The WNBA playoffs begin Wednesday night, and with them come the first round of awards season. As expected, the top-seeded Washington Mystics did well, with Elena Delle Donne on Wednesday afternoon being named league player of the year by the Associated Press and Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault earning coach of the year honors, as voted on by the 14-member media panel that votes in the weekly AP power poll.
Delle Donne, a six-time all-star, averaged 19.5 points, second in the WNBA behind Brittney Griner’s 20.7, and was fifth in the league with 8.3 rebounds per game. She also became the first WNBA player to shoot at least 50 percent from the field (51.5 percent), 40 percent on three-pointers (43 percent) and 90 percent from the foul line (97.4 percent). Only eight NBA players have reached the milestone, and Delle Donne did it while wearing a brace on her left knee all season for stability following a bone bruise she suffered last year, as well as a mask for much of the season to protect a broken nose.
“First you sit back and take it in,” Delle Donne said. “I worked really hard, so you kind of just look back on a journey, especially with the knee injury, just being able to bounce back really means a lot to me. And then thank my teammates because there’s no way I’d be here without them. So it’s great, but now it’s all focus on the playoffs.”
The 6-foot-5 Delle Donne is the leading candidate for the WNBA’s MVP award, which would be her second. She also claimed the prize in 2015 with the Chicago Sky.
The league releases its awards over the course of the playoffs. On Wednesday, the WNBA announced that Chicago Sky Coach-General Manager James Wade won its coach of the year award, having received 27 votes from a national panel of 43 journalists. Thibault received 12 votes.
Thibault’s team earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs — it received a double bye into the semifinals, which will begin Tuesday at Entertainment and Sports Arena — after setting a number of franchise records, including most wins in a regular season with 26. Washington led the league with historic offensive numbers throughout the season.
“I feel like so many people forget where the Mystics came from before him, so I think people need to be reminded about the team he has put together,” Delle Donne said. “How he knows how to find great basketball players but even better people. And it makes for a phenomenal locker room with awesome chemistry that just translates onto the floor. That’s really hard to do, and he’s really talented at it.”
Said Thibault of receiving the AP honor: “Coach of the Year awards are reflections of players buying in, assistant coaches and other staff members doing their jobs really, really well. I don’t think it’s ever a single award, should never be. … My job is to lead the ship, but there’s a lot of worker bees involved in any award.”
Guards Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins were named to the league’s all-defensive second team, the WNBA announced, while Seattle’s Natasha Howard was named defensive player of the year.
Atkins’s all-defensive second team nod is her second in two years in the league. Her 1.45 steals per game ranked sixth during the regular season. Cloud, the Mystics’ starting point guard, averaged 1.03 steals and 2.3 defensive rebounds.
Cloud had a smile on her face after practice Wednesday but was indignant over earning second-team instead of first-team honors. Thibault’s theory is that after leading the league in scoring all year, voters think of the Mystics as an offense-first team.
“It’s frustrating. I was left off last year and then kind of snubbed again this year,” Cloud said. “I think of myself as one of the best defenders, and [LaToya Sanders] got snubbed as well,” Cloud said. “It’s a constant snubbing of us here in D.C. It’s a big slap in my face, so, playoffs, I’m in a different beast mode.”