- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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The All-Star Game is just around the corner, which means it's time to dish out our midseason awards and predictions.
MVP: Connecticut's Taj McWilliams-Franklin
Don't let the fans fool you. McWilliams-Franklin, a 6-foot-2 forward/center, deserves to be an All-Star starter and should be seriously considered for the league's highest individual honor. It's often hard for a player to lead from that position because she's so dependent on her teammates getting her the ball. But McWilliams-Franklin has found a way to be an impact player with or without the ball and at both ends of the court because of her play and leadership. The Sun wouldn't be 12-2 without her.
McWilliams-Franklin's numbers (15.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 55 percent from the field, 82 percent from the foul line) aren't the best in the league, but they're impressive and consistent, and career highs in some categories. McWilliams-Franklin is the total package. She also averages 2.1 assists per game, less than two turnovers, and has already hit more 3-pointers this summer (3-for-9) than all of last season. Even at 34, the seven-year veteran is finding ways to improve her game.
It's easy to say McWilliams-Franklin has had the good fortune of a little more breathing room this season. Defenders simply can't leave 7-foot teammate Margo Dydek (acquired from San Antonio this offseason) uncovered. That has obviously created more one-on-one opportunities for McWilliams-Franklin. But while Dydek might be a wonderful complement inside, McWilliams-Franklin is getting complimented because she continues to capitalize on those situations.
Rookie of Year: Washington's Temeka Johnson
Indiana's Tan White and Washington's Temeka Johnson are both having impressive freshman campaigns. Both players are averaging double figures and at least 24 minutes. Unlike White, who has more experienced and talented players around her, Johnson has the tougher task of getting several new personalities on the same page in Washington, which was overhauled in the offseason.
Johnson, who is averaging 10.4 points on 51 percent shooting from the field (ninth in the league), has played solid basketball from the start. She is not fazed by anything and has really provided the Mystics what they have long lacked: solid leadership at the point guard position. Her 5.9 assists per game and 88 total assists rank No. 1 in the league. Johnson also boasts a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Coach of the Year: Connecticut's Mike Thibault
Richie Adubato has done a great job in Washington. But it's hard to pick against Thibault, who probably should have won this award last season and, at 12-2 this summer, has the best team in the league.
The Sun, in fact, are a lot like Thibault: They're incredibly efficient, work hard when they need to and ease up when they don't. And his ability to understand his players is just as important as his genius as a tactician.
Biggest surprises so far
Nothing trumps Lindsay Whalen getting left off the All-Star roster. But
• The Indiana Fever have lived up to the hype and are having a great season. White has quickly stepped in and demonstrated she can be successful at the next level, and several offseason moves have worked out. Simply put, the Fever have made it work much sooner than expected.
• ACL injuries can be tricky. But Katie Smith almost makes the rehab look easy. I never thought she'd be back at an All-Star level this soon. That speaks volumes of her work ethic, and it's great to see someone really dig in and put in so much heart and effort.
• For the second straight year, Sacramento point guard Ticha Penicheiro was left off the All-Star roster. While many people have written her off, Penicheiro is working harder than ever, trying to give the Monarchs a little bit more offense and direction. Her 6.5 points per game is Penicheiro's highest average in three seasons, and her leadership (and 92 percent free-throw shooting) this summer has been tremendous. She's healthy for the first time in a long time, and it shows.
• Kudos to Nicole Powell for turning her career around. As a rookie last season, she averaged 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.4 minutes for Charlotte. Now in Sacramento, Powell has doubled her stats to 10.2 points and 4.2 rebounds. She has started all 16 of Sacramento's games, and has been instrumental in the Monarchs' 11-5 start and first-place ledge atop the Western Conference. Powell's presence has also benefited teammates Yolanda Griffith and DeMya Walker, who will represent Sacramento in the All-Star Game.
Biggest disappointments so far
• Phoenix is the obvious pick, especially since we broke down the Mercury's woes last week. Phoenix simply struggles defensively, giving up almost 72 points per game as opponents continue to attack the defensive abilities of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor.
But the Charlotte Sting have caused a lot of head-scratching, too. Picked in the preseason to reach the playoffs, the Sting instead are 2-12 -- the Mercury are 4-11. Obviously we underestimated the effects of Charlotte's tinkering with its chemistry, which seems to be a problem for both the Sting and Mercury.
• Phoenix GM Seth Sulka has been waiting for three years to get Russian center Maria Stepanova back in a Mercury uniform. Last week, it happened. So why did Stepanova only play 11 minutes in her first game? While some people believe that newcomers should be brought along slowly, that's not the case with Stepanova. She was playing near an All-Star level before she left the league, and since Stepanova may play for Phoenix for only a month before returning to Russia, Mercury coach Carrie Graf needs to make the most of Stepanova's time.
When Taylor and Kamila Vodichokova finally arrived after their overseas playing commitments earlier this season, they stepped into the starting lineup after just four days of practice. The same should have been done for Stepanova, who went 3-for-4 for nine points Saturday. Yes, it could ruffle some feathers. But considering Phoenix has 11 losses, it might not hurt to make some adjustments to the starting lineup.
In a worst-case scenario, the Mercury are upping their odds in the Seimone Augustus lottery. But if Phoenix can turn things around (and it has the talent to at least start climbing back toward .500), the Mercury really have the potential to play spoiler down the stretch.
Predicted playoff teams
Western Conference: Houston, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle (with Sacramento reaching WNBA Finals).
Even when the Monarchs don't shoot well, they defend well, and that defense will help them win a couple of games down the line. Los Angeles has been inconsistent but is playing better, and those last two playoff spots will likely come down to Seattle, Minnesota and Houston.
Right now, the Comets are really surging, winning five straight games for the first time in two years.
Phoenix has played more road games than anybody so far (11), with Sacramento (10), Seattle (nine) and Connecticut and Minnesota (eight) trailing close behind. These teams will play more home games in the second half of the season, and that obviously is an advantage.
Eastern Conference: Connecticut, Detroit, Indiana, Washington (with Connecticut reaching WNBA Finals).
Right now, the Sun are setting the bar for the rest of the league. They've won four straight, are 6-0 at home and 6-2 on the road. They could have had an All-Star at every position.
Washington's defense could carry the Mystics far. With Alana Beard, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Charlotte Smith-Taylor, Chasity Melvin and Johnson, the Mystics are a very solid defensive team with excellent perimeter quickness.
Second-half storylines to watch for
• Don't count out the defending champs. Lauren Jackson will hit her stride, and don't forget Sue Bird has been hindered by an injury. The Storm are on the rise and even at .500, are only half a game behind Minnesota right now for fourth place in the West.
• Despite losing five of the last six games, Detroit is another team I expect to make a run in the weeks ahead. The big key will be how Swin Cash's return affects the rest of the team. Playing time and offensive responsibilities could take a dramatic shift, and everybody that has played up to this point will have to adjust to taking fewer shots. Still, Bill Laimbeer's Shock play with tremendous intensity and pride.
• Like Jackson, I'd expect Lisa Leslie to take her game up a notch in crunch time. And while Leslie's stats this season are career lows in several categories (14.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 40 percent shooting from field, 51 percent at the foul line), those could be All-Star numbers for someone who hasn't set such a high standard.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.