Why Jewell Loyd Deserves to be 2016 WNBA Most Improved Player

Ever since day one of preseason training camp, the Storm coaches and players raved about how much more comfortable Jewell Loyd seemed compared to her first year as a pro.

Loyd won Rookie of the Year in 2015, leading all first-year players in scoring with 10.7 points per game. But having left Notre Dame one year early, she needed some time to adjust to the WNBA. Eleven games into the season, Loyd requested to come off the bench.

“I think the beginning was a little bit of an eye-opener for her because she wasn’t head and shoulders above everybody athletically,” head coach Jenny Boucek said. “She was going against people that were just as athletic and also bigger and stronger, so it took her a little while. And that’s why I think she asked to start on the bench.”

WNBA general managers voted Loyd the most likely to have a breakout season in 2016, and that’s exactly what has transpired. The 5-foot-10 guard evolved from a struggling rookie to one of the best backcourt players in the league. Loyd feels so adjusted to WNBA life that she even has time to study Shakespeare. Her improvement on the court has coincided with Seattle surpassing its win total from 2015 with seven games to spare.

Last year, the Storm was statistically a slightly better offensive team with Loyd on the bench. Now, Seattle averages 5.6 more points per 40 minutes when she’s on the court than when she rests. Her player efficiency rating has jumped from 14.0 to 18.6.

Loyd should be the leading candidate for WNBA Most Improved Player because of the all-around growth she’s displayed. Here are four main aspects of her game that have developed in year two.

Offensive Efficiency

2015: 10.7 points per game, 41.1 percent shooting, 20.8 percent from three-point range
2016: 16.8 points per game, 44.6 percent shooting, 30.8 percent from three-point range

After averaging 18.3 points per game in Turkey during her first offseason abroad, Loyd has established herself as one of the premier scorers in the WNBA. She’s reached 20 points in 11 out of 27 games and scored 30-plus points twice, something only Lauren Jackson had done in a single season for Seattle before this year.

Loyd has already attempted twice as many three-pointers as last season, so she’s shooting more efficiently on a much larger volume. In the midrange (6-21 feet from the hoop), she is shooting 41.2 percent after finishing at 30.8 percent last year.

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Point-Guard Duties

2015: 1.9 assists per game, 2.0 turnovers per game
2016: 3.3 assists per game, 2.4 turnovers per game

Loyd isn’t used to playing much point guard, but the 22-year-old has thrived this season when Boucek asks her to run the show. “Even when she’s out there with Sue [Bird], we’re having her play point at times,” Boucek said. “She gives a different look when we put the ball in her hands to run certain things.”

After recording more turnovers than assists as a rookie, Loyd has dramatically increased her assist numbers and is posting a slightly lower turnover percentage than last year. She’s had seven games of five assists or more after doing so just once in 2015. On July 17 against Chicago, Loyd set a new career high with 10 dimes. The most she ever had in a game at Notre Dame was seven.

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2015: 0.5 steals per game, 0.4 defensive win shares
2016: 1.3 steals per game, 0.8 defensive win shares

Last year, Loyd was eighth on the Storm in defensive win shares, a stat that estimates the number of team wins produced by a certain player’s defense. This year, she’s third. “Jewell has the potential to be a lockdown defender,” Boucek said. “Between her length, anticipation and quickness, she’s got really good defensive instincts.”

She’s displayed a knack for jumping into passing lanes and turning opponents’ mistakes into points on the other end. And Loyd has even shown improvement since the Olympic break – she’s averaging 3.3 steals in the last three games, including a career-high five steals against the Sparks.

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2015: 8.9 field goal attempts per game, 23.4 percent usage rate
2016: 13.4 field goal attempts per game, 26.2 percent usage rate

Loyd is playing a much larger role in the offense this season, and she’s often been the first option when Seattle needs a bucket late in the fourth quarter. The usage percentage shown above is the highest on the team and sixth in the entire league.

Loyd has exhibited a clutch gene on several occasions this year, first on May 20 when she scored the final 10 points for Seattle and hit the game-winning jumper with 2.9 seconds left. Six days later, her layup off a dish from Bird sent the Storm into overtime against the Mystics. On June 12 at Indiana, Loyd hit a go-ahead jumper with 24 seconds left before sinking the game-winning free throws in the final seconds.

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While it’s rare for a Rookie of the Year to win Most Improved Player the next season, Loyd has been a completely different player in 2016 and deserves to be recognized for it.