Evaluating 2014 mid-major WNBA draft prospects: How do we adjust for strength of competition?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

BYU's Jennifer Hamson is one of a number of players getting attention for their senior year performance as a WNBA draft prospect. But how much does it matter that she's playing mid-major competition? And which other mid-major players deserve attention as draft prospects?

espnW's Graham Hays has been touting the strength of the West Coast Conference all season, which is an honorable cause: there is evidence from top to bottom that the conference is in fact getting better.

Yet among Hays' bolder claims this season has been that BYU center Jennifer Hamson "might just be the nation's best center" and, more recently, that the 6-foot-7 two-sport athlete deserves consideration as an All-American.

Hamson's numbers help to explain where the hype is coming from: Hamson is averaging 18.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, and a nation-leading 4.0 blocks per game while getting to the line at the highest rate of her career with 6.96 free throw attempts per game. Although she's not widely recognized as the triple-double threat that Maryland's Alyssa Thomas is, the ease with which she blocks shots and grabs rebounds combined with her scoring efficiency makes her a nightly triple-double threat - she's been within three blocks of a triple-double six times, coming closest in a game against Weber State when she had 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 blocks.

As she owns one of the best rebounding (13th) and shot blocking (first) averages in the nation, it's not unreasonable to include her in a discussion of national awards. And naturally, with gaudy numbers like that, Hamson is getting attention as a prospect for the 2014 WNBA Draft, as reported by Jay Drew of the Salt Lake Tribune and discussed here last week.

But where we left last week's discussion was with a subject that isn't being posed elsewhere: should the fact that Hamson has put up those gaudy numbers against mid-major competition affect how we read her statistics?

One of the things that has to be working against BYU as a potential at-large tournament team is that they've played the 114th strength of schedule this season, meaning Hamson has hardly put up those impressive numbers against the top competition that the nation has to offer despite a solid RPI of 41. But those numbers are flawed: SOS doesn't say anything about how a team did against their opponents and RPI doesn't take margin of victory into account.

Simple Rating System (SRS), described by Justin Kubatko at Basketball-Reference.com and used by some to project the tournament, is a stronger option as it is essentially a combination of SOS and MOV. But as Hamson is a player whose strength is unquestionably her shot blocking, another thought came to mind to get more specific about the strength of the Cougars' competition as it relates to her: simply looking at how efficient their opponents' offense was, including how good they were at scoring two point field goals to begin with.

As a means by which to get a better idea of Hamson's block percentage compared to Griner's, let's compare the strength of their opponents' offenses. And while we're talking about figuring out the stock of WNBA center prospects, let's throw Texas A&M's Karla Gilbert and Oklahoma's Nicole Griffin in there - also 6'5" or taller centers in the top 25 in block percentage among seniors nationally with statistics that suggest they have a shot at being drafted - as current comparisons.

Player School Games SOS Blk% Opp. ORtg Rank Opp. 2pt% Rank
Brittney Griner (2013) Baylor 36 2 9.8% 80
81
Jennifer Hamson BYU 32 119 9.4% 148
167
Nicole Griffin Oklahoma 32 18 5.4% 124
116
Karla Gilbert Texas A&M 32 15 4.4% 140
162

Without even taking more advanced steps, we see that Griner's blocks came against the nation's elite: Baylor played 25 games against teams ranked among the top 150 in offensive rating. Oklahoma and Texas A&M have each faced 20 in the top 150. BYU has faced just 14 teams ranked in the top 150 in nation offensively, four of which came against 148th ranked Loyola Marymount and San Francisco (who Hamson was on pace to record 10 blocks against in the first half) during conference play.

Texas A&M's lower opponents' rankings can be described by a break down of conference play vs. non-conference play: in the SEC, their average opponent's offensive rating was 117 (and it should be noted that the SEC was the toughest defensive conference in the nation); BYU's WCC opponents averaged a rating of 134. That's a surprisingly small difference, but it still represents about 1 point per 100 possessions, which isn't insignificant.

The ideal would probably be to adjust key numbers (e.g. offensive rebounding, shooting efficiency, turnovers, etc.) by opponent offensive and defensive ratings. And even then, while the numbers begin to paint a picture, they don't say much about differentials in athleticism and size between the power conferences and everyone else.

DraftExpress' preseason analysis of top mid-major NBA prospects sort of underscores the point about what makes mid-major prospects suspect with two themes: they are often players who a) weren't recruited by BCS schools out of high school due in part to some physical limitation and b) not playing their height-based NBA role because they were able to make it in the role they played in high school at a mid-major despite the physical limitation. We have seen examples of both themes in the women's game: Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark was a 5-foot-10 interior player who didn't make a WNBA roster until developing her skills as a wing; Green Bay's Julie Wojta has made appearances in WNBA games for two teams, but was similarly a 6-foot-0 combo forward who has had an adjustment to make.

For a 6-foot-7 shot blocker, all of that might water down those numbers a bit, even before we get to the question of whether shot blocking even matters. In short, as good as Hamson's shot blocking - and even defensive rebounding given her opponents' lower 2-point percentage - has been, it's hard to take it at face value given the quality of competition compared to opponents from higher SOS teams. That probably doesn't mean we can say for certain that Gilbert or Griffin are definitely as good or better prospects than Hamson, but it might be fair to wonder how much different these block percentage numbers would look if Hamson switched places with either.

Although the question about switching places is certainly a rather abstract hypothetical, it does illustrate the need to somehow consider the quality of an opponent performance relative to a prospects' production somehow. Along these lines, last season we discussed evaluating mid-major prospects using Marginal Victories Produced (MVP) and that will help us separate the top mid-major prospects from the rest.

Marginal Victories Produced

You can find a longer description of what MVP is here, but it essentially measures a player's contribution to their team in light of the differential in production between the team and opponents. In other words, it rewards dominant players on dominant teams, which is really fair for any draft prospect: pros are not just "talented", they're the best of the best and absolutely should dominate lesser competition.

Last year, we found that a MVP rating of 14 was a rough threshold for mid-major prospects to make a team in the 11-player roster era, but that 16 or 17 is the threshold to contribute. Then after meeting that threshold, we can apply all the standard red flags discussed for draft prospects by position. That left us with two players from our analysis who appeared to have a shot: San Diego State's Chelsea Hopkins and Princeton's Niveen Rasheed. And of course, we didn't even bother to go over Delaware's Elena Delle Donne's profile with a fine tooth comb, but suffice it to say that she had a thing or two (or 20) going for her. In the end the only mid-major player drafted was Delle Donne, though Hopkins did eventually end up on a roster.

So will this year's class fare any better?

Top mid-major performers of 2013-14

For this year's analysis, we'll begin with players noteworthy for their statistical achievements or nominations for national awards. That includes the following (national leaders among fellow seniors):

  • Jerica Coley, Florida International University (Dawn Staley Award, Naismith Trophy, Nancy Lieberman Award finalist, and Wade Trophy nominee; nation-leading 29.8 PPG, nation-leading 38.5% usage rate)
  • Ebony Rowe, Middle Tennessee State (Naismith Trophy nominee)
  • Hamson (nation-leading 4.0 blocks per game)
  • Danielle Mauldin, St. Mary's (nation-leading 24.75% rebound rate)
  • Jamierra Faulkner, Southern Mississippi (Lieberman finalist, nation-leading 46.7% assist rate, nation-leading 8.4 assists per game)
  • Haiden Palmer, Gonzaga (second nationally in steal rate)
  • Artemis Spanou, Robert Morris (nation-leading 14.6 rebounds per game)
  • Jessica Kuster, Rice (second with 13.3 rebounds per game)
  • Dequesha McClannahan, Winthrop (Lieberman Award)

There were others based on people suggested to me, but those above obviously had promising statistical attributes or accolades that might make them interesting to consider.

The following is what the numbers say:

Player

School

Position

Height

MVP

2pt%

Oreb%

PPR

FT Rate

Value added

Artemis Spanou

Robert Morris

F

6'0"

45.75

53.9

49

-2.79

52.38%

6.87

Ebony Rowe

Middle Tennessee

F

6'1"

23.84

54.3

11.76

-2.15

57.77%

3.75

Jessica Kuster

Rice

F

6'2"

19.52

44.58

9.12

-3.97

38.83%

1.53

Jerica Coley

Florida International

PG

5'8"

18.88

45.13

5.87

-0.2

32.88%

-5.23

Jennifer Hamson

BYU

C

6'7"

16.6

56.4

11.52

-6.31

61.39%

4.85

Danielle Mauldin

Saint Mary's

F

6'0"

15.64

44.44

18.19

-4.84

60.56%

5.59

Jamierra Faulkner

Southern Mississippi

PG

5'6"

15.22

51.9

1.41

3.49

34.43%

2.3

Kirby Burkholder

James Madison

SG

6'0"

14.4

45.9

7.21

-3.63

32.60%

-1.91

Haiden Palmer

Gonzaga

G

5'8"

13.72

47.23

7.02

0.7

19.14%

1.18

Emma O'Connor

Marist

F

6'0"

13.04

62.93

5.29

-0.41

26.82%

2.58

Jackie Nared

Saint Mary's

G

6'0"

12.92

49.49

5.33

-4.52

53.93%

-2.78

Amy Kame

San Diego

G

6'0"

12.81

44.94

6.93

-3.76

41.60%

-1.49

Dequesha McClanahan

Winthrop

G

5'8"

12.39

39.25

3.37

-0.22

27.40%

-2.94


So who are the top mid-major prospects?

The 6-foot-1 and under crowd: We've been over this before, but interior prospects 6-foot-1 and under just haven't fared well in terms of making WNBA rosters during the 11-player roster era. Obviously that affects a number of the prospects above, though it's hard to say whether an optional 12th spot will have any effect for that particular group.

2014 Conference USA Player of the Year Ebony Rowe does deserve some consideration for her absolutely outstanding numbers and her ability to step out to shoot jumpers away from the basket is certainly a positive for her. And shout out to Artemis Spanou as well for leading her team in, well, almost everything, which explains the gaudy numbers above.

Jerica Coley, FIU: What more is there to say than what was said previously? Coley can score and score a lot. She's not the most efficient with a 2-point percentage of 45.13%, but that has to be taken in light of the fact that she has the highest usage rate of any senior.

The one road block for Coley might be that she has an awfully low assist ratio for a 5-foot-8 prospect - which is the percentage of possessions with the ball in her hands on which she created an assist, meaning there might be some reason to question her ability to run a pro offense - and rates as something of a pure scorer in terms of her similarity to past prospects. But she'll certainly be on people's radar with a scoring average like that and deservedly so. Considering she has the highest usage rate in the nation, it's amazing to even think that she'd be nearly as efficient as players who shoulder considerably less responsibility for their team's offense.

Debbie Antonelli has already sung the praises of Faulkner as a pro prospect and apparently has let her WNBA friends know (video via Southern Miss Sports).

Jameirra Faulkner, Southern Mississippi: Faulkner is yet another high-usage smallish point guard in this year's draft. The difference for Faulkner: she also leads the nation in assists and has a very strong pure point rating for a point guard prospect. With that combination of usage and distributing efficiency, Faulkner looks like a fairly strong prospect on the surface.

The challenge, in addition to size, might be shooting: as a career-high 35.8% 3-point shooter this season and a 29.8% career 3-point shooter, Faulkner is a good but not great shooter. For most smaller guards around the WNBA, that arc is ultimately their saving grace - 5-foot-4 Utah grad Leilani Mitchell is one such example. And when you add Faulkner's marginal MVP rating, her chances seem to dwindle a bit.

But if Faulkner can continue to improve her range, she'll have a chance at becoming a contributor. Unfortunately for Southern Mississippi, they could be on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in after falling in the Conference USA tournament - that extra exposure might have given a player like Faulkner a boost.

Jessica Kuster, Rice: Listed at 6-foot-2, Kuster is an interesting prospect for much the same reason that someone like Missouri's Bri Kulas is: she has perimeter skills and great size to theoretically develop into a wing. Though a bit slender, her ability to score from the perimeter and rebound at a solid rate make her an interesting prospect. The one knock might be her team's poor performance - Rice is 13-17 this season and lost in the first round of the Conference USA tournament.

Hamson: Although shot blockers haven't necessarily fared well in the league with that as a primary strength, Hamson might have done enough this year to get herself drafted - it's not every day that you find 6-foot-7 players with that type of agility. Where she might struggle is with the physicality of the WNBA, as she's not exactly a player who likes to invite contact. But with only so many college centers available, her numbers probably won't be ignored by all 12 general managers. Yet one thing that's interesting about Hamson is that she doesn't look particularly dominant by her MVP rating - as noted last year, mid-major contributors have typically been in the 17+ MVP range (after taking red flags into account).

There might be two reasons for Hamson's fringey MVP rating. First, her -6.31 pure point rating reflects a rather inefficient passer, even compared to other center prospects - centers with PPRs that low have really struggled even if they do make rosters. Second, for a 6-foot-7 player in a league with nobody near that, an 11% offensive rebounding rate is actually not all that impressive.

Of course, there's also the matter of Hamson's All-American volleyball career that she put on hold in favor of basketball this season - she still has eligibility and has publicly announced her intention to return to BYU in the fall to finish her volleyball career, which could end up making questions of her WNBA future moot.

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