Many rookies across professional sports hit the dreaded rookie wall sometime around mid-season.
Washington Huskies men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar has described the challenge for college freshmen as continuing to perform once the "scout catches up to you" - if you're talented, it's easy to perform when nobody knows what you're capable of but much harder to do so once the scouting report is out and everyone knows what you like (and don't like) to do.
It's no different this WNBA season as a number of the top rookies in the 2011 class have found that wall recently, throwing an interesting wrinkle into the rookie rankings: placing a bit of a premium on the ability to face the wall and either remain consistent or improve.
But that growth process is obviously made more difficult when a rookie suffers an injury.
Probably the most unfortunate story from this year's rookie class is the loss of San Antonio Silver Stars rookie Danielle Adams to injury after playing only 15 games. From a fan perspective, with Adams not expected to return until near the end of the regular season, she more than likely will not have enough games to qualify for the end of season award despite having an impressive early rookie campaign. But from her perspective, you hope that she not only recovers quickly but is able to continue showing the promise that she showed early this season.
Had Adams not suffered an injury, she'd be the statistical choice for top rookie right now. With the injury - and the assumption that she will not return to qualify for the post-season award - she'll be bumped down just below the top tier for now in favor of those still playing.
So that leaves an obvious question: who's number one?
In the same spirit as the first rookie rankings, the goal here is not just to look at where the player is right now but identify signs of growth.
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 would be positively 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.
In this case three things are at work then:
- Consistency since the first month of play is certainly a good thing.
- But some consideration also has to be given to players who have shown some improvement in similar minutes (again, VCR is a measure of production efficiency while on the floor so if a player's minutes drop, their VCR should be expected to improve).
- At the same time, a few players have suddenly gotten more playing time, which puts them on the map with essentially only a half-season of statistics. So they have to recognized somewhere, but won't be leap frogging too many people as of yet.
All of that left a pretty clear choice for #1 - the rookie of the month who has remained mostly consistent all season.
The following are the numbers for the top rookies in the league as of today followed by explanations for the top 10:
||VCR||Change||Usage rate||TS%||2-point%||Value Added||Assist ratio|
|1. Maya Moore (4)
|2. Danielle Robinson (6)
|3. Danielle Adams (2)
|4. Liz Cambage (3)
|5. Kayla Pedersen (1)
|6. Jenna O'Hea (9)
|7. Courtney Vandersloot (5)
|8. Jantel Lavender (N/A)
|9. Danielle McCray (N/A)
|10. Jeanette Pohlen (8)
|Fell out of top 10 (previous):||VCR||Change||Usage rate||TS%||2-point%||Value Added||Assist ratio|
|Victoria Dunlap (7)
|Porsha Phillips (10)
10. Jeanette Pohlen, G, Indiana Fever
What Pohlen does exceptionally well is minimize mistakes and take advantage of what the defense gives her depending on what her team needs from her - thus far in her career, that has been hitting 51.1% of her three pointers. But the reason she continues to sit behind other players remains: her usage rate is the lowest of any rookie that has played consistent minutes this season, which means she's not particularly aggressive in trying to create scoring opportunities for herself. She's a solid passer, but not particularly a standout for a guard either.
That her VCR has declined as her minutes took a small dip is not particularly encouraging either, although there is certainly an argument that it's harder for a shooter to find a rhythm without consistent minutes. The best way to look at Pohlen is that she's filling her role on her team really well, but hasn't necessarily shown us all that she can do. Although it's unclear right now how many meaningful minutes she could contribute consistently as a WNBA rotation player, she's also the type of player who has clearly shown the ability to make an impact on games in a number of small ways when she's on the floor, which is always a good thing.
9. Danielle McCray, Wing, Connecticut Sun
McCray was left out of the top ten previously because in her first month she was an inefficient shooter. However, as a starter, she has been considerably more efficient in more minutes, which is a good sign.
What McCray is doing particularly well for the Sun is her three point percentage nearly 13% in July to 48.4%. Obviously we'll have to wait and see if she can keep up that pace as a starter, but her ability to become a more efficient scorer is the key to having a successful career - her 2-point percentage of 38% is very low.
8. Jantel Lavender, C, Los Angeles Sparks
The only reason Lavender isn't higher on this list is that she hasn't gotten the consistent minutes throughout the season that other players ahead of her have seen a big jump in minutes from June to July under a new coach. Regardless, when she does play she's been impressive, particularly on the offensive end.
Lavender has the potential to distinguish herself as a back to the basket scorer who demands double teams to try manage her strength. However, the question for Lavender lies in that negative "value added" rating - if Lavender isn't scoring, she hasn't been that efficient otherwise. But the very fact that she can create shots as often as she does is promising for a rookie, even if she is not yet overwhelmingly efficient.
Lavender will undoubtedly move up on this list if she is able to continuing scoring well and increase her rebounding percentages as she continues to play more minutes..
7. Courtney Vandersloot, PG, Chicago Sky
One moment, Vandersloot can wow you with her ability to set up scoring opportunities for teammates. I don't think many reasonable people will question whether Courtney Vandersloot has the potential to become a solid starting point guard in the WNBA eventually. She clearly has instincts and court vision that many players simply can't imagine possessing.
However, at other moments, Vandersloot has shown why she has slid from the top of the rookie pack statistically to near the bottom - all of her numbers have steadily declined over the course of the year. With veteran Dominique Canty back from injury and Erin Thorn also being used for point guard minutes, Vandersloot has been even less efficient in less minutes to the point where she's been a below average starting point guard in the league.
Without delving too deeply into the numbers, one challenge for Vandersloot appears to be simply a matter of strength and protecting the ball in traffic, sometimes over-dribbling and getting herself into trouble when the play isn't there;.that would help explain why she is going to the free throw line less often, but not so much why she shot 50% from there in July. But another challenge is that she makes a lot of risky decisions, which - as the theory behind pure point rating suggests - is required of any elite distributor. So although her steady decline is discouraging, a lot of what she seems to be struggling with is also simply a matter of adjusting to the speed of the pro game.
6. Jenna O'Hea, Wing, Los Angeles Sparks
Pohlen and Jenna O'Hea have relatively similar season averages, but what distinguishes O'Hea from Pohlen overall is that she's a more aggressive distributor and shooter who's about as efficient. Perhaps more importantly, her numbers are creeping upward rather than downward. Most notably, her 2-point percentage has risen nearly 20% to 42%.
One of the most impressive things about O'Hea's game is her ability to see the floor and create offense for others. As she continues to adjust to the WNBA game and becomes more decisive, that assist ratio might continue to creep up a bit.
4/5. Liz Cambage/Kayla Pedersen, Tulsa Shock
I'm pairing these two because they went through similar things in Tulsa during July - a significant decrease in minutes that is somewhat difficult to understand.
Jessica Lantz has suggested that Cambage is in the "doghouse" and maybe her late-game performance against the Sparks on Tuesday will help. But it's a little unclear as to why exact;y Cambage and Pedersen's minutes have gone down about 8 and 5 minutes per game respectively and how they can get out. Unfortunately, that has affected Pedersen more as her VCR went down a bit. But until we see how that situation pans out, it's hard to know how to evaluate these two.
They are unquestionably two of the more talented rookies in this class that one might assume a one win team would play more, if for no other reason to get playing experience and grow as players. Both usually find a way to make good things happen for the Shock when they are on the court (particularly together).
3. Danielle Adams, F, San Antonio SIlver Stars
Although Adams' scoring numbers cooled off a bit in July, her offensive rebounding percentage went up a bit while her personal fouls went down significantly which meant that her overall VCR didn't decline much. Were it not for injury, she'd be #1 here.
2. Danielle Robinson, PG, San Antonio Silver Stars
Robinson has put up rather phenomenal numbers for a rookie point guard this season and although her assist ratio and passing efficiency both went down, her ability to get to the free throw line at such a high rate (54.86% free throw rate) makes her a consistent scoring threat on the floor.
Would it help for her to add a three point shot? Of course. But she isn't in the camp of point guards that becomes an offensive liability because of a lacking three point shot - she is so quick off the dribble that she's able to get to the free throw line almost whenever she wants and, somewhat amazingly for a rookie, does so with an ease that would be noteworthy even from a veteran.
1. Maya Moore, F, Minnesota Lynx
Bear in mind these numbers were tabulated prior to Moore tallying career-highs in points (28), steals (5), and three pointers made (6). Perhaps there should be an asterix attached to that sixth three since it came on an inconsequential half court heave. But to quote a friend's opinion on that play, "I don't care if it counted...that was awesome."
And Moore's rookie campaign is full of awesome, if not necessarily always full of efficiency.
Moore's rise to #1 is not necessarily due to significant improvement - she's still not even the most efficient scorer on this short list and perhaps you'd want a player with her talent to drive to the basket more instead of settling for jumpers so often. But look through the list and find another rookie that has maintained starter-level minutes all season on a winning team while putting up the type of numbers she's put up. There isn't one. And whether that be due to talent or just being a good fit for the Lynx, it's impressive. And if her passing efficiency and offensive rebounding continue to rise, she'll get even better by season's end.
Moore's rookie season to date might not have been the dominant, standard-setting rookie season that some people might have expected based upon her performance in college. But she's shown the potential to become a perennial All-Star, hype aside. And it's somewhat awesome to watch.