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Stefanie Dolson's defensive presence at UConn and potential as a 2014 WNBA prospect

UConn center Stefanie Dolson gained national recognition for her defensive ability in winning the WBCA Defensive Player of the Year award. Yet it might be her passing ability that really sets her apart from other centers as a 2014 WNBA draft prospect.

Andy Lyons

The vitals:

Stefanie Dolson, C (6'5", Connecticut)

School bio | WBB State statistics


Stefanie Dolson's 17 points, 16 rebounds and 7 assists and three blocks in the national championship game was impressive, but her WNBA strengths might be best reflected in what she did in the two games prior to that and are the hardest to quantify: her defensive ability.

What makes Dolson impressive as a college defender are all the little things she does. Against Ogwumike, she constantly kept her feet moving giving her an advantage in playing the pass or keeping up with Stanford's All-America selection off cuts. That clip of UConn's defensive drill that ESPN3 shows over and over isn't just for show - her lateral movement is exceptional for a player of her size and helped her stay in front of Ogwumike when she did catch the ball. Stanford pushed the limits of that lateral movement with both Ogwumike and fellow senior Mikaela Ruef spending a lot of time on the perimeter, but Dolson showed the ability to close out and contest shots in space better than some of the most highly touted centers in the last few drafts.

All of that is before we get to Dolson's improved shot blocking ability this year.

Dolson's performance against Texas A&M managed to stand out not because it was her best, per se, but because it magnified many of the little things she brings to the floor by closing in on a second career triple-double, as described by Carl Adamec of the Journal Inquirer.

Statistically, Dolson's eight blocks helped make her arguably the MVP of that game - as discussed previously, it's not necessarily the block itself that impacts a game as much as the presence of a shot blocker to lock down the paint, which has some effect on an opponent's two point percentage. And the blocks weren't merely the result of "just" being tall: she showed agility and timing, of course, but most of her blocks come from outstanding position in the paint that has helped her rank near the top 50 in the nation in block percentage.

Looking ahead to the WNBA draft, her defense is what might set her apart more than anything else - her statistical profile is one of those that might be a bit misleading if taken on face value.

Dolson's WNBA strengths: foul efficiency, passing, scoring efficiency

Measuring a player's defensive impact is really difficult using standard statistics, but it's difficult to deny that Dolson has a significant role in UConn's nation-leading 32.9% opponent 2-point percentage even after accounting for the role that teammates Breanna Stewart and Kiah Stokes play in UConn's defensive prowess.

Dolson isn't perfect defensively - UConn switched Dolson off of Ogwumike after she got beat in transition off a poor offensive possession and she also got beat on a backcut that was saved from being a scoring possession by an outstanding recovery and block by the long arm of Stewart, to the point about the difficulty of assigning individual credit to a defensive player. As Jim Hu of Good Bull Hunting has pointed out, there's plenty of evidence to suggest she (and her entire team) does - even when ESPN shows clips attempting to illustrate how well she defends, they manage to catch her committing fouls that simply weren't called.

Nevertheless, considering the impact she has on the defensive end, Dolson makes far fewer blatant mistakes than most centers and has a solid argument for being the best defensive post in this draft. While acknowledging Hu's point, the thing that does still stand out defensively for Dolson is her personal foul efficiency (stls + blks/pf): given her shot blocking percentage of 5.14% (14th among the nation's senior centers, according to WBB State), her PF efficiency of 1.46 is outstanding. Every year there are shot blockers who can't aggressively block shots without picking up fouls; Dolson's ability to do that against one of the nation's top 25 schedules (in spite of their weaker schedule in American conference play).

With her two steals against Stanford, Dolson joined a relatively small set of college seniors since 2008 in the 40 blocks - 40 steals club - as mentioned earlier this year, it's not exactly a guarantee of pro success for post players, but as part of the rest of her statistical profile it does add value. More than anything the steals reflect that she's usually in the right place at the right time to make plays - those two steals in that first half against Stanford, the first off perfectly anticipating a lazy pass to Ogwumike the second from simply being in the perfect spot to gather a loose ball.

To summarize her defensive ability, let's just say that it's unlikely she'll hurt a team on that end.

Offensively, UConn runs their offense through her on a number of occasions and her passing numbers reflect an uncommon efficiency as a distributing center. Her assist ratio of 20.7% is outstanding and gives her a solid (for a center) pure point rating of -1.07 - the fact is, most centers just aren't put in a position to spend that much time making plays for others.

Adding value to her passing ability in the high post is her scoring efficiency and shooting range: although she doesn't shoot many threes, she ended up shooting 29.7% for her career with a career-high 27 attempts this season. Chances are that nobody will draft her looking for her three point shooting prowess, but it does reflect her ability to knock down shots away from the basket which makes her an excellent fit for any team looking to use her in a high-low situation with another post. With range on her jumper as well improved moves in the paint, Dolson has an elite true shooting percentage of 60.5%, well within the range of a successful center prospect.

Not showing up in the box score statistics are the things that she showed against Texas A&M, beating everyone down the floor for a layup in transition and showing the ability to put the ball on the floor for a few decisive dribbles. And of course, her ability to set screens is one of those things that adds subtle value to an offense - sure, she gets away with some illegal screens every now and then, but many of the best centers do.

Dolson's weaknesses: Low usage rate, low free throw rate, offensive rebounding

Tempering the excitement over her scoring efficiency might be her slightly below average usage rate (19.78%), but even that should come with a caveat: playing with a (functional) team of All-Americans would necessarily mean that someone would have to sacrifice something offensively. With her ability to facilitate the offense from the high post and pull opposing centers away from the basket (or force opponents to make a choice), the average usage rate is perfectly justifiable. Similarly, her free throw rate of 26.12% - extremely low compared to successful center prospects from the past - is justified by the fact that she's not the typical post player who spends their time exclusively in the paint.

Dolson's 8.05% offensive rebound rate is rather low for a post player, but low offensive rebounding rates have not really been a harbinger of things to come for center prospects and - again - the fact that she's not always as close to the basket as other posts sort of negates that as a "weakness" as well.

WNBA projection: Low-risk rotation player

So, having negated just about any statistical weakness I could find for Dolson, the question is how good can she become in the WNBA?

We could begin by searching for past draft prospects with a similar style of play by SPI playing styles; unfortunately, there aren't really any comparisons to Dolson that work especially well. A large part of that is that there isn't a post in at least the last six years with a higher assist ratio than Dolson, which is a large part of what really sets her her apart.

Player (School, Draft Year)








Stefanie Dolson (UConn, 2014)








Devereaux Peters (Notre Dame, 2012)








Stefanie Dolson (UConn - Jr)








Kayla Pedersen (Stanford, 2011)








Janel McCarville (Minnesota, 2005)





Jayne Appel (Stanford, 2010)








Similar prospects to Stefanie Dolson (34 games) based on SPI style ratings for 2008-2013 prospects.

So let's just start here: Dolson really stands out as unique relative to recent draft history - there's just not a good comparison for her in recent memory. Even trying to conjure up some vague comparison to players based on her junior season numbers comes up with something that doesn't quite pass the smell test. And that's before taking a close look at the numbers (so I'll spare you that).

The lack of clear similarites led me to look back more generally for "centers with strong college passing numbers" and the only real comparisons I could come up with were 6-foot-4 Jayne Appel and 6-foot-2 Janel McCarville. Even then, both of those players had lower assist ratios than Dolson despite solid pure point ratings for a center prospect. But we might be able to stretch our imaginations a bit to extract a projection from them easier than the other two comparisons - we gotta give up on a one-to-one comparison.

Statistically, Dolson has more college similarities to McCarville (rebounding rates, passing ability, shooting range) than she does to Appel (a much better offensive rebounder, lower assist ratio, limited shooting range), but at 6-foot-5 has more defensive potential than McCarville does on stature alone. In the WNBA, Appel became one of the league's better defensive centers last season and has been among the league's top 10 rebounders over the last two seasons. 6-foot-2 Janel McCarville has been one of the best passing centers in the WNBA and can step out to score outside the paint while not quite being the offensive rebounder that Appel is.

But the key to figuring out how good Dolson becomes might lay in the usage rates: Appel's usage rates have been extremely low as a pro (her 9% usage rate last season is the statistical equivalent of "invisible") while McCarville's have been significantly below average (outside of her time with New York). It's probably most reasonable to assume that Dolson ends up being close to a below average usage (around 15-18%) center - most centers with her tendencies see their usage rates decline in the pros, but her shooting ability makes it hard to believe she falls to Appel levels. However, during her first three seasons in New York, McCarville had high usage rates while also being an efficient scorer.

The reasons for excitement about Dolson should be pretty clear: put that combination of McCarville's offensive and Appel's defensive skills into a 6-foot-5 mobile frame and you have the makings of a perennial All-Star caliber center. Worst case - and perhaps closer to a more realistic scenario - is that she struggles early and becomes a low usage reserve who can offer size defensively and a high post distributor offensively.

By now you probably get the point though: reality is that we just don't have a good comparison for Dolson currently in the WNBA - there isn't a center in the league who had higher perimeter tendencies than Dolson and her scoring efficiency makes it hard to believe she'd be totally ineffective on that front. Ultimately, Dolson has better college statistics than the majority of the centers in the league who played U.S. college ball - the chances of her failing to contribute are slim-to-none; her offensive rebounding numbers and questions about her usage rate being the only things really limiting her potential.

For more on this year's WNBA prospects, check out our 2014 WNBA draft prospect watch storystream.