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Rethinking Rookie Performance: Beyond Hyperbole and Absurd Expectations

Candace Parker was like everything anyone has ever wanted any rookie to become.

From my limited perspective, she was arguably one of the best rookies to ever enter any professional sport.

No WNBA rookie has ever won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season (and only two NBA players – Wes Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain – have accomplished that feat). To that feat, you can add winning an Olympic gold medal and NCAA championship in the same year, within six months of each other. And, yeah, she also dunked…twice.

Parker set a gold standard for rookie performance last season that no player is likely to reach again. She was clearly at the top of an outstanding rookie class, which included other future all-stars like Candice Wiggins, Nicky Anosike, and Sylvia Fowles to name a few.

What’s funny is that even if people know Parker is a rare phenomenon, there is a tendency to treat almost every single rookie drafted like they’ll be the next big thing. And if they aren’t the next big thing, we really don’t have a good way to think about rookie performance. At no time is that more evident than draft day. I missed the WNBA’s draft this year, but did catch the NBA draft (as I do every year) and I think the spin is probably worse there.

Hyperbolic NBA draft day talk has become so commonplace that normally I wouldn’t bother to comment. And really, it makes a lot of sense: even if everybody except the newly minted millionaire’s mother knows that the player has no business being drafted in the lottery, you can’t just say that on national television.

It would be boring to say, "He’s going to be a great journeyman who will contribute 5-10 minutes off a fringe playoff team’s bench for 5-7 years." Instead you have to say something like, "He’s a hardworking winner who can contribute to a team right away." (Oh no, I’m not referring to anyone in particular).

And yet, ESPN still managed to go over the top during this year’s NBA draft.

In fact, it was one of the worst commentated NBA drafts I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that they were making dumb comments; the problem appeared to be that the litany of meaningless clichés that have accumulated from draft days past had cemented in their minds to the point of preventing any sort of original thoughts being uttered about any player.

The comment that really generated a buzz among the basketball geeks I was watching the draft with came from Fran Fraschilla. After calling Ricky Rubio the best passer drafted in a decade (by "best" I’m assuming he meant "fanciest") and comparing his feel for the game to Wayne Gretzky’s (feel for hockey, I assume), he later called Rubio "transformative". Of course, the geeks object. This led us to talk about the difference between transformative ("the skies open and completely alter our way of life") vs. transformational ("having the potential to change a team’s fortunes").

(Note: Yes, I do find that type of conversation "fun".)

Of course, what everyone is looking for – especially early in the draft – is those "transformative" players who can walk on water, part the defense, and float through the air to put the ball in the basket. So it’s not really uncommon I suppose for any league on draft day – I vividly remember Michael Cooper comparing Candace Parker to the Showtime Lakers’ entire starting five or something.

And occasionally, those players come along: most recently LeBron James and Candace Parker have been somewhat transformative. But even they have not been able to win championships in their first seasons (this is what separates Magic Johnson from most mortal basketball players).

Anyway, I always find it funny how after summer league (going on now), pre-season, and failing to get a starting spot on a losing team, the tone of the analysts change. After trying to cast everyone as the biggest thing since the pick before him, reality sets in and you start hearing things like, "It’s going to take time for him to adjust" or "He’s going to have to spend some time learning the game."

Hopefully, reality has set in for you regarding the WNBA by now.

We’ve seen just enough to get a sense of what each player offers, but not quite enough to make any real solid claims about who is "best". Nevertheless, after checking out the rookie point guards earlier this season, I did wonder about who was the best rookie overall. Which brings me back a question I asked last year: what is the fairest way to evaluate rookies?

There are many metrics we could use to determine who the best player in the WNBA is. In fact, most of the biggest APBRmetricians have a metric of their own to evaluate player productivity. However, I would argue that most of those are completely inadequate for evaluating rookies for one reason: rookies are wildly inconsistent.

Unless you have a rookie like Candace Parker or LeBron James, it’s almost impossible to know what you’re going to get game to game. That’s just natural: in addition to adjusting to the level of competition, they are learning a new system, figuring out how to move from star and/or leader of their college team to professional role player, and then there’s the issue of opponents eventually figuring out how to best defend them and constantly throwing different looks at them.

As Atlanta Dream commentator LaChina Robinson said during the webcast of at game in which McCoughtry failed to score as fellow rookie first-rounder Shavonte Zellous attempted to carry the Detroit Shock from the free throw line, it’s extremely difficult for a rookie to carry a team and it’s impressive when they do, even if briefly.

So although we are all looking for that dominant game changing rookie who can lift a team from the depths of the cellar to the glory of a WNBA championship, we probably will not get it this season. We are much more likely to be evaluating the player who is best able to adjust to the rigors of professional basketball and have any sort of impact.

Even trying to find predictors of future success is difficult because it all depends on which team they end up on, the role they are able to get on the team, and how hard they work behind the scenes. Given that, I tried to think to take a step backwards and rethink what exactly we should be evaluating when we look at rookie.

Rethinking Basketball rookie refresher

So last year I approached rookie evaluation from two angles: most promising/potential and most outstanding. This year, I’m abandoning the most promising approach simply because there are so many intangibles involved in realizing potential that I am not sure a statistical analysis is that valuable (I do however find Diamond Rating interesting and petrel has already posted those). So I’m just going to try to do an analysis of top rookies, with an eye on how well they contribute to team success.

Last year, I used the following statistics, based on Oliver’s Four Factors and past email exchanges with David Sparks:

Ball movement (unselfishness)
Turnover ratio
Offensive rebound rate
True shooting percentage
Valuable contributions rating

This year I am adding:
SPI versatility

The goal of this approach was simply to examine the different ways each player is able to contribute to the key factors of success rather than trying to use one overarching metric to evaluate inconsistent production.

However, when I looked back at last year’s numbers I wasn’t quite satisfied with the process…especially for a year like this one when there is considerably less star power, but still a number of solid players. The problem is that every rookie this year has glaring flaws that keeps them from being a great all-around player conducive to high ratings on many of the linear production metrics that one might choose to use.

So I wanted to figure out a better way…

Two tidbits of wisdom regarding rookies

So as I looked around the web for wisdom about how to evaluate rookies, two things really stood out for me – nobody really has a good way of evaluating rookies…aside from waiting to see how they turn out. But within that, just surfing the web and reading other people’s analyses did yield a few useful tidbits.

First, Dave Berri has done some very interesting work looking at the NBA’s Kevin Durant and today he compared Durant’s rookie campaign to Carmelo Anthony and Jerry Stackhouse.
But Anthony is simply not outstanding at any aspect of the game. And to be outstanding, you have to do something outstanding. Yes, it’s that simple.

And that is my point. Players should be evaluated in terms of what they actually have done. Not in terms of what we imagine they might do at some point in the future.
What I like about Berri’s analysis is the focus on what a player does well beyond just scoring points. We all know from past experience that points per game simply is not a good indicator of how good a rookie is in terms of their ability to contribute to a team.

What’s important, whether we are judging the best rookie or potential success, is that a rookie be able to do something well.

Which takes me to another bit of wisdom that I heard in reference to the NBA’s Bruce Bowen during a broadcast one time. Someone made the point that what allows a player like Bowen to succeed in the NBA is not that he wows you with athleticism or dominant talent, but that he has learned to do one thing well on each side of the ball (making spot up threes and playing tough perimeter defense).

Along with Berri’s analysis, I think that actually provides a helpful framework for rookie analysis – what has a rookie shown that they can do well? And more importantly, what can they contribute to a professional team?

Overall productivity measures are helpful to give us a player’s net effect, but don’t answer those more specific questions that are probably more important for making an analysis of a player who is constantly developing. And therefore, I’m not entirely sure overall rankings are helpful.

When you think about a player like Crystal Langhorne, she didn’t dazzle anyone last year, but she did do two things rather well – getting offensive rebounds and score with a high percentage. She established that she had skills to build on. So if we look for those specific assets and how well they do those, I think we might be able to find a more nuanced way to analyze rookies…

Hmmmm….more on this tomorrow..

Transition Points:

Best drafted passer in the last decade: I think Chris Paul, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Farmar, and Baron Davis would all argue that they were pretty good passers coming into the league. In fact there’s a whole league of fancy passers who would rather show off than win games – it’s called And 1.

Rubio’s moves are nice, but let’s try to keep things in perspective: fancy passing is entertaining, but does not necessarily translate to wins, though it might get you an early playoff exit before the team decides to acquire a point guard with substance. Just ask Jason Williams…and he actually had a jumpshot. And he was already compared to Maravich too. But I guess since it was more than a decade ago, we can forget about that.