Oregon Ducks point guard Nia Jackson had a down year statistically after recovering from two knee injuries her junior year, but she showed the she is still difficult to keep up with in the open court. Photo by Shannon Cotterell.
When we posted our list of Top 10 2012 WNBA Draft prospects, college point guards were noticeably absent.
That could be construed to reflect a recent trend: distributors haven't been the most popular players in recent drafts. Or it could just be that the junior year statistics just didn't seem to suggest there were a lot of top point guard prospects.
Since the WNBA reduced its rosters to 11 players, point guards have been the least-selected college players of any NCAA player selected.
Certainly part of that is that versatility has become more important in recent years and teams making due with higher scoring lead ball handlers or distributing ball handling across multiple positions. But it's also fair to say that the last few classes of draft-eligible college players simply have produced a lot of WNBA-quality point guards after a solid year in 2009.
So with that in mind, we have had a few point guards on the radar early this season who weren't on that original list.
This is neither the "next four best prospects" nor even an exhaustive list of top point guard prospects; instead it's a list of point guards who caught our eyes last season or early this season either statistically or simply because they're entertaining players to watch. With conference tournament time rapidly approaching and (most of) their collegiate careers coming to an end, now is as good a time as any to discuss what's occurred over the course of their senior seasons.
It's not as if we just forgot about Prahalis.
Although it has been widely assumed that Prahalis was a top prospect for the 2012 draft even last year, the numbers she put up in her junior year suggested that of a mediocre WNBA point guard at least in her first year. The problem was mostly her 4.0 turnovers per game that brought down her pure point rating beneath the threshold of 2.5 that usually translates into WNBA success.
So what really makes Prahalis most exciting as a prospect now is that she has shown improvement - both as a distributor and scorer - as she looks to go to the next level. And despite dominant perception of her WNBA potential throughout her career, this is the first year where she's really put up the type of numbers that might make her an productive prospect.
Samantha Prahalis' pure point rating and points per empty possession for 2009-12.
Her increase in scoring this season is due at least in no small part to the graduation of center Jantel Lavender, who took close to 30% of the Ohio State's field goal attempts last season. But the most important thing is that while being depended on to do more, she's gotten significantly more efficient as a scorer and ball handler, which bodes well for her WNBA potential.
Ricketts was actually a player who just barely missed the cut as a top 10 prospect statistically entering this season in large part because she meant so much to her team as a defender, distributor, and scorer.
In Arkansas' upset win over the Tennessee Lady Vols last week, Ricketts was the center of attention for Pat Summitt's team and she was the primary reason for the upset. Offensively, Arkansas used a 1-4 low for much of the game to dare Tennessee to try to guard Ricketts one-on-one from the top of the key. With her extremely quick first step and superior speed she was able to make plays simply by beating her defender into the lane and finding open cutters and perimeter shooters. Defensively, her quickness also had an impact as she was able to play passing lanes, take the ball from opposing ball handlers, and even jump from a defensive stance to get two hands on a ball that the ball handler she was guarding tried to pass over her.
Even if she doesn't play point guard, that kind of athleticism and speed can be useful at the WNBA level.
Yet Ricketts is also another player who has shown some improvement as a distributor between her junior and senior season, although her scoring numbers have declined in her senior season: her pure point rating improved from 0.40 her junior year to 2.15 her senior year, an even more significant leap than Prahalis.
More importantly, she fits an important exception when it comes to looking at the translation of college point guards to WNBA distributors: there have been a few high usage college point guards (i.e. point guards responsible for a lot of scoring in addition to distributing) that become more efficient WNBA distributors because they're expected to do less. In fact there was a player just last year who was a high usage scorer and even less efficient distributor who possessed blazing speed and became far more efficient in the WNBA because she wasn't expected to carry the whole team: Danielle Robinson. That's not necessarily to say that Ricketts is a shoe-in to turn some heads and make the All-Rookie team this year, but the similarities are there to a lesser extent (e.g. speed, usage, relying heavily on driving to score as opposed to perimeter shot) and a player with her ability could be a solid contributor in the right situation.
While other players have gotten attention as scorers this season, Haley Steed has quietly established herself as one of the top point guards in the nation and one of two seniors selected as a 2012 Nancy Lieberman Award finalist.
In fact, Steed is the most efficient distributor of any senior point guard or Lieberman Award finalist this year, as measured by pure point rating.
|Haley Steed||BYU||RS Senior||6.28|
|Chene Cooper||Eastern Washington||Senior||5.09|
|Skylar Diggins||Notre Dame||Junior||4.47|
Top five pure point ratings for the 2011-12 season (as of 2/26/12).
The reason Steed is such an efficient distributor is simple: she does as an outstanding job of recognizing scoring opportunities for others and making pinpoint passes to set them up, probably better than anyone in the nation. In contrast to Prahalis, there's nothing fancy about her game - she just directs her team almost to perfection. In further contrast to last year's star point guard from the WCC - Courtney Vandersloot - it's not even that she offsets a high turnover ratio with lots of assists; Steed simply does not make many mistakes.
So does that automatically make Steed a strong draft prospect?
As WNBA fans are probably aware, there are a few point guards 5'5" and under currently playing in the league: Shannon Bobbitt, Temeka Johnson, and Lelilani Mitchell. So it's not out of the question, but the problem is that Steed is an inefficient scorer, which might limit what she can do at the next level. Yet her combination of statistics - most efficient distributor and inefficient scorer - is somewhat unprecedented in recent years.
So who was the top junior point guard statistically after last season? Despite being ignored playing for a non-tournament team in the Pacific Northwest, Jackson put up better draft numbers overall than any junior point guard in the nation.
But for those that have watched her closely in the Pac-10 over the years, the biggest improvement for her has been her increasing expanded shooting range that helped her make a "shocking" jump to the top of the Pac-10 scoring rankings last season.
Jackson scored 17 points per game while shooting 43.5% from the three point line and put up a very solid 57.1% true shooting percentage, which was almost unfathomable if you had seen her even just the year before, much less in her freshman season. Paired with a pure point rating of 2.88, it was Jackson who looked most promising statistically as a junior because she was on a steadily upward trajectory - whereas Prahalis had been up and down - and had worked to expand her game so much.
So why might Jackson still get overlooked this year? Continued injury problems - Jackson's season ended last season after suffering two knee injuries and then having off-season surgery. Jackson unfortunately didn't recover well and came back down to earth this season, shooting career-lows of 23.5% from the 3-point line, 66.9% from the free throw line and 34.9% from the field overall. Her pure point rating of -2.12 almost makes her a non-prospect.
However, Jackson has two things going for her. First, it's not unprecedented for a player to have a down senior year due to a slow recovery from injury and then coming back to have a productive WNBA career. But second, and perhaps more importantly statistically, Jackson is another high-usage point guard (24.10%) that could benefit from being in a situation at the next level where she isn't expected to do so much. When you combine that with what she was able to do while healthy in her junior year, Jackson might be worth taking a flier on for a team that needs to give a point guard a shot.