During the off-season, Swish Appeal spoke with a number of WNBA coaches and general managers about their 2009 performance and expectations for the 2010 season.
I managed to get through my lists of underrated players and breakout players based on those conversations, but there was another list that came out of those conversations that was interesting: second-year players.
All of these players are names that coaches and general managers gave Swish Appeal when asked to name underrated or breakout players. The reason they weren't ultimately considered in those category of players is simple: second year players should improve by virtue of coming off their first year of professional basketball.
Obviously, the season has already stated, but forgive me: the whole thing was derailed because one of the more intriguing players to watch -- Courtney Paris, one of the league's best rebounders in 2009 -- was released by the Chicago Sky near the end of training camp. OK...maybe that isn't much of an excuse. Nevertheless, the rest of the list still stands and perhaps the Sky's other move of trading guard Kristi Toliver makes things even more interesting.
In any event, here's the list of players in reverse order based on what I heard from league employees in the off-season. Even though the season has already started, I think there might be enough season left -- like 94% or so -- to make this relevant.
5. Marissa Coleman, forward, Washington Mystics
What makes Coleman an interesting player to watch is primarily that she suffered an early injury that arguably derailed her development as a rookie.
"I was really excited about the start to her rookie campaign and she unfortunately had the high ankle sprain in early June that kind of derailed her for a little bit and I think that that lingered on, both physically and mentally, for much of the rest of the season in that she was out about six or seven weeks before she got back on the court," said Mystics general manager Angela Taylor in an interview back in March. "And then just mentally, trying to recover from injury - it was the first injury that she's really had."
Now healthy -- and with the Mystics needing increased scoring contributions from everyone to make up for the loss of injured guard Alana Beard -- Taylor is hoping that Coleman can demonstrate some improvement in her second year.
"I think the big thing for Marissa is that she's not just a spot up shooter," said Taylor. "We're looking for Marissa to step up her game to the next level -- be more consistent, be more explosive off the dribble as well as well as being a spot up shooter. People cannot lay off of her but if they get up on her I think that in college she displayed that she's really able to put the ball on the floor, have more of a mid-range game or get to the basket and finish. So I'm looking for her to do much more of that this year - to be more aggressive offensively as well as to continue to work on her defense."
4. Kristi Toliver, guard, Los Angeles Sparks
Whatever happened in Chicago is now in the past and at some point, we'll have to let go of the fact that Toliver was a 2009 #3 draft pick traded for a 2011 draft pick -- put simply, she didn't necessarily fit well with the Sky and getting a fresh start with a team who needs three point shooter might be ideal for her. Perhaps even more importantly, what makes her a candidate as one of the league's most improved second year players is that she will shift positions even if she doesn't necessarily get more minutes.
Watching her against the Seattle Storm in the Sparks' Sunday night loss, what was readily apparent is that she is a potential fit -- not only can she shoot, but she might be better as an undersized shooting guard next to bigger point guards than a point guard who can shoot. In fact, Toliver was in the game with rookie point guard Andrea Riley to start the pivotal fourth quarter.
Toliver's experience playing the point is clearly an asset though -- she is a very good entry passer and made some very nice passes to set up scoring opportunities. With forward Candace Parker operating in the paint, Toliver gives the team a three point threat that can help spread the floor and keep defenses honest. The problem is that when asked to run the point, she still occasionally commits some bad turnovers. However, given the Sparks' personnel, Toliver has the opportunity to showcase her strengths and mask her weaknesses.
For more on Toliver, please click here.
3. Kia Vaughn, forward, New York Liberty
No team was more excited about any player than the Liberty were excited about Vaughn.
"I mean who can't get excited about a second year for her," said head coach Anne Donovan back in February. "I think she just began to show who she could be in the WNBA."
While Vaughn's performance as a rookie could be described as inconsistent or disappointing at worse, her work ethic is what makes her seem poised for a stronger second year.
"Kia's been the first one in the gym and the last one to leave and Anne spent a considerable amount of one-on-one time with her last year teaching her the must-haves: getting the footwork down and not only physical stuff, but skillwork," said general manager Carol Blazejowski. "And a lot of it is film work: how to think the game."
With the addition of veteran post Taj McWilliams-Franklin through free agency, Vaughn has the opportunity to learn from someone who knows how to play the game and looked quite spry against the Sky on Sunday. The combination of a strong work ethic and the presence of a veteran mentor might lead to bigger things for Vaughn in 2010.
2. Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, wing, Connecticut Sun
Jekabsone-Zogota could also have made the list of the league's underrated players, but for the fact that she's still something of an unknown commodity -- she joined the team late and made only 16 starts. But she was quite impressive as a starter.
Connecticut Sun Free Agency Breakdown: How Well Does Kara Lawson Fit?
Another, perhaps more subtle, addition is Jekabsone-Zogota, who joined the team late last year and started 16 games. In those starts, she not only played just over 10 minutes more per game, but also scored 5.7 more points per game. As a three point shooter, just playing more minutes for a full season will be a huge boost for the team in 2010.
"The last third of the season we got great production from Anete Jekabsone when she became a starter and kind of got used to the league," said Thibault. "She's capable of being a double figure scorer for us as well. So we've enhanced overall our perimeter scoring."
As a scorer who can shoot the three next to a player who can get to the rim like guard Renee Montgomery and a high-IQ player like Kara Lawson as well as a strong interior presence in rookie center Tina Charles, Jekabsone-Zogota stands to put up better numbers over the course of this season as both a player who can spread the court for post players and serve as a kick out option for driving guards. She might be a better fit for this personnel than she was for last season's team and could surprise some people with how productive she is.
1. DeWanna Bonner, forward, Phoenix Mercury
An argument left unresolved on Swish Appeal last year: whether Bonner or Atlanta Dream forward Angel McCoughtry was the "real" 2009 Rookie of the Year. Of course, that's behind us, but the race for best second-year player may be even more interesting as Bonner has reportedly made great strides to develop her game in the off-season and some personnel changes for the Mercury.
"DeWanna Bonner will get a chance to have more minutes," said Ann Meyers-Drysdale in an email to Swish Appeal just before the season. "She played a lot of guard overseas, which is her natural position. Last season as a rookie she played a #4 position with her back to the basket. Now that we have Candice Dupree playing that spot, we can move Bonner out to the wing more."
It will be an interesting transition for Bonner who could very well be a nightmare defender on the wing as much as an offensive contributor. Within the Rover defense, having a front line of Bonner, Dupree, and center Tangela Smith is arguably more imposing than what they presented in 2009. Although Meyers-Drysdale points to an opportunity for increased minutes, what makes Bonner's second year more interesting is the potential for a changed role on the floor. And while the transition for power forward to small forward is one of the more difficult ones in basketball, Bonner's off-season work should make it easier.
- This is not to dismiss either Angel McCoughtry or Renee Montgomery, both of whom stand to increase their numbers. However, moving from reserve to full-time starter makes an increase in numbers somewhat obvious.
- Tulsa Shock guard Shavonte Zellous is another obviously interesting player to watch as coach Nolan Richardson's helter skelter game would seem to benefit someone with Zellous' athleticism.
- Briann January is another player to keep an eye on, not only for her development as an offensive floor leader, but also a defensive player at the pro level. Unfortunately, her second year has already started much the way her rookie year did: she was already demoted to the bench after an 0-8 season opener in a loss to the Mystics.