2012 WNBA Draft: Top NCAA Center Prospects Yield More Questions Than Answers

Sasha Goodlett's ability to hit mid-range jumpers might set her apart from other center prospects in the 2012 WNBA Draft, but the improvement over her career at Georgia Tech might be even more impressive. Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

With Baylor's Brittney Griner announcing (multiple times) that she'll be staying in college for her senior season, there probably won't be a lot of center prospects rated very high on WNBA Draft boards.

Nevertheless, NCAA centers will always get a look on draft day - whether it be in men's or women's basketball - because, as the cliche goes, you can't teach height. But making the transition from college starter to pro rotation is as difficult, if not moreso, for centers than any position on the floor.

"I think how physical it is - it's a very physical game," said former L.A. Sparks center Lisa Leslie in an interview with Swish Appeal. "You have to be mentally tough, but you also have to be physically tough - you have to get in the weight room and get your body toned up and at its strongest. And you have to find ways to run the floor because usually when you're a rookie you're not going to be the focal point of most teams so you have to find ways to get easy baskets. And eventually you'll be in the scouting report where people have to figure out what your tendencies are and overall, can you continue to add to your game, continue to get better?"

In other words, players that got by being bigger than everyone else or relying heavily on one move are in for a rude awakening at the next level. And that might be one of the bigger concerns for this year's class of centers.

Most of the top statistical prospects for the center position this year possess the size to have a shot at making a WNBA roster. But the question for almost all of them might be whether they'll be successful playing the way they did in college or, more specifically, whether they'll remain successful when faced with the more physical nature of the WNBA.

Although we can't measure "physicality", there are a few statistical indicators that tend to suggest potential for success based on patterns among past center prospects. When comparing this group of centers to those of the past**, what stands out as problematic is the ways that they contribute to their team beyond scoring points.

In addition, the fact that all of the top center prospects played in the ACC makes comparing them a bit easier than normal.

The prospects

(Links are to their school's bio page)

1. Sasha Goodlett, 6'5". Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

For what it's worth, Goodlett wasn't on James Bowman's preseason list of top statistical prospects and that might indirectly represent something that bodes well for her as she looks ahead to a pro career - she's improved dramatically year-to-year at Georgia Tech to the point where she stacks up reasonably well with other centers of the past.

It's hard to ever say exactly what "improvement" says about a prospects chances, but Goodlett has gotten in noticeably better shape, which has helped her defensively and that probably shows up best statistically in her improved rebounding. She has also developed a solid mid-range jump shot that could be intriguing for a team that likes to drive and dish.

The ability to hit that mid-range shot might help mitigate her otherwise borderline shooting efficiency (55.83% true shooting percentage) - most of her peers at center in this year's draft won't step out to shoot very often. What you might hope for more of from Goodlett - and really every one of this year's prospects - is offensive rebounding; at 6'5" you might hope that she rebounds at a higher rate than her 11.15% offensive rebounding percentage in her senior year. Her relatively low rebounding rate and value added rating (0.98) suggest a player that might not be a consistent contributor right away. If you're looking for a statistical comparison, Vanessa Hayden is quite similar in most respects.

But the question for Goodlett still remains: if she has shown the work ethic to improve so dramatically throughout her college career and has put up some numbers that are around average compared to the past, might she be able to continue improving in the right situation in the WNBA? To Leslie's point about the need to constantly improve and work on her game, Goodlett might be a more promising draft candidate than her numbers suggest.

2. Chay Shegog, 6'5", North Carolina Tar Heels

Sticking with the statistical comparison of Goodlett to Hayden - who stuck around for a while but averaged sub-rotation minutes during her career - what might be disappointing is that Goodlett's numbers are the best among this group.

However, Shegog's statistical profile comes with a few important caveats. First, none of these prospects was responsible for a larger percentage of her team's overall statistical output than Shegog; in other words, she carried a team that was at times erratic offensively. And that leads to a second point, that might be important to consider: the importance of teammates to a center's success, particularly a point guard.

You can't fault a center for not being able to bring the ball up the court to get themselves in good scoring position - it would be nice, and reason for great praise, but there's a reason why we have point guards to do that. Unfortunately, the Tar Heels' point guards weren't particularly efficient as distributors. Also of importance was that UNC was a 32% 3-point shooting team this season, 8th during ACC play and not exactly outstanding for a team that relies so heavily on a post player for scoring,

That meant two things for Shegog that probably shouldn't go ignored: first, her team struggled to get her the ball for as many easy scoring opportunities as some other center prospects get because, second or at least partially so, teams could collapse into the paint to surround Shegog even if she had position.

That has to be taken into account when looking at Shegog's borderline shooting efficiency (55.21% true shooting percentage). And it might also help to explain her relatively low offensive rebounding rate (8.73%), which would be the second-lowest of any player to make a roster since 2005 were she to make it (the one player lower - Alison Bales - was an outstanding shot blocker at 6'7", which has helped her maintain a spot in the league).

If the entire defense was focused in on her and camping out in the paint, daring UNC perimeter players to hit threes it's not unreasonable to expect both her shooting efficiency and offensive rebounding rate to be low simply because the defense was in position to constantly have a body on her.

Like Goodlett, Shegog appears to have borderline numbers that might be explained away by context, but make it hard to get to know what she might contribute to a WNBA team.

3. Lynetta Kizer, 6'4", Maryland Terrapins

Kizer was a late add to James' preseason list of candidates and she might be the best athlete on this list.

She can run the floor, has 3-point range on her jumper, and is the best offensive rebounder on this list. Her turnover ratio of about 12% was actually second-best on the Terrapins behind All-American Alyssa Thomas (11%), which is also impressive.

The biggest statistical sticking point with Kizer is that her shooting efficiency of 50.91% was extremely low. If she made a roster, it would be the third lowest of any center prospect entering the draft just narrowly ahead of Nicky Anosike and Krystal Thomas just last year. However, both of those players had a high value added rating that suggested they contribute even if they're not scoring; Anosike due to a strong offensive rebounding rate in addition to steals and Thomas also being one of a handful to approach the 50 steals-50 blocks club in addition to rebounding.

Kizer's value added rating of -0.46 suggests a player that didn't contribute much in the way of those other things, which isn't particularly promising as someone with a low shooting efficiency. Not that blocks and steals mean much, but as John Hollinger has suggested about NBA prospects they do say something about a player's athleticism and instincts and Kizer's 6 blocks this season are not exactly encouraging. Even more disappointing as a WNBA prospect was that she wasn't a starter and only averaged 23.4 minutes per game after serving a brief early-season suspension.

Nevertheless, Kizer's athleticism certainly makes her an intriguing prospect and she might be more of a WNBA power forward than center, making it interesting to see where she's selected on draft day.

4. Cierra Bravard, 6'4", Florida State Seminoles

Bravard was the other player on our preseason list and she did put up reasonably strong numbers this season. Her 60% true shooting percentage and 66% free throw rate put her in very good company as a scorer, not to mention being the best of this year's bunch at center.

However a few things stand out as potential red flags for Bravard. First, she was the highest usage player of this group at 28.07%, which isn't inherently a bad thing - it's actually not often that you even get a center with a 60% true shooting percentage and doing it as someone who's such a major part of her offense when she's on the floor is impressive. But also rare is her 20.85% turnover ratio - it's not often you see a center that tops 100 turnovers get drafted. That combination of putting up a lot of missed shots and turning the ball over so often - in addition to fouling quite a bit - gave her a value added rating of -2.35, which suggests a player who didn't contribute much when the ball wasn't in her hands to score.

Potentially exacerbating all of those negative numbers, is that she only played 25.6 minutes per game because she was visibly exhausted after getting up and down the court for long stretches and at one point was brought in off the bench after a particularly sub-par string of games (an attempt to motivate her, according to one broadcaster).

She is certainly a skilled player who has a good feel for the game around the basket, but no player with comparable statistics has made a roster and stuck around in recent years. The most similar statistical profiles might be Ta'Shia Phillips and, from this year's senior class, Regina Rogers, both of whom have been better rebounders than Bravard and much less turnover prone.

5. Kali Bennett, 6'5", Arizona State

So with all of the question marks surrounding some of these other players, Bennett deserves mention for what she does well: defend.

Bennett had the 10th-best block percentage in the nation this season - not far behind Griner, in fact - and the best defensive rebounding percentage of any of the centers in this group. That combination gives her the best value added rating of anyone in this group (2.59), on par with centers that have successfully made rosters in the past.

The problem is that it's hard to tell what, if anything, Bennett would offer offensively - she had a true shooting percentage of 44.65%, which is among the lowest since 2005, and a turnover ratio of 20.53%, both of which suggest an offensive liability. In addition, her free throw rate of 23.4% is well beneath the threshold of 40% that any past center that has made a roster had in their senior year.

Nevertheless, 91 blocks is among the most of any NCAA senior center prospect in the past few years and that might get her a look late in the draft even if she doesn't make a roster.

For explanations of these and other statistics, visit our statistics glossary.

For a tabular statistical comparison of these players, see our full list of WNBA Draft prospects. For all of our 2012 WNBA Draft coverage, see our "WNBA Draft 2012" section.

Notes:

* Although Glory Johnson could be considered a "center" she was listed as a "forward" by the Tennessee Lady Vols and she's probably more of a WNBA "power forward" than "center", if these positional designations matter to you at all. But if you want to know where she ranks among this set of players, the answer: #1.

** The "past" is defined as 2005-present, which is about the time the WNBA made some significant rules changes. However, perhaps after this season, it might be interesting to look more closely at how center prospects have fared in the 11-player roster era given the increased difficulty of any player making a roster. The challenge is that there are so few centers even considered legitimate prospects from year to year that it's even harder than it already is to identify any consistent patterns.

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