WNBA rookie rankings: Alex Bentley off to a surprising start as Skylar Diggins and Brittney Griner start to find their rhythm

Alex Bentley has not only emerged as one of the top rookie point guards, but one of the most efficient point guards in the East. - USA TODAY Sports

With the 2013 NBA Draft occurring today, we look at the early progress of the rookies from the 2013 WNBA Draft.

One of the storylines that might've been understated nationally during the Golden State Warriors' run in the 2013 NBA Playoffs was just how well the organization has drafted in the past four years.

Coach Mark Jackson managed to squeeze the most out of their four rookies this season - lottery pick Harrison Barnes, late first round pick Festus Ezeli, second round pick Draymond Green, and the undrafted Kent Bazemore - second-year lottery pick Klay Thompson, and emergent superstar Stephen Curry. 2010 lottery pick Ekpe Udoh was a questionable selection, but the Warriors packaged him in a trade that got Andrew Bogut who played a major role in the playoffs.

None of those draftees - perhaps with the exception of Green - were really considered steals on draft day as they were prospects that had some question marks, whether it was a matter of athleticism, skill, or where they played college ball. But the Warriors identified talents that other people missed and turned these picks into a unit that was among the most successful the franchise has seen in the last 30 years or so.

The Warriors don't own any picks in today's NBA Draft but Warriors.com posted a feature discussing the significance of finding value in the draft, both for a Warriors season that ended exceeding even the most optimistic expectations and a San Antonio Spurs season that ended in disappointment. Whether it be getting contributions from a crew of rookies in a playoff run or developing a player like Danny Green or Gary Neal over time, teams that can a) identify talent and b) maximize it are ones that are consistently successful in the NBA. Part of that is luck, part of it is skill, and part of it rests with a player's motivation and work ethic.

In a NBA TV draft preview earlier this week, former NBA GM and NBA champion Steve Kerr summed up the task of decision-makers on draft day by describing the advice basketball legend Jerry West - now working in the Warriors' front office - gave him.

"My first conversation with Jerry West when I was the GM of Phoenix he said, 'Here's something you need to know: If you're 51% of the time as a general manager, you're doing quite well.' So it's a mistake business, for sure."


The NBA Draft carries with it a ton of uncertainty that simply isn't present in the WNBA Draft primarily due to the age of the prospects. And yet, it's not much less of a mistake business - all you can really do, as we've tried to describe around here, is minimize the risk of completely blowing it.

All of that brings us to the 2013 WNBA Draft class.

The top three picks weren't really about mistakes or risks even before the completion of the college season: Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins, and Brittney Griner were considered locks to perform and, for the most part, they've already shown flashes of why they got so much attention. After that, there was considerably more uncertainty and debate about who should even go fourth overall.

And after the season actually began, what was considered to be a relatively strong draft has been one of the weaker ones in the past few years.

To illustrate the point, I took a look back at the first rookie rankings I did for the 2011 and 2012 classes (2010's class was, um, slower to develop than I remember). Using the Valuable Contributions Ratio that I use every year for rookies, 11 of the top 15 in 2011 were above average (VCRs of .80-.85) around this point and in 2012 15 of 15 had VCRs above average. This season just 8 have VCRs at or above average at this point and five of them were picked after the first round.

Name

VCR

MPG

Pts/empty

2pt%

Value added

MVP

Griner

1.66

25.71

3.25

61.6

1.93

9.36

Hawkins

1.32

9.13

2.95

60

0.15

2.52

Delle Donne

1.3

33

2.59

41.5

-2.38

11.28

Meesseman

1.24

13.5

2.24

50

1.76

3.81

Whyte

1.15

13.5

1.38

43.47

0.48

3.56

Goodrich

1

16.3

1.72

56.52

2.36

3.44

Ruffin-Pratt

0.95

14.88

2.19

42.85

0.18

3.21

Alex Bentley

0.8

15.63

1.95

39.39

-1.04

3.9

Campbell

0.73

6.88

1.71

35.7

0.05

1.33

Diggins

0.7

31.64

1.25

34.93

-2.1

5.1

Tayler Hill

0.69

20.25

1.4

40

-0.28

3.16

Young

0.68

7.86

1.37

43.47

1.37

1.23

Bone

0.58

20.29

1.13

42.5

1.13

2.74

Alexander

0.53

10.38

1.37

45

-0.29

1.27

Rachel Jarry

0.44

7.5

1.11

16.66

0.16

0.98

Rookie numbers as of 6/24/13. Click here for explanations.

So what do we make of that? We'll take stock of the top ten first (which is essentially the eight at or above average players and two others), but I think it's fair to say that the Rookie of the Year race is already down to a predictable two players barring a dramatic improvement for a predictable third player.

First Team All-Rookie

1. Elena Delle Donne: If I was voting for Rookie of the Year today, I'd vote for Delle Donne (and not because she just dropped a career-high 26 points in the Sky's come from behind win yesterday).

The low 2-point percentage is a bit of a concern for a rookie, but she offsets that by shooting nearly 50% from the 3-point line and getting to the free throw line at an extremely high rate, both positive indicators for your 6'5" rookie wing. That she is also firmly in the discussion for the MVP award as well (and that could change depending on what teammate Epiphanny Prince does in her return) just sort of cements her as the front-runner at this point in the season.

2. Brittney Griner: However, that Delle Donne got off to a fast start does not at all exclude Griner as a candidate. In fact, if I were to predict a winner based on the early results, I'd say Griner would be it. We all knew that the 6'8" Griner would be a defensive presence - while pro players are less afraid to go at her in the paint and WNBA coaches have been better than their NCAA counterparts at pulling her out of the paint by forcing her to defend pick and rolls, the reality is that she is an imposing presence that forces teams to think twice before charging into the paint. Offensively, she was slower to get started for reasons close observers of the college game might have expected, but she is by far the most efficient scorer of any rookie and it's not really close (64.7% TS%).

So just imagine how good she can be once she's off the minute restriction she's currently on.

3. Skylar Diggins: Diggins got off to a really rough start and that shows up strongly in her numbers. So the first question you might ask is why I even have her ranked this high. Acknowledging that this is somewhat subjective reasoning, it comes down to minutes, position, and responsibility for her team's success. Diggins' VCR is well below average for all WNBA players, but really only 3% lower than the average distributor last season (0.73 VCR). When you consider she's doing that while playing the second most minutes of any rookie this year as a starting point guard for a team that has yet to reach double digits in its (reconstituted) existence, Diggins probably has the toughest challenge of any rookie. And recently, she's shown signs of turning a corner: in the last four games, Diggins has had 29 assists to just 7 turnovers. When taking into account the minutes she's playing, that's a pure point rating of 10.63. In related news, the Shock are 2-2 in that time with an overtime loss to Phoenix.

As a note of caution, Mercury guard Samantha Prahalis was playing almost exactly the same minutes in the first half of last season and putting up much better numbers overall on a struggling team. The difference is that Diggins is not quite as inefficient as a ballhandler, which bodes well for future success. And if Diggins can continue at anything approximating the pace she has been on over the last four games, she might be able to play herself right back into the Rookie of the Year discussion.

4. Alex Bentley: As I wrote before the season, I wasn't sure what to make of Bentley's college numbers: they fit somewhere between not roster worthy...and Ivory Latta. So far, she's fallen somewhere in between of both exceeding expectations and meeting the lowest expectations. On the surprising end, she's the most efficient distributor in the Eastern Conference (4.8 PPR), which helps her to have an above average VCR for a distributor. What's holding her back compared to her peers is that she's not an efficient scorer - even though she's been surprisingly good from 3-point range, the suspect jumpshot she showed in college is doing her no favors and she has an extremely low free throw rate (7.54%). But she gives Atlanta exactly what they need: speed off the bench and someone who can pass the ball (to MVP candidate Angel McCoughtry).

5. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt: There are a number of players you could stick in this fifth spot, but ultimately you're choosing between inefficient players or low usage players. For now, it's really hard to ignore one of the more pleasant surprises of this rookie class - right now, undrafted Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is a solid defensive presence and has made a case that she could be a productive starter for the surprising Mystics.

Without engaging in revisionist history and telling you the numbers indicated that she definitely should've been drafted, but I did consider her a wild card: her combination of improvement, size, and skill seemed intriguing enough to give her a look and she's fulfilled the most optimistic outlook for her as a draft prospect. Part of that is hard work, but for those that have watched UNC closely another part is that she's fulfilling a role similar to that she did early in her college career as a sort of do-everything, be-everywhere glue hustle player. What lifts her above all the other as yet unmentioned rookies at this point is that she's an exceptional rebounder for her position (7.55% offensive rebounding percentage) and gets to the free throw line at a very high rate (65.51%). She has made herself the type of player that will be tough to cut in the future, which is basically what you're looking for in the 11-player roster era.

Second Team All-Rookie

Washington Mystics rookie Tayler Hill's media day interview.

5-T: Emma Meesseman: In another pleasant surprise for the Mystics, Emma Meesseman has been one of the most efficient rookies in this class, which is why I'm copping out by listing her as tied for 5th with Ruffin-Pratt. So far, she has just proven to be a highly-skilled, smart player who plays off her teammates extremely well. And on a team that features lineups with a high usage post and a number of high usage wings, that makes her all the more valuable.

The reason I'd give the edge to Ruffin-Pratt right now is really about position: an 8.3% offensive rebounding rate and 6.66 free throw rate (she's exactly 2-for-2 this season) are probably lower than you'd expect from a successful post player, but also a function of the fact that she plays as more of a perimeter post or "stretch four" right now. If she could develop 3-point range, she'd be an exceptional contributor to anyone's post rotation, which is why she has to be ranked ahead of the other less efficient rookies right now.

7. Angel Goodrich: Goodrich is another player who has fulfilled the most optimistic expectations for her as a third round pick. As I wrote prior to the season, "...compared to some of the flashier college point guards around the nation this season, she dissected defenses with almost clinical precision. She's patient, she's decisive, and she controls the flow of the game extremely well, especially in transition." She has done all of that for the Shock, emerging as an efficient counterpart (4.24 PPR) to Diggins while she was struggling. Her size is just always going to be a limitation as teams with bigger guards are going to look to post her up, but if she can just continue to bring the intangibles while serving as an efficient distributor she'll definitely be able to make a niche for herself in the league.

8. Davellyn Whyte: Remember when I said this is the most promising rookie point guard class in a number of years? Well, I left out Davellyn Whyte, who was a relatively inefficient college player at Arizona.

As you can see in the table above, Whyte is among the most efficient players in this rookie class in part because she's an exceptional rebounder for her position (on a team that can use rebounds from wherever they can get them) and gets her fair share of steals (3.77% steal percentage).

The reason she's not rated ahead of the other point guards on this list comes down to a matter of how she rates as a point guard: she's neither an efficient scorer or distributor (-1.23 PPR). Although she has the size to make it as a scoring guard - which might be her more natural WNBA position - she gets to the free throw line so infrequently and turns it over at an above average rate compared to the league's other guards while also struggling from the 3-point line.

But ultimately, it's way too early to count Whyte out and she probably serves as yet another example of the San Antonio Silver Stars finding value that others overlooked.

9. Tayler Hill: I already know that some people will be surprised to see Hill even this high because the trendy thing has been to write her off as awful after 8 games. But here's the thing about Hill that Albert Lee point out after her breakout performance in Los Angeles last week: Her career-high 16 points nearly matched her scoring output for the previous seven games. Here's what's important about that: while scoring has been the most noticeable weak point of Hill's early-season, it's also the only major weakness.

Hill is the most efficient distributor (2.67 PPR) on a team full of ball handlers, has an assist ratio that puts her squarely in the range of someone who could develop into a solid ball handler (22.83%), and has an above average defensive rebounding percentage for a guard (10%). And while she hasn't been knocking shots down, what saves her efficiency is that her low usage rate indicates that she hasn't just started jacking up shots out of frustration - she's taking good shots more often than note, they're just not going down.

Moving Hill to the bench may just prove to be exactly the thing she needed to find her rhythm and the early results of that change were outstanding. While we probably shouldn't expect her to be perfect from the field every game, we probably should expect her numbers to reflect something closer to that than her early season numbers.

10. Tianna Hawkins: You can probably guess why Hawkins is this low despite impressive numbers: she really hasn't played much outside of garbage time. While there isn't a whole lot to say yet, she has been productive whenever she has gotten floor time which is noteworthy.

Other players of note

  • Kelsey Bone: I wrote a long email to a Mystics fan lamenting passing on Bone in favor of Hill in the draft, but here's the short version: Bone's VCR is well below average for a post player and the problem is the ways in which she has been inefficient even moreso than the fact of her inefficiency. Although I just made all kinds of excuses for players above, Bone's inefficiency was somewhat predictable based on her college statistics - the same things that stood out as red flags prior to the draft are playing out for her as a pro. Her 12.22% offensive rebounding percentage is promising, but otherwise she's a high usage, low efficiency post player who turns the ball over at a well above average rate (27.20%) thus far.
  • Toni Young: While Young also has a low VCR, it's worth pointing out that it's higher than Bone's because she doesn't turn the ball over nearly as often. But Young is another player whose college red flags are playing out a bit in the pros: she has shown flashes of being able to make it as a jump shooting forward, but has very low rebounding numbers (6.31% offensive rebounding percentage) and just hasn't gotten to the free throw line (1-for-2 on the season).
  • Kayla Alexander: Part of what was promising about Alexander as a prospect was her rebounding ability and defense, but she's been slow to adjust to the league thus far. Given how she improved over time in college patience is probably warranted, but she's also turnover prone

Who's your choice for rookie of the year? Vote in the poll below or write a fan post challenging anything or everything I just wrote about.

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