Player of the year race: Advantage, Aliyah Boston?
13th February 2023

    M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Most of the 18,000 fans on hand at Colonial Life Arena left Sunday’s 88-64 South Carolina victory over LSU with the same opinion as coach Dawn Staley when it comes to Aliyah Boston as the national player of the year.

“I don’t think Aliyah has to do that,” Staley said when asked if the senior forward took a step forward Sunday in reclaiming the national player of the year honors she won last season. “I think the beauty of Aliyah is her entire body of work. There’s not anyone in the country that produces like she produces on both sides of the basketball. Nobody.

“As far as I’m concerned — I’ve got no vote in it, besides my mouthpiece — she is the best player in the country.”

Meanwhile, the 13,150 fans who filled Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on Sunday are just as convinced as Iowa coach Lisa Bluder that guard Caitlin Clark is the national player of the year.

Understandably, the coaches and fans on both sides are expected to passionately advocate for their player. For the media and coaching panels who vote on the various player of the year honors, the comparison is challenging in part because the two players are completely different: The best post player in the country vs. the best point guard.

Boston’s case isn’t always made by individual numbers; Sunday, her 14 points and nine rebounds didn’t lead the Gamecocks in either category. Center Kamilla Cardoso’s 18 and 13 did. But watching how much South Carolina’s suffocating defense revolves around Boston, along with the attention she demands from defenders, you understand what Staley means by Boston’s impact on both ends of the court.

LSU’s Angel Reese’s 23-game double-double streak was snapped, and while South Carolina’s overall defense gets credit, Boston was Reese’s biggest problem.

Clark, meanwhile, typically has had dazzling offensive numbers since her freshman season, and the junior’s defense has also improved. Clark’s No. 5 Hawkeyes are a good team, but she doesn’t have the level of talent around her that Boston does. Clark played just 21 minutes in a 111-57 rout of Rutgers on Sunday, with 15 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. For the season, Clark is averaging 27.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.3 assists.

Clark has three triple-doubles this season and nine for her Iowa career. Only former Oregon star guard Sabrina Ionescu has more, with 26. Ionescu was the subject of a similar “guard vs. post” debate for national player of the year in 2019, when the post player was Iowa’s Megan Gustafson.

Reese has been the top impact transfer this season and is critical to why the Tigers are a top-five team. She doesn’t deserve to just fall off the radar in terms of national player of the year because of Sunday, when she finished with 16 points, 4 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. But if Boston wasn’t already in the lead as the top post player for the honor before Sunday, she has cemented her place there now.

There are other players who deserve mentions, too, including Indiana’ Mackenzie Holmes, Stanford’s Cameron Brink, UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards and Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, who is leading the nation in scoring average (29.1).

But the NPOY conversation has mostly been among Boston, Clark and Reese. It’s fair to say Boston and Clark are now the clear front-runners, and both fan bases are going to be furious if their player doesn’t win.

We’ll see how the next few weeks play out. But there are two organizations who already feel like winners regardless of who gets individual honors this year: the WNBA and USA Basketball. Boston, Clark and Reese should be fantastic pros. And they all might be teammates someday winning Olympic gold together.

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