I Pick Candice Wiggins

The Pac-10 has been known both nationally and at home as "Stanford's league" for too many years. So it came as little surprise that the conference would seize the opportunity, with Candice Wiggins fighting injuries this season, to name somebody else as Pac-10 Player of the Year. The junior guard was denied her third straight award as the conference's premier player, and at least one man disagrees.

Devanei Hampton of California won the Pac-10 Player of the Year award yesterday.  It was a well deserved honor.  Hampton, who led the league in rebounding and was second in scoring, is the first post player to win the award in some time (Stanford's Nicole Powell and Candice Wiggins had monopolized the award for the last five years).

The voting of POY raises all sorts of fascinating questions.  Should the award go to the player who scores the most or boards the best?  Or to the player that makes the biggest difference to her team?  If the latter question is controlling, does one measure that "difference" only in the player's statistical showing, or should attention be paid to how that player makes her teammates play better?

Of course, some statistics are indicators of how a player helps her mates.  Assists and assist/turnover ratio provide a sense of how a player unselfishly and successfully helps the rest of the team.  Not surprisingly, point guards tend to dominate these lists.  But not entirely.  Stanford's Brooke Smith is the fifth-ranked Pac-10 player in total assists at the conclusion of the regular season.  Smith, Wiggins and Noelle Quinn of UCLA were the only All Pac-10 players to make the top 10 list in assists.

Examining assist/turnover ratios, point guards are again preeminent.  Stanford excelled on this statistic, pulling down three of the top four positions and four of the top seven (#1 JJ Hones, #3 Candice Wiggins, #4 Melanie Murphy and #7 Brooke Smith).  These statistics are a tribute to the players but also say something about how Tara VanDerveer-led Stanford teams play basketball.

By now, you may guess my bias in picking player awards.  I favor players who help their teams not only by scoring but also by unselfish acts that lead to better team play.  Yup, I'm a lover of point guards, even if they don't lead the league in scoring or rebounding (and they seldom do).  But I also like perimeter and post players who do the same thing.  Stanford's 2006-2007 crew has some obvious weak points (e.g. three-point shooting), but they are hard to beat when it comes to taking care of the ball and sharing it in productive ways.

According the Los Angeles Times, USC's Eshaya Murphy came in second in the POY balloting.  I would assume that twice POY Candice Wiggins came in third.  Each of these players would have been excellent choices for the award.  Each plays with intensity and inspires those around her.

Murphy's impressive league statistics include #1 in offensive boards, #2 in three-point shots made, #3 in steals and #4 in overall scoring.  Murphy had a field goal percentage nowhere near the top 10, and she did not lead her team in assists.  But Murphy does what her team needs her to do.  On a team that lacks a high percentage scorer (USC had no players in the top 10 in field goal percentage), Murphy scores a lot and creates opportunities for others.  When the shot clock is winding down, even a low percentage shot is better than none, especially when your team is proficient on the offensive boards (USC was the third ranked team in the league in this category).  Murphy has taken unwise shots, but for the most part, she does what she does because that's what her team needs.

Struggling with injuries, Wiggins had a bit of an off year.  She scored an average of 16.6 in conference games, placing her fifth in the Pac-10.  But she led the league in three-point shooting, coming in second in three-point percentage.  And she was third in the league in assist/turnover ratio, the highest of any player to be selected All Pac-10.  Wiggins, like Murphy, is a creator and did what her team most needed her to do.  Murphy is a physically stronger player than Wiggins, and it shows in her rebounding stats.  But Wiggins is more effective in making the shot when it is needed.

In many respects, less was needed of Wiggins this season.  She always plays with intensity, but she somehow finds an ultra high gear when it is most needed.  And the chemistry that her presence brings is unsurpassed.  She can take over a game.  In case you have forgotten, just ask Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne what happened in that overtime loss to Stanford, when two of Stanford's premier posts had fouled out and Wiggins single-handedly dismantled the Sun Devils.

Congratulations to Devanei Hampton for her well deserved honor.  And my respect and best wishes also to Eshaya Murphy for her inspired season.  But if I get first pick, it's not even close.  It's Candice Wiggins all the way.

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