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Nyeshia Stevenson & WNBA Small Forward Prospects

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Although the sting of losing to Stanford University after coming so far probably still lingers for Oklahoma University, the Sooner seniors have plenty to be proud about.

"They will forever be theclass that took us to back-to-back Final Fours," said Coale in comments after last night's game. "And it's such a hard thing to do. If my number is right, I've heard that there are only six schools to do that. That's a pretty special thing. And Stacey Dales and LaNeisha Caufield and Caton Hill will forever be the class that took us to our first Final Four, and these guys will be the first ever to take us back-to-back."

Among those seniors, forward Nyeshia Stevenson stood out as particularly special during this second consecutive Final Four run, winning the Most Outstanding Player award for the Kansas City Regional. Particularly impressive was Stevenson's 11-28 (39.28%) three point shooting during the tournament.

"Nyeshia, a year ago wouldn't have took the shots that she took this year," said senior forward Amanda Thompson. "She knocked down some big ones here to bring us to the Final Four."

Stevenson's shooting even drew the attention of Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who noted Stevenson as a player that "not one person can stop". VanDerveer assigned guard Ros Gold-Onwude - Pac-10 Co-Defensive Player of the Year - to guard Stevenson in last night's game.

"Stevenson is a recipient of a lot of her passes," said VanDerveer on Saturday. "Stevenson to me is more of a 3-point shooter, pure shooter, where Robinson is more of a slasher. And I think for our team, we just -- there's not one person on our team who can stop them; we have to play team defense against them. We're going to have to have people really focused on helping, not just one-on-one Ros against Robinson or Jeanette against Robinson or Stevenson.

"So they're really fun to watch when you're a spectator but really tough to get ready for as a coach."

However, even with Gold-Onwude smothering her at the three-point line and holding her to 0-1 shooting from deep, Stevenson demonstrated some versatility, setting career high free throw and free throw attempt numbers, going 7-11 from the charity stripe.

"They just followed her around," said Coale. "But you see Nyeshia got to the free throw line 11 times. So she took advantage of that...We did a good job of trying to screen and get her open and got her the basketball some. But she did a good job, too, as they followed her off of all those, of putting it on the floor and trying to get to the rim."

Perhaps what we've learned about Stevenson over the course of the tournament is not only that she is a player that is constantly improving, but also a player who is able to find ways to contribute even with an elite defender guarding her. So it should come as no surprise that when coaches and ESPN analysts were asked about players that improved their stock, "the Oklahoma kids" and Stevenson in particular came up.

"Watching as much basketball as possible and going over to watch the OU team play in person, then having the opportunity to have coaches go watch, there’s no question that Stevenson has upped her stock as a player," said Tulsa Shock coach Nolan Richardson during the WNBA pre-draft media teleconference.

Of course, as Richardson alluded too, coaches have done their homework and have players on their radar long before players like Stevenson make positive impressions in the tournament. That said, with the 2010 WNBA Draft only days away, where does Stevenson stand as a prospect given her tournament performance and entire body of work?

Small forward prospects

Given the size of some of these players they might not play more shooting guard in the WNBA, but I'm comparing them as small forwards since that is what they played in college. It's also worth bearing in mind that all of these players are actually quite different and thus there's not a whole lot that separates them -- where they get selected will depend entirely on a team's tastes.

  1. Tanisha Smith, 6'0", Texas A&M University

I've already written about Smith elsewhere (in a draft capsule and an interview with Texas A&M coach Gary Blair). So a brief note about her relative to Danielle McCray: McCray's numbers are indisputably better but Smith has two things going for her, if we are to rank the two: first, if a team needs players to fill the roster on rookie salaries, Smith can do that immediately. Second, there is no disputing that Smith has plenty of potential as a scorer and defender on the wing in the WNBA beyond what her numbers reflect.

  1. Danielle McCray, 5'11", University of Kansas

Were it not for her injury, McCray would clearly be the top small forward in this draft. However, the concern with the injury was well stated by ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck during the WNBA's pre-draft media conference.

"I'm going to have to agree with Rebecca in that she would be a steal to get, but it would have to be with a team that can afford to wait for her to recover from that injury," said Peck. "There are few teams out there that have that luxury. When you look at the rosters of a lot of these teams, for some of younger players, it will be tough to make a roster. And then you have a player like Danielle McCray who is recovering from an injury to hold the rights to her because you have a roster that's full for this year, I think she would be a steal."

What makes McCray a challenging player to evaluate is that not only will she be recovering from injury, but she'll be both recovering and adjusting to a new level of play. That said, she put up strong numbers during her injury-shortened senior year.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair relayed that he thinks the WNBA needs more players who can create their own shot and there's absolutely no doubt that McCray can do that. She had a usage percentage of 31.80% and a true shooting percentage of 56%, demonstrating that she can not only create her own shot, but make the shot count. However, as she said during the WNBA pre-draft media conference, one of McCray's underrated strengths is her versatility - she had an assist ratio of 12.62% and got 8.67 rebounds per 40 minutes, which was the highest rebounding rate of any small forward prospect. Given all that she creates, 11.49% turnover percentage might not be quite as bad and sometimes turnovers are even a sign of aggression that bode well for professional success (see John Wall). One weakness that could stand out is that she had a 2pt% of 47.59%, which is only about average among prospects.

  1. Lacey Simpson, 6'1", University of Illinois

What makes Simpson a differently intriguing prospect is her size at the small forward position and really off the charts versatility statistically. Her tendencies rate her as a WNBA utility player, which means that she can help her team in a number of ways that people might not immediately notice in the box score. In fact, she could be one of the most versatile players in the draft.

That starts versatility starts with her selection to the Big Ten All-Defensive team and is only reinforced by her defensive statistics- she had an outstanding steal percentage of 5.5% and an even more outstanding block percentage of 4.2% as a guard. Both bode well as markers of athleticism and defensive ability. At 6'1" she has the size to defend the wing in the WNBA as well, although quicker wings might give her problems. She also has a solid defensive rebounding rate.

Offensively, she is equally versatile - she had an outstanding ast ratio of 24.71% and a pure point rating of 1.27, which actually makes her a better distributor than some of the point guards in this draft. She's the type of player who has the presence to make the right pass moreso than making the spectacular pass while also keeping turnovers relatively low at 8.60%.

Watching the Illini there might be times when Simpson might seem to disappear. That's because she's not much of a scorer. Simpson had a below average usage percentage of 17.68%, which calls into question either her aggression or ability to create scoring opportunities. When she did shoot the ball she had a true shooting percentage of 50% but a 2 point percentage of 46%, which is average compared to other prospects. In addition, she has a very low free throw production rate of 5.8%, which generally indicates a wing that doesn't attack the basket very often. However, with everything else that Simpson brings on both sides of the court, she could be a surprisingly productive contributor on a team as a utility player.

  1. Nyeshia Stevenson, 5'10", Oklahoma

Stevenson's tendencies rate her squarely as a "pure scorer". In fact, by WNBA standards, she rates as a pure scorer. While her shooting percentages for the season aren't very promising at first - she shot 42% from the field and 33% from the three point line - her true shooting percentage of 53.61% is solid compared to many prospects and her 2 point percentage of 53.58% is actually quite good. Her defensive rebounding rate of 9.29% is also solid for a small forward.

However, as a "pure scorer", there are also reasons for concern. First of all, pure scorers happen to be the largest group of WNBA types of any, by David Sparks SPI playing styles framework, meaning that Stevenson might have trouble standing out. Her usage percentage of 20.70% is only average meaning that she either struggles to create her own shot or defers. Yet if she does defer, her assist rate of 8.46% is not exactly the mark of a good distributor either. Furthermore, the numbers demonstrate that the career-high free-throw shooting in the semi-final were indeed something of an anomaly -she had a free throw rate of 16.91% for the season, which is only average. All-in-all, Stevenson rates statistically as a streaky mid-range scorer, which is pretty much what we saw in the NCAA tournament. But the fact that she got so hot to finish her career and showed such strong signs of improvement will definitely keep her on people's draft boards.

  1. Lindsay Schrader, 6'0", Notre Dame

Schrader is in a tough spot as something of a tweener at the small forward position. Statistically, she looks quite good - all of her numbers indicate an efficient scorer and a capable passer, which is exactly what one might notice when watching her. However, when looking at her 2 point percentage of 56.56%, which is higher than anyone else at this position, one might also be reminded of the fact that she does a lot of her scoring by posting up smaller players. At 6'0", it's likely that it won't come quite as easily to her in the WNBA. The fact that she is not a long-range shooter - she was 0-1 from 3 point range this season - further says that she's a player heavily reliant on her interior play. She certainly possesses ball skills and abilities that would suggest that she could develop into a successful WNBA player, but relative to the other prospects, she would be more of a risky pick.