How might the WNBA's roster expansion affect 2014 draft prospects?

2013 third round draft pick Jasmine James failed to make the Seattle Storm's roster in training camp, but finished the season playing for the Phoenix Mercury. - Christian Petersen

The reduction of WNBA rosters to 11 players in 2009 has made just making a team something of an accomplishment in recent years. With the league expanding to 12 players per team this year, certain types of draft prospects might stand to benefit.

As someone who spends quite a bit of time thinking about trends in the WNBA draft, one of my first thoughts when I saw that the WNBA is planning to add a 12th spot to the league's rosters was that it might affect the chances of incoming rookies to make a roster.

That led to three sub-questions:

1. Are teams more likely to fill that 12th spot with a rookie or veteran?

2. Should increased opportunity lower the bar for how we evaluate a prospect's chances of making a roster?

3. Will it change how teams approach the draft in any way?

James Bowman's analysis yesterday went a long way to answering the first question by looking at which players were the last cut from last season's 11-player rosters - although that might not precisely predict who ends up making a team this season, it's a reasonable starting place for taking stock of who was close to making an 11-player roster last season and thus a look at the type of players team might see as worthy of a 12th spot.

But this approach does have shortcomings that we have to acknowledge:

  • The last player cut might not have actually been the player a team would've kept had it had a 12th roster spot. The 2013 Seattle Storm are an example of that, as James alluded to in his piece: rookie forward Chelsea Poppens was the last cut, rookie Joslyn Tinkle finished the season with the team after being signed mid-season, and Jasmine Hassell was briefly on the roster and had the most impactful rookie season of any of the three. So if the Storm could have a do-over with all those players in camp, which would they keep: Hassell, Poppens, Tinkle, or first-year center Cierra Bravard (who they initially kept instead of Poppens before waiving) or veteran Ashley Robinson (who was signed to replace Bravard)? Hard to say, as changing circumstances during the season influenced each decision.
  • It's possible that a good player is released before the last cut because a team knows they're not going to have a spot and wants to give them a shot to catch on elsewhere; sometimes a player is kept until the last cut (or even makes the final cut) simply because the team is waiting for another player to return either from injury or overseas, with the expectation that they'll be released at some point. Sometimes a player might have been kept past the point of having a real chance because teams want to give a player the spent a draft pick on an extended look before letting them go.
  • Related to the point above, there are times when a team might take a player who fits a need over a better player who doesn't - as recently-hired Atlanta Dream general manager Angela Taylor described in an interview with James, sometimes a player's fit within a given system at a given point in time is more important than an evaluation of their talent in the abstract.

Nevertheless, there are some trends of who's in that pool of players who were last cut that does help us understand who general managers might have seen as worthy of a hypothetical 12th roster spot were it available. So to answer the questions about the draft, I took a very similar approach but expanded the scope:

  • First, looking at the last players cut from 2010-2012 (the era of 12 11-player teams) to add to James' analysis. 2009 was the first season of 11-player rosters, but had a 13th team (Sacramento Monarchs) meaning the league as a whole had more spots with which to accommodate players.
  • Second, looking for draft-eligible rookies from 2010-2013 who earned seven day contracts if they didn't make an opening day roster. For the purposes of this analysis, we'll refer to both rookies who earn short-term contracts and those who were last cut as "fringe" players.
  • Third, looking at the college senior playing styles of the rookies who were last cut.

With that data in hand, we can get a better sense of what type of players might get a shot at making a roster this season.

Which veterans are likely to get a shot at a roster?

Based on the last four seasons of cuts, here's a look at some veterans who have been right on the fringe of the league (meaning they've been on the last cut on seven-day contract list more than once) in the last few years - that means players cut midseason were excluded; included are veterans on James' list who were cut in 2013 for a first time.

Name

School

Draft year

College playing style

Adair, Jessica

George Washington

2009

Rebounding interior

Bobbitt, Shannon

Tennessee

2008

Distributor

Breland, Jessica

North Carolina

2011

Interior

Carter, Sydney

Texas A&M

2012

Scoring guard

Chester, Felicia

DePaul

2011

Utility interior

Harper, Laura

Maryland

2008

Rebounding interior

Holt, Amber

MTSU

2008

Scorer

Kraayeveld, Cathrine

Oregon

2005

3pt interior

Moore, Jessica

Connecticut

2005

Morris, Darxia

UCLA

2011

Scoring guard

Morrison, Ziomara

Chile

N/A

N/A

Paris, Courtney

Oklahoma

2009

Rebounding interior

Riley, Ruth

Notre Dame

2001

N/A

Thorn, Erin

BYU

2003

Scoring guard

Walker, Ashley

California

2009

Scoring interior

Wojta, Julie

Wisconsin -Green Bay

2012

Utility player

Zoll, Sharnee

Viriginia

2008

Pure distributor

Veterans cut from teams more than once from 2010-2013 (in alphabetical order).

Since we've limited this list to those who have been on the last cut list, there are inevitably some others that will be in the mix, but there were three clear types of players that could be considered primary victims of the 11-player roster era among the 17 above:

  • Rebounders
  • Ball handlers
  • "Tweeners" (undersized players, versatile interiors, combo guards)

Perhaps general managers have already given up on some of the older players or players who just can't seem to find even a semi-permanent, but that looks like a reasonable portrait of the competition 2014's rookie class will have for roster spots.

Which rookies might have made a 12th spot if it existed?

Since the 11-player roster era, it has been pretty hard for entering players to carve out a niche in the WNBA: in each year except 2011, less than 33% (i.e. less than one round's worth) of players have remained in the league three years after their draft year. And there have been some pretty clear and lofty statistical thresholds for making the league during that time.

But what might we be able to learn from those fringe rookies during their draft year? The following is a sampling of those rookies from 2010-2012 and the full list from 2013 (listed by year alphabetically):

Draft year

Name

School

College playing style

Fate

2013

Brewer, Alyssia

UCLA

Interior utility

Last cut

2013

Green, Nikki

Penn State

Rebounding interior

Last cut

2013

Hassell, Jasmine

Georgia

Scoring rebounder

Last cut/Short-term

2013

Hopkins, Chelsea

San Diego State

Distributor

Short-term

2013

James, Jasmine

Georgia

Distributor

Short-term

2013

Jeffery, Chucky

Colorado

Perimeter utility

Short-term

2013

Poppens, Chelsea

Iowa State

Rebounding interior

Last cut/Short-term

2013

Smith, Shenneika

St. John's

Scorer

Last cut

2013

Tinkle, Joslyn

Stanford

3pt interior

Short-term

2013

Wilson, Shawnice

Miami

Rebounding interior

Last cut

2012

Gilbreath, Briana

USC

Utility

Short-term

2012

Kizer, Lynetta

Maryland

Scoring interior

Short-term

2012

Redmon, Katelan

Gonzaga

Scorer

Last cut/Short-term

2012

Wojta, Julie

Wisconsin – Green Bay

Utility

Last cut/Short-term

2011

Breland, Jessica

North Carolina

Interior

Short-term

2011

Chester, Felicia

DePaul

Interior utility

Last cut/Short-term

2011

Christmas, Karima

Duke

Utility

Short-term

2011

Morris, Darxia

UCLA

Scoring guard

Last cut

2011

Thomas, Krystal

Duke

Rebounding interior

Short-term

2010

Clark, Alysha

MTSU

Utility

Last cut

2010

Mokango, Chanel

Mississippi State

Interior

Last cut/Short-term

A sampling of rookies who were among their team's last cut from 2010-2013.

There are a total of 30 fringe rookies and I narrowed it to 21 who ended up getting a second chance either at some point during their rookie season or in a future season (except for Joy Cheek, who retired after being signed during the 2011 season by Indiana).

Even setting aside the overlap from the previous list of veterans, there's a similar trend here: ball handlers, rebounders, and "tweeners". The sum total is probably enough to come to some tentative conclusions about how the extra roster spot might be used, as follows:

  • Rebounding is a strong indicator for making a roster: This isn't a groundbreaking finding: whether in the NBA, NBA D-League, or WNBA, there seems to be a shared conventional wisdom that rebounding - offensive rebounding in particular - is a skill that transfers well from college to pro. Other red flags such as poor scoring efficiency or a low ratio of blocks and steals to personal fouls can negate that strength, but rebounding ability can keep a player on the radar.
  • "Tweeners" might benefit: There are enough players on this list who were knocked as draft prospecs for not having a true pro position that it's reasonable to say that those type of players - combo guards or undersized power players - might be given a shot at making a roster sooner.
  • Will mid-major players benefit? Last season, there was one mid-major player drafted and she was more the exception than the rule (Elena Delle Donne). Undrafted Courtney Clements of San Diego State did make the Atlanta Dream's final roster and undrafted teammate Chelsea Hopkins appeared in the regular season, but overall it has been a struggle for those players to find a niche in the last few years. It's hard to say if that's just a coincidence or a trend that reflects how/where GMs are evaluating talent, but an extra roster spot to compete her probably won't hurt either.
  • The value of second round picks: There has been an average of around 7-8 fringe rookies per year. If you add that to the 10-11 players per draft from 2010-12 that have experienced long-term success, we might assume that the top 15-17 picks (accounting for the surprise undrafted players that seem to come up each year) are where you can definitely find quality players - during the 11-player roster era, it was really a crap shoot after the first round.

How will the extra spot affect incoming rookies?

To the point about the number of valuable picks in a given draft, where the expanded rosters might have an impact is actually the third round - the likelihood of making the roster as a third round "diamond in the rough" or "sleeper" in the late second or third round just increased, even if some of these veterans floating around as free agents have a bit of an edge. There have been enough rookies on the fringes of rosters that we can probably assume a few more will break through this season.

If we want to think more specifically at what types of prospects might benefit, ball handlers - whether college distributors or converted scoring guards - and rebounding interior players figure to have the best shot based on past patterns. Tweeners will always just have a tough shot making a role right out of school, but may no longer need three seasons to catch on with a team.

But the lingering question is how easy it will be for fringe-caliber rookies to compete with players who have already been on the fringe for 3-5 seasons and already have professional experience that has helped them develop - we'll have to wait and see on that, not only for how GMs make their evaluations but also for how the completed Collective Bargaining Agreement might affect the economics of the league and the value of that 12th spot.

For more on the draft, check out our 2014 WNBA Draft section.

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