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WNBA Draft 2011 Analysis Part II: How Four Teams Looked To Fill Needs

I try not to talk about drafts in terms of winners and losers - by the sensationalistic standards on which most people judge draft prospects, the Washington Wizards might have gotten an A+ for selecting a Kevin Garnett/Chris Webber hybrid superstar to lead their franchise into the future with the first overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft.

Nevertheless, as I looked over this year's WNBA Draft, I just couldn't help but acknowledge one clear winner: Angie Bjorklund.

There wasn't exactly complete agreement among Swish Appeal writers about how strong a prospect Bjorklund was entering the draft, but one thing nobody could dispute is that she had a chance to make it as a spot up shooter as a 6'0" wing with a 45.3% senior year 3-point percentage (not to mention a 41.3% career 3-point percentage playing for the Tennessee Lady Vos).

So that the Chicago Sky drafted her with the 17th pick (5th pick, second round) just seems to be a perfect match.

The Chicago Sky's draft should give Sylvia Fowles some room to operate. (Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media)

Although many analysts assumed the Sky needed to go big for a complement to center Sylvia Fowles, the Sky used two of their first three picks in the draft on perimeter players in Bjorklund and point guard Courtney Vandersloot (3rd overall). And based upon what actually made them successful last year, that makes quite a bit of sense.

It should definitely not come as a surprise that Fowles was considerably more efficient in wins (64.6%) than losses (53.7%). So it's probably not much of a surprise that all four of the Sky's best 3-point shooters - Shameka Christon, Jia Perkins, Erin Thorn and (to a lesser extent) Epiphanny Prince - shot significantly better from beyond the arc in the Sky's wins. As evidenced by the patterns in their two major win streaks last season, that was more than merely coincidence.

Early Season MVP Watch: How Fowles is "undeniably making her presence felt" - Swish Appeal
...the most dramatic improvement has been the team's three point shooting: the team shot 29.3% on 58 attempts in the first four games and in the last four they have shot 42.9% on 70 attempts. Multiple players have stepped up to make that happen, but the biggest contributor has been Erin Thorn: she shot 2-6 in the first four games and 7-16 in the last four in about the same number of minutes on average.

Basketball common sense says that the result of better 3-point shooting is that it has spread the court for Fowles to operate in the paint. Although that has not translated into more shots or an increased usage rate for Fowles over the past four games, it has resulted in 11 more free throw attempts.

Two things happened when the Sky were at their best last season: their guards decreased the rate at which they turned the ball over while their 3-point shooters got hot. With their draft, they essentially reinforced those two areas: Vandersloot adds a historically efficient college point guard to their rotation while Bjorklund (and to a lesser extent Amy Jaeschke) add 3-point shooting.

With Fowles as the Sky's only true interior player, the notion that they should prioritize interior needs over perimeter needs certainly made sense. However, the decision to bolster what made them successful last season given Thorn's free agent status illustrates another way of thinking about team needs in a sport as fluid as women's basketball.

How might we define team needs?

  • The most obvious way to define a team need is positional, in terms of needing a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. However, a significant difference between the NBA and WNBA is that skills are more evenly distributed across positions (e.g. guards rebounding, forwards with strong mid-range games, and centers who can step out and play the perimeter on both ends) placing a premium on skill over pure athleticism and power.
  • So with five players with more evenly distributed skills on the court to begin with, a team could also define needs functionally in terms of either adding to a strength or improving a weakness (e.g. distributors on the wing, rebounders on the interior, or players capable of creating scoring opportunities more efficiently). In the Sky's case described above, complementing Sylvia Fowles might include both finding more interior defenders or adding perimeter shooters to spread the defense. In the case of a team like the Silver Stars, having a taller defensive guard to complement Becky Hammon might have been more precise than simply looking at their roster and counting players at each position. These would be the types of individual playing styles described by
  • Those functional needs might be defined by a team's chosen style of play. In the Sky's case, their style of play offensively revolves around Fowles and with that surrounding her with four shooters in halfcourt sets would make quite a bit of sense. In other situations, Tulsa Shock coach Nolan Richardson favors an uptempo game and might want strong defensive rebounders to trigger breaks (Liz Cambage), distributors to efficiently get the ball into the hands of scorers on the fly (Kayla Pedersen), and athletic scorers who can finish at that pace (Italee Lucas, Chastity Reed).
  • A similar yet distinct way of looking at needs might also be statistical. Dean Oliver's Four Factors of Basketball Success do a pretty good job of describing a team's statistical strengths and weaknesses, which actually describe why teams win and lose quite well. Although those statistical factors can be determined by positions, player tendencies, or style of play, there are times when the weaknesses are not immediately obvious just by scanning the roster (a big team with poor rebounders can have a negative offensive rebounding differential, a team with a bunch of scorers but poor defenders could have a negative shooting efficiency differential, etc).

Of course, these four "types" are often nicely aligned with one another. However, it's easy to imagine a team with competing needs that don't point to a single player or so many needs that multiple players could be justifiable "correctives".

There are plenty of times when teams will opt to draft for any one of these types of needs instead of selecting the best player available (for example, my beloved Golden State Warriors have selected Todd Fuller, Adonal Foyle, Ike Diogu, and Patrick O'Bryant over Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Danny Granger, and Rajon Rondo in their never-ending quest for a big man and I'm not bitter about any of that sordid draft history one bit. Really. I'm totally at peace with it. I swear, primarily because I didn't even mention their worst draft mistake of all-time.). But as tantalizing as taking the best player available might be, an equally strong argument could be made for drafting based on goodness of fit even at the risk of passing on a future superstar - chemistry has overcome talent more than once in the basketball universe.

So with DishNSwish having already done an overview of how well teams are putting pieces together after the draft and yesterday's analysis of which teams got the best draft value, today we take a look at which teams best filled needs in the draft independent of concerns about value. How well teams filled needs will be difficult to determine until these rookies hit the floor, but for now four teams seemed to stand out as more clearly attempting to address needs than others.

(In alphabetical order)

Chicago Sky

Positional needs: Power forward/center

Functional needs: Distributors, any interior-oriented players - Fowles is the only one under contract

Statistical needs: scoring efficiency (-1.43% eFG%), offensive rebounding (-1.83%)

Needs possibly filled through the draft: Vandersloot, G (distributor), Bjorklund, G (scoring efficiency), Jaeschke/Carolyn Swords, C (interior)

Although the Sky's negative offensive offensive rebounding percentage can definitely be attributed to their lacking interior presence - and a more dire need with those on the roster last year not under contract - the patterns from their best performances suggested that ball movement and perimeter play were equally important to their scoring efficiency. So while there is certainly room for debate about whether Bjorklund was the best pick available at #17 - particularly with other interior players still on the board - that they were able to pick up two centers in this draft is not bad considering the talent available.

Swords is a highly efficient post player and Jaeschke has college 3-point range, which suggests at least a mid-range threat to complement Fowles in the post in addition to her shot blocking ability. Obviously, there are questions about how effective these players will become as pros, but on paper, they did a solid job of addressing needs.

Indiana Fever

Position needs: True point guard

Functional needs: Distributor

Statistical needs: offensive rebounding (-0.86%)

Needs filled through the draft: Jeanette Pohlen, G (backcourt help)

Perhaps it's clear where the Fever were going with their first round selection of Pohlen as she was a heady distributor by college standards. However, given that people have also suggested that Pohlen might be more successful as a pro shooting guard, perhaps this pick isn't an exact fit for their needs. especially as a team that could have used some help on the defensive boards with a few prospects still available at that point.

Los Angeles Sparks

Position needs: Center

Functional needs: Interior/Perimeter scoring (3-point shooting)

Statistical needs: offensive rebounding (-7.58%), scoring efficiency (-0.18%)

Needs filled through the draft: Jantel Lavender, C (interior scoring, rebounding)

It remains to be seen whether the Sparks took the right center: Ta'Shia Phillips could have helped considerably with their rebounding differential whereas Lavender adds a much-needed interior presence at center. However, what's deceiving about the Sparks' statistical profile is that Candace Parker will go a long way to improving upon last year's weaknesses as will their numerous off-season signings. So the need for an interior scorer at center might end up making more sense as a complement to Parker might make more sense.

New York Liberty

Position needs: Point guard, power forward/center

Functional needs: distributor, interior-oriented post

Statistical needs: offensive rebounding (-1.23%),

Needs filled through the draft: Alex Montgomery, G/F (defense), Jessica Breland via trade, PF (rebounding), Sydney Colson (distributor, defense)

Was Montomery a bit of a reach in that most people didn't consider her a first round pick? Possibly. But given that they got Breland, who was considered a first round pick, that worked itself out quite well - Montgomery is a solid fit for new coach John Whisenant's and along with Colson gives the Liberty a strong pair of perimeter defenders. Perhaps less important as a team that has Cappie Pondexter and Leilani Mitchell, one of the most efficient pure distributors in the league last season, Colson was also the second-most efficient distributor in the draft behind Vandersloot. Based on who the Liberty have coming back, at least one of these three won't be with the team and with a rumored free agent signing, that could drop to one.