When recently signed Los Angeles Sparks guard Alana Beard was asked about the prospect of being reunited with former Washington Mystics teammate Marissa Coleman in Southern California, she mentioned that it was among the things she's most excited about in her cross-country relocation after being sidelined for two years due to injury.
"That's the one thing I'm most excited about," said Beard during a media teleconference about her signing. "Marissa Coleman is a very talented individual with tremendous upside and a change of scenery is something that she needs. She needs someone like coach Ross and the coaches in L.A. to develop her and get the most out of her. I think she has so much more to offer and you guys haven't seen it. And hopefully you will."
And while that certainly might be true for Coleman, it might be even more true for Beard. So true, in fact, one of the things that stood out most while looking over the statistics for this year's set of unrestricted free agents is that it's quite possible for Beard's signing to be one of the biggest off-season acquisitions of any. Of course, suggesting that Beard is the biggest free agent acquisition of any wouldn't be news to Sparks G.M. Penny Toler, as reported by Blair Angulo of ESPN Los Angeles.
"The evaluation of Alana was very simple," Toler said. "Alana is a very, very talented player. She's different than any guard we have on our team; she creates her own shot, has leadership ability, is a defensive stopper. When she was given a clean bill of health, it was easy for us. For me she's the crown jewel of free agency."
However, on the surface, Beard hardly looked like a jewel statistically.
Beard's 4-year RAPM rating is not particularly impressive and it's not as if the last two seasons have been registered as "0" - it's based on what she did in the 2008 & '09 seasons. Likewise, her PER rating isn't particularly indicative of star status either: her PERs of 16.3 & 16.7 in her last two seasons respectively suggest Beard has been an average player at best.
Yet before we dismiss those single number metrics as overly harsh - and not accounting for defense, which of course RAPM does - it is helpful to try to explain them.
Beard also put up the 10th highest career usage percentage in WNBA history during her time in Washington, meaning that she had the ball in her hands a lot and took a lot of shots. In 2008, she had the 9th highest usage rate in the league but had the second-lowest true shooting percentage of her career (49.4%). Add to that the two highest turnover rates of her career in 2008 (16.5%) and 2009 (17.05%) and RAPM (and to some extent PER) is likely penalizing Beard for being a player that produces a number of empty possessions between missed shots and turnovers.
However, Beard also has a built in justification for her suspect numbers: Washington had the lowest offensive rating in the league in both 2008 and 2009. And considering that 2008 was before Lindsey Harding arrived to help direct the offense, Crystal Langhorne's emergence as a starter, and Monique Currie's emergence as a consistent scorer, Beard was shouldering a large burden.
Sure, there have been other players on the team during that team who could score efficiently (Taj McWilliams-Franklin in 2008) and create shots (Matee Ajavon in 2009), but you don't have to do too much complex number crunching to figure out that Beard was responsible for a lot in Washington. And although nothing is ever for certain, it's fair to say Beard will not have the same type of offensive burden in L.A.
As Ross said in the teleconference announcing Beard's signing, the Sparks' ability to score is not in question - they had the fourth highest offensive rating in the league last season. Even their solid offensive performance last season has to come with the footnote that star forward Candace Parker only played in half of their games and they changed coaches mid-season. That's extremely significant in projecting Beard's impact in L.A.
Beard will not need to be the primary scorer or even set up a whole lot of plays for others in L.A. (especially if Ticha Penicheiro chooses to return). Although the ability to create her own shot is unquestionably valuable, her more significant role on the team will be as a defensive stopper on the perimeter. In theory, Beard's statistical efficiency should be expected to improve if she takes on less responsibility for generating offense and handling the ball; that's not a knock on her talent as much as a statement about how much more effective she might be when surrounded by more productive teammates. All she'll have to do is focus on defense.
And if that happens, her signing might be the move that takes L.A. to the next level.