Best Draft Picks Ever in the WNBA

Over at Grantland, Bill Barnwell proposed a system for measuring an NFL player's performance as a draft pick. It's a very simple system that can easily be adapted for the WNBA.

Let's try it out and see how it looks!

First, let's let Barnwell explain the system...

So here's how the system works: We wanted to measure how a player did during the general length of his rookie contract, so we're only going to consider how he performed during the first five years of his NFL tenure after being drafted. That means we can only start the player pool at 2007, since they were the last draft class to play five full seasons, so we'll go back to 1997 in order to have a full decade of draftees. We then gave the player credit for achieving various tasks as follows:

  • Each game started: 1 point
  • Each game played as a substitute: 0.5 points
  • Each Pro Bowl appearance: 10 points
  • Each All-Pro appearance: 20 points

The All-Pro award superseded the Pro Bowl award if a player made both teams, so the maximum number of points a player could earn for one season's work is 36 (a 20-point All-Pro appearance and a full 16-game slate as a starter).

Seems easy enough. WNBA seasons are 34 games long (even shorter before 2003), so the maximum a player could make in a season is 54. All-WNBA teams and All-Star Game appearances sub easily for All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams. For this purpose I will include The Game at Radio City in 2004 and the Stars at the Sun game in 2010 as All-Star Games even though technically they weren't. For 1997, 1998, and 2008, when we had neither an ASG nor a game involving Team USA, there are fewer points available. The 1997 Elite draft was not included in this project.

By way of example: Quacy Barnes was the #22 pick in the 1998 draft. In the first five seasons from her draft she played in 70 games, starting 26 of them, and made no ASG or All WNBA teams. That's 48 points of value she produced. There were eleven #22 picks from 1997 to 2007 and they produced a total of 295 points of value, an average of 26.8. That makes Barnes 21.2 points above average for her draft position. She was a good pick.

Barnwell compared players to others taken within 10 selections of them. For the lengthy NFL draft and football teams with many more roster spots available that's appropriate. For the WNBA, I'm going to compare players only to those chosen with the same pick. Yes, I know that WNBA rookie contracts are four years, but it takes six to become an unrestricted FA so I'm splitting the difference.

There were twelve players who graded out 100 or more points above average for their draft position. Not surprisingly, nine of them came from the 1999 draft. Even less surprising is who ranked #1...



You might find Sophia Young's presence near the top surprising, given how highly she was drafted. #4 picks have an interesting history. Jackie Stiles and Kendra Wecker had careers severely shortened by injury. Asjha Jones and Plenette Pierson were somewhat slow in developing, both ranking behind Noelle Quinn and Korie Hlede over their first five seasons. Young is one of only two players in the study to make either All-WNBA or All-Star in each of her first five seasons without being a #1 overall pick (Cheryl Ford, #3 in 2003, is the other).

What about the bottom end? Only two players managed to score 100 or more points below average. For fairness, I'll go ahead and list the entire bottom twelve...



Pretty easy to see why everyone thinks the 2000 draft was the worst ever. Three of that year's top four picks show up here. Ann Wauters missed 2003 entirely and was out for most of 2004, and was only a part time starter when she did play. That's not what you want from a #1 overall pick. She did have a couple of decent years after her 5th season, enough to make most people consider LaToya Thomas the worst ever #1. Irvin is still playing in the league, but it will be tough for her to shake the "draft bust" label. This list only includes players who actually made WNBA appearances. We'll talk more about everyone's favorite Bucknell star who went #10 in 2003 a little later.

What are the averages for each pick?



The #7 pick has traditionally been the spot where teams reach/experiment/go crazy. Kara Braxton was a #7 pick after sitting out her last year of college. Shona Thorburn was a #7 pick for reasons that defy explanation to this day. From the #10 pick on there are players who never played in the league dragging down the averages. Not every draft had 64 picks of course. All eleven did have at least 32 picks. All except 1997 had at least 38.

Which drafts produced the most/fewest points of value?



As expected, 1999 is far ahead of everyone and 2001 is noticeably better than anyone else. 1998, and to a lesser extent 1997, has inflated numbers due to lack of competition for jobs thanks to the existence of the ABL. I don't know anyone who thinks the 1998 draft was better or deeper than the 2004 draft, for example.

We can see this further if we look at which drafts had the best picks at each position. Just using the top 32, the 1999 draft had the best pick at thirteen positions (#3, #8, #9, #11, #15, #20, #23, #24, #27, #28, #29, #30, and #32). 2001 had the best pick at five positions, no other draft had the best pick at more than three positions. 2003 didn't have the best pick at any position, the only draft to be shut out.

Who were the best/worst at each pick? Let's look at the top 5...

#1 - The best is Diana Taurasi (2004). This is a little unfair, as she had many more game available than Tina Thompson (1997). Those two are the only draftees to make All WNBA in each of their first five seasons. Even if we add enough games to Thompson to make up for the shorter seasons she comes up a couple of points shy of Taurasi. Worst #1 is Ann Wauters (2000), as mentioned above.

#2 - Cappie Pondexter (2006) grades out as the best #2 pick. Ticha Penicheiro (1998) is a distant second. As you probably noticed above, Tausha Mills (2000) gets the nod as worst #2. She's the only top two pick to not start a game in the study.

#3 - Natalie Williams (1999) gets the top spot, mostly because Tamika Catchings (2001) missed her rookie year with a torn ACL. Williams is only 8.5 points ahead despite having an entire extra season. Sandora Irvin (2005) is perhaps the all time draft bust.

#4 - Sophia Young (2006) by more than 45 points over Lindsay Whalen (2004). Injury plagued Kendra Wecker (2005) is at the bottom.

#5 - No player drafted after #4 has produced 200 points of value. Nikki Teasley (2002) is comfortably atop the #5 picks, though it's worth noting that she fell off precipitously after the five years studied.. Grace Daley (2000) gets to bottom spot.

Who were the steals/busts from each draft?

1997: The steal was Merlakia Jones at #13. An All-WNBA mention and two other ASGs despite there not being an ASG in 1997 or 1998. The Lake Shake happened 152 times in her first five seasons. The bust was Pam McGee at #2. The lesson: even in a new league it is not a good idea to select players in their mid 30's at the top of the draft.

1998: The steal was Sandy Brondello at #34. 112 starts and an All-Star appearance is tremendous value from a 4th round pick. The bust was Cindy Blodgett at #6. 65 games, none of them as a starter. Gotta hate those mid-major volume scorers.

1999: The steal of all draft steals was Taj McWilliams at #32. She was still playing at a championship level in 2011! The bust was, of course, Natalia Zasulskaya at #12. The Z-Woman never came to the States to play. The only other player from the 1999 draft to score below average for her draft position was Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil, who played only 14 games as the #22 pick.

2000: The steal was Adrain Williams at #21. 142 games and an All-Star appearance is excellent value from the mid 2nd round. The bust, as covered above, was Ann Wauters at #1.

2001: The steal was Tammy Sutton-Brown at #18. She made 150 starts and an All-Star appearance in her first five years. The bust was starcrossed Jackie Stiles at #6. You know it's a good draft when the bust made an All Star appearance.

2002: The steal was Michelle Snow at #10. There was quite a bit of maneuvering in the first round of this draft. You might recall this year as the one in which Pollyanna Johns-Kimbrough was twice traded for a 1st round pick. The Comets stayed out of that mess and got Snow at #10. The bust was Danielle Crockrom at #11. She had been a star at Baylor but was a system player who couldn't translate her skills to the pro level.

2003: The steal of the 2003 draft was Cheryl Ford at #3. Compare her to the #1 pick LaToya Thomas and/or the #2 pick Chantelle Anderson. The bust was the immortal Molly Creamer at #10. She remains the highest pick to never make a WNBA appearance. The 2003 draft also has the dubious honor of being the only draft in which two first round picks never appeared, as #12 Allison Curtin also washed out.

2004: The steal was Jia Perkins at #35. Perkins missed most of her senior year at Texas Tech on maternity leave and GMs were uncertain as to whether she was willing and/or able to pursue a pro career. The bust was Iciss Tillis at #11. Tillis had talent aplenty, but reportedly lacked the work ethic to succeed in the W.

2005: The steal was Chelsea Newton at #22. A strong defender with iffy offensive skills, she was a perfect fit in the Monarchs White Line system. The bust was Sandora Irvin, as discussed above.

2006: The steal was Sophia Young at #4. Young was the best player, and only future WNBA player, on the 2005 National Championship team for Baylor and continued to play at a very high level in the W. The bust was Lisa Willis at #5. Generally you want a top 5 pick to start more than two games in five years.

2007: The steal was Camille Little at #17. Dan Hughes supposedly tripped and nearly broke his leg in his rush to get the pick in when Little was available at this slot. The bust was Bernice Mosby at #6. Mosby had been the heir apparent to Sophia Young at Baylor after transferring from Florida. She failed to match Young's success in Waco or as a pro.

That's where we stand right now. Tune in next year when we see how the 2008 draft stacks up!