One thing that has probably been evident even before the 2011 WNBA Draft is that this year's rookie class is probably going to end up being better than last year's.
With five 2010 first round draft picks no longer on WNBA rosters by opening day this season, that's not exactly difficult to establish.
But who's the best rookie among that 2011 WNBA class?
That's considerably more difficult - although Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore is probably the early favorite for many people based on name recognition and talent alone, there are at least four players whose early performances demand attention if they didn't have it already.
However, with it being so early in the season it's rather difficult to put them in any sort of rank order. And with so few games played, a widely varying strength of schedule for some, and a number of rookies still trying to find themselves in the professional ranks, it's hard to count some people out just yet.
So with every team in action this weekend, here's an overview of some players to keep an eye on.
To identify the top rookies to watch, I used the same statistical rookie ranking framework that I've used in the past. The goal is to look at statistical indicators of future success rather than focusing exclusively on what they're doing in the present. In plain(er) language, the goal is not so much to identify the best rookies right now but which show the most potential for growth in the future.
As one might be able to guess with no team having played more than five games, there are still a number of players who fit the bill of having potential for growth.
So here's an alphabetical listing of seven players who are off to a better start than the rest of the pack.
Danielle Adams, F, 6'1", San Antonio Silver Stars
VCR: 1.15 | Strength: scoring efficiency, offensive rebounding | Growth area: defensive rebounding (?)
Wows: Adams dropped 32 points on the Atlanta Dream last week in extraordinary fashion, scoring in multiple ways from all over the court. She has the highest points per empty possession ratio among these rookies (3.21), the highest offensive rebounding percentage on the Silver Stars, and her passing ability shouldn't be overlooked.
Wonders: Adams has also put up big numbers against two opponents that have one win between them and were (obviously) struggling at the time they played the Silver Stars - the Tulsa Shock got off to a rocky start and the Atlanta Dream's interior defense had given up big games to opposing players in both games prior to going to San Antonio. So the only question right now might be whether she can keep up this pace over the course of the season against stronger competition.
Liz Cambage, C, 6'8", Tulsa Shock
Basic stats: 15.5 ppg, 7.75 rpg, 1.75 bpg
VCR: 1.62 | Strength: defensive rebounding, shot blocking, free throw production | Growth area: scoring efficiency
Wows: You figure a 6'8" player is going to rebound and block shots. But shooting 30-for-34 from the free throw line (free throws produced rate of 68.18) is something that basketball fans might not be so accustomed to. And it's not just that she's getting to the line from standing in the paint and waiting for people to smack her - her ability to get the ball from 10-12 feet out and drive to the basket to get herself to the line has been impressive and once she starts converting on more of the shots she takes, she'll be even more dangerous to opposing defenses. That she's arguably the team's MVP right now should make her a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.
Wonders: Cambage could definitely stand to get better on the offensive boards, but more importantly, she simply needs to make a higher percentage of her shots - her 1.85 pts/empty possessions ratio is below average for a post player - and she turns the ball over more often that the Shock can afford. Out with a concussion for the Shock's last game against Indiana, it also became more apparent that the team is still going through a process of trying to figure out how to play with a 6'8" post presence.
Danielle McCray, Wing, 5'11", Connecticut Sun
Basic stats: 6.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg
VCR 1.30 | Strength: 3-point percentage, rebounding | Growth area: 2-point percentage, turnover percentage
Wows: Drafted in 2010 while nursing an injury, McCray has started her career hot from beyond the arc, shooting 55.6% and having a team-high true shooting percentage of 73.75%. Yet perhaps more impressive is her rebounding as a perimeter player with a 24.29% defensive rebounding percentage, which is well above average for her position.
Wonders: Although McCray's assist ratio of 22.37% is impressive, her turnover ratio of 15.09% is higher than you might like. But the main thing is her shooting other than the 3-point line - in her limited minutes, she's only 1-for-3 in 2-point range and has a rather low free throw rate of just under 17%. Her VCR suggests that she's the type of player who could produce more with greater minutes, but the turnovers will likely have to fall to make that happen.
Maya Moore, F, 6'0", Minnesota Lynx
Basic stats: 14.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.3 apg
VCR 1.15 | Strength: scoring, defensive rebounding | Growth area: free throw rate, offensive rebounding
Wows: The athleticism and beautiful jumper that Moore showed in college is still with her in the pros and she's used it effectively by finding spaces in the defense where Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen can set her up for scoring opportunities. She's a solid passer but her defensive rebounding for her position stands out as the next biggest asset she's bringing the Lynx.
Wonders: Does it matter that she doesn't get to the free throw line more often? Given how the Lynx play, it's not surprising that she doesn't, but getting to the rim more often certainly wouldn't hurt, as maybe hitting the offensive glass more often wouldn't either.
Kayla Pedersen, F, 6'4", Tulsa Shock
Basic stats: 10.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.2 spg
VCR 1.17 | Strengths: strong 2-point% | Growth area: 3-point shooting
Wows: Anybody that knows anything about basketball and watches Pedersen play knows that what she brings the team doesn't always show up statistically - it's a little bit of everything. Playing in the high post, facilitating the offense from the top of the key, scoring inside, and even just making the right pass at the right time. She is definitely among the better position defenders on the Shock. The two things that do stand out statistically are that she has a strong VCR despite being a less-than-efficient scorer for her position and her 2-point percentage of 51.61%.
Wonders: With such a strong 2-point percentage, what makes Pedersen's scoring efficiency so low should be obvious - she's shooting 3-for-15 from 3-point land (20%). Otherwise, she does enough other things at or around average level that one might assume that she'll just get better with more experience.
Porsha Phillips, F, 6'2", San Antonio Silver Stars
Basic stats: 3.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg
VCR 1.17 | Strengths: defensive rebounding | Growth area: offensive production
Wows: Phillips has an outstanding value added rating of 4.81, which is the combined result of her 2 blocks per game and dominant defensive rebounding percentage that will certainly come down as she gets more minutes. The thing about Phillips is that she just doesn't do a lot wrong at this point to hurt her statistically.
Wonders: Offensively, Phillips hasn't produced much with a usage rate of 9.82% even if her scoring percentages are high. But right now, while Adams is being called the steal of the draft, Phillips might be the sleeper.
Courtney Vandersloot, PG, 5'8", Chicago Sky
Basic stats: 10.7 ppg, 5.3 apg
VCR 1.15 | Strengths: ball handing efficiency, scoring efficiency | Growth areas: rebounding
Wows: Given that Vandersloot is a player who has always been counted out, it's almost impossible to tell just how good she can become at this point. She can't possibly continue shooting 71.4% from the 3-point line at which point maybe she'll no longer lead the Sky in shooting efficiency at a true shooting percentage of 70.67%. Her pure point rating of 7.24 compares favorably to the likes of Sue Bird, Becky Hammon, or Lindsay Whalen. Right now, Vandersloot is already among the elite and that's not even accounting for the remarkable poise she's showing in running the offense as the Sky's starting point guard.
Wonders: Nobody ever expects a point guard to dominate the boards, but without an offensive rebound through three games, it's an area of improvement. The only other area she could clearly improve in is maybe her scoring aggression - her 14.65% usage rate is approaching the rate Ken Pomeroy calls "nearly invisible" and as well as she's shooting now, she could afford to look for her own shot more often.