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Olympic Break Rookie Rankings: What happened to Alexis Hornbuckle?

At one point this season Alexis Hornbuckle was ranked as one of the top rookies in the league – not only here and but also on WNBA.com's rookie rankings.

Now she barely cracks the top 10 here and has fallen off of the WNBA.com list altogether. I appreciate her hustle and toughness so I am a bit surprised at her decline. So how do we explain that?

First, she may have been overrated a little because she was once the league leader in steals at one point and is still in the top 3. She gets a lot of those steals with outstanding anticipation -- commentator Greg Kelser mentioned during their last web cast on Sunday that, "Her defense is fun to watch!" However, being fun to watch does not necessarily mean one is a great defender -- Hornbuckle is not quite the on-ball defender that fellow rookie Essence Carson is, for example. But she is extremely disruptive and brings a lot of energy defensively, which helps the Shock disrupt their opponents' offensive rhythm.

But the biggest reason for her decline is that her offensive game has really fallen off. She only scored in double figures in points once in July and that was a 99-62 blow-out of Washington that probably got Tree Rollins fired. But her true shooting percentage is also rather low at 45.5%. That is probably due to the fact that she struggles to create her own offensive opportunities, especially against stronger defenders.

It’s not that Hornbuckle is bad at any one thing – she’s just not great at anything either. And the fact that she’s still #10 in these rankings is a testament to her talent. But it’s also indicative of how good this rookie class is even beyond superstar Candace Parker. But who else is ahead of Hornbuckle?

A few more tweaks to the process

Evaluating rookies is a strange task because they are understandably inconsistent and constantly learning on the fly, especially with the WNBA’s shortened pre-season.

So it probably doesn’t help that I keep changing the metrics I use to evaluate them because I can’t decide how to get a handle on these moving targets. Nevertheless, I did make another change to my ranking system in search of stronger results that I could have more confidence in.

Gone is the defensive PER statistic I used before because ultimately, there are elements of defense that aren’t measured well with statistics. In its place, I have brought back the usage rate because the ability to create one’s own shot is so important to success in the WNBA. I have also adjusted the versatility ranking to include a wider variety of statistics consistent with the SPI style formula.

So let’s get started…

Usage Rate – how well does she create her own offense?

Usage rate is the percentage of team plays in which the player ends an offensive play with an assist, turnover, or shot. According to Bradford Doolittle, the skill being evaluated with usage rate is a player’s ability to create their own offense for the team. It might seem to benefit average players on bad teams that require one player to score a disproportionate amount, but that’s not quite what’s occurring here. Here are the top 10 rookies in usage rate:

Usage Rate
Ajavon, Matee 22.27
Wiggins, Candice 20.17
Parker, Candace 19.43
Houston, Charde 18.49
Humphrey, Tasha 17.73
Fowles, Sylvia 17.40
Gruda, Sandrine 17.31
Larkins, Erlana 15.53
Young, Tamera 15.52
Carson, Essence 15.37
Kelly, Crystal 15.11

Just from watching games, these numbers come as no surprise to me. However, usage is more valuable when evaluated next to efficiency and only a few of these players manage to do well in both.

True shooting percentage -- how good a shooter is she?

True shooting percentage (TS%) evaluates a player’s shooting ability from the field, the free throw line, and the three point line. So it gives a reasonable idea of the player’s overall scoring efficiency. Here are the top 10 rookies in true shooting percentage:

TS%
Kelly, Crystal 0.63
Langhorne, Crystal 0.62
Humphrey, Tasha 0.59
Parker, Candace 0.56
Wiggins, Candice 0.56
Pringle, LaToya 0.54
Mitchell, Leilani 0.53
Harper, Laura 0.53
Larkins, Erlana 0.53
Anosike, Nicky 0.52

The only players that show up in the top 10 in both shooting percentage and usage percentage are Humphrey, Kelly, Larkins, Parker, Wiggins. Larkins might be the biggest surprise for me, but she’s doing a lot in limited minutes.

However, what separates the rest from Larkins might be plus/minus rating.

Plus/Minus rating

Plus/minus rating
looks at a player’s impact on the court in terms of changes in the game’s score. I find this interesting to use for rookies (or any player evaluation) because it tells us a little something about whether they know how to positively impact the game and indirectly tells us something about their defensive abilities.

Here’s the top 10 rookies in plus/minus (from the Lynx page):

Plus/Minus
Parker, Candace 9.5
Wiggins, Candice 9.4
Mitchell, Leilani 9.4
Humphrey, Tasha 7.1
Gruda, Sandrine 4.9
Kelly, Crystal 4.6
Ajavon, Matee 4
Hornbuckle, Alexis 3.7
Gardin, Kerri 3
Atunrase, Morenike 1.1

Again, we see Humphrey, Kelly, Parker, and Wiggins starting to emerge as the top four rookies. For the Leilanians out there, Mitchell’s appearance so high on the plus/minus list should come as no surprise – she is extremely efficient when in the game and is often responsible for maintaining or increasing leads.

So it may seem that Mitchell has a lot of promise for future growth and she’s among the top ten there too.

Valuable Contributions Ratio Diamond Rating

Diamond rating is something I’ve used a few times already and find it to be extremely useful for projecting rookies that have the potential to breakout with more minutes on the court. For rookies, I think it’s valuable regardless of minutes because all of them are going to grow as players – that’s right, even Candace Parker.

Valuable contributions ratio measures the percent of valuable contributions that a player makes to her team. As a per minute statistic, it’s especially useful for evaluating rookies because it measures what they’re able to contribute to the team regardless of limited minutes or a team’s pace.

So using VCR with diamond rating is essentially evaluating who has the greatest potential to contribute more given more minutes.

VCR Diamond Rating
Kelly, Crystal 46.25
Humphrey, Tasha 44.52
Langhorne, Crystal 43.73
Pringle, LaToya 40.04
Gruda, Sandrine 32.72
Fowles, Sylvia 31.99
Parker, Candace 30.34
Wiggins, Candice 29.38
Mitchell, Leilani 27.35
Anosike, Nicky 26.98

Again we see the usual suspects and Mitchell as well. Kelly is no surprise here as she is an extremely efficient player in limited minutes (15.2 mpg). When you consider that she’s coming into games, having a positive impact, and shooting efficiently, you have to be optimistic about her future. However, one thing Kelly is not at this point in her career is versatile.

SPI Versatility rating

I’ve used versatility rating in the past using points, rebounds, and assists. However, there are more ways to judge a player’s versatility than that and since I’ve been utilizing David Sparks’ work elsewhere, I decided to use it here.

SPI (scorer-perimeter-interior) is the name applied to Sparks’ player styles spectrum. Since that already provides a pretty solid way to understand different styles of play, I decided to use that formula to measure a player’s versatility. So the formula is this: fga + fta (scoring), ast + stl (perimeter), and reb + blks (interior) multiplied together and then taking the cube root to get an index of sorts. So here are the top 10 most versatile rookies:

SPI Versatility
Parker, Candace 29.88
Anosike, Nicky 24.73
Wiggins, Candice 24.57
Hornbuckle, Alexis 23.15
Gruda, Sandrine 23.10
Humphrey, Tasha 22.78
Ajavon, Matee 22.24
Fowles, Sylvia 21.75
Houston, Charde 21.65
Pringle, LaToya 21.49

Hornbuckle’s defense and versatility are definitely going to be her biggest assets in the WNBA and you hope she works hard to get her shooting percentages up. This is also where Anosike stands out as she’s a player that can do a little bit of everything.

So who are the most promising rookies overall?

Total
Parker, Candace 114
Wiggins, Candice 110
Humphrey, Tasha 110
Gruda, Sandrine 95
Kelly, Crystal 92
Houston, Charde 80
Ajavon, Matee 79
Mitchell, Leilani 77
Fowles, Sylvia 74
Hornbuckle, Alexis 72

This is a lot different than the rankings at WNBA.com but it’s worth noting again that these are not evaluating the same things – WNBA.com is looking at the best rookies and I’m looking here at the rookies who have the most potential for the future.

What strikes me here is Sylvia Fowles. She was great before her injury and has come back a little slow. What these numbers say is that she’s still one of the top 10 stars in this class which isn’t bad. It’s also notable that Mitchell has played her way into the top ten for the first time this season. Despite her size, she’s showing a lot of potential to run a WNBA team effectively.

But this still leaves one question unanswered: how do we compare rookies and understand who is better right now in addition to what they might (or might not) do in the future? That is a question I will answer tomorrow when looking at the Most Outstanding Rookie and revisiting the All-Rookie team candidates.

Transition Points:

Just a reminder: The rankings are determined by ranking each player 1-25 in each category with first place getting 25 pts and last getting 1 point. I didn't insert any of my own subjective opinions into the mix...but that might come with tomorrow's rankings. :)

The raw data for these rankings was gathered via Dougstats.com, by far the best site for WNBA stats on the web. It makes it a whole lot easier to put together player data quickly.