The Tulsa Shock's Skylar Diggins got Full Court's nod as Most Improved Player of the Year, as she did the voting of the WNBA's media panel. But Diggins had plenty of company when it came to improvement. Check out who joined her on Full Court's Most Improved first and second teams. (Photo by Shane Bevel/NBAE)
The Tulsa Shock's Skylar Diggins got Full Court's nod as Most Improved Player of the Year, as she did the voting of the WNBA's media panel. But Diggins had plenty of company when it came to improvement. Check out who joined her on Full Court's Most Improved first and second teams. (Photo by Shane Bevel/NBAE)

The top 10 most-improved WNBA pros of 2014

Contributor
September 15, 2014 - 11:28am

Diggins topped list but others deserve credit as well

With the 2014 WNBA season fading into the rearview mirror, it's time to take a look back at and salute those who did the most to up their games this year. No surprise who got our nod as Full Court's overall Most Improved Player of 2014: Skylar Diggins' turnaround from her rookie year was so stunning, she headlines our Most Improved First Team as the single most improved player of 2014, just as she did in the WNBA's media vote. However, the 2014 WNBA season saw numerous players worthy of commendation for improving on their previous bests. In this piece, we wish to also applaud and bring to light the efforts of nine other deserving individuals, as well as Diggins.

Criteria

In order to avoid having a team's performance overshadow individual production, all selections were based on strictly regular-season performance. Obviously, to make the cut for this list, a player had to show tangible improvement over her prior WNBA season(s). The perceived quality of a player's performance in comparison to peers unavoidably entered into the equation, if for no other reason, because relative quality of play affects time on the floor, and it is difficult to judge the achievements of those who saw very little playing time. Still, to the extent possible, this was a secondary factor to the player's improvement relative to her own past performance. 

For a player with multiple years of experience in the WNBA, 2014 would have to be deemed her best in the league; a mere return to a prior, more positive level of play after an intervening slump would not be enough to make our list.

All other factors being roughly equal, a veteran displaying the foregoing improvement would rank higher in our evaluation, as some progression from rookie to sophomore year is to be expected. Thus, the sophomores named below deserve special praise, because of the extra amount step-up required for them to be named to these lists, and particularly to the Full Court Most Improved First Team.

Full Court 2014 WNBA Most Improved Player: Skylar Diggins, 5-9, guard, Tulsa Shock

Diggins Now a "woman playing the woman's game," Tulsa's Skylar Diggins nearly doubled her scoring and showed marked improvement in nearly every statistical category to earn top honors among the players recognized in Full Court's Most Improved First Team for 2014. (Photo by Shane Bevel/NBAE)

Few if any WNBA second-year players have ever demonstrated a greater turnaround in on-court performance in her second year as compared to her rookie season than Skylar Diggins showed this season.  Part of the problem last year might have been the high expectations generated by all the pre-draft hype, but in 2013 Diggins, the No. 3 overall pick, struggled to such an extent that she lost her starting slot to fellow rookie Angel Goodrich, who had slipped into the draft in the third round at No. 29 overall.

The beneficiary of TV's former obsession with the UConn and the former Big East, Diggins became a darling of both traditional and social media as a collegian, gaining celebrity status by virtue of being promoted by both the league and ESPN in their "Three to See" campaign. When, after a frankly disappointing WNBA rookie season, Diggins opted not to play in Europe over the winter, some wondered whether the Notre Dame All-American was more interested in resting on the laurels of her outstanding college career than in gutting through the hard work required to become a quality WNBA player worthy of that No. 3 draft pick.

As Diggins proved in 2014, nothing could have been further from the truth!  As league president Laurel Richie recently recounted in summing up the highlights of the 2014 season, Diggins had taken a long hard look at her 2013 performance and concluded that in year one, "she was a girl playing a woman's game in her first year in the WNBA. ... So she spent her off-season raising her game, working on her performance, her body, her nutrition to compete in the big leagues."

That work paid off in spades. In her second season, Diggins raised her field-goal percentage to 42.3 percent, up 9.5 percentage points from her 32.8 percent field-goal shooting in 2013). She raised her scoring by 9.5 points per game, finishing second in the league this year at 20.1 points per outing. Diggins also learned how to get herself to the line: That scoring increasing was helped by a league-leading 221 foul-shot attempts, well over double her trips to the penalty stripe in 2013. Moreover, Diggins raised her own scoring while becoming an even better facilitator to her teammates. Her assists rose by 1.2 per game to 5.0, ranking fourth in the league. At 28.2 percent, her 3-point shooting still needs work, but even there, she showed improvement year over year, up 3.8 percentage points from 2013.  During the season, she deservingly received WNBA All-Star and Western Conference Player of the Week honors. 

Here is Skylar Diggins' view on how she accomplished this dramatic rise in production from her rookie season.

"The biggest adjustment for me coming from college was how physical the game was.  The biggest thing for me in the off-season was getting my body [ready] to be able to play in this league.  It's a tough, physical league.  That was my main focus in the off-season, getting my strength up and my body right, gaining a few pounds.

"For me, I didn't go through the off-season looking for something that was broken. I just went back and watched film. I had a conversation with my coach [Fred Williams].  I really worked in the off-season on finishing with both left and right hands, getting my right hand [Skylar is a lefty] better, finishing at the rim and [finally] three-point range was what I would usually work on. I think I have my body more prepared to take the hits [this year], being able to finish. Picking and choosing my spots in this league is different than in college.  I needed that year to adjust and in the off-season I got a lot of flak for not going overseas."      

Skylar, it is safe to say you proved the critics wrong!

Full Court 2014 Most Improved First Team

The following players, listed alphabetically, joined Diggins on the Full Court Most Improved First Team for 2014:

Jessica Breland, 6-3, forward, Chicago Sky

Breland Action
Chicago's Jessica Breland's treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma cost her body weight and muscle mass, left her fatigued and got her pro career off to a slow start, but she put in the hard work and gym time to regain her health and her game. Her vast improvement earned her a spot on the WNBA All-Star team for the first time this season. (Photo and cover photo by Christian Petersen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Jessica Breland is no stranger to adversity. She missed what would have been her senior college season (2009-2010) at North Carolina while undergoing chemotherapy to fight Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but returned to the court the following year, averaging 12.5 points and seven rebounds in just under 23 minutes per game, while helping lead the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16.

Though she was named to the ACC first team and received the Bob Bradley Courage and Spirit Award, concerns about her health and her reduced numbers in her senior season reduced her draft stock. Cancer, and the treatment for it, had caused Breland to lose more than 25 pounds in weight, and she had difficulty in regaining not only the weight but also her muscle mass and conditioning. In the highly competitive 2011 WNBA Drafft, she was taken at the top of the second round by the Minnesota Lynx and immediately traded to New York. She was cut after just nine games with the Liberty, and played four games and miniscule minutes for Connecticut late in the 2011 season, then sat out 2012 after being waived in training camp, frist by the Sun and then by the Washington Mystics.

She did play in Turkey and in Israel in 2012, however, playing alongside Briann January for Ramat Hasharon. That connection helped Breland get a second chance in the WNBA in 2013, this time rejoining January on the Indiana Fever, where Breland came off the bench for 5.3 points and four rebounds per game.

This year, Breland moved to Chicago, the fifth WNBA team with which she has been associated, coming to the Sky as a free agent.  Her improvement has been nothing short of phenomenal, earning her a spot on this year's All-Star roster for the first time in her professional career. Winning a spot in the starting rotation for the first time in her WNBA career, Breland nearly doubled both her scoring to 9.7 points per game (up 4.4 points from her 2013 average) and her playing time (26.5 minutes per game, up from 14.6 in 2013). She upped her field-goal shooting to 46.1 percent (up 2.8 percentage points from last season, her only other year of averaging more than 10 minutes per game).  She also tacked on an additional 2.8 rebounds per game, averaging 6.8 boards per outing this season. Beyond the raw numbers, Breland was instrumental in keeping the Sky in this year's playoff hunt despite prolonged absences by both Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne.

Those who saw Breland only in the playoffs and question this selection should note that Breland played through most of the 2014 WNBA playoffs despite a significant injury (labral tear) to her right (shooting) shoulder that may require surgery now that the season has concluded. Please note that during most of the 2014 WNBA playoffs Breland has been playing with a significant injury to her right (shooting) shoulder.  The injury, sustained during Game One of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta may require surgery now that the season has concluded, and certainly contributed to her struggles in the six remaining playoff games in which she appeared, which saw both her minutes and her productivity significantly diminished as compared to her regular-season performance. Though it wasn't a factor in this selection, Breland is to be saluted for soldiering on through the pain to help her team reach the WNBA Finals.

Coach Pokey Chatman on Breland's battles:  "It's been about minutes and opportunities for Breland. You think about her beating cancer in college. You think about making a WNBA team and being cut several times. Each year she went abroad and improved her game. She had a great opportunity in Indiana. You saw flashes of [what she could do].  She's really good around the basket.  She's elusive.  She can actually play above the rim.  She alters a lot of shots. 

"What people didn't know because they didn't get a chance to see is that she can shoot that mid-range jumper, which was on display for us early [in this season]. I attribute a lot of our early success to Breland being able to do that because people didn't know the scout. For me she was an easy person to target in free agency because this is a kid who has been battling for her life.  She's hungry and wanted a spot on the team. Her work ethic is there. I'm happy she was awarded to be an All-Star this year."       

Emma Meesseman, 6-4, center, Washington Mystics

Emma Messeman
The 2011 FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year, Emma Meesseman was largely unknown in the United States when drafted by the Washington Mystics a year ago. This year, Meesseman had big shoes to fill with the trade of Crystal Langhorne to Chicago, but rose to the occasion, more than doubling her output in every relevant statistical category. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Largely unknown outside of Europe when drafted in the second round at No. 19 overall last year by the Washington Mystics, this native of Belgium was barely 20 years old at the start of the 2013 season. Battling hearing issues, she has learned to speak multiple languages, making her basketball success just another of her many accomplishments.

In 2013, Meesseman started in just one game, averaging a modest 14.6 minutes per game and scoring only 4.4 points per outing.  This season, Meeseman worked her way into the Mystics' starting rotation, nearly doubling her minutes (to 27.4 from 14.6 per game) and more than doubling her points (10.1 per game, up from 4.4), rebounds (6.4, up from 3.1), assists (2.5 per game, versus last season's 1.2) and steals (1.4 per game, compared to last year's 0.6). Her shooting percentage rose to 52 percent from the field (up by 7.4 percentage points from last season) -- second only to Brittney Griner in that category among second-year players. That improved shooting translated in turn to the fourth-best scoring in the league among this season's WNBA sophomores.

Coach Mike Thibault on Meesseman's development: "Emma has grown in several areas. The first thing she had to realize is that she is better than she gave herself credit for. She had to understand that she can be a 'go-to' player. She is getting stronger physically as she gets older - still just turned 21.  She has learned the players in the league better and has consequently become a better defender. She has always been a terrific and willing passer. She has added to her repertoire of post moves. She is starting to understand that we need and want her to be a major scorer, not a role player. She will improve even more going forward as she learns to assert her will on to a game.   She has the chance to become a top 15-20 player in this league by just continuing to be more aggressive. The more consistently aggressive she becomes will earn her more respect from officials too.  She gets beat on a lot now. She can be that great power forward that can play on the block and out at the 3-point line."

Courtney Paris, 6-4, center, Tulsa Shock

 

Griner and Paris
The Tulsa Shock's Courtney Paris (right), pictured with the Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner (left), who highlights Full Court's WNBA Most Improved Second Team (see below), markedly improved her conditioning and her game this season. (Photo by Shane Bevel/NBAE).

Courtney Paris arrived in the league in 2009 as the first-ever four-time Associated Press and U.S. Basketball Writers' Association All-American, having set the NCAA record for career double-doubles. Drafted seventh overall by the Sacramento Monarchs, Paris, the daughter of NFL pro William "Bubba" Paris, also arrived out of shape and in poor condition to compete at the professional level in the opinion of John Whisenant, her coach at the time.

Whisenant attempted to play the  6-4 center, listed by the team at 250 pounds, into shape, but the experiment proved to be a failure: Coming off the bench for just 13.4 minutes per game, Paris averaged only 4.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game in her rookie season. Things went steadily downhill from there. When the Monarchs folded at the end of that season, Paris was picked up by the Chicago Sky, but after a preseason audition, failed to make the team. She sat out the 2010 WNBA season, playing in Europe with only slightly better stats. Landing in Atlanta in 2011, she warmed the bench for 28 games, with slightly worse results than she'd had as a rookie.

The Oklahoma Sooner found a WNBA home in nearby Tulsa in 2012, but showed little improvement during the following two seasons, making her 2014 turnaround all the more impressive. In 2014, Paris more than doubled her minutes (to 27.6, up from 12 per game in 2013) and for the first time since her college glory days, came close to averaging a double-double. She placed first in the league in rebounding this season at 10.2 per game, more than double her total of 4.1 per game last season. Her 9.2 points per game for the Shock this year also came close to doubling her all-time best scoring average (4.8 per game for the Monarchs back in 2009). Paris’s 13 double-doubles tied for third in the league with the Connecticut Sun’s Chiney Ogwumike, behind co-leaders Glory Johnson of Tulsa and Tina Charles of ConnecticuHt.  

Paris' thoughts on how she got to where she was in 2014

"I had a role. I talked to [new head coach Fred] Williams before I got here. I had an opportunity to play a big role on the team. I came in prepared [from Euro ball] and tried to do the best I could. I had a really good coach in Turkey. I worked a lot with him extra. I made the most of my off-season in Europe. I came back a little lighter and more experienced and confident."

Allie Quigley, 5-10, guard, Chicago Sky

After five years in the pros that saw her bounce around among five teams for abbreviated seasons, sit out the entire 2012 season and never average even as many as four points per game, Allie Quigley came home to the Chicago Sky in 2013. This year, she averaged nearly three times that many, earning WNBA Sixth Woman honors and a spot on Full Court's 2014 WNBA Most Improved First Team. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Quigley's WNBA career prior to 2014 was pure journeywoman.  Drafted by Seattle at No. 22 in 2008, the DePaul product was waived by the Storm but picked up by Phoenix three days later. She played minimal minutes in 14 games, averaging just 2.1 points per game for Phoenix in 2008, and in 2009 played just six games for the Mercury with even worse results before once again finding herself cut. She bounced between San Antonio (four games) and Indiana (three) in 2010, came full circle to Seattle (seven games, in which she failed to average even a single full point) in 2011, and sat out 2012 before returning home to her native state in 2013. In all that time, Quigley never averaged as many as four points per game.

This year, however, despite shifting her position to point guard and continuing to come off the bench, Quigley tallied 11.2 points per game on a solid 44.4 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from behind the arc. As good as these numbers sound, it is worth noting that she was producing them in crunch time settings game after game, rather than in the isolated garbage minutes that have typified her WNBA career. Thus, her improvement is actually greater than the numbers alone might indicate. Toward the end of the regular season, Quigley received her first-ever Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor. 

If it were not for Skylar Diggins' remarkable turnaround sophomore year, Quigley would be our choice for Most Improved Player.  As it was, she deservingly received this season's WNBA Sixth Player award.  

Coach Pokey Chatman on Quigley's long road to WNBA success:  "I think several things [led to her improvement]. First and foremost, Allie is a gym rat. Her routine and attention to detail as it relates to working on her game and keeping her body in shape is unmatched compared to anyone else. Allie has been really good picking the proper places in Europe where she can flourish and work on different aspects of her game. Initially, she was just a shooter. Then she started coming off the pick. Now she is even good off the dribble.  Each year she truly utilized her European experience to play with high quality talent which is the Euro League and transfer those skills to her time here.  The [other] thing that impressed me with Allie is that she had to transition over to the point guard position for us and she didn't lose herself in doing that."         

Full Court Most Improved Second Team

The improvement didn't stop with the five players honored above. Here are five more players (again listed alphabetically) whose step up this season is worthy of recognition. For several of them, an argument could be made for first-team selection.

Alex Bentley, 5-7, guard, Connecticut Sun

Bentley continues to confound her critics. Taken by the Dream as the 13th pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft, the Penn State alum had one of the five best rookie campaigns of last season. She got 10 starts for the Dream last year, but came mostly from the bench, averaging 8.3 points and 2.8 assists in 22.1 minutes per game.

That made it all the more surprising, when Bentley was traded to Connecticut for veteran Matee Ajavon in a three-team deal that sent Kara Lawson to the Mystics and Ajavon from Washington to Atlanta. To date, the Sun have clearly gotten the best of this three-way swap. Though Bentley got 30 starts this season, her minutes remained similar 25.6) to those she playedlast year, making it all the more remarkable that Bentley managed to raise her scoring averaging nearly 47 percent (by 3.9 points per game) to 12.2 points per game this season, while shooting 43.3 percent from the field (up 3.5 percentage points from last year).

Brittney Griner, 6-8, center, Phoenix Mercury

Despite a knee-injury that limited her minutes, Griner had a terrific rookie season in 2013. Determined to get even better, she hit the gym in the offseason, putting on more muscle, and brought a post coach with her to China to work with her on her moves. The result: an even more impressive WNBA sophomore season. Healthier this year, the Baylor star bumped up her scoring average by three points per game to 15.6, while boosting her field-goal shooting by 2.2 percentage points to 57.8 percent.  Other averages -- rebounding (8.0 rbg versus last year's 6.3), assists (1.6 apg, as compared to last season's 1.0), steals (0.6 per game, up from 2013's 0.5) and, oh yes, blocks (3.8 this year; 3.0 last season) -- all also nudged up slightly. 

Besides better health and physical maturity, Griner's post moves and understanding of play in the paint keyed much of her improvement this season. With 129 blocks in the regular season -- more than twice the tally of Jessica Breland (58), the next closest competitor --Griner justifiably took home 2014 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year honors, and even captured some MVP votes from the media panel. We'd be greatly surprised if Griner doesn't receive the latter award at some point in the future.

Tiffany Hayes, 5-10, guard, Atlanta Dream

Hayes is another second-round pick who has exceeded the expectations of many.  Hayes has shown consistent improvement since arriving in Atlanta as the No. 14 overall pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft, raising her scoring output in 2013 to 11.3 points per game from her rookie-season tally of 8.6, despite appearing in fewer games (23, versus 2012's 34) and getting fewer starts (four in 2013, as opposed to 17 in 2012).

In 2014, the former UConn guard stepped things up another notch. Starting in 32 of her 34 regular-season appearances, Hayes boosted her scoring to an all-time high of 12.9 points per game (up by 1.6 points per outing). Even more importantly, she elevated her field-goal percentage to 46.4 percent, up 5.8 percentage points from her previous high (40.6 percent). One of the top 20 players in the league at getting to the foul line, Hayes got to the charity stripe nearly 4.3 times per game (more than 50 more visits than she made to the line in 2013), where she converted 76 percent of her penalty shots.

Jantel Lavender, 6-4, center, Los Angeles Sparks

After three years of coming off the bench, Lavender moved into the Los Angeles Sparks' starting rotation this season, making 27 starts in 34 appearances. She used the increased playing time to bump up her scoring average by 4.7 points per game, averaging double digits (11.9 points per game) for the first time in her professional career. It wasn't just the playing time that led to the improvement, however. Lavender also hoisted in field-goal percentage to 52.7 percent, a boost of two points over her previous career high. She also nudged up her rebounding by 1.8 boards per game to a career-high 6.3 rebounds per outing. One thing the stats don't show is an increased shooting range. While no 3-point specialist (Lavender netted only one of her five long-ball attempts this year, though she hadn't tried any in previous seasons) Lavender is able to operate far more effectively from mid-range than was seen earlier in her pro career.  

Sugar Rodgers, 5-9, guard, New York Liberty

Yet another WNBA sophomore, Rodgers had a non-descript rookie season in Minnesota, averaging just 1.9 points in 7.6 minutes per game, but found a home this season in the Big Apple. Though still playing the relief role, Rodgers more than doubled her minutes (16.3 per game in 2014) and improved her scoring average by 4.1 points per game to 6.0 per outing. Also up: her field-goal percentage rose by 3.3 percentage points to 35 percent from the field. Consider Sugar a work in progress pointed in the right direction!

 

 


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