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2011 WNBA Draft: How Should We Evaluate The Draft Stock Of "Glue Players" Like Melissa Jones?

Baylor's Melissa Jones makes the highlights at the 0:43 second mark (via Baylor Athletics).

When Baylor Lady Bears guard Melissa Jones' optic nerve injury was announced, there was legitimate concern about whether she'd return to the court at all.

So while her return to the court against her home fans in Colorado was not necessarily extraordinary since it was never clear how long it would take for her to recover, it's definitely noteworthy and somewhat inspiring that she returned to the court in circumstances that perhaps the average person - more risk averse person - would avoid.

And although she didn't make a huge impact on the boxscore, that her one highlight in the video above was a great look to a cutting Brooklyn Pope on an inbounds play shows that her vision is no obstacle to her doing the little things she does so well even if her still-recovering vision prevents her from putting up gaudy numbers.

No. 3 WBB Secures Historic 15th Big 12 Win - Baylor Bears Official Athletic Site -
"That's the big thing about basketball: obviously, you have to score more points than the opponent, but not everybody has to score," Jones said. "There's so much more you can do in a game, whether it's blocking somebody out or rebounding. All the little things around the play, that's what I was trying to do."

Jones is not necessarily the superstar player who always seems to be in the middle of her team's positive plays, but she is the type of player that consistently does whatever it takes to make sure that the little things are taken care of so that her teammates can make the big plays.

And Jones' point after her performance in Saturday's Colorado game actually echoes a point that ESPN's Mechelle Voepel made after her rather modest statistical performance against Texas A&M.

Baylor Lady Bears, Brittney Griner deny Texas A&M Aggies' upset bid - ESPN
But if someone wanted to make a training video of what it looks like to flat-out bust your tail every second you're on the floor, they need to put an iso cam on Jones. Her six points and nine rebounds Monday were not all of her story; the stats never are with Jones. It was also how she clearly kept showing her teammates with her actions: "Uh, guys, remember who we are and how we got here."

Put simply, as Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said during her emotional press conference about Jones' injury, Jones is that "glue player" that almost every basketball team searches for to help them achieve success. To fully understand Jones' talent you almost have to watch her play and even once you do and think she's had an impressive game, the boxscore can certainly leave you second-guessing yourself.

However, perhaps what makes Jones unique as a glue player is that in fact she does manage to accumulate numbers even if they're not the type that catch the eye of the casual fan. As of the TAMU game, Jones had actually made the second-most significant contribution to her team's overall statistical production behind superstar Brittney Griner. Of course, one might immediately argue that second most to Griner could be insignificant as the 6'8" shot blocker was responsible for a rather hefty 25% of the team's overall production at that time.

Yet upon a closer look that's not necessarily the case and although it may be awkward to look at Jones' talent through the lens of the WNBA just after returning from an injury that briefly seemed to put her career on hold, how we think of draft prospects is actually an interesting way to look at how we think about "talent".

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Sometimes in our excitement over the players that immediately stand out to us or build reputations by playing for major programs that make deep tournament runs, we forget to account for players that have demonstrated the ability to contribute at the next level in much more subtle ways.

Statistics certainly don't tell the full story of a draft prospect and particularly not in the WNBA, but they do two things extremely well: a) establish thresholds that help us sort out prospects from long shots by position and b) help to compare current players to similar players of the past (even though that WNBA history is short and the game has changed dramatically). Statistical projections can still be tough, but the numbers can definitely serve as a filter for who deserves consideration.

So having done this last year for the draft as well as looking at rookie statistics quite a bit, here are a few ways to go about that sorting process:

Rookie Rankings: A Resolution for the ROY Debate - Swish Appeal

The best rookies can create their own scoring opportunities – and do so efficiently – while contributing to a team’s success.

As such, I’ve used a combination of three statistics –

  • usage rate (the rate at which a player creates plays for themselves),
  • Chaiken efficiency ratio [points per empty possession] (the ratio of scoring plays a player is individually responsible for vs. turnovers and missed shots),
  • and Boxscores (a player’s individual to team wins).

And how does a player contribute to team wins (as described by Boxscores) in the WNBA? Two point percentage, free throws produced, and assists, as described here, are particularly valuable to separating starters from non-starters so we can generally assume (with exceptions) that players who don't do those things well in college aren't going .  Because turnovers hurt a team - particularly from guards - I like to looked assist ratios and pure point ratings.

So on the night of after Baylor's win against TAMU, I somewhat randomly decided to compare two players using these numbers: Player A and Player B are both WNBA draft-eligible seniors who are about the same height and play the wing for their respective teams. One of them has been far more highly touted since high school and is among the players I'd heard about from fans and media before even paying close attention to women's college basketball.

The following table shows that statistical comparison from February 14, with their Big Three Basic stats and the advanced ones above:

Player PPG RPG APG Usg% Pts/empty 2 pt% TS% FTP Ast Ratio PPR
Player A 9.5 6.8 3.8 13.07% 2.35 60.86% 66.60% 37.06% 31.59% 4.64
Player B 11 3.1 2.4 17.36% 2.39 47.94% 56.72% 6.9% 17.06% -0.10

Stats as of 2/14/11. All numbers explained here or in the Swish Appeal Statistics Glossary.

So what do these numbers tell you?

I probably need not explain that Player A looks far more impressive even before you get past that second column, but that doesn't mean she's an inherently better prospect either

Player A is Melissa Jones.
(Note: Jones played only three more games after this before sitting out the Missouri game due to injury and then clearly playing impaired against Colorado).

You'll notice by their points per empty possession ratings that both of these players generally make good scoring decisions, but Jones is quite clearly the more efficient scorer - she has an outstanding two point percentage and very strong free throws produced (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts). Her assist ratio is in the elite point guard range and at that time Jones was by far the most efficient ball handler in Baylor's rotation.

The problem is that Jones' usage percentage rates her just above what Ken Pomeroy labels as "nearly invisible" on the floor - in other words, although she's extremely efficient, she's also not taking a lot of risks on the floor by creating a whole lot of scoring opportunities for herself. While we can speak highly of that at the college level, as a draft prospect it doesn't bode well - if you can't create scoring opportunities and you're not necessarily a point guard who's going to run the offense or a post player that's going to focus primarily on rebounding, then how can we expect you to be effective against more athletic pro competition?

Of course, there's one really easy explanation for this that is in fact borne out in her passing numbers: if you have Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims on your team - not to mention Destiny Williams - why would you look for your own shot first? Facilitating scoring opportunities for others while shooting 38.7% from the three point line is actually probably the most effective leadership role one can fill on a team with a dominant post player and dynamic perimeter players.

Jones' numbers not only define a "glue player", but also an extremely productive one.

Player B is Tennesse Lady Vols wing Angie Bjorklund.

This is not to diminish Bjorklund's value as a player at all - she quite clearly projects as a long-range specialist with a 45.3% three point percentage in 27 games this year (although the numbers in the table above are only from her 21 starts before her injury). She has a great sense of spacing and can get her shot off relatively well. Defensively, she is the type of player who will make good decisions within a team concept. Her scoring is down this year, but yours would be too if you were playing with a player like freshman gunner Meighan Simmons who used up a team-high 30% of the possessions during Bjorklund's 21 starts.

However, outside of that, her numbers speak to that of a jump shooter - although she shoots nearly 80% from the free throw line, she doesn't get to the line often and is almost as strong a three point shooter as two point shooter meaning that ultimately, she's primarily a spot up or jump shooting player. Although it's been noted that she's not a mistake-prone ball handler, she's not exactly an efficient playmaker statistically from the wing either.

What she's done on the court aside, David Hooper of Rocky Top Talk has made the point that her absence might actually have helped her case for the draft: the Lady Vols' offense was erratic with her out of the lineup and since her return - whether it be to the natural process of peaking or competition - they've been much better. In a way what she brings is actually intangible: spreading the floor as a three point threat, leadership, and a steadying force as a ball handler if not the type to rack up the assists.

So what do we conclude from this comparison?

Again, the point is not to say Bjorklund is a bad player - Lady Vols fans would aim their Death Star in my direction and handle me the way they did Alderaan if I said that. The point is that Bjorklund has been talked about as a draft prospect for some time while Jones hasn't been but if her general health/vision allows it, Jones has probably earned more of a mention than she's gotten thus far. She's not quite as dangerous a shooter as Bjorklund, but can do a number of other things well even if she doesn't stand out by using a lot of possessions to do it.

That said, there's certainly a strong argument that a college "glue player" will be a pro bench warmer - that's certainly a fair argument and nobody will tell you that Jones is going to be an instant star.

But should Jones get more consideration next to the other wing prospects? Absolutely - it's fair to say that she and Bjorklund could probably be considered as players with similar value, regardless of where you think they should go in the draft (or if either will be productive).

And that's saying quite a bit about Jones' value to Baylor in their upcoming tournament run.

For details on the 2011 WNBA Draft, click here.