Which former WNBA player is the coach of the year front-runner?

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  • Alexa PhilippouESPN

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    • Covers women's college basketball and the WNBA
    • Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
    • Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

The WNBA coaching carousel has seen quite the activity over the last eight months, with three first-time WNBA head coaches getting nods to lead franchises, one major West-to-East changeover and, since the 2022 campaign tipped, two midseason firings within underperforming squads.

With the season nearing its halfway point and separation between tiers of teams beginning to materialize, we offer a look at the early front-runners for WNBA Coach of the Year. All three of the picks are, coincidentally, former WNBA players, including two first-time head coaches who have surpassed expectations in their first season.

First-year juggernaut: Becky Hammon, Las Vegas Aces

People weren't sure what to make of the Aces before the season. Gone were Liz Cambage, Angel McCoughtry and Bill Laimbeer, and in came a first-year head coach in WNBA legend Becky Hammon, returning to the league after serving as a longtime assistant in the NBA.

Fast forward six weeks into the 2022 campaign, and Hammon has propelled the WNBA-best 13-3 Aces into the team to beat this summer thanks to her high-octane offense predicated on pace and space. She inserted Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby into the starting five -- for the first time in four years, Sixth Woman of the Year will not go to a member of the Aces! -- where both have thrived, while also moving A'ja Wilson to the 5, where she has had an MVP-caliber season. Jackie Young might not have had much of a 3-point shot her first three years as a pro, but she's now leading the team with 45.7% accuracy from deep.

Along the way, Hammon earned the best 10-game start to a head-coaching career in WNBA history, going 9-1 in May.

A common counterpoint to Hammon's case is that the Aces' core five had already been playing together for years -- advancing to at least the semifinals each of the last three seasons -- and that that chemistry helps fuel their 2022 success. Still, Hammon deserves credit for unlocking those players in a different system plus, in some cases, new roles, and for turning the Aces into a juggernaut throughout a season otherwise shaped by parity.

Best turnaround: Tanisha Wright, Atlanta Dream

Expectations were low for the Atlanta Dream entering 2022: After a franchise overhaul from ownership down over the last year-plus, as well as a host of off-court drama that marred the 2021 season, the Dream had just four holdover players from last season. Atlanta appeared to be building for the future, too, when it decided to trade up and select Rhyne Howard with the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft.

Fresh off a two-season stint as an assistant for the Aces, Wright steered the Dream to a 4-1 start, showing from the get-go that Atlanta wasn't going to be toiling at the bottom of the standings this summer. Following Tuesday's win over the Dallas Wings, Wright has the Dream at .500, their eight wins to date tying their 2021 win total, and if the season ended today, they'd earn the No. 6 seed and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018. What's more, Wright has managed to do it without the luxury of leaning on Dream franchise stalwart Tiffany Hayes, who is still recovering from a knee injury.

As she did as a player and an assistant in the league, Wright established a gritty defensive identity in Atlanta that has made the Dream a headache for teams to face -- they are currently first in defensive rating after never finishing better than eighth in their previous three seasons. And while Howard has been excellent, the first-year coach has also gotten great play out of Aari McDonald, Cheyenne Parker and even AD Durr -- who only joined the team two weeks ago after a muted start in New York -- as of late, helping Atlanta catapult from afterthought to likely playoff contender.

Dark horse: Sandy Brondello, New York Liberty

Don't cement Brondello -- who's in her first season in Brooklyn after spending the previous eight with the Phoenix Mercury -- in this conversation just yet; even though the Liberty have won six of their last nine games, including a big one Wednesday over the Connecticut Sun, it's tough to set aside their 1-7 start. But she's included here because if New York continues on this trajectory, it has a strong shot at making the playoffs and coming away with its best season in years.

Marine Johannes and Han Xu have been game-changers. Sabrina Ionescu has thrived since Brondello started playing her alongside Crystal Dangerfield and, more recently, Johannes. Natasha Howard and Stefanie Dolson have helped spearhead a better defensive effort, and on the other side of the floor are increasingly settling into Brondello's system. Across their last nine games, the Liberty are No. 2 in the league in net rating; their on-court chemistry, ability to make in-game adjustments and ball movement have taken massive leaps in recent weeks.

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Marine Johannes goes off one leg and knocks down a massive triple to contribute to Liberty's 10-0 run.

That New York has managed to compile this streak -- which also includes two wins over the Mystics and close losses to the Storm and Sky -- without 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney and Jocelyn Willoughby and as DiDi Richards, Rebecca Allen and Lorela Cubaj also missed time due to injuries, makes the run all the more impressive.

There's a lot of ground to be made up, and they'd have to close out tight games against great teams, such as how they did Wednesday against Connecticut, better than they have to date. But it's not totally infeasible for Brondello to guide the Liberty to a .500 or better finish for the first time since 2017, when Bill Laimbeer was the coach.

Stat of the week

It can't be anything other than the Aces scoring a WNBA-record 41 first-quarter points against the defending champs Tuesday night only to give up a 28-point lead as the Sky put together the largest comeback in league history to come away with the 104-95 victory.

"That first quarter was one of the most brilliant quarters I've ever seen of basketball," Hammon said. "Basically after that, they kicked our ass."

Game of the week: Washington Mystics at Seattle Storm

The first meeting this summer between the 2019 and 2018/20 champs happens Thursday (10 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network). Elena Delle Donne (rest, back) did not play in the Mystics' loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday, but is expected to rejoin the team in Seattle. Washington is 8-3 with its two-time MVP and 3-5 without her

Both teams have struggled to establish consistency with players in and out of the lineup due to injury, illness, etc., but are still in the conversation of title contenders and can be dangerous if they peak at the right time.

How will the Storm's offense, which at times has struggled to get much production outside of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Ezi Magbegor, fare against the Mystics' stingy defense? Can Washington bounce back after a disappointing loss to the Sparks and channel the effort it came out with in its decisive victory (with Delle Donne) this past weekend over Connecticut?

Quotable

Don't miss Katie Barnes' ESPN story on 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and who gets to be the face of the WNBA.

"I want it to be able to get to the point where we can just share those stories and allow women of our league to just really thrive and flourish," Jones told Barnes. "And so, if me sitting up here telling my truth and being open and honest is going to do that, then I really do hope it is better for ladies in the future."

Fantasy women's basketball picks

Who to start: New York's Johannes has lit the WNBA world on fire since arriving in Brooklyn from France with her flashy facilitating and, even more recently, her hot shooting (she's 8-of-15 on 3-pointers her past two games). She could be a good pickup.

Allisha Gray has been among the bright spots for the Dallas Wings this summer, her 14.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game both career-best marks. The 6-foot-0 guard, who has a strong case for an All-Star reserve bid, was No. 20 in ESPN's most recent fantasy rankings.

Emma Meesseman is a good person to start this upcoming week as the Sky face the struggling Sparks and Minnesota Lynx. Her 38.2 fantasy points per game over the last five games are tied for third-best in the league.

Who to sit: The Sparks have a difficult stretch coming up with games against the Sky, Storm and Aces. Chennedy Carter played just two minutes in the Sparks' upset over the Mystics, and interim head coach Fred Williams warned that her minutes could go down with the return of Kristi Toliver.

Washington's Myisha Hines-Allen has struggled in recent games, and Thursday's matchup against the defensive-minded Storm, a unit led by the likes of Gabby Williams, Stewart and Magbegor, could be a tough one.

Diamond DeShields scored a season-low five points against Minnesota earlier this week and scored a meager 14 against Dallas when they played last week. In general, her usage has gone down as of late. The Mercury have rematches against those squads this week, so it might be worth considering sitting DeShields for those matchups if you have stronger options to play.

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