All In On Five: The case for Nneka Ogwumike to highlight W25 list

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Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming. This week we're focusing on "The W25," which will be released by the WNBA on Sunday. Fans will have an opportunity to "Vote for the GOAT" after the team is announced by using the hashtag #WNBAGoatVote on Twitter or voting on WNBA.com or the WNBA app.

(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

What is W25 and the criteria for it?

The WNBA is celebrating its 25th anniversary with "The W25," a selection of the 25 "greatest and most influential players since its inception in 1997." The league has done iterations of this in five-year increments starting with the All-Decade Team and continuing with the Top 15 and Top 20@20.

A group of media members, women’s basketball pioneers, coaches and advocates vote from a provided list of candidates. The qualifications are slightly different each time. Those considered for the W25 must have been a player in the WNBA for at least two seasons and meet at least four of the following seven criteria:

  • Won at least one of the major, individual postseason basketball awards: MVP, Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Woman of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award, Peak Performer (league leader in points/rebounds/assists per game in a season)

  • Selected to All-WNBA First or Second Team

  • Selected to All-Defensive First or Second Team

  • Selected to WNBA All-Star Game (starter, reserve, replacement player)

  • Won a WNBA championship

  • Ranked (as of July 31, 2021) among top-40 career leaders in at least one of 10 statistical categories: points, ppg, rebounds, rpg, assists, apg, steals, spg, blocks, bpg

  • Selected as winner of season-long WNBA Community Assist Award

The WNBA provided voters with a list of 72 official candidates. One player met all seven qualifications and 20 met six of seven. This criteria meant some previous honorees, such as Dawn Staley, were not qualified.

Negley’s ballot and analysis

Clockwise from top left, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Swin Cash and Breanna Stewart are nominated for the W25 list. (Graphic by Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)
Clockwise from top left, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Swin Cash and Breanna Stewart are nominated for the W25 list. (Graphic by Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

The W25 ballot: Seimone Augustus, Alana Beard, Sue Bird, DeWanna Bonner, Rebekkah Brunson, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, Tina Charles, Cynthia Cooper, Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Yolanda Griffith, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore, Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Ticha Penicheiro, Cappie Pondexter, Breanna Stewart, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Tina Thompson, Lindsay Whalen

Rattling off 25 of the greatest players sounds easy until the numbers are glaring at you on a screen. Some on the 25-page ballot were easier to knock off on first read than others. With few exceptions, I omitted younger players such as A’ja Wilson, Jonquel Jones, Jewell Loyd and Arike Ogunbowale. I’m a big fan of all three — and truly believe Ogunbowale will win MVP one day — but if their careers ended today, I felt they wouldn’t have done enough to be a greatest of all time. That can and probably will change come the 30th anniversary in 2026.

Breanna Stewart, 27, was the exception. She’s already been instrumental in two WNBA championships and won Finals MVP in both. Plus, she has a league MVP, Rookie of the Year, two All-Defensive team selections, two All-WNBA First-Team selections and ranks top-10 in PPG, RPG, BPG. She's also 31st overall already in total blocks. Not to mention she's done part of this post-Achilles tear. In addition, her work and visibility in social causes has brought them tremendous attention. If her career ended today, she’d be a GOAT.

I then highlighted “locks” — players like Maya Moore, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie and Tamika Catchings — who I wouldn’t cross off for any reason. Nearly all hit six of the seven criteria — Cooper, for example, couldn’t because All-Defensive teams weren’t awarded until 2005, two years after she retired. They were critical to the league’s foundation and are the reason we’re sitting here talking about a W25; they should be celebrated for that. 

The tough part was filling out the rest because at this point we’re talking about so many incredible players who have shot their way into top statistical categories and become mainstays in the sports lexicon. That’s a great thing, and as Diana Taurasi said at All-Star, it shows how far the league has come. 

We’re now comparing eras when we talk about the greatest players of all time and we’re faced with longevity versus shorter, more prolific bursts. How do you compare a player who hits the criteria because of how long she’s played against one who played fewer seasons but did as much in that time? What does success in 2005 mean versus 2015? Are you OK with a modern-heavy ballot because the all-around talent level is higher? Every voter’s answer is different.

In some cases on my ballot, modern talent won out. Elena Delle Donne led the Mystics to their first title with three herniated discs in her back. Angel McCoughtry has been to the Finals four times, done incredible work for the city of Atlanta, and first brought the idea of honoring Breonna Taylor in 2020. They earned bubble nods on my ballot. 

W25 was made for Nneka Ogwumike to be on it

Nneka Ogwumike was not on my lock list in my first ballot run-through. Yet as I went through a second time, I had an epiphany that this list was made for her inclusion. She should be on every ballot. 

The Los Angeles Sparks forward is the only player to qualify on all seven criteria set by the league and that’s because she’s the only one on the 72-player list who has won the season-long Community Assist Award. The season-long award began in 2017 and only Ogwumike ('18) and Natalie Achonwa ('19) have won individually. The New York Liberty won in 2017 and the entire WNBA won in 2020.

The W25 criteria, which is slightly different than years past, was put out by the WNBA on Aug. 3 — after the Olympic break and Ogwumike's exclusion from the USA and Nigeria rosters. Now am I saying this was included for Ogwumike’s benefit? I’m not … not saying that.

Her work on the court speaks for itself with a Rookie of the Year honor, MVP, 2016 championship, five All-WNBA teams, five All-Defensive teams and ranking top-40 in six of 10 categories. Here’s what puts her over the top on a list that values sportsmanship, community service and the “overall growth of women’s basketball.”

Without Ogwumike’s leadership as president of the WNBA Players Association, would the W have the life-changing 2020 collective bargaining agreement that brought increased salaries and maternity benefits, among others? Would the WNBA have played a 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic? Would it have unified as well as it did on social justice causes?

We don’t definitively know the answer, but there’s no doubt she led those, and without them, the league wouldn’t be where it is today at 25. We saw her in the bubble bringing everyone together in a players-only meeting after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The players' stance as athlete leaders in the social justice space has blossomed under her leadership.

Ogwumike’s work in the past few years will shape where the league goes in the next 25. They are transformative and crucial moments, a turning point when historians look back a century from now.

There should be no denying she’s a W25-er. 

MVP race favors Jonquel Jones as weeks wind down

The calendar turn to September means the MVP award is close. As the race winds to a conclusion, here's how favorites and favorite long shots fared this week. (All odds from BetMGM.)

Jonquel Jones (-225 from -165 last week): The Sparks defense kept Jones to a quiet 14 points on 4-for-9 shooting with seven rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal. It was only the seventh game she fell below double-digit rebounds. Against the Mystics, she bounced back to fine form: a season-best 31 points on 12-for-17 (70.6%) shooting, including 2-for-4 from 3-point range, 14 rebounds, one assist, two steals and three blocks. She had 21 points in the first 20 minutes. 

Jones remains the heavy favorite at 20.3 PPG (third) and 11.0 RPG (first). 

Breanna Stewart (+200 from +175): Seattle is skidding and Stewart has struggled in efficiency. In the two games against Chicago last weekend, she averaged 18.5 points and seven rebounds shooting 41% overall and missing all five 3-point attempts. Her season averages are 20.3 (fourth) and 9.9 (third), respectively. In only one game prior had she made zero 3-pointers. 

Stewart bounced back in a big way Thursday night, dropping 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists to lead the Storm over the Liberty to snap a three-game skid. 

Tina Charles (+400 from +375): The Mystics are under a temporary curse it seems after winning their first WNBA title. Charles remains out with a left gluteal strain she injured on Aug. 22. She's expected to miss three to five games. Head coach Mike Thibault said the earliest she could return is Sept. 7 versus Seattle, but it's on the road and the team has to decide if it wants to fly her cross-country for one game after injury

Charles remains a long shot despite leading the league at 25.4 PPG because the Mystics could miss the playoffs entirely. 

A'ja Wilson (+700 from +650): Wilson bounced back from a bad outing against the Sun with one of her most efficient ones against the Dream: 10-for-16 (62.5%) for 21 points with 12 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks. In 22 minutes against the Fever on Tuesday, she had 11 points (3-for-7), seven rebounds, one assist and three steals. 

The tough thing for Wilson's chances is how the Aces' roster is well-rounded and deep. Wilson is the star in Las Vegas and the team's MVP, but can a voter say she's more valuable than other candidates? 

Brittney Griner (steady at +5000): Griner missed the Mercury's Friday night win over the Liberty with a sprained ankle she suffered in the first contest that week. She returned against Chicago on Tuesday night with 18 points (6-for-13), five rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block. 

Griner is averaging 20.6 PPG (second), 9.6 RPG (fifth) and 2.0 BPG (first) as a key part of Phoenix's Big Three. When all are healthy, they have been steamrolling opponents and are close to overtaking a top-four seed. It's odd she has such a long shot at the award in sportsbooks. 

Sylvia Fowles (+10000 from +5000): The Lynx had a full week off between Tuesday games, but Fowles did not play in a win against the Liberty. The center hurt her left shoulder at practice during the week and the team decided rest was the better option, per the Star Tribune.

Fowles is the only player other than Jones to average a double-double (16.6 PPG, 10.0 RPG) and she's shooting a league-best 62.5%. She leads the league in steals (1.9 PPG) and is second in blocks (2 BPG). 

She arguably has a better chance than Charles with the Lynx in a top-four position. In a win over the Sparks on Thursday, Fowles dominated in her return from injury, notching a double-double with 15 points and 17 rebounds as the Lynx won their fourth straight.

Other candidates: BetMGM kept Liz Cambage at +5000. Jewell Loyd is +8000 and Napheesa Collier is +10000. Sabrina Ionescu is also at +10000, which continues to be an oddity especially with teammate Betnijah Laney at +12500. 

Who is making the playoffs? 

The Connecticut Sun are in control, taking over title-favorite Las Vegas and Seattle coming out of the Olympic break. The Sun may have the biggest advantage in not having half their team away at the Olympics, plus they haven't been hit hard by injury. 

(WNBA.com)
(WNBA.com)

There is a lot of movement that can happen in the next two weeks. The race to get in between the Sparks, Mystics, Liberty and Wings has shifted weekly. The teams around No. 5 and No. 6 are watching closely, recognizing it's an "any given Sunday situation" because of that pesky postseason setup. 

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert was in Minnesota earlier this week and said the league is examining the current playoff format, which consists of single elimination in the first two rounds. Changes to the later rounds, particularly those second-round games, might eventually be coming, she said via the Star Tribune. The new format has been in place since 2016. 

What you might have missed 

What to watch this weekend 

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