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Ranking the WNBA's Most Promising Rookies

After writing yesterday’s post about how impressed I was with Detroit’s rookies I took a look at the WNBA’s most recent rookie rankings, released yesterday on WNBA.com.

It’s hard to dispute that Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins are the top two rookies, especially with Sylvia Fowles out right now. But after that, I think the picture is rather unclear because it is extremely difficult to evaluate players who are still developing.

So it makes me wonder, how do you evaluate the performance of a rookie?

Here’s what I find interesting: it is generally accepted that it’s hard to judge a rookie until a few years after she’s drafted and yet we still make snap judgments based on their current production.

Of course it would be great if we could find a formula that took first year stats and predicted future success…unfortunately, that takes more statistical knowledge than I currently possess. But I wonder if we can find a compromise.

It seems that people normally evaluate rookies on the basis of "fantasy statistics" – points, rebounds, and assists. Another way to assess rookies is to look at minutes per game as a means to determine whether a rookie is valuable enough to crack the rotation. However, cracking the rotation on the Shock is much different than doing so on the Dream.

So what I set out to do was to find a way to evaluate 1) a rookie’s ability to adjust to professional basketball and 2) indicators of their capacity to contribute to a WNBA team in the future.

My underlying assumption here: the most well-rounded rookies have the greatest potential because they will have a broader range of possibilities for development than a one-dimensional player.

I chose five statistics that embodied things that I consider valuable for rookies to have. I’ll present those stats and then rank them similar to the way I did in my evaluation of point guards to identify which rookies are having the best seasons thus far.

The principles this is based upon are very much similar to what Bradford Doolittle has previously written about NBA rookies.

Does she have the ability to create her own offense?
One of the more underrated qualities of a young player is their ability to create offense for themselves, even if they are inefficient or have the tendency to turn the ball over a lot. Mistakes should be expected from rookies, but if they have the confidence, creativity and skill to create their own offense, they’ll have to chance to develop into something special.

I used usage rating as a measure of how involved a player is in their team's offense and their ability to create opportunities for themselves. Here are the results for qualified rookies:

Matee Ajavon 29.48
Amber Holt 29.22
Candice Wiggins 26.16
Candace Parker 24.63
Erlana Larkins 23.70
Tasha Humphrey 23.59
Charde Houston 22.41
Sylvia Fowles 21.16
Sandrine Gruda 21.02
Essence Carson 20.40
Erica White 19.93
Kerri Gardin 19.02
Crystal Kelly 18.18
Tamera Young 17.75
Jolene Anderson 17.65
Alexis Hornbuckle 17.37
Olayinka Sanni 17.34
Laura Harper 16.51
Nicky Anosike 16.49
Morenike Atunrase 16.35
Ketia Swanier 15.75
Leilani Mitchell 14.63
A'Quonesia Franklin 12.54
Crystal Langhorne 11.08
Kimberly Beck 8.70

I would have expected Parker and Wiggins to top this list, but apparently Ajavon and Holt are getting more opportunities than I assumed. I am not surprised that Hornbuckle is so low here because she spends a lot of time deferring to Detroit’s veterans.

Is she efficient with the ball offensively?

Usage and efficiency go hand in hand because as a player’s role increases, it is expected that efficiency will decrease. If a player’s efficiency can remain high even at high usage levels – especially as a rookie – that is the mark of a star.

I took this stat straight from the WNBA website and it is explained quite clearly there.

Candace Parker 27.6
Sylvia Fowles 27.1
Tasha Humphrey 23.6
Candice Wiggins 21.8
Nicky Anosike 21.5
Crystal Kelly 20.7
Crystal Langhorne 18.4
Charde Houston 17.6
Alexis Hornbuckle 17.3
Sandrine Gruda 16.6
Erlana Larkins 16.2
Amber Holt 15
Erica White 14.9
Tamera Young 14.2
Laura Harper 13
Kerri Gardin 12.4
Leilani Mitchell 12.1
Ketia Swanier 11.9
Matee Ajavon 11.1
Olayinka Sanni 11.1
Essence Carson 10.7
Kimberly Beck 10.6
Morenike Atunrase 9.1
A'Quonesia Franklin 8.6
Jolene Anderson 8.5


Is she versatile enough to earn playing time by contributing to the team in multiple ways?


If a player is one-dimensional and that dimension is a) not useful for the team or b) not effective on the pro level, they are definitely less likely to succeed (development notwithstanding). This doesn’t mean a versatile player should be the most dominant. It just seems reasonable that a player who can do multiple things on the floor is more likely to find a place for herself in the league long-term (this is something I'd be interested in proving statistically).

I’m using a stat called Versatility Index to measure versatility (the formula was posted previously on the Pleasant Dreams blog as well). Here are the versatility ratings for qualified rookies:

Candace Parker 8.62
Candice Wiggins 6.16
Tamera Young 4.65
Nicky Anosike 4.24
Alexis Hornbuckle 3.86
Sylvia Fowles 3.66
Amber Holt 3.45
Matee Ajavon 3.27
Leilani Mitchell 3.11
Essence Carson 2.75
Charde Houston 2.70
Jolene Anderson 2.57
Tasha Humphrey 2.51
Erica White 2.41
Sandrine Gruda 2.38
Kerri Gardin 2.08
Erlana Larkins 1.90
Laura Harper 1.81
Crystal Langhorne 1.76
Crystal Kelly 1.73
A'Quonesia Franklin 1.39
Morenike Atunrase 1.38
Ketia Swanier 1.16
Olayinka Sanni 1.02
Kimberly Beck 0.38

Nothing in particular stands as surprising here, except that I wonder how much Humphrey’s versatility rating would improve if three pointers and free throws were taken into account. She would still be hampered by her poor rebounding, but I’m sure it would give her a bit of a boost.

Can she come in and have a positive impact when called upon?

A rookie’s minutes certainly say a lot about their quality as a player, though it’s an imperfect measure. However, if a player has the court presence to come in the game and have a positive effect on the team as a rookie, that should say quite a bit about their ability to develop in the future.

So I’m using plus/minus statistics as an indicator of a player’s impact on the game. Here are the plus/minus rankings for qualified rookies:

Name
Alexis Hornbuckle 16.4
Candice Wiggins 16.2
Tamera Young 16.2
Crystal Kelly 14.9
Candace Parker 7.2
Essence Carson 7.1
Erica White 3.5
Morenike Atunrase 3.2
Leilani Mitchell 2.9
Matee Ajavon 2.4
Kerri Gardin 1.3
Tasha Humphrey 0.7
Sandrine Gruda -1.3
Charde Houston -3.7
A'Quonesia Franklin -5.8
Jolene Anderson -6.4
Nicky Anosike -7.6
Amber Holt -8.3
Kimberly Beck -14 (edit: thanks Patrick)
Crystal Langhorne -14.1
Laura Harper -18.1
Olayinka Sanni -18.1
Sylvia Fowles --
Ketia Swanier --
Erlana Larkins --

(There were no numbers available for the players at the bottom.)

Crystal Kelly was the player that surprised me most here, as she is having a positive effect on the court in limited minutes thus far this season. While it’s hard to make comparisons across teams with plus/minus, we at least get a sense here of who’s contributing to their team positively.

What is her potential to "breakout" in the future?

Most of all we want to know how likely a player is to improve in the future. Kevin Broom of RealGm.com came up with a formula to identify "diamonds in the rough". The goal of the formula is simple: identify players who played limited minutes but whose rate of production suggests they deserve more minutes.

I used WinScore as the proxy for "production" because it measures a player’s overall contributions to their team’s wins. So what this diamond rating formula is essentially telling us is the player’s potential to contribute to team wins in the future.

Eventually I’d like to take a deeper look at how effective this system has been in the WNBA historically, but for now I’ll assume that its effectiveness. It’s a simple rating – the higher the score, the more likely a player is to improve with more minutes in the future:

Sylvia Fowles 15.59
Crystal Langhorne 13.41
Crystal Kelly 12.15
Candace Parker 11.29
Nicky Anosike 10.12
Tasha Humphrey 9.56
Alexis Hornbuckle 7.17
Kimberly Beck 5.37
Sandrine Gruda 4.66
Ketia Swanier 4.50
Charde Houston 4.23
Candice Wiggins 3.91
Leilani Mitchell 3.01
Kerri Gardin 2.37
Laura Harper 2.17
Erica White 2.05
Erlana Larkins 1.87
Tamera Young 1.78
Morenike Atunrase 0.71
Olayinka Sanni -0.54
Essence Carson -0.64
Jolene Anderson -0.93
A'Quonesia Franklin -2.69
Matee Ajavon -7.21
Amber Holt -15.42

So the best way to read this is that the players to watch are the ones who have a high diamond rating but have not yet gotten consistent minutes. Those would be Crystal Langhorne, Crystal Kelly, and Tasha Humphrey. There is a drop off between Humphrey and Hornbuckle and again between Hornbuckle and Beck, so it would be interesting to know if there is a particular threshold for significance for this rating.

If I understand the math correctly, a negative number for this formula should mean that either a player is already over performing in the minutes they get or performing below league average.

Conclusion

As I said previously, there should be no doubt about the top two or three rookies this year, depending on how Sylvia Fowles recovers from injury. Really, no matter what numbers you plug in for rookies, Parker and Wiggins will end up on top. Here is the top ten

Name
Candace Parker 90
Candice Wiggins 85
Alexis Hornbuckle 75
(Sylvia Fowles 67)
Tasha Humphrey 67
Tamera Young 66
Crystal Kelly 64
Charde Houston 61
Matee Ajavon 61
Nicky Anosike 59
Sandrine Gruda 58

Crystal Kelly is the biggest surprise on this list. She hasn’t really gotten much national attention, but she is in the top five among rookies in efficiency rating and net plus/minus. Since she’s been so productive in limited minutes that it seems like she has the potential to develop into an even more productive player in the future. Of course that will depend on coaching, how she’s used and where she fits in Sacramento’s rotation. But for a third round pick, she could definitely be considered the biggest value pick of the draft.

It's important to keep in mind that I'm not claiming that these are the players having the most productive rookie years. Instead I was looking for which players are having the most promising rookie years with regard to future success. As the season goes on and more stats become available, I'm sure things will change.

In the meantime, I'll have a few new players to keep an eye out for because I have definitely not observed all those players closely.