- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Before the All-Star Game tips off Wednesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden, here's a look at how the first half of the season has played out (all stats updated through Friday's games):
Most Valuable Player
Nobody is playing better than Lisa Leslie right now. More notable, however, is that nobody expected the Sparks' center to be the league's star so far this season.
Leslie's performance is reminiscent of Sheryl Swoopes' efforts just a year ago, when the then-34-year-old Comets veteran increased her scoring average by four points and played some of the best basketball of her career en route to her third regular-season MVP award but first in three seasons.
Leslie, who turned 34 on Friday, is averaging a career-best 20.6 points per game (which ranks fourth in the league). That's 5.4 ppg higher than last season's average. In fact, though Leslie averaged 19.6 ppg in 1996 and 19.5 ppg in 2001, her scoring has dipped every season since 18.4 ppg in 2003.
Leslie is also averaging 9.5 rebounds per game (third-best in the WNBA), up 2.2 boards over last season's average, and shooting a career-best from the field (53 percent, fifth in league) and 3-point range (46.2 percent). Granted, she's just 6-for-13 from downtown, but the 6-foot-5, 10-year veteran made just seven 3-pointers all of last season and is a career 32 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Leslie also ranks No. 1 in total points, total rebounds, defensive rebounds and double-doubles (tied with Cheryl Ford with nine) and second in blocks, defensive rebounds per game, total offensive rebounds and made field goals.
And of course, the Sparks also have the league's best record at 15-5, just edging East-leading Connecticut (14-5).
Injuries hampered Leslie last season, and considering everything she has accomplished -- two WNBA titles, Olympic gold medals, the 2001 and '04 regular-season MVP trophies, two WNBA Finals MVP nods, three All-Star Game MVP honors, the first WNBA player to score 5,000 points -- and the fact she got married just this offseason, some might have expected her game to be diminishing. But just when you think you have Leslie (and Swoopes last season) where you want her, she proves you wrong.
She has been phenomenal this season and should be starting Wednesday. And come August, maybe Leslie will have a third regular-season MVP award to add to her collection.
Rookie(s) Of The Year
I don't normally like to split my vote on these sorts of things, but in this case, it would be unfair to pick just one rookie of the year. That's because both Seimone Augustus and Cappie Pondexter deserve the honor, just like Grant Hill and Jason Kidd shared the NBA's rookie of the year award in 1995.
Yes, the Lynx's Augustus and the Mercury's Pondexter are that good and that hard to differentiate -- and ironically, both are currently tied as the league's leading scorer at 22.7 ppg (which just edges Diana Taurasi's 22.2 ppg). If either of their teams were in contention right now, both Augustus and Pondexter would be MVP candidates.
Augustus is unquestionably the best 3 in the West right now, despite Minnesota's last-place record. She also ranks first in made field goals and second in total points while shooting almost 48 percent from the field.
Pondexter, who's shooting 46.2 percent, ranks third in made field goals and total points, fifth in made 3-pointers, sixth in minutes per game (32.9) and seventh in 3-point accuracy (43 percent). She's shooting extremely well, playing good defense and really flourishing in coach Paul Westhead's system, which gives her even more freedom than she had at Rutgers. It's allowing her to display her ability to break down the opponent one-on-one and really express herself off the dribble.
Both Pondexter and Augustus are having fantastic seasons like no other rookies have had. Just for comparison, Tamika Catchings, who had a great rookie-of-the-year season in 2002, averaged 18.6 ppg that season on 42 percent shooting. These two are obliterating the rookie records; on July 6, Pondexter set the rookie mark for points in a game with 35, breaking the previous record of 32, set earlier this season by Augustus.
Most Improved Player
Quick -- who is Indiana's leading scorer? If you said Tamika Catchings, you'd normally be correct. Only right now, Tamika Whitmore is the Fever's most consistent offensive threat, leading Indiana with 16.6 ppg (Catchings ranks second on the team with 15.5 ppg) on a team-high 45.6 percent shooting from the field.
Simply put, Whitmore is having the best season of her eight-year career and very deservedly will make her All-Star debut Wednesday. She's averaging seven more points than last season and four more points per game than her previous season-best, which was 12.7 ppg in 2002, the only other time in her career Whitmore has averaged double-digit scoring. She's also averaging career bests in rebounds per game (4.8), defensive rebounds (3.2), steals (1.42) and assists (1.7). The 6-2 forward's eight 3-pointers this season also are already a season high.
When she's in shape, Whitmore has always been a really good complementary player. Up until this season, her best years were spent in New York (1999-2003); she didn't do much in Los Angeles the past two seasons (7.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg).
But would Indiana be just a half-game out of second place and two games out of first in the East standings without her? Maybe not, especially since the Fever really lack depth, particularly in the post.
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.
Fans failed to vote Lisa Leslie an All-Star starter. But the Sparks' center is the midseason favorite for regular-season MVP honors.