Last year, Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles won the WNBA's MVP award for the first time. She's in a group with New York's Tina Charles (2012), Minnesota's Maya Moore (2014), Washington's Elena Delle Donne (2015) and Los Angeles' Nneka Ogwumike (2016) and Candace Parker (2008, 2013) who are considered the obvious favorites for MVP honors this season.
But who beyond that group of past winners might make a run at the award? Will we get another first-time winner? And if so, might it be a veteran or a younger player firmly establishing her stardom? Here are five players who could become a first-time MVP in 2018 (listed in alphabetical order).
Skylar Diggins-Smith, Dallas: An outside chance?
The only true guards to win the MVP award are Diana Taurasi (2009) and Cynthia Cooper (1997, '98). (Sheryl Swoopes got the honor three times as a guard/forward.) So Diggins-Smith has an element of long shot here just because of her position, and at 5-foot-9 she also would be the smallest player to be MVP (Cooper was 5-foot-10). But especially in a year in which Diggins-Smith's alma mater, Notre Dame, beat the odds for an NCAA title, never say never, right?
The key is that Diggins-Smith has the capacity to be so strong a scorer at the point guard spot. Last year she averaged 18.5 PPG, and she's at 15.4 for her career. And she had career bests in assists (5.8) and rebounds (3.5) in 2017. With 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage returning to the WNBA and 6-foot-6 forward Azurá Stevens coming in as a rookie for the Wings, Diggins-Smith should have more weapons than she has ever had in her WNBA career. If Dallas has a really good season with Diggins-Smith running the show, maybe she defies the odds.
Brittney Griner, Phoenix: Rising to the occasion
In this list, she seems the most likely to prevail as MVP this season -- for obvious reasons: The 6-foot-9 center was slowed by injury last season but still had a league-best 21.9 scoring average and was second to Fowles in player efficiency rating (PER) at 28.7. For her career, she's at 15.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 3.3 BPG.
Taurasi has been great about empowering Griner and telling her she is the Mercury's present and future. Griner is coming off winning a EuroLeague championship with UMMC Ekaterinburg, and brings that confidence into this WNBA season. Her experience with USA Basketball has also made Griner a better overall player. She understands how to use her size, and she has some physical gifts that no one else in the league can match.
Jonquel Jones, Connecticut: Could be knocking on the door
Last season, Jones' second in the league, she was already an MVP candidate. Fowles was the runaway winner, but Jones finished a respectable fifth in voting. Jones averaged 15.4 points and a league-high 11.9 rebounds, and she was fifth in PER at 26.8. She was also third in win shares at 7.2 behind Fowles and Ogwumike.
The Sun had the fourth-best record in the league in 2017, at 21-13, and 6-foot-6 Jones was at the center of it all. She's a great rebounder not just because of her size but her ferocious pursuit of the ball. Offensively, her ability to stretch out defenders because she can hit the 3-pointer makes all of her teammates' jobs a little easier. Jones requires so much defensive attention, there are bound to be openings for others. Also not to be overlooked: Jones elevated her free-throw percentage eight points last season to 81.8, making 135 of 165 from the stripe.
Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta: Could it be her turn?
The 6-foot-1 forward/guard is the longtime veteran on this list, entering her ninth season after sitting out WNBA play to rest last year. New Dream coach Nicki Collen has said she'll encourage McCoughtry in 2018 to find even more ways to be a playmaker, along with her prolific ability to score (her career average is 19.5 PPG).
McCoughtry has had MVP-level seasons before, with 2010, '11, '13 and '15 standing out. She deserved more consideration for MVP honors in those years than she probably got. She led the league in scoring in 2011 (21.6) and 2013 (21.5). Her best assist average in her WNBA career was 4.4 in 2013; for her career, she has averaged 3.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.2 steals.
If the Dream have a strong season behind McCoughtry, and she puts up impact-across-the-board numbers, maybe she will break through as MVP the way Fowles did in 2017.
Breanna Stewart, Seattle: Following legend's footsteps?
The 6-foot-4 forward was in the MVP discussion her rookie season of 2016, although she didn't join Parker in winning the honor as a first-year pro. Stewart had another strong season last year, too, even though the Storm was hoping for more as a team. Thus far, she has averaged 19.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.0 APG and 1.7 BPG in her WNBA career.
And Stewart doesn't have to look far for MVP inspiration. The photos of Lauren Jackson at KeyArena should provide that. Jackson was a three-time MVP (2003, 2007, 2010) for the Storm; her 35.04 in 2007 and 34.91 in 2006 are still the best two PERs in league history. Jackson was a dominant force on both ends of the court, and that's what Stewart is striving to be. Her numbers so far indicate that Stewart will get there -- and soon.