After the Selection Monday broadcast concluded last night, ESPN switched to the Chicago Bulls-Oklahoma City Thunder game and had a brief discussion about Joakim Noah being a MVP candidate this season.
At this point, that's hardly a minority opinion, as described in a recent post at SB Nation's Blog A Bull - in short, dude is playing out of his mind. But the reason I bring that up at all now is because I think you would've been hard pressed to find anyone, including diehard Florida Gators fans, back in 2007 proclaiming that Noah would even be better than college teammate Al Horford much less a MVP candidate. It was pointed out on Twitter that he might have been a #1 draft pick had he come out a year earlier, but the point here is that sometimes with a little time and hard work a player can make themselves into a much better player than anyone imagined them being on draft day.
For me, that again begs the question of what we're looking for in draft prospects and why.
"Upside" vs. demonstrated "talent"
Bob Starkey posted a Jeff Van Gundy quote that appeared a few times in my Twitter timeline a few weeks ago that pretty well summarizes how I think of evaluating draft prospects:
When most people talk about 'talent' they are simply talking about athleticism...meaning speed, quickness, jumping, size, strength, etc...Forget 'talent' and focus on production and consistency.
This obsessive focus on "upside" and ascribing potential to prospects without any evidence to support it is a much bigger problem in the NBA than the WNBA (due primarily to age limitations and a game that is played below the rim), but you still see fans getting themselves worked up about blatantly unproductive and inefficient players (we'll get to "consistency" sometime in the future).
That's not to say that it's easy to predict that a ninth pick in a draft will eventually become a MVP candidate, but what is interesting about Noah in retrospect is that he was the whole package: athleticism, pro size, and extremely efficient production. And two teams in the previous three picks - including my beloved Golden State Warriors - passed on that package for post players that have struggled to ever find a niche for themselves in the league but had a TON of upside (no, I'm not bitter).
What Van Gundy's statement really calls for, whether he's actually advocating for it or not, is the use of all the information at our disposal to evaluate a prospect before making a selection: athleticism and size are certainly important, but so are the statistics and some knowledge of how well a player's skill set translates.
I've been over how I do that many times before so I won't belabor the point any further, but the point sort of neatly summarizes how I've come up with this preliminary draft board.
What is a "draft board"?
At the beginning of the college season, we came up with a list of prospects to watch based on junior season statistics. If you're wondering what that means, it's just that I've not only spent more time actually watching them, but also collecting a bit more specific statistics during the season and even shot charts for some (s/o to the guys at Rocky Top Talk for triggering that idea...and making the Meighan Simmons shot chart happen).
Now that we have a full senior (regular) season of stats to add to that, we can actually start putting together the "draft board" of the top prospects in the draft.
Just to be clear, a draft board is...
- ...a ranking of prospects, usually tiered, that helps a team determine the best player available - in theory, you'd pick the best player available in the highest full tier before drafting on need. But of course, every team uses these things differently.
- ...a projection of who has the best chance of being successful based on some set of standard/s.
...and is not...
- ...based on team needs.
- ...a projected draft day order.
- ...a ranking based on position.
- ...a deterministic evaluation of Truth that shall doom those who fail the test.
I've been working on a five-tier draft board throughout the year and constantly moving things around in the bottom tiers, but the top tiers - "elite" and "low-risk" prospects in terms of their chances of making a WNBA roster - are pretty much set with 10 players, many of whom were on that initial watch list and some of which are just in a more uncertain space.
Since I haven't looked at final statistics for everyone just yet, I'm not going to rank them in tiers now but will share the players that appear to have the best shot at making a roster based on:
- Statistical strengths and (hopefully lacking) red flags.
- Style similarity ratings to past players.
- Positional statistics.
A preliminary draft board
For now, I'm not going to elaborate much but just list the players in an approximate order of how the tiers are starting to shape up:
Chiney Ogwumike, F, Stanford
Odyssey Sims, G, Baylor
Alyssa Thomas, F, Maryland
Kayla McBride, G, Notre Dame
Chelsea Gray, G, Duke
Stefanie Dolson, C, Connecticut
Natasha Howard, F, Florida State
Bria Hartley, G, Connecticut
Tyaunna Marshall, G, Georgia Tech
Meighan Simmons, G, Tennessee
I've offered my thoughts on each one of those players in our 2014 WNBA Draft prospect watch storystream if you're interested in general thoughts from throughout the season, but I'm throwing this up here quickly for a reason: tomorrow we're going to begin a community mock draft and this is the initial list of players we'll be working with. We'll explain more tomorrow morning, but the first step is to get a group of players to banter about.
Is this draft even/only/really 10 deep?
I've heard people say this draft is only 7-8 deep - or that second round picks are worthless - but I neither think that's true generally nor with this sort of weird class specifically:
- There are three pretty clearly elite prospects (Ogwumike, Sims, and Thomas), which by my evaluation is more than there were last year.
- I'm not sure how I'd order that next seven just yet - and on draft day, it will probably come down to how teams draft based on need - but based on their numbers throughout the season and fit with the team that drafts them, all of them have a very good shot a roster compared to how similar players have fared historically.
- After that, there is a group of close to 15 players that have a legitimate shot to make a roster, but also have varying types of red flags that make it hard to project them though not impossible to imagine them making rosters.
- After that, I see about 10 players of the type Van Gundy was referring to: tons of talent, but lesser production/efficiency. These are usually the fringe-y players who find themselves on the edge of rosters but never finding a permanent home.
- Then you have the standard group of players with red flags waving wildly on a red pirate ship through the Red Sea ... or higher risk players.
That breakdown probably won't change dramatically during the tournament because I always look at statistics by season rather than a big game or two, but some of it really is just getting the time to figure out why a certain player is putting up the numbers they're producing - and honestly, I haven't gotten around to looking deeply at the numbers for all of those players.
But at least, we can use this list to build a poll for our little mock draft where my ratings will matter a lot less than your votes (and you can start proposing who should be added for the sake of our mock draft).
So stay tuned - tomorrow morning, Connecticut will be on the mock clock.