Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner have headlined the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year race, but what other rookies have stood out as possible All-Rookie Team candidates? Click here for an explanation of the statistical framework we’ve used to evaluate rookies.
Not long before the 2013 WNBA Draft, I wrote the following to conclude a piece about Kelsey Bone’s value as a draft prospect:
If someone is going to defy the trends of the past, Bone is a good candidate to do it in this year’s draft: there hasn’t quite been a prospect in recent history quite like her in terms of the combination of physical gifts and scoring efficiency. There’s also the possibility that she continues to improve when she isn’t the focal point of her team in the pros.
I bring that up now not so much to say “I told you so” or confirm anything about what I thought about Bone, but to say I genuinely wasn’t sure about how good she’d be as a pro player.
After she was drafted by the New York Liberty, being under the tutelage of Bill Laimbeer on a roster where she’d have to fight just to earn her minutes sounded like a good match for her. But those red flags from college still seemed difficult to overcome.
And the early returns were in some sense a worst case scenario.
As described in our first look at the 2013 rookie class, Bone began the season as an inefficient scoring and turnover prone interior player – it was almost exactly the worst case scenario based on her college numbers. Of course, it was only eight games into her season but those turnovers (27.20%) were significant because that was her most glaring red flag in college and it didn’t seem to be improving (that post was made a day after she had more turnovers (5) than points (4) in 23 minutes in Chicago on June 26).
Yet not long after that post, Bone started to turn things around.
To keep things simple, after turning the ball over 26 times in her first 9 games (May/June), Bone has turned it over 18 times in the last 14 (July/August). And that’s not even her most impressive improvement: Bone has gone from shooting just 42.85% over the first 9 games of the season to shooting 52.57% over the last 14.
Evaluating rookie statistics
Rookie Ranking framework (Photo by Ray Floriani) Given that WNBA rookies have an extremely short time frame for development, we judge them on their developmental potential rather than strict production. In short, the best rookies can create their own scoring opportunities – and do so efficiently – while contributing to a team’s success. “Valuable Contributions Ratio” has done a pretty good job of that.
In short, Bone has actually become what might be considered her best case scenario as a rookie: a moderately efficient scorer who uses her size to be a presence on the boards. But even more important is that Bone is showing improvement, which might be even more important than consistency as a rookie.
Improving efficiency can often be overlooked in favor of gaudy averages, but there’s something to be said for players who make adjustments over the course of a season rather than those who make a big splash early and go downward – the latter could be a case of the scout catching up to a player’s tendencies, the former a player who took longer to adjust initially but showed signs of adapting and learning over time.
There have been recent examples of that among WNBA rookies, from Angel McCoughtry to Maya Moore, both of whom finished much stronger than they started. But I was reminded of an equally significant example of that after a friend forwarded along an email exchange from 2009 about Kevin Durant.
This may be forgotten now, but during Durant’s first couple of years in the league there was some debate among the statistically inclined about how good he would become in large part because there was discrepancy between the talent he displayed on the court for getting shots and what the numbers showed his quantifiable impact was. There was a Wages of Wins article declaring that Durant wasn’t the best rookie of the 2007-08 season and later a Slam article about Durant responding to his stathead critics via Twitter in 2009.
Yet one thing that got lost in all of that was the value of a rookie improving over time, something that Bill Simmons and others pointed out about Durant: he improved dramatically after the 2008 All-Star break. But here’s why that’s interesting in the context of the WNBA: through 45 games, Durant shot just 40% from the field. 45 games is the equivalent of the entire WNBA regular season, two three-game playoff series, and one five-game WNBA Finals. In the WNBA, we evaluate a “rookie year” on just 34 games which is an extremely small sample size (not to mention that NBA rookies have a summer league, preseason, and a months of downtime before jumping into the pros).
In that sense, with WNBA rookies we really should be looking for positive indicators rather than any sort of final judgement and Valuable Contributions Ratio has done a decent job of identifying who might do well over the course of larger samples.
The following are statistics for the top 15 rookie VCRs from the 2013 rookie class ordered by VCR. We’ll get to the reason for listing 15 players with so many being below average (0.75-0.85 range) after taking a look at the numbers as a whole. I’m also adding a pair of columns that ended up being relevant to this discussion: pure point rating and usage percentage (instead of “value added” and “2-point percentage”).
Elena Delle Donne
Two things you’ll notice from that list:
First, this has not been a very good year for guards chosen in the first round, which is a different topic for another day.
Second, only six rookies have averaged more than 15 minutes and nobody under that mark is clearly trending upwards.
Those two things either make choosing an All-Rookie team easier or harder, depending on your perspective.
T-10. Tianna Hawkins, Seattle Storm/Toni Young, New York Liberty
The numbers suggest that Hawkins remains one of the most promising rookies in the 2013 class, maintaining the pace she was on earlier in the season. She’s an efficient scorer and a solid rebounder, albeit not quite the dominant rebounder her college numbers suggested she might be. The problem: Hawkins has only played her average (10 mpg) or more in two games that weren’t routs. Though the numbers suggest potential is there, we have yet to see what she can do in more minutes though I’d be willing to bet she’d respond.
While Hawkins deserves mention for maintaining one of the best VCRs in the league in limited minutes, Toni Young has had among the biggest increases over the course of the season (+0.27). The reason: much better offensive rebounding during July (she’s up to a 12.53% offensive rebounding rate) and, like teammate Kelsey Bone, less turnovers. The problem is similar to Hawkins: even after some big minute games in July, her playing time has started to evaporate over the last five games. Though she has improved and is clearly one of the best athletes on the floor when she gets a chance to play, it’s just not clear where she fits in the Liberty’s plans right now.
9. Angel Goodrich, Tulsa Shock
With the way this season has gone for the rookies, you have to credit anyone that has earned a starting spot. And Goodrich has. The reason she’s so low despite being one of the few to play over 20 minutes is that her numbers have declined considerably since she moved into the Shock’s starting lineup with her 4 point drop in pure point rating being the most significant change in her performance.
8. Nadirah McKenith, Washington Mystics
I liked McKenith in college and still like what she’s done as a pro, albeit in limited minutes. Her 55% true shooting percentage makes her among the most efficient scorers of any rookie and she’s doing that at a solid usage rate around average for a WNBA point guard. She’s not as efficient a distributor as you might want for a long-term point guard prospect, but she has been the ball handler with that Mystics rookie unit off the bench and has made incremental improvements over the course of the season – her VCR has jumped significantly since the last time we looked at rookies.
7. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Washington Mystics
Clearly the diamond-in-the-rough among 2013 WNBA Draft prospects as an undrafted signee by the Mystics, Ruffin-Pratt has been playing meaningful minutes, if not big minutes, all season with her ability to do a bit of everything for the Mystics. What’s keeping her from being a higher rated rookie is simply her scoring efficiency, but her ability to get herself to the line at a high rate is a promising sign if she wants to stick around in the league.
6. Emma Meesseman, Washington Mystics
I can pretty much summarize Meeseman’s game by doing a tl;dr version of what I wrote the last time: she’s a high-skill, high-IQ player who doesn’t score efficiently enough to be considered among the top rookies (including a still below average free throw rate of 14.56%). Nevertheless, she should be commended for improving her offensive rebounding rate to 10% since last time and remaining among the best posts in the league at setting up others (15%). For her it’s not only about minutes but being able to do more as a scorer.
Top All-Rookie Team candidates
5. Skylar Diggins, Tulsa Shock
So obviously, the numbers might make this seem a bit high for Diggins. But two things stand out: first, the only rookie playing more minutes than Diggins is Elena Delle Donne. Minutes is not a measure of quality, but being thrown into the fire as a starting point guard is not easy and Diggins is closer to average than most players playing far less minutes.
Second, Diggins has shown flashes of being elite: last time I mentioned an outstanding four-game stretch as a distributor; this time it’s her rapidly improving accuracy from the 3-point line, where she has shot 40.9% over the last 10 games (9-for-22). If she’s able to bring things together and knock down threes, getting to the free throw line (a 50% free throw rate thus far in August) and passing even a quarter as efficiently as she did for that four-game stretch, she’ll be every bit worth the hype. She does have to improve her ability to score at the rim, but the fact that she’s able to get a fair number of shots in traffic as it is is promising. Patience is the key with Diggins.
4. Alex Bentley, Atlanta Dream
Bentley is one of the few players among this rookie class who can claim that she’s productive relative to her position, which keeps her a spot ahead of Diggins for now. Yet though she has remained a relatively efficient point guard, she’s another rookie who has seen her numbers decline – especially her surprisingly hot 3-point shooting early on – over the course of the season after a hot start.
3. Kelsey Bone, New York Liberty
The scoring efficiency and offensive rebounding is great, but this improvement is really coming her improved efficiency as a ball handler: although her pure point rating is still very low for the season, during the 14 games of July and August that has dropped to -3.40, not unreasonable for a center. If there’s any area of improvement that still stands out, it’s her ability to get to three free throw line (an issue that stood out in college as well) – getting her free throw rate even up to 30% would help her become an more efficient scorer (especially if she knocks them down). That’s the statistical correlate to a comment she made in a recent interview on WNBA.com:
“Right now I’m trying to find a little more aggression,” replied Bone, when asked what she needs to improve. “As a rookie not really knowing everything yet, I tend to kind of lie back at times and defer. And I think just from a basketball standpoint, understanding that at this level basketball has no age, and just going out and being aggressive and finding the way to do that night in and night out.”
2. Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury
1. Elena Delle Donne, Chicago Sky
Over the weekend, Jake Sundstrom wrote piece about the Rookie of the Year race and the consensus was that Delle Donne is the top candidate (click here to see that piece and discuss that further), but there was some debate as to whether the race was over. Unfortunately, it’s looking like this race could still come down to injuries: with Delle Donne’s status in doubt after going down with a left foot injury last night in Los Angeles, this race could get closer for the wrong reasons.