WNBA Draft 2011 Analysis Part I: Which Teams Got The Best Value?

Seattle Storm draftee Ify Ibekwe could be one of the bigger steals in the draft because she might not have shown the full extent of what she can do at Arizona. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

Say whatever you want about the Pac-10, but nobody ever really figured out a way to stop Arizona forward Ify Ibekwe.

And Washington fans got their fill of her in her final trip as a collegian to Seattle in which she led the team with 24 points and six rebounds in a 74-66 win on February 19.

"I'm just glad we're not the only team she does that to," former Washington Huskies coach Tia Jackson said in the week after that loss. "That thing is just a monster. Last time we played them she was unhealthy, she was sick - getting over a flu. I think she was sick in the [Arizona State] game, was sick in the [January 22 Washington State] game, and then sick when we played her...Now she's healthy and she's getting 22 and 20 and 20 and 14. Now the true Ify is coming out. We know she's going to do her damage."

Jackson's assessment wasn't at all an exaggeration: after struggling a bit during the beginning of Pac-10 play due to illness, Ibekwe hit her stride getting 22 points and 22 rebounds against a good rebounding ASU team and followed that up with 23 points and 13 rebounds against Washington State before the Washington game. What Jackson didn't mention was that she also went 4-for-8 from the 3-point line in those games, 19-for-27 from the free throw line, and had 8 steals just for good measure as the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year.

Although those performances might have been signs of the "true Ify" coming out, the fact that she played part of her conference schedule through illness and all of it as a focal point for opposing defenses means that we might not have seen the best of what she can do.

That's why the Seattle Storm had to feel pretty good about the opportunity to select a player of her caliber at the end of the second round.

STORM: Storm Happy to Add Thomas, Two Others
"We talked about Ify being a possibility even at No. 12, so it was nice to get somebody we considered at that spot later on in the draft," Agler said.

In that she was arguably a first round forward prospect relative to those available in this year's draft, Ibekwe could be considered one example of a "value pick" at #24.

So as a follow-up to our overview of how the puzzle pieces might fit together for each team after Monday's WNBA Draft, now we look at which teams might have gotten the most value.

How do we define draft value?

Of course, if drafting was a science, there probably would be no such thing as a value pick - each team would just use a standard algorithm to determine their selection and their wouldn't need to be much thought put into the process. Alas, drafting isn't a science and quite often players with pro talent end up falling in the draft as each team uses a different standard by which to assess a player's potential.

So although we can't necessarily make objective judgments about whether a pick was good or bad, we do know that there is such a thing as a good or bad pick: two players drafted in the first round last season were released before playing a regular season game and the Storm's Alison Lacey elected not to return this season after seeing limited minutes on a veteran team.

How then can we determine which teams made the best picks given that it's so difficult even for the professionals to differentiate a contributor from training camp waiver fodder? Or - in draft strategy terms - how strong was a player's draft "stock" relative to where they were drafted? So one way we can determine value is by figuring out whether a team got more than they might have expected based on the best evidence we currently have. Three suggestions for that:

1. How good was the player in college? Using James Bowman's work to rank the top NCAA Division I seniors by Boxscores, we have a statistical reference point of how good players were in college relative to their peers. In the process of figuring out how a player might project in the WNBA, productive college players sometimes fall through the cracks even though they might have the talent to stick on an 11-player roster. In many cases, a player who was not particularly efficient in college won't be a strong pro, no matter how much talent we want to see in them.

2. How good was the player relative to their peers at the same position? Each position has unique statistical indicators of success that are not necessarily predictive of how successful a player will be, but often help distinguish prospects from non-prospects. With those indicators as well as input from Swish Appeal contributors, we can use rankings by position to help determine if a team went for the best option at a given position. There's also a conventional wisdom element to this in which a smart team might be able to pass on a player they've targeted if they figure most other teams don't think as highly of her.

3. Did a team select the so-called "best player available" based on what we know now? With some vague idea of who the best players are by position, we can determine a "best player available" for each position at any given pick. While a 12 team league might have 12 different ideas about who the best player available is, there are also instances when a team knowingly "reaches" for a player that might not be considered as good as other prospects due to team need, leaving a talented player to slide further down the draft order than they "should". So we'll take our best shot using statistics and observation to determine which teams made the best possible selection available.

So for our purposes, "value" is defined in terms of whether a team got a better player than might have been expected in the (impossibly) "perfect" draft in terms of a player's demonstrated college performance, talent relative to peers at the same position, and/or the best talent that other teams chose to pass on. In simplest terms, what we're looking for is teams that got the most bang for their buck - which teams picked up players that could conceivably have gone higher than they did?

Four teams stood out in accomplishing that.

Seattle Storm

Best value pick: Ify Ibekwe, #24; Boxscores rank: 14; Position rank: 5

Most impressive about Ibekwe is that she's not just a one-dimensional back to the basket power forward that thrives on overpowering opponents, but a highly skilled inside-outside post player who can take slower players off the dribble and uses outstanding footwork on the block to maneuver around bigger players all while shooting 42.4% from 3-point land to keep defenses honest. As a player who accounted for about 25% of Arizona's overall statistical production, the fact that she was even as consistent as she was with as much attention as she got was impressive.

However, one statistical reason she might have "stuck around" until the Storm's second round pick despite being on the radar for the Storm's first round pick is that she was actually quite turnover prone in college: a turnover ratio of 18.14% is rather high compared to other power forward prospects, such as Danielle Adams, Felicia Chester, Amber Harris, or Kayla Pedersen. But Ibekwe might also have had an excuse: she had a team-high usage percentage of 26.56% for Arizona, meaning she was the primary scoring option for Arizona - no other top power forward prospect in this draft was relied upon as heavily as Arizona relied on Ibekwe. Handling the ball as often as she did as an inside-outside player is bound to result in some turnovers and the other power forward prospects had guards or multiple teammates to share that load.

There is almost no way imaginable that Ibekwe will end up being responsible for creating nearly a quarter of the plays while she's on the court for the Seattle Storm and I probably need not list the players potentially ahead of her in that pecking order. It's far more likely that Ibekwe becomes a candidate to fill the departed Jana Vesela's role as a defender at both forward spots and someone who can spread the floor as a 3-point threat on offense.

In that capacity, her usage percentage would theoretically be much lower than in college and with it that high turnover ratio; in theory, that might also lead to an increased scoring efficiency (in proportion to strength of competition). With her 23.49% defensive rebounding percentage as one of the Pac-10's best defenders and that 42.4% long-range shooting efficiency, Ibekwe could find a spot on one of the strongest rosters in the league and surprise quite a few of the teams that passed on her.

Of course, the other way to look at things is that the high turnover ratio suggests Ibekwe will struggle again bigger, stronger, and more athletic defenses to the point where she won't even make it through Storm training camp. But the value of her defensive ability and length can't be quantified and for a defensive coach like Brian Agler could end up making her a second round steal. And moreover, Ibekwe has improved dramatically even from her junior to senior year.

San Antonio Silver Stars

Best value pick: Danielle Adams, #20, Boxscores rank: #4; Position rank: #3

Depending on who you talk to, Danielle Adams is either the second coming of Charles Barkley in a women's basketball player's package or barely worth consideration as a WNBA prospect. So settling in at around the mid-point of the draft is about right. And by the numbers, she's definitely a steal.

Adams was the best offensive rebounder of our top power forward prospects at 12.86%, which is impressive because offensive rebounding tends to reflect more of a skill whereas defensive rebounding can often mean a player was just bigger than college competition. Like Ibekwe, she could step out and shoot the three as well, shooting 30% for the season. Unlike Ibekwe, Adams was rather efficient with the ball at a high usage percentage: she had a usage percentage approaching 33% and yet was the third-most efficient scorer among top power forward prospects (56.35%) and had a turnover ratio of only 9.1%.

However, the biggest concern about Adams could have been some combination of conditioning and to what extent her impressive numbers were predicated on overpowering college opponents - at 6'1" that might not work in the pros. However, on a San Antonio that could use some offensive rebounding help and any youth, Adams will have every opportunity to make the team and this could be a perfect match and steal at #20.

Tulsa Shock

Best value pick: Kayla Pedersen, #7; Boxscores rank: 13; Position: 2

Jimmie Trammel of the Tulsa World wrote after the draft that Nolan Richardson might have considered taking Liz Cambage with the first pick overall. Before we dismiss that as blasphemous with Maya Moore available, consider the hypothetical situation in which Cambage had been a NCAA senior prospect - along with the hype surrounding her 6'8" stature, there would be at least as much hype about her as Brittney Griner, if not more, and taking her #1 wouldn't seem so far-fetched. Jeff Latzke of the Associated Press compared Cambage to Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant and although it's a loose analogy, the similarity is that both could be considered among the top five players in the league despite being drafted #2. So Cambage could end up being the best value pick of the draft even though she was a no-brainer pick.

But the more subtle value pick might have been Kayla Pedersen at #7, which is fitting for a player whose value to the Stanford Cardinal and talent always seemed to be underestimated.

If a player like Baylor's Melissa Jones was the ultimate college glue player - the second-most valuable player on Baylor statistically despite less fanfare than she deserved - then Pedersen has a good chance to become that in the pros. There is very little the 6'4" Pedersen can't do on the court offensively or defensively. Against Texas A&M in the Final Four, she did everything from bringing the ball upcourt against the Aggies' pressure defense to blocking shots under the basket to setting up Nneka Ogwumike in the post. 

And for the Tulsa Shock, her passing ability is what might stand out most after drafting Cambage.

The Shock were the most turnover prone team in the league last season and Pedersen was actually the sixth most efficient distributor in the draft and by far the best power forward distributor. By noting that Pedersen is an efficient distributor with a pure point rating of 1.09, the implication is not that she'll be running point for Tulsa; it does mean that a team that likes to run the floor just added an alternate ball handler to help find players in scoring position. Pedersen is just one more player on the floor capable of making decisions with the ball as the team is running the floor.

Two things that does for Tulsa: 1) it means they might be able to execute more efficiently and 2) it means they have someone else to help find Cambage in the post. That's not to mention the fact that she had a 57% 2-point percentage as a player who was not necessarily operating on the block to score, has 3-point range, and had a high free throw rate of 43.12%. Whether you consider her a small forward or power forward in the pros, Pedersen might have been only the second-best player at her position in this draft, but she has a strong argument as the best all-around collegian in the draft and she does so much so efficiently that she could prove to be a much more productive pro than some of the players picked ahead of her, particularly in Tulsa's system.

Minnesota Lynx

Best value pick: Kachine Alexander, #26, Boxscores: #9; trading for Angel Robinson drafted #22; Position: #3

That we can talk about the Minnesota Lynx making value picks in the draft and not discuss Maya Moore or Amber Harris just seems unfair. But in picking up Alexander and Robinson, they had a mind-bogglingly good draft.

With Alexander, there might be some question about how well she translates to the pros because of suspect 3-point shooting range (23.7%), but with all the other things she does on the floor it's very difficult to suggest there were 25 players better than her as WNBA Draft prospects. She was almost unquestionably the best defensive shooting guard in the draft and brings enough to the table that she could justifiably have gone much higher.

But Alexander aside, Angel Robinson was clearly a more efficient distributor than some of the point guards selected ahead of her and might have the build to make it in the WNBA. What's most impressive is watching her play - her game awareness is outstanding and she's the type of player who can carry a team at the college level, accounting for 23.3% of Marquette's statistical production. 

In any event, adding those two to a draft with Harris and Moore - even if their chances of making this talented team are slim - makes for an extremely good draft. And of course Harris could end up being one of the best value picks in the draft at #4. However, the problem for Minnesota has not necessarily been lacking talent, but bringing it together to win games. 

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