Most clutch WNBA player?

. Friday, April 24, 2009
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I saw this blog post the other day on Ballers, Gamers, and Scoundrels listing the top 10 most clutch athletes ever.

Tiger was #1, Michael Jordan #2, and Joe Montana #3.

One woman made the list: Florence Griffith Joyner (#9).

Not that I can think of any glaring female omissions, but I wondered which other women might be worthy of that list. The author admitted that he did not know all sports (he mentioned the NHL).

Any WNBA'ers? Or female college athletes?

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Pam McGee interviews “Pam McGee’s Son”: How do youngsters develop into quality pro basketball players?

. Thursday, April 23, 2009
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There was a great article by Kevin Broom on the other day about player development in the NBA that focused on Washington Wizards forward(/center) JaVale McGee, son of retired WNBA player Pam McGee.

Apparently, despite Ms. McGee’s support for her son, there was apparently some frustration about the way the Wizards used her son. Ms. McGee’s alleged frustration with the Wizards wasn’t what inspired Broom’s article (at least he does not mention that), but in his discussion of McGee’s rookie year I think he poses a good question that could be applied to the WNBA as us fans speculate about roster decisions: How do youngsters develop into quality basketball players?

JaVale McGee interviewing Pamela McGee. Also see Pam interviewing JaVale.

The issue usually plays out as follows in the NBA, according to Broom:
For fans, the process is often maddening. For many, “development” is a simple matter — get the young players on the floor and let’s see what they can do. After all, the team can’t possibly do any worse by playing the youngsters, some think.

Yet coaches — even those like Tapscott, a player development executive before he replaced Eddie Jordan — resist the call to give young players a set number of minutes.
Obviously, Ms. McGee believes her son is worthy of minutes right now – she called him “evolutionary” in a February interview conducted between her and her son. But even when a player displays athletic ability, shows flashes of brilliance on the floor, and has potential to be “evolutionary”, what is a coach supposed to do with them? How do you balance winning games the need to develop talent?

The Wizards were miserable this season, so the question of development took on even greater importance – if you’re not in contention, shouldn’t you be giving the rookie minutes so he can develop? The Wizards losing ways made McGee a natural poster child for these questions of player development.
“I love Javale,” says the former Eastern Conference player development executive. “He will be an All-Star. He’s someone who’s going to lead you deep into the playoffs, maybe to a title. So when I see Javale getting 10-15 minutes and someone like [Darius] Songaila getting 28-30, I don’t know what that is. Their roles should be reversed. Javale should be getting 30 minutes a night, minimum.”
Broom does a pretty good job of presenting different perspectives on player development, as applied to the NBA. So now I bring the question to the WNBA.

The WNBA context is obviously very different, but if you’re a team like the Chicago Sky, for example, what is the most appropriate plan to bring players like Kristi Tolliver along? Especially when she’s playing alongside other young players like Armintie Price and Sylvia Fowles? What of other players? How might they be brought along?

Late add: Ultimately, the biggest question might be this one: is the WNBA well set up to develop young players? And if not, does that hurt the league?

Differences between NBA and WNBA player development

Of course, there are some significant differences between leagues that render some of the NBA discussion irrelevant to the WNBA:

1) Players like Javale McGee who come out early (he left college after his sophomore year) present a bigger development challenge than players who come out after their senior year…as most WNBA players do.

2) NBA rosters are capped at 15 (3 injured reserved) whereas the WNBA just cut rosters from 13 to 11 players. So keeping players aboard in the name of “long-term development” actually becomes somewhat unrealistic.

3) The NBA has had a Developmental League around since 2001 that teams can send first and second year players to if they aren’t ready for NBA minutes. The WNBA has no such league, but players do play in Europe in the off-season which could be seen as a developmental opportunity, even with shortened rosters.

However, I argue that these points – especially #2 – make the question of player development all the more important to the WNBA.

If players who aren’t yet ready for primetime are just cut, what does that mean for the future of the league? Will veterans on bad teams be cut in favor of younger more promising players who might develop?

It stands to reason that a player like Toliver will not only make the Sky’s roster, but will also see minutes. But what if she struggles to run the team at point guard? Do the Sky, who should be in playoff contention, bench her and make a run for the playoffs? Or do they throw her into the fire, struggle a bit, and focus on developing her for the future?

Moreover, what about players drafted lower who aren’t quite filling a hole the way Toliver might? If a teams decide not to cut them, should they play them or bench them and make them wait?

Factors that contribute to player development decisions

Broom presents a few factors that some NBA coaches may take into account:

Talent (Does the player have the skill set/athleticism to compete?)
Performance (Does a player make the most of the minutes they do get?)
Execution (Are they able to execute the way they’re expected to within the team concept?)
Knowledge (e.g. offensive/defensive sets, terminology, spacing, personnel)
Work ethic (Are they working hard in practice or the weight room to improve?)

In the WNBA, things might just be simpler – players come out much more polished after a full college career and so there is not quite as much guesswork involved in player development. But we’re still talking about 21-22 year olds. Chances are, they will have some development to do.

Fans might be left in the dark as to why their favorite team isn’t developing the youth

In the end, it might not matter what a player did in their four years in college or what we as fans think about them based upon their 2-3 minutes of court time. One or more of the factors that Broom makes note of might make a coach’s decision to keep a player off the floor perfectly reasonable.

Similar to the argument Chantelle Anderson has made with regard to Chamique Holdsclaw’s situation, occasionally there are things that go on in professional sports that fans just aren’t privy to. We’re not in the locker room, we’re not in practices, we don’t really notice when a player is just not following the game plan.

For whatever it’s worth…

I hope the Sky bring Toliver along slowly, even if she shows that she can play starter minutes. I think it’s important to play through mistakes, but it also seems that for her long term maturity as a professional point guard, it might be helpful to spend some time watching just to get used to the game.

I know this analogy is not perfect but I see the point guard position as very similar to the NFL quarterback and I think the NFL has it right in the way many teams sit very talented quarterbacks during their rookie seasons so they can just learn the game…even if the team suffers for a year and the other alternative is mediocre. In the long run, giving a rookie that time to learn the game and work through practice might be best…in a way, I think that’s what the Lynx did with Candice Wiggins. Though I thought it was bizarre, it might end up being best for Wiggins’ career.

Ultimately, there’s no one size fits all answer to this question of how to bring along a player.

Related Articles:

What Does NCAA Point Guard Performance Say About Pro Potential?

Pamela McGee: The Challenges of Being a Proud “Basketball Mom”

Transition Points:

I’m finding the NBA playoffs boring and predictable…which is, I suppose, why I’m busy applying a NBA story to the WNBA. Wake me up when the Cavs meet the Lakers in the Finals.

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Geno vs. "the Nation of Cowards": What Auriemma's comments tell us about racial dialogue in the U.S.

. Tuesday, April 21, 2009
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Far more interesting to me than Geno Auriemma’s initial comments about the racial stereotyping of Stanford and Connecticut women’s basketball players is the ongoing commentary about the “incident”.

Of course, there have been many different reads of Auriemma’s comments on race…which is pretty much what he anticipated with the opening line of his statement:

I know this is going to get played out the wrong way. But I'm going to say it anyway. And I know I'm going to get criticized for this.

But what has caught my eye in the current political environment (you know, people think we’re all post-racial now that we have a black president) is the way race is talked about in response to Auriemma’s comments. However, rather than critique others and make a negative argument of how not to talk about race, I was in the process of writing a piece about what I thought we could learn from this latest Auriemma episode.

Then I saw a Sunday article by Casey Gane-McCalla on Huffington Post about Auriemma's comments that I think is worthy of our attention:

The problem with stereotypes in sports is that they often lead to general stereotypes. If you say "white men can't jump," why not "Black men can't read defenses"? And if Black men can't read defenses, maybe they can't read books either?

Sports stereotypes have a real effect in the real world. Most employers are not concerned with employees' natural athletic abilities, so stereotypes of African-Americans being athletically superior for the most part do not help Blacks in the real world. However, the stereotypes of whites being hard working, disciplined and smart are helpful to them in finding employment.
The problem is not that Auriemma “inserted” the issue of race into an otherwise racially neutral social context – race does have an impact on how we see athletes. Nor is the problem that he detracted attention away from the success of an outstanding University of Connecticut team (as described nicely by the Women's Hoops Blog). Race is there like it or not and it’s worth talking about.

The problem in my opinion is actually perfectly phrased by Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Inquirer (although I’m not entirely sure we agree with his conclusion):
Honestly, I think we often fall into this trap of blasting anyone who tries to address racial issues. It is OK and even necessary to discuss the role race plays in various situations and circumstances. The problem here isn't that Auriemma decided to "go there." The problem is he apparently got himself lost on the way.
So building upon Sheridan’s comment, I want to extend Gane-McCalla’s argument and suggest that in addition to the harms of stereotyping on society, Auriemma’s comments and the ensuing responses demonstrate a fundamental difficulty that we in the U.S. have with talking productively about almost all topics regarding race – whether it be the significance of having a black president or the “achievement gap” in education or gang violence and police brutality.

Are we a “nation of cowards”? Not quite. But we do still have a long way to go when it comes to racial dialogue on the path to challenging racial injustice.

The U.S. is a Nation of __________ (???)

Just to be clear, I am not advancing the argument of Attorney General Eric Holder by calling the U.S. “a nation of cowards” in all matters of race.

Aside from the fact that I found the comment to be politically unproductive, I think it may even misrepresent the problem we’re facing regarding racial dialogue. What’s worse is that it may have even done more harm than good in terms of moving race relations forward – antagonizing the nation that you’ve been appointed to lead in some capacity is probably not the best strategy for moving people to action.

Instead, I would identify a different problem and an important consequence:

First, contrary to what Holder states, I think we do talk about race quite a bit, but in a number of coded and implicit ways. This is essentially what Auriemma has alluded to…or really should have alluded to more clearly – implicit racial stereotypes shape how we describe and talk about athletes (and people in the real world) everyday. A very simple point.

Second, racial discrimination, racial stereotyping, and structural racism have differential consequences on men and women that cannot be ignored.

When we consider the dearth of mainstream black female role models in our society, the way we discuss and portray female athletes therefore has “a real effect in the real world” on how we think about black women. Moreover, considering that the WNBA is the most prominent and well-established professional sport, the way black female basketball players are portrayed and perceived takes on more significance than I think some people grant it.

So consistent with Gane-McCalla, I am going to just state up front that the way we apply racial stereotypes to athletes does indeed matter. Second, I think it’s important to continue this conversation as a lens or platform with which to understand issues of race in broader society.

But sticking to women’s basketball, once again I think this goes back to that issue of narrative creation and maintenance – what are the narratives we are presented about black female athletes and how does that affect how we understand women’s basketball generally and the WNBA in particular?

Not Just a Matter of Finding Examples, But Thinking About How We Describe Those Examples…

I first read about Auriemma’s comments on Jayda Evans’ blog. Given that Ms. Evans is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, I almost just accepted her thoughts about Auriemma’s statement:
I mean, as far as the color divide on toughness goes, hello, does Auriemma have Alzheimer's? While I'm not going to say former UConn PG Sue Bird (Seattle) is the toughest beak on the block, does he remember Diana Taurasi (Phoenix)? What about Svetlana Abrosimova (Connecticut)? With the Storm, I'm drowning in tough "white" examples from Michelle Marciniak to Lauren Jackson, so it's ludicrous to spend much time on the subject.
And my first thought was yeah, I agree – and she even forgot Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen!! (I assume they were somewhere in that body of examples she was drowning in.)

But then as I thought about and read more about the story, I began to disagree with the notion that it’s “ludicrous to spend more time on the subject”. In fact, I think it’s the perfect time to discuss race.

At issue here is not whether there are examples to counter the stereotype, but how people perceive others through the lens of these stereotypes. We do hear these stereotypes often in sports. Auriemma is not just making that up, although it is unclear exactly what he was responding to in that moment.

And even in this world in which we can find plenty of examples to contradict our stereotypes, stereotypes carry with them quite a bit of inertia – they are extremely hard to break once they are established. And as long as they go unspoken and thus unchallenged, they will continue to persist and influence the way we think.

Michel Martin describes this phenomenon nicely in her story last month on NPR in response to Holder’s comments:
Is this active hostility, fear, resentment of blacks? At one time, sure it was. But right now, maybe it's more likely unchallenged assumptions you've forgotten you have — the store clerk who assumes the black woman can't afford the dress she's trying on, the law firm hiring partner who just assumes the black kid made it through Harvard on a wing and a prayer, the cop who just assumes every black motorist is a gangbanger in training.
In other words, even when we don't think we're talking about race, we sort of are. It's not that we don't talk about it.

Leaving these subtle forms of stereotyping unchecked will do nothing to move this country forward in terms of race relations. And as I think Gane-McCalla and Martin point out, they happen all the time in our daily life – whether we are talking about sports, at work, or even among friends. If we believe that challenge racial discrimination is important, then finding ways to unearth and challenge these assumptions is of great value.

But how on earth do we do that?

Petrel from the Pleasant Dreams Blog made a great comment on Chantelle Anderson’s blog post, “The choice between sports and sex appeal” that addresses the issue of stereotyping and the trouble with combating them (it’s comment #47):
One of the common putdowns of women in sports is "women ballplayers are ugly" - and how do you fight someone's loaded personal opinion? Trying to prove that you're pretty is just playing the same game - "I'll show you!" To some men out there, "female" and "athlete" are contradictory terms…Posing has the power to break the All Female Athletes are Ugly stereotype - if you look at Lauren Jackson's photos and still think she's ugly, there's no help for you but opthamology. Anything that expands the boundaries of what a woman can be - athletic, attractive, intelligent - is a good thing. Posing not only highlights the "attractive" side, but throws positive light on the "athletic" and "intelligent" sides as well.
Although the problem Petrel and Chantelle are pointing out concerns gender, I think a very similar argument can be applied to matters of race.

The problem -- that I think Petrel rightly pointed out -- is that if you directly attack the stereotypes, you are essentially playing on the turf of the ignorant. It’s similar to the argument George Lakoff makes in his book, “Don’t Think An Elephant” – if political candidate 1 presents platform X and candidate 2 presents a counter platform of anti-X, candidate 1 has already one because they’re controlling the discourse (which is what the Republicans had mastered in the past eight years).

This is why it’s even more difficult to undo these racial stereotypes when race and gender meet – already it’s hard to imagine an athletic and intelligent woman. It has to be doubly hard to imagine an athletic and intelligent black woman. And likewise, in broader social interactions, black women are routinely facing more barriers than their black male counterparts – it’s hard to simultaneously fight racism and sexism…and not always at the same time.

And yet the only way to break a stereotype seems to be to provide frequent and substantial evidence that changes the way people see patterns that create the stereotypes. So hmm… how do we avoid that bind?

Breaking the Inertia of Our Entrenched Stereotypes

It does seem like the first thing to do is call out a stereotype for what it is…

Obviously, Auriemma attempted that.

And obviously, it didn’t go over so well.

However, what I think we should pay attention to is that it’s not like it was blatant white supremacists coming out of the woodworks to lambaste the guy.

Most of the critiques that I read have been of a different nature – color-blind dismissals of race discussion.

Color-blindness is what might inform a comment such as the following in response to a pretty good article about Auriemma’s comments from Uncle Popov on Bleacher Report:
I would say that hardly anyone thinks of race when they are watching Tiger Woods and Venus Williams, two of the most visible black athletes in history.
And of course if nobody is thinking about race when they watch sports – or politics for that matter given that the heads of both major political parties are black – then there can’t possibly be an appropriate time to discuss race. Especially in this post-racial society we live in (please someone explain to me how a post-racial society is even possible). Race just becomes nothing more than a distraction, as described in the following quote:
Is it time to talk about race in college athletics? No, not really. What purpose would it serve? What territory are we supposed to be driving towards by noticing that there’s only one white guy playing meaningful minutes in this Final Four game between Michigan State and UConn, and he’s not even from America? That’s a fact. So what?
So one of the primary problems then with confronting racial stereotypes (much less than discrimination or structural racism) is that many people don’t even think there’s a problem to begin with, as nicely summed up by Uncle Popov:
Nevertheless, it is much easier to generalize and it happens so much that we tend to overlook it and not think about the consequences of doing so. It is as though we have naturalized these labels and do not critically challenge the notions of the "gutsy" white player or "naturally gifted" black player. It tends to be accepted unproblematically.

These generalizations fuel some people's longstanding beliefs about what type of players can play which position or in which sport. This was part of the central thesis of my previous article on race in sports.
And what’s worse, is that in the current climate, if I do accuse you of having these assumptions you don’t think you have, you assume I’m calling you a racist…and that’s a whole separate (though obviously related) matter. The very acknowledgement of race becomes completely taboo.

It’s a sort of strange paradox – it’s politically correct to denounce racism, so it’s incorrect to be a racist, so it’s easiest to prove one is not a racist by not talking about or ignoring race, which means that when confronted with a situation in which race cannot be avoided we simply go silent.

Race talk thus becomes the territory of extremists – those dangerous black radicals pumping their fists and threatening to occupy a state capital near you or those evil hooded Ku Klux Klan guys who are looking to burn a cross on someone’s lawn. Either way it supports two completely false beliefs: race is a thing of the past and people who discuss it are some hardline wingnuts trying to shove some racialized agenda down your throat.


So let’s bring it back…

Really, it’s not about going around calling people racists or proving to people how stupid they are. It’s about finding a way to clearly represent the world so that we discuss it on some sort of common ground and begin to make well-reasoned arguments about how to collectively move forward and (hopefully) create a better, more just society.

Ultimately, anti-racism is not even about talk (which is why these discussions about implicit biases and stereotyping usually annoy me)…it’s about action of some sort. And ideally, collective, targeted multi-racial action that critiques the elements in society (institutions and people) that maintain racial inequality and presents alternative ways of existing as a happy community.

(That feels so much better.)

But we can’t even reach the fantasy world of a racially just society unless we can talk to one another and respect one another as human beings, who are different but ultimately have a stake in each other’s success.

So I argue the problem here is not that race is a distraction that should never be brought up, it’s that race is a “distraction” because we have no language to collectively discuss it or listen to it in a productive way.

To take the point further, what incentive is there for a white person – particularly a rather privileged white male – to talk about race anyway? (Whole other discussion – see George Lipsitz’s “Possessive Investment in Whiteness” – decades and decades of white supremacy create a whole system of white privilege and maintaining that system often becomes a motive at the expense of non-whites, whether intentionally or not)

This tangle of complexity summarizes why most people won’t even venture into that feared territory of race talk.

Auriemma did…and did so with a disclaimer…because he knew there was no way to clearly communicate anything about the topic as a white man without getting himself into trouble. So he fumbled through a discussion of the issue and tried to end with a joke about how the West Coast is full of pansies to sort of relieve the tension. Which of course made his point even harder for some people to decipher.


Resolving Race Talk Dilemmas in U.S. Sports…and How That Might Push Racialized Assumptions

Mica Pollock has described this strange paradox of not talking about race but always talking about race in her book “Color Mute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School”. Gloria Ladson-Billings summarizes the main argument nicely in the Foreward to another book, “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Attaining Equity in Schools”:
Race is the proverbial “elephant in the parlor.” We know it’s right there staring us in the face—making life uncomfortable and making it difficult for us to accomplish everything we would really like to do—but we keep pretending it isn’t.

We do not know what to call each other or if we should call each other anything that has a racial designation. But Pollock demonstrates that even when we avoid talking about race, we are talking about race; that is, even in our avoidance of the subject, we are engaging it.

Ladson-Billings goes on to present us with a kernel of insight that sort of explains why talking about race is relatively important:
…in a study of teachers teaching early literacy (Ladson-
Billings, 2005), my colleague and I observed teachers regularly talking about students’ failure to read without ever mentioning race. Almost all of the struggling students were Black or Latino. It was not until six months into the project that teachers recognized the salience of race in the students’ achievement. At this point, we were able to deal honestly deal with the students’ academic issues.
So let me try to make the leap here: if we cannot talk about black women in the sphere of a basketball game, it will be a whole lot more difficult to talk about black women in society at large. In recognizing the salience of race in everything we do and that it has “real effects in the real world”, we can start to honestly deal with the huge elephant in the parlor that Auriemma wanted us to pay attention to.

But why bother placing so much weight on sports? Can’t we just enjoy the game? Why does someone always have to make it about race?

Sports are not some panacea of facilitating race talk, but it’s a contained context in which there are some very clear racial undertones. There’s no reason not to talk about race in sports as a pre-cursor to the much more significant problems we face. Why not check our assumptions on something so small if it could pave the way to eliminate general stereotypes?

And a Brief Response to Eric Holder…

So if we’re color mute as a society, then we can’t possibly be cowards, as described nicely by Michel Martin:
I have been thinking a lot about what Attorney General Eric Holder said in his now-famous Black History Month speech, that we are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race. But I wonder whether it's really that we are just comfortable. Cowardice requires consciousness — a conscious awareness to choose not to do something you know you should do.

But what if you don't know?
And that’s exactly where I would argue we are – we simply don’t know what to do (and many whites – not to mention non-whites -- are never encouraged to know). Those of us that do know what to do get sick of dealing with those poor saps who don't have it figured out yet...which is (again) a whole separate problem of the self-righteous anti-racist that must be addressed with equal tenacity.

Auriemma’s comments and the responses demonstrate our struggle with finding ways to talk about race in public. The question, as described by Martin, is what we do about it:
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we all do it. We make assumptions, and we don't bother to test them because we don't have to.

So now the question really does become one of moral courage and, yes, cowardice. What are we prepared to do to break free of untested assumptions? What hard questions are we prepared to ask ourselves? What are we prepared to do to know what we don't know?
And these are questions that extend well beyond basketball and manifests itself in national politics…even after we have elected a black man president, as described by Barbara Crosette of the Nation just yesterday:
Would an American delegation bearing a message from Obama have made a difference? Critics will say no. Nicole Lee, executive director of the Washington-based TransAfrica Forum, has long argued that the United States belongs at the Durban review. In a message in March asking advocates of American attendance to write to anyone and everyone in Washington, she recalled the comment by Attorney General Eric Holder that Americans are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to discussing race.

What she wrote then still rings true: "The decision to boycott the Durban Review Conference not only underscores the difficulty that we have discussing race, but it also potentially undermines the solid progress made by groups and governments around the world that have worked hard to address racism and intolerance. And, unfortunately, for many in the US it raises questions about the racial lens through which this administration develops and implements policy."
Real effects…in the real world…on real people.

Transition Points:

The intersection of race and gender is complicated. Race x Gender x Sexuality?!?!? Shiver-me-timbers! Yo, head for the hills! I’ll leave that to folks like Chantelle Anderson.

Big props to Uncle Popov on Bleacher Report for managing to cite Edward Said, Marion Young, and Skip Bayless in one article. I wonder what a discussion would be like if you put those three in a room together?

Is this just a knee-jerk response to some knee-jerk palaver after the Women’s Final Four as DWil suggested would come out about this situation? Eh, possibly. But why should folks be expected to end this discussion? I say keep it going…

Continue reading...

Why We Will Never Know As Much As We Think We Know About a Draft Pick: A Lesson From the Success of Michael Redd

. Monday, April 20, 2009
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Kristi Cirone’s situation – going undrafted and then being picked up by the Connecticut Sun with an outside chance to make the roster – made me think about just how completely unscientific this whole drafting process is…and how every year some player defies the odds.

For example, remember Michael Redd?

Well, yeah of course, says the collective voice of the handful of NBA fans reading this blog.

He’s an NBA all-star, an Olympian, and one of the league’s top shooters.

What I’m wondering is if anyone remembers the Michael Redd from Ohio State – the high scoring “shooting guard” who could not, you know, shoot. People can look back now and do these "draft do-overs" and say look at how silly people were to pass on Michael Redd, but realistically, there was no reason to believe he'd become this type of player.

It’s what made his decision to leave college in 2000 after his junior year a little surprising to me. Really, what good is an NBA shooting guard that can’t shoot? And it’s not like he was delusional – he knew he couldn’t shoot…or as he said, he had an “inconsistent” shot (“inconsistent” being code for “I say a little prayer every time I put one up there”).

Asked about the strengths and weaknesses the pro scouts saw in him, he said, "They liked my size. They liked my quickness for my size.

"Ball handling wasn't an issue. It's not that big a deal. The negative thing is shooting. They want me to be more consistent on that. But nobody's a great shooter going into the draft. You have to work on that."
What an attitude – either Redd had already looked into the crystal ball and seen his metamorphosis into an NBA all-star or he is just one of the most confident players ever to enter a draft.

Unfortunately, NBA GMs did not necessarily feel the same way on draft day – Redd was drafted 43rd by the Milwaukee Bucks and struggled to even get in a few games his first year playing behind perennial all-star (and one of my favorite players) Ray Allen. Fortunately, the Bucks stuck with him and we know the rest.

Anyway, I’m not saying Cirone is another case of Michael Redd -- she might not make a roster this year. But what I find interesting is that in this drafting process we never know as much about player as we think we know (even if we crunch a whole bunch of fancy statistics). Ultimately, we have no way to know how much a player’s desire, passion, and will power will influence their success in the pros. It would be great if we could find a way to identify every future Michael Redd, but in the meantime I think it’s worth just appreciating the story as the newest crop of WNBA rookies prepares for the season.

Lies, Damn Lies, & Statistics

I knew Michael Redd couldn’t shoot just from watching collegiate games. But for those of you who didn’t see him or can’t find highlight film of his misses, we’re talking about a shooting guard who shot 43.6% from the field and 31% from the three-point line. He was by no means a marksman.

But how does one go from that to world class All-Star shooting guard?

After being drafted #43 by the Milwaukee Bucks and going on to average 2.2 points per game on 26% shooting, I just kinda said oh well and moved on. Afterall, he and I are about the same age and I had just been accepted to the University of Michigan for grad school…so who cares about an unsuccessful Buckeye?

Then something somewhat miraculous happened – sometime between his first and second seasons he developed a shot. And a good one. He even became, like, a shooting threat. I thought yeah, whatever, fluke (by his 2001-02 breakout season fully marinated in Maize and Blue). But no – his career field goal percentage is about 45%. Though he has not repeated the 44% 3 point percentage of his second season, he has shot 38.6% for his career, well above what he shot his senior year in college.

Maybe he just likes the challenge of longer shots against more athletic defenders? Many people might attribute his improvement to playing behind Ray Allen his rookie season, who clearly has the most beautifullest jump shot in this world. Maybe he just has a chip on his shoulder after being dissed on draft day by the NBA’s evaluators and decision makers.

But it’s hard to deny that part of it is just the completely unpredictable intangible factors of hard work, desire, and pure passion.

The great thing about Michael Redd’s story just after a draft is that he completely defies our tendency to put players in boxes or assume we know what they are based on watching an always incomplete body of work or crunching a few vacuous stats.

Check Your Biases

So in light of my last post, I just want to make clear that I didn’t go through the effort of crunching all those stats because I think there is some perfect formula to understanding basketball performance. Further, it’s not like there’s some statistics vs. observation dichotomy where one can be privileged over the other.

To stat haters who only trust their own eyes, sometimes, even our own observations of players completely deceive us – NOBODY predicted Redd as an all-star. I like stats because I’m a basketball junkie, plain and simple, and it’s just one more way to try to understand the game. It's a nice complement to observation...and claims based on observation should be supported by stats.

Knowing that we cannot possibly predict the 2009 WNBA Michael Redd-like story, I wonder, who will be this year’s Michael Redd in the WNBA? The player we all thought we had figured out even though they had another agenda?

Not Quite the Arenas Story…

For those of you who are wondering whether this is the same as the Gilbert Arenas story, let me clarify the difference. Arenas’ fall to the second round was a bit of a surprise -- he was expected to go in the first round by many. Although there were question marks around him (particularly regarding whether he had the height to be a NBA scorer) it was clear he was a solid NBA player to most analysts. Sure, he’s a little quirky, but the guy could play ball and should have gone higher. And he showed what a mistake GMs made in his rookie season once my beloved Warriors figured out a way to get him on the floor.

So although the Arenas story might get more press (and even resulted in a new salary cap rule for the NBA), the Redd story is special because he’s a player who literally grew as a player and added to his game in the jump from college to pro.

Either way, it's also worth knowing that these stories of second round (or undrafted) gems are somewhat rare. Heather Allen and Paul Gearan wrote a nice article on looking at second round picks' success in the NBA. You're lucky to even get a rotation player out of the second round. It would be interesting for someone to do a similar article about the WNBA. Shorter drafts, of course, but I would assume that the results might be similar...

It probably has as much to do with the situation as it does the player's attitude, but it's even more unpredictable once you get past the first round or so.

I don’t know enough about Cirone to identify her flaws, but it seems like she was more overlooked as a result of playing for a smaller program than punished for her weaknesses… so could she be this year's draft surprise in the WNBA?

Three Questions I’m Pondering

So here are my questions for those who know the WNBA better than I:

1) Has there been a Michael Redd-like case in the WNBA (in which a player went from being a rather flawed college player to an effective pro)?

2) Who is this year’s flawed WNBA rookie who has a shot to learn from a veteran and vastly improve upon that weakness?

3) Who is this year’s second year player who like Michael Redd struggled with the glaring flaw in their first year but had time to develop behind someone else and have a potential breakout season?

Of course any answers one came up with to questions 2 & 3 would be pure speculation.

There’s no real way to predict a Michael Redd-like transformation. But isn’t that the fun of sports – speculating and then observing closely to find the unknown, unpredictable outcome? I think so…and it gives me something to ponder while WNBA rosters get settled.

Transition Points:

One caveat for the Redd story: I’ve often thought that when folks evaluate NBA rookies who came out early, they have to be given time to make up for the years lost in college to develop. In other words, since Redd skipped his senior year, we have to give him a grace year for the development time he missed out on. (This simply reinforces my opinion that most college players should stay four years.) Therefore, one could argue that Redd just matured, whereas WNBA players complete four years (usually) before coming out and are therefore more polished and less malleable once they come out. So it could be that we won’t really see many WNBA versions of the Redd story…but I thought it was interesting.

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