May 27, 2023 

Two Ups and a Down: Alyssa Thomas MVP edition

Plus, an icon's defense and the rise of Jackie Young

The first week of the 2023 WNBA campaign is already over. The Las Vegas Aces look every bit the Goliath that many expected them to be. However, the Connecticut Sun are showing signs of being the David that few saw coming. They have the perennially underappreciated Alyssa Thomas to thank for that. Let’s dive in.

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All statistics represent games through May 25, 2023.

Up: Alyssa Thomas MVP?

In professional sports, the Most Valuable Player is often determined by a couple of critical factors. First, did the athlete put up a bunch of counting stats? Second, did the athlete’s team relatively outperform their expectations? And third, is the athlete unquestionably the best player on their team? If the answer to all three questions is yes, chances are, at the very least, said player is an MVP candidate.

Through three games, Thomas more than checks all three boxes.

Connecticut is off to a hot, if slightly unexpected, start after taking down the Indiana Fever and Washington Mystics twice, and the driving force behind its success is Thomas. She’s doing that by doing it all. 

Among qualified WNBA players, Thomas is the only one to rank in the top 10 in points (18.0), rebounds (12.3) and assists (5.7) per game, and she is top-five in the latter two. Her robust plus-27 plus/minus is tied for sixth but only six away from sole possession of second. (Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum leads the way at plus-42.)

She’s also a strong screener …

… rim runner …

… and versatile defender. Against the Mystics, she spent time guarding forwards Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin as well as guards Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud. Her ability to body up bigs and stick with smalls laterally opens up the Sun’s defensive schemes. 

Thomas is a singular talent in a league full of name recognition. Although she may not be as well known among the general populace as New York’s Breanna Stewart or Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson, she’s every bit as good. She’ll become one of the WNBA’s most recognizable faces this summer if she continues this level of play.

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Down: Diana Taurasi going through the motions

The Phoenix Mercury are 1-2 — their lone win came against the likely lottery-bound Minnesota Lynx — and own the WNBA’s third-worst defense with a 102.5 defensive rating. Center Brittney Griner is playing at an MVP-caliber level on both ends of the court, but she is the only member of the Mercury’s roster with a positive plus/minus (plus-7). In short, Phoenix has been bad to start the season.

Prior to the home opener last Sunday against the Chicago Sky, Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said, “I think [fans are] gonna see a team that plays together. I think they’re gonna see a team that gives relentless effort and is committed to making things work and playing really hard.”

Franchise icon Diana Taurasi then walked onto the court and proceeded to provide an astoundingly low level of defensive effort.

Taurasi’s defensive indifference hasn’t been limited to when the team is playing zone. Her effort has also been lacking in transition …

… and in the half court.

To expect Taurasi — a 16-year WNBA veteran and a first-ballot Hall of Famer — to give 100% effort on every defensive possession is overzealous. But Phoenix is going to have a long summer if she doesn’t at least give 50%. Phoenix is simply not a good enough team for Taurasi to only play on one side, and doing so often suggests a lack of buy-in to what the coach is selling.

Luckily, the Mercury have one of the best defensive bigs in the league in Griner. All Taurasi and the other wings need to do is funnel the ball toward her.

If they can consistently do that, they should improve their defensive efficiency by a modest amount.

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Up: Jackie Young coming into her own

Aces guard Jackie Young has been steadily improving since entering the WNBA with high expectations as the first overall pick in 2019. She earned her first All-Star nod last season en route to becoming a WNBA champion, but through her first two games in 2023, she seems like an all-around better player.

Young scored a career-high 30 points in a 94-85 win over the Los Angeles Sparks on Thursday, and that was after scoring 23 in the season opener. She’s boasting a blistering 75.8% effective field goal percentage and is averaging 3.5 stocks (steals plus blocks) per game, which is right up there with the league leaders.

“Jackie is one of the best two-way guards we have in this league,” Wilson said after the win over Los Angeles. “She does it all. And it was just a matter of time to all click for her, and I’m so glad that she got to experience that because she deserves it. She’s worked hard.”

What makes Las Vegas so scary is that Young may be their third- or fourth-best player. However, if she keeps up even 75% of her current productivity, she may start knocking on Plum’s door.

Written by Lucas Seehafer

Lucas Seehafer is a general reporter for The Next. He is also a physical therapist and professor at the undergraduate level. His work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Forbes, FanSided, and various other websites.

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