Who Are The WNBA's Top Second Year Players?

Jun 1, 2012; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Silver Stars guard Danielle Robinson (13) shoots against the Phoenix Mercury during the first half at the AT&T Center. Photo by Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE.

The NBA Draft was last week and by all accounts the Golden State Warriors did relatively well, which means I was more focused on the NBA than writing about the WNBA for the most part.

But I didn't ignore the WNBA either - in reading and thinking about the NBA draft, I continued to reflect on past WNBA drafts as well and part of that involved continuing to look at what prospects did after they were actually drafted as opposed to what we expected them to do based upon college production.

Long story short, as part of my ongoing interest in improving my understanding of how successful a NCAA prospect can become in the WNBA, I've compiled data on first year WNBA performance for NCAA prospects over the last few years and began compiling second year data, including an early look at this year's group.

Growth potential vs. immediate impact

While the WNBA's 11-player rosters have made it very much a what have you done for me in the last few minutes league, there tends to be a lot of focus on immediate impact - players that might need time to develop before becoming a consistent contributor are sometimes denied an opportunity, players that end up in the wrong system for their skill set are quickly dismissed, and players that don't get many minutes are sometimes underrated.

To level the playing field a bit and try to estimate pro potential, I've used Valuable Contributions Ratio (VCR) for rookies. VCR - and its use-value for rookies - is described that elsewhere in-depth, but in short it's a metric that approximates whether a player is "making the most of" the minutes they get or a measure of who's giving their team "quality minutes".

Briefly, a player with a high VCR isn't necessarily destined for greatness but might be capable of more than what they've produced thus far. A low VCR generally means a player is playing more minutes than they're capable of using productively. An average VCR (around .80) usually means a player is playing exactly the number of minutes they should be playing.

Growth of 2011 rookies in 2012

As part of my interest in what makes prospects roster-worthy in an era of 11-player rosters, I've already looked at the first year VCRs for each rookie that played in a game from 2008*-2011. But as we look ahead to 2012 WNBA draft prospects - and yes, a few of us Swish Appeal contributors are already working on a list - I am also interested in how well players perform in their second years and how much weight to place on that when looking at future projections.

That provided the opportunity to take a look at some of the top second-year performers this season.

A Brief Look At Recent Drafts

It might help to see average VCRs from the last few years just for some context. Bear in mind that the average VCR has usually been right around 0.80.

Year Avg. VCR
2009 0.89
2010
0.53
2011 0.70

First year VCRs for draft-eligible rookies from 2009-2011.

The 2010 draft rates as a particularly poor draft. While even that number is inflated by players who struggled in their first year and are already out of the league, it's worth noting that both Tina Charles (1.25) and Epiphanny Prince (.99) developed into solid MVP candidates this season (and Charles was arguably in that conversation her rookie year) and Danielle McCray (included with her 2010 draft class instead of her 2011 rookie class) was about average 0.84. And sure, if you take out all the players that barely played, it's better but still below average at 0.63. Take out those top three and things get dismal.

But the bottom line here is that the 2011 class was a bit of a mixed bag. So the next step was to see if their second year numbers are yielding improved results.

Top second year players in 2012

Overall, it's fair to say that a few players from that 2012 class have indeed improved while the more productive players have remained productive.

Using the past numbers as a guide for interpretation, here are the top 10 VCRs for second year players in 2012.

Name Team 2011 VCR 2011 MPG 2012 VCR *
2012 MPG *
2012 PER *
Danielle Adams S.A. Silver Stars 1.19 20.9 1.13 20.6 20.84
Maya Moore Minnesota Lynx 1.15 28 1.12 27.5 21.58
Karima Christmas Tulsa Shock * 0.67 9.8 1.10 11.5 14.5
Caroyln Swords Chicago Sky 1.13 7.5 0.99 5.3 (< 150 mins.)
Jantel Lavender L.A. Sparks 1.04 14.8 0.94 17.3 14.87
Krystal Thomas Phoenix Mercury 0.30 12.3 0.88 21.9 10.93
Jasmine Thomas Washington Mystics 0.68 19.3 0.81 16.8 11.62
Danielle Robinson S.A. Silver Stars 1.06 23.1 0.80 26 12.55
Jeanette Pohlen Indiana Fever 0.69 15.9 0.74 16.8 13.32
Amber Harris Minnesota Lynx 0.70 10.3 0.71 6.6 (< 150 mins.)

* 2012 numbers as of 7/2/2012.

Observations:

  • First, looking at the big picture, PER is constructed such that an average player would get a rating of 15. Only two players from the 2011 draft class have a PER above 15 while two others are close; 8 of the above players are above average by VCR. Therein lies the distinction between PER and VCR although they might seem to ebb and flow together - PER is more of a productivity than efficiency rating (for reasons described here by Wayne Winston) but VCR is a number that measures whether a player is contributing to the team efficiently relative to the percentage of the team's minutes they're consuming. I'll get into that more when we start talking specifically about the draft, but it's important to note that what constitutes "average" is very different by these two metrics, which is actually helpful to know in thinking about rookies.
  • Karima Christmas is an interesting case particularly given that she was just traded to the Indiana Fever for Roneeka Hodges yesterday. Christmas has been among the most improved players in the league thus far this season (i.e. her VCR has jumped more than almost any player since last season) and has improved across the board, most notably in her almost 10% increase in 3-point shooting (31.3%). In contrast, Hodges currently has a VCR of 0.56 in 8.9 minutes per game, suggesting that she hasn't offered the Fever a whole lot. A side-by-side comparison of these players' basic numbers suggests no big difference, but the numbers above suggest that Christmas still has significant room for growth as a second-year player.
  • But something worth noting about Hodges before moving on: the San Antonio Silver Stars, her 2011 team, had a number of outstanding ball handlers last season and moved the ball extremely well; Hodges shot a career-high 40% from the 3-point line and had much higher PER (16) and VCR (.95) numbers. With the Fever this season - whose most efficient distributor (Tamika Catchings) has a below average assist ratio of 14.8% - her 3-point percentage dropped to 25.9%. Tulsa point guard Temeka Johnson's 2.29 pure point rating is among the best in the league and Amber Holt is more of a distributor than she gets credit for on the wing (1.01). Will Hodges benefit as much as Christmas did from having a more efficient ball handler to get her the ball? Tulsa's counting on it.
  • Carolyn Swords is an even more interesting case because her numbers this and last year suggest that she could be a contributor in the 15-20 minute range though she hasn't gotten on the court much to show what she can (or can't) do. Chances of being better than Lavender seem slim based on a comparison of VCRs and minutes, but even that could suggest that she has more potential than we've seen from her so far.
  • Krystal Thomas is also in that most improved category as she has impressively become more productive in more minutes. Her most significant improvement is her offensive rebounding percentage (13.67%), which is more than double last season's. With her and rookie Avery Warley in the fold, the Mercury should have a solid pair of young interior players into the future.
  • Danielle Robinson's decline in VCR (and PER, actually) can be explained by her decreased scoring role this season with the additions of Shameka Christon, rookie Shenise Johnson, and Jia Perkins taking on more of the scoring load for the team this year. Robinson is also getting to the line less. That's not necessarily a "good" thing - neither Johnson nor Perkins is a more efficient scorer this year than Robinson was last year - and Robinson is a more efficient distributor thus far this year. But scoring ability matters in basketball and Robinson hasn't done that quite as often as she did last season. But this also demonstrates the importance of looking at players relative to their style of play: in usually having much higher assist ratios than usage rates, point guards typically aren't looking to score as often meaning most statistical measures underrate them.
  • Amber Harris' performance is not what we would hope for as the 4th pick in 2011 draft and rookie Devereaux Peters has quickly moved ahead of her in the Minnesota Lynx rotation. She isn't without strengths though: she's actually a very good distributor for a post player (her pure point rating of 0.84 is actually third on the Lynx as of today) and she's a solid defensive rebounder (19.69%). Those strengths give her a VCR around average and suggest that she might succeed in a different situation.

So who is the top second year player?

Danielle Adams and Maya Moore are close, but Moore should get the nod here.

In addition to being about equally efficient/productive in more minutes overall, Moore has a very strong true shooting percentage of 57.53% compared to Adams' 53.52%. Although Adams is the slightly better rebounder overall, they're both primarily scorers so that difference in scoring efficiency matters.

If pressed to choose the third-best second year player, Robinson should probably get the nod despite ranking lower than the others in the chart above. Setting aside the matter of whether these metrics undervalue point guards, Robinson is third among these second year players in a metric not listed above: Marginal Victories Produced (5.81). The fact that she's a significant contributor to a team that's surging gives her a bit of an edge over Lavender, Jasmine Thomas, and Krystal Thomas.

So my list might look like this:

1. Moore (selected #1 overall in 2011 draft)

2. Adams (selected #20 overall)

3. Robinson (selected #6 overall)

4. Lavender (selected #5 overall)

5. K. Thomas (selected #36 overall)

It would be easy to point and laugh at GMs for letting Adams and Thomas fall in the 2011 draft, but a number of people at the time would have agreed with those assessments. The bigger question might be how we can take results like these from even further down the line and improve our ability to separate future WNBA contributors from college stars around draft time. That's why I've spent some time putting together all these numbers.

What does this mean for future draft projections?

Yet overall - just looking at this initial compilation of data - it's probably fair to say that Danielle Robinson's case might illustrate that VCR is better for rookies than sophomores and I might justify that with a simple explanation: VCR is best used as a metric to determine whether a player is giving a team "quality minutes" or whether a player's contribution to the team is roughly proportional to the minutes they're receiving relative to league (and playing style) average.

The fact that Robinson has a lower second year VCR than Jantel Lavender doesn't necessarily indicate that Lavender is the "better" player - Robinson's VCR is right around average, which indicates that her 26 minutes per game is just about right. Lavender's above average VCR suggests that she could probably continue to perform in more than 17.3 minutes per game. But what most teams probably want to see in second year players is their overall value to the team moreso than indicators of potential. For that, another metric might be more useful to look at a prospect's performance two years down the line.

* I included 2008 because that draft ended up being a level above the other years, but have no compiled the full draft as of yet, which is why I didn't add it to the recent draft performance table.

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