If Oklahoma University center Abi Olajuwon has WNBA aspirations, there is no better time than the Final Four for her to showcase her ability.
The Final Four features three of the top 5 centers in the nation and should Oklahoma make it to the championship game on Tuesday evening, Olajuwon would have the opportunity to go head to head with two of them. Since the WNBA doesn't have the time for the type of extensive workouts that NBA prospects get, Olajuwon might have the best opportunity of any prospect to raise her stock in the draft.
Already, both ESPN analysts and WNBA coaches have taken note of Olajuwon's performance thus far in the tournament, making her one of the more interesting players to watch from a draft perspective in the Final Four.
Of course, any reasonable GM will tell you that one or two games does not make or break a prospect - as they should, most look at the entire body of the work. However, that's exactly why these games are particularly valuable to Olajuwon: playing behind Ashley and Courtney Paris for most of her career, this season is her body of work. Moreover, after losing weight this off-season to prepare for increased minutes, Olajuwon condensed body of work is further complicated by the fact that she has improved so rapidly over the course of the season. Whether looking at statistics or game footage, what happened early in this season simply does not say much about the Olajuwon we've seen in the tournament.
Although there are other WNBA prospects in the Final Four this year, the centers who are expected to go one and two - in addition to the one who is expected to change the face of women's basketball in three years -- clearly stand out. So Olajuwon provides a bit of intrigue in a draft that is widely considered thin.
So how does Olajuwon compare to the other prospects at center?
1. Tina Charles, University of Connecticut
Chasing the Title statistical summary:
"She holds the best Effective Field Goal percentage of all the seniors I track at 63%. She ranks in the top three of all but two of the formulas I use to evaluate players. Her one weakness appears to be in defensive rebounding, securing only 14% of the available defensive rebounds for her team."
It's so obvious that Charles will be the #1 pick that coaches and GMs have taken to joking about it when asked about who they might draft. When one team told me that Charles was on their short list, I responded that I would keep my fingers crossed, to which she e-responded, "HAHAHAHAHA".
All jokes aside, she's got the athleticism, the physique, the skill, and a 2009-10 college basketball resume that would make it absurd for her to fall past #1.
2. Jayne Appel, Stanford University
Chasing the Title statistical summary:
"Her strengths are in her rebounding, particularly defensive rebounding. She has the fifth best overall floor percentage of all the seniors I track. The high RPI held by Stanford based on their record and strength of schedule keeps her in the top five for both my individual rating formula and WINSCORE. The only area she shows poorly in would be True Shooting Percentage. All but two of my top ten performers maintain at least a 59% TS%, while Appel sits at 56%."
Between C&R and I, there has been plenty written about Jayne Appel's draft stock on Swish Appeal, so I'll just say this one more time: to think that her stock is slipping completely disregards the multitude of skills she brings a team like the Lynx. Even if she is 80%, Appel adds so much with her passing and basketball IQ that they would have a difficult time justifying passing on her unless a trade was in place with the possibility of returning more talent. A player like Xavier's Amber Harris would definitely have complicated this decision, but that's separate from the fact that Appel is both the second best center and overall player in this draft based upon what we know now.
3-5: Chanel Mokango, Jacinta Monroe, and Abi Olajuwon all have very different strengths and weaknesses. At this time, I do not have the courage to rank them. Bottom line is this: their success will depend almost entirely on who drafts them and whether that team is willing to work with them. So here's my assessment of each.
Chanel Mokango, Mississippi State University
What Mokango has going for her is outstanding athleticism, effort, and instincts. She just has a clear sense of where to be on the court and how to get to the ball. Relative to Olajuwon and Monroe, there is no particular statistical strength that stands out. However, watching her play what sets her apart is the athleticism and hustle. She just outworked Monroe for rebounds on a number of plays and used her quick feet to establish rebounding position sometimes before Monroe was even able to try getting in position. She actually averaged slightly more blocks per game than Monroe and had slightly better rebounding percentages better than Monroe. In addition, the fact that she appeared to win multiple struggles in the post with Monroe bodes well for her.
What makes her a potential first round pick is her further potential for growth - as someone who didn't start playing basketball until her late teens, the fact that she is has emerged as a professional prospect 5 years later is impressive. So while she's less efficient than either Monroe or Olajuwon, the reason she was invited to the draft is clear: she is nowhere near her ceiling and if there's a team willing to work with her, the 6'5" native of Congo could develop into something special.
Jacinta Monroe, Florida State University
Chasing the Title statistical summary:
"Monroe is at number 12 overall on my list and fourth among centers. She ranks in my top 15 for Floor Percentage, BoxScores, all rebounding categories, Indivdual Rating and WINSCORE."
Monroe's assets are clear - she is athletic, long, and an outstanding shot blocker. She is by the most efficient scorer by a small margin statistically, but has the best mid-range shot of these three prospects. Her shooting ability combined with the fact that she's a bit more sure-handed with the ball in terms of assist and turnover ratios, makes her the best of these three for a high post system.
However, the fact that she struggled to hold position on the block on either end of the court against Mokango is not necessarily a good sign. Sure, we can say that she could get stronger over time and get better in the paint, but watching that matchup closely it was literally a matter of Monkango getting to spots faster while Monroe was trying to catch up.
So where does Olajuwon set herself apart? Rebounding.
Olajuwon's rebounding rates for the entire season are far better than both Mokango and Monroe by almost 5%. She finished fourth in defensive rebounding in Big 12 conference play behind Kelsey Griffin, teammate Amanda Thompson, and phenom Brittney Griner. Considering the argument that she's improved so much throughout the course of the season, the fact that her rebounding numbers rank among the elite in an elite conference is noteworthy.
In terms of scoring, she's not quite the shooter of Monroe, but gets to the free throw line nearly 10% more often. Once she gets the ball in the paint, she's looked increasingly more comfortable operating on the block with the ball. However, one troubling number is her turnover percentage - for a post player who isn't necessarily expected to handle the ball that often, a turnover percentage of nearly 18% is troubling.
Defensively, Olajuwon is probably less effective than the others, not just because she doesn't block as many shots but also because she just struggles to keep up with players who are able to make quick moves on her. As much as that is about athleticism, it's also about continuing to get experience with positioning and footwork - an argument could be made that she shows good enough footwork on offense that she could learn the defensive end. She is on a trajectory and it's possible that she could eventually become a serviceable rebounder for a team who needs help inside.
But that's the thing with Olajuwon - this is a player who is still growing and given that she's demonstrated the ability to improve and do one thing very well (rebounding) she's just as much worth a gamble as the other two candidates. And just like the other two, the issue comes down to a team being patient and willing to work with her on her game.
6. Alyssa DeHaan, Michigan State University
It's hard to determine whether Brittney Griner's emergence on the college scene was the best or the worst thing for DeHaan - either it means that she was no longer an exotic magnet for intrigue as the player significantly taller than everyone else or it made people realize how much impact a player at her height could have on the game with a bit more athleticism.
Obviously, DeHaan can block shots -- by virtue of towering over everyone else, she had 3.06 blocks per game this past year. Offensively, while her effective field goal percentage is the lowest of any center prospect just under 45%, however she did get to the free throw line at a reasonable rate relative to players like Appel and Charles. However, that scoring numbers stand out as lagging significantly behind other players.
The inability to get high percentage shots in the way most of the other prospects get could be attributed to a lack of strength, which would also explain her very low offensive rebounding rate of 5%. Borrowing insight from John Hollinger's NBA draft rater, she thus has two statistical strikes against her: 1) being very tall and 2) not rebounding well. Certainly if she put on some weight a lot of these numbers would begin to change, but the fact that her numbers have steadily declined during her career is not exactly encouraging.