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WNBA Rookie Rankings: The Top Ten After One Month

Tulsa Shock forward Kayla Pedersen has done a little bit of everything to help her rise to the top of the 2011 rookie class. <em>(Photo courtesy of Troy Littledeer.)</em>
Tulsa Shock forward Kayla Pedersen has done a little bit of everything to help her rise to the top of the 2011 rookie class. (Photo courtesy of Troy Littledeer.)

The Washington Mystics weren't the only team at the Verizon Center putting on a clinic for what not to do in a basketball game.

The Seattle Storm made their share of mistakes as well.

Early in the second quarter, Storm guard Tanisha Wright was attempting to advance the ball upcourt and tried to loft a pass over the Mystics defender a few feet in front of her. Rookie forward Victoria Dunlap leapt into the air from her defensive stance and didn't just deflect the pass, but got two hands on it and smacked it back toward Wright.

It didn't end up resulting in a steal for Dunlap and Wright gathered the ball that was thrown back in her face and went about her business getting the Storm into their offense. But that was the kind of havoc Dunlap wreaked on the Storm in her first start in place of injured Mystics center Crystal Langhorne.

Against a veteran Storm team, Dunlap was the player who stood out and just made plays to keep her team in the game. Whether it be picking up Wright for 3/4 court pressure, cutting to the basket to draw fouls and a free throw rate of 50%, or working against slower players in the post, Dunlap made her presence felt all over the court. She finished the game tied for a game-high 19 points, eight rebounds, three steals, and a block and accounted for 34.59% of her team's total statistical production.

Like many rookies, all a player like Dunlap needed was a chance.

Thus far in 2011, Dunlap is the perfect example of what makes evaluating the performance of rookies so tough.

As first year players trying to find a role on their team, it's hard for even the best of the best to put up consistent numbers. And ideally, they should be inconsistent - one would hope that a player just coming out of college would improve as the season progresses and they acclimate themselves to the league.

The part of the rookie ranking framework used for these rankings designed to account for that natural development is a player's valuable contributions ratio (VCR), essentially the percentage of a team's production that a player accounts for when on the floor. It's a pretty good estimate of not only how productive a player has been in their minutes played, but also how many productive minutes they could potentially play. That's what makes Dunlap such an intriguing player.

Dunlap had a VCR of 1.76 as of the last rookie rankings, has essentially maintained it, and then had an even better VCR of 2.09 against the Storm, a game-high. Dunlap has all the makings of a productive forward in the league and if she continues to get minutes after her outburst against the Storm, she could make the type of impression that will create a bit of a buzz come post-season awards time.

Dunlap is an example of both what opportunity can do for a player and how quickly things can change so early in the season - although 9 games is more than a quarter of the WNBA season, everything could change in another nine games as players continue to develop and become more comfortable with their roles.

The following are the numbers for the top rookies in the league as of today followed by explanations for the top 10:

Rank/Name VCR Usage rate TS% 2-point% Value Added Assist ratio
1. Kayla Pedersen 1.45 16.11% 59.11% 48.18% 1.78 20.81%
2. Danielle Adams 1.28 27.47% 60.19% 56.66% -2.86 5.09%
3. Liz Cambage 1.57 26.63% 56.32% 44.31% -2.28 3.39%
4. Maya Moore 1.00 22.64 50.56% 48.48% -2.00 14.67%
5. Courtney Vandersloot 0.91 15.87% 57.47% 57.14% 0.66 34.28%
6. Danielle Robinson 0.96 18.14% 56.07% 42.55% 1.85 34.84%
7. Victoria Dunlap 1.71 16.35% 53.87% 50% 2.93 15.96%
8. Jeanette Pohlen 0.77 10.76% 81.28% 60% -0.46 15.04%
9. Jenna O'Hea 0.72 14.58% 62.34% 27.27% -0.54 22.69%
10. Porsha Phillips 0.83 14.00% 41.09% 40.74% 1.86 8.28%
Fell out of top 10: VCR Usage rate TS% 2-point% Value Added Assist ratio
Danielle McCray 0.78 16.75% 52.40% 37.5% 0.15 17.60%
Jessica Breland 0.85 16.03% 41.13% 38.09% 0.48 13.85%
Karima Christmas 0.89 20.05 50.92% 50% -1.22 1.9%
Amber Harris 0.69 22.21% 40.89% 27.77% -0.67 7.24%
Carolyn Swords 0.87 19.87% 67.24% 60% -0.40 0%

Click here for an explanation of these numbers.

10. Porsha Phillips, 6'2", F, San Antonio Silver Stars

VCR: .83 | Strengths: rebounding, value added. | Growth area: scoring efficiency

Phillips has declined a bit since mid-June, but is still the Silver Stars' best defensive rebounder, which is huge on a team that struggles to rebound. And watching her play, she has all the tools to make an impact when she gets in the game without scoring, as shown by her value added rating.

But her scoring efficiency is very low for someone who spends so much time around the basket, which keeps her from being higher on this list. There are other players poised to move into her spot if her numbers don't come up, with other players possibly able to step up with more consistent minutes.

9. Jenna O'Hea, 6'1", Wing, Los Angeles Sparks

VCR: .729 | Strengths: three point shooting, passing | Growth area: 2-point percentage

O'Hea is currently functioning as a three point specialist for the Sparks, shooting 52.4% from three point land. The problem - and why she did not make the top 10 before - is that she's only shooting 27.27% from inside the arc and only has two free throw attempts. Those are not encouraging signs for a wing. But one thing that might bode well for O'Hea is her willingness to pass - her assist ratio of 22.69% is above average, which definitely makes her an asset for a team like the Sparks that clearly requires good spacing and ball movement to win games with star Candace Parker out.

8. Jeannette Pohlen, 6'0", SG, Indiana Fever

VCR: .771 | Strengths: scoring efficiency, three point shooting | Growth area: Impact beyond scoring

Pohlen shoots the three point shot better than O'Hea, coming in at 58.3% and is also able to hit shots inside the arc. The combination has contributed to a team-high 81.28% true shooting percentage, higher than any other player on this list. That's particularly impressive when considering the other players on this list make their living closer to the basket.

The problem is that Pohlen is a pure scorer with a low usage percentage (10.76%), meaning she isn't heavily relied upon as a scorer. That means her impact is somewhat limited to shooting threes. That could change though with point guard Briann January's season-ending injury - Pohlen might not have to run point more often, but may see more minutes and get more ball handling opportunities to get involved in the offense.

7. Victoria Dunlap, 6'1", F, Washington Mystics

VCR: 1.71 | Strengths: scoring efficiency, rebounding, passing, value added | Growth area: free throw shooting

Put simply, Dunlap does everything you'd want a power forward to traditionally do well, including getting to the free throw line at a rate of 47.82% (unfortunately, she only makes 45.5%). That's why she has the highest VCR of any rookie in the league and that's not just because of her big game against the Storm - it's easier to point out what she doesn't do well rather than listing all that she is doing well.

6. Danielle Robinson, 5'9", G, San Antonio Silver Stars

VCR: .966 | Strengths: distributing efficiency, free throw rate | Growth area: two point percentage

Robinson is only shooting 42.6% from the field and has yet to shoot a three, but her free throw production rate of 61.70% is the best in the league, which gives her a solid true shooting percentage of 56.07%. One could definitely argue that she'd be better if she could diversify her scoring game a bit, but right now the fact that she's found some she can do that well and does it so consistently is remarkable for a rookie.

But what makes Robinson by far the most surprising rookies is her efficiency as a distributor. Her pure point rating of 5.85 is second only to Lindsay Whalen, who is having a MVP-caliber year. Her assist ratio of 34.8% is behind only Shalee Lehning and Ticha Penicheiro, the two purest distributors in the WNBA over the last few years and yet because of her free throw shooting she's a more efficient scorer than either.

Similar to Pohlen - but maybe for different reasons - some people assumed that although her quickness and speed would make Robinson a solid pro, she might be better as an off-guard in the pros. She wasn't nearly as efficient as the other point guard prospects and beneath the pure point rating threshold of past successful prospects. So what happened? She was also the highest usage point guard prospect of any entering the league; the easy explanation is that without having to do the majority of her team's scoring, she's become a much more efficient ball handler.

5. Courtney Vandersloot, 5'8", PG, Chicago Sky

VCR: .91 | Strengths: distributing efficiency, scoring efficiency, free throw rate, plus/minus | Growth area: value added

Vandersloot's numbers have come back down to earth after a ridiculously hot start, with a pure point rating of 3.74, assist ratio of 34.2%, and a true shooting percentage of 57.47%. So why is she ahead of Danielle Robinson? You could definitely make an argument for either player in this fifth spot (which would be the final All-Rookie team slot), but I'm going with Vandersloot here for a number of reasons.

First, two point percentage means something, even for point guards that spend such a large percentage of their plays passing the ball - it's usually a good proxy for a versatile offensive game (ability to score near the rim, pull up jumpers, mid-range game). While Robinson does her scoring at the free throw line, Vandersloot has an above average free throw rate and a two point percentage of 57.14%, which is simply outstanding for a point guard and bodes well for her ability to continue being an efficient scorer during her career. That and the fact that she can hit the three make her a much more versatile offensive threat.

Second, the whole idea of these numbers is not to hold a player's role on their team against them. So simply saying that Robinson's a reserve and Vandersloot's a starter sounds a bit contradictory. However, it's worth noting that as a point guard starter on what is currently a playoff caliber team, Vandersloot has a lot more leadership responsibility than Robinson; just the fact that the Silver Stars have six players with point guard-level pure point ratings means that the responsibility for running the team is just different for Vandersloot.

Third, given that she's a starter as a rookie, the fact that she has the fourth-highest plus/minus in the league (+15.7) as the third-most valuable player on her team (13.05% of the team's overall statistical production) has to give her the edge over Robinson, if put in a position to choose.

4. Maya Moore, 6'0", F, Minnesota Lynx

VCR: 1.00 | Strength: creating scoring opportunities | Growth area: efficiency, free throw rate

Moore is a starter on one of the best teams in the league. She's shown the ability to create shots for herself as well as any rookie out there. She finds gaps in the defense to score better than many veterans. Her athleticism allows her to make plays defensively.

It was extremely difficult to come up with a justification to draft anyone but Moore first overall this year without risking missing out on one of the most talented prospects ever. She's going to be an All-Star starter. And that same popularity is what makes her a heavy favorite for Rookie of the Year.

However, someone asked the other day if it's fair to ask whether Moore or former UConn teammate Tina Charles will be the better pro. Although it's early in the careers of both, that is indeed a fair question - regardless of your answer - that would have sounded insane to most people even a few months ago.

The problem is that as of right now Moore is a pure scorer whose 50.56% true shooting percentage is average but hurt by her taking the 8th most three point attempts in the league (4.66 per game). Unlike the previous three players on the list, she doesn't get to the free throw line as often as any of the top 7 rookies. Her plus/minus of +3.5 is lower than five players on this list.

Nevertheless, while you could easily construct a statistical argument for why either of the two previous rookies should be ahead of Moore, the bottom line is that she still has immense talent and a bright future ahead.

It's just that there are three other rookies who are off to a better start right now and that's part of what makes following this group of rookies exciting - the best one could end up being Moore or a player nobody expected.

3. Liz Cambage, 6'8", C, Tulsa Shock

VCR: 1.57 | Strengths: Shot blocking, rebounding, free throw rate | Growth areas: 2-point percentage, turnover rate

Cambage's concussion has noticeably disrupted her rookie campaign in terms of missing a game, minutes, starts, and even getting to the free throw line a bit less than her season rate of 67.41%. Her size alone is a game-changer when the Shock play zone (and it's probably worth them doing so more often as the team giving up the most points per possession in the league), but she's also an excellent defensive rebounder (21.61%) and shot blocker (5th in the league).

But her size relative to her opponents is also why her 2-point percentage of 43.8% stands out as major area of improvement. That's not particularly strong for a WNBA post player and with her height advantage one might expect it to be a bit higher. Another area of improvement is her turnover ratio of 18.31%, which is high even for a post player. A lot of that can be explained by constant doubles and triples whenever she gets the ball, but it's something she'll have to get used to. In the meantime, her ability to get to the line so often helps boost her points per empty possession to a strong 2.03.

2. Danielle Adams, 6'1", F, San Antonio Silver Stars

VCR: 1.28 | Strengths: scoring efficiency, creating scoring opportunities, rebounding | Growth area: offensive rebounding

Like Moore, Adams is a pure scorer. But Adams is far more efficient while shooting more often (27.47% usage rate). She takes about the same number of threes as Moore (5/game) but makes nearly 15% more (37.8% 3 point percentage). She is also an inside-outside threat, with a 56.66% 2-point percentage and 35.23% free throw rate. She has great hands and while she isn't putting up a lot of assists, she makes decisions well enough not to turn the ball over either.

Adams is not only one of the most versatile rookies offensively; she's one of the most versatile offensive players in the league. And if you've watched the Silver Stars play, that boost she gives them off the bench is a large part of why her plus/minus is third in the league at +20.0.

Although she's one of the best offensive rebounders on a poor rebounding Silver Stars team, she could still improve there. But Adams has all the indicators of being more than just a flash-in-the-pan rookie who caught everyone off-guard because she was drafted in the second round.

1. Kayla Pedersen, F, 6'4", Tulsa Shock

VCR: 1.45 | Strengths: Post defense, passing, shooting efficiency, value added | Growth area: 2-point percentage

Every single player on this list does something better than Pedersen: defensively, passing, rebounding or shooting. So as usual, it's easy to overlook Kayla Pedersen, only made easier because she's playing on the team with the worst record in the league right now. But here's the thing about Pedersen: there isn't much she doesn't do.

She can shoot efficiently (59.11% true shooting percentage), pass (.51 pure point rating, 21.38% assist ratio), get to the free throw line (40.47% free throw rate), and rebounds well defensively (15.37% defensive rebounding percentage). She shoots 40% from the three point line. And her post defense might be what has been most impressive.

She is quite possibly one of the best post defenders in the league already just because she never seems to be out of position and doesn't give up much, particularly in a zone (which Tulsa should play more of). She does the little things that can prevent an offense from getting the shots they want, even if it's merely standing with her hands up.

Like Cambage, her two point percentage isn't outstanding but the same explanation of drawing so much attention in the paint could apply to Pedersen. It's hard to score as a rookie on a team that shoots so poorly (making her 59.11% true shooting percentage actually more impressive).

All of that is why Pedersen is her team's statistical MVP, accounting for 23.53% of the team's overall statistical production, more than any other rookie in the league. Her plus/minus of +14.9 is 6th in the league. Say what you want about the team's coaching, personnel carousel, strategy, or 1-9 record but Pedersen is proving that she's exactly what she was at Stanford: the ultimate teammate.

And unlike some of the other players on this list that landed with great fits, Pedersen has shown a skill-set that would allow her to thrive wherever she went.

Update: Danielle Adams wins WNBA Rookie of the Month

Related links:

2011 WNBA Rookie Ranking Preview: Seven Players To Keep An Eye On

Rookie ranking framework