September 8, 2023
2023 WNBA MVP race: The case for the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson
'She's able to do everything'
Winning an MVP is not easy, winning two is even harder, winning three is almost impossible. In the 25 years of WNBA MVP’s only three people have won the award three times, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson. Only one player has ever won the award in back-to-back years, Cynthia Cooper in 1997 and 1998. A’ja Wilson is looking to become the fourth three time and the second back-to-back MVP and is statistically playing better this year than her other two MVP seasons.
Wilson is putting up a career high 22.3 points per game, which is third in the WNBA this season. She is scoring those 22 points on a career high 54.6% shooting from the field, which is fourth in the WNBA behind the likes of Aliyah Boston, Brittney Griner and Teaira McCowan.
All three of those players are traditional back to the basket post players which means most of their shots come right at the basket. Meanwhile, Wilson who is more of a face up forward, takes a lot more mid-range shots and attacks the basket from a lot of different angles. This makes this efficiency a lot harder to achieve when you aren’t taking every shot right around the basket.
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“I just think her efficiency’s been off the charts,” said Becky Hammon of her reigning MVP. “I go back to you know, she’s 24th in minutes in the league and still putting up the kind of numbers that she does is pretty impressive. We’re allowing her to put it on the floor a lot more, to get in her bag a little bit. But she’s worked on her bag the whole offseason. So, again, I’m not really surprised that she’s doing what she’s doing. But she just she improved individually over the course of the offseason. I think that’s one big thing that we put in a lot of work in the offseason.”
For Wilson’s overall efficiency to improve, she has needed to be more efficient in getting her shots and getting to her spots. She has done that at a very high level this year, making an effort to get the looks she wants. Wilson loves to get to the elbow and either attack the basket or shoot a one dribble pull-up in the paint. This year, she leads all players in shots attempted inside the paint that aren’t in the restricted area. She has also made more shots in that area than anyone else in the league.
Wilson has been much more aggressive about scoring and trying to get to her spots. This year, she is attempting about half a shot more per game compared to last year. However, she is attempting two more two pointers a game than she did last year. Also, in that paint area that isn’t right around the basket, Wilson is shooting 47.6% which is 4% better than she shot last year. She leads the WNBA in Player Efficiency Rating and is over two points ahead of the next highest person. Wilson is more efficient on offense while also taking more shots, which is incredibly difficult to do.
On top of being more aggressive, Wilson has been incredibly consistent for the Aces. She’s had just two games scoring in the single digits this season. She’s also scored over 20 points in 71% of her games played this year. Last year, Wilson only scored 30 or more one time. This year, she has done it four times including tying the WNBA record with 53 points against Atlanta on August 22nd.
“I would say my mental approach,” said Wilson. “I think last year like I just kind of went with the flow of things and was just like, you know, new coach new things. Let’s just see how this goes. But I think this year I had more of a mindset of I want to really establish myself in the league. I want to be able to say that I am established I’m here and I’m still growing and learning and I think that’s the biggest thing and I sometimes I kind of catch myself by surprise that just how much I really grown in this league. Just from a leadership standpoint, just from a teammate standpoint, and then basketball, X’s and O’s as well as I’m learning to read the defense instantly. versus last year I was kind of just going with the flow and just seeing how things are going to play out. But I think this year, I’m paying closer attention to how I’m being guarded each possession.”
Wilson’s aggression this season has also led to her getting to the free throw line more this year than ever before. She has taken a career high 270 free throws and is attempting the most per game since her rookie year. Wilson leads the league in free throws attempted and is second in shots made at the charity stripe behind only Jewell Loyd. However, Wilson has the edge over Loyd when it comes to and-1’s, as she has gotten 31 of those this year. She is one of the strongest players in the WNBA and there are games where she lives at the line as she’s had six games this year with at least 10 free throw attempts. Wilson’s aggressiveness on offense has shown in more than just her shooting but in her ability to draw a whistle as well.
“People scheme, and they sometimes part of their game plan is your factor in that they can’t game plan without your name coming up,” Wilson said. “I want to try to be the best player that I can be for my teammates and be that productive for them. But if you have teams that are scheming against you, you see a different look everything that means that you’re pretty decent at what you do. And I love that because it really makes me think, look at the game from a whole different viewpoint than I did last year, this year. And it’s been a lot of fun. So yeah, we just have to say that like, slowly, but surely, I’m starting to just start to establish myself in the league and get a better understanding of what I may have playing against certain teams like what that may look like, and it looks different.”
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On top of being a more efficient scorer this year, Wilson has put up better numbers when it comes to the boards. She is second in the league in rebounding at 9.6 boards per game. She is also tied for second in the league in second chance points with 122 while she is only eighth in offensive rebounds. She has grabbed an offensive rebound in all but five games this season.
Wilson has also been consistent in combining her scoring with rebounding. She is second in the league in double-doubles with 22 games of at least 10 and 10. The Aces have been forced to play a lot of small ball this year after losing Candace Parker to injury so to have Wilson grabbing those boards has been huge for the team. She is consistently having to go up against players who are bigger than her and she finds a way to grab the rebound.
“She fits right into that category of special players that I’ve been privileged to play alongside,” said Alysha Clark. “Just her mental toughness, her skill set, even I mean, she’s as dominant as she’s been in this league, people forget how young she is. And so, her potential, and she’s just that she’s scratching the surface of her potential. So, you know, she has the hunger and the desire to be the best player in this league. And, you know, alongside the ones that I played against, they’ve had that same mentality, they’ve had that same approach, that same work ethic. And, you know, it’s fun, it makes it fun. And I’m fortunate enough to be able to say, along my career, I’ve been able to play alongside a lot of these players.”
Wilson was the Defensive Player of the Year in the WNBA last year and this year, she has become a better defender. She leads the league in both total blocks and blocks per game. In fact, she has 16 more blocks than the person sitting in second place. She’s had a block in all but five games this year including a six block performance against Dallas on July 30. Her ability to protect the rim has gotten to an elite level and has helped put the Aces with the second-best FG% defense in the league.
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Wilson has not only been great at blocking shots, but she has become a better individual defender as well. The Aces switch pretty consistently on defense and Wilson has become quite good at guarding both guards and posts at any time. She has figured out how to use her length and athleticism to guard on the perimeter and isn’t fouling opponents, as she’s not in the top 20 in the league in personal fouls. Her overall defensive effort has led her to be second in the league in defensive win shares at 3.3.
“I mean, she continues to get better every year,” Jackie Young said. “Other than scoring, I’d say like on the defensive end, she saves us a lot. She saves the guards a lot, she can guard one through five. And also if the guards get beat off the dribble, we always know A is going to be back there to help us. And so, whether she’s up in a ball screen, or she’s coming over from weak side, you know, she’s able to do everything.”
On top of all the things Wilson has done well this year, the biggest thing is she’s done It all while playing only 30.8 minutes per game which ranks 24th in the league. She is the number three scorer, the number two rebounder, the number one-shot blocker, taken the most free throws and has the highest player efficiency rating all while playing the 24th most minutes per game in the league. In comparison, the other two main candidates for MVP rank second and fourth in minutes per game.
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Wilson’s efficiency has improved drastically from last year to this year and she has clearly been more aggressive about getting to her spots and taking her shots. She is once again an elite rebounder and taken her defense to another level. She has done all this while playing less minutes than most other superstars play. Wilson has clearly established herself as one of the elite players in the league and only time will tell if she becomes the fourth player ever to win three MVP’s.
“I think it affects winning because that’s what she’s about,” said Hammon. “Whatever she has to do, to impact the game, to ensure a win. That’s what she does. She’s a very selfless superstar. Here’s the other thing, like a lot of times she’s the easiest superstar to coach. Like she’s super easy. She’s just, she’s easy and the way she impacts, her defense, her rebounding I mean, I haven’t quite seen somebody like her… She is really she’s just really special. She’s a special player. She got that it factor, you know, I mean, if I have to explain it, you don’t know it, but she got it factor.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.