WNBA Point Guard Rankings: Visualizing Point Guard Personalities & What Makes Sue Bird Great

We're not going to bother debating who the best point guard of 2010 was, but understanding what made her great helps us to understand the concept of "game awareness". (Photo by Kailas Images)

A long time ago, there was an analysis written about WNBA point guards. Since one point guard had quite clearly dominated the 2010 WNBA season, it was never published as life and other ideas seemed to take precedent. However, with the 2011 WNBA Draft rapidly approaching, the post has been resurrected as a prelude to an analysis of 2011 NCAA point guard draft prospects. So with a draft class rich with point guard prospects, the goal of this post is as much about identifying the best point guards in the WNBA as it is to understand the concept of "game awareness" that will help us better appreciate the potential of the point guard prospects that may lead some WNBA team to glory in the future. So consider this Part 1 of 2. Skip to the bottom for the rankings.

Normally the question of WNBA's best point guard is something I am fascinated by.

But as of about July, that debate was pretty much over: Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird was so clearly the best floor leader in the league that checking in on it regularly became little more than a waste of time.

Nevertheless, as one of the Storm's leaders this season her performance as a point guard was something that seemed to come up repeatedly, even before she missed out on being voted First Team All-WNBA. However, once she did miss out on First-Team honors, Storm coach Brian Agler's statement comparing her to Boston Celtics great Bill Russell on the night they won the 2010 WNBA Title elevated Bird's status to that of living legend.

"Of the 13 years he played in the NBA, he was only First Team once or twice," Agler said of the former Seattle Supersonics coach and current Washington resident. "He was Second Team All NBA several times, but at the end of his career, because of his impact on winning, he was known and may be known as the greatest player ever to play, and that's going to be Sue Bird, because she impacts winning and she's such a good person."

There's not much more you can even say about Bird than that or comparing her to Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson, or John Stockton, I suppose - she will be known as one of the greatest point guards ever to grace a basketball court by the time she decides to move on to other life pursuits.

But as great as she's been, Agler did share some insight that perked a couple of eyebrows during one WNBA Finals media session.

"She's calling more offense than even the coaches are for our team this season," Agler said. "She's really being a great leader on the floor."

Often times it seems as though with greater responsibility on the court, Bird gained a greater command over the game whereas the increased responsibility might have hampered the average point guard. And that ability to make decisions - and, more often than not, a productive decision - is what defines Bird's greatness and in a sense the greatness of any point guard - it isn't necessarily what you see in the boxscore but that she knows how to make phenomenal decisions with the ball, both as a scorer and distributor.

Seattle Storm's Lauren Jackson And Sue Bird Named To All-WNBA Teams - SB Nation Seattle
"That's one of the hardest things for a player to do is find that Zen place of, as a point guard, when do you call your own number," said Boucek, who has also coached Ticha Penicheiro -- easily one of the best point guards ever to grace a basketball court -- with the Sacramento Monarchs. "I think she does that as well as any point guard I've ever seen and she has a good feel for how to get everybody else involved but when's her time. And that's a thing that you can't teach."

In conversations with Boucek throughout the season, finding that "Zen place" was the thing she mentioned repeatedly about Bird as compared to a player like Ticha Penicheiro who looks to score far less often - whereas Penicheiro's ability to create scoring opportunities for others without establishing herself as a scoring threat separates her from the pack, Bird's ability to figure out when it's in the best interest of the team to dominate a game as a passer or scorer might be what defines her own unique niche.

That balance that Bird manages moment to moment as the game unfolds in front of her is something that teams like the Storm's 2010 WNBA Finals opponent Atlanta Dream need two (or three) players to accomplish: Shalee Lehning, who skews more toward the traditional "pass-first" point guard and Coco Miller who is more of a scoring oriented point guard.

How the Atlanta Dream Transitioned From Scrappy to Efficient to Make the WNBA Finals - Swish Appeal
"Coco is a changeup," said Bird. "With Lehning, teams tend to help off her or let her shoot, but with Coco you can't do that and that opens things up for Angel, opens things up for Lyttle and some of their other players. Driving opportunities and things like that. So it's definitely a changeup, but what Lehning brings to the team is a calm, cool, collected point guard who's going to get them into their sets and you need that at times too. So they've got a good balance right there so it's going to be tough."

As Bird says, facing a team with that balance of scoring and distributing at the point guard spot is tough. Facing a player that possesses that balance is even more difficult.

So although Bird might appear to be some people's idea of the prototypical "pure point guard", she's also in a class of her own that we might not have the privilege of witnessing again, as Agler suggests by comparing her stature in basketball history to that of Bill Russell. Bird is the changeup that the Dream got from using two players. And it's within that ability to alternate between distributor and scorer that Bird defines what Brian McCormick calls "game awareness". 

Game Awareness: A Look At The Phoenix Mercury's On-Ball Screen - Swish Appeal
...the ability for a player to respond creatively (considering multiple alternatives and choosing the best one) to the situation as it unfolds vs. merely running a scripted play. Creativity not only maximizes the opportunity to score on a give possession, but also disorganizes the defense.

What is game awareness?

While we usually talk about these things in terms of a player's "vision", McCormick suggest a different way of thinking about it. Once a player develops the requisite technical skills to play point guard ("motor skill competence"), they develop a confidence in their ability that allows them to expend a greater amount of mental energy surveying the court to recognize opportunities to make plays. The higher a player's skill level, the easier it will become to make the plays that we consider creative because they'll have a) the ability to imagine a broader range of alternative outcomes (what we would normally describe as seeing the game 2-3 steps ahead of everyone) and b) choose the best possible decision based upon what the situation makes available to them.

Point Guards, Personality and Cognitive Skills « Basketball Coaching & Youth Basketball
A great point guard’s ability to “make the game look easy” and “know what is going to happen before it does” is not visual, but cognitive. “Making the right pass” has to do with anticipation and game awareness. He reads cues and anticipates actions faster than average players.

A player's game awareness is thus not about how skilled a passer someone is or superior visual perception, but how well they can read cues, anticipate actions, imagine alternatives, and have the confidence to bring about the best alternative for their team. With all of that cognitive activity involved in making a play, a player has to know the extent and limits of their ability as well as their teammates ability without necessarily "thinking" about it to best exploit a situation. As a player becomes more experienced both with their teammates and their own skillset - which can develop over time - they can begin to draw on past situations to help them refine their decision making process in terms of concrete outcomes.

The most creative players are willing not only to take the repository of past experiences and not only draw on them as a form of wisdom about decision making, but also to take risks based upon the cues they're giving in the moment that they believe will generate positive outcomes. Highly efficient point guards are rarely risk averse - to the contrary, they have a high risk tolerance, which gives them the confidence to turn a low percentage play into a high percentage one as Gonzaga Bulldogs point guard Courtney Vandersloot recently described.

The best of the best make it easy not necessarily by becoming one with The Matrix, but moreso learning how to pick and choose when taking risks is preferable to the simple play and how to manipulate defenses maximize the opportunities that come about based on those cues (e.g. changes of pace, look aways, misdirection or even a quick swing pass). So with the skill, awareness of one's own's ability, the awareness of others' abilities, a high risk tolerance, and the ability to manipulate defenses to mitigate risks and maximize opportunities, we have a framework for understanding what creates that superior "command of the game" that the best point guards have.

However, McCormick also describes that what distinguishes the Sue Bird/Steve Nash/Jason Kidd/John Stockton type playmakers from the rest is not visual or cognitive but a personality and that's what can be more difficult to discuss concretely.

Point guard personalities as an evaluative framework

In the past, I've used a descriptive statistical framework to look at point guard performance in terms of style, much for the reason Bird described above - having that balance of scoring and distributing can not only be valuable in keeping a defense off-balance, but also in terms of a team's style of a play. Bird's ability to alternate between scoring an distributing makes her unique in that she could probably run any team. But for the average point guard who's perhaps less dynamic, their "goodness of fit" might be more important.

But listening to people discuss Bird this season and reading McCormick's thoughts on game awareness and personality made me think in terms of a more evaluative framework by isolating the things most important to point guard play: decision making. That type of productivity among point guards usually hinges on two things that can be quantified with two metrics as proxies:

  • Pure point rating: measures how well a point guard balances the act of creating an assist with the risk of creating a turnover per minute (click here for more)
  • Points per empty possession (Chaiken efficiency ratio): measures how well a player balances creating points with the risk of wasting the team's possessions in doing so (missed field goals or free throws and turnover).

The former is a proxy for distributor decision making efficiency whereas the latter is a proxy for scorer decision making efficiency. So in other words we're dividing game awareness into one's ability to distribute and score - the former involves that "court vision" to anticipate the actions of others in setting them up for scores whereas the latter is one's "scorer's vision"* in terms of how well they navigate the court space to identify. Both involve all of those cognitive processes described above, but one is utilized for passing whereas the other for scoring. How a player decides to utilize those cognitive processes is about personality - although some players just don't have the skill to execute plays and others might not be good at recognition, the best point guards have the skill, awareness, and personality to make plays for their teams, as McCormick writes.

Being a point guard – or more specifically being a playmaker or facilitator as point guard is an often misused position-designation – requires a certain personality and emotional intelligence. The best point guards maximize their personality by developing the requisite skills. However, the skills without the personality are insufficient. Those with the skills and size of a point guard, without the point guard’s personality, are “combo guards,” who coaches hope can learn to fill the role.

In a semantic contrast to what McCormick wrote, I have said before that being a "combo guard" is not the purgatory for failed point guards - the best players (Bird) will do both score and pass efficiently, which encompasses all the other things you might want in a point guard: two point percentage, free throw rate, and true shooting percentage as a scorer; assist ratio and turnover percentage as a distributor.

However, there are also some players in certain situations (San Antonio Silver Stars Becky Hammon) where the decision to score is the best decision available because they're so adept at it - if the player with the ball in their hands has a high percentage scoring opportunity, passing the ball to a player with a lower percentage opportunity would be a bad decision. That's that "Zen place" Boucek mentioned of knowing when to call one's own number. So it's not impossible for a point guard to lead their team with a scorer's mindset, but they should show the capacity to distribute efficiently. In addition, great point guards make those around them better and plus/minus is a really easy proxy for that among (starting) point guards.

Top 25 WNBA Distributors

So now we've narrowed point guard ability down to three major statistical categories: distributor efficiency, scorer efficiency, and making others better. Those "other things" that are valuable for any basketball player can serve as a sort of second tier. Since we're accepting that the balance of these numbers is what matters most, let's first look at the top 25 WNBA distributors ordered by their willingness to pass (assist ratio, which as it happens is a very good proxy for point guard style on a continuum of distributor (high ast ratio) to scorer (low ast ratio)):

NAME PPR Pts/zpt Net Ast Ratio
Penicheiro, Ticha 8.85 1.26 10 0.50
Lehning, Shalee 5.81 1.16 2.7 0.47
Miller, Kelly 3.18 1.19 -0.2 0.34
Bird, Sue 6.63 2.00 13.6 0.33
Darling, Helen -0.17 0.99 -6 0.31
Mitchell, Leilani 3.65 2.19 8.7 0.30
Lacy, Natasha -0.23 1.41 11.1 0.29
Wright, Tanisha 3.21 1.73 -1.4 0.29
Johnson, Temeka 4.06 1.63 8.1 0.29
Whalen, Lindsay 4.20 1.95 13.3 0.28
Lawson-Wade, Edwige 2.44 1.74 -1.2 0.28
Lawson, Kara 3.59 1.89 -4.8 0.27
Houts, Ashley -0.91 1.23 -1.4 0.27
Swanier, Ketia -1.76 1.15 -10.7 0.27
Taylor, Penny 3.27 2.61 -0.2 0.25
Hammon, Becky 0.62 1.96 10.6 0.25
January, Briann -0.81 1.50 -4.9 0.25
Brown, Kiesha 0.55 1.50 -3 0.25
Bevilaqua, Tully -0.61 1.40 -2.2 0.24
Thorn, Erin 0.54 1.87 -8.7 0.24
Hornbuckle, Alexis -0.20 1.27 0.8 0.24
Canty, Dominique 0.08 1.66 5.7 0.23
Latta, Ivory 1.61 1.93 -6 0.22
Harding, Lindsey -0.24 1.74 9.4 0.22
Montgomery, Renee 1.49 1.86 -0.7 0.21

One observation that's easy to make a glance is that as that assist ratio (and thus pure point rating) goes down, a point guard has to be a more efficient scorer in order to make their team better. So for example, is Lindsey Harding the second-to-worst point guard in the WNBA after leading the Washington Mystics to the best record in the Eastern Conference? Absolutely not - last season, she was 12th among point guards in Chaiken efficiency ratio which at least helped her standing among the league's ball handlers.

But that ranking is also not representative of how most of us would order the best in the league - I have joked with people that the Storm should trade Bird for Lehning, but Storm fans might take to the streets in violent revolt if that ever happens.

So the next step in actually ranking point guards is to actually examine this balance of distributing, scoring, and impact on others. One way to do that was a simple graph of Chaiken efficiency ratio by pure point rating with the "intangible" of making teammates better as the magnitude of one's point on the graph.

The interpretation of who's the best will ultimately come down to a subjective interpretation of this visual, but the graph helps to visualize the landscape of point guard play relative to one another.

Picture_67_medium

Graph of 2010 WNBA distributor efficiency. Axes intersect at PPR/Chaiken averages (1.98 PPR, 1.56 Chaiken).

Some preliminary observations to help understand the graph:

  • This is a graph of any perimeter-oriented distributors, which is generally a perimeter player with an above average assist ratio.
  • The graph essentially delineate the same point guard style framework I've used before, but also moves toward a point where we can visualize how quality in terms of the balance of distributing and scoring that begin tell us something about a player's game awareness. However, due to the way that Excel interprets that negative numbers, the larger that black and white globe, the lower their plus/minus rating is.
  • Color: the colors are actually only for identification purposes, but the black and white globes are players with negative plus/minus ratings, which is actually convenient when trying to distinguish the top players.
  • Ticha Penicheiro is that sizable point in the bottom right quadrant as a player who is a below average scorer but above average distributor who has a strong impact on players around her. We will call the players in that quadrant (unsurprisingly Shalee Lehning) the "pure/utility distributors" as they have low scoring tendencies in addition to below average scoring efficiency.
  • The beige globe in the upper left quadrant is Becky Hammon, who had a below average passing efficiency yet above average scoring efficiency. These are scoring guards that people might sometimes pejoratively call "combo guards".
  • However, the "highest" player on the graph (light blue/white) is Leilani Mitchell who had the best scorer's decision making of any point guard last season. But you'll also notice that she was an above average distributor. So that upper right quadrant is actually where you want to be: the type that can both score and distribute efficiently.
  • That big blue globe in lower left quadrant is Natasha Lacy, who was cut by  the Tulsa Shock and signed with the Sparks this off-season. That lower left quadrant contains players that neither scored nor distributed efficiently. They might have the skill to bring the ball up the court and make that pass to initiate the offense, but are not going to be dynamic playmakers. So fittingly - this is where my version of Excel's color coding quirkiness becomes useful - all but Lacy in that quadrant are black and white because they also have a negative plus/minus. So that odd color coding scheme actually helps us to focus our attention on the top players.
  • The best imaginable point guard would be up in that upper right corner or somewhere continually striving for something on that vector - that is the player that has the best balance of passing and scoring efficiency. You can guess who that large blue globe in the upper right quadrant is and it probably wouldn't be hard  to determine who the green one is either.

2010 Point Guard Rankings

So with all of that, we can now see a ranking of these players emerging. The top ten derived from the numbers, but also evident in this visual.

10. Tanisha Wright, Seattle Storm (upper right quadrant, small white dot due to -1.7 plus/minus): Based upon the SPI styles framework, Wright's distributor's tendencies were in the 91st percentile in the league last season and had a very high assist ratio of 29%. That illustrates a point that Storm fans are probably aware of though the rest of the league might not have been - part of what made the Storm so potent is that Bird and Wright could trade off ball handling responsibilities and remain efficient. Wright's pure point rating was 9th among "point guards", which is well above average. In fact, with a true shooting percentage of only 52.06%, it was her scoring efficiency - not her passing efficiency - that keeps her from being higher on this list.

9. Dominique Canty, Chicago Sky (upper left quadrant, orange): Canty's assist rate of about 23% makes her a distributor, but she's one of the more aggressive scorers on this list with scoring tendencies in the 70th percentile. Like Wright, Canty would have been higher on this list had she been a more efficient scorer, but what continues to make her most efficient is that she has the fourth-highest rate of free throws produced among point guards. Although she had a below average pure point rating among point guards, it was still above league average and the fact that her plus/minus was so strong helps get her on this list.

8. Shalee Lehning, Atlanta Dream (lower right quadrant, smaller blue): This should be obvious - Lehning was the third most efficient distributor in the league last season, but as Bird said above the fact that teams didn't have to worry about her shooting keeps her from being higher on this list. Lehning actually had the fifth best two point percentage of any point guard at 50%, which demonstrates an ability to pick spots well. But her usage rate of 11.12% was the lowest of any point guard meaning she was not much of a scoring threat at all and the fact that her free throw production rate of 13.20% was also in the bottom half of point guards (and the league, for that matter) didn't help.

7. Lindsey Harding, Washington Mystics (upper left quadrant, red): Harding had the second lowest assist ratio of any distributor last season and a negative pure point rating, which kept her from being higher on this list.  But Harding's strong plus/minus came from scoring and defense. She had the second highest usage rate of any point guard at 24.98%, but was a less efficient shooter than Lehning with a true shooting percentage of 51.36% and a two point percentage of 47.17%. So how is it possible that her Chaiken efficiency is higher? In addition to getting to producing free throws at a rate of 23.22%, Harding committed less turnovers and yet took more risks as a scorer to create points. The choice between Harding and Lehning last year might have come down to style - do you want a scorer or distributor - but also comes down to the fact that as a more aggressive scorer and better defender, Harding made her team significantly better when on the floor.

6. Temeka Johnson, Phoenix Mercury (upper right quadrant, blue): Johnson had a strong pure point rating and just above average Chaiken efficiency rating, but the fourth lowest true shooting percentage of any point guard which keeps her from being higher on this list. But the reason her Chaiken efficiency ratio is above average is that the points she creates outweigh the turnovers, which she kept down better than some other high usage point guards. She ran the team and ran it well for the most part.

5. Becky Hammon, San Antonio Silver Stars (upper left quadrant, beige): Hammon used the highest percentage of her team's plays of any distributor last year (24.98%) and had the second-highest true shooting percentage of any at 59.83%. However, the reason she's not higher on this list of point guards - although I think any team would take her as a player - is that she wasn't nearly as efficient as a distributor as she was in 2009, which made her arguably the best point guard in the league that season.

4. Leilani Mitchell, New York Liberty (upper right quadrant, blue/white): Had someone told me that Mitchell would have the highest true shooting percentage of any point guard last season I would have laughed - grinned, but laughed. Her transformation into the most efficient point guard scorer in the league was crucial to the Liberty's success and she also remained one of the league's most efficient distributors. So why isn't she higher?

3. Ticha Penicheiro, Los Angeles Sparks (lower right quadrant, blue): Penicheiro was the most efficient distributor in the league last year and it was really not that close. Maybe you could quibble that Mitchell should rank higher due to her scoring efficiency, but here's another instance where defense matters - as a taller point guard, Penicheiro brings added value to the court as a defender that can't be underestimated as part of her plus/minus of 10. And the fact that she has a free throw production rate of 50% shows how her aggression off the dribble can help a team in subtle ways, even if she's not knocking down jumpers.

2. Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota Lynx (upper right quadrant, green): Whalen had the second-highest plus/minus of any point guard despite playing for a team that missed the playoffs. She does a little bit of everything: scoring, rebounding, passing and like Penicheiro, her awareness of the game as a scorer and passer is just amazing. You can't teach the way she makes subtle decisions to set up her teammates while also being relied upon a little more often as a scorer than Mitchell or Penicheiro and producing free throws at the second highest rate behind Penicheiro at 40.57%.

1. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm (upper right quadrant, blue): Bird had an absolutely phenomenal year as a point guard and that's why she's the one floating toward that upper right corner of point guard Nirvana. The real key with Bird last season was racking up assists, but also having the lowest turnover percentage of any point guard. She had the fourth highest true shooting percentage among point guards and the fourth highest assist ratio while both passing and scoring efficiently. There's not much more you could ask for, unless you want to nitpick and critique her for her free throw production rate of 10.8% which was the lowest among point guards.

Additional Statistics For Top 15 WNBA Point Guards in 2010

(All statistics described in the Swish Appeal statistics glossary)

NAME ValPct Usg% TS% FT Prod 2pt pct Turnover% Val Added DefVal/g
1. Bird, Sue 0.16 20.90 55.39 0.12 0.47 10.35 2.48 3.82
2. Whalen, Lindsay 0.20 21.32 53.04 0.41 0.46 11.65 1.82 3.70
3. Penicheiro, Ticha 0.15 14.39 52.46 0.50 0.44 16.34 6.87 3.96
4. Mitchell, Leilani 0.15 17.66 61.69 0.15 0.37 11.65 2.54 3.44
5. Hammon, Becky 0.17 27.55 59.84 0.27 0.49 15.78 -1.41 3.12
6. Johnson, Temeka 0.11 20.26 49.13 0.13 0.46 12.60 0.55 2.78
7. Harding, Lindsey 0.13 24.99 51.36 0.23 0.47 14.90 -1.57 3.54
8. Lehning, Shalee 0.08 11.12 51.59 0.13 0.50 17.98 4.16 2.08
9. Canty, Dominique 0.10 23.67 50.45 0.39 0.44 15.34 -0.64 2.15
10. Wright, Tanisha 0.13 18.99 52.06 0.29 0.41 13.51 1.43 3.03
Next five:
Lawson-Wade, Edwige 0.09 19.54 54.02 0.22 0.44 13.28 0.59 2.19
Lawson, Kara 0.10 18.90 53.47 0.14 0.46 11.17 -0.52 1.77
Montgomery, Renee 0.14 28.00 52.61 0.18 0.45 12.06 -2.45 2.99
Latta, Ivory 0.07 23.98 54.22 0.21 0.46 12.32 -2.47 2.00
Miller, Kelly 0.04 15.03 45.34 0.21 0.22 15.81 0.98 1.85
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