Anyone who has paid close attention to the statistics of professional basketball draft prospects - NBA or WNBA - can probably agree with the following passage of a 2011 article from Ben Cohen at Grantland.
Steve Kerr, the Suns' ex-GM, put it more plainly: "Every team in the league has some MIT whiz trying to make sense of all this. Frankly, I think it's impossible. In the end, there's no way you could ever quantify this stuff to a precise calculation."
What makes draft-day trades so uncertain is that simply evaluating prospects remains an imprecise process that professional statheads and even NBA front offices admit might not be much more reliable than gazing into a crystal ball.
In a Q&A over at SB Nation's Golden State of Mind, Michael Levin of Liberty Ballers recently highlighted some wisdom from Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie - "customer zero" of Sport VU and an obvious champion of analytics - that gets at why things tend to be so difficult to quantify.
For whatever reason, the analytical-minded basketball people don't often get associated with working your ass off, but Hinkie made it a point to emphasize it. He wants guys willing to put in the time and does the research to find out who those guys are: "We hope to ask reasonable questions to lots of people and try to strip out their bias and make an educated guess, but it's still just that. It's why we spend so much time with managers in college, trainers in college, and sports information directors."
That sounds so much more simple than the way some people - self included - think about the delicate art of drafting that it almost seems silly. But it's all part of the murky, and quite often subjective nature, of evaluating a draft prospect.
Work ethic, temperament, "coachability", "basketball IQ", etc., etc. are all factors that contribute to the success of a draft prospect; all of those "intangibles" are also necessarily subjective. And that's before factoring in things like fit with a prospective roster, willingness to improve, willingness not to play without being the focal point of their team, or even how their fit with their college team (thus exaggerating their strengths and minimizing weaknesses).
Seriously, it's a mess and it's a mess that most of us who can't "ask reasonable questions to lots of people" can't really begin to sort through.
Yet rather than making broad statements about the value of sports analytics (which, as you might have heard, is a domain of increasing sophistication) I've found it far more interesting to look at why what we see - whether qualitative, quantitative or some sort of mixed method - has fallen short in the past and how we can improve the way we think about it in the future.
That's why the approach I typically take is to think about drafting prospects in terms of "minimizing risk": can we figure out which prospects have the least likelihood of failure - becoming a complete waste of a pick - rather than always looking for the next big thing or that player who put up gaudy numbers?
Rather than using the complex statistical models that "some MIT whiz" might use, I've actually favored the approach of Ed Weiland from Hoops Analyst: when in doubt, literally putting a prospect's statistical profile side-by-side with similar profiles from the past and laying out a semi-subjective stats-based argument for what they might do (heavy emphasis on the "might") has actually gone a long way. Part of that is getting a better understanding of red flags for unsuccessful college to pro transitions in the past. The other part of that is understanding positive indicators that bode well for a successful transition to the pros.
We already went through red flags that have affected past prospects earlier this week. Today, we'll take a look positive indicators among the 2014 WNBA Draft prospects based on junior season statistics. As in the previous post, I've included a few examples of past prospects who had these positive indicators and epitomize the successful transition from college to the pros either because they ended up ascending to the top of their class or because the positive indicator served as a "protective factor" against the "risk factors" they brought with them (any other public health geeks out there?).
For factors without a full explanation below - or If you want a look at how that played out in last year's draft - click here.
"Pure interior" players
Adjusting for last year's class, post players with interior orientations in the 92nd percentile or above relative to prospects from 2008-2013 according to the SPI styles framework have done extremely well. Those from that group of 30 that haven't made it (Talia Caldwell, 2013; Danielle Campbell, 2009; Sybil Dosty, 2009; Jasmine Lee, 2012; La Toya Micheaux, 2009; Sam Ostarello, 2013; Chelsea Poppens, 2013) all had red flags that led to them going undrafted or being fringe prospects to begin with.
Not all of those players have become All-Stars, but they tend to hang around in the league once they get there (e.g. Courtney Paris, 2009; Devereaux Peters, 2012) which - as we've discussed before - is an accomplishment these days. One explanation is that as with any basketball league, bigs are just coveted players and general managers are just more likely to give anyone who appears half-serviceable a shot. But in any event, if deciding between a post in that top 8 percentile and one outside with similar efficiency numbers, the former is probably the best bet.
Prominent recent examples: Sylvia Fowles, 2008; Glory Johnson, 2012; Kia Vaughn, 2009
Potential 2014 draft prospects: Ariel Braker, Notre Dame; Gennifer Brandon, Cal; Samarie Walker, Kentucky
Offensive rebounding percentage
For power forwards moreso than centers, an offensive rebounding percentage of 11% or above is strong indicator of a successful transition from college to pros. There are posts who have made it without being dominant offensive rebounders, but barring any strongly waving red flags offensive rebounding is one of the best indicators of success we have - really, it applies to both the NBA and WNBA.
Prominent recent examples: Danielle Adams, 2011; Kelsey Bone, 2013; Glory Johnson, 2012; Nneka Ogwumike, 2012
Potential 2014 draft prospects: Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame; Gennifer Brandon, California; Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford
When looking at last year's group of point guards before the 2013 WNBA season, I said their performance as a group could really challenge some things that looked pretty established for prospects at that position.
And they did.
There are essentially three criteria for success for point guards:
College assist ratios of 23% or above.
College pure point ratios of 2.5 or above, unless they have take on a high scoring load (usage rates of 23% or above, which is typically high for point guards). Most recent example of this: Samantha Prahalis and Danielle Robinson.
If a player does not have both of the above, they better be efficient scorers and an Chaiken efficiency ratio (points per empty possession) of 1.8 or above seems to be a good indicator. Players with the numbers above can make a roster with as low as a 1.6 Chaiken efficiency ratio
Alex Bentley, Angel Goodrich, and Nadirah McKenith all made rosters and contributed to their teams despite failing to meet that standard in one way or another. Does that dramatically change how we evaluate point guards? It's probably too soon to tell: long-term starters all had better numbers as prospects so we'll have to see how things pan out. And all of them had circumstances that made success predictable: it certainly helped Bentley that she had a strong frame and high steal percentage, which made her a perfect fit for the Atlanta Dream. It certainly helped Angel Goodrich that she was drafted to a team with a 6-foot-8 center and no veteran point guards on the roster. And it certainly helped Nadirah McKenith that she also went to a team that had a void at point guard.
The question is whether their teams see them as long-term solutions or 2013 stop-gaps.
Prominent past examples: Briann January, 2009; Danielle Robinson, 2011; Courtney Vandersloot, 2011
Potential 2014 prospects: Chelsea Gray, Duke; Odyssey Sims, Baylor
This was described in a bit more detail last year with an adjustment for wings that we've already explained to death (45% seems to be a slightly more accurate threshold than 47%). But the brief rundown of other positions:
College power forwards: 2-point percentage of 52% and above
College centers: true shooting percentage of 60% and above
Prominent past examples: Danielle Adams, 2011; Tina Charles, 2010; Brittney Griner, 2013; Tiffany Hayes, 2012; Maya Moore, 2011; Nneka Ogwumike, 2012
Potential 2014 prospects: Hallie Christofferson, Iowa State; Stefanie Dolson, UConn; Christina Foggie, Vanderbilt; Bria Hartley, UConn*; Tyaunna Marshall, Georgia Tech; Kayla McBride, Notre Dame; Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford; Courtney Moses, Purdue; Shoni Schimmel, Louisville; Alyssa Thomas, Maryland; Samarie Walker, Kentucky
(* You may note that I've listed Hartley here as a non-point guard "wing" but previously described her as a point guard...that's because she technically played both throughout last season. More on her in the coming weeks.)
As mentioned for perimeter players, this can help overcome major red flags. For post players, steals would help contribute to their ratio of steals and blocks to personal fouls. Either way, the primary value of steals really is about athleticism: players who pick up a lot of steals aren't doing so because they're not moving. It is not, however, a guarantee of making it - definitely a better enhancer than enabler.
Prominent past examples: Alex Bentley, 2013; Shenise Johnson, 2012; Angel McCoughtry, 2009; Devereaux Peters, 2012; Riquna Williams, 2012; Monica Wright, 2010;
Potential 2014 prospects: Chelsea Gray, Duke; Tyaunna Marshall, Georgia Tech; Odyssey Sims, Baylor; Samarie Walker, Kentucky
Who were the most promising prospects entering this season?
Ultimately, being on this list or the other isn't going to make or break a prospect: too much can happen in a senior season to say affirmatively who the "top" picks will be based on junior season statistics. Some of the more promising players listed above have already had rough starts to their senior campaigns.
In other words, this isn't actually about correlations (at least until we have more sophisticated raw data for women's college basketball) - sometimes, it's about finding one of the many the "right" balances of strengths and weaknesses. So we can neither immediately assume success because of one positive indicator nor dismiss someone due to a red flag (or a whole bunch of red flags on a red ship with glowing red-eyed skulls), which is why some players might appear in both this post and the previous one on red flags. In last year's draft, there were a few prospects who embodied that but none more than Texas A&M's Kelsey Bone: she was quite clearly a first round pick despite having a few red flags that had doomed past prospects; she ended up clearly being one of the best in her class in her first season.
What the combination of this list of strengths and weaknesses does do is lay the groundwork for expectations and who might end up having the most attractive statistical profile by the end of the season.