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Revisiting Rookie Point Guards: How Does Atlanta’s Shalee Lehning Compare to Her First Round Counterparts?

If you were to select a WNBA All-Rookie First and Second team, would Atlanta Dream point guard Shalee Lehning be on it?

And if not, why not?

What makes the question interesting to me is that for some reason, people tend to focus on every single one of Lehning’s deficiencies – athleticism, scoring ability, defense, not a fast break player – rather than the one thing she has clearly established the ability to do well: running a team.

She had her detractors when she came out of college.

She was dismissed as irrelevant after the WNBA draft given the 11 player rosters this year.

She was dismissed after making the Atlanta Dream over incumbent point guard Ivory Latta.

I ignored her when I wrote about the WNBA's talented group of rookie point guards earlier this year.

She was dismissed as nothing more than a "ra-ra" player after becoming an important part of the Dream’s rotation.

And now she’s still dismissed after transitioning into a more substantive full-time starter on a potential playoff team. She is not even included among’s top 10 rookies despite starting 8 games for her team, tied for the most of any rookie.

During the Dream’s four game winning streak from July 22- August 1st, Lehning had 17 assists and 2 turnovers.

It’s not that she was playing All-Star caliber basketball, but she does what her team needs – she brings the ball up the court and initiates an offense that includes two All-Star post players in center Sancho Lyttle and forward Erika de Souza and two volume shooters in forward Chamique Holdsclaw and guard Iziane Castro-Marquez. So if she’s playing with four players who are better scorers than her by almost any reasonable standard, it’s actually a good decision to just get the ball up the court and set them up for scoring opportunities.

Lehning has exhibited the ability to perform the duties of a good point guard. And if she is able to exhibit that ability as a rookie, she deserves a bit more credit than she’s getting.

Yet you can still find people who will dismiss her in one of two ways:

1) All she does is bring the ball up the court and pass it (which I find to be a baffling critique); or
2) If the Dream had better point guards, then she wouldn’t even be on a WNBA roster.

Somehow, an assessment of what she does well is disregarded in favor of a general assessment of her ability that is based upon a counter-factual argument.

But why is that occurring?

In my opinion, the point guard position in basketball is second only to the quarterback position in football as the toughest position for a rookie to learn in sports…and Lehning has done an admirable job not only managing that learning curve, but doing it well enough to earn a starting spot over veteran competition on a playoff team.

To be clear, I’m not nominating Lehning for Rookie of the Year. I’m not even suggesting that she’s the ideal point guard for the Atlanta Dream. Nor am I suggesting that she should be considered the best rookie point guard (I maintain that the best rookie point guard this season is Minnesota Lynx point guard Renee Montgomery).

What I’m suggesting is that if you judge Lehning on what she’s done for the Dream overall rather than harping on what she has not done, she has actually demonstrated that she is a solid point guard.

So how would I rank her relative to the rest of the rookie point guards…or the rookie class more generally?

What does Lehning do so well?

Put simply, Lehning makes outstanding decisions with the ball given her limitations and rarely makes bad mistakes.

It’s not a terrible starting point for a rookie.

And I'm not just going to make a simplistic assist to turnover ratio argument. I'm talking more about how well Lehning plays the position.

As of yesterday, she leads the league in assist ratio – the percentage of plays she makes that end in an assist -- at 49.06%. To put that in perspective, the player in second is Sacramento Monarchs’ point guard Ticha Penicheiro. That also reveals a quirk with this particular number – if you don’t shoot much and pass a lot, then of course your assist ratio would be high. Nevertheless, the fact that half the plays she makes end in an assist is impressive as a rookie.

Here’s a brief comparison to the other three rookie point guards: Montgomery, Indiana Fever point guard Briann January, and Chicago Sky point guard Kristi Toliver.

Lehning: 49.06%
Toliver: 25.97%
January: 24.5%
Montgomery: 18.22%

Lehning also leads rookies in John Hollinger’s pure point rating, a metric that assesses a point guards’ ability to create scoring opportunities for others per minute on the floor. As a reference point, Los Angeles Sparks point guard Kristi Harrower has maintained the top pure point rating for most of the season and currently has a rating of 5.78. Here are the rookies:

Lehning: 1.84
January: .18
Toliver: -2.02
Montgomery: -3.125

Whether looking at these numbers or watching them play, it is fair to say that Shalee Lehning is the more effective distributor of any of the rookie point guards who have played a full season.

She’s not as flashy as January or Montgomery as a ball handler and creator, but she is mechanically sound and does the simple things extremely well, such as making entry passes to All-Stars or getting the ball to the open shooter at the right moment.

At this point it would be perfectly reasonable to comment that these numbers seem to be the opposite about common sense assessments of who the best point guards are – I have just provided two metrics in which Shalee Lehning and Kristi Harrower are the leaders!

What am I thinking?!?

What both of these metrics do is establish a point guard’s ability to make decisions about distributing the ball to teammates and running the offense. Relative to the rest of the WNBA, Lehning is making very good decisions with the ball and is very effective at setting up her teammates for scoring opportunities.

However, as I have explained in past point guard rankings previously and in yesterday’s post about San Antonio Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon, there are many ways to perform the duties of point guard – ability to distribute the ball is only one means by which to do so.

Scoring ability counts and that’s obviously what people hold against Lehning.

Lehning is not a scorer. And yes, that does make her an incomplete player despite the fact that she’s a very effective distributor.

And it should be extremely clear that by now that Montgomery is the best scorer of the rookie point guard crew.

Montgomery’s athleticism, outstanding ball handling ability, and ability to finish at the rim make her a very difficult player to stop. She first showed off her ability to score in traffic off the drive in an overtime win against the Washington Mystics on July 7th and pretty much did the same thing in a home loss against the Silver Stars on Sunday night.

While Kristi Toliver is clearly the better shooter (when she plays), Montgomery right now is the best overall scorer of any rookie point guard. She is also second among rookies in true shooting % and scoring efficiency ratio (the ratio of scoring plays to non-scoring plays as defined by missed shots and turnovers).

However, one way to assess overall scoring ability is to look at 2 point percentage, which can be something of a proxy for how well a player is able to get themselves easy shots and has been described as a very important WNBA statistic:

Montgomery: 52.43%
Lehning: 48.57%
Toliver: 44.23%
January: 38.88%

In fact, Montgomery is one of four guards in the top 15 in the league in 2 point percentage, right behind Becky Hammon (52.6%). The fact that Montgomery’s assist ratio is so low (also close to Hammon’s 19.2%) is offset by her scoring efficiency and ability to create easy shots for her team.

Will Montgomery need to get better as a distributor in order to be effective as a team leader? Of course.

But the split among this year’s crop of point guards – Lehning and January as distributors, Montgomery and Toliver as scorers – serves only to illustrate just how difficult it is to play point guard as a rookie. And that's not to mention the fundamental communication and leadership skills that it takes to run a team.

Given all those factors, Lehning probably deserves credit as the best distributor of the bunch right now.

Establishing reasonable expectations for a rookie point guard

A post on the Hoopinion blog yesterday further reinforces the point about the difficulty of making the transition from college to the professional ranks as a point guard.

It boils down to a very simple claim, backed by a look at rookie combo/point guard drafted outside the NBA draft lottery from 2003-2008 since the changing of enforcement of hand-check rules:

Given the difficulty of learning the point guard position, first year performance of rookie point guards drafted beyond the lottery will not clearly establish the path of his career.

How might we apply the same thinking to Shalee Lehning?

By focusing on what she does well in terms of what we know about the WNBA game – she creates assists, she minimizes turnovers, and she shoots a relatively high 2 point percentage by WNBA standards.

Not only are these indicators that Lehning is an effective point guard right now, but also that she probably is on her way to a solid career, if only as a backup.

With work in the off-season and a year of experience under her belt, she very well could become a better scorer.

But as for her standing as a rookie right now and judging her on her performance rather than arbitrary standards for imaginary point guards, we can say that she is an effective starter on a playoff team.

If that does not merit consideration among the top rookies, I’m not sure what does.

Transition Points:

Click here to see my latest rookie rankings....just in case you want to figure out where I plugged Lehning in after my extended analysis of her...

The obvious comparison to Lehning as a rookie point guard
is New York point guard Leilani Mitchell...and clearly Mitchell is not having a particularly strong sophomore campaign. But somewhat similar to Lehning, she is most effective as a distributor when her team is effective as a unit. And thus far this season, it’s safe to say that the entire Liberty team has underachieved, if not played worse than they did last year. Otherwise, Pat Coyle would likely still have a job.

In response to my last point guard rankings,
Bob Corwin of Full Court Press got in touch with me and we have had an ongoing conversation about point guards and how people around the league think about some of the players I ranked.

At some point during this conversation, he asked me why I was so interested in evaluating point guards. And I suppose I didn’t have a good answer.

It started last season by noticing people’s comments about the effectiveness of Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird’s during an early season shooting slump. But maybe what precipitated that was that I was something of a defensive combo guard in high school and Isaiah Thomas was one of the first players that ever caught my eye in the NBA.

However, Lehning’s rookie year performance probably best embodies why I am interested in creating a framework for evaluating what it is point guards bring to a team. People make very arbitrary assessments of point guards based upon normative assumptions about what constitutes a "good point guard" that actually reflect people's thoughts about what makes a "superstar point guard".

For example, in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs have won championships with both Avery Johnson and Tony Parker, two very different point guards. Last year's NBA finals featured a matchup between Derek Fisher and Tony Farmar vs. Jameer Nelson (all-star) and Rafer Alston (former And 1 player). The previous finals winner was led by second-year point guard Rajon Rondo, who still has no jump shot to speak of.

All of those players were vital to their team's success, but very differently.

There are many ways to play the position and it depends more on the situation than any rigid set of qualities.

However, Corwin also made the point that while there have been a few great point guards in the WNBA, the point guard position has never had a great player...and part of my struggle is to detach myself from NBA point guard standards and think more deeply about the WNBA, which does not have many dominant point guards in its short history...interesting point I'm still chewing on...and the reason why further point guard rankings are on hold.

Sacramento Monarchs' guard Ticha Penicheiro relayed a story about an interaction with coach John Whisenant that I found interesting regarding point guard play:
On the amount of trust Head Coach John Whisenant puts in her: "He’s always saying he wants me to be Steve Nash or Chris Paul and just go in the paint and make something happen so we don’t call many plays sometimes. He just pretty much wants me to go out there and get in the paint and either shoot or give the ball to one of our post players or our shooters. He is always encouraging me to do that. He says ‘Be Steve Nash out there, be Steve Nash!’"
Obviously, Lehning is no Steve Nash...which is yet another point of critique...but many point guards have won two NBA MVPs anyway?