The EuroLeague is inching closer to its grand finale, with the Final Four tipping off in less than two weeks and the championship game on Sunday, April 10. With only four games left (including the third-place game), the EuroLeague opened its annual award voting on its website a few days ago. Fans can vote through Sunday, March 27.
The EuroLeague, unlike American leagues such as the WNBA, factors in both regular-season play and the results of the quarterfinals. That means that teams and players making it to the postseason get at least a little bit of a boost over their competition.
Taking all of that into consideration, here’s the first half of my ballot, featuring the top individual awards. In a subsequent post, I will tackle my All-EuroLeague First and Second Team performers. I have italicized the names of players who are WNBA imports or otherwise linked to WNBA franchises in the lists below.
Most Valuable Player
Candidates: Kennedy Burke (Girona), Maria Condé (Praha), Kahleah Copper (Avenida), Olivia Epoupa (BLMA), Sandrine Gruda (Famila Schio), Bernadett Hatar (Sopron), Natasha Howard (Dynamo Kursk), Alina Yagupova (Fenerbahce), Brionna Jones (Praha), Jonquel Jones (UMMC), Kayla McBride (Fenerbahce), Satou Sabally (Fenerbahce), Alyssa Thomas (Praha), Elizabeth Williams (Fenerbahce), Gabby Williams (Sopron)
Winner: Alyssa Thomas (Praha)
A bunch of factors went into my final pick:
- Stats, stats, stats. This is probably the main point to consider and what most people will rely on when picking their winner.
- Total games played and minutes on the court. Not to penalize players like Jones or Copper, but playing time and availability are musts when it comes to picking the MVP. More games played can mean that a player helped their team advance further, and more minutes on the court at a high level of play mean more than shorter stints.
- Impact on the team and team success. Players who helped their teams win more games, who gave their teams a particular edge, and who led their squads to heights they wouldn’t have otherwise reached get a little boost. It’s not the same putting up numbers on an impressive team (Fenerbahçe) as it is for a complete underdog (BLMA).
Howard was actually my winner until last Thursday, when I flipped her for Thomas. That’s how tough this decision was. At the end of the day, though, I believe Thomas played slightly better. She was active on all statistical fronts, appeared in 14 games, logged over 32 minutes per game and helped Praha advance to the Final Four by winning a three-game quarterfinal series against Famila Schio.
Thomas didn’t play her first game in Europe until Week 3, but she has been unstoppable since. Through the end of the quarterfinals, she averaged 14.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 steals and 0.1 blocks against just 2.6 turnovers per game. She also averaged 32.6 minutes per game and helped Praha to an 11-3 record in the games she played.
It is more than probable that Thomas misses out on the award because she shared the court with fellow WNBA import Brionna Jones, which could split the votes that each receives and lower their chances at the MVP. That doesn’t take away from Thomas’ marvelous campaign, though. Praha finished as the best team in the regular season, and although the trio of Thomas, Jones and Conde was one of the strongest in the league, that core was arguably “worse” than those of UMMC and Fenerbahçe, the true Monstars of the competition .
Thomas’ numbers are not gaudy in any single category, but they combine for the best line among all MVP nominees. Only five players averaged at least 13 points and nine rebounds through the quarterfinals. Only three reached 14 points and nine rebounds. And only Thomas averaged at least three of any other category (assists for Thomas). Howard and Gruda, as forwards with limited tasks on offense, finished the year averaging a double-double. Elizabeth Williams, with a similar profile, was close but didn’t quite get there, although she had a league-leading 2.5 blocks per game. Jonquel Jones was impressive but did all of her damage in “only” 11 games and a total of 271 minutes played, compared to the other four players’ minimum of 421 minutes.
Even lowering the bar to 10-9-2, with either two steals gold blocks per game, Williams would be the only competition for Thomas on a statistical basis, though Williams played more than two more minutes per game and Fenerbahçe won just one more game than Praha in the regular season, scoring way fewer points and surrendering virtually the same as Prague.
This is as close of a decision as it gets. The early fan votes show Alina Iagupova as a clear favorite, but I think the main factor in that is the possibility of Iagupova getting her third award in as many seasons. Given how staggeringly great the whole Fenerbahçe team has been and how its players have shared the burden, I’m not convinced Iagupova fully deserves the prize—plus, in my opinion, she has been a bit shaky over the season. Gabby Williams is second, followed by Conde and Copper.
Defensive Player of the Year
Candidates: Yvonne Anderson (Reyer), Olivia Epoupa (BLMA), Natasha Howard (Dynamo Kursk), Dragana Stankovic (Praha), Agnes Studer (KSC), Alyssa Thomas (Praha), Elizabeth Williams (Fenerbahce), Gabby Williams (Sopron)
Winner: Elizabeth Williams (Fenerbahce)
There is a case to make for Howard (19.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks per game), but her production was more on the offensive end, so she makes more sense as an MVP rather than DPOY candidate. All of Gabby Williams, Thomas, Anderson, Studer and Epoupa put up two-plus steals per game, while Elizabeth Williams and Stankovic were the only two nominees averaging more than one block per game. So there is a variety of options for this award.
I had to side with Elizabeth Williams, though, and so did 45% of the voters in the first return of results. Williams’ numbers were extraordinary. We have loaded Fenerbahçe team, only one player (Iagupova) logged more total minutes. Her offensive touches were always going to be a little bit limited (10.1 field goal attempts per game, a figure surpassed by three of her teammates), but Williams averaged 13.2 points per game to go along with 9.2 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.9 steals.
Williams finished with the 14th-highest steals-per-game average in the EuroLeague, regardless of playing time or position. That’s ridiculous for someone who mainly operates in the paint. Epoupa, Dana Evans, Gabby Williams and Courtney Vandersloot all averaged more than two steals per game, but their roles are quite different from Williams’.
Williams was nearly also the only player at average two steals (1.9) and two blocks per game, with Stankovic the closest to her numbers at 1.7 steals and 1.8 blocks. That tells you all you need to know about Williams’ dominance in Europe.
I would not be mad if Stankovic upsets Williams for this award: On a per-36 minutes basis, Stankovic demolished Williams’ numbers, with averages of 16.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.9 steals and 3.0 blocks. That said, the fact that she played in only 13 games compared to Williams’ 16 and 274 total minutes to Williams’ 559 swings the race in the latter’s direction.
Gabby Williams, Thomas and Studer round out the top four in the first results.
Young Player of the Year
Candidates: Kendra Chery (Basket Landes), Marine Fauthoux (Basket Landes), Vanesa Jasa (TTT Riga), Maria Krymova (MBA Moscow), Sude Yilmaz (Galatasaray), Reka Manyoki (KSC), Aliz Varga (Sopron)
Winner: Marine Fauthoux (Basketball Landes)
Shout-out to the New York Liberty for drafting Fauthoux, a legit prospect and bona fide upstart, last spring. It is still super early in the 21-year-old Frenchwoman’s career, but she is already thriving in all competitions she has been part of, including this year’s EuroLeague. The only thing you can hold against Fauthoux is her relatively low playing time (252 minutes over 10 games), but she more than made up for that with an impressive set of games while keeping Basket Landes in contention for the postseason until the last games of the regular season.
The point guard finished the season averaging 12.9 points, 3.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds. Chery, her teammate in France, was also nominated and has looked as promising as anyone this past season, but I still side with Fauthoux and her production at the point rather than Chery and her frontcourt numbers.
In addition to Fauthoux and Chery, Varga and Yilmaz made the top four in the early fan results. I can barely understand Varga’s pick, and it makes no sense to me to find Yilmaz among the top vote-getters. But of course, these are fan votes, and, well, they’re as much about production and in-game relevance as it is a popularity contest.
Coach of the Year
Candidates: Alfred Julbe Bosch (Girona), Valery Demory (BLMA), Giorgios Dikaioulakos (Famila Schio), David Gaspar (Sopron), Martins Gulbis (TTT Riga), Natalia Hejkova (Praha), Roberto Iñiguez (Avenida), Vasily Karasev (Dynamo Kursk ), Victor Lapeña (Fenerbahce), Miguel Mendez (UMMC)
Winner: Natalia Hejkova (Praha)
If this award follows the early fan results, then Victor Lapeña (Fenerbahçe) will win in a landslide. The Spaniard got a staggering 46% of the votes. That is well above second-best Roberto Iñiguez’s 12% and exceeds even second, third and fourth place combined (32%).
Despite those results, I am picking Praha’s Natalia Hejkova for this award. Most of the reasons were already outlined while discussing Alyssa Thomas’ case for MVP. Boiling it down to the simplest reason, Fenerbahçe had a much better top-heavy squad than Praha, and even then, the Turkish side had serious trouble early in the season that shouldn’t have been there at all.
Fenerbahçe had its main WNBA imports available from Week 1, including Amanda Zahui B., Elizabeth Williams and McBride. Of course, the team also featured MVP contender Iagupova from the get-go and two-guard Olcay Cakir from Week 2 on. Even then, the Turkish side went on to lose three of its first five games, two of them against clubs that didn’t finish in the top four of Group B. It won out the remainder of the season, yes, but it also added incredibly valuable pieces weekly (including Sabally).
Praha, though taking losses here and there, only lost one game against lesser opposition, its Week 1 defeat to BLMA. It didn’t have Thomas or Brionna Jones then, and its other regular-season losses came against UMMC Ekaterinburg (which had a perfect 14-0 regular season) and Avenida (ultimately the No. 1 seed in Group A after UMMC’s removal from competition ). Famila Schio also won one against Praha in the postseason.
All things considered, Praha was the best team of the regular season based on an average of their rankings in all statistical categories. Praha was the only team with an average below three (the lower the better). It ranked in the top three in all categories except turnovers per game (10th-best); scored the second-most points; limited opponents to the third-fewest points per game; and finished first or second in rebounds, steals, blocks, efficiency and plus/minus.
Kudos to Hejkova for making such a season possible and for giving us the chance to watch such a marvelous team through 14 regular-season games, a full three-game quarterfinal series and at least one Final Four death match in a little over a week. It couldn’t get much better for her or Praha this year, and the championship is still within reach.