg less than Loyd’s league-leading 24.7. When it comes to Award SZN, it’s easy to pick and choose different stats to support your narrative of choice. To me, this one’s not that deep. I don’t care if we already knew that Loyd’s a fantastic player. I’m rolling with the first-time scoring champ.
The case for Layshia Clarendon
I picked Clarendon for Most Improved Player because while they didn’t play in the league last year (they were waived due to injury concerns by the Minnesota Lynx), they came back posting some of the best numbers of their career. He averaged 11.1 points per game, second-most in his career as well as 3.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and a career-best 1.1 steals. Though she only played in 24 games, she grounded the injury- and illness-plagued Sparks, including a career-high 30 points as the Sparks fought for a playoff spot on Sept. 7.
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* Official relative to our preseason and midseason awards. The Next’s 2023 WNBA Most Improved Player award is as official as The AP’s, which is to say it won’t show up on Across The Timeline.