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2015 WNBA Draft prospects: The case for Minnesota's Amanda Zahui B. as the top draft pick

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We looked at Kiah Stokes and low usage center prospects for the 2015 WNBA Draft the other day, but today we're going to look at trends among the opposite group of centers with a focus on Amanda Zahui B. and her pro potential.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

When you start talking about Minnesota center Amanda Zahui B. as a 2015 WNBA Draft prospect, it's hard to avoid her impressive rebounding.

Anyone who grabs 29 rebounds in a single game is naturally going to be labeled a "rebounder". But I want to begin the discussion about her pro potential by first shifting the focus of the discussion away from her rebounding.

Zahui B. did finish the 2014-15 season with the fourth-best rebounding average in the nation, which is inherently an impressive statistic. But when you look at her rebounding by percentage — the percentage of available rebounds she grabs — she drops down to 33rd in the nation according to WBB State. And when you dig further into her offensive rebounding percentage — the percentage of available offensive rebounds she grabs — her 11.99% offensive rebounding percentage is almost exactly average compared to major conference prospects over the last 10 years.

In other words, rebounding isn't necessarily going to be the strength that defines Zahui B. as a WNBA prospect despite the raw numbers.

How much does rebounding matter for WNBA center prospects?

We could run through a few potential reasons that I might not consider rebounding the best focal point for Zahui B., but I'm going to skip that now to make a bigger point: it's not entirely clear how much rebounding really matters for centers anyway.

12 of the top 15 offensive rebounding center prospects since 2005 have struggled to earn minutes in their first few seasons, instead floating around the league if they make a roster at all; plenty of poor or marginal rebounding center prospects have gone on to make rosters and become starters. As an example, Sylvia Fowles (2008) and Brittney Griner (2013) — both All-Stars and starting centers in the 2014 WNBA Finals — were not exactly dominant college rebounders relative to other prospects, particularly for their size.

One reason for that: in a game that is played largely below the rim to begin with, tall players are bound to just grab defensive rebounds without competition as WNBA center prospects are often simply the biggest, strongest player on the floor. It doesn't necessarily reflect rebounding ability for a college center to put up dominant rebounding numbers as much as a massive size advantage.

Second — and perhaps for the preceding reason — defensive and offensive rebounding are more distinct skills in women's basketball than men's, which is something that I admittedly haven't paid enough attention to. To demonstrate that, look at the top 10 rebounders by percentage year-by-year in the NBA and WNBA at Basketball-Reference: there will generally be some overlap in the men's game (the top four in both categories are the same players this season) and almost none — as in literally 8-9 different players in each list some years — in the women's game.

All of that should absolutely change how we should value rebounding, and thus rebounders, in the WNBA: defensive rebounding tends to be the domain of the centers whereas offensive rebounding tends to include more of a mix of power forwards and centers. And therein lies the problem for center prospects: since offensive rebounds are more of a scarce resource so to speak, offensive boards are generally more valuable. If centers tend to be defensive rebounders in the pros, how valuable is a rebounding center prospect?

It's a question that probably deserves more attention than I'll give it now — as usual in a 12-team league that has gone through varying roster sizes and rules changes over the years, the sample sizes for these things are so small that we can't answer that with anywhere near the statistical power of what we can get in the NBA.

Along those lines, the one player who has cobbled together a career almost entirely on the strength of her rebounding prowess is Courtney Paris (2009). And interestingly enough, her statistical profile is strikingly similar to that of Zahui B. except for one notable difference.

Player

Year'

S%

P%

I%

Dreb%

Oreb%

TS%

USG%

Zahui B, Amanda

2015

0.09

0.07

0.97

24.9

11.99

61.33

24.58

Paris, Courtney

2009

0.04

0.09

0.99

27.55

21.33

59.51

21.7

Statistical comparison between Amanda Zahui B. and Courtney Paris in their final college seasons.

Paris is among those centers who makes her way onto that offensive rebounding list on occasion and you can see why: she set the NCAA Division I record for rebounding and has led the WNBA in offensive rebounding twice in her career.  She was an extremely dominant rebounder, well beyond the norm. And were it not for conditioning problems, she might have had an even better pro career. But Paris' career just further reinforces the point: rebounding ability will get a center on the roster but simply hasn't been enough to be considered an indicator of a stable career, even if you're the greatest rebounding center prospect in NCAA history.

So...if I've just totally muddled the value of Zahui B.'s rebounding prowess, why would I even bother still thinking about her as a top prospect? Because her scoring efficiency was the first thing that stood out about her when looking at her efficiency numbers.

The value of volume and efficiency in a center

Amanda Zahui B. had a true shooting percentage of 61.33% at a usage rate of 24.58% in her second and final year at Minnesota. I've said in the past that having a true shooting percentage of 60% or above makes a center pretty much a lock to make a roster — in fact, that might actually make a pretty good case for a player like UConn's Kiah Stokes finding a place in the league. But a center who can score like that at a usage level that Ken Pomeroy has classified as a "major contributor" (24% and above)?

Let's look at the history since 2004:

Name

School

Year

USG%

TS%

FTP

Sylvia Fowles

LSU

2008

28.84

60.58

32

Tina Charles

UConn

2010

28.64

63.80

23

Brittney Griner

Baylor

2013

28.48

66.59

36

Jessica Davenport

Ohio State

2007

28.43

66.59

52

Nicole Ohlde

Kansas State

2004

26.61

61.34

38

Cierra Bravard

Florida State

2012

26.54

62.48

53

Markeisha Gatling

NC State

2014

25.93

68.80

26

Amanda Zahui B. (So.)

Minnesota

2015

24.58

61.33

33

WNBA center prospects from major NCAA conferences with TS% > 60 & USG% > 24.5 since 2004.

You know you're doing something right when you've been mentioned in the same breath as All-Stars like Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, and Brittney Griner. Jessica Davenport and Nicole Ohlde ended up being reserves on championship teams in Indiana (2012) and Phoenix (2009), respectively. We're only one year into Markeisha Gatling's career, but she was plagued by foul trouble in college. The "outlier", if you can call it that for a player who is one of seven, is Cierra Bravard who also had a major problem with foul trouble that reflected other concerns about conditioning that followed her throughout her college career.

Getting in this group pretty much means you're a lock to be a roster player at the very least.

And the free throw production rate (FTM/FGA) in the far right column is also important: Zahui B. is just outside the top 10 among the centers drafted in recent years and the fact that she shot 79% from the line in her senior year bodes well for her ability to find points at the line when fouled to bolster her production.

Sadly, scoring centers have pretty much been the best of the best among NCAA-produced centers over the last decade — it's really the high volume-high efficiency stars above as well as players like Kelsey Bone (2013) and Jantel Lavender (2011) who come in at a slightly lower TS%, elite passers (Jayne Appel, 2010; Stefanie Dolson, 2014; Janel McCarville, 2005), and a whole lot of players who float around on the fringes or take a while to develop (e.g. Kia Vaughn, 2008).

The outlook

Zahui B. is an interesting prospect in that she isn't really a stand out in any single category that matters, but she also doesn't have any red flags that would provide any reason to think she won't make an impact. Sure, Davenport didn't really have statistical red flags either, but Zahui B. is just an imposing physical force in a different way.

Although neither shot blocking nor defensive rebounding really make or break a center's career, Zahui B. is good enough at both (i.e. in the upper tier) to suggest she'll be a solid defensive presence. Although she's not the best scoring center ever, she's good enough to suggest that she'll find her scoring opportunities in the pros. Her shooting ability alone suggests that we could eventually put her in the conversation as one of the most skilled centers in the league at some point.

That combination of strengths made Zahui B. the obvious top prospect in the draft when she first declared — she's an elite prospect in that she has no red flags and seems likely to make an immediate and sustainable impact, not something that's common at the position (especially, again, when selecting among NCAA center prospects). And when you find a player for whom the only real question is how good she'll be rather than whether she'll be good, that's normally the makings of a top pick.

Then Jewell Loyd declared herself eligible.

If they both remain eligible for the draft — there's still time to feel the lure of college — I'd argue that passing on Loyd would be a lot harder than passing on Zahui B. The reason is pretty simple: Loyd could end up being the best player at her position one day. Zahui B. definitely has a rare combination of strengths but might not be a franchise-changing, can't miss player given the state of her position.

The Seattle Storm certainly have a need at center that Zahui B. would fill. But Loyd would also fill a need. So drafting Zahui B. based solely on need when Jewell Loyd is around doesn't seem like a great idea. To make that logic work, you really have to establish that Zahui B. is at least a comparable prospect. Even then, good centers are hard to find, but if you look around the league at recent draft picks good shooting guards are too. Going big just because big humans aren't plentiful doesn't always work — other northwest professional basketball teams have chosen really, really solid centers to fill a need instead of dynamic wings and found themselves on the wrong end of draft jokes.