Rookie Point Guard Briann January is Adjusting and Making an Impact

. Friday, June 19, 2009
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Sure we probably all agree that draft position doesn’t mean a thing once the games begin.

But that doesn't mean it isn't fun to reflect on those draft day decisions once we see the players in action.

It’s difficult for me to ignore that in the WNBA’s first rookie rankings of the 2009 season, the top 3 point guards on draft day – Kristi Toliver (#3), Renee Montgomery (#4), and Briann January (#6) – are ranked in reverse order of their draft position.

Of course, it’s still early, so we can only make tentative claims about which of these rookie point guards is actually the “best”. And of course, I have to qualify my use of the word “best” by saying that so much of that depends on the fit of the player within the system and chemistry with teammates.

But there is a big difference between January, Montgomery, and Toliver.

Have you actually watched January play?

She doesn’t look anything like a rookie on the court.

Montgomery and Toliver do.

That’s certainly not to say that this debate is finished – obviously Montgomery and Toliver might just be on different developmental timelines. They are all in very different systems with different teammates. And January had the comparative advantage of having publicly stated confidence of coach Lin Dunn…enough to earn a starting position in her first game as a pro.

I get that.

However, whether it be figuring out how to make plays for teammates or moving from starter to bench player, among the most impressive things about January has been her ability to adjust to flow of the WNBA almost seamlessly. Among the toughest parts of being a rookie with players who may have over a decade more basketball experience than you has to be not only adjusting to the lifestyle, but finding ways to be flexible as the team tries to incorporate you into its system. After all that, there’s still that matter of actually making a positive contribution.

January is not merely adjusting, but she’s having a major impact.

Mark Dent of the Indianapolis Star
nicely summarized her ability to adjust and have an impact on the Fever’s impressive 73-61 victory over the LA Sparks last Friday:

This rookie likes coming off the bench. She promises. It gives her time to gauge the opponent and the challenge to increase her team's energy level.

"That's what I want to do," she said.

So when January found out she wouldn't start for the second straight game, she didn't mind.

She came in midway through the first quarter with the Fever leading 12-11. In the next 10 minutes, she had six points and three assists. When Bevilaqua replaced January with about seven minutes left in the second, the Fever led 32-16.
And really, Dent’s description doesn’t even do January’s performance justice.

On her first play off the bench, January had an assist to Jessica Moore. On her second play she was fouled on a three and made all three free throws. And on her third play, she made a three. She would have had another assist two plays later had Tamika Catchings made a three-point attempt.

If the ability to immediately influence the game doesn’t move you, then perhaps the nice drive and assist to Eboni Hoffman, or the steal and beautiful fast break lead pass to Katie Douglass might impress you.

And perhaps the biggest testament to her impact: after she left the game, the Sparks went on a 16-3 run. Coincidence? Maybe – you could attribute that to the Sparks getting hot, other personnel changes, or Catchings and Douglass getting tired. But if you take this small sample of January’s young career as evidence of her basketball ability, she’s good. Really good. And her impact on her team thus far is undeniable.

These of course are all subjective observations of mine. Clearly, I just like the way January plays ball. And just as Leilani Mitchell became the Rethinking Basketball rookie favorite of the 2008 season, I am becoming increasingly biased and blinded by Briann January this season.

I remember being told as a teacher that we should not play favorites, but let’s be honest: every teacher has that one kid who they can’t help but like a little better than the rest. It’s human. Same with sports journalism: they can tell you not to cheer in the press box, but deep down if you don’t develop an affinity for someone you must not love the game.

This is why I turn to statistics – they help temper my blatant biases. Not saying that they’re perfect – statistics often tell convenient half-truths (not necessarily lies). And obviously, the choices I make about which metrics are important illustrate my own biases. But I have this bad habit of wanting to make defensible claims about the world rather than just spouting random opinions and hiding behind my right to free speech.

So I wondered, how might point guard statistics support or challenge’s rankings of the top three point guards in the 2009 WNBA draft?

The numbers are being crunched as you read…so look for that post soon.

Update: Of course, after I posted this on Friday at 1pm PST, Briann January picked up a DNP-CD later in the afternoon...and then Kristi Toliver woke up and put up two impressive games in a row on Friday and Saturday evenings... so obviously, that changed everything... and made it all much, much, murkier...

2nd update: Rankings posted here.