Picking a WNBA All-Improved Team for 2018

A hypothetical end-of-season award focusing on players who raised their games.

Of the WNBA's end-of-season honors, the Most Improved Player award tends to have the muddiest criteria. No one seems set on what actually constitutes "improvement," and the award often simply goes to the player with the greatest year-by-year increase in volume statistics.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, mind you; if a player gets a significant jump in minutes, she's more than likely done something to earn it. But the method usually overlooks players whose contributions go beyond simple per-game stats. Every year, there are plenty of WNBA players who take their games to the next level, yet get lost in the shuffle due to inconsistent awards voting and a discrepancy in what is considered to be valuable.

To put it another way: there are All-WNBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie teams that honor several players, because just one isn't enough. So why not an All-Improved team? Here are five WNBA players who made noticeable improvements from 2017 to 2018, and what exactly they did to get better.

Natasha Howard (Seattle Storm)

Let's start with the obvious: the player who actually won the 2018 Most Improved award. Howard was acquired by Seattle this past offseason after spending two years coming off the bench with the Lynx. The Storm knew that she was capable of handling starter's minutes, though the trade was still seen as a gamble to some because of a conditional 2019 Draft pick swap given to Minnesota.

It's now safe to say that the gamble paid off. The Storm finished the regular season with the WNBA's top record, and Howard was a major reason why; her skill on offense and disruptiveness on defense complement the all-around brilliance of Breanna Stewart and allow Seattle to be more aggressive on both sides of the ball.

As for individual numbers, it makes sense that Howard's career-high in minutes played (25.6) would yield a similar increase in her other per-game statistics, but she was also more efficient than in the past. She scored the basketball on a 61.5% TS% and recorded a PER of 22.3, taking advantage of the Storm's outstanding floor spacing to impose her will off the dribble and in the post.

Defensively, Howard was just as good, more than making up for her lack of size with length, quickness, and athleticism. She's always been a good shot blocker, but head coach Dan Hughes called upon her to be even more active on defense, clogging passing lanes and being an overall nuisance on post entry passes. This, too, was a seamless fit, as Howard finished fifth in the league in defensive win shares and was named to the WNBA's All-Defensive First Team by coaches around the league. All in all, a very worthy recipient of the 2018 MIP.

Cheyenne Parker (Chicago Sky)

When the Sky drafted Parker in 2015, she had big shoes to fill, both literally and figuratively. Sylvia Fowles had requested a trade, and Chicago needed someone who could fill the void left by their All-WNBA center.

While players like that don't exactly grow on trees, Parker's game took a noticeable step up this season. She posted career-highs across the board, leading the Sky in PER (19.1) and total rebounding percentage (17.1%).

The rebounding shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has watched Parker in the past. It's her offense that has grown; she came into the 2018 season with a legitimate post-up game, showing great improvement in both her footwork and finishing with her off-hand. It translated well to the box score: Parker's scoring numbers (18.2 points per 36 minutes, 58.7% TS%) blow her previous marks out of the water, and they earned her a second-place finish in the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year voting.

Natasha Cloud (Washington Mystics)

In all fairness, Cloud has been one of the more underrated players in the WNBA since she was drafted in 2015. Though she's classified as a point guard, her height and strength allow her to defend just about anyone on the perimeter, a luxury that allows Washington to switch most backcourt matchups comfortably.

Offensively, Cloud's value until 2018 has come largely from doing the dirty work for the combo guards she's played with. Her presence allowed Mike Thibault to utilize players such as Kristi Toliver and (in the past) Ivory Latta off the ball, where their shooting abilities were maximized while cross-matching "hid" them on defense.

Now, after working tirelessly over the offseason, Cloud has become much more than just a role player. By focusing on improving her outside shot, she's turned a weakness into a strength (her 51.5% regular season eFG% is by far a career-high), and the Mystics are all the better for it; defenses must now think twice before trapping Toliver or sending double teams at Elena Delle Donne. This enhanced 3-point shot, coupled with her ever-persistent defense, has made Cloud a player the Mystics need to have on the floor as much as possible.

LaToya Sanders (Washington Mystics)

If Cloud is the heart of the Mystics, Sanders is their backbone. The lanky veteran from North Carolina has been in and out of the league, fulfilling obligations with the Turkish National Team, and until 2018, had been known mostly as an energetic rebounding presence and shot-blocker.

This year, though, Sanders has stepped up her offensive game considerably. In a way, she's been the perfect replacement for the sweet-shooting forward Emma Meesseman (who elected to skip the 2018 season to prepare for the upcoming FIBA World Cup): a consistent midrange stroke has turned Sanders into the perfect release valve against defenses that over-commit to Delle Donne and Toliver, and given the way the Mystics space the floor, she's also become an ideal pick and roll partner for Cloud. Her penchant for moving without the basketball has yielded plenty of easy buckets for Washington via simple slip-screen action.

It's that midrange jumper, though, that has taken Sanders' game to the next level. The numbers are eye-popping: over half of her shots have come 11-21 feet from the basket, and, per Lynx Data, she's shooting 55.7% on those shots.

To put that into perspective, check out Sanders' shot chart, including her FG% relative to the rest of the WNBA:

(Source: Positive Residual)

Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas Aces)

It's been a somewhat rocky start to a WNBA career for Plum, who was selected by the San Antonio Stars at #1 in last year's Draft. The all-time leading scorer in NCAA women's basketball history struggled with injury and inconsistency during her rookie campaign, and one franchise overhaul later, many suspected that new team president Bill Laimbeer would ship her out.

It's fitting, then, that after a tumultuous first year in the WNBA, Plum's second go-around was one of quiet, steady improvement. Not only did her eFG% increase dramatically (from 41.7% in 2017 to 57.0%), but she cut her turnovers by more than half, down from 4.0 per 36 minutes in 2017 to just 1.7 this season.

What makes Plum's improvement in ball security that much more impressive is that the Aces played 2018 at a breakneck pace. All those added possessions didn't seem to faze her, though; Plum spent less time thinking and more time shooting, and looked far more comfortable as a result.

Granted, the Aces now have some questions to answer (specifically, what they'll do with yet another #1 overall pick), but Plum's second-year improvement is huge for her regardless of the franchise's direction. Don't overlook Plum when considering 2019 breakout candidates.

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