A WNBA Spin on Michael Jackson's Thriller

. Thursday, June 25, 2009
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The NBA Draft National Holiday

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So today is the NBA draft...and I've done a terrible job keeping up on the prospects, so I'm taking time to do that today...and of course watch "Who Wants to be a Basketball Millionaire" with some other basketball minded folks...

Unfortunately, I didn't get to write any draft analysis this year as I would have wanted. But fortunately, I did find a pretty good analysis for the only NBA team that really matters in my universe:

The Golden State Warriors.

Tim Kawakami has a pretty good breakdown of what the Warriors are thinking of doing with their annual lottery pick (which always seems to be just low enough to avoid getting any top tier talent. Wouldn't want any of that. Might interfere with the losing.).

But a few weeks ago, I did start writing my feelings about the draft... it's not even complete... but if I don't post it now it will just waste away on the hard drive...

So here that is...

(Good luck to your favorite NBA team or NCAA player tonight...)

I happen to hold this irrational belief that everyone values the draft as much as I do.

And if they don’t value it, they certainly respect it.

Sort of like a national holiday – it’s observed widely, respected as sacred, and even if you don’t believe in it, you know it would politically incorrect to ridicule it.

That is, until I bring it up with friends that I assume would want to watch it.

A few years back, a sociologist friend told me, “I’m not going to watch a multi-million dollar slave trade.” (Point taken)

Just a few days ago, when I mentioned it to two friends while shooting pool, one friend responded that he’s not that much of a die-hard fan and the other snickered with a faux- perplexed look and said, “Wait that’s an actual event? Like something people watch?”

OK, so perhaps I’m a draft junkie.

As a Bay Area native and long-time Warriors fan, the draft seems to provide a glimmer of false hope. There is this completely absurd assumption stuck in my mind that the Warriors can’t help but acquire some kind of talent with a top 10 lottery pick. If insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results, this draft day love affair might be more of a serious impairment than I thought.

But aside from the fact that the Warriors are spiraling downward with no end to their lottery misery in sight, the allure of the draft extends well beyond the Warriors in my mind.

I remember the player that made me a draft junkie much more clearly than I remember the particular draft.

The player was Nick Van Exel, by far one of my favorite college players ever.

How a high school kid from the Bay Area keeps their passion for Nick Van Exel when all about him others are losing their minds over Jason Kidd is beyond me. Maybe it was that silly adolescent quest to be different. Maybe it was Van Exel’s flair that caught my eye. Really, I have absolutely no idea. And it doesn’t matter.

What mattered is that I was sure Van Exel would be a lottery pick.

The only thing conceivably more satisfying than seeing Van Exel in the lottery would have been Van Exel on my beloved Warriors, who needed a point guard (this of course has been the standard narrative in Warriors-land since Tim Hardaway went down to injury in 1993).

It was not that I had done a thorough assessment of team needs or gone through any kind of scientific process to determine that Van Exel was destined for greatness. It was just that Van Exel had to be good. He was Nick Van Exel…in my naïve mind the best point guard ever to play for Cincinnati (sooo not true). How on earth could anyone pass on my favorite college player?

Draft night came and Van Exel went in the second round. He didn’t cry like Rashard Lewis did, but if he had, I would have cried right along with him… it was tragic.

Of course, he got drafted by the Lakers, which was good because it revived my interest in a team that I followed closely in the 80’s. I didn’t think he would be the next Magic Johnson – that would be absurd – but I was quite sure that he’d end up single-handedly rescuing the franchise.

His first game in his rookie year only confirmed my naïve belief that Nick “The Quick” would quickly become a household name. Though I can’t find the numbers to confirm it, I remember him dropping something like 28 points in his first game in the Forum. Of course, aside from a nice playoff run with the Mavs and being cited in a Jay-Z line, his career ended up being something of a disappointment for me… but that’s what happens when unreasonable expectations are set.

And that only made my hunger to follow the draft grow. If those idiot GMs missed on Van Exel, certainly they must be missing others. It was sort of like a fun game to look at the stats, watch the players in college and figure out if they’d be good.

Of course, the idiot GMs aren’t the only ones who were blatantly wrong – I’ve been wrong quite often: Brevin Knight? Mateen Cleaves? Ha. Or for that matter, anyone from the 2000 draft? I’ve been wrong often… but each year I go back for more punishment. I say punishment mostly because the Warriors are just destined to be bad except for one year every decade. I need to just accept that.

So this year, I am refusing to get my hopes up. The Warriors will pick someone, he will likely get screwed around by those running the organization, and we’ll be right back in the lottery five years from now looking for another savior.

And I’ll still be watching.

Update: In case you're interested, Van Exel dropped 23 in his first game in a win against the Suns (h/t Kevin Pelton).

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Toliver Impresses in Victory Over Dream...so...Who Should Start at Point Guard for the Chicago Sky?

. Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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Where should I even start with the Chicago Sky’s 99-98 victory over the Dream?

If you have any sort of affection for the Sky, yesterday’s win against the Dream was actually painful.

It was one of those exceptions to the cliche “a win is a win” -- sometimes even a win is best construed as a learning opportunity.

You may know that the Sky are my favorite WNBA team. So I was particularly excited to watch Kristi Toliver’s progress on the court after having stared at her statistics over the last few days.

However, as I watched the Sky yesterday morning while trying to focus on Toliver, I couldn’t keep from getting extremely frustrated about the same question I wondered last year abut the Sky: what exactly are they doing?

Hmm…that might sound harsh. So let me clarify….

It’s not so much that I expect a team to justify what they’re doing to me, a random WNBA blogger. Nor should I really expect to understand a professional basketball offense will be totally transparent to fans who haven’t spent time watching practice or reading at playbooks. But panic is one of those feelings that comes through pretty clearly even through a webcast, both in watching the coach patrol the sidelines and watching the players trying to create seemingly arbitrary answers to a worsening problem.

Just before the start of overtime, WNBA LiveAccess commentator Art Eckman said the following about the game just before the start of overtime.

…the kids’ day has been delighted with a surprise. The surprise is a team could be down 18 points and come back and take a two point lead and then take the game into overtime.
LaChina Robinson may call it a valiant effort on the part of the Dream and, yeah, it was. But I call it a massive collapse on the part of the Sky.

And coincidentally, I would say that the Sky’s collapse yesterday was partially related to the object of my observation: the point guard position. I entered the game wondering who should start at point guard for the Sky after comments on a previous post from KT #7 suggested Toliver should start over Dominique Canty. What I think this game demonstrated is that before answering that question, the Sky need to figure out some sort of identity that they can depend on when things get rough.

The collapse

After Armintie Price made a jump shot from the wing at the beginning of the 4th quarter, the Sky were ahead by 18 points. With a minute left in the game, Atlanta had not only erased the deficit, but taken a two point lead.

So what happened?

Really, there are two connected explanations for the collapse – one is evident just by looking at the play-by-play, the other is less obvious from the stats or play-by-play: the Sky’s apparent lack of a coherent offensive system to rely on when things get tough.

If you’ve spent time watching basketball at any level, you probably know that momentum is a really strange phenomenon, which is not only about strategy or ability, but also the mindsets of the teams involved. It is generally a convergence of the losing team feeling like they have nothing to lose and the winning team either getting arrogant, playing not to lose, or starting to question the strategy that got them the big lead to begin with.

But pinpointing the shift in momentum during this game was much simpler.

About a minute after a three point play by Jennifer Lacy cut the deficit to 15, KB Sharp entered the game for Toliver. I thought to myself, “Hmmm…that’s weird. Has Sharp even played yet this game?” The answer was no, she had not played. But it probably didn’t seem to matter at the time – the Sky clearly assumed the fourth quarter would be a smooth garbage-time coast to a victory. At that point, the Sky had the following lineup in the game: Sharp, Price, Shyra Ely, Chen Nan, and Erin Thorn.

Within the next minute the lead was down to 12.

So after the Sky emptied the bench and watched the Dream’s confidence grow as the momentum swung their way, they then brought Jia Perkins, Sylvia Fowles, and Candice Dupree back in the game with 7:09 left. But essentially that was a panic signal. But I’m not going to explain the loss entirely psychologically. Something else happened…or didn’t happen.

It would be easy to look at Sharp’s -9 plus/minus rating and put the blame on her. But a) she did not insert herself in the game for the first time after sitting all game and b) three starters re-entered the game with a 12-point lead.

When the starters re-entered the game – Canty came in at 5:38 – things didn’t get better. They were scrambling, taking contested jump shots and trying to force plays that weren’t there. The ball movement that helped them successfully find shots to that point stopped, despite having three guards on the floor (Perkins, Canty, and Sharp/Toliver). Even if we ignore the fact that they had not played a three guard lineup all game until the fourth quarter, the bigger issue here is that after building an 18 point lead, they suddenly looked lost.

Normally, one might say, well it was a lack of execution. But that assumes there is something in place to execute. So what is it, may I ask, that the Sky are even trying to execute? I can never figure that out. And it really doesn’t matter who is in the game if the team doesn’t have a common understanding of what’s supposed to happen.

System: "a method or set of procedures for achieving something."

There is certainly value to having a looser approach to basketball rather than a rigid system that limits players. And that appears to be the way Sky coach Steven Key likes to run the Sky. In fact, Toliver even said that at the beginning of the season in an interview with Slam Magazine.
“He’s a really nice guy, first and foremost, and he’s really fun to be around,” said Toliver. “He lets players play and that’s one of the things I like a lot. He’s not going to do a lot of X and O type of stuff because he wants to get up and down the floor and let you use your strengths. He knows that this team is balanced inside and out and he knows where to get people into the right spots to be successful. He knows how to get the best out of his players.”
Fun, loose, fluid, and player autonomy are nice when you have a veteran team that has experienced success in the past and knows exactly how to bring it about. Or for a team that has Kobe Bryant (+ all-star cast) or Michael Jordan. But at the end of a game when the momentum is swinging in the opponent’s direction, a young team that has yet to play in even one playoff game together needs a little structure. They don’t have that implicit sense of how to win games together yet, by no fault of their own. They just haven’t been together long enough.

And that was painfully obvious at the end of yesterday’s game – there was no structure with which to fall back on when everything started to feel chaotic.

The Sky rely very heavily on jump shooting and guard penetration. Dupree is often getting points taking baseline jumpers – which she is pretty good at – and Fowles will get an occasional touch if she happens to be open off a pick and roll or a result of the defense shifting in response to guard penetration.

Really, it sometimes looks like they are relying on some sort of dribble drive offense, which is somewhat effective, but assumes that you have multiple players who can get to the basket from the perimeter. Really, the Sky only have two players who have demonstrated the ability to themselves to the rim for easy shots or assists: Canty and Perkins.

Given that, it would seem to make more sense to do the exact opposite and focus on setting up their two talented post players and surround them with three point shooters, like Toliver and Brooke Wyckoff. Spread the defense, give the post players some space to work off of each other and move the perimeter players around the gaps.

People might say that a post-oriented system would not work for the Sky because Fowles is not the type of aggressive personality that demands the ball. However, it’s really difficult for me to forget that Fowles was not just solid at the Beijing Olympics last year, but Fowles was arguably Team USA’s most productive player. It’s not that she cannot be a more productive player, it’s that Team USA found ways to put her in position to succeed and the Sky have not.

But I digress..

So back to the original question about who should start at point guard for the Sky, how can we really answer that question if there is no clear system for the point guard to run? I don’t think anybody could really come up with a definitive answer, but I think yesterday’s game did give us a good sense of their options.

Status quo: Dominique Canty

Canty offers something that I highly value in a point guard: the ability to drive and put pressure on the defense. She’s not the most efficient scorer off the dribble, but she’s among the top point guards in the league when it comes to getting herself to the line. After missing her first three free throws in the first quarter, she went 7-7 the rest of the way. And in the beginning of the game, her ability to drive and get to the line was really giving the Dream problems.

Typically my knock against Canty is that she’s not particularly effective at getting her teammates involved within the “offense”…but that was not really the case in this game. She had a pure point rating of 3.70 for the game, which is solid. Her assist ratio, though not stellar was above average at 24.19%.

These numbers are well above Canty’s numbers for the season thus far, but from this game, she played the point guard position well just in terms of her ability to run the team and distribute the ball. And if it is some kind of dribble drive the Sky want to run, then it makes sense to start Canty.

However, I would argue that the dribble drive does not actually play to the Sky’s strengths because they really only have two players who can execute that type of offense effectively.

So hypothetically, it might make more sense to start Toliver at point guard next to Perkins and spread the defense to create space for Fowles. And Toliver gave us a glimpse of what she could do yesterday.

Supporting a shift in strategy: Kristi Toliver

I admit that I have a bias in favor of point guards that are able to break down the defense and create offense for others. And so when considering Toliver as a potential starter in the WNBA, that’s what I’ve been looking for.

And although she has not demonstrated the ability to get deep into the lane, she would actually be an outstanding option to run a post-oriented offense next to a guard like Jia Perkins who could drive to the basket.

If you did not watch yesterday’s game, what might stand out to you is that she’s shooting the ball better and getting a decent number of assists. When the Dream tried to run zone defense, Toliver also showed that she could easily be used as a zone buster as well, further supporting the idea of using her to spread the court. She can get her shot and has an array of jab steps, fade aways, and a relatively quick release that help her as a scorer.

However, what impressed me most was that she did a much better job of moving the ball in this game. It doesn’t really show up in her numbers (pure point rating of 0.00 and turnover percentage of 16.6%) but she looked much more patient in her decision making, swung the ball across the court against the zone very well, and took advantage of scoring opportunities when they came to her.

With 12 seconds left in the third quarter, she ran a beautiful high pick and roll with Fowles, drawing the defense toward her and zipping a perfect pass to Fowles for the layup. It was more of a defensive lapse by the Dream, but Toliver recognized it quickly and made the play happen.

Toliver is not by any means going to be a traditional “pass-first” point guard, but she has shown the ability to score and make plays for others as she has gotten more comfortable with her teammates. My initial question was whether she could run a team rather than looking primarily for her own scoring and I think she’s starting to show the ability to do that. The next question is whether she can do it consistently.

Then again, maybe wondering if she or Canty is the better starter at point guard is the wrong question altogether.

Jia Perkins may be the best point guard on this team

Last season when Dominique Canty was injured, Perkins demonstrated the ability to run the team extremely effectively. And contrary to what you might think, it’s not just because she’s a great scorer. She has all the ball handling, passing, and intangible ability that you might want a point guard to have.

Yesterday, she recorded 6 assists and 0 turnovers for a pure point rating of 11.11. In my latest point guard rankings, she ranked in the top five. She is one of the most productive guards overall in the league and has the ability to score efficiently. Furthermore, she’s the type of player who can put up near triple-double numbers occasionally.

Putting the ball in her hands and allowing her to make decisions in an open and loose offense, seems like a good bet. The only downside of putting her at point is that it might detract from her ability to score. But in the right type of system, she’ll be able to find her scoring opportunities while also getting the ball to her teammates…as she managed to do yesterday.

If she were in charge of making plays with Toliver next to her expected to score and both of them focused fundamentally on creating easy shots for Fowles inside and Dupree on the baseline, the Sky could be an extremely difficult team to defend. Then depending on the matchups, Canty could come off the bench either to get more penetration in the key or continue looking to the post while Toliver and Wyckoff spread the court.

Of course, this just reinforces my original point – given that there is no clear point guard starter on the Sky, they need to work out their system before they make that personnel decision.

Trade possibilities: Could swapping Kristi’s help?

If the Sky were to decide that Toliver simply doesn’t fit into their dribble drive scheme (and I argue she has not demonstrated the ability to run that kind of offense) then could a trade be in the Sky’s best interest? CJ at the TIB blog suggests exactly that and even proposes a trade idea:
So is KT stuck with the Sky? I don’t think so. I could definitely see a trade with L.A., swapping the Kristis: Harrower and Toliver. I think then you put two talented guards on teams that are better suited to their sensibilities. Harrower could certainly take over the PG duties in Chicago without missing a beat, and matching Toliver with Parker could be a formula for a decade’s worth of very interesting basketball (KT’s four years partnered with Marissa Coleman being ideal training for a combo with Parker).
On the surface, this makes a lot of sense for the Sky: Harrower has been one of the most efficient facilitators in the league thus far this season, keeping turnovers low while having a high assist ratio and pure point rating. However, given the Sky’s other personnel, I’m not sure it’s a “traditional” facilitator that the Sky need -- if they want to play an inside-out game, Toliver is a much better outside shooter, and if they want to play a dribble drive system, Harrower is not necessarily more effective at that than Toliver (though she has posted a better 2 point field goal % this season).

The Sky clearly have options at point guard and I don’t think an analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses really helps to figure out who should start there. If they keep falling apart down the stretch with an Olympian and two other potential all-stars on the team, then the problem has to go beyond individual players making poor decisions. They have to develop a system that will prevent these fourth quarter implosions.

In the end, the Sky’s success will come down to them figuring out what exactly they are trying to do. And with so many young and constantly developing players, that is no easy task.

Related Links:

7/2009 - Sky 99, Dream 98 (OT): Just Warming Up

Chicago's Steve Key on Kristi Toliver

Transition Points:

Shalee Lehning vs. Nikki Teasley…
How do you measure Lehning’s impact? From watching the game, Shalee Lehning played much better than Nikki Teasley. But is there a way to show that statistically, especially when Teasley ranked #8 in my most recent rankings? I think so: one of the statistics included in my rankings is plus/minus. In yesterday’s game, Lehning recorded a plus/minus rating of +10 while Teasley had a plus/minus of -11 (click here for complete numbers).

It wasn’t that Lehning did anything spectacular, but she got the ball into the hands of the players who needed it down the stretch comeback. And it was a pretty impressive performance for a rookie point guard in a tight game. But what was most interesting was her enthusiasm – all throughout that comeback, Lehning was high fiving teammates and clearly the most excited one on the court during every stoppage of play. Part of being a leader is keeping people’s spirits high. And whereas young players are sometimes reluctant to try inspiring teammates, Lehning is clearly willing to do so. I don’t know whether she should assume a larger role on the team (her shot is really inconsistent) but she is a solid back-up nonetheless…

But after seeing so little production from the point guard position during this game, I have to wonder why they chose to waive Ivory Latta…

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Point Guard Rankings Update & Surprises: Cappie Pondexter and Jia Perkins...Top 10? (Late Edit)

. Tuesday, June 23, 2009
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Yesterday, I posted the first point guard rankings of the season including an analysis of the three rookie point guards drafted in the first six picks of the draft.

However, I did not initially post the full stats of all the point guards due to time constraints, so I figured I would do that today since there were no games yesterday.

As I got ready to post the tables of stats for all 25 point guards, I noticed that a few players had impressive games on Sunday that might be worth accounting for (e.g. Sue Bird: 9 assists, 0 turnovers against the Mercury on Sunday).

Then I just got curious about a few things.

Comments on last week's post about Briann January regarding whether the Chicago Sky should start Kristi Toliver over Dominique Canty made me wonder how well Jia Perkins is doing as a potential point guard option this season. And then I started thinking about another off guard who often plays the facilitator role: Cappie Pondexter of the Phoenix Mercury.

Both players have not only posted impressive point guard numbers this season, but have also managed to crack my top 10.

Update: Stats were updated @ 3pm PST due to a small Excel error and the addition of a new stat, Tendex. Some minor typos were corrected as well.

The skeptics will say there must be a flaw with this process if so many non-point guards – Perkins, Pondexter, Taurasi – can rank in my top ten. However, I would respond that the statistics are only describing very impressive play on the part of these players as lead guards thus far this season. And maybe, as these rankings initially set out to do, there are things beyond being the shortest player on the court that make someone an effective lead guard.

Pondexter’s point guard numbers, for example, really shocked me. I have watched her bring the ball up and initiate the offense, but never really thought much of her as a playmaker or facilitator for her team. The numbers tell a different story – Pondexter is among the most efficient lead guards in the league, making plays for others while limiting turnovers and still managing to score efficiently. You can only imagine what this team would have done with Lauren Jackson surrounded by such talented perimeter players.

Sorry for the oversight Cappie.

The Rankings (as of 6/21/09)

Below are the numbers for the top 10 point guards in each category: facilitator ability, scoring ability, and game impact. (Click here for the full explanation of why I’m using these statistics)

Ticha Penicheiro (injury) and Shannon Johnson (recovering) have been removed from the list to accommodate Perkins and Pondexter.

There is a lot to chew on here, so I will look forward to feedback from others.

Does Cappie Pondexter's performance thus far this season seem to match these impressive stats? What might the stats be missing/exaggerating?

Facilitator Ability
 PLAYERAst. RatioTov%PPRTot. Rank

1. Harrower, K.

2. Johnson, T

2. Bird, S.

4. Whalen, L.

4. Harding, L.

6. Teasley, N.

7. Pondexter, C.

8. Lawson, K.

9. Mitchell, L.

9. Moore, L.

Scoring Ability
 PLAYERTS%2 pt%Pts/Z pt posTot. Rank

1. Brown, K.

2. Taurasi, T.

3. Bevilaqua, T.

4. Pondexter, C.

5. Johnson, T.

5. Perkins, J.

7. Teasley, N.

8. Bird, S.

9. Whalen, L.

9. Hammon, B.

9. Montgomery, R.

Game Impact
 PLAYERPlus/MinusTendexTot. Rank

1. Perkins, J.

2. Bird, S.

3. Johnson, T.

4. Harding, L.

5. Pondexter, C.

6. Wiggins, C.

7. Taurasi, D.

7. Brown, K.

9. Lawson, K.

10. Harrower, K.

10. Hammon, B.

 PLAYERFacilitatorScoringImpactTot. Rank

1. Johnson, T.

2. Bird, S.

3. Pondexter, C.

4. Brown, K.

5. Perkins, J.

6. Harrower, K.

7. Whalen, L.

8. Teasley, N.

9. Taurasi, D.

9. Bevilaqua, T.

(Late) Transition Points:

The Tendex metric is described at Dougsstats.com. H/t to Scott for letting me know about it -- it makes more sense to me than Win Score. And if you look at the numbers from last season, the ordering of point guards looks much more reasonable.

Coincidentally, the two players who benefitted from the switch from Win Score to Tendex most were Perkins and Pondexter. Among the players hurt most were Kiesha Brown and Vickie Johnson.

Tendex hurt the rookie point guards: For the record, with the shift to Tendex, there was a shift in position for Briann January, Renee Montgomery, and Kristi Toliver who I looked at previously:

January, 77, #19
Montgomery, 73, #20
Toliver, 69, #23

In other words, they each have weaknesses that they will need to work on...

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Point Guard Rankings & Rookies: What a Difference a Weekend Makes...

. Monday, June 22, 2009
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On Friday, I wrote a post singing the praises of Briann January with the intent to later post statistical rankings of her rookie point guard counterparts relative to the rest of the league.

I then set out to crunch the numbers and reflect on the best means with which to evaluate point guards. And those numbers were supposed to support my point...

As of Friday afternoon, Renee Montgomery and Briann January were neck and neck statistically, with Kristi Toliver ranking 24th in the league among my chosen point guards.

And then more games were played.

Hours after my Friday post, Indiana Fever coach Linn Dunn nailed January with a DNP-CD. Renee Montgomery struggled and slipped significantly statistically. And Kristi Toliver put together two consecutive solid games, despite the Sky losing.

In other words, everything I was going to write was rendered worthless within hours.

This of course is the fun of following sports and trying to apply statistical analysis before teams have even played five games.

I put all of that out there to make an obvious point about these statistical rankings: I fully acknowledge that they’re not only imperfect but also subject to change, either because of a coach’s change in strategy, a significant injury, or natural player development. All of that is exacerbated when looking at rookies who are constantly growing as players, figuring out their role on the team, and responding to the team’s demands of them.

It’s messy. And that makes it fun.

These numbers are not meant to be the final word on the hierarchy of WNBA point guards; instead, I would hope that they serve as a conversation piece. I personally love them exactly because of how my initial thoughts were ruined this season: they allow me to track trends in players across the league and hopefully help me see things I might have missed through standard observation.

To be clear, it would be silly to claim that statistics tell the full story of basketball. However, I find it equally silly for people to pretend that their own observations are perfect. The numbers complement what we see and what we see can complement the numbers. Whichever way you approach a sport, the more information we have, the better we are able to understand what we are looking at…and hopefully form grounded, substantive opinions.

With that in mind, the main purpose of this post is to present an analysis of the first three point guards drafted in the first round – Kristi Toliver, Renee Montgomery, and Briann January. At the end, I’ll look at their performance relative to the rest of the league’s point guards.

Ultimately, I think I can say this about these three right now: judging who’s best among these three point guards is more a matter of taste than any sort of objective standard. And in the end, the goodness of fit with their team might matter more than the isolated skills they bring to the court.

A refresher on the Rethinking Basketball point guard statistics…

(Feel free to skip down to the section titled "Who’s the WNBA’s best point guard after two weeks?" if you hated high school math as much as I did and have a PTSD reaction anytime you see numbers in sequence beyond your bank account or a digital clock. Near the end of the post is a narrative summary of the rookie point guards and the top 10 WNBA point guards overall)

Last season, I used the following statistics to evaluate point guards:

Pure point rating
Net plus/minus rating
Points per zero point possession
Hollinger assist ratio
Usage rate
True shooting percentage

I generally like the results – by the last rankings I posted last season (click here to see those), Lindsay Whalen and Sue Bird were on top…and you’d have a really difficult time convincing me there is something wrong with that outcome.

Nevertheless, I am going to continue to tweak things, with the intention of making the outcome even stronger.

As it happens, the NBA draft is point guard heavy this year so there have been a few stories floating around the web recently about point guard analysis. Draftexpress, ESPN’s TrueHoop (observation, not statistical), HoopsAnalyst, and the Wages of Wins have all had in depth analyses of NBA point guards that I took a look at before launching into my own analysis of WNBA point guards.

First, the Arbitrarian blog no longer posts its “Boxscores” so I am not going to use that (sorry, just extra numbers for me to crunch right now). So for now, I will go back to Dave Berri’s Win Score, simply because it’s easy to calculate (petrel’s description from last year is pretty solid). I will think further on this for future iterations of these point guard rankings.

Update: I settled on Tendex ratings for now. More on that here:

Second, after reading through all the other articles, I realized that my framework did not really have any way of accounting for a point guard’s ability to break down the defense and get to the basket, whether to score or set up a play for someone else. The importance of this was especially evident in TrueHoops account of Minnesota’s recent point guard prospect workout – the ability to beat a defender and score either on pull-up jumpers or getting to the rim. It says something about quickness, ball handling, and a player’s instincts.

And when you think about it, if a point guard is going to have the ball in their hands at the end of a game, it would be a huge asset to be able to beat a defender and set up easy shots for their team. That was exactly the problem I described when I watched Sacramento playing Minnesota the other day.

So I spent some time thinking about how best to capture that.

Draftexpress suggests that free throw attempts per possession are a pretty good way to assess a player’s aggressiveness driving the lane. And while that’s true, it doesn’t seem to practically capture what one might want. At the end of a game, for example, a player might simply pick up free throw attempts in the bonus as a team fouls to stop the clock. A player could get fouled on a three. And really, if a player goes to the basket for a layup and gets fouled, getting one free throw for being able to complete the play is much better than getting two for not completing the play.

But HoopsAnalyst has used a different metric for years that I have ignored until now: 2 point field goal percentage. Again, when you think about how point guards might score, a more effective way to assess their ability to get to the basket might be their ability to complete two point plays. Point guards are unlikely to be scoring two point field goals on post ups or set shots because, for the most part, they have the ball in their hands making plays.

TrueHoop nicely characterized some of the ways a point guard might score two point field goals:

Anyway, Tyreke was dominant.

Refusing to simply muscle his way to the hoop (which he did handily a few times), he scored in a half a dozen different ways. Pull-ups on the wing, runners, balanced fade-aways, and a particularly spectacular jab-step and crossover that sent Flynn (without question the best defender of the group) reeling. His jumper needs work but I wouldn't call it a weakness, and he'll definitely hit enough to force defenders to respect it.

Lawson and Flynn played about how I expected them to. Controlled the ball well, took high percentage shots and occasionally switched gears to get to the rim.
Given how an elite point guard is likely to get two point field goals – pull-ups, runners, fade-aways, driving lay ups, changing pace in space – knowing that they are able to complete those plays tells me a lot more about their ability to attack the basket and complete plays than free throw attempts. And if they are able to beat a defender in the variety of ways described on TrueHoop, they will draw a defense in ways that enable them to distribute more effectively as well. So ultimately, I went with 2 point percentage.

Third, after thinking conceptually about what I wanted to see from a point guard, I also decided to drop usage percentage and add turnover percentage. The decision to add turnover percentage was simple – turnovers are bad. A point guard who makes a lot of them is not likely to be elite (yes, even though great point guards make a lot of turnovers, their turnover percentage should be low).

Usage percentage is just more of a descriptive statistic than one used to evaluate anything. Knowing that a player is individually responsible for a team’s plays does not help me assess their quality. For example, some teams might be so loaded with scorers at other positions that a point guard using up a whole bunch of plays would be counter productive. Conversely, some teams have Olympians or all-world point guards who might best benefit their team by using a lot of plays. Furthermore, a point guard who can’t shoot or turns the ball over a whole lot is best served by giving it to someone else. A good shooter who is not shooting a lot might hurt their team.

In other words, there’s no way to say whether a player’s usage percentage is good or bad without taking account of a whole lot of other variables. It’s not really something I can individually rank a player on.

Since this may all seem a little unwieldy, I’ve broken down these statistics into three categories: facilitation ability, scoring ability, and game impact. And came up with some interesting results.

Which rookie point guard is best so far?

(Note: Most stats are through 6/20/09, plus/minus stats though 6/21/09)

Facilitation ability

So fundamentally, a point guard needs to be able to bring the ball up the court and distribute it to others. Ideally, that player would be able to facilitate scoring opportunities for others. A first obvious question might be one that can be answered by looking at a player’s assist ratio:

How often does a player create an assist? (Hollinger Assist Ratio)

Here are the numbers:

Hollinger Assist Ratio

January, 29.26%, #7
Toliver, 21.95%, #14
Montgomery, 18.65, #20

Just for some perspective, if we drop two outliers at the top and bottom of the assist ratio rankings, a high assist ratio is 36.72 (Temeka Johnson) and a low assist ratio is 13.24 (Deanna Nolan).

The order of assist ratios among the rookie point guards is identical to the order of their assist averages, with January ranking just above average (23.34%) in assist ratio among the point guards on this list.

Neither Montgomery nor Toliver could be considered effective distributors based upon these numbers. And, if we ask a second question about a player's ability as a facilitator, that point becomes even more clear.

How efficiently does a player create scoring opportunities per others?

To answer that, let’s take a look at these players’ pure point rating:

Pure point rating:

January, 1.43, #11
Montgomery, -2.18, #19
Toliver, -7.29, #23

Again, for some perspective, the high pure point rating is 6.95 (Temeka Johnson) and the low is -7.98 (Shannon Johnson).

So what does this say about Toliver?

Although Toliver’s assist ratio tells us that she is creating an assist on almost one of every four plays that she makes, she has not been particularly efficient at creating those opportunities.

More specifically, if we consider the fact that turnovers are statistically more harmful than assists are helpful, the fact that Toliver has more turnovers than assists on the season means that she is not making very good decisions in trying to distribute the ball.

More generally, whereas we can use assist ratio to describe what a player does with the ball, we can use pure point rating to evaluate how well a player is distributing the ball.

Unfortunately, none of these three point guards does very well when it comes to turnover percentage all ranking in the bottom five of this list of point guards.

Turnover percentage:

January, 16.72%, #20
Montgomery, 16.96%, #21
Toliver, 21.95%, #24

Combined with the pure point rating and assist ratio, what this tells us is that January is clearly doing a better job than Montgomery at picking up assists despite committing turnovers at about the same rate. That Toliver is committing a turnover so often is what accounts for her low pure point rating.

To say that Toliver has been ineffective as a distributor is therefore an understatement. And this supports a point I’ve made previously – players with low pure point ratings in college, typically do not make a big jump in the pros.

Scoring Ability

However, Toliver’s strength in college was her scoring ability and one might hope that she has been a more efficient scorer than distributor in the pros.

And judging from Montgomery’s distributing stats, one would hope that she’s making up for it with point production.

Having examined how efficiently these point guards distribute the ball, we might now want to know how efficiently a point guard is as a scorer. Theoretically, a poor distributing point guard could make up for that by being an efficient scorer.

A first question I might ask is as follows: how well does a player shoot the ball when adjusting for free throws and the increased difficulty of three pointers into account?

For that, I use true shooting percentage and to this point, Toliver has not done well in that regard:

True Shooting %:

Toliver, 57.32%, #5
Montgomery, 51.36%, #8
January, 44.50%, #20

While Montgomery has been an average distributor, she’s been a rather solid shooter based on her true shooting percentage. The opposite is true for January – she’s been an effective distributor, but not so effective as a shooter. And that’s expected – she was not known for her shooting ability entering the league.

Although Toliver is still a rather inconsistent shooter, she’s demonstrated against the Sun on Friday and Mystics on Saturday that she can shoot the ball.

However, in addition to knowing that she can shoot the ball well, we might also want to know how efficient she is in scoring for her team compared to wasting possessions.

That leads to a second question, answered by the statistic points per zero point possession:

How often is a player individually responsible for scoring possessions compared to non-scoring possessions?

This can be used as a proxy for scorer decision making – how well are they balancing scoring possessions with non-scoring possessions? – but also as a way to think about how well your point guard is managing possessions.

So for example, if a player does create a lot of turnovers or end possessions without scores, this stat will help us see if they are making up for that with points, rather than assists.

Pts/Zero Pt. Pos:

Montgomery, 1.55, #12
Toliver, 1.51, #14
January, 1.21, #19

So first of all, it’s worth noting that all three of these players is below average (1.64) in this stat among the 25 point guards I selected for these rankings. But although none of them are particularly efficient scoring point guards, both Toliver and Montgomery are close to average and shooting a high enough percentage that they could probably establish themselves as efficient scorers in the league.

However, a third question we might ask about scoring ability is: how well does the player score inside the three point line?

Where Montgomery really separates herself from Toliver and January in terms of scoring efficiency is 2 point field goal percentage.

2 Point%:

Montgomery, 50%, #6
Toliver, 38%, #13
January, 36%, #17

While Montgomery may not be very efficient as a distributor, she is finding ways to get herself high percentage shots, and that bodes well for her future as a point guard.

This would suggest that Toliver is doing the majority of her scoring from low percentage outside shots, which might end up being ok given her true shooting percentage. But the low 2 point percentage seems to suggest that she is not as good at creating high percentage shots inside the three point line, which is pretty much consistent with what I’ve seen of her.

Toliver spends a lot of time with the ball at the top of the key looking for her own shot without really being able to beat her defender. That not only hurts her scoring ability, but also her ability to make plays for others.

Chicago Sky coach Steven Key addressed on possible cause for this problem in a recent Washington Post article:
One of the of knocks on her before we drafted her was that she's not physically as strong as a lot of other people. She's not as big as everybody else. But she also has a larger skill set than most people do. We've been working with her on that, trying to make that adjustment, until she can get a little stronger, until she can gauge how deep she can go into lane before she can still get her shot off, how much body contact can she take and not be off-balance. Until she figures that out, we're helping her get around it the best she can.
Perhaps this explains her low 2 point% -- a tentativeness about scoring in the lane.

So we now see that Montgomery is the better scorer, January the better distributor, and Toliver struggling at both so far. So the next thing to examine is how good a playmaker the player is.

The difference between these two statistics and the facilitator metrics above is that I am now looking at quantifying “intangibles” by using these metrics as proxies – ball dominance, a team’s reliance on a player, and aggressiveness in driving to the basket.

To put a player’s performance in perspective, it is sometimes helpful to look at their usage percentage -- the percentage of a team’s plays that a player is individually responsible for while on the court. And the outcome for Toliver is somewhat alarming given what we found out above.

Usage %

Toliver, 35.83%, #1
Montgomery, 17.57%, #13
January, 16.93%, #14

Toliver is using up more plays than any starting point guard in the league....and yet, she’s a below average shooter and distributor. Which means Toliver has essentially been a ball stopper to this point in her career – she is getting the ball and individually responsible for burning plays.

Just to put it in perspective, the three players closest to Toliver’s usage rate are Nolan (30.51), Becky Hammon (30.66), and Diana Taurasi (27.38)…but these are all-stars whose teams are dependent upon them to make plays. It’s quite perplexing that Toliver is using a larger percentage of plays on the court than any of those three, especially when considering that the Sky should be looking inside to Sylvia Fowles and Candice Dupree.

(Note: Since this is a statistic that does not stand very well on its own without some indicator of a player’s efficiency with the ball, I am no longer including it in the rankings. But it’s still interesting to look at when judging the quality of a point guard)

Game impact

Lastly, given that a point guard likely has the ball in their hands a lot, you would hope that they have a positive impact on the game. For that, I use Win Score and plus/minus.

Here are those numbers:

Win Score:

January, -.39, 15
Montgomery, -.65
Toliver, -.83


January, +5.5, #10
Montgomery, -2.4, #15
Toliver, -8.5, #18

The plus/minus numbers are more clear – January has had a relatively positive impact on her team when on the floor whereas Montgomery and Toliver are not contributing as much as one might like.

Win Score does not look favorably upon any of these players.

Thus far, this confirms what one might essentially infer from the previous statistics: Toliver is struggling to contribute positively out of the gate.

Who’s the WNBA’s best point guard after two weeks?

When compared to other point guards in the league, Montgomery and January have been about average, while Toliver has been struggling to make a case as a potential starter one day.

Every starting point guard was included in these rankings in addition to a few players who often assume point guard roles on their teams (Hammon, Nolan, Taurasi, Candice Wiggins).

(Note: for the complete rankings and numbers of the top point guards so far this season, click here.)

Briefly, the following players from last year’s rankings were left out because they either have not played significant minutes or are no longer with a team:

Nikki Blue
K.B. Sharp
Tan White
Ivory Latta
Jia Perkins (I don’t think she’ll be running point much this season with Toliver around)
Katie Smith (does not do well in these rankings)
Shannon Bobbitt (limited minutes this year, but I like her!)

In their place are the following:

Our three rookie protagonists
Shavonte Zellous
Kara Lawson
Nikki Teasley
Kristi Harrower

I just did a ranking of 1-25 in each of 8 categories from above (excluding usage rate, which is more of a descriptive stat than evaluative).

One quick caveat: looking at last year’s statistics, using Boxscores along with these stats gives a much more reasonable result than using Win Score. At the moment however, I don’t have the time to come up with Boxscores without the help of the Arbitrarian…I put in an email to him…hopefully he gets back to me. So take these with a grain of salt knowing that the results will be different once I get that additional stat.

Here are the top 10 WNBA point guards overall as of 6/21/08 (total points in parentheses):

1. Temeka Johnson (174)
2. Kiesha Brown (169)
3. Kristi Harrower (153)
4. Sue Bird (148)
5. Lindsay Whalen (143)
5. Diana Taurasi (143)
7. Nikki Teasley (138)
8. Tully Bevilaqua (136)
9. Kara Lawson (127)
10. Noelle Quinn (117)

14. Renee Montgomery (93)
15. Briann January (91)
19. Kristi Toliver (80)

For rankings as of 6/22/09, click here.

What we see is that all three of these rookie point guards are knocking on the door of “average”. None of them is really among the top tier guards right now.

I keep saying “right now” because these statistics are based on a very small sample – you have to imagine that by the end of the season, players like Bird and Whalen will move up while Kristi Harrower and Kiesha Brown will fall back down to earth after solid statistical starts. And Boxscores – a metric that takes account of the player’s contribution to a team’s wins – will help that as well.

But what’s interesting is looking at the point guard styles of our three rookies of interest:

January is looking like she will end up being more of a “distributor” point guard, with a below average usage percentage, an above average assist ratio, and an above average pure point rating. That is great for a team that has scorers to pass to. She might be the closest thing to a “pure facilitator” among these three point guards, but will have to cut down on the turnovers.

Montgomery is looking like she could either turn into a scoring point guard, but I think it’s also obvious that she has all the tools to become an elite combo guard with the ability to penetrate the lane and score or distribute.

Toliver is hard to peg, but right now her only real strength as a pro is three point shooting. She really has not demonstrated the ability to distribute the ball efficiently at this point, which is why I would not put her in the “combo guard” category.

Of course, you could say she’s not that much worse than Montgomery, but from watching the two play, Montgomery is able to get by her defender and make plays. That simply is not Toliver’s game at the professional level. Right now she is a turnover prone three point shooter who seems to be looking for her own shot more than that of others. That doesn’t bode well for her future, but hopefully she’ll get better over time.

So in the end, the "best" of these three will depend on what a team wants...at least partially.

Here are a few other notes about the rankings:

So I’m sure seeing Kiesha Brown as the #2 point guard raises red flags about this process. However, despite the caveat that this is a small sample size, Brown is actually playing extremely efficient basketball right now.

Brown is not exactly a big playmaker but she is doing a great job of protecting possessions – her turnover percentage (the percentage of plays in which she commits a turnover) is 6.23, the second lowest of any point guard in this group (Vickie Johnson has yet to commit a turnover this year). Brown is playing better basketball this season and the statistics show that.

During last week’s game against the sky, Mike Thibault said the following about Brown during a halftime interview:
“Well I think part of her problem was that people were always trying to get her to be a starter where she was…in LA they started her a lot of games. And what happens with a lot of teams is they go get a cheaper backup…and what you get is a situation where we don’t need her to be a starter now. We’re not looking for her to be a starter. She could be if we had an emergency. But we’re looking for a player that can play a couple of roles for us – at both guard spots. And so I think it makes a difference in how you fit in a team when you know what the expectations are. LA needed her to be the starting point guard..and we don’t need her to be that, we need her to be a complement to Lindsay Whalen. And this may be why she can settle in a little bit better.”
The funny thing is that the same could be said about Temeka Johnson’s shift from LA to Phoenix – her role and expectations got clearer and she performed better. Obviously, Thibault was not taking a cheap shot at LA’s system…but…

Speaking of which, Temeka Johnson has been phenomenal this season. She is near the top in almost every category. The only one she is below average in is usage rate…which actually makes her season thus far more impressive – she is distributing the ball efficiently, and taking good shots while also not dominating the ball on a team with Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter. To this point, she has been the perfect fit for the Mercury...

Kristi Harrower #3? Really?

Let me just give you her numbers to this point:

PPR: 6.85 (#3)
Plus/Minus: +12.1 (#7)
True shooting %: 47.79 (#14)
Points per zero point possession: 1.98 (#6)
Turnover%: 5.40 (#1)
Assist ratio: 32.42% (#3)
2 point%: 47.3% (#7)
Usage%: 11.52 (#22)

Harrower is not a superstar point guard. But as of right now, she’s just not making many mistakes and getting the ball into the hands of her superstar teammates. She is not dominating the ball at all as evidenced by her low usage rate and that’s probably a good thing.

Would it be nice for the Sparks to have a more dynamic point guard? Sure. But Harrower is playing some of the most efficient basketball in the league right now, which is something that could not be said for any one of the Sparks’ point guards last year...

Sue Bird
has not been scoring very well to start the season (until yesterday), which is really hurting her ranking right now. It is likely that once she starts shooting more effectively she’ll rise in these rankings. But she's been on fire distributing the ball in the last three games after publicly lamenting a 7 turnover performance against the Lynx: 22 assists, 0 turnovers is not too bad...

Lindsey Harding
is currently ranked #12 which might be surprising given her relatively hot start. But while she is doing a lot right, her shooting has been abysmal thus far, with a true shooting percentage of 34.58% and a 2 point% of 23.68%...

In watching Whalen in the game against the Sky, she is still doing all she can to make plays for the Sun. The problem is the Sun have not been making shots (until about Friday); in that game against the Sky, I counted at least five assists that Whalen lost simply because her teammates did not make shots after Whalen set them up nicely...

Wondering about my personal favorite from last year, Leilani Mitchell (#18)? Some folks…ahem…some haters... suggested last year that if given starter minutes, Mitchell’s production would go down. Thus far, that’s exactly what’s happened this season. I have not watched the Liberty enough yet this year to say exactly what’s going on, but I can say her shooting numbers are among the lowest in this group and her assist numbers are down considerably as well. Hopefully she can turn it around...

Transition Points:

I was tempted to follow Draftexpress’ lead and add steals per 40 minutes to the mix. While it’s not a perfect proxy for defense, it does demonstrate a measure of athleticism. Something to think about for the next iteration.

I have to wonder if Renee Montgomery will assume a bigger role on the Lynx with Augustus out for the season. The reason is that they will have to replace her scoring somehow or seriously change their offense. Montgomery has demonstrated the ability to score in spurts and they might need more of that now.

I got a look at Shalee Lehning
for the first time yesterday. She is not necessarily a player who will “wow” you, but she makes good decisions with the ball and keeps the offense moving. She looks really comfortable within Atlanta’s offense. It was especially interesting comparing her to Leilani Mitchell because they both are very decisive young point guards. The big difference – and an important one – is that Mitchell is ultra-quick. It will be interesting to see how Lehning does as the season wears on.

Nikki Teasley also looked like a pretty good point guard in yesterday’s game against New York. She is extremely patient with the ball and just looks in complete control bringing the ball up the court. She’s decisive, but unlike Lehning or Mitchell she does not commit to a specific decision unless she’s sure it’s right. While Lehning and Mitchell spend a lot of time dribbling back and forth across the court surveying opportunities, Teasley just calmly surveys the situation and lets the game come to her. It’s impressive…and it’s showing up in the stats this year.

If only the Dream had played defense yesterday.

Two WNBA point guards have been signed to endorsement contracts with a new company that makes athletic shoes designed specifically for female athletes, Atlanta-based Nfinity. Will be interesting to watch for any of those promotions.

The Chicago Sky did not look very good against the Sun on Friday…and then dropped Saturday’s game against the Mystics who were also coming off a back to back. I am still a little confused about what they are attempting to do on offense. Hopefully they work that out as the season goes on.

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