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2011 WNBA Awards (Part 2): Balancing Potential & Productivity For The All-Rookie Team

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How much potential does Tulsa Shock rookie center Liz Cambage have after an up and down rookie season? (Courtesy of Troy Littledeer)
How much potential does Tulsa Shock rookie center Liz Cambage have after an up and down rookie season? (Courtesy of Troy Littledeer)

According to Jessica Lantz, a reporter asked Tulsa Shock rookie center Liz Cambage how she would grade herself on her rookie season.

Apparently, Cambage gave herself an "A", but the buzz among some media members was in the "C-" range. That's quite a big difference in opinion and partially reflects that the 20-year-old rookie has had an up and down season, to say the very least.

She's gone from a highly touted draft prospect to the second pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft to an injury-replacement All-Star but also through a coaching change, some minor wear and tear, and barely getting off the bench at times in the second half of the season.

In the relatively short time I've been following the WNBA closely, I've never seen a rookie have quite that type of first season. In fact, given the All-Star selection - regardless of whether you believe it was justified - I can say with some certainty that I can't remember a NBA or WNBA rookie experiencing quite this type of roller coaster rookie season.

So how might we go about grading Cambage fairly? And, to a related point, is she worthy of an All-Rookie team selection?

The Rookie Ranking framework

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.

However, whereas I looked at positive and negative changes in VCR during the season, I'm going to do something different with the season over now.

VCR, playing styles and player potential

Similar to the way I looked at WNBA free agents in the off-season, VCR is particularly good at determining whether a player is capable of being more productive in more minutes or giving a team more "quality minutes":

  • A player with an average VCR probably gave their team as many quality minutes as they're capable of.
  • A player with an above average VCR could probably give their team more quality minutes than they played.
  • A player with a below average VCR should probably have played less minutes.

In other words, VCR gives us a way to project players as starters, rotation players, and bench warmers, which further helps us define their performance value in terms of how many quality minutes they're capable of playing. A high VCR does not suggest a player is a superstar like other metrics - it's an indicator of how productive a player was in the minutes they played.

Obviously, one number doesn't mean a player's fate is set in stone: players can improve from season-to-season and defy what their VCR suggests (e.g. Ashley Robinson and Kia Vaughn) or decline normally due to age. Rookies have proven even more volatile in the last few years for a variety of reasons.

In addition to looking at VCR relative to league average (.76) is helpful, another way to help get a more accurate picture of a player's potential is to look specifically at their VCR relative to the average of others with a similar playing style (also explained in that free agency post).

So VCR is great for rookies - especially those in roller coaster situations like Cambage - because it tells us how much room there is for growth relative to their style of play instead of people's overblown expectations. And what Cambage's numbers suggest is that there's plenty of room for growth.

Player/Team Mins/g VCR Style Usage rate TS% 2-point% Value added Assist ratio
Maya Moore 28.0 1.15 S 21.60% 54.86% 48.84% 0.56 16.38%
Danielle Robinson 23.1 1.06 D 18.43% 55.13% 46.22% 1.27 29.60%
Danielle Adams 20.9 1.19 S 27.72% 54.73% 49.23% -2.72 4.31%
Liz Cambage 20.0 1.72 I 27.89% 58.63% 52.14% -1.69 4.04%
Jantel Lavender 14.8 1.04 SI 22.28% 53.23% 50% -0.75 6.07%
Kayla Pedersen 23.76 1.13 U 15.40 50.50% 44.27% 0.49 17.97%
Danielle McCray 15.1 0.84 SP 19.24 52.81% 40.69% -1.11 15.88%
Courtney Vandersloot 22.9 0.61 D 19.10% 46.67% 42.58% -1.53 27.93%
Jeanette Pohlen 15.9 0.69 P 11.23% 63.53% 47.5% 0.11 20.29%
Jenna O'Hea 16.4 0.75 P 13.98% 59.04% 42.00% -0.19 20.90%
Jasmine Thomas 19.3 0.68 S 21.60 42.43% 37.19% -2.50 17.02%
Carlyn Swords 7.5 1.13 I 16.50 60.57% 52.83% 0.43 10.16%

Stats for 2011 WNBA rookies.

So the first thing you'll notice is that there were only seven rookies above the league average VCR (0.76). That narrows the field for the All-Rookie team really fast, though I personally believe some of those who didn't perform well do have quite a bit of potential due to other indicators.

All-Rookie Team

Maya Moore, F, Minnesota Lynx (Rookie of the Year): So why is Moore the Rookie of the Year (as described yesterday)? First, Moore is the only player who was consistently productive in starter's minutes. That alone is noteworthy compared to the rest of the group. Second, Moore has shown the ability to get herself shots, even if she relies heavily on jumpers and has an extremely low free throw production rate as a result. But third, she's one of four of the above rookies who's improving and given where she already is that's a plus.

Danielle Robinson, G, San Antonio Silver Stars: Robinson is another player who's improving as she dropped 36 points and 6 assists in a win against the Tulsa Shock to close her season. She saw her minutes steadily increase as she went from reserve to starter. Second, Robinson is the fourth most efficient point guard in the entire WNBA with a pure point rating of 3.56. She's got a bright future ahead of her but the main reason why she's not challenging Moore for ROY more strongly is that Moore was just more consistent as a starter while Robinson was a reserve for most of the season - Robinson still has to prove that she can continue to perform in a bigger role. But Robinson is one of the best rookie point guards to enter the league in the last four years.

Danielle Adams, F, San Antonio Silver Stars: Even though Adams missed 11 games, most of her competition for the All-Rookie team wasn't even productive enough in near-full seasons to make up the gap. She's been so dynamic that you can't leave her off a list of top rookies, even if it was mostly in the first half of the season (see the month by month breakdown at WNBA.com). She's one of the most well rounded rookies as an inside-outside threat. The question is whether defenses will "catch up" to her next year and limit more of her scoring opportunities, many of which come from taking set shots.

Liz Cambage, C, Tulsa Shock: Perhaps Cambage's season was a disappointment to some people, like the ones Ms. Lantz encountered. But the fact that she has the highest VCR of any rookie this season speaks volumes about her potential (click here for an explanation). Who are the players in the WNBA with higher VCRs: Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker.

Let's be clear though: Cambage is extremely efficient in inconsistent minutes this season, so that number is probably likely to decline and not indicative of Cambage being on par with Fowles and Parker. Nevertheless, the harsh criticism of her game at this point has to be more about not meeting people's lofty expectations than anything she's done on the court.

Despite coaching changes, getting dinged up a bit during the season, and erratic minutes Cambage had moments of dominance that most rookies can't claim - a season-high 24 points against the Storm in KeyArena was among her best games, but there were also games against the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury in which she was more impressive in spurts than some rookies can ever hope to be. When she got minutes and her teammates got her the ball she showed what a threat she can be in the paint. Most important, at 6'8" her ability to free throw line at one of the highest rates in the league and hit nearly 80% of them is a sign that she'll be able to find points when defenses are able to contain her.

Although she struggled to finish around the basket early in the season, she shot 67.6% in her final 5 games and scored in double figures in 4 of her last 6. And what people forget: she's only 20, which is extremely young for the WNBA due to its eligibility rules. At 6'8", she's an imposing presence in a zone defense and is sure to improve defensively as well as on the boards as she adjusts to the U.S. game and continues to mature.

In a more stable situation, her performance suggests that a C- grade is probably on the unreasonable side - statistically, everything about Cambage screams productive rotation player and future starter. If you're not grading against pre-season expectations and instead on what she actually did, a "B" (with encouraging comments) is more reasonable.

Jantel Lavender, C, Los Angeles Sparks: As a Michigan alum, trust me - putting an Ohio State grad here was tough. But she's one of those four rookies who improved over the course of the season while putting up an above average VCR and that makes her the choice here. She went from irrelevant to this conversation early on to among the most productive. The combination of Lavender's limited minutes and VCR suggest that she has a career ahead as a solid rotation player and expanding her repertoire of post moves - as any post player might wish to do - would help in becoming a consistent scoring threat, but right now her size and strength have made her a solid contributor in spurts.

Honorable mention:

  • Kayla Pedersen, F, Tulsa Shock: Most people know that I've loved Pedersen's game since watching her in college. But her minutes dwindled to near-nothing by the end of the season, which makes it hard to put her on an All-Rookie team although her VCR still suggests a productive career. But that "U" next to her name means "utility player", which means that Pedersen is the type of player who won't put up a lot of points but is someone who could thrive by doing all the little things to help a team win if she's surrounded by talent. Early in the season, she was starting and - along with Cambage - literally carrying a losing team. It didn't really help either player. And neither can contribute while getting injured or sitting on the bench.
  • Courtney Vandersloot, G, Chicago Sky: At this point on that list above, it's not about ranking but tiers - everyone after McCray has work to do to become a consistent rotation contributor. But what's noticeable about 'Sloot is her assist ratio - she can make plays and has outstanding instincts. She just needs to bring her turnover ratio down - second highest among rotation point guards at 20.23% - which is a correctable problem. Part of that problem is strength and part of it is adjusting to the speed of the pro game. It's not impossible or even unlikely. But given her sharp decline after the All-Star game, it's tough to put her on the All-Rookie team, even as much as I enjoyed watching her at Gonzaga.
  • Danielle McCray, G/F, Connecticut Sun: McCray has established herself as a three point shooter on a playoff team, but she has been inconsistent as a starter, shooting only 25.9% from beyond the arc in 13 games in August. 
  • Jeanette Pohlen, Indiana Fever & Jenna O'Hea, Los Angeles Sparks: I'm not pairing these two because they're the same, but because they have the same challenge moving forward: extremely low usage rates that Ken Pomeroy would call "nearly invisible". Both are such strong passers and shooters that they'll find a spot on rosters. But when your usage rate is at "nearly invisible" it also means "easily replaceable". Pohlen gets a slight edge for me because her 2-point percentage is better, which means she can do a bit more as a scorer.
  • Jasmine Thomas, G, Washington Mystics: I know some people consider her a strong candidate for the All-Rookie team and the reason I have her outside the top 5 is not that she's on a bad team. The challenge for Thomas is that she plays as a low-efficiency 5'9" scorer. But she's currently playing point guard and has a below average assist ratio for a point guard. Just to put it in perspective: against the Silver Stars in her final game, she had no assists and didn't even have one potential assist in 30 minutes of playing time. Her statistical profile isn't particularly strong for her style of play and size.
  • Carolyn Swords, C, Chicago Sky: I just have to mention Swords - I'd love to see what she could do in more minutes. She started for the last four games and was probably even more productive than her VCR suggested she would be, shooting 70.6% and showing impressive ability as a passer in high-low sets with Sylvia Fowles.

Related links:

2011 WNBA Awards (Part 1): MVP, All-WNBA, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Woman, Most Improved Player

2011 WNBA Rookie Rankings: Maya Moore Rises To #1 In Top Ten After Two Months

WNBA Rookie Rankings: The Top Ten After One Month

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

Swish Appeal Statistics Glossary