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WNBA Rookie Similarity Ratings: Style Vs. Quality

Over the weekend I posted a look at each team's training camp rosters by SPI player styles as a framework for getting a sense of how both Eastern and Western Conference teams are structured and what their potential needs are.

Part of that process involved making WNBA style projections for rookies coming from NCAA basketball based on college statistics. The way those projections were made was by player similarity on the SPI player styles spectrum: looking at a draft prospect's college tendencies, finding past NCAA Division I prospects with similar tendencies, and then looking at what type of player those past players became in the WNBA. The next step, of course, is looking at how successful a player became, but first just a look at how those similarity ratings were constructed.

First, no two players are ever exactly alike - there are times when a stylistic resemblance might exist between two players but doesn't quite coincide with a similarity in production. This is when analysts resort to saying someone is a "poor man's" so-and-so.

The Poor Man's Theologian blog might describe this phenomenon best as a way to acknowledge the loftiness of the analogous player rather than saying one thing is an "inferior" product. At other times, it really is a matter of deeming the subject of comparison as inferior to the object.

Even if you don’t like Starbucks, you certainly understand that the caffeinated swill you pick up at the gas station is indeed "a poor man’s Starbucks.

These player comparisons around NBA draft time can get weird when you start making lofty claims about a player being, say, a poor man's Larry Bird or a poor man's Magic Johnson, in that it's difficult to live up to even that limited standard. Then there are times when you might wonder how successful a poor man's Jamal Crawford, for example, might be.

But sometimes, a lofty comparison works well when a defining feature of a player's game is analogous to that of another player; for example, comparing Kenneth Faried to a "poor man's" Dennis Rodman prior to the 2011 NBA Draft - suggesting that Faried might fill a similar rebounding role on the court as Rodman did - makes sense to describe the type of immediate contribution he'd make, without necessarily saying he'll become a Hall of Famer.

Even if some of the comparisons that end up being bandied about on draft day end up being ridiculous, the human mind has a natural tendency to make associations in this manner and so it's often easiest to understand what a draft-worthy college player might contribute at the next level by way of these associations.

That's sort of the thinking underlying these similarity ratings that I put together before the 2012 WNBA Draft and am sharing now.

Similarity ratings: Style, not quality

Sometimes it's helpful to figure out not only how productive a player might be, but also how well the combination of skills they displayed in college might transfer to the pros.

To carry out this task, I used the same SPI player style ratings that I've used in the past as follows:

  • I compiled a list of WNBA of draft prospects from 2009-2011 with all of their college SPI ratings to get an idea of what types of prospects have become rotation players, reserves, or failed to make a roster. I've since added some additional prospects from the 2008 WNBA Draft because they appeared relevant.
  • The list consists only of NCAA Division I prospects because there are too few that have come out of other division or the NAIA. Figuring out how statistics from leagues overseas translate is a bigger project that I might tackle some time in the future.
  • As of today, the list includes 250+ players to account for both those that were drafted as well as those that were drafted late or undrafted that later appeared in training camps or on rosters (e.g. third round pick Alexis Gray-Lawson or undrafted Taylor Lilley in 2010).
  • The goal was to see if any patterns emerged among types of players that have made rosters since the 11-player roster limit was imposed, but the key to note here is that the types are defined here by style of play (e.g. distributor, perimeter, interior) rather than quality of play. Obviously, this list could (and probably should) be expanded, but what I'm most interested in right now is that matter of who gets left out of the 11-player roster equation.
  • I compared the tendencies of all the major 2012 draft prospects to that list to compare them to players of the past.
  • Players can be compared on the basis of their interior, perimeter, and scoring tendencies to find a relative match. Each player thus ends up with a cluster of similar players that makes sense when taken as a whole to project their WNBA style of play, even if some of the individual comparisons might strike people as off-base.
  • I didn't eliminate similarities due to height differentials for one major reason: in the case of high scoring guards, for example, it's actually interesting to see instances where they compare almost directly to a taller player within this framework. As another example - relevant to the 2012 draft - knowing that a 6-foot college power forward compares favorably to a bunch of similar 6'4" WNBA power players is actually helpful in that it might suggest that they'll struggle to have the same type of impact (or, perhaps, why they''ll overcome a perceived disadvantage).

What these similarities do is give us a sense of how similar styles of college play have transferred to the WNBA in the past, not provide a conclusive prediction about how productive a player might become at the next level; we can combine style and quality (e.g. shooting efficiency, offensive rebound rates, passing or steal numbers depending on position) to figure out whether a player might have a future as a rotation player, reserve, starter, or watching the games at home.

Originally, I was going to use this framework to do a more traditional "draft grades" post or at least look at which teams might have gotten the most value out of their picks. But without going into a lengthy explanation about why I chose not to do that, I decided to wait and see which players made rosters and then to fold the analysis of rookies into team previews; having an idea of how they fit within the structure of a roster is arguably more important than whether a) they'll succeed and b) a team drafted "well".

In the meantime, I'll be posting SPI similarity profiles of the following seven rookies during the course of WNBA training camp as examples of how this whole thing works:

LaSondra Barrett, LSU

Kelley Cain, Tennessee

Courtney Hurt, VCU

Glory Johnson, Tennessee

Natalie Novosel, Notre Dame

Riquna Williams, Miami

Julie Wojta, Wisconsin-Green Bay

All seven of these players had direct matches based on SPI style similarity in one of the previous four WNBA drafts and stood out either in response to other evaluations I've heard about them or because there's some measure of uncertainty about how much they might contribute as rookies.

Some might have obvious comparisons; some, not so much.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your impressions about those particular players and who you think they might compare well to. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.