Shavonte Zellous: A Talented Scorer and Promising All-Around Defender

. Friday, July 17, 2009
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Shavonte Zellous does not exactly have the same imposing physical presence that many of her Detroit Shock teammates bring to the court.

At 5’10” one could assume that she weighs no more than 140 pounds on a good day, a point only reinforced by the fact that most WNBA websites -- and the programs distributed at Key Arena -- don’t list her weight. Her wiry frame and seemingly nonchalant demeanor on the sidelines hardly seem to fit the profile of the successful professional athlete that we may have grown accustomed to.

And yet, underneath that slight build and unassuming demeanor is an immensely talented and athletic rookie who has not only earned a spot in the Shock’s veteran rotation, but also leads all rookies in minutes per game. Even though her statistics in the first 11 games of her rookie year have been less than stellar, it becomes obvious why Zellous has earned such a significant role in the Shock’s rotation when watching her play.

She plays with the confidence and tenacity of a veteran and is full of energy with plenty of energy to spare. She makes up for her slight frame with amazing speed, darting around the court to free herself for scoring opportunities on offense and disrupting the opponents’ plays on defense.

When I first heard someone compare her to her star teammate Deanna Nolan, I was immediately skeptical. Nolan is not only one of the WNBA’s top guards, scorers, and defenders, but she also possesses unparalleled athleticism. She almost seems to be gliding across the court when she runs with her long strides, looking so effortless that it almost hides just how fast she is. Could Zellous really become that good?

It’s difficult to tell just how good Zellous can become right now, but she certainly has all the athleticism, speed, and skill to warrant the comparison to Nolan. And of course it doesn’t hurt that she modeled her game after Nolan even prior to being drafted by the Shock.

So when I went to the Storm – Shock game at Key Arena on Wednesday night, Zellous was one of the players I chose to focus on and really a major reason I was looking forward to the game. I came away quite impressed.

An amazing ability to create shots…and working on making them

The draft preview described Zellous as, “an explosive and entertaining guard that has the ability to create her own shot off the dribble and either get to the basket or pull up with a smooth jumper.”

But so often it’s hard to tell whether that will translate into success on the professional level. Thus far, those abilities she displayed in college have done her well on the professional level as well.

In addition to being a close second to DeWanna Bonner (11.7) in points per game among rookies with an average of 11.5, Zellous is also among the league leaders in free throw rate and makes opponents pay for putting her on the line with a 90.9% free throw shooting percentage.

She draws fouls simply by out-quicking opponents – as a defender, if you give her any space she’ll quickly pull up for a jumper and if you player her close she has shown that she can blow by almost anyone. By the time most opponents can catch up, they’re grabbing at her a few steps behind. Once that jumper starts falling more often, she will be nearly impossible to guard.

A promising all-around defender

As amazing as she is offensively, I was far more impressed by her defense in watching her live against the Storm. I’m not sure I got a sense of just how fast she is and how much energy she plays with watching her on television (or LiveAccess). She is in constant motion. And that translates into really solid defensive play.

And when I say solid defensive play, I don’t just mean staying in front of perimeter players. Against the Storm, she guarded just about every position on the floor at various times. And no not just on switches or odd rotations – she was briefly matched up with the likes of all-stars Lauren Jackson and Swin Cash as well as forward Camille Little at various times, in addition to Storm guards.

But what’s important is that she was not just in the vicinity of these players creating an easy mismatch to exploit, but she fought…hard…and on more than one occasion, she was able to force them off their position, force a turnover, or even come up with a blocked shot. If defense is all about hard work and effort, Zellous’ performance against the Storm was the embodiment of that – she just seemed to want it a little bit more than the players she was guarding and found the strength to make plays on defense despite a serious size disadvantage.

Zellous’ toughness, tenacity and fearlessness on the defensive end is makes her a potentially special player at the professional level. While she’ll probably earn build her reputation as an offensive weapon, her defensive ability is what will probably allow her to find a long-term place in the WNBA.

Looking forward to a bright future

At halftime of the Storm-Shock game, an acquaintance who had followed Zellous since her high school days -- when she was an unheralded Pitt recruit out of Florida -- commented that that “this kid has a career”. And that seems to be an understatement.

She has all the tools to have a long and productive career as a key player on competitive WNBA teams. And there aren’t many players who can say that they actually have the opportunity to learn from the player they aspire to become.

However, just being around great players doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot unless a rookie is willing to listen. In talking about rookie point guard Renee Montgomery, Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Jim Peterson mentioned that one thing that makes Montgomery successful is that she is an active listener, constantly trying to get better. And watching Zellous during the game, it was clear that she possesses a similar desire to listen.

It seemed she was not only listening attentively to every word spoken on the sideline, but also actively seeking out information from almost anybody that would offer it – teammates or coaches, on the court or on the bench. She appears to be constantly engaged in a process of becoming a better player. And that could lead to great things in the future.

Transition Points:

Zellous is ranked third in the most recent rookie rankings and fourth in the most recent Rethinking Basketball rookie rankings. Aside from the ranking of DeWanna Bonner, Angel McCoughtry and Shavonte Zellous, the WNBA rankings differ quite a bit from my rankings. Given her defensive ability, I would definitely bump her up to third. Will be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season.

Zellous is one of three rookies in the top 20 of the highest percentage of unassisted field goals according to Swanny's Stats: Zellous is #16 with an unassisted field goal percentage of 58.1%, Renee Montgomery is 3rd at 72.5%, and Angel McCoughtry is 4th at 70%. I suggested these three would give Rookie of the Year front runner DeWanna Bonner a run for her money because of their ability to create scoring opportunities with the ball in their hands. This statistic would provide further support for their abilities.

Zellous is also right ahead of Shock teammates Nolan and Alexis Hornbuckle's 57.1% and Katie Smith is 10th at 62.7%. While the stat by itself only says that these players are able to create a number of scoring opportunities by themselves, the fact that all four guards in the Shock made this list means that they might not be getting the type of ball movement they had in their offense last year.

That theory is supported by the fact that their assists/field goals attempted percentage is 20% thus far this season -- last season, the lowest ast/fga percentage was the 4-30 Atlanta Dream with a ratio of 21.46%. Against the storm, their ratio was 38.3%. Ball movement might not be the only explanation for the Shock's woes -- they had an ast/fga percentage of 10% in their previous win against the Sun -- but it seems to be one potential difference from last season.

If the Shock are looking to get back on track this season, this might be the right time -- their next game is against the Phoenix Mercury (who will be missing Diana Taurasi due to suspension) and the Sacramento Monarchs (now in sole possession of last place in the WNBA with the Shock's win on Wednesday night) before a four game home stand.

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How the Shock Beat the Storm: Shock Remind the Storm That Basketball is a Contact Sport

. Thursday, July 16, 2009
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Once again the Seattle Storm faced an opponent that limped into Key Arena searching for answers to their flickering expectations and an unlikely win in a game in which they really had nothing to lose.

And once again, the Storm allowed what appeared to be an easy victim overcome the Key Arena mystique and beat them in their own house.

The basic boxscore explanation for the Detroit Shock’s surprising 66-63 victory over the Storm last night is reminiscent of the Storm’s previous loss to the Chicago Sky on Sunday night: the Storm allowed the Shock to shoot 53.2% from the field and a blistering 62.5% from the three point line.

In case you're new to basketball, a team that allows their opponent to hit more than half the shots they take for 40 minutes generally does not's just sort of hard.

However, the story underlying the statistics might be more important to understanding what happened in this game: the Shock just bullied the Storm into submission for most of the game, which is exactly what informed WNBA fans might expect them to do.

Long before Katie Smith’s outstanding performance late in the fourth, Detroit just seemed to be overwhelming the Storm with their physical style of play on both ends of the floor. Most Storm shots were contested, every cutter caught an elbow to the chest, and the Shock’s infantry of post players just out-muscled, out-hustled, and outworked the Storm’s frontline for most of the game.

While the physical nature of the game took its toll on both teams – Shock forward Kara Braxton left the game in the third with a bloody nose, shortly before Storm forward Lauren Jackson headed to the locker room with a calf injury – Detroit just seemed to keep coming with more bodies and more tenacity. They just never let up.

Perhaps none of that should be surprising from a Rick Mahorn coached team shaped by Bill Laimbeer.

However, what was even more impressive is that in the process of brutalizing the Storm, the Shock also seemed to be beating the Storm mentally. Even after hitting a lull early in the second half eroded their nine point halftime lead to two points before falling behind by four late in the fourth, the Shock just appeared unflappable. And in turn, while they kept their heads, they found ways to continually disrupt the Storm.

Detroit’s Defensive schemes kept Seattle off balance

With a number of physical post players along with very athletic perimeter players, the Shock are able to toss a number of defensive looks at their opponents and keep them off balance.

More concretely, this team appears to be so confident defensively, that it doesn’t matter if forward Cheryl Ford rotates to guard shifty guard Tanisha Wright or if diminutive rookie guard Shavonte Zellous is matched up with Camille Little. There is never any sign of panic – there seems to be a faith in the system and each other that they will pull through as a unit.

However, the other thing that having so many talented defensive pieces means is that the Shock are extremely flexible in terms of the type of defense they can throw at their opponents.

During one sequence late in the fourth quarter with the Storm up 63-62 after Katie Smith hit a pull-up jumper from the wing, the Shock’s man defense that had tormented the Storm all night suddenly morphed into a 2-3 zone. After wasting time on the shot clock trying to recognize the zone, Camille Little forced up a contested shot in the paint, and the Shock ended up just outworking the Storm for the rebound. Smith got the ball off of a screen on the other end and hit another jumper to put the Shock up one.

The Storm then brought the ball across mid-court on the next play and after having trouble recognizing the defense again, they spent a timeout with 53.6 to work out their strategy…only to get another contested jumper by Wright.

Sometimes it’s not just having talent or having the right pre-game strategy but using the right tactics at the right time to take the opponents out of their game and keep them just enough off balance to gain a tiny and temporary advantage. The Shock did that very well throughout the game last night.

After losing to the Sky at home on Sunday for the first time in over a year, most people in Key Arena probably expected the Shock to come out of the gate the more hungry and focused team last night. Unfortunately, the Shock had different plans. While it looked like Doppler came prepared to stare down the Shock, the Storm just didn't seem to have enough last night.

Did someone wake the snoozing champion?

2009 has been rough for Detroit thus far, but if last night’s game is any indication, this team might be ready to make a push to defend their title in the post-season again.

And unlike the Sky, who made their win in Seattle look like a fluke after their 84-74 loss to the Indiana Fever yesterday (that looked worse than the score indicates), the Shock appear to be putting things together rather than just haphazardly finding temporary solutions to long-term problems.

This could be crazy talk considering that they currently are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. But if they continue to stick to the physical style of play they treated Key Arena fans to last night, do you really think that erratic New York, Atlanta, Connecticut or even Chicago teams will stand in their way?

I haven’t watched enough Shock games this season to make claims that they have finally turned it around. Nolan is clearly still recovering from injury and working herself back to form. There still seems to be a lot of confusion out on the court, possibly the residual effects of the early season coaching change.

But there’s one thing you cannot deny when watching the Shock – this is a well-assembled, mentally tough, and extremely talented basketball team.

Transition Points:

A note on the refs (who missed a few and there...): A quote from Jayda Evans, "Officials don't know what a travel is in this quarter, but that's working in Seattle's favor."

Yes, the Storm got a few bad breaks, but so did the Shock. As a semi-neutral fan (it's hard to be fully neutral in the Key) I actually thought there were a number of bad calls and a lot of them against the Storm. The most important one: on that play at the end of the game where Wright drove and had the ball "knocked away" from her out of bounds. I was in pretty good position to see the play and it very, very clearly went off of Wright's leg out of bounds. Had the Storm actually made that last shot attempt, the Shock would have plenty to legitimately complain about. In other words, for Storm fans complaining about the refs, the reffing did not lose the game for the Storm -- the Shock did.

Despite failing to hit the shot near the end of the game, I was again quite impressed by Tanisha Wright. I say she has a good shot at an all-star spot…we’ll see what the coaches think.

Tomorrow: my impressions of Shavonte Zellous (she’s gonna be good…and I probably underestimated her in my latest rookie rankings)

Seeing Rick Mahorn in person was great as those Bad Boys Pistons are still special to me. I never saw them actually play in person (the Pistons heyday was before I attended my first NBA game in Oakland) so this was probably as close as I'll get. Wishing him luck on the rest of the season!

Kate Starbird was in attendance at Key Arena last night. She is apparently in graduate school in Colorado now studying technology in society in hopes of helping more girls get interested in technical fields. Definitely a worthy cause. Growing up in the Bay Area, I definitely remember hearing Starbird’s name quite a bit though I don’t have any vivid memories of her playing.

I went with the more traditional bratwurst instead of the Thai food last night. Big mistake – not only was the brat less filling, but for six dollars it was not nearly the same bang for the buck. Next time, back to the Thai.

Hoosiers is one of my favorite basketball dramas of all-time. During the break between the third and fourth quarter, the clip below from the movie as part of their Storm Vision trivia. The trivia question was something to the effect of, "What does Jimmy say in response to Gene Hackman after he asks, 'What's the matter with you?'" It was a rather simple multiple choice test, but the clip was still perfect to get the crowd riled up for a tight fourth quarter. Kudos to whomever is in charge of producing these little in-game activities.

And for the record, my favorite basketball movie ever is Hoop Dreams, followed closely by Heart of the Game. My favorite basketball drama (non-documentary) is Love and Basketball, followed closely by Hoosiers. All very different takes on basketball that capture different elements of what I love about the game and sometimes hate about the adults who control the game for youth.

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Rolling My Eyes At the All-Star Starters & Looking Forward to Reserves

. Wednesday, July 15, 2009
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Well…at least the fans didn’t vote Candace Parker as an all-star starter.

That’s good!

But that also means that they were actually watching the games…and still left out Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, Jia Perkins, and Nicky Anosike, without doubt the best players on the ballot at their respective positions and easily among the top ten players in the WNBA overall this season.

I know, I know…the criteria people use for all-star voting is about as rigorous as that of an elementary school student council vice president election (the student council president’s selection might be more rigorous). You know how it goes: someone gives a speech and promises pink lemonade in the water fountains or video games during recess and everybody just blindly votes for the kid. But really, it doesn't matter what the candidates say or do because ultimately, it's a popularity contest.

I get that.

But wouldn’t it be nice to publicly honor the players who have worked hard over the years to get to the top of their games with a starting spot in the all-star game?

It’s not so much that the players selected don’t belong in the game. For example, the selection that at first appears most perplexing – Swin Cash – is not that bad once you look at what she has done this season. She could make a legitimate claim for a spot on the roster…there were just at least 3 players on the ballot who were as deserving if not more than Cash.

So ultimately, I believe that everyone who deserves an all-star bid will get one. And really, look on the bright side – this just means that the coaches’ job got a lot easier. They’re busy people and since there are about 7 or 8 no-brainer selections for the reserves, at least they won’t have to take too much time to think about it…

But wait…

Maybe not thinking is what got in the way of the starters’ selections…hmmmm…

So, ok... hypothetically, if there was any interest in making sure the best players made the game, here’s who should probably be included on the roster. Instead of a strict positional breakdown, I’ll just pick one player from each position and fill in the rest of the spots with the best players available.

Some of these will merely be arguments repeated from my previous post on all-star selections, but some things – especially near the bottom of the reserves – have changed.

Eastern Conference reserves

I’ll start with the East because Jia Perkins has been the best guard in the conference this season, if not the best player in the conference overall…and she plays for the Sky, who I happen to like. Here are my picks:

G- Perkins
F – Shemeka Christon
C – Erika Desouza
1 – Sancho Lyttle
2 – Lindsey Harding
3 – Lindsay Whalen

In my original all-star selections, I did say that assuming Perkins had one starting guard spot locked up, Beard, Douglas, and Lindsay Whalen all had legitimate claims for the other starting spot. That’s still true, though I think at this point, Whalen is probably a bit behind the other three. But Perkins is clearly the best of that bunch.

What separates Perkins from Beard and Douglas is that in addition to being one of the top scorers in the East, she’s also one of the best play makers in the conference (and the WNBA). She is putting up numbers that rival those of an elite point guard in addition to being her team’s top scorer. Her assist rate of 19% is in the top tier of the league and well above Beard (9.28%, bottom third) and Douglas (12.4%, middle third). Her pure point rating (2.70) is better than that of Harding (2.40) and Whalen (1.71), easily the best two point guards in the conference.

But beyond the stats, she has single-handedly taken over games and carried her team to victory in at least two games that I’ve watched this year – at Seattle on Sunday (to end a 15-game winning streak) and in Chicago against the Monarchs. When the team is in a tight game down the stretch, the ball is in Perkins’ hands. And she brings energy on defense. Just watching her play, she has something special and is clearly the leader of that Sky team on the court. If Dupree and Fowles are in, Perkins has to be.

Sancho Lyttle could have legitimate reason to feel snubbed as well…and I did dedicate a whole post advocating for her to be a starter… but as of Monday, she and Candice Dupree are playing neck and neck, so it’s not as egregious. So she does get a spot on the team. But for the first forward position, Christon is playing so well that she deserves it.

It’s not just that Christon is one of the top scorers in the East, it’s also that she is assuming the majority of the burden for her team’s limited “success” thus far this season, while also scoring very efficiently. I’m normally not a big fan of pure scorers, but she’s doing it so well this year that she deserves credit.

The center position is where it gets tricky in the East. Desouza, Tammy Sutton-Brown, and Janel McCarville have arguably played as well or better than Fowles to this point in the season, keeping in mind that even though Fowles missed games, she has still played only one less than Desouza nad Sutton-Brown. Fowles is just the best defender of the bunch and is a force in the paint, so she deserved the start. But picking the back-up is tough.

I’m tossing McCarville out because no matter how you think about it, she’s contributing the least to her team’s success this season. She is probably the most talented center in the East, but has not exactly outperformed the competition. That leaves Sutton-Brown and Desouza and they too are pretty even. However there is one glaring, and important, difference between the two that I think matters for post players – 2 point percentage.

Desouza has been an outstanding finisher around the basket this season with a 2 point percentage of 55.65% while Sutton-Brown is at 46.73%. Given that we’re talking about centers who are otherwise quite even, this large differential swings my opinion in favor of Desouza.

Harding is the best point guard in the conference statistically no matter how you want to measure it and with her shooting percentages creeping upward, she deserves a spot.

That leaves one more spot and I think it’s a really tough choice between Whalen, Asjha Jones and Crystal Langhorne. Each one of them brings something very different to the table – Whalen brings intangibles and court leadership, Jones is one of the best scoring power forwards in the conference, and Langhorne is an outstanding rebounder. Any one of these three would be legitimate choices in my mind.

However, I would put Langhorne aside because she is really the third most important on her team behind Beard and Harding, whereas Whalen and Jones are leaders for their team, and I think that should count for something. But choosing between Whalen and Jones is difficult. There’s not a lot of separation there as neither is clearly the best at their respective position and they’re both pretty much equally responsible for the team’s success.

But I’m throwing my support to Whalen because in addition to being the leader of that team on the court, she is almost indisputably the best at running an offense in the conference, despite having an off year. And even in that off year, she’s really only second best to Harding who is having a great year. Jones is playing well, but is only an average rebounder this year, which make it tough to select her as a forward.

Western Conference

Independent of whether Taurasi will be able to play in the all-star game, she should be selected to the team. She’s having an amazing season. If the league suspends her, they can choose a replacement. With that in mind, here are my Western Conference picks:

G- Cappie Pondexter
F – Diana Taurasi
C – Nicky Anosike
1 - Charde Houston
2 – Tanisha Wright
3 – Temeka Johnson

The argument in favor of Pondexter and Taurasi should be relatively simple – they are arguably two of the top candidates for Most Valuable Player in the league on the best team in the West. Nobody in the West deserves it more than them.

After that, Anosike is the best center in the league this season, hands down. She is a top tier player in every single statistical category except usage rate and assist rate (where she’s right in the middle with a rate of 16.71%). But most importantly, she’s probably the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year – any time your center can come out to the perimeter and steal the ball from opposing guards you know you have something special. Anosike is that something special.

Anosike’s teammate Charde Houston is also having an outstanding season, carrying a large proportion of the scoring load and doing it efficiently in addition to doing a good job rebounding and taking on a large portion of the burden to win in Augustus’ absence.

Where the West gets tricky is with the last two spots. For me it’s between Wright, Johnson, Sophia Young and Ruth Riley. DeWanna Bonner looks good statistically as well and it’s hard to ignore her as a candidate for the all-star game. Of course, if Leslie is unable to play and Taurasi is suspended/unable to play, four of these players should get in making it easier to decide.

So first, Bonner is the best all-around athlete and basketball player of those five players. So why not just pick her? A very easy argument could be made that each of the other players except Riley means more to their team than Bonner. So perhaps that should eliminate Riley.

Next, Tanisha Wright is having the most productive season of this bunch, and similar to Perkins, she gets my respect for being a guard that’s putting up both scoring and facilitating numbers. In the Storm’s tough home loss to the Sky on Sunday, Wright was pretty much running the team when Bird disappeared. Kevin Pelton has nicely summarized Wright’s success already, so I won’t go on.

So that leaves Bonner, Johnson, and Young. To be honest, I’m partial to Johnson because she’s one of the top point guards in the league this season. While she and Bonner are close in terms of production or success metrics, the big difference is plus/minus – when Johnson is on the floor, she is not just producing, but the Mercury play better (+12.8). In contrast, Bonner is at -5.1. When their respective roles on their own team are considered, it would be very difficult to make an argument for Bonner over Johnson. Young is having a good season, but she is a scorer and her percentages are down thus far this season. So I’m choosing Johnson.

Looking Forward to Coaches’ Choices

Obviously, a lot of things are still up in the air in terms of who deserves to be on the all-star teams, especially with the players near the end of the roster. All of these players are in the top 30 or so in the league this season, so any of them would make a worthy participant in the all-star game.

An argument could be made that all four of those players I last considered in the West are more deserving of a spot than Cash, who is an all-star starter, but Cash is having a solid season on a good team.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how the coaches disentangle these issues and select rosters. Part of it is a matter of personal preference – I’m partial to players who produce wins and do so while doing the least harm to their team’s chances at winning. It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’s part of what differentiates great players from good ones.

Transition Points:

Fan voting is not only a WNBA problem -- it’s a problem across professional sports. I would actually be all for the players and coaches voting in the starters and having the fans vote in the reserves. The reason is simply – we can at least be sure the players have seen the players play…because they play each other. And wouldn’t it be cool to make the starting spots a peer choice award? At least the selection might have some credibility. Let the fans save their wacky selections for the bench.

In my scheme, Sacramento and Detroit would have no representation at the all-star game (in addition to Los Angeles, if Leslie is unable to play). But going back to that problem I have with focusing on players who win games, it’s hard to make an argument that a player on a cellar dwelling team is having an all-star season.

My “no-brainers” for the all-star team would also be my MVP candidates. Based on the season so far and the arguments I’ve just made above, my short list would be Taurasi, Pondexter, Lauren Jackson, Nicky Anosike and Jia Perkins. Right now, I’m going with Jackson, but of course we have a lot of season left to play.

If Perkins is not selected as a reserve
, she should revive Rodney Dangerfield’s “No Respect” comedy tour (but I hope she has a better social life)...because it would clearly be a tragedy of epic proportions.

And by the way, the reference to elementary school student council races
was not a manifestation of any long-held bitterness – I actually did campaign for and win a spot in third grade with some ridiculous slogan. I don’t even remember what we did except get the privilege to feel important attending.

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Rookie Rankings: Bonner the Frontrunner for ROY, But For How Long?

. Tuesday, July 14, 2009
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DeWanna Bonner is experiencing something of a dream rookie season, if not quite the historic season Candace Parker put together in the 2008 season.

Most rookies selected #5 in a professional sports draft are forced to withstand more losing in one season than they’ve ever experienced in their basketball lives (or perhaps decades of losing if you’re drafted by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors). Conversely, rookies that are drafted by winning times often have a difficult time cracking the rotation or end up with minor roles.

Bonner is one of the lucky few who gets the best of both worlds.

Not only did she get the honor of being selected fifth by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2009 WNBA draft, but she has also earned a spot in the rotation and arguably become one of the team’s key players. And did you happen to see how the Mercury demolished the LA Sparks and Chicago Sky and then pulled out a tough win on the road against the Monarchs? Yes, they’re a contender – and the way they’re able to blow teams out in 5-10 minutes is actually sort of scary.

Bonner just happened to land in a perfect situation that maximizes her strengths and hides her weaknesses. And really it’s a mutual fit – a running team like the Mercury needs players like Bonner. The Mercury help Bonner flourish and Bonner helps the Mercury flourish.

Unfortunately, Bonner’s rookie peers haven’t been so lucky – Marissa Coleman has been injured, and Briann January, Angel McCoughtry, Renee Montgomery, Kristi Toliver, and Shavonte Zellous have all gotten inconsistent playing time despite each having a breakout game. And yet, when those players have gotten opportunities, they’ve not only seized the moment, but they have also demonstrated the ability to literally carry their teams in one way or another for extended stretches. From those brief moments of excellence, one could certainly argue one of these other rookies could easily assume the mantle of front runner.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should make claims about the best rookie based on potential -- the Rookie of the Year award generally goes to the rookie who makes the biggest impact, not necessarily the “most talented/promising” or “most valuable” rookie. And as noted on the WNBA website, “Since 2001 every Rookie of the Year winner has started 100% of their games and only twice in the history of the award have the honorees come off the bench.”

However, without that informal criterion this season, it is likely that people will focus on points per game as their criterion for choosing the Rookie of the Year. Normally, I would challenge that narrow approach to the Rookie of the Year and propose a broader framework for rookie analysis. But the inertia of habit is not easily broken. So I give in...but that doesn't mean I'll confine myself to points per game either.

After putting some thought into the issue and watching some of the top candidates over the past week or so, it’s clear that after one third of the season, Bonner is indeed the clear front runner for ROY. However, when you actually observe the other talented first rounders -- like McCoughtry, Montgomery, Coleman, and Zellous – you see a demonstrated ability to make things happen and actually take over games. So I have to wonder how long it will be before another rookie grows into a role with their team and not only puts up numbers but also demonstrates an ability to dominate games. But the question is, how close is the competition to Bonner?

Rethinking Rookie Performance…again…

Last week I posted a slightly refined version of a rather long and winding stream-of-consciousness free write that was intended to frame my examination of this year’s rookies. In case you don’t feel like untangling my thoughts, it boils down to three core points:

1. Rookies are difficult to evaluate fairly because they are going to perform inconsistently as they try to transition from the NCAA to the WNBA, find a role on their teams, and of course continue developing their skills…so a linear production metric alone is somewhat inadequate.

2. However, when considering candidates for Rookie of the Year – an award given to a player based on an inherently erratic rookie performance – we should judge a player based on what they actually do, not what they might do later or cannot do.

3. To succeed as a player that contributes to a team’s success, a rookie needs to do something very well, especially when WNBA rosters have been trimmed down.

Realistically though, most people will probably stick with the points per game. So rather than try to persuade people of the value of using broader criteria, I’m going to suggest a more nuanced look at scoring ability based upon three questions:

1. How does she get their points? (descriptive)

2. How well does she create scoring opportunities for themselves? (evaluative)

3. Is there some demonstrated skill that sets her apart from other rookies and might help her succeed long term? (prospective)

Those questions might help shift the way we think about the best rookie from the end result of points per game to the means by which they put up those points and the actual skills they demonstrate in the process. Someone putting up points in big minutes on a bad team is not nearly as impressive as coming off the bench and showing the ball handling ability, post moves, or instincts to get open against WNBA competition in the process of scoring points.

Thankfully, I think there are statistics that might help us think through that…and a full description of how I conceptualized this analysis is here.

But in summary, here’s the sequential framework I’ve used for analysis of rookies:

First, I compared the rookies based upon their usage percentage, Chaiken scoring efficiency, and Boxscores.

Second, I looked at 2 point percentage, assist rate, and free throw rate to further differentiate those who fell behind on Doolittle’s framework.

Third, I took a look at offensive rebounding rate as another valuable skill for rookies to contribute, if not quite as important as the ones above based on the work of previous people.

(Again, all of those statistics are described here)

And instead of ranking players, I’m taking a different approach this time -- I looked at the rookie in relation to the rest of the league in order to see which rookies are doing things particularly well by WNBA standards rather than just rookie standards.

To do that, I broke each statistic into 3 tiers (about 50 players each unless there was a clear breaking point) giving me a sense of what it means to be above average, average, and below average in a given statistical category. As one might guess, the most productive players in the league also end up ranking as above average or average in multiple statistical skills.

What this helps us do is look not only at who is producing what, but also look at what specifically each rookie is able to do well.

The frontrunners: DeWanna Bonner and Angel McCoughtry

Bonner has been a statistical monster this season. Yes, she is coming off the bench. But what she’s doing in limited minutes is remarkable.

There are 17 players in the entire WNBA who rank in the top tiers in Boxscores, usage %, and pts/zero point possession. Bonner and McCoughtry are among that group.

One of those players (Janell Burse) is playing extremely well in limited minutes, but take a look at the rest of the elite company our two top rookies are among:

1. Diana Taurasi
2. Lauren Jackson
3. Cappie Pondexter
4. Katie Douglas
5. Jia Perkins
6. Charde Houston
7. Sancho Lyttle
8. Swin Cash
9. Candice Dupree
10. Alana Beard
11. Seimone Augustus
12. Shameka Christon
13. Betty Lennox
14. Hamchetou Maiga-Ba

Both Bonner and McCoughtry are statistically playing at an all-star level. So how do we differentiate?

Bonner is by far the better rebounder, ranking in the top tier of offensive rebounding in the league with an impressive rate of 21%. McCoughtry’s offensive rebounding rate is only a third of that at 7.5%. However, in total rebounding percentage – not one of my key skills but significant in comparing these two as forwards – McCoughtry (7.48%) is in the bottom tier while Bonner (16.79%) is in the top tier. Ultimately, one could argue that a forward who cannot rebound is not quite as valuable as one that can.

However, in one of the chosen skills – 2 point percentage – McCoughtry (49.38%) is in the top tier while Bonner (43.92%) is in the middle tier. So really, one could argue that choosing between McCoughtry and Bonner is a matter of taste and fit moreso than absolute quality – McCoughtry is by far the better ball handler and passer, as evidenced by her 15.49% assist ratio (middle tier) compared to Bonner’s 4.05% assist ratio.

But I am actually going to choose – and right now, I have to go with Bonner.

Bonner did just happen to be a perfect fit for the Phoenix Mercury, who drafted her #5 this year. And the Mercury’s system is conducive to big numbers for a player like Bonner – she gets a large number of her points off of fast break lay-ups and gets a number of free throw attempts as defenders try to keep up with her as she flashes across the key.

But a major asset that she adds to the Mercury’s system is that she has amazing instincts for a rookie. As the team runs up and down the floor shooting quick shots, Bonner is quick and athletic enough to get in position for an offensive rebound before anyone can catch up to her to box her out. Add to that her outstanding rebounding instincts and she is a player that is clearly a huge asset to a running team like the Mercury.

Bonner has proven that she can contribute to a WNBA team and do so rather efficiently. Similar to what I’ve said about Crystal Kelly on numerous occasions, she has amazing instincts and just seems to have a superior awareness of where to be on the floor to make plays for her team. And even if she doesn’t make the first shot, she's an excellent offensive rebounders, and draws fouls for an above average free throw rate. What she has that Kelly doesn’t is amazing athleticism and quickness, which allows her to get a number of offensive rebounds and second chance shots, despite her slight frame.

But here’s the kicker for Bonner -- is she someone who you would want to have the ball in her hands at the end of a close game to make something happen? Not necessarily based upon what I’ve seen.

If Bonner is forced to make a move to the basket requiring more than one dribble and beating a defender, she really struggles. She looks extremely awkward putting the ball on the floor and often misses shots when she gets the least bit of pressure before getting to the rim.

An interesting statistical point along those lines is that despite getting the majority of her scoring opportunities on fast break layups or layups cutting to the basket, she only shoots 45% on 2 point field goals. One can imagine that she will improve upon her two point scoring once she adds strength to her frame.

And that’s what makes this Rookie of the Year race interesting – a player like Angel McCoughtry can just do more with the ball than hit wide open jumpers or score off cuts on a fast break. McCoughtry has demonstrated the ability to put the ball on the floor and get by her defender, hit pull-up jumpers off the dribble, and she is even a decent passer.

The issue for McCoughtry is decision making and finding a consistent role in the Dream’s “system”. With the exception of her very low rebounding numbers, McCoughtry might end up being the better all-around talent a few years down the line. But again, this is an award that rewards current performance, not future potential…and right now Bonner has her beat, though I think the race is closer than most people are trying to make it. If McCoughtry finds a consistent role on the Dream in the next two-thirds of the season, McCoughtry could easily take the ROY award.

And there are at least three other players behind Bonner and McCoughtry that have real game changing ability rather than just being efficient contributors to a system perfectly suited for them.

The Contenders: Renee Montgomery, Shavonte Zellous, and Marissa Coleman

As the only two rookies that are top tier players in Boxscores, usage percentage, and scoring efficiency, Bonner and McCoughtry are clearly in front of the pack. But there are a few players right on their heels.

Renee Montgomery, who you may already know is a Rethinking Basketball favorite, is clearly the #3 rookie in the league based on this framework, ahead of Zellous for a simple reason – Montgomery is the more efficient scorer and has contributed more to her team’s success this season. Furthermore, as they are both point guards, the fact that Montgomery is a better play maker becomes relevant – neither has a pure point rating that one might expect from a starting point guard, but Montgomery has an assist ratio of 17.11% while Zellous has an assist ratio of 5.71%.

Just a few days ago before Montgomery really got comfortable with the Minnsota Lynx, Zellous would have clearly been #3 behind Bonner and McCoughtry. But Montgomery is getting increasingly more patient in choosing scoring opportunities in addition to finding a role within the Lynx’s offense, in no small part because of the outstanding coaching job of Minnesota coach (and my early pick for Coach of the Year) Jennifer Gillom.

But I’ve gushed enough about Montgomery.

Watching Zellous, it’s obvious that she is able to get her shot whenever she wants. Not only that, but she is extremely adept at getting herself to the free throw line with the second highest free throws made/field goal attempted in the league. Not bad for a rookie.

The problem is that she can get really trigger happy and singularly focused on taking very difficult contested jump shots. In one telecast, Atlanta Dream commentator LaChina Robinson compared Zellous’ game to that of Deanna Nolan. And aside from obvious differences in physical attributes and athleticism (I think Nolan is probably among the best pure athletes in the league) the comparison works in terms of style of play -- her ability to create space and get her jumper off is phenomenal. Making said jumper is another story – Zellous has a 2-point percentage of 35.29%, which I probably not need tell is in the bottom tier of the league.

If Zellous becomes more patient as a player and gets better at choosing her spots and distributing to others, she could be a force. But right now, when you beyond points per game and the ability to get to the free throw line, it’s hard to make an argument that she should rank ahead of the other three.

Unfortunately, I have not yet seen Coleman in one of her better pre-injury games. Nevertheless, she has an above average usage rate and Chaiken efficiency ratio implying that she can score efficiently (the only reason her Boxscore number is only average is because she missed games). The only troubling thing about Coleman is her 2 point percentage which was at 35.74% through Friday and she’s only an average rebounder. Again down the line, Coleman might be the better overall player, but for now, Bonner is probably the forward of choice.

Rotation players: Kristi Toliver, Briann January, Quanitra Hollingsworth

I honestly have not paid much attention to Hollingsworth while watching the Lynx. But briefly, Hollingsworth is about average in all of the aforementioned statistics and an above average rebounder in addition to having an above average free throw rate.

However, I have paid quite a bit of attention to January and Toliver. And while I think January might be stagnating as she continues to struggle with her shooting, Toliver might be on the rise after her impressive performance against the Storm.

For the season, the problem for Toliver is that similar to Zellous, she has no problem getting that picture perfect jumper off with an above average usage percentage, she just has not been shooting it very efficiently – she is in the bottom tier in Chaiken efficiency ratio. But what’s interesting is that she is also right behind January in the top tier in assist ratio and well ahead of Montgomery in that category. Considering her reputation as a shooter and a serious turnover problem, that’s what continues to impress me most about Toliver.

In the game against the Storm, she recorded 7 assists and 3 turnovers for a pure point ratio of 6.17 and an assist ratio of 33.33%, which are the type of numbers an elite point guard would put up for the season. Beyond the numbers, I was shocked by how good of a passer she is – she effortlessly makes pinpoint passes that put the receiver in perfect position to score.

You will not see Toliver make spectacular drives and the fancy highlight reel passes that bring the crowd to their feet, but that’s not always needed. And that’s what Toliver seems to understand – she typically makes the right play, even if that play is looking for her own shot.

However, one major flaw with Toliver as a point guard is that she is a suspect ball handler, which often results in mishandling the ball or turning it over. Furthermore, unlike the best point guards, she really struggles keeping a live dribble when any type of pressure is applied. That -- as much as foot speed and a quick first step -- is really what’s holding Toliver back right now.

Perhaps her ball handling skills will develop over time allowing her to get herself open for even better scoring opportunities. But for now, if she is given minutes and a clear role (in a clearly structured system) her basketball IQ will take her a long way and perhaps catapult her into that “contender” range.

January is pretty much the polar opposite of Toliver – she is the only rookie point guard with a positive pure point rating and high assist ratio. She is an excellent ball handler and has great court vision. Her problem is shooting. Part of that may be mechanics as her shot often comes off flat. But all of her scoring efficiency numbers are below average. I still like her quite a bit as a point guard who is able to get the ball up the court and make the right pass. But she has been pulled from games on more than one occasion for trying to make “showtime” passes after driving through the defense.

The underdog: Shalee Lehning

Here’s my bold statement of the day: by the end of this season, Lehning could record the most starts of any rookie. She is by far the most effective point guard on the Dream’s roster. And that would make a great playoff feature story, should the Dream make it that far – Lehning was certainly not expected to even stick with a roster this season.

However, Lehning is not spectacular, which leads many people to underestimate her. But what’s perplexing to me is the way in which people attempt to dismiss Lehning. This phrase has never made much basketball sense to me: all she does is bring the ball up the floor and pass it to scorers. To which I respond, isn’t that part of a point guard’s job -- that she does that better than most of the other five on the court?

Queenie from Game Notes of Doom best characterized the value of Lehning’s game as follows:
Lehning didn't impress me, except that by being unremarkable, she proved that she belonged as a rookie, and that's no bad thing. It usually takes players a lot longer to look that comfortable on the court.
If being a point guard is all about decision making, then Lehning’s ability to comfortably make good decisions should be commended, not condemned. And if she cannot shoot well, then deciding not to shoot is a good decision, not a problem. Would it make her better if she could work on her shooting? Sure. But the same could be said for January and -- in a different way -- Zellous.

So the fact that Lehning has a 55% true shooting percentage and a 60% 2 point percentage despite being a poor shooter actually speaks to how good a decision maker she is with the ball, despite having a below average usage rate and Chaiken efficiency rating. And a derivative of that good decision rate is Lehning’s assist rate, which is a league high 54.51%... a good ten percent ahead of the second place guard – ironically, Nikki Teasley (44.64%).

Now to keep things in perspective, last season Leilani Mitchell posted a league-high 38.7 assist rate in addition to an extremely high pure point rating and struggled this year as a starter for the Liberty. So all the assist rate tells us is that Lehning is really just doing little else aside from passing because she shoots so infrequently.

That Lehning is also not able to post the astronomical pure point rating that Mitchell posted last season also does not bode well for her career. But this much can be said about Lehning – coach Marynell Meadors seems to like her, she appears to be a hard worker, and we can expect her to continue to get better as she has already this season.

Untapped potential: Courtney Paris, Chen Nan

I’m not sure which is the trendier thing to do this season: dismiss Lehning or Paris.

Conventional wisdom goes that the transition from college post player to professional post player is the most difficult because there is simultaneously an adjustment in power and strength as well as skill. Players like Paris who were used to just overwhelming college opponents with their size and strength suddenly realize that professional players are not pushed around so easily. Conditioning aside, Paris has what it takes to make it as a post player.

Paris has great hands, absolutely beautiful footwork in the post, and a quick release. She illustrated that she was extremely decisive from the first time I saw her, but the big difference in her last few games is that she’s far more patient with her moves. That is why she ranks in the top tier in the league in Chaiken efficiency ratio – she gets the ball and makes a quick decision to either get to the basket or kick it back out.

And of course she’s a great rebounder – even prior to the big game she had against the rather thin Mercury frontcourt, she had the highest offensive rebounding percentage (the percentage of available rebounds she gets while on the court). She is a big body and she knows how to use it.

While many people are dismissing her more recent performances as one-off occasions, her skills were evident from the beginning. And she is adjusting rapidly. She still has limited range on her shot, but I think that could be said about many post players when they first enter the league. As Paris develops and adds more muscle to her frame, she will only get more effective at the things she does well in the post. It will be interesting to see if the coaching change in Sacramento will bring more minutes for Paris or perhaps a role that better maximizes her strengths.

Chen Nan falls just outside my top ten, but I think deserves a mention, if for no other reason because mobile tall people are not particularly abundant in the world. Nan ranks pretty much average in all the aforementioned statistics, except Chaiken efficiency ratio and assist ratio, and has an above average 2 point percentage.

However, in watching her what impresses me most is that like Paris – though to a lesser extent -- she does have a variety moves in the paint and in the Storm game on Sunday, she even showed that she has a nice outside touch as well. She was far better playing next to Fowles than playing next to Dupree in that game, but she fits into Chicago’s post rotation very well. She is not nearly as far along as some of the other rookies here, but she definitely has tools that can be molded into becoming an effective reserve for a team like the Sky.

Final Rankings

1. DeWanna Bonner
2. Angel McCoughtry

3. Renee Montgomery
4. Shavonte Zellous
5. Marissa Coleman

6. Kristi Toliver
7. Briann January
8. Quanitra Hollingsworth

9. Shalee Lehning

10. Courtney Paris

Of course, we are only about a third of the way through the season…so these rankings could change drastically. But the bigger point is that while Bonner appears to be in a class all by herself right now, any of those players in the top 5 have demonstrated skills that will make them a serious threat to Bonner in the next two thirds of this season.

But fundamentally something else that may play a role in this year’s ROY race is that something intangible that separate the great basketball players from the good ones. Some people call it the “It Factor”. It goes beyond merely possessing the mechanical skills to play the game or the physical tools – athleticism or height – to overwhelm opponents. And it certainly cannot be measured statistically.

It’s most readily visible in the form of a controlled aggression. It’s the awareness to make the right play at the right time more often than not. And it’s sometimes embodied within a unique swagger that exudes a confidence that lets you know that she knows that she can take over at any moment.

But it’s also the ability to outlast an opponent in a battle of wills. It’s an ability to put a team on your back and carry them to victory. It’s the ability to create the big shot in the clutch when everyone else on the court is looking to someone else to step up. It’s an appreciation for the magnitude of the moment without concern for the possibility of failure.

When considering front-runners for Rookie of the Year, this intangible “It factor” perhaps takes on greater significance than it does for the MVP for one simple reason: rookies are inevitably inconsistent. Rookies are constantly adjusting, developing, and learning and it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that the best rookies might not have the best overall statistics or be a significant contributor to wins…which is all the more reason to keep watching…

Transition Points:

From the statistical league leaders, you might also gather that I would say Lauren Jackson is the clear frontrunner for MVP as well – she is carrying more weight individually to help her team win than any other player in the league and doing so very efficiently.

Last year’s Rethinking Basketball rookie favorite, Leilani Mitchell, ranks in the bottom tier of every single category I looked at except assist ratio. I’m still rooting for her, but such a dramatic change is somewhat shocking.

I hesitated to include winning in the framework, but I think it’s an important element to consider if we’re going to think about usage and efficiency – I really don’t care how creative or efficient you are if you don’t contribute to my team’s success somehow. You play to win the game…

This year, Montgomery is my favorite, but for some reason, I can't help but root for Toliver and Paris as well. I want Toliver to do well for the Sky's sake...and Paris played high school ball in the neighborhood I briefly lived in growing up. For now though, only Toliver gets her name in the tag cloud.

In another Basketball Prospectus article, Doolittle mentioned that somehow athleticism should somehow be taken into account as well. He is working on a metric for that, but one thing I've noticed from NBA summer league games is that steals tend to be a decent proxy for athleticism, at least for guards.

There are of course other ways to look at rookies
. Petrel from the Atlanta Dreams Blog and Kevin Pelton from the StormTracker blog have also provided us with their analyses.

By the way, these statistically based rankings seem like the perfect time for a reminder about truth, reason, and subjectivity -- I cannot say that these rankings will lead us only to the truth, but I do believe that they might illustrate truth-like properties.

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The (Tentative) Rethinking Basketball Rookie Ranking Framework

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This is my explanation of how I created my first rookie rankings this season. Those rankings can be found here.

I return to a January 2008 article by Bradford Doolittle at Basketball Prospectus, which provides some great insight into analyzing rookies in commenting on Kevin Durant and the 2008 NBA Rookie of the Year race:

Any successful team must have players that can create offense. A team of the five most efficient players in the game (call them the Fabricio Obertos) would have a tough time scoring because they rely on these high-usage types to create opportunities for them.

This explains statistically the difference between a guy like Durant and someone like J.J. Redick. We can watch those two play and the difference is obvious. Redick is undersized and slow and even though the Better Basketball folks consider him perhaps the greatest shooter of all time, it doesn't really matter because he can't create his own offense. Meanwhile, the long, athletic Durant can pretty much pull up and take a jump shot any time he wants, which is something he chooses to do a little too often at this early juncture of his career. Durant's usage rate (8.2) dwarfs Redick's (-2.9).

We don't need the numbers to differentiate between Kevin Durant and J.J. Redick, but for a lot of players, the differences are more subtle and usage rate can help sort out the prospects from the suspects. For the most part, the ability to get your own shot (or get to the foul line) is either something you have or you don't. Usage rates certainly fluctuate from season to season but, generally speaking, usage rate tracks an innate skill.

I remember the first game that Michael Jordan played after his first retirement, which was a Sunday afternoon game at Indiana. Jordan went 7-for-28 from the field and the color analyst, who I want to say was Doug Collins, said something like, "You have no idea how much skill is involved in being able to get off 28 shots in an NBA game."
Just to elaborate and make the point more explicitly, a rookie’s ability to produce points might not be quite as important as the means by which the player creates those points. So even if we use points per game as our primary point of reference, paying attention to what the player actually does once they have the ball in their hands may be useful. In some ways it comes down to a matter of creativity – the ability to perceive multiple outcomes to a given situation and having the ability to bring one of them to fruition.

As Doolittle’s article suggests, it might be interesting to think about how a rookie balances creating opportunities with their scoring efficiency, so as not to just valorize ball hogs. Doolittle does that by comparing the usage rates and efficiency rates of NBA rookies. I’m going to do something similar.

Usage rate is the estimated percentage of plays a player “uses” while on the court (click here for description). It gives us an idea of how often a player attempts to create a scoring opportunity while on the court. Just for some perspective, here are the top ten players in usage percentage as of Friday, July 10 this WNBA season, rookies italicized.

Sophia Young 28.43%
Betty Lennox 28.42%
Becky Hammon 28.41%
Angel McCoughtry 27.87%
Deanna Nolan 27.72%
Nicole Powell 27.63%
Kristi Toliver 27.24%
Charde Houston 27.05%
Seimone Augustus 26.70%
Chamique Holdsclaw 26.66%

For the sake of comparison, last year’s final numbers are available at the Lynx statistics site.

I think (hope) we can all agree that this list represents the players who most frequently produce their own offense. But that is not to say that Angel McCoughtry should win rookie of the year – at some point, we need to take into account whether the player is just chucking everything they touch or actually taking good shots. Doolittle uses his own creation of “efficiency rating” and I’m going to use something similar that Bob Chaiken created called “points per zero point possession”. Since that label is just confusing, let’s just call it “Chaiken Efficiency Ratio”.

Conceptually, Chaiken Efficiency Ratio (description here) is the ratio of points a player is individually responsible for to the possessions that a player is individually responsible for ending without points. It’s a proxy for scoring decision making – if a high usage player is able to create points more often than they waste a scoring opportunity, we can say they are making good scoring decisions.

So here are the top ten as of Friday in Chaiken Efficiency Ratio:

Shameka Christon 3.27
Seimone Augustus 3.23
Lauren Jackson 3.07
Diana Taurasi 2.67
DeWanna Bonner 2.59
Sancho Lyttle 2.58
Cappie Pondexter 2.53
Ruth Riley 2.52
Vanessa Hayden 2.48
Le’Coe Willingham 2.44

So Seimone Augustus becomes an example of what looking at these two metrics together tells us. Prior to her very unfortunate injury, Augustus not only demonstrated the ability to create shots, but she was creating good scoring opportunities for herself rather than wasting a scoring opportunity with a missed shot or turnover. You can put the ball in Augustus’ hands and count on something good happening.

Doolittle also considers a metric named “Wins Added” to see how much (or little) a player has done to help their team win. This is extremely useful to differentiate players who are extremely effective in limited minutes vs. the stars who are consistently able to impact the game in bigger minutes. After all, that’s the greatest thing about sports -- you play to win the game. You don’t play to just play it… and run around jacking up shots. A player who is taking a lot of shots and not contributing to wins is actually harmful.

But instead of using Wins Added, I’m going to go back to using David Sparks' Boxscores, which I used last year (described here). Boxscores measures player value in terms of how their contribution to the team’s overall production relates to the team’s success (wins). It essentially asks the question, what proportion of the team’s victories can be attributed to the player’s statistical production? As a metric that measures the relative contribution of a player to their team, it seems like a good fit to measure a player’s impact. The number is essentially the proportion of the team’s wins that the player is individually responsible for.

Here are the players with the top ten Boxscores this season:

Lauren Jackson 2.26
Diana Taurasi 2.11
Tamika Catchings 2.00
Nicky Anosike 1.99
Cappie Pondexter 1.96
Katie Douglas 1.57
Jia Perkins 1.52
Tammy Sutton-Brown 1.36
Charde Houston 1.32
Sancho Lyttle 1.31

So Doolittle’s framework of statistical analysis might lead us to make this statement about the standard by which we evaluate a rookie’s impact: the best rookies can create their own scoring opportunities – and do so efficiently – while contributing to a team’s wins. Of course, different players will balance those things differently...but the ideal in this framework would include creativity, efficiency, and winning.

However, that does not address the third point I made in my post last week – that the best rookies demonstrate the ability to do something well. Scoring ability is just one skill of many and given that people are likely to focus narrowly on points per game as their criteria for evaluating rookies, a more nuanced understanding of scoring ability is useful. But what other skills might be valuable?

Yes, there is even an interesting statistical answer to that.

A recently published study by Miguel A. Gomez and a group of colleagues from Spain found that the most powerful variables discriminating between starters and non-starters in the WNBA are successful 2-point field goals, successful free throws, and assists – in particular, in the WNBA successful 2-point field goals and assists are strongly associated with winning teams, while successful free throws are strongly associated with starters and non-starters. So rookies who do those things well are particularly valuable to a team’s success.

This idea essentially fits with a lot of the other ways I already use statistics for analyzing point guards and team dynamics. However, I’m going to deviate from Gomez and colleagues’ framework slightly and look at made free throw rate instead of free three percentage as a secondary proxy with which to analyze a player’s ability to make offensive moves that draw fouls.

That free throw rate statistic has to be used with the caveat that the number could theoretically be skewed by players earning three free throws when “idiots” foul someone in the act of shooting a three or when a lead ball handler earns free throws during the bonus. Nevertheless, when looking at who has the highest free throw rates in the league, the players who are most adept at driving and getting to the basket do indeed float to the top.

And last, I’m going to add rebounding as another essential skill that is useful to WNBA teams based on Dean Oliver’s Four Factors, rebounding being the only one of the four factors not discussed thus far. Offensive rebounding in particular is important because it extends possessions and puts additional pressure on the defense, but even more simply, the fact that they are more rare makes players who can do that well more valuable.

Find the first full rookie rankings here.

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Sky Offer Glimpse of a Bright Future In a Stunning Victory Over the Storm…at Key (!!)

. Monday, July 13, 2009
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Two of the three people I chatted with at Key Arena last night prior to the Chicago Sky’s surprising 86-81 victory over the Seattle Storm expressed similar thoughts with the news that Sylvia Fowles would be returning to the Sky’s lineup:

Well, hopefully they’ll be able to make a game of it.

On the court warming up was a young, sputtering Sky team that had lost four in a row. In their last two games, they traveled to Phoenix for the privilege to get trampled by a Mercury stampede and then got discomfited at home by the Indiana Fever.

There was no way a Sky team that looked so lost and confused would compete with Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird with those crazy Key Arena fans shouting at them.

So it’s a good thing that Sky team that got routed at home by the Fever chose to stay in Chicago. We may never know what they did to that old Sky team, but it’s doubtful that anybody will miss that disorganized and demoralized team.

There are a number of interesting themes and story lines that one could take from last night’s game in addition to Fowles’ return.

Sue Bird was missing in action, going 1-10 from the field. The Sky shot a scorching 63.2% from the three-point line. And a large part of that hot three point shooting was Kristi Toliver, who had a breakout game, keeping pace with fellow rookies Renee Montgomery and Courtney Paris who also formally introduced themselves to the WNBA this past week.

However, the overarching theme that struck me as I watched the game was that the Sky actually looked like a coherent basketball team, like they had actually played together before or practiced a few plays.

For the first time this season, I was not asking that same tired question: What exactly are they doing? That goes beyond Fowles’ return or Toliver’s hot shooting. It was like a shift in mindset or philosophy occurred after the loss to the Fever.

If the Sky played like they did last night all the time, they would be atop the Eastern Conference.

If the Sky continue to play that well, they will be a threat to make some noise in this year’s playoffs.

And if the Sky’s young players continue to develop individually as they become a stronger unit, they will be a perennial contender for a long time.

So what on earth happened?

Really, both teams played well overall last night, the Sky just played better. I say that acknowledging that the Storm did seem a little flat and confused on offense and had erratic defensive rotations. However, the fact is that they played well enough to stay within one or two shots of a team that shot 60.8% from the field. Which probably makes this a particularly tough loss for the Storm – as Sue Bird said, this was one they could have had and let slip away.

Part of the story for the Storm is that although Bird had an off game, Tanisha Wright played extremely well. She played by far the best game for the Storm and at times, the best player on the floor for either team. The most impressive element of her game on display last night was her ability to set up her teammates.

While Wright is not necessarily an exceptional ball handler, she is a very decisive ball handler and she attacks holes in the defense extremely well when she sees them open up. That allows her to get to the rim extremely well, but also set up open teammates when she draws help defenders.

Last night, she not only scored 18 points on 6-9 shooting, but also had an assist ratio of 32.34% and a pure point rating of 5.20, numbers that resemble those of the league’s top point guards. She was not only looking to distribute the ball to others, but she was doing it extremely well. While there is not really an adequate substitute for what Bird brings to the game as a point guard when she’s on, Wright did an admirable job of keeping the Storm in the game.

Given how well Wright played and that Jackson turned in a decent performance, if the Storm had gotten a better scoring performance from Bird, they could have won this game. Aside from Jackson, they went 1-10 from the floor as a team. From that point on, they didn’t shoot below 50%, shooting 73% in the second quarter. Their assisted field goal percentage was also relatively high, staying well above 70% after the first quarter.

The Sky were just far more consistent and kept the pressure on the entire game.

There’s a reason why I’ve said the Sky are my favorite team: they not only have all of the pieces in place to be a successful basketball team, but those pieces are extremely talented.

Two post players whose skills complement each other perfectly to put an enormous amount of pressure on the defense. A MVP candidate and one of the best all-around players in the league. And a number of perimeter players who can shoot the three, especially with Toliver playing well. All they needed to do was pick a system – and a rotation -- and run it consistently to maximize their talent.

In statistical terms however, what makes the Sky potentially great is that they have all the elements of the Four Factors covered as well as the Synergy rating metric that I added as part of my “Team Dynamics ratings” last year. While the key factors statistically for the Sky last night were shooting and synergy, the most important thing was the way they played the game.

First, they were looking inside to both Dupree and Fowles. In fact, it almost caught me off good when they went to Fowles right away, getting her the ball on four of their first six possessions. Yes, oddly that’s not the norm for this team – getting the ball their 6’6” center.

But last night, they chose to establish the post game early and work outward from that. In doing so, they put pressure on the Storm to constantly rotate and open scorers all over the court. And to Fowles’ credit, she was great at passing the ball back out of the post if she couldn’t make anything happen herself. Even though she didn’t score and didn’t record a lot of assists, she was responsible for setting the tone for the game and getting the offense going in the beginning.

But second, in order for an offense to work through the post, the guards have to throw it into the post. Post entry passes sometimes seem like a lost art, but the Sky did an extremely good job last night. In fact, one of the things that really made their offense look different last night is that they were actually looking to get it into the post.

They often run a dribble-weave type play where the three perimeter players weave around the three-point line passing the ball to each other. Normally it seems as though they get so caught up in just running the play – weaving in and out and handing the ball off – that they don’t look to actually create scoring opportunities. The main thing they did well last night was to actually recognize scoring opportunities when they arose and actually use the weave to keep the defense off balance and find passing lanes rather than just randomly running a weave.

By using their passing to break the defense rather than just looking for one-on-one opportunities, the defense was forced to rotate. Another quick pass forces a second rotation and by then the defense is scrambling. Keep moving the ball and eventually a scoring opportunity opens up. Having a player like Toliver who has a beautiful quick release only enhances the offense because she made the defense pay for poor rotations.

However, even though it should be clear by now that I am partial to maximizing ball movement, sometimes at the end of close games it just comes down to having someone who can take over the game. For the Sky last night, it was Jia Perkins. By my Credit numbers, she was the third most important player behind Dupree and Toliver. And while Dupree and Toliver definitely played better over the first three quarters, having Perkins on the court down the stretch was essential for the Sky.

Down two points with 4:48 left, Perkins just decided to take over. She scored 10 consecutive points on a mix of three point shots, drives, and jumpers. Then she drove and got an assist setting up a three for Dupree. When you have a player who you can trust with the ball in their hands for 13 consecutive points, it makes end of game strategy really simple – get the ball to Jia and run the offense. Perkins might not be the top candidate for MVP this season, but I cannot think of five better candidates than her for the award at this point in the season.

A strong post game complemented by strong perimeter shooting and a MVP candidate who can single-handedly drag the team across the finish line – if the Sky continue to follow the blueprint they followed last night, they will give the Fever a strong challenge for the Eastern Conference title.

Related Links:

Wright Fills Important Role for Storm

Transition Points:

There will be more on Toliver tomorrow…and watch out – Chen Nan too. (Click here to see those rookie rankings)

Fowles left the game late in the fourth quarter after a collision and did not return. I cannot find an official report anywhere, but I overheard coach Key talking in the tunnel after the game and he was saying that it was a dislocated shoulder that they popped back in and should be ok. Hopefully it does not become a long-term problem.

Tanisha Wright is quietly putting together a very good season and has been an outstanding complement to Sue Bird. I was looking at some league stats the other day and in addition to being in the top ten in assists this season, she has been among the most productive players overall. She probably will not get an all-star bid, but she deserves serious consideration.

Lauren Jackson played well in the first half, but was less effective in the second half. Part of that is that she got at least three scoring opportunities in the first half off offensive rebounds and three point play opportunities (although she missed the free throws). For some reason, she just got less scoring opportunities in the second half, getting off only four shots.

Janell Burse is also having a remarkably productive season. It’s hard to point to one thing she does well, but she just really does not make a whole lot of mistakes. She is one of those players who seems to have a sense of what she can do well and just puts herself in position to do that.

Someone recently suggested that I build my point guard rankings
around watching Sue Bird closely and figuring out how to evaluate point guards based on her performance. Actually, Sue Bird's shooting slump at the beginning of last year was what inspired the point guard rankings last year. And what stood out last year also stood out last night – Bird is at her best when she is in attack mode. When she gets in a zone carving up defenses and creating for others, she is almost unstoppable and it makes the Storm almost impossible to beat, even if she isn’t shooting well.

That is where my basic claim about point guards comes from: playing point guard, moreso than any other position, is all about decision making rather than purely measuring points, assists, and field goal percentage. To the extent that we can find ways to measure the effectiveness of their decision making on the floor, I really think we can come up with valid ways to quantify what a point guard does well. The fact is, when Bird is in attack mode, Bird is hands down one of the best decision makers in the game (I believe Penicheiro in her prime was probably the best ever).

Watching Bird’s defense was also useful to reinforce a point I (and others) have made repeatedly – it’s almost impossible to quantify defensive performance. Bird was guarding Toliver and “responsible” for a few of those threes Toliver made, but it was unclear what exactly was going on for the Storm defensively on many of those shots, especially in the second quarter. It looked like there was just confusion about who was supposed to rotate where and on at least two occasions, Bird looked like she was dropping off Toliver and nobody rotated to pick her up. Without knowing what they were trying to do, it was difficult to know whether Bird was to blame or someone else.

Because every point guard is part of a particular defensive scheme, it’s really hard to come up with a way to compare them that makes any kind of sense.

I forgot to check my camera’s batteries
before the game. Or let me rephrase – I checked them, but didn’t bother to walk the two blocks to the store to buy batteries before entering the arena. So no pictures. Idiot.

Key Arena offers Thai food now
and I decided to splurge on one of those dishes rather than go for the overpriced hot dog. This was a big ordeal for me – hot dogs and beer just seem to be necessary for any live ball game. However, the Thai food and Coke did me well and was much more filling (and healthy?) than a hot dog and beer.

They showed Part 2 of the Storm history series
last night and I really enjoyed that too. The best part was when they showed a clip of Lin Dunn responding to a reporter who asked if the Storm would be trading Sue Bird after she was drafted. Her concise, confident, precise, and simple response drew a loud response from the crowd -- "No."

A quick note on Jenny Boucek's firing from Sacramento: Baffling. As in I can't even wrap my head around how inexplicable it is. Fortunately, Mechelle Voepel is in a good position to make the argument that the decision goes beyond "baffling" to "senseless". I'll co-sign. Check out her blog post if you get a chance.

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