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Rookie Rankings: Bonner the Frontrunner for ROY, But For How Long?

DeWanna Bonner is experiencing something of a dream rookie season, if not quite the historic season Candace Parker put together in the 2008 season.

Most rookies selected #5 in a professional sports draft are forced to withstand more losing in one season than they’ve ever experienced in their basketball lives (or perhaps decades of losing if you’re drafted by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors). Conversely, rookies that are drafted by winning times often have a difficult time cracking the rotation or end up with minor roles.

Bonner is one of the lucky few who gets the best of both worlds.

Not only did she get the honor of being selected fifth by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2009 WNBA draft, but she has also earned a spot in the rotation and arguably become one of the team’s key players. And did you happen to see how the Mercury demolished the LA Sparks and Chicago Sky and then pulled out a tough win on the road against the Monarchs? Yes, they’re a contender – and the way they’re able to blow teams out in 5-10 minutes is actually sort of scary.

Bonner just happened to land in a perfect situation that maximizes her strengths and hides her weaknesses. And really it’s a mutual fit – a running team like the Mercury needs players like Bonner. The Mercury help Bonner flourish and Bonner helps the Mercury flourish.

Unfortunately, Bonner’s rookie peers haven’t been so lucky – Marissa Coleman has been injured, and Briann January, Angel McCoughtry, Renee Montgomery, Kristi Toliver, and Shavonte Zellous have all gotten inconsistent playing time despite each having a breakout game. And yet, when those players have gotten opportunities, they’ve not only seized the moment, but they have also demonstrated the ability to literally carry their teams in one way or another for extended stretches. From those brief moments of excellence, one could certainly argue one of these other rookies could easily assume the mantle of front runner.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should make claims about the best rookie based on potential -- the Rookie of the Year award generally goes to the rookie who makes the biggest impact, not necessarily the "most talented/promising" or "most valuable" rookie. And as noted on the WNBA website, "Since 2001 every Rookie of the Year winner has started 100% of their games and only twice in the history of the award have the honorees come off the bench."

However, without that informal criterion this season, it is likely that people will focus on points per game as their criterion for choosing the Rookie of the Year. Normally, I would challenge that narrow approach to the Rookie of the Year and propose a broader framework for rookie analysis. But the inertia of habit is not easily broken. So I give in...but that doesn't mean I'll confine myself to points per game either.

After putting some thought into the issue and watching some of the top candidates over the past week or so, it’s clear that after one third of the season, Bonner is indeed the clear front runner for ROY. However, when you actually observe the other talented first rounders -- like McCoughtry, Montgomery, Coleman, and Zellous – you see a demonstrated ability to make things happen and actually take over games. So I have to wonder how long it will be before another rookie grows into a role with their team and not only puts up numbers but also demonstrates an ability to dominate games. But the question is, how close is the competition to Bonner?

Rethinking Rookie Performance…again…

Last week I posted a slightly refined version of a rather long and winding stream-of-consciousness free write that was intended to frame my examination of this year’s rookies. In case you don’t feel like untangling my thoughts, it boils down to three core points:

1. Rookies are difficult to evaluate fairly because they are going to perform inconsistently as they try to transition from the NCAA to the WNBA, find a role on their teams, and of course continue developing their skills…so a linear production metric alone is somewhat inadequate.

2. However, when considering candidates for Rookie of the Year – an award given to a player based on an inherently erratic rookie performance – we should judge a player based on what they actually do, not what they might do later or cannot do.

3. To succeed as a player that contributes to a team’s success, a rookie needs to do something very well, especially when WNBA rosters have been trimmed down.

Realistically though, most people will probably stick with the points per game. So rather than try to persuade people of the value of using broader criteria, I’m going to suggest a more nuanced look at scoring ability based upon three questions:

1. How does she get their points? (descriptive)

2. How well does she create scoring opportunities for themselves? (evaluative)

3. Is there some demonstrated skill that sets her apart from other rookies and might help her succeed long term? (prospective)

Those questions might help shift the way we think about the best rookie from the end result of points per game to the means by which they put up those points and the actual skills they demonstrate in the process. Someone putting up points in big minutes on a bad team is not nearly as impressive as coming off the bench and showing the ball handling ability, post moves, or instincts to get open against WNBA competition in the process of scoring points.

Thankfully, I think there are statistics that might help us think through that…and a full description of how I conceptualized this analysis is here.

But in summary, here’s the sequential framework I’ve used for analysis of rookies:

First, I compared the rookies based upon their usage percentage, Chaiken scoring efficiency, and Boxscores.

Second, I looked at 2 point percentage, assist rate, and free throw rate to further differentiate those who fell behind on Doolittle’s framework.

Third, I took a look at offensive rebounding rate as another valuable skill for rookies to contribute, if not quite as important as the ones above based on the work of previous people.

(Again, all of those statistics are described here)

And instead of ranking players, I’m taking a different approach this time -- I looked at the rookie in relation to the rest of the league in order to see which rookies are doing things particularly well by WNBA standards rather than just rookie standards.

To do that, I broke each statistic into 3 tiers (about 50 players each unless there was a clear breaking point) giving me a sense of what it means to be above average, average, and below average in a given statistical category. As one might guess, the most productive players in the league also end up ranking as above average or average in multiple statistical skills.

What this helps us do is look not only at who is producing what, but also look at what specifically each rookie is able to do well.

The frontrunners: DeWanna Bonner and Angel McCoughtry

Bonner has been a statistical monster this season. Yes, she is coming off the bench. But what she’s doing in limited minutes is remarkable.

There are 17 players in the entire WNBA who rank in the top tiers in Boxscores, usage %, and pts/zero point possession. Bonner and McCoughtry are among that group.

One of those players (Janell Burse) is playing extremely well in limited minutes, but take a look at the rest of the elite company our two top rookies are among:

1. Diana Taurasi
2. Lauren Jackson
3. Cappie Pondexter
4. Katie Douglas
5. Jia Perkins
6. Charde Houston
7. Sancho Lyttle
8. Swin Cash
9. Candice Dupree
10. Alana Beard
11. Seimone Augustus
12. Shameka Christon
13. Betty Lennox
14. Hamchetou Maiga-Ba

Both Bonner and McCoughtry are statistically playing at an all-star level. So how do we differentiate?

Bonner is by far the better rebounder, ranking in the top tier of offensive rebounding in the league with an impressive rate of 21%. McCoughtry’s offensive rebounding rate is only a third of that at 7.5%. However, in total rebounding percentage – not one of my key skills but significant in comparing these two as forwards – McCoughtry (7.48%) is in the bottom tier while Bonner (16.79%) is in the top tier. Ultimately, one could argue that a forward who cannot rebound is not quite as valuable as one that can.

However, in one of the chosen skills – 2 point percentage – McCoughtry (49.38%) is in the top tier while Bonner (43.92%) is in the middle tier. So really, one could argue that choosing between McCoughtry and Bonner is a matter of taste and fit moreso than absolute quality – McCoughtry is by far the better ball handler and passer, as evidenced by her 15.49% assist ratio (middle tier) compared to Bonner’s 4.05% assist ratio.

But I am actually going to choose – and right now, I have to go with Bonner.

Bonner did just happen to be a perfect fit for the Phoenix Mercury, who drafted her #5 this year. And the Mercury’s system is conducive to big numbers for a player like Bonner – she gets a large number of her points off of fast break lay-ups and gets a number of free throw attempts as defenders try to keep up with her as she flashes across the key.

But a major asset that she adds to the Mercury’s system is that she has amazing instincts for a rookie. As the team runs up and down the floor shooting quick shots, Bonner is quick and athletic enough to get in position for an offensive rebound before anyone can catch up to her to box her out. Add to that her outstanding rebounding instincts and she is a player that is clearly a huge asset to a running team like the Mercury.

Bonner has proven that she can contribute to a WNBA team and do so rather efficiently. Similar to what I’ve said about Crystal Kelly on numerous occasions, she has amazing instincts and just seems to have a superior awareness of where to be on the floor to make plays for her team. And even if she doesn’t make the first shot, she's an excellent offensive rebounders, and draws fouls for an above average free throw rate. What she has that Kelly doesn’t is amazing athleticism and quickness, which allows her to get a number of offensive rebounds and second chance shots, despite her slight frame.

But here’s the kicker for Bonner -- is she someone who you would want to have the ball in her hands at the end of a close game to make something happen? Not necessarily based upon what I’ve seen.

If Bonner is forced to make a move to the basket requiring more than one dribble and beating a defender, she really struggles. She looks extremely awkward putting the ball on the floor and often misses shots when she gets the least bit of pressure before getting to the rim.

An interesting statistical point along those lines is that despite getting the majority of her scoring opportunities on fast break layups or layups cutting to the basket, she only shoots 45% on 2 point field goals. One can imagine that she will improve upon her two point scoring once she adds strength to her frame.

And that’s what makes this Rookie of the Year race interesting – a player like Angel McCoughtry can just do more with the ball than hit wide open jumpers or score off cuts on a fast break. McCoughtry has demonstrated the ability to put the ball on the floor and get by her defender, hit pull-up jumpers off the dribble, and she is even a decent passer.

The issue for McCoughtry is decision making and finding a consistent role in the Dream’s "system". With the exception of her very low rebounding numbers, McCoughtry might end up being the better all-around talent a few years down the line. But again, this is an award that rewards current performance, not future potential…and right now Bonner has her beat, though I think the race is closer than most people are trying to make it. If McCoughtry finds a consistent role on the Dream in the next two-thirds of the season, McCoughtry could easily take the ROY award.

And there are at least three other players behind Bonner and McCoughtry that have real game changing ability rather than just being efficient contributors to a system perfectly suited for them.

The Contenders: Renee Montgomery, Shavonte Zellous, and Marissa Coleman

As the only two rookies that are top tier players in Boxscores, usage percentage, and scoring efficiency, Bonner and McCoughtry are clearly in front of the pack. But there are a few players right on their heels.

Renee Montgomery, who you may already know is a Rethinking Basketball favorite, is clearly the #3 rookie in the league based on this framework, ahead of Zellous for a simple reason – Montgomery is the more efficient scorer and has contributed more to her team’s success this season. Furthermore, as they are both point guards, the fact that Montgomery is a better play maker becomes relevant – neither has a pure point rating that one might expect from a starting point guard, but Montgomery has an assist ratio of 17.11% while Zellous has an assist ratio of 5.71%.

Just a few days ago before Montgomery really got comfortable with the Minnsota Lynx, Zellous would have clearly been #3 behind Bonner and McCoughtry. But Montgomery is getting increasingly more patient in choosing scoring opportunities in addition to finding a role within the Lynx’s offense, in no small part because of the outstanding coaching job of Minnesota coach (and my early pick for Coach of the Year) Jennifer Gillom.

But I’ve gushed enough about Montgomery.

Watching Zellous, it’s obvious that she is able to get her shot whenever she wants. Not only that, but she is extremely adept at getting herself to the free throw line with the second highest free throws made/field goal attempted in the league. Not bad for a rookie.

The problem is that she can get really trigger happy and singularly focused on taking very difficult contested jump shots. In one telecast, Atlanta Dream commentator LaChina Robinson compared Zellous’ game to that of Deanna Nolan. And aside from obvious differences in physical attributes and athleticism (I think Nolan is probably among the best pure athletes in the league) the comparison works in terms of style of play -- her ability to create space and get her jumper off is phenomenal. Making said jumper is another story – Zellous has a 2-point percentage of 35.29%, which I probably not need tell is in the bottom tier of the league.

If Zellous becomes more patient as a player and gets better at choosing her spots and distributing to others, she could be a force. But right now, when you beyond points per game and the ability to get to the free throw line, it’s hard to make an argument that she should rank ahead of the other three.

Unfortunately, I have not yet seen Coleman in one of her better pre-injury games. Nevertheless, she has an above average usage rate and Chaiken efficiency ratio implying that she can score efficiently (the only reason her Boxscore number is only average is because she missed games). The only troubling thing about Coleman is her 2 point percentage which was at 35.74% through Friday and she’s only an average rebounder. Again down the line, Coleman might be the better overall player, but for now, Bonner is probably the forward of choice.

Rotation players: Kristi Toliver, Briann January, Quanitra Hollingsworth

I honestly have not paid much attention to Hollingsworth while watching the Lynx. But briefly, Hollingsworth is about average in all of the aforementioned statistics and an above average rebounder in addition to having an above average free throw rate.

However, I have paid quite a bit of attention to January and Toliver. And while I think January might be stagnating as she continues to struggle with her shooting, Toliver might be on the rise after her impressive performance against the Storm.

For the season, the problem for Toliver is that similar to Zellous, she has no problem getting that picture perfect jumper off with an above average usage percentage, she just has not been shooting it very efficiently – she is in the bottom tier in Chaiken efficiency ratio. But what’s interesting is that she is also right behind January in the top tier in assist ratio and well ahead of Montgomery in that category. Considering her reputation as a shooter and a serious turnover problem, that’s what continues to impress me most about Toliver.

In the game against the Storm, she recorded 7 assists and 3 turnovers for a pure point ratio of 6.17 and an assist ratio of 33.33%, which are the type of numbers an elite point guard would put up for the season. Beyond the numbers, I was shocked by how good of a passer she is – she effortlessly makes pinpoint passes that put the receiver in perfect position to score.

You will not see Toliver make spectacular drives and the fancy highlight reel passes that bring the crowd to their feet, but that’s not always needed. And that’s what Toliver seems to understand – she typically makes the right play, even if that play is looking for her own shot.

However, one major flaw with Toliver as a point guard is that she is a suspect ball handler, which often results in mishandling the ball or turning it over. Furthermore, unlike the best point guards, she really struggles keeping a live dribble when any type of pressure is applied. That -- as much as foot speed and a quick first step -- is really what’s holding Toliver back right now.

Perhaps her ball handling skills will develop over time allowing her to get herself open for even better scoring opportunities. But for now, if she is given minutes and a clear role (in a clearly structured system) her basketball IQ will take her a long way and perhaps catapult her into that "contender" range.

January is pretty much the polar opposite of Toliver – she is the only rookie point guard with a positive pure point rating and high assist ratio. She is an excellent ball handler and has great court vision. Her problem is shooting. Part of that may be mechanics as her shot often comes off flat. But all of her scoring efficiency numbers are below average. I still like her quite a bit as a point guard who is able to get the ball up the court and make the right pass. But she has been pulled from games on more than one occasion for trying to make "showtime" passes after driving through the defense.

The underdog: Shalee Lehning

Here’s my bold statement of the day: by the end of this season, Lehning could record the most starts of any rookie. She is by far the most effective point guard on the Dream’s roster. And that would make a great playoff feature story, should the Dream make it that far – Lehning was certainly not expected to even stick with a roster this season.

However, Lehning is not spectacular, which leads many people to underestimate her. But what’s perplexing to me is the way in which people attempt to dismiss Lehning. This phrase has never made much basketball sense to me: all she does is bring the ball up the floor and pass it to scorers. To which I respond, isn’t that part of a point guard’s job -- that she does that better than most of the other five on the court?

Queenie from Game Notes of Doom best characterized the value of Lehning’s game as follows:
Lehning didn't impress me, except that by being unremarkable, she proved that she belonged as a rookie, and that's no bad thing. It usually takes players a lot longer to look that comfortable on the court.
If being a point guard is all about decision making, then Lehning’s ability to comfortably make good decisions should be commended, not condemned. And if she cannot shoot well, then deciding not to shoot is a good decision, not a problem. Would it make her better if she could work on her shooting? Sure. But the same could be said for January and -- in a different way -- Zellous.

So the fact that Lehning has a 55% true shooting percentage and a 60% 2 point percentage despite being a poor shooter actually speaks to how good a decision maker she is with the ball, despite having a below average usage rate and Chaiken efficiency rating. And a derivative of that good decision rate is Lehning’s assist rate, which is a league high 54.51%... a good ten percent ahead of the second place guard – ironically, Nikki Teasley (44.64%).

Now to keep things in perspective, last season Leilani Mitchell posted a league-high 38.7 assist rate in addition to an extremely high pure point rating and struggled this year as a starter for the Liberty. So all the assist rate tells us is that Lehning is really just doing little else aside from passing because she shoots so infrequently.

That Lehning is also not able to post the astronomical pure point rating that Mitchell posted last season also does not bode well for her career. But this much can be said about Lehning – coach Marynell Meadors seems to like her, she appears to be a hard worker, and we can expect her to continue to get better as she has already this season.

Untapped potential: Courtney Paris, Chen Nan

I’m not sure which is the trendier thing to do this season: dismiss Lehning or Paris.

Conventional wisdom goes that the transition from college post player to professional post player is the most difficult because there is simultaneously an adjustment in power and strength as well as skill. Players like Paris who were used to just overwhelming college opponents with their size and strength suddenly realize that professional players are not pushed around so easily. Conditioning aside, Paris has what it takes to make it as a post player.

Paris has great hands, absolutely beautiful footwork in the post, and a quick release. She illustrated that she was extremely decisive from the first time I saw her, but the big difference in her last few games is that she’s far more patient with her moves. That is why she ranks in the top tier in the league in Chaiken efficiency ratio – she gets the ball and makes a quick decision to either get to the basket or kick it back out.

And of course she’s a great rebounder – even prior to the big game she had against the rather thin Mercury frontcourt, she had the highest offensive rebounding percentage (the percentage of available rebounds she gets while on the court). She is a big body and she knows how to use it.

While many people are dismissing her more recent performances as one-off occasions, her skills were evident from the beginning. And she is adjusting rapidly. She still has limited range on her shot, but I think that could be said about many post players when they first enter the league. As Paris develops and adds more muscle to her frame, she will only get more effective at the things she does well in the post. It will be interesting to see if the coaching change in Sacramento will bring more minutes for Paris or perhaps a role that better maximizes her strengths.

Chen Nan falls just outside my top ten, but I think deserves a mention, if for no other reason because mobile tall people are not particularly abundant in the world. Nan ranks pretty much average in all the aforementioned statistics, except Chaiken efficiency ratio and assist ratio, and has an above average 2 point percentage.

However, in watching her what impresses me most is that like Paris – though to a lesser extent -- she does have a variety moves in the paint and in the Storm game on Sunday, she even showed that she has a nice outside touch as well. She was far better playing next to Fowles than playing next to Dupree in that game, but she fits into Chicago’s post rotation very well. She is not nearly as far along as some of the other rookies here, but she definitely has tools that can be molded into becoming an effective reserve for a team like the Sky.

Final Rankings

1. DeWanna Bonner
2. Angel McCoughtry

3. Renee Montgomery
4. Shavonte Zellous
5. Marissa Coleman

6. Kristi Toliver
7. Briann January
8. Quanitra Hollingsworth

9. Shalee Lehning

10. Courtney Paris

Of course, we are only about a third of the way through the season…so these rankings could change drastically. But the bigger point is that while Bonner appears to be in a class all by herself right now, any of those players in the top 5 have demonstrated skills that will make them a serious threat to Bonner in the next two thirds of this season.

But fundamentally something else that may play a role in this year’s ROY race is that something intangible that separate the great basketball players from the good ones. Some people call it the "It Factor". It goes beyond merely possessing the mechanical skills to play the game or the physical tools – athleticism or height – to overwhelm opponents. And it certainly cannot be measured statistically.

It’s most readily visible in the form of a controlled aggression. It’s the awareness to make the right play at the right time more often than not. And it’s sometimes embodied within a unique swagger that exudes a confidence that lets you know that she knows that she can take over at any moment.

But it’s also the ability to outlast an opponent in a battle of wills. It’s an ability to put a team on your back and carry them to victory. It’s the ability to create the big shot in the clutch when everyone else on the court is looking to someone else to step up. It’s an appreciation for the magnitude of the moment without concern for the possibility of failure.

When considering front-runners for Rookie of the Year, this intangible "It factor" perhaps takes on greater significance than it does for the MVP for one simple reason: rookies are inevitably inconsistent. Rookies are constantly adjusting, developing, and learning and it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that the best rookies might not have the best overall statistics or be a significant contributor to wins…which is all the more reason to keep watching…

Transition Points:

From the statistical league leaders, you might also gather that I would say Lauren Jackson is the clear frontrunner for MVP as well – she is carrying more weight individually to help her team win than any other player in the league and doing so very efficiently.

Last year’s Rethinking Basketball rookie favorite, Leilani Mitchell, ranks in the bottom tier of every single category I looked at except assist ratio. I’m still rooting for her, but such a dramatic change is somewhat shocking.

I hesitated to include winning in the framework, but I think it’s an important element to consider if we’re going to think about usage and efficiency – I really don’t care how creative or efficient you are if you don’t contribute to my team’s success somehow. You play to win the game…

This year, Montgomery is my favorite, but for some reason, I can't help but root for Toliver and Paris as well. I want Toliver to do well for the Sky's sake...and Paris played high school ball in the neighborhood I briefly lived in growing up. For now though, only Toliver gets her name in the tag cloud.

In another Basketball Prospectus article, Doolittle mentioned that somehow athleticism should somehow be taken into account as well. He is working on a metric for that, but one thing I've noticed from NBA summer league games is that steals tend to be a decent proxy for athleticism, at least for guards.

There are of course other ways to look at rookies
. Petrel from the Atlanta Dreams Blog and Kevin Pelton from the StormTracker blog have also provided us with their analyses.

By the way, these statistically based rankings seem like the perfect time for a reminder about truth, reason, and subjectivity -- I cannot say that these rankings will lead us only to the truth, but I do believe that they might illustrate truth-like properties.