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2014 WNBA draft prospects: Factors that separate successful and unsuccessful prospects

Continuing our advance look at the 2014 WNBA Draft, we look at past risk factors for unsuccessful college to pro transitions.

Photo by rvw (via Flickr)

For the last few years, a sub-group of us at Swish Appeal of come up with a list of around 10 WNBA prospects to watch during the preceding NCAA season.

Those of you that read the site regularly are probably familiar with these lists, but here's a quick summary of what we did:

  • Beginning with, I looked through the top-rated juniors in the nation from the 2012-13 season to see who put up the type of numbers that might make them a strong WNBA prospect.
  • I sent a short list to James Bowman and M Robinson. James gave a separate list based on his draft ratings and M Robinson provided some additional names based on his observations and talking to sources.
  • I took a closer look at the players we all seemed to agree on and came to a short list based on those who had the most strengths and least red flags.

To help readers understand that list, this week I'm going to go through and list all the various statistical strengths and red flags that I found based on junior season statistics and then follow that up with a list of players whose senior year statistics have helped them improve their stock statistically.

A word on junior season statistics and narrowing the pool so early

As discussed last week, the WNBA Draft has produced an average of about 12 players who end up contributing to a roster three years after their draft year - in other words, even though prospects slip and maybe coaches haven't given some players a chance to develop, there's about one round's worth of players that will really end up having an average career down the road. Far less - in the 4-8 range - end up being significant contributors (meaning they're actually in the rotation rather than taking a spot on the bench).

Usually, those 4-8 players emerge pretty clearly in their junior year. Of course, we've been doing this exercise with junior year statistics for the last few seasons now and here's what I can tell you about the value of junior season statistics in predicting WNBA success: they don't particularly well, and part of that is due to a strength and weakness of the WNBA draft relative to the NBA draft.

With the WNBA, players are required to be eligible for graduation prior to entering the draft. This means we're evaluating a) relatively "finished" or at the very least "refined" products and b) prospects on a relatively even stage in their development. It might make sense (to some) to identify a freshman playing under 20 minutes per game with limited basketball experience as a lottery pick because he's...tall...and...can jump high; in the WNBA, it would make little to no sense to draft a senior under the same circumstances.

On top of that, for a number of the top prospects, we get to see what they do when they're the ones opposing defenses plan for every night as their team's senior leader - things change when suddenly the post player who put up huge junior year numbers loses the point guard that was passing to them or the point guard who was stunningly efficient loses the finishers they were surrounded by. Some players improve dramatically in their senior year for one reason or another; others wilt when having to carry the load with inferior teammates.

So what the junior year statistics do is provide a baseline for players to watch: those who put up numbers so outstanding they could probably be considered shoe-ins for WNBA success and players with borderline statistics with the opportunity to make or break their WNBA prospects in their senior year.

Minimizing risk

As discussed last year, the approach here is to look at how a general manager could minimize the risk of wasting one of those opportunities to add a long-term contributor through the draft by comparing statistical profiles of the present to those of the past.

Looking at prospects from approximately 2008-2012 (and some early returns from 2013), I've broken things down positionally at the following links as follows:

With those observations, we'll begin comparing 2012-13 junior statistics to the senior statistics of both drafted and undrafted players of the past to see who was on pace last season to be a strong draft pick in 2014.

The following are a few major statistical "red flags" that have limited NCAA Division I players' chances at a successful transition to the WNBA in recent years. And just in case you missed it, red flags based on junior season statistics (or lack thereof) don't determine a prospect's future - things can change in a player's senior season.

To help put the statistical statements in context, I've included past examples of players who had those red flags with the 2014 draft prospects whose junior season statistics also had those red flags. Since the Naismith Trophy Watch List came out today, I've used that list to identify "prospects" for the 2014 draft.

I described most of these last year so I won't elaborate much on why these statistics stand out, but click here for longer explanations. For newer observations, I'll add some explanation.


Mid-Major players

I hate to even put this here, but this is a trend in how general managers are beginning to evaluate talent in the 11-player roster era that's hard to ignore: last season, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne was the only mid-major player drafted and she was a transfer from UConn, meaning she could've played for any program in the nation. But a bit more surprising is that three of the best mid-major prospects in the last six years (statistically) - aside from Delle Donne have been eligible for the last two drafts and none of them have made an opening day roster.

That leaves us facing a harsh reality: since 2009, the only mid-major players who we could consider consistent contributors to a WNBA roster are Delle Donne and Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot. In naming those two, we're talking about players who were not only All-Americans but once-in-a-lifetime players for their programs.

In short, mid-major players have to be almost flawless in order to be considered elite WNBA prospects. The following are a few mid-major prospects over the last few years who put up strong college statistics but struggled to catch on in the WNBA.

Notable past examples: Alysha Clark (2010), Shanavia Dowdell (2010), Chelsea Hopkins (2013), Shey Peddy (2012), Ta'shia Phillips (2011), Adrian Ritchie (2013), Julie Wojta (2012)

2014 prospects: Sarah Nelson, Creighton; Jerrica Coley, Florida International; Daress McClung, Butler; Ebony Rowe, Middle Tennessee

Low pure point rating

This was described last year, but I wanted to make an addendum based on the data for past wings that I've looked at: it is clear that ball handling efficiency matters for wings, but it's really not clear how much. Three of the lowest 15 pure point ratings belong to the following players: Virginia's Monica Wright (-6.87), Georgetown's Sugar Rodgers (-5.18), Louisville's Angel McCoughtry (-4.66). As you may recall, all three players ended up in the 2013 WNBA Finals with two of them contributing a thing or two to their team's effort.

So really, this becomes about posts and point guards. Wings who score a lot are susceptible to turnovers because they're forced to have the ball in their hands so often, but those who do have very negative pure point ratings do have some additional question marks.

Notable past examples: Carolyn Davis, Kansas (2013), Sasha Goodlett (2012), Karisma Penn, Illinois (2013); Chelsea Poppens, Iowa State (2013); Chay Shegog (2012), Markel Walker, UCLA (2013)

2014 prospects: Natasha Howard, Florida State; Theresa Plaissance, LSU; Meighan Simmons, Tennessee; Alyssa Thomas, Maryland


Post players 6'1" and under

Again, this is one you hate to list because it seems unfair, but the track record for post players (listed) at 6-foot-1 and under simply don't have very good careers; the exceptions to that rule were stunningly efficient scorers.

Notable past examples: Alysha Clark (2010), Courtney Hurt (2012), Amanda Thompson (2010), Ashley Walker (2009)

2014 prospects: Samarie Walker, Kentucky

True shooting percentages under 55%

This applies more to centers than "power forwards" - a "stretch four" who takes shots further away from the basket would be expected to have a lower scoring efficiency - but even those posts who are more perimeter oriented are more successful when they do hit this threshold.

Notable past examples: Nikki Green (2013), Chanel Mokango (2010); Anna Prins (2013), Kayla Standish (2012); Joslyn Tinkle (2012)

2014 prospects: Theresa Plaissance, LSU; DeNesha Stallworth, Kentucky; Gennifer Brandon, California; Cassie Harberts, Southern California; Jordan Hooper, Nebraska; Natasha Howard, Florida State; Michelle Plouffe, Utah

Low free throw rates

Post players with low free throw rates tend to struggle. The reason(s) for the low free throw rate does matter, but the low rate itself suggests reason to take a closer look at how someone is playing.

Notable past examples: Lynetta Kizer (2012), Anna Prins (2013),

2014 prospects: Stefanie Dolson, Connecticut; Haley Peters, Duke; DeNesha Stallworth, Kentucky


Click here to read more about what figures into the success of wings.

2-point percentage under 45%

Notable past examples: Angie Bjorklund (2011), Brianna Gilbreath (2012), Shenneika Smith (2013), Bianca Thomas (2010), Tyra White (2012)

2014 prospects: Aaryn Ellenberg, Oklahoma; Maggie Lucas, Penn State; Meighan Simmons, Tennessee

Pure scorers

Notable past prospects: Alexis Gray-Lawson (2010), Tavelyn James (2012), Italee Lucas (2011), Jene Morris (2010), Bianca Thomas (2010)

2014 prospects: Aaryn Ellenberg, Oklahoma; Maggie Lucas, Penn State; Kayla McBride, Notre Dame; Meighan Simmons, Tennessee

High 3point rate/low free throw rate

Notable past prospects: Angie Bjorklund (2011), Bianca Thomas (2010)

2014 prospects: Aaryn Ellenberg, Oklahoma; Christina Foggie, Vanderbilt; Chassidy Fussell, Texas; Tricia Liston, Duke; Courtney Moses, Purdue

Point guards

PPR below 2.5/low usage rates

This should really be a yellow flag more than a red one.

The league has started to lean toward scoring point guards much more heavily over the last few years. Nevertheless, it's still true that point guards who aren't either efficient distributors or responsible for a heavy scoring load (which would explain lower assist rates and higher turnover rates) struggle. Additionally, scoring prospects (listed as) 5'8" and under struggle to become major contributors with inefficient college distributing or scoring numbers because they're often forced to play point guard regardless of whether they actually played that in college.

But this has to be said: point guards good enough to get drafted in the 11-player roster era have made rosters in their first year despite low efficiency numbers. The question is about how long they end up sticking around (which is why this is far more of a yellow flag).

Notable past prospects: Alexis Gray-Lawson (2010), Camille LeNoir (2009), Taylor Lilley (2010), Samantha Prahalis (2012), Andrea Riley (2010)

2014 prospects: Aaryn Ellenberg, Oklahoma; Tiffany Bias, Oklahoma State; Bria Hartley, Connecticut; Courtney Moses, Purdue