What are the characteristics of a successful WNBA wing prospect?

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is among the most surprising prospects in the past six years, having gone undrafted and making the opening day roster of a playoff team. - USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we looked briefly at some hard-to-figure examples of past wing prospects in the WNBA draft. Today, we'll get specific about some statistical indicators that might help us figure things out in the future, exceptions notwithstanding.

The challenge of evaluating wings is not unique to the WNBA at all: the same problem was highlighted in an extensive analysis of NBA draft prospects spanning nearly 30 years by vjl110 at SB Nation's Minnesota Timberwolves (and Lynx!) blog Canis Hoopus.

Shooting guards are often scoring specialists. If scoring is noisy, we should also expect shooting guards to be noisy. This appears to be the case... I do not doubt that we can explain these failures and at least these cases appear to have been predicted by NBA scouts, but I still have not found how to catch them statistically.

And the problem often goes beyond that: there are so many different ways to be a "wing" that it's hard to find any one way of being that just automatically "works". Some are "combo guards", responsible for scoring and setting up others; some are strictly defenders and passers; others are kind of jack of all trades that do a lot of things pretty well but nothing great.

I've tended to lump WNBA "small forward prospects" in with "shooting guard prospects" because there are a number of players who switch roles in college (and even saying that I'm "lumping them together" assumes a greater distinction between the two "positions" than might be warranted). That helps to see some slightly stronger patterns.

The data

Up until this summer, I've been using data from 2009-2012 because that's the 11-player roster era (and the time period I've been watching the draft most closely), which actually does produce some different outcomes than previous drafts - it has been a much less forgiving period over the long-term. But I've been meaning to add the full 2008 draft class for some time because it's one of the stronger drafts in recent history and actually produced plenty of players with staying power in the league despite the reduction of teams and rosters.

So for 2014 draft analyses, we'll be comparing current prospects to those from 2008-2013 - both drafted and undrafted - using both specific stats and similarity ratings. From that group of hundreds of players, I pulled out a set of 75 wings: every one that was drafted plus a few other undrafted prospects that struck me as having comparable statistics at the time. Understanding that mid-major statistics are hard to interpret, I left those players in for similarity purposes but out when considering the principles below.

Coincidentally, it was the 2008 class that seemed to add all kinds of confusion to the data - as alluded to yesterday - though a few players from recent drafts stood out as being particularly hard to figure out. Nevertheless, I actually did eventually have a few moments of clarity.

So what does matter?

2-point percentages above 45%

In that previous Canis Hoopus piece about shooting guards, vjl110 pretty much described the value of 2-point percentage.

It seems clear that what gets you buckets in college isn't necessarily what works in the NBA...[Shot location statistics] hint that getting to the rim and not relying on unassisted jumpers are common traits in players who successfully make the jump, but the dataset is too small to usefully include in my analysis.

Although the statistical significance is vague at best, a player with a high two point percentage is a) not inflating their scoring efficiency/production numbers with a whole bunch of wide open threes and b) they're finding shots inside the arc that they can make, which could be good (unless they just make a whole lot of uncontested fast break layups). A high 2-point percentage plus a high usage rate might suggest a player who was able to create high percentage scoring opportunities for their team, maybe not a sign of dominance but a positive.

In short, a high 2-point percentage tells you something about a player's ability to get themselves shots they can make aside from spotting up for threes.

We could speculate about whether that's more significant for men's or women's players, but what we can say for the WNBA is this: of every wing drafted from 2008-2013, only 2 of 32 wings from major conferences with 2-point percentages over 45% have failed to make a roster in the year they were drafted (Mississippi State's Armelie Lumanu, 2010 and Texas A&M's Tanisha Smith, 2010). The level of success within that group varies - some are gone after a year, some have long careers - but that's about the most compelling statistical trend of any we have for the wing position.

The problem is that it doesn't quite take into account players who went undrafted with high 2-point percentages: there are (at least) 13 additional undrafted players from that time period with 2-point percentages over 45% and just one made an opening day roster (Oregon's Taylor Lilley, 2010 who was capable of playing point guard).

Perhaps not coincidentally, the majority of those undrafted players had multiple other glaring weakness (e.g. low free throw rate, low steal rate, low usage rate, low pure point rating) that would've constituted a red (or maybe yellow?) flag. Perhaps there was simply some other reason that led general managers to ignore them. Maybe there are just a whole lot of diamonds in the rough that GM's have missed out on. Or maybe general managers are just really good at doing their homework and filtering out players who won't make it due to other intangibles.

Overall though, this one simple threshold has had a 69% success rate of the 60+ players from major conferences whose numbers I looked at. For all the trouble we might have identifying wings that can play, that's not bad at all - as Jerry West has said, you're doing pretty well if you're getting the pick right 50% of the time.

"Athleticism"

Simultaneously, we can look at the list of drafted players who fell under that 45% threshold and say with some certainty that being under that is a harbinger of things to come.

Eight drafted wings from the last six drafts under that 45% mark have made rosters in the year they were drafted:

  • Tennessee's Angie Bjorklund (2011)
  • Duke's Karima Christmas (2011)
  • Kentucky's A'Dia Mathies (2013)
  • Georgia Tech's Alex Montgomery (2011)
  • Notre Dame's Natalie Novosel (2012)
  • Georgetown's Sugar Rodgers (2013)
  • Miami's Riquna Williams (2012)
  • Pittsburgh's Shavonte Zellous (2009)

It's fair to say that only four of those players were actually contributors in their rookie season - Mathies, Novosel, and Rodgers spent the majority of their rookie campaigns on the bench; Bjorklund didn't last the season. So that leaves us with Christmas, Montgomery, Williams, and Zellous and there's one thing those four have in common: they have elite physical tools.

Williams and Zellous had the athleticism to make an impact almost immediately. Christmas took a while to become a significant contributor, but has a physique that allows her to simply out-muscle opposing players on the way to the free throw line. Montgomery might still stand out as a bit of a surprise first round pick, but she's not lacking for the physical tools to defend at the pro level as a player who was listed at 6-foot-1 as a prospect. Even North Carolina's Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who went undrafted and had a college 2-point rate of 40.91% (the lowest of anyone to make a roster their rookie year in the last six drafts), had an extremely high college free throw rate (which we'll get to) of 50.49%, which reflects a strong build to take contact going to the basket and a fearless mentality in doing so.

"Athleticism" is not something easy to measure at all - even identifying the players I identified as "athletic" or "strong" is pretty subjective (this is probably the primary position where bringing back the WNBA pre-draft combine would really, really help). But it seems to help at that wing position based on the track record.

3-point shooters

This is an interesting one that is directly related to the point above about getting to the rim: players who shoot more than 40% of their total field goal attempts from beyond the 3-point arc and don't produce many points from the free throw line (a FTM/FGA rate of less than 23%) have not fared well at all, especially since rosters were reduced to just 11 players.

In plain terms, college spot up 3-point shooters who stand around waiting for the ball a lot and don't venture inside the arc often haven't really done well in the pros.

Although it's tempting to make the leap to using this as a proxy for "lacking athleticism", I probably wouldn't go that far: both 2013 WNBA Finals MVP Maya Moore and 2013 Sixth Woman of the Year Riquna Williams had below average college free throw production rates - I don't think any of us would question either of their athleticism. More than anything, it goes back to the point that "getting to the rim and not relying on unassisted jumpers" of any type might somehow be important, though it's just unclear how significant that is without more data.

Yet to the point above about athleticism, having a high free throw rate certainly isn't a bad thing: Christmas, Novosel, Ruffin-Pratt, and Zellous are all players who made rosters in the year they were drafted with a 2-point percentage below 45% and a free throw production rate over 33% (40%, 36.26%, 34.3%, and 33.5%, respectively - that's four of the top eight free throw production rates among wings over the last six drafts).

The problem with looking at free throw production on its own is that it has just been all over the map; the five lowest free throw production rates in the past six drafts (Quianna Chaney, 2008, 9.64%; April Sykes, 2012, 8.72%; Taylor Lilley, 2010, 8.48%; Kamiko Williams, 2013, 8.15%; Angie Bjorklund, 2011, 7.25%) all managed to make opening day rosters. Of course, none of them lasted longer than a season for various reasons - we have yet to find out about Kamiko Williams - so it's hard to know what exactly to read into that.

Pure scorers/low usage players

Low usage players - in simple terms, players who don't shoot often - tend not to fare well in the WNBA at any position. Kamiko Williams and Connecticut's Kelly Faris (2013) happen to be two notable exceptions to that rule as players who were such efficient all-around players that they were able to do things other score to earn roster spots. Yet in general, players who haven't shown the ability to create their own shots at an above average rate (20%) struggle, at best.

On the other end of the spectrum, pure scorers - players for whom shooting is the majority of the contribution made to their college team, independent of efficiency - are another group of players who simply haven't fared well over time.

Of draft prospects with scoring tendencies in the 90th percentile or above in scoring tendencies by the SPI player styles framework, just four have made a roster in the year they were drafted: Riquna Williams, LSU's Allison Hightower (2010), San Diego State's Jene Morris (2010), and Pittsburgh's Shavonte Zellous (2009). Morris, who was interestingly the highest drafted player of the bunch, never played more than 10 minutes per game in her two seasons in the league. Hightower was a strong candidate for Most Improved Player this past season, but it was her defensive ability that helped her earn minutes while Mike Thibault was coaching the Connecticut Sun - defense is something that's difficult to quantify as it is, thus making it even more difficult to tell how that ability transfers from college to pro. We've already been through Williams and Zellous.

One explanation for why pure scorers struggle to make rosters or even appear on draft radars relates to the point above about why wing prospects are so difficult to evaluate to begin with: pure scorers don't do much else (offensively) and they simply don't offer a professional team much else if there are major limitations (height is one that consistently stands out) in the number of ways they can score. When you're dealing with athletes like Williams or Zellous, they're bound to find ways to score. But for the vast majority of players whose talent is predicated on scoring, the adjustment to the professional ranks is far more difficult.

Conclusions: How significant is any of this?

If someone else looked at nearly 30 years of NBA data, used actual regressions, and still struggled to come to concrete conclusions about NBA wing prospects, we have to take any conclusions we draw from six years of WNBA data that includes an era of 11-player rosters and 12 teams with a grain of salt. A very tiny grain of salt. A grain so small, that saying more than whether a wing prospect will make a roster based on college stats is probably not something I'll be doing much of in the future.

But even though we shouldn't cite this as irrefutable commandments sent from the heavens, I think there is some value to it. We should never consider any historical trend as absolute Truth when it comes to the draft and that's certainly true when it comes to wings. What history does help us do though is narrow things down to a few elite prospects every year - remember, that's essentially the only ones who have a long-term impact anyway - and ask targeted questions of those who don't fit the patterns of the past (e.g. can she jump over people?).

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