Notre Dame junior Jewell Loyd is a game-changer in the 2015 WNBA Draft because she could very well become a franchise-changing talent for whoever drafts her.
Of course, just being a franchise cornerstone prospect isn't anything unique compared to the last four drafts. Just to name a few: UConn's Maya Moore (2011) has already earned a couple of WNBA titles and a MVP award. Baylor's Brittney Griner (2013) just took home her first title and Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014. Delaware's Elena Delle Donne's (2013) health seems to be the only thing holding her back from achieving similar accolades; even in saying that she just made her first WNBA Finals appearance, something a few more heralded players still haven't achieved. And 2014 lottery picks Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford and Odyssey Sims of Baylor can probably be expected to start getting their first non-rookie accolades as soon as this summer.
Jewell Loyd is either in that class of elite draft prospects or in a tier just below, whether you look at college accomplishments, athleticism or statistics — she's the full, almost unflawed, package that is destined for perennial All-Star status. The marginally more difficult thing to articulate is what exactly puts her in that group of athletes beyond the sort of shallow statement about her just having that "It factor" — even though I was usually watching college games with an eye on WNBA draft prospects, Loyd was so by far and away the most entertaining player in the country this season that I watched more of her games that anyone else's.
Cool, calm, collected
Strangely, as I was coming up with the words to describe what makes Notre Dame junior Jewell Loyd an elite draft prospect, I realized I was essentially listing the traits of one of my favorite action movie characters of 2014: Denzel Washington's Robert McCall.
Rather than continuing to struggle to put the words in basketball terms, bear with me for a moment.
Before you judge me for my movie tastes, a) I almost never watch action movies (...almost), b) gratuitous violence is not my thing (I don't think) and b) please note that I didn't even say the movie was great — I was captivated by the character himself, which Jialing of The Regular Moviegoer seems to capture most fittingly for what I'm actually trying to discuss here.
...Denzel Washington is utterly cool, and so effortlessly *badass* in it...after that first hurdle, he is no longer hesitant about unleashing his meticulously planned, stoic justice on the scumbags of the world...And cool he is: every look he levels is imperturbable — chilling, if you’re on his wrong side — and every movement he makes is calm and collected...
Or if you prefer a more gender-specific reference, maybe Anika from Empire telling Cookie that she's a debutante "...who can who can slice your throat without disturbing her pearls" works better for you.
Excuse the violent imagery, but there's a cool, calm, collected, analytical precision blended with an "effortlessly badass", finely tuned yet unassuming viciousness in Jewell Loyd that makes it almost impossible to turn away from watching her from fear of missing the moment when she'll choose to demoralize an opponent. The ruthlessness is obviously there on most occasions, but she makes it all look so routine that it becomes perfectly expected to the point that all you can do is shake your head for loss of words when it happens repeatedly. Loyd's way of navigating the court — not quite the gliding steps of Deanna Nolan, but something damn near close to it or of the same DNA -- suggests a mastery of motion even moreso than a mastery of the game itself (which I don't think anyone questions will come at some point sooner than later). And all of that somehow coalesces in a way that seems to provide a calming presence for her teammates even as it almost unquestionably strikes fear into the hearts of her opponents.
Loyd was the most watchable player in the nation this college season, if not the most spectacular, not because of a height advantage enhanced by uncommon athleticism or skill, overwhelming force, a flurry of blazing speed, flashy ball handling, or the outward appearance of an assassin's attitude — she offers a different experience, the type of game that leaves you in awe of the very fact of someone mastering their body in quite that way on a basketball court. She is absolutely one of the those basketball players who I think about mainstream fans missing out on because they haven't gone to the (sometimes great) lengths to seek out women's basketball — she sells the women's game on the merits of the game itself whether than trying to bait you in through some tangential angle, and if that's not enough for you then the game might not be for you (which is fine, as long as you're not a jerk about it).
The numbers: Balancing efficiency and volume
Boiling all of that airy rambling down to basketball terms, Loyd's production is actually not that spectacular on paper. Her averages, while great, don't exactly do justice to any of the (hyperbolic?) words above. What really does stand out is a fairly uncommon combination of athleticism, control, efficiency, and dynamic individual play that is extremely rare in the women's game.
And ironic as it might sound, the place to begin is actually examining her sharp decline in scoring efficiency in her final season at Notre Dame.
Jewell Loyd's statistics from her sophomore & junior seasons (via WBB State).
Taken out of context, those are all alarming declines — any time a player's efficiency drops like that at production so similar, there's reason for pause. It's not enough to drop her out of consideration for the first pick in the draft or elite potential, but enough to engage in some examination of whether everyone's excitement is warranted.
But before going forward, can we just take a moment to acknowledge how insane those 2013-14 numbers are? I mean, New York Liberty coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer's idea to just draft her last year and hope she came out is half-justified looking at those numbers -- they're not just "great", they're almost unheard of. She went from otherworldly to "just" elite prospect.
Yet a little more context helps to explain why we shouldn't suppress our excitement about Loyd now.
Jewell Loyd's statistics from her sophomore & junior seasons (via WBB State).
So first things first, that 47.1% 2-point percentage is still squarely in the range of a successful prospect. And the 10% jump in Loyd's free throw rate reflects an increased aggression at driving toward the basket as opposed to settling for jumpers — she shot 90 more free throw attempts in her junior season.
But what's really important to pay attention to is that usage rate: just putting up the solid efficiency numbers that she did at that kind of volume is a feat unto itself that speaks to her talent. The following is the list of players from major conference programs who have been that efficient at a usage rate that high.
Past draft prospects (2010-present) with usage >30.96 & 2pt% > 47%.
If that list of players doesn't look all that impressive — especially for Washington Mystics fans — bear in mind that a) the three of them are different types of players in important ways and b) those pure point ratings are also significant.
When a player handles the ball that often, turnovers should be expected just as a function of having more opportunities to make mistakes. Loyd was actually better than Hill and Wright in two ways in that regard: she tallied more assists and turned the ball over less (and much less than Wright), which resulted in the lower pure point rating. That suggests that Loyd is a tad more ready for the next level as a ball handler than the other two at the very least, which should enable her to continue scoring at the next level — and that's not to mention her athleticism and the fact that she took her team to Final Fours with those numbers.
But another player who just missed that cut is worth mentioning too: Sims, who experienced a similar decline in efficiency in her final year in college.
The common theme: both Loyd and Sims were asked to do more in their final years in college due to lottery picks in the class ahead of them graduating (for whatever it's worth, Hill was in a similar situation). Sims' usage rate skyrocketed from 20.1% in her junior season to 37.29% in her senior season — you'll probably remember people griping about how she was a chucker who wouldn't be able to make it at the next level. But the more important thing there was that she still managed a positive pure point rating (0.8) despite being the team's no-brainer go-to option on every play and facing triple teams at times.
And there's something else instructive about Sims' case: some people began wondering whether Sims could play point guard at the pro level based on her senior year numbers while inexplicably ignoring the fact that she just played point guard for a championship team at an extremely high efficiency in her junior year. Players don't just lose the ability to do what they showed in college year-to-year, particularly when you can justify changes by simply looking at context.
In Loyd's case, there's legitimate concern that she might be too much of a jumpshooter: she was a volume scorer this year at a low efficiency, she has the athleticism to rise over people so she does when necessary, and she was a much inferior 3-point shooter on more attempts in her final season. But she was also about a 40% 3-point shooter over her first two seasons at Notre Dame — what's more likely: that she forgot how to shoot or when put in a situation with more experienced ball handlers and screeners she'll find a way to hit those shots again? I'd bet on the latter — if Loyd can do anything approximating what she did her junior year or some compromise between the two seasons, she will be a superstar.
The point of this exercise of knocking down any perceived weaknesses in Loyd's statistical profile was to simply illustrate that it's the whole package that makes her an exciting prospect. The chances of her failing are so minimal that nitpicking is probably pointless; the chances of her being less than a star are probably only marginally higher. Selecting Loyd first simply cannot end up being much of a mistake. In terms of her projected position, you have to ask yourself how many young two guards will end up being better than her long-term — Loyd could lock down her position for years to come, particularly as some noted vets retire.
At worst, she becomes an All-Star starter who complements someone else on a perennial playoff team; at best, she's indispensable as one of the best shooting guard prospects to enter the league in recent memory.