My friend's maxim that all you have to do to get selected high in the WNBA Draft is perform well in the NCAA Tournament may never be truer than this year's draft.
Thankfully, Gonzaga Bulldogs point guard Courtney Vandersloot might be the biggest beneficiary of that arbitrary standard.
Of course, in Vandersloot's case it wasn't exactly a secret. Perhaps people dismissed Gonzaga Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves' comment about Vandersloot prior to their second round meeting with Texas A&M in Seattle during last year's NCAA Tournament. With all that extended media interaction during NCAA tournament time, coaches are bound to venture into the world of hyperbole when talking about their players, perhaps even moreso if they're a mid-major program that is looking for an opportunity to plug their program on the big stage.
"If there's a finer point guard in the country, I don't know her," said Graves last season. "I think with someone like Courtney, she's a step ahead of the play. She's a step ahead of me most of the time, if you want to know the truth. She sees things that I can't see. She's certainly a special one."
But the fact remains that she was the nation's best point guard before the season, by mid-season, and entering the tournament - the tournament was only an opportunity to reinforce what should have been a given. And Vandersloot was absolutely sensational in her final game in Spokane against the top-seeded Stanford Cardinal in the Elite Eight,
Perhaps the one major pre-season question about Vandersloot is whether she could maintain scoring efficiency while assuming a larger responsibility for the team's scoring load. Part of that, one might have assumed, was staying in attack mode as a scorer while also being the outstanding distributor that she is.
Those questions were answered resoundingly during the course of this season and the tournament was like one big showcase for those who weren't aware of how good she was. In fact, the loss against Stanford was actually a rather routine outing for her.
Against Stanford, Vandersloot used 28.30% of her team's possessions which is just above her 26.79% rate for the season. She had a strong true shooting of 60.56% - including 3-for-5 shooting from 3-point land - and a free throw rate of 33.33%, both of which were close to her scoring efficiency levels for the season (her pre-tournament true shooting percentage was 56.80%, while her free throw rate was 32.02%). But naturally, with her assuming responsibility for 70% of the team's statistical production (45% above normal), her assist ratio was 5% lower than the norm at 29.37%. No problem: committing only one turnover in 38 minutes of play against Stanford's suffocating zone defense was good for a pure point rating of 12.82. As astounding as that number is, it was only marginally above her season pure point rating of 11.63.
In short, most video game player creators wouldn't even allow you to make a player that efficient - to lead a team in scoring and assists for a night is one thing. To do both extremely efficiently is another. To do it for an entire season at about that same level is almost mind boggling.
Yet just a few weeks ago, the very same people who are currently saying Vandersloot is the unquestionably the best point guard in the nation now were pointing to other talented point guards as the best in the country. There have been entire articles written to that effect as well as awards given out that might suggest the same thing. The questions among fans about Vandersloot ranged from Gonzaga's strength of schedule to Vandersloot's physical strength.
But after a Sweet Sixteen full of WNBA draft-eligible senior point guard, people might not be so quick to ask those questions.
And to be totally clear, I love watching Oklahoma Sooners point guard Danielle Robinson play; Stanford Cardinal point guard Jeannette Pohlen has an argument for "most improved point guard of the year" (if there was such an award); North Carolina's point guard tandem is really fun to watch; there are few players quicker than Duke Blue Devils point guard Jasmine Thomas; DePaul Blue Demon's point guard Sam Quigley helps run one of the most disciplined offenses in the nation; and you have to appreciate Texas A&M point guard Sydney Colson's defensive toughness.
Nevertheless, Vandersloot definitely shined the brightest throughout the NCAA Tournament, which should have put any questions about who the best college point guard in the nation is to rest. However, as history has proven in multiple sports, being a good amateur and a good pro are two separate things entirely. And the number of senior point guards in the Sweet Sixteen alone should confirm what we said at the beginning of the season: this is going to be a deep draft for point guards.
So that begs the question: Just how good a point guard prospect is Vandersloot?
My friend's draft-mocking maxim is thus not so much about whether the tournament is valuable or not, but how arbitrary it is to judge all of player's potential on 2-6 games - they've had an entire career. That they got hot for a few games is not that big a deal. The key - particularly with point guards - is watching them over time and getting a feel for their entire game under different circumstances, whether that be a sub-par opponent who they've played 8 times in their career or the best team in the nation.
Given that most of us have not had the luxury of watching all of these point guards consistently, last week's framework for ranking WNBA point guards actually helps provide insight into these point guard prospects' statistical potential in terms of strengths and weakness - as difficult as it can be to make arguments about who the best point guard is based on statistics, point guard statistics are actually quite effective at projecting a point guard's potential.
As a caveat: obviously, when you're dealing with any point guard - from Vandersloot to some point guard with an assist to turnover ratio under 1 - there are intangibles about their college game that can't be measured and about their pro potential that can't be predicted. So the goal here is not to project how good a player will be or even definitively claim that one point guard is better than another. Instead, well-contextualized point guard statistics can go a long way to separating efficient WNBA distributors and scoring guards with ball handling ability.
After the 2009 draft, I looked at the (available) college senior statistics of 38 distributors in the WNBA and the results were pretty clear and pretty simple in terms of separating distributors (in the top 15% of league players in SPI perimeter tendencies with high assist ratios and pure point ratings) from scoring guards:
- First, WNBA distributors had college senior pure point ratings of above 2.5, with the exception of those who were responsible for a heavy scoring load (e.g. Shannon Johnson and Lindsay Whalen) or suffered an injury prior to senior year (Loree Moore).
- Second, WNBA distributors had college assist ratios of above 23%. Those who enter the league with lower assist ratios almost uniformly continue to exhibit a higher focus on scoring.
So for example, when Leilani Mitchell was drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft, most people would not have thought that she would emerge as not only a starting point guard but among the top half of starters in the league as she did this past season. Similarly, most people would not have thought Shalee Lehning would even make a roster, much less earn consideration for a starting job and become among the most efficient distributors in the league.
But for whatever flaws you might still want to point out in their games, both have succeeded and both had the college numbers that indicated success as WNBA distributors.
So let's take a look at the numbers for some of this year's top seniors, using similar numbers to those used previously for WNBA point guards - since I am not aware of where women's college plus/minus numbers are available, I'm substituting that for MEV% or percent valuable contributions. The reason this is a pretty strong substitution is that it tells us how much these players were contributing to their teams in addition to being efficient (e.g. Vandersloot accounting for 70% of her team's production against Stanford). It's not to "punish" players on deep, good teams but to reward those who assume a huge leadership responsibility.
- Kayla Pedersen??? She is there strictly to catch the eye of people who are inherently skeptical of statistics because they somehow believe that they can catch everything with the naked eye. Statistics are one piece of an equation that are helpful to historicize for draft purposes. They are not the final word. Nobody who has seen the 6-foot-4 Pedersen play would suggest that you should draft her as a point guard over Robinson or Thomas - she doesn't play point guard, she's not guarded by or largely responsible for players with point guard quickness, and as efficient as she is with the ball she's not the ball handler of most of the players on this list. So yes: a) stats are imperfect and b) sometimes misleading and c) context matters. We acknowledge these things and complement numbers with observation.
Angel Robinson deserves more attention: Robinson might not end up being a standout WNBA distributor based upon these numbers, but she is quite clearly a more efficient distributor than more than one of the point guards who gets more attention than her. 5'8" is obviously not huge, but she's got a strong build and she should be in this conversation about top point guards.
- Is Danielle Robinson not a bad college point guard? Good luck trying to convince anyone of that. The thing to note about Robinson is simple: she was individually responsible for more of her team's statistical production than any player on this list and was still a relatively efficient scoring guard. What her low assist ratio might show is that she leans more toward a scoring guard than distributor in the WNBA.
- What of Dawn Evans and Jasmine Thomas? It should come as no surprise that three of the four lowest assist ratios on this list (Evans, Robinson, Thomas) also had the three highest usage percentages (34.91%, 28.96%, and 27.58%, respectively). While Robinson has the size to easily transition into a WNBA backcourt, the question for Evans and Thomas is whether their size will prevent them from being efficient scoring guards in the WNBA.
- What about Italee Lucas? Lucas had an assist ratio of 12.74% and a pure point rating of -4.11. She's an efficient scorer, but has not been so efficient as a passer this season.
So with that as a primer, a look at the graph of NCAA guards similar to the one used for WNBA players.
The one significant difference between this and the WNBA graph is that the axes intersect at 2.50 on the pure point rating axis to represent that threshold for WNBA distributors and 1.97 on the Chaiken efficiency axis (pts/empty possession) to represent the average of the 38 guards playing in the 2008 season (meaning the 2009 and 2010 draft classes were not included).
Consider this a way to visualize that threshold.
What the UALR? Those beige and light green bubbles in the lower right quadrant are Asriel Rolfe and Shanika Butler, respectively. I saw UALR play twice in person at the Seattle University Thanksgiving Tournament and Rolfe stood out defensively at the time while Butler's vocal leadership and poise was impressive. The reason Rolfe did not make my last list of draft updates is that her 2-point percentage and free throw rate were rather low. But that both her and Butler are among the most efficient point guards is surprising, especially because Butler has skyrocketed since that time. That they have exactly the same number of turnovers and are within six assists of each other almost seems like they planned it that way. Again, size might limit their defensive impact on the next level, but they're very efficient college distributors.
Bear in mind that PPR is not inflated by pace - it's a ratio of how well a player balances assists and turnovers per minute. So yes, they play fast, but they're playing efficiently at a high speed which is actually encouraging.
- Is Sydney Colson that good? As alluded to earlier today, Colson (lower right quadrant, blue) is definitely among the best perimeter defenders in the country but she's also among the most efficient point guards in the nation. While comparing her to Danielle Robinson is clearly difficult because they're different, she has a strong claim as best Big XII point guard. Where she compares unfavorably to the rest of this group is that she's the second-least efficient scorer. But with the highest assist ratio on this list it's not impossible to imagine her getting drafted - making a roster might just be tough as not many players with a similar profile have (Nikki Blue and Loree Moore are the closest comparisons).
- Can Cetera DeGraffenreid make it at 5'6"? DeGraffenreid (lower right quadrant, blue/white) is extremely quick, without doubt among the quickest in this field. In fact, there really isn't a comparable point guard in the league right now - Temeka Johnson is close, but she was a much more efficient ball handler (7.59 PPR). DeGraffenreid's biggest questionmark might be her low usage percentage of 13.60% - it might be reasonable to wonder if her shooting efficiency would go down further if taking more shots. Then again, knowing when to shoot and when to pass is an important skill as well. It's just that players like Shalee Lehning and Leilani Mitchell did so a bit better, which leaves a question.
- Who's the big light blue globe in the middle? Oregon Ducks junior point guard Nia Jackson, possibly one of the most underrated point guards in the nation right now, definitely the most improved in the Pac-10 before suffering an injury, and likely the heir to the West Coast point guard throne with Pohlen and Vandersloot graduating. Click here for more on Jackson.
Who's the big globe all by itself to the far right of the upper right quadrant? In addition to rescaling the center of this graph, I had to extend it: the 10 PPR maximum on the WNBA graph left Vandersloot's PPR of 11.63 out of sight. And really, that will stand as the most fitting way (today) to describe Vandersloot. There is not currently a point guard in the league that has put up college senior numbers like Vandersloot. Brian Agler compared her to Sue Bird, Ticha Penicheiro is another solid comparison, and John Stockton said she has the savvy of Wayne Gretzky, but there isn't really a strong direct comparison - she is off in her own realm of point guard play and it's really difficult to read these numbers and make any sort of sane assessment of how good she'll be.
These are not just numbers inflated by the pace of Gonzaga's style of play - these are efficiency numbers within this fast paced style of play. When you look at the efficiency numbers of guards playing in similarly fast systems, what Vandersloot has done is quite remarkable. Since I have completely run out of things to say about her, I wondered something rather silly: how efficient would she have been if she paired her 10 assists per game with an extremely sloppy 20% turnover ratio, more than double her season average of 3.1 turnovers per game? Vandersloot still would have had an assist ratio of 30.74% (almost tied with Rolfe for fifth on this list) and a PPR 2.13. That really means nothing, except to say that she's been so good that she could afford to be extremely sloppy with the ball and still be average.
Oh and these are Vandersloot's pre-tournament numbers. Perhaps, you can imagine what the tournament numbers were.
What about the rest? There were enough point guard prospects in the draft that we have deemed this point guard week. A capsule for Vandersloot with interviews from Graves was published yesterday and more will be up daily before we move on to the other positions.