By Jacqueline LeBlanc
The day after dropping a season-high 31 points and 13 rebounds to help the Connecticut Sun dismantle the New York Liberty 85-64 last Saturday, Jonquel Jones boarded a plane to Europe.
After a dominant first 10 games, Jones is the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award this season, according to DraftKings. But Jones will miss four to six games as she competes for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 2021 EuroBasket tournament.
Jones, who was born in the Bahamas but holds Bosnian citizenship, helped Bosnia and Herzegovina qualify for EuroBasket last fall, so she was expected to leave the Sun this season. But the timing is disappointing for Connecticut (8-2), which sits atop the league standings.
“I’m proud to represent the Bosnian national team, but it’s a tough time to be going,” Jones told reporters after the Liberty game. “I feel like we’re playing really, really great basketball. I feel like I have a good flow right now. I just feel like things are just trending upward for us. So I hate that I have to leave, but it’s necessary.”
Jones is averaging a career-high 21.6 points per game on 56.8% shooting from the field, including 2.3 threes made per game. She is also averaging a league-high 10.4 rebounds per game.
Her block rate is down from her last season in 2019, but her 1.5 steals per game place her at 10th in the league. She’s the only player in the league averaging a double double so far, and thanks to her monster performance against the Liberty, she already has 200 points and 100 rebounds this season.
Jones’s dominance and consistency has made her the current favorite to win league MVP, but will missing most of June take her out of the MVP discussion?
What do voters look for?
League MVP voters—a mix of sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league across the U.S.—have been predictable in their criteria for deciding which individual player made the biggest impact during the regular season.
Frontcourt players are always heavily favored to win MVP, because of their high-scoring and rebounding numbers. Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi was the last pure guard to win the coveted award in 2009—her only MVP award, despite being the league’s career scoring leader and having three WNBA championships on her resume. Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper was the only other pure guard to take home the honor—doing so twice, in 1997 and ‘98.
Team success also plays a huge role in deciding MVP. Nothing weighs more on the race than being the most dominant player on one of the best teams. Four of the last five MVPs went on to win a WNBA championship in their MVP season, and the fifth—2020 MVP A’ja Wilson—reached the Finals.
Only one MVP has missed the playoffs entirely—Seattle’s Lauren Jackson, who led the league in scoring in 2003 with 21.2 points per game while ranking in the top five in rebounds per game, blocks per game and double doubles.
Since 2014, all MVP winners have led the league in win shares, and often by a considerable margin, according to Her Hoop Stats. Win shares is an advanced statistic that estimates the total number of wins a player produces for their team through offense and defense, and helps measure a player’s contributions to their team’s success.
Considering the other factors that have weighed on voters, it makes sense that the MVP would lead the league in win shares, which rewards productivity and team success.
How does Jones stack up now, and where does she have the potential to slide?
Jones leads the league in win shares with 3.0 through 10 games, followed by Breanna Stewart (2.3 win shares), while also leading in player efficiency rating, another advanced metric that MVPs tend to dominate.
Jones also tops the leaderboard for traditional stats, leading the league in rebounds and ranking third in scoring. Not only is she the only forward in the league averaging at least two three-pointers a game, but she is converting 48.9% of her attempts from behind the arc too. She’s also been impressive as a facilitator, averaging three assists a game.
The biggest threat to Jones’s MVP chances is her team’s performance. Voters don’t vote for players on losing teams, and while the Sun have been dominant so far, Jones is obviously a huge factor in their success. With forward Alyssa Thomas sidelined for the season after tearing her Achilles, Connecticut will be without two of its three best players for the next month.
The Sun still have a talented roster, but losing Jones will make this next month challenging. If they continue their dominant form when she returns, they should be able to remain at the top of the standings, even if they lose a few games while she is away.
“I’ve worked hard and I’m happy to be in that conversation, but I also know the conversation doesn’t happen if your team isn’t winning basketball games,” Jones said at shootaround before the Liberty game. “It’s early in the season, MVP is a consistency thing, it’s a team thing, even though people don’t really think of it that way. Your team has to win basketball games and you have to be a player that’s going to keep your team in contention to be the best in the league.”
She is expected to miss less than a fifth of the season, and if her production doesn’t drop off, she’s still on pace to lead the league in win shares at the end of the season despite missing games.
Still, it’s possible other players will catch up to Jones’s production during her absence.
How could other MVP candidates pass Jones—and what would stop them from doing so?
Tina Charles, a 6’ 4” forward for the Washington Mystics and former MVP, has been dominant so far in 2021. She leads the league in scoring with 25.2 points per game, ranks seventh in the league with 8.6 rebounds a game, and is among the top 10 in win shares. Charles has the highest usage rate—the percentage of plays that a player is involved in while on the floor—in the league, but has still managed to limit turnovers.
Despite her personal success, the Mystics (4–5) are under .500, and sit eighth in the standings, which would earn them the final playoff spot if the postseason ended today. Though her performance puts her in the conversation, the Mystics will need to win more games for Charles to contend for the award.
Her teammate, 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne, hasn’t played since the Mystics won the 2019 Finals. The timeline on her return from a December back surgery is unclear, but Delle Donne’s return would most likely take touches away from Charles and could hinder her MVP candidacy.
A’ja Wilson, last year’s MVP, isn’t putting up quite the numbers she had last season, but her role has changed with Liz Cambage back in the frontcourt with her. The Aces have been one of the best teams in the league again this season, and Wilson is clearly the driving force behind their success.
Still, voters seem to be heavily swayed by statistics, and they may not give Wilson another MVP award if her scoring numbers don’t increase. But the Aces score a lot, and Wilson has plenty of time to put up more points this season.
Stewart, the 2018 MVP and a two-time Finals MVP, was the preseason betting favorite to win the award this year. Stewart has helped lead the Storm to a 9–2 record, and DraftKings has her right behind Jones in the most recent round of MVP betting odds. She could certainly build up more momentum to overtake Jones while Jones is away.
The Storm could also take over as the No. 1 team in the league if the Sun struggle without Jones. Seattle edged out Connecticut 90–87 in May, and the teams will meet again on Sunday in Connecticut.
While Stewart is often the most noted impact player for the reigning WNBA champions, Jewell Loyd is having the best season of her career, and has established herself as arguably the best two-way guard in the league right now.
She ranks fourth in total win shares (just .2 shy of Stewart’s total and tied with Wilson). She’s averaging 20.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals in about 33 minutes a game, and continues to deliver in clutch moments.
There have always been guards in the MVP mix, but the last 10 years show it’s nearly impossible for them to win the award. Arike Ogunbowale and Courtney Vandersloot led the league in scoring and assists, respectively, in 2020, but didn’t even crack the top three of the final MVP tally. Unless voters change their outlook toward backcourt players, Loyd might be a long shot no matter how well she plays.
Other players like Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier and Chicago’s Candace Parker could also make a serious bid, despite missing games, if their teams continue to excel. As well as Brittney Griner, who is having the best rebounding season in her career and currently leads the league in blocks . But so far, Jones—now in her fifth season in the league—has made a very convincing case for MVP, and some time away shouldn’t change that.
“It’s a long season,” Jones said, “so I won’t get too high or too low about it.”
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