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Some Of Those "Other" Rookies Making a Strong Impression in Detroit

While Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles, and Candice Wiggins grabbed the headlines for the 2008 WNBA rookie class, three rookies in Detroit are making quite an impression.

What strikes me most about the Shock’s trio of rookies -- Alexis Hornbuckle, Tasha Humphrey, and Olayinka Sanni – is that they all play the type of tough, gritty basketball that defines Detroit’s team. And each of them earns playing time by just doing some of the little things that a team needs to win.

I have watched them four times in the last week – the home-and-home series against Connecticut, a Saturday loss to Chicago, last night’s win at home – and I was impressed, despite inconsistent play from the team.

Right now, Hornbuckle and Humphrey got an honorable mention in the latest WNBA rookie rankings, while Minnesota has two players in the top five (Wiggins and Nicky Anosike). But using overused NBA draft lingo, they have plenty of "upside" because they are all fundamentally sound players in addition to being physical.

No disrespect to Minnesota or New York, but the bottom line is this: in three years, Detroit’s rookie trio could be regarded as the best group of young players in the league.

Adding depth to a veteran team

It would seem difficult for a trio of rookies to crack the rotation on one of the most successful frachises in the WNBA, especially coming off consecutive appearances in the WNBA finals.

The roster was already loaded with talent with 2007 all-stars Deanna Nolan and Cheryl Ford, Olympian Katie Smith, and Sixth Woman of the Year Plenette Pierson. Former All-Rookie selection Kara Braxton figured to make an important contribution as well with Katie Feenstra lost to Atlanta.

Nevertheless, Detroit’s rookies have stepped up this year to make a huge contribution and add valuable depth to the league’s best team when they needed it in the face of injuries or foul trouble. Here are some of my observations.

Alexis Hornbuckle: Future Defensive Player of the Year

Key Stats: Leads league in steals (2.9), 6th in the league in plus/minus (+16.4), and 5th among rookies and 7th among all WNBA guards in rebounding (4.5).

The first time I noticed Alexis Hornbuckle was when she pulled down 15 rebounds against the Phoenix Mercury on June 14th. That is likely to stand as a career high for some time – she definitely put people on notice that day.

In a league in which scoring is generally overrated, Hornbuckle does everything else on the court extremely well. The steals and rebounds probably get the most attention, but she also plays outstanding on ball defense and it’s huge for Detroit when their outstanding starting backcourt is resting.

I wouldn’t make her a lead guard for a team just yet, but she has the tools and presence to become an outstanding playmaker. She doesn’t yet control the tempo or change speeds as well as a guard like Deanna Nolan. But when she has the ball in her hands, she usually makes the right decision – picking her spots to score and distributing the ball to her talented teammates. She’s also a solid three point shooter, currently shooting 39% from long range meaning she can spread the defense well.

It’s hard to find something she needs to improve on – other than gaining experience – but I think she’ll become a dominant player if she continues to work on her post game. She posted up Ivory Latta (5 inches shorter) a few times last night and I think this could become a key element of her offensive repertoire. She has such a strong build and if she could learn a few decisive post moves, she would be able to simply overpower many guards in the league.

Her plus/minus ranking (a stat described well at the Pleasant Dreams blog) is a reflection of her defensive impact and very mature play on offense. When you look at the whole package she brings to the team, Hornbuckle could be the best all-around player in the league in a few years…if not for Candace Parker of course.

Tasha Humphrey: Power and Versatility

Key Stats: Leads league in free throw percentage (100%), Ranks #2 in the league in 3 point percentage (46.2%), 13th in field goal percentage (48.6%).

Even in a deep 2008 draft, Humphrey was a steal at the end of first round for Detroit.

I remember 11 or 12 years ago when the WNBA was first starting out, one of my friends’ biggest complaint was the lack of drop steps and power moves in the low post. I probably need to contact him with some footage of Tasha Humphrey. When she gets the ball in the low post, she’s looking to score and she’s not afraid to knock over a defender in the process.

Add to that the ability to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court efficiently and you have the makings of one of the most versatile offensive players in the league.

Like Hornbuckle, I first noticed Humphrey in her 28 point, 8 rebound, 4-5 3FG performance against the Mercury. And a article nicely characterizes what Humphrey brings to the Shock:
Yet what surprised Laimbeer most about her play in Phoenix was how assertive she was. Shooting 10-for-15 on the road is not how a rookie shows deference to veterans. Even without the ball, Humphrey remained involved in the play. "I think her court presence was outstanding in the last game and even the game before that (in L.A.), I thought she felt comfortable on the floor in the game, and it showed," he said.
It’s clear that she can score inside and outside, which will make her a very dangerous player in the future – especially if she’s paired with Hornbuckle who could develop an equally versatile game. She already adds a nice dimension to the Shock with her ability to shoot the ball.

I’m a little surprised she doesn’t rebound a little better, although she plays pretty good position defense. You figure that with her size and strength she would dominate the boards. My assumption was that her numbers were low because she got only inconsistent minutes at the beginning of the season.

As it turns out, she’s only averaged about 3.5 rebounds since that outstanding game against the Mercury...and even that number wouldn’t put her in the top 5 on her own team. Part of the problem is a matter of experience – she probably needs to work on footwork and positioning rather than just trying to overpower opponents. And that’s exactly why Detroit is such a great team for her: I’d be shocked if Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn didn’t make her into a better rebounder.

Olayinka Sanni: Hardworking post player

I actually didn’t notice Sanni at all until the Chicago Sky game in which the starters didn’t play their best game, but she’s impressive if for no other reason because she brings energy down low.

As though the Shock need another post player to score in the paint.

Sanni’s numbers aren’t nearly as gaudy as Hornbuckle or Humphrey, but she’s been effective over the last two games. She fights for rebounds down low, has shown the ability to score in the paint, and plays solid position defense.

But what I like most about Sanni is that she is a fundamentally sound player. She has good footwork, she just needs to learn to finish more effectively. Although I don’t know much about her or how quickly she picks up new skills, when a player has a strong base of fundamentals, it’s easier to develop and improve

Her game is limited to the low post now, but I think there are a number of great post players – not to mention coaches – to model her game after.

Why I think they could be the best trio…

What I find intriguing about this trio in comparison to the trios in Minnesota or New York is that Hornbuckle can do almost everything on both ends of the floor, Humphrey could be one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the league, and Sanni’s energy and fundamentals almost ensure that she’ll improve. They might not be flashy, but they can be extremely efficient and valuable players. Given how strong Detroit’s coaching staff is, it’s hard to imagine these players not improving drastically over the next few seasons.

Relevant Links:

Climbing the Wall

Transition Points:
  • What’s up with Detroit’s inconsistent effort? Bill Laimbeer might have been characteristically harsh in calling it obnoxious and embarrassing (the Sky played well), but I definitely noticed a lapse against the Sun as well.
  • I got curious about finding explanations for Detroit's recent losses and remembered that their ball movement was considerably worse in their losses. This would fit with the idea that team assist differential, not team assists, is an important statistic to take into account when evaluating the success of a team. In the last four games Detroit has gone 2-2 and had more assists than the opponent in their wins and less in losses. It would be interesting to see if this trend holds across the league…
  • A quick note on Dominique Canty: a few weeks ago, Canty was the big surprise in my point guard rankings. She had one of her more efficient offensive games of the season in the upset of Deanna Nolan and the Shock on Saturday so I revisited this issue. In my observation, Canty’s biggest weakness as a point guard is she’s not great at changing pace or forcing the defense to collapse on her by driving. At the same time, with the exception of bad timing on some her shots, she just doesn’t make bad mistakes. The problem is that the Sky need a different type of point guard – someone who can drive and kick.