The top five WNBA rookies: Who was snubbed from the 2012 All-Rookie Team?

Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

In between playoff games we've been spending quite a bit of time talking about the 2013 WNBA Draft lottery, but haven't quite gotten around to discussing specific prospects in depth. As a preliminary step to looking at 2013 draft prospects, the following is a look back at the top players in the 2012 rookie class - and specifically the 2012 WNBA All-Rookie Team - which provides a well-rounded reflection on top prospects, suspect prospects, and how some players can get better with time.

One of the most difficult aspects of evaluating WNBA rookies in recent years hasn't been sorting out which ones have been the top contributors but which ones are truly the best "talents".

In other words, sorting out who fell into a convenient situation and who will end up having the best career have proven to be two different things; in almost every year since the inaugural All-Rookie Team in 2005, there's little question that the All-Rookie teams would probably look different with the benefit of hindsight (the exceptions are 2006 and 2011, though it's still too soon to tell).

The question is whether we can do a better job at projecting talent than the All-Rookie team might. That's a much larger project that we'll look at further as we look at draft prospects, but for now let's take one case study: Phoenix Samantha Prahalis.

As Kristofer Habbas of SB Nation Arizona wrote the other day about Prahalis' selection to the 2012 All-Rookie team, there was a short period of the 2012 WNBA regular season when the argument could be made that Prahalis was the league's top rookie despite the play of Rookie of the Year favorite Nneka Ogwumike - Prahalis was, after all, the Rookie of the Month for June. As such, she earned the honor for tying for a distant second in RoY voting.

What remains most impressive about Prahalis looking back on her season is that she stepped into a position that a number of highly touted rookies have struggled to adjust to in recent years: point guard. In fact, you could very easily make the argument that Prahalis is one of the three most successful rookie point guards in the All-Rookie team era; many point guards take a couple of years to find their rhythm or flame out after a filling a hole in a specific situation. Prahalis not only filled a need, but actually ran her team's offense and created her own offense admirably relative to the past history of rookie point guards.

However, Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com pointed out that her statistics actually didn't support her as a RoY candidate at all and made her a questionable for even making the All-Rookie team.

What about Samantha Prahalis? The Mercury's point guard has had arguably the most difficult task of any rookie. She's been asked to run an offense and create for herself without much help, especially down the stretch. Still, Prahalis' impressive per-game numbers are mostly a product of playing time. On a per-minute basis, her inefficiency as a scorer (she's making worse than 40 percent of her twos and 30 percent of her threes) leaves her below replacement level. I can see an argument for Prahalis in the final spot on the All-Rookie Team, but she shouldn't factor heavily into Rookie of the Year voting.

So how exactly do we evaluate Prahalis' rookie season? Do we commend her for the unquantifiable task of running a team, a task that few of her peers actually even had to take on? Or should she have been considered a fringe All-Rookie Team candidate?

I already briefly summarized the framework I've used to look at rookies in the past in my midseason rookie rankings and I'll apply that same logic to a look at the top 10 rookies of the 2012 season.

The top 10 rookies of the 2012 season

The following is the list of the top 10 rookies ordered by their valuable contributions ratio (VCR) and including all the metrics described in the rookie ranking framework.

Player

Team

Position

MPG

VCR

Pts/empty

2p%

Value Added

MVP

G Johnson

Tulsa

F

28.18

1.42

2.07

48.16

2.66

8.86

Ogwumike

L.A.

F

27.88

1.4

2.87

54.29

3.47

10.43

Williams

Tulsa

G

20.33

1.18

1.69

35.45

-2.44

5.13

Peters

Minnesota

F

14.13

1.03

2.05

55.96

1.86

3.79

Stricklen

Storm

G/F

23.06

1

1.88

46.32

-1.04

5.42

Player

Team

Position

MPG

VCR

Pts/empty

2p%

Value Added

MVP

Warley

Phoenix

C

17.75

0.93

1.38

47.14

2.75

2.7

Prahalis

Phoenix

PG

31.64

0.92

1.37

39.03

-3.01

4.91

Henry (2009)

Atlanta *

F

18.31

0.9

1.99

46.66

1.96

4.36

Hayes

Atlanta *

G

23.09

0.89

1.97

44.59

-0.91

5.4

S Johnson

San Antonio Silver Stars

G

17.09

0.86

1.59

34.55

1.07

4

Statistics for the top 10 WNBA rookies in 2012.
* - Atlanta's stats are as of 9/18/12.

First team

Nneka Ogwumike, F, L.A. Sparks | 1st pick overall (RoY)

There was never much mystery to who the 2012 Rookie of the Year should be: Ogwumike led the 2012 rookie class in points (14 ppg), rebounds (7.5 rpg), and double-doubles (nine). No matter how you slice her statistical profile, she was this season's top rookie.

Glory Johnson, F, Tulsa Shock | 4th pick overall

However, there was room for debate about how close Glory Johnson, not Prahalis, was to Ogwumike as a RoY candidate. Looking across her profile, she was close to Ogwumike in multiple categories and led all rookies in free throw rate and steals. And two things stand out in understanding how she ended up with a higher VCR than Ogwumike: first, her steal percentage of 3.8% is extremely impressive for a power forward. Second, her free throw rate of 70.58% was outstanding and helped boost her scoring average without the cost of missed field goals.

But three things keep Johnson firmly in second place: Ogwumike turned the ball over at an extremely low rate of 8.8% compared to Johnson's 15.3%. Ogwumike was a better offensive rebounder by a couple of percentage points. Third, Ogwumike played with better players this season: she split credit for the Sparks' success with the likes of MVP candidate Candace Parker and 2012 WNBA Most Improved Player Kristi Toliver. Johnson's VCR was a little bit inflated on this particular team because her contributions represented a much larger proportion of the team's overall success.

In any event, Johnson was an outstanding rookie by almost any standard and definitely helps to make up for the disappointment Shock fans felt when they ended up with the fourth pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft Lottery.

Shekinna Stricklen, G/F, Seattle Storm | 2nd overall

The clearest potential snub from the All-Rookie Team was clearly Shekinna Stricklen, who was arguably a stronger candidate statistically than three of the people who actually made the team. In addition to the numbers above, she became a pretty strong rebounder for her position by the end of the season.

But the most impressive thing about Stricklen - and what might bode well for future success - is that she improved quite dramatically over the course of the season. One thing that stood in the numbers is that she became a more consistent rebounder after the Olympic break. Another that stands out is that while she didn't necessarily do anything exceptionally well, she had very good numbers in most statistical categories; her scoring efficiency (49.47% true shooting percentage) could stand to improve, but you could say that for a number of rookies. Most of all, Stricklen just looked more confident in doing the things she did well - as a small example, her focus on defensive rebounding and ability to bring the ball up the court in transition without turning it over proved to be an asset in the second half of the season. She showed glimpses of how she can make an impact on games and perhaps room for further growth.

Overall, trading away two veterans for the opportunity to draft a versatile young player like Stricklen is looking like a great move by Brian Agler and the Seattle Storm.

Samantha Prahalis, PG, Phoenix Mercury | 6th overall

The major problem with Prahalis' candidacy for the All-Rookie team was simply that traditional statistics don't do a particularly good job of measuring all that a point guard does for a team. So it's somewhat ironic that for Prahalis her "traditional" numbers were probably more attractive than her more advanced statistics: Prahalis ranked 7th in the league and led all rookies in assists (4.5 per game) and was ranked second among rookies in scoring average (11.6) and steals (1.57). That actually looks a lot better than the numbers Pelton cited.

But the scoring average serves to reinforce an important point about Prahalis: although she scored so much because she was playing for an injury-depleted team, the very fact of being a high usage point guard is actually a justification for her lower efficiency. In other words, we might expect Prahalis to get more efficient overall - as both a distributor and scorer - playing next to better teammates next season. The combination of that and the fact that she put up the numbers she did while being thrown into the fire in a way that many rookie point guards haven't been able to handle earn her a spot on this team.

It remains uncertain how exactly her performance will be influenced by the Mercury's full complement of players - as well as the Mercury's #1 draft pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft - but it seems like she'll become more efficient even if her basic averages take a bit of a hit.

Riquna Williams, G, Tulsa Shock | 17th overall (5th pick, second round)

Williams ended her season on a somewhat dubious note or maybe in fitting fashion, depending on your perspective.

In her final three games of the season, Williams shot 7-for-27 from the field (25.92%). There are two ways to read that statistic. Obviously those type of shooting numbers are the mark of an inefficient volume shooter, which is the type of player who can drive even the most patient fan nuts. On the other hand, the very fact that she can create shots for herself at such a high rate is a skill unto itself and for a team like the Shock that isn't exactly the most adept at moving the ball that's an asset for the times when they're struggling just to get shots.

Williams is a player who can both win games for her team when she's hot and shoot them out of games when she goes cold - you could argue that she demonstrated the ability to do a bit of both in her rookie year. But the reason she was a reasonable candidate for the 2012 Sixth Woman of the Year award had as much to do with another contribution she made to the Shock's style of play.

Tulsa led the league in points off turnovers this past season in part because of their swarming, trapping defense in both the full and half court. Adding an athlete like Williams to that scheme was a perfect fit and although Johnson led rookies and the team in steal percentage, Williams was virtually tied with Johnson in steal percentage (3.8%). Having those two on the court at the same time really helped to make their defense what it was and that contribution off the bench is what made Williams a SWoY candidate. All of that is why it should come as little surprise that Williams had the third highest plus/minus rating among rookies (+ 4.4).

Yet similar to the discussion about Prahalis above, there's a question as to whether Williams was the beneficiary of a perfect situation - as was obvious on draft day even when she fell to the second round - moreso than a clear candidate for one of the best talents in the 2012 rookie class. Tiffany Hayes has a number of positive indicators for future success to her credit: a solid 2-point percentage, she's an above average distributor for her position, and attacks the rim with reckless abandon. When McCoughtry was in and out of the lineup due to injury or controversy, Hayes filled in as admirably as anyone could expect as the starter. Similar to Prahalis, her situation threw her quite a few curve balls - not to mention a coaching change - and she responded relatively well.

Ultimately, this just turned out to be a year where a number of circumstantial issues might have complicated who you would have selected for the All-Rookie Team - depending on what approach you take to evaluating the "top" rookies, there might have been 7-8 players in the mix for recognition.

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