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Mid-Season Rookie Report: All-Rookie Team and Upside Rankings

It’s mid-season and I think we should have a pretty good sense of the top candidates for the All-Rookie team as I update my rookie "upside" rankings.

I have a top four for my rookie team pretty much set, but the fifth selection will be more difficult in my opinion:

Candace Parker
Candice Wiggins
Alexis Hornbuckle
Nicky Anosike

Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins are no-brainers.

I think Alexis Hornbuckle should be a lock – she’s one of the best defenders in the league already and has played a significant role on one of the best team’s in the league.

Nicky Anosike is my fourth – again a solid defender, a starter, and a productive player on both ends of the floor.

But the fifth player is a bit harder this season. A case could be made for Sylvia Fowles who played extremely well in five games before her unfortunate injury. But she’s also missed so many games that I think it would be an unfair to name her to the fifth spot when we’ve seen more of so many other rookies.

As this is a very deep draft class by almost any standard, it’s difficult to select just one to make the fifth player. And I think it depends what you value in a rookie: production, efficiency, or demonstrated potential. To sort it out, I’ll return to my rookie "upside" rankings and make a few changes that I think better represent indicators of a rookie’s potential.

(If you want to just see the latest rankings, skip to the section titled "The final upside rankings".)

A starter, a sleeper, and a diamond in the rough

Amber Holt has all of the markers of someone who would typically get post-season recognition. She’s a starter on a winning team, which I think is an important consideration in evaluating the quality of a rookie. She has great scoring instincts that will serve her well in the future. And she’s one of the more productive rookies in a deep class.

Tasha Humphrey is a personal favorite of mine but she’s also one of the most efficient rookies in this class. She’s started a few games and has had a significant impact on one of the best teams in the league. She’s shooting 100% from the free throw line, she’s a solid three point shooter, and can score in a variety of ways. She’s easily one of the most versatile rookies and figures to develop into one of the most versatile offensive threats in the league.

My diamond in the rough is Crystal Kelly. She is very quietly putting together a very solid rookie campaign. Honestly, I had not noticed her before doing my first rookie rankings and seeing her end up in my top 10. But statistically, she’s playing extremely efficient basketball in limited minutes and has all the markings of a player who could breakout in the future with more minutes. She’s an efficient scorer, she’s consistent in those limited minutes, and she has one of the higher net plus/minus ratings in the league, which means that she has a positive effect on the game when she’s in (Humphrey and Holt are both negative).

I think it’s hard to make a strong case for a rookie bench player over a rookie starter to receive an award, but Crystal Kelly shows so much potential that she’s at least worth a look. Not convinced? I go to the statistics…

A few changes to the rookie rankings…

As a reminder, my rookie rankings were about projecting upside, not trying to identify those having the most productive rookie seasons. I do think post-season rookie awards should be based on production, but find it interesting to look at potential as a factor in those decisions as well.

The way I tried to refine my rookie rankings is by applying them to the 2006 rookie class. The stats were available at WNBA.com (important condition), they had All-Rookie teams that year (listed at Basketball-reference.com), and they are now in their third year giving us a good glimpse into their development. I’ve also done some perusing of other people’s methods and came up with a few key statistics (based on NBA performance, but backed with solid research).

Ultimately, I chose to keep plus/minus and versatility as elements of these rankings. I did make a small change with versatility index -- I have replaced "total rebounds" with "offensive rebounds" to better represent the value of offensive rebounding to a team’s success. I also decided to calculate based on per minute statistics instead of averages.

I also kept Diamond Rating – which projects a player’s potential to breakout given more minutes – but I also changed those numbers slightly (which I will describe later).

I chose to add two elements that I felt were missing from the original rankings – defense and shooting efficiency. Defensive ability is important to professional basketball and rookies that can demonstrate that are very valuable to a team. As for shooting efficiency, my original thinking was that it is misleading because rookies learn shot selection and more effective moves over time that allow them to become more efficient shooters. However, a rookie’s shooting ability might be more telling than we think.

So I’ll do a quick overview of the rankings using Holt, Humphrey, and Kelly as examples.

Net plus/minus

Plus/minus rating evaluates how well a team plays when a player is on the court.

It is not always true that rookies with the highest net plus/minus scores do well in the future, but it seems to be a good barometer of their ability to contribute to their team’s success. Here are the scores for Holt, Humphrey, and Kelly (with their rookie ranking in parentheses):

Kelly: + 7.8 (4th)
Humphrey: -1.8 (16th)
Holt: -12.2 (23rd)

We cannot read too much into this statistic, but it’s always interesting given that it’s not based on box score production, but the positive or negative effect a player has on the team when on the floor. Kelly plays less minutes than the other two so perhaps this should be taken with a grain of salt, but that she has a positive effect off the bench on a team that has been erratic this season is notable.

Watch Kelly play and this makes sense. She plays a fearless interior game, getting rebounds, and scoring points. She has some pretty good footwork down low, which allows her to find ways to score. And defensively she’s no slouch. Even though she makes rookie mistakes (not everyone can be Candace Parker) you can feel comfortable that when she can do all the little things to help a team win. Not flashy, but effective.

Versatility Index

As I described before, I like this statistic in evaluating rookies because it tells us something about their capacity to contribute to fill a team’s needs and contribute as necessary. In addition, it would seem that the most versatile rookies have more room to develop in the future. Here are those numbers:

Humphrey: 13.76 (3rd)
Holt: 11.76 (8th)
Kelly: 9.57 (16th)

I’m not sure what the average versatility index is for the WNBA…and I should probably figure that out before posting more of these rankings. But it shouldn’t be controversial to say Humphrey is one of the most versatile rookies in the WNBA. Who’s ahead of her: Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins. Not bad.

Diamond Rating

I like Diamond Rating quite a bit and after seeing how well the Petrel Adjusted Diamond Rating projected Alison Bales to help the Atlanta Dream, I’m inclined to keep it around.

However, I changed the metric by which to evaluate rookies to use a valuable contributions rating (VCR) created by D Sparks at the Arbitrarian blog. It is calculated by taking all the valuable contributions a player makes and dividing them by the percentage of team minutes a player plays. A perfect metric for rookies because it takes into the rate of production while on the floor. You can guess who benefited most from this statistic:

Kelly: 53.51 (1st)
Humphrey: 45.43 (2nd)
Holt: 13.5 (16th)

It’s worth noting that all three of these players have posted above average VCR numbers (league-wide) this season. But the way to interpret these numbers is as an indicator of a player’s relative likelihood to increase their valuable contribution to their team if they are given more minutes. That Humphrey ranks second among rookies and has already started 11 games in her career is reason for optimism – it means that we may not have seen anything close to her ceiling yet.

Again this is one I’ll have to look into more deeply to find some sort of "average" score, but among rookies, it’s clear that Holt is a bit behind Humprey and Kelly. (Kevin Pelton previously provided me with PER diamond rating scores – which would be easier to compare across years -- but I don’t have those updated numbers.)

True shooting percentage

A lot of attention is given to field goal percentage, but that does not take into account the increased difficulty of three pointer or a player’s ability to score from the free throw line. True shooting percentage takes every shot into account and adjusts for relative difficulty.

I added this after reading an article by Ken Pomeroy about indicators that college players will improve their shooting over time. The conclusion is that players who shoot well from the free throw line are more likely to continue developing their three point shooting (and I imagine shooting overall) if they are not already good shooters. Poor free throw shooters will tend to regress from the three point line even if they are good shooters.

More could be said about this in relation to rookies, but for now here are the focal players:

Kelly: 64% (2nd)
Humphrey: 59% (3rd)
Holt: 49% (15th)

I can tell you that league average true shooting percentage as of last week was 50%, making Holt just below average in shooting efficiency, which is not encouraging for a guard, especially given that this takes into account free throws and threes. What’s is again impressive about Humphrey is that she seems capable of scoring in every way imaginable and she’s only a rookie…at power forward. She’s a dangerous player and has the stats to back it up.

Defensive player efficiency rating (PER)

Defensive PER is something I added to take defense into account. As Dave Berri from Wages of Wins has repeated many times, we tend to make these assessments almost entirely on scoring, ignoring some of the most important aspects of winning basketball, especially defense.

Defensive PER is relatively simple and based on the work of John Hollinger. You add all a player’s valuable contributions per minute on defense (blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds) and subtract from negative contributions (personal fouls) and then multiply it all by starter level minutes (I’m using 33.3 following Petrel’s lead). What you get is their projected production given starter minutes. Here it is:

Kelly: 2.25 (13th)
Holt: 1.14 (19th)
Humphrey: .14 (23rd)

Defense is difficult assess, because so much of it is about team play and there is no statistic for tight on-ball defense. Essence Carson, for example, is a victim of this in these rankings. She is a great on ball defender, but ranks 14th using this metric, right behind Kelly. So this one is not perfect, but it’s a nice start. Out of these three however, I have no problem arguing Kelly may be the best defender. Again, it comes down to energy and aggressiveness. Humphrey has a ways to go defensively despite all of her offensive ability. Think coaches Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn are going to help her with that?

The final upside rankings

So here is my ranking of the top ten "upside" rookies based on those above statistics. Again, upside is that annoying term that I know is thrown around far too much during the NBA draft. Upside is a nebulous concept, but for the sake of these rankings, it simply means the demonstrated capacity for a player to improve based upon the above statistical reasoning.

I like this approach to evaluating rookies because as young players, their ability to improve in the future is as important as their first year production. But I also recognize things such as fit with the team, team strategy, and work ethic play a major role in a player’s capacity to improve. As a fan, I can’t make an assessment of those factors anyway, so this is a good way to complement observation.

Again, I ranked them all 1 to 25 and assigned 25 points to the top player in each category and 1 to all others. So here’s the updated top 10 upside rookies with their overall score:

Name
Parker, Candace 106
Kelly, Crystal 94
Wiggins, Candice 89
Hornbuckle, Alexis 89
Gruda, Sandrine 86
Humphrey, Tasha 83
Anosike, Nicky 80
Pringle, LaToya 76
Swanier, Ketia 74
White, Erica 70

First of all, this does NOT mean Kelly is the second best rookie behind Parker. It means that she has the second highest likelihood to improve based on the above statistics. And the reason she’s ahead of Wiggins is her defense – Wiggins is another player who brings a lot of that unquantifiable energy on defense. Hornbuckle’s true shooting percentage is only 45%, which is what hurt her.

All that is not to say that I expected Crystal Kelly to rank so highly, but it might be time to say she’s having a promising rookie season, given her limited minutes. At some point people will have to notice what she’s been doing.

I’m leaving Fowles off this list because she’s been injured, but even with only five games under her belt, she still would have ranked 7th.

Wondering about Essence Carson, who didn’t rank very high in my last rankings either? She’s not very versatile offensively and has a 41% true shooting percentage. Why? She shoots around 50% from the free throw line and that does not bode well for her shooting prospects in the future.

Matee Ajavon had the same problem from the free throw line (xx%) but also ranked extremely poorly in defensive PER (-0.76). She has the ability to score, but she’s not yet an efficient player.

Tamera Young is a great athletic player, but I think her problem will be finding a niche. It’s hard for me to identify what she does well at this point. She is quite a versatile player though and it will be interesting to see how she improves as the Dream continue to win games. Young is also not shooting very well on the season, which has an impact on her ranking.

On a positive note, Crystal Langhorne has been improving lately and looked good on Sunday against Connecticut. She’s a presence inside, has post moves and knows how to use them, and she can run the floor. With more minutes I think she could sneak into the top 10.

Swanier was a bit of a surprise for me, but she was #1 in true shooting percentage: 74.85%. That’s pretty amazing. Her defensive PER was also 5th among rookies, which makes her a player that is worth having on the floor. She doesn’t rank well in much else, which is reason for concern about how much she’ll improve, but she may be able to establish herself as a solid shooter in the league.

Gruda and Pringle are both very promising rookies. Both long, quick, and have great instincts on offense. Gruda is among the best rookie defenders and Pringle ranked about average among rookies across the board. You have to figure that with minutes both of them could develop into impact players.

My mid-season choice for the All-Rookie team…

A brief note on Gruda: she would be a candidate for the All-Rookie team, but she’s even more raw than Kelly right now and has not played enough to put her there yet.

So…

In addition to Kelly’s statistics, she fights for position down low and aggressively establishes position to do what she wants. She has a very good feel for the game and a great skill set that will serve her well in the future. She’s active and knows how to get to the free throw line, where she shoots 85%. But as efficient as Kelly has been this season, unless she gets more minutes and gets the chance to demonstrate that she can be the type of consistent impact player that Wiggins and Hornbuckle are, I can’t justify her on the All-Rookie team.

Holt is impressive when I watch her, but unfortunately, her numbers indicate that she still has a ways to go and may even be a little overrated in terms of her future potential. Again, it’s hard to assess work ethic, she has the tools, but she has not quite put it together thus far this season.

So my choice for the fifth spot on the All-Rookie team is Tasha Humphrey…and not just because I like her game. With the exception of her poor defensive rating, there’s not a whole lot she can’t do on the floor. When she’s gotten minutes, she’s been very effective already this year and she has all the tools to improve in the future. Her versatility and shooting efficiency figure to be assets for the Shock for years to come and I would expect those Detroit coaches to work with her on defense.

Wiggins
Hornbuckle
Parker
Humphrey
Anosike

That’s a team I’ll go to battle with any day of the week.

I’ll try to stay on top of these so we can track each player’s growth over the season.

Relevant Links:

Previous Rookie Rankings:
http://rethinkbball.blogspot.com/2008/07/ranking-wnbas-most-promising-rookies.html

WNBA Plus/Minus Statistics
http://www.wnba.com/lynx/stats/net_plus_minus.html

The Arbitrarian's WNBA statistics
http://arbitrarian.wordpress.com/2008/07/11/the-best-of-the-wnba-updated-daily/

Identifying Breakout Players (Pelton article about Diamond Rating)
http://www.basketballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=36

Versatility Index
http://www.legend21.net/VersatilityIndex.htm

Transition Points:

Update: Just caught the WNBA's updated rookie rankings. Humphrey, Holt, and Kelly got honorable mention nods. They have dropped Hornbuckle from the rankings altogether...