WNBA draft shooting guard prospects: Balancing taste and tournament performance

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 06: Kalana Greene #32 hugs Caroline Doty #5 of the Connecticut Huskies after a 53-47 win against the Stanford Cardinal during the NCAA Women's Final Four Championship game at the Alamodome on April 6, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

While University of Connecticut forward Maya Moore stole the show in the second half to lead UConn to their 78th win against Stanford University in the national championship last night, WNBA prospect Kalana Greene was quiet.

Too quiet?

Greene certainly didn't have the type of standout night that gets fans excited about drafting her - she finished with 6 points on 1-4 shooting. She also finished with 5 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal and by not shooting much, didn't hurt her team with errant shooting. The sum total? Statistically, she was still that third wheel that she's been all season, accounting for 10% of the team's overall production. Not that WNBA GMs and coaches will really base their decision on one game on the biggest stage - they've watched her for four years.

Nevertheless, what Greene has gotten that some other shooting guard prospects haven't is exposure. Just being on a tournament team in the spotlight as a supporting cast member for arguably two of the best three players in the nation certainly does give Greene a boost, especially with a loaded shooting guard position. Conversely, players who have been out of the spotlight for a while - like Penn State's Tyra Grant - might get the short end of the stick as a result.

Tyra Grant Readies for the Draft With the Help of WNBA Legend Yolanda Griffith - Swish Appeal
To Grant, the reason is simple: out of sight, out of mind. While other prospects have been playing in tournaments and creating a buzz - some substantive and some artificial - Grant has been watching from afar.

"It's hard to show people what you can do, when you're not necessarily able to show people you can do it," said Grant.

In a pre-draft media teleconference yesterday with Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, I asked about the importance of exposure, particularly for a player like Grant.

"I understand her frustration and concern," said Reeve, speaking from her experience as someone who has evaluated prospects for 11 years. "And it's probably not what Tyra wants to hear, but typically players elevate their team's play if they're able to exist in the WNBA and find success. And they're going to elevate their team's play to a point where we will see them on the national stage. If that does not happen then you certainly have question marks about a player."

And there is a mix of exposure and non-exposure in this group -- big names from big conferences, lesser names from big conferences, and players from smaller conferences who made a name for themselves on the big stage. As Reeve said, this position -- perhaps more than any will be determined heavily by GM preference.

"For us it's a little bit different from the rest in that we're going to have an opportunity to pick the best in the group," said Reeve referring to Monica Wright and Epiphanny Prince. "It's really a mater of taste and what coaches like in a player. Somebody may want defense, somebody may want length, they may want three point shooting. It's really all about a team's need in terms of how they figure out how to fit."

So although there are numbers next to names indicative of relative rankings, they should certainly not be considered indicators of "best available" for any given team -- that will depend far more on need.

Here is my best assessment based on the numbers with some insight from people in the know.

  1. Monica Wright, Virginia

Reeve identified two scoring guards who are clearly ahead of the pack: Prince and Wright. Statistically, Wright definitely ranks as among the top prospects in the draft. The difference may be that whereas Prince says she feels more comfortable running point, Wright definitely feels more comfortable playing the wing. Statistically, what makes her impressive is that she is a high usage player who shoots the ball relatively well overall, meaning she has the ability to create scoring opportunities and convert. Her free throw production rate is also solid. Moreover, the thing that stats simply don't account for well is defense and she has a strong build and a tenacity on defense that will make her a solid wing defender. Her outstanding steal percentage just above 6% is indicative of not only a strong defender, but a strong athlete overall and a strong indicator of pro success. Her defensive rebounding rate is also the highest of any shooting guard prospect.

However, although she's widely considered the best shooting guard prospect, she's not without flaws. Her 2 point percentage is about average among legit shooting guard prospects and Pts/empty possession ratio is below average. As someone whose tendencies rate her as a pure scorer offensively, low college efficiency numbers don't necessarily bode well.

The key here is whether her strengths outweigh her weakness. In Wright's case, her athleticism and defensive ability make her a strong WNBA prospect.

  1. Kalana Greene, UConn

All invisibility in the Final Four aside, the thing that jumps out about Kalana Greene is her scoring efficiency numbers. Greene had a true shooting percentage of 62.06% for the season and 59.73% 2 point percentage, both absolutely remarkable for a guard (to put in perspective, both numbers are two percentage points above Moore). Her free throw rate about equals Moore, indicating some ability to draw contact and get to the basket. She's a solid but not great rebounder and as coach Reeve has said, a strong defender. Her passing numbers are average for a playmaker, but compared to other shooting guard prospects, very good.

So why is she not considered a top 5 pick? Well, it goes back to that issue of playing next to likely #1 pick Tina Charles and Moore. Her usage percentage of 20% is just about average (if you're on the court with 5 players...). So it's perfectly reasonable to wonder whether the reason for her high scoring efficiency is simply that she was getting easy shots - fast break and wide open - and not expected to carry the burden of the team like some other shooting guard prospects. Another potential red flag based on John Hollinger's work with NBA prospects is that Greene has a very low three point shooting rate, which combined with the low usage rate you have a player who may neither spread the floor nor create for herself often. And again, like Wright, her college tendencies put her in that large category of "pure scorer", which could be a good thing or a bad thing, but may not work out well if she's uncomfortable from three point range.

  1. Allison Hightower, LSU

Obviously the thing that stands out about Hightower is her three point shooting - she shoots nearly 40% and given the volume of long shots she took, she's clearly the best outside shooter in the draft by percentage. She gets herself open extremely well, not just working off screens but working well in open space, finding spaces in the defense to score. But as she said in the pre-draft media conference call, what probably goes unnoticed is her defensive ability - she had a steal percentage of 4.7% with is a very good indicator of both athleticism and pro success. But more remarkable for such an aggressive defender is that she had a stl+blk/pf ratio of just over 2.2 - that's the highest of anybody in the draft. It's not necessarily a clear indicator of success one way or the other for a number of reasons, but the fact that she's able to defend so aggressively and not foul more is impressive.

However, Hightower is not without weaknesses either - while she is an outstanding long-range shooter, her two point percentage is not quite as stellar below average among shooting guard prospects. Her rebounding percentage is very low and her free throw rate is only a little better indicating a player who pretty much stays around the perimeter. So despite everything else that she brings, there is a legitimate question as to whether she will be able to score as easily in the pros.

  1. Ashley Barlow, Notre Dame

Like Greene, there are times that Barlow seemed to get lost in the shuffle on Notre Dame for long periods of time. Yet statistically, she offers a number of strengths. First like Hightower and Wright, her steal percentage of 4.7% is very good and bodes well for her defensive ability in the pros. Her rebounding percentage is second best among this group of shooting guards and all of her scoring numbers are higher than everyone in this group except Greene. However, what she has that most others in this group don't is that she's a much better passer and playmaker - both her assist rate and pure point rating are combined the highest of this group, though not quite at lead ball handler level. Her two point percentage is significantly lower but second only to Greene and above average, which bodes well for her ability to create quality scoring opportunities for herself. That she scores efficiently and rates very high in terms of value she adds as a perimeter utility player.

So why is she not higher? She has a problem similar to Greene, but more similar to Lacey Simpson - despite her versatility, she has a below average usage rate, which could be due to either her role on the team, passivity, or an inability to create for herself. The fact that she does get to the free-throw line very well compared to other shooting guard prospects probably means the latter is not quite accurate. Second, like Hightower, her rebounding rate is rather low, which is sometimes a red flag.

 Overall, what makes Barlow a very strong draft choice is her balance, offensively and defensively and the fact that she contributed so strongly to a tournament team bodes well.

  1. Tyra Grant, Penn State

In my original list of Top 45 players, Grant didn't make it - her shooting efficiency stood out as red flags that were under the usual threshold of pro success, NBA or WNBA. However, since then, I've had the opportunity to speak with Grant and a few people around the league and determine that she probably should be rated a little more highly than the attention she's gotten. The word I'm hearing is that she's somewhere between a late first and second round pick. The issue might be one of team need for teams drafting her.

"In Grant's case, she has a reputation of being able to score the ball," said Reeve. "With players - and this really big in the WNBA because teams are set with their go-to players - if you have to pick a player like Tyra Grant, you have to say, ‘Ok, she's in a reserve role now -- what is she going to give us? Is that the type of player that has to have the ball in her hands to do what she has to do? Well that may not happen here.'

"So you really have to drill down into what specific WNBA skills does a player have that they will be able to utilize. I don't think Grant is that far off from the rest of the group - and I don't think it's the result of Penn State not achieving a national level of success or being in the tournament."

What Grant does offer beyond scoring are partially a set of intangibles and with a network of current and former pros around her - including Yolanda Griffith - she should be as prepared as anyone to fight for a roster spot. However, she does bring some tangible things to the court as well.

"Tyra Grant is one of 7-8 wings who could go anywhere from late first round to late second round depending on the team who is making the decision & what qualities they are looking for (defender, perimeter scorer, 3 point shooting, etc.)," said Washington Mystics GM Angela Taylor via an email from a team representative. "She is very reminiscent of Tanisha Wright in that she is a powerful guard.  She gets to the free-throw line quite a bit, can shoot the 3, rebounds well from the guard position, has good size, and can handle the ball.  All while putting up a little under 20 ppg.  Her versatility is appealing."

While Grant's argument that less national exposure might be valid on some level, it's that more detailed description of her game that GMs will probably look at.

"It's a complete body of work - coaches are smart enough," said Reeve. "We know where the players are and we also expect those players to elevate their team's play."

For more on Grant, please click here. For an interview with Grant, please click here.

Other shooting guard prospects (alphabetical order):

Ros Gold-Onwude, Stanford University

Obviously, Gold-Onwude is known as a strong defender and as a Pac-10 fan, it would be great to see her in the pros. However, she's not necessarily someone high on people's draft boards.

"Ros has proven herself to be Stanford's lockdown perimeter defender while matching up with some talented wings," said Taylor through a Mystics representative. "She also demonstrated that she is capable of scoring in different ways after her career high scoring spree against Iowa where she scored from various places on the floor (from 3, off the dribble, and finishing at the rim). Someone who wasn't necessarily on a lot of draft radars earlier this season may have intrigued a couple of teams.  Unfortunately for Ros, she is a true tweener guard.  Not necessarily a point guard and not a scoring off guard, which will ultimately affect her draft prospects."

For more on Ros Gold-Onwude, please click here.

May Kotsopoulos, Vermont

Kotsopoulos is a relatively strong shooter, however to cut to the chase, her low rebounding and steal numbers (near the bottom of these group) do not bode well for her pro potential.

Armelie Lumanu, Mississippi State University

Lumanu was one of the "Mississippi State kids" that almost everyone in the pre-draft media teleconference said has improved their stock. While Alexis Rack has gotten more attention on this team during the season, Lumanu is actually their statistical MVP for the season (which doesn't necessarily have direct bearing on her pro potential). What really stands out about her is that her rebounding rates are better than some post players in this draft, which generally translates well to pro success at any position. In addition, her free throw rate of 53.3% is outstanding and indicates an ability to get to the basket. Her assist rate of 19.87% is the best of this group and counter balances her turnover rate to some extent.

All that said, her free throw percentage of 61.4% is not promising as a guard and neither is her 29.4% three point percentage. While she didn't shoot much, it means that the scoring production she might give a team is somewhat limited. She's plenty athletic, but occasionally might be considered a bit overzealous. Nevertheless, her tournament performance was indeed impressive.

Jene Morris, San Diego State University

Morris is another person who caught a buzz during the tournament with an impressively quick release on her jump shot and ability to find scoring opportunities. However, unlike some of the other pure scorers above, her tendencies make her more of a "perimeter scorer", a generally productive group of players (partially because it includes Cappie Pondexter). Like Barlow, Hightower, and Wright, she also rates as a very good defender with a steal percentage of just over 5% (she did win the conference defensive player of the year, after all).

The reason she's knocked down statistically is obviously her team's RPI, but also a below average shooting efficiency for her style of play and a very low rebounding rate, which tends to be a strong red flag at any position. Given that, despite her tournament performance and defensive ability when compare Morris to a player like Grant, Grant just seems to have physical tools a notch about Morris, not only in terms of height, but build. But ultimately, choosing between the two will be a matter of personal preference.

Bianca Thomas, Mississippi

I first took notice of Thomas when she absolutely lit up Hightower's Louisiana State team in January for 42 points on 13-26 shooting and eight rebounds, including a very impressive 23 of Mississippi's final 28 points. I've watched a number of impressive performances this season, but the way she took over this game against a WNBA prospect ranks it among the best. What she showed in that game is that she might be an even more versatile scorer than Hightower, getting to the rim, pulling up for jumpers, and having a reasonably good handle. Her usage percentage is right around 30%, further reinforcing that she can create her own scoring opportunities. She also gets to the free throw line more than Hightower.

So why is she not above Hightower?

Well, she didn't drop 42 everyday.

She's the purest pure scorer in this group, with by far the lowest assist ratio of anyone and lower scoring efficiency numbers than Hightower. Although she's a solid rebounder, here low steal percentage is actually not necessarily positive despite being a solid defender. The only reason why she might not be higher is that other players might offer a little bit more all around. Again - Thomas' draft position will depend heavily on GM preference.

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