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2015 WNBA Draft: Revisiting what makes a strong WNBA point guard prospect

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Over the past few years, the qualities of successful WNBA point prospects has not only changed but changed dramatically. To properly evaluate this year's group of point guard prospects -- and, by extension, the 2015 draft class -- it helps to understand the trends in the league.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2013 WNBA Draft, I wrote that the 2013 point guard class had, "...an opportunity to provide some additional insight into what makes a good point guard: there are a number of point guard prospects who were drafted in this year's class who either don't have a traditionally 'strong' profile or have a quirk that might challenge the conventions of the past."

Two seasons later, that's exactly what happened.

The number of rookie point guards who made rosters in 2013 was impressive on its own, especially considering that the WNBA is a league with 12 teams with 11 roster spots at the time.

Six rookies who played point guard in college ended up on rosters from start to finish, which is the most since the 2008 season when the league had 14 teams with 13 players each. That three made it through a second season, two of which started the majority of their team's games at point guard, isn't quite as impressive on its own but becomes more impressive when considering that Skylar Diggins was an All-WNBA player and Alex Bentley had a case for being an All-Star in the Eastern Conference.

So how exactly did 2013 change things? It actually just helps to start over in thinking about how we define a good point guard from scratch.

Point guard metrics

The unique thing about point guard prospects is that they can lay claim to a single box score statistic in a way that no other position really can: the assist.

Although it is true that centers can similarly lay claim to the "block" category (and, as discussed previously, the defensive rebounding category as well), it doesn't quite define the position in quite the way assists have come to define the point guard spot: in women's college basketball especially, there are plenty of instances where players pick up blocks and rebounds as a function of being tall rather than the representation of a specific skill. Unfortunately for those of us who have not been blessed with Magic Johnson's height, one's natural physical characteristics don't generally generate assists.

Of course, none of that is to say that assists are a fair way to evaluate point guard prospects, which is exactly part of what makes the examination of point guard prospects both fascinating and frustrating: while people are quick to lean on assist averages as a shorthand for the top point guards in the land, that's only the beginning of the story (and some might even say a tangential distraction).

Acknowledging the shortcoming of assists -- a statistic that becomes even more deeply problematic when you consider the inconsistencies in how the statistic is recorded from place to place, day to day -- is just the beginning of rethinking the evaluation of point guards. It also helps to apply the lessons of the last few years.

Each year, I like to focus on the trends among draft prospects at a specific position in order to figure out position-specific indicators for a successful transition from college to pros. Although this year's draft is widely considered weak, the point guard position might produce some of its most interesting prospects in terms of long-term development so we're going to revisit and/or update the qualities of a strong WNBA point guard prospect before jumping into deeper analysis of the 2015 class.

Without further ado...

Ball handling efficiency

I've been measuring "efficiency" using John Hollinger's Pure Point Rating, which measures how well a point guard balances the benefit of creating an assist at the risk of committing a turnover given the minutes they've played. If you're unfamiliar with the number that I use constantly without adequate explanation it, SB Nation's At the Hive put together a pretty good explanation a few years back and you can find both the formula and a link to Hollinger's original explanation in our statistics glossary.

In short, PPR is an improvement over the other typically available assist options because it takes a player's efficiency as a playmaker into account. It should be obvious why that's an improvement over using assists or assists per game: a player who racks up assists at the expense of more turnovers isn't doing you a whole lot of good. But it's also an improvement over assist to turnover ratio, which doesn't take the player's minutes into account.

PPR is a valuable number when it comes to evaluating point guard prospects: if you look at the PPRs of point guard prospects from 2001-2013, there's a pretty obvious point of differentiation between future starting point guards and fringey or unsuccessful point guards.And it's natural to think that a player with a better PPR is a better point guard — consistent with what most people think of when they think about a "pure point guard", the player who sets up others most efficiently should be considered the best point guard, right?

But there are also so many exceptions that you begin to see that there's more to being a point guard than dishing out assists and minimizing turnovers: 2014 All-Star point guards Ivory Latta (2007), Danielle Robinson (2011), and Lindsay Whalen (2004) all had negative PPRs in their senior year of college. So there must be something else going on there. In contrast, folks near the top of the PPR list (e.g. Sydney Colson, 2011; Alison Lacey, 2010; Lindsey Moore, 2013) found themselves on the bench in their first year as pros and eventually ended up out of the league.

Support for the idea that "pure" point guards were ideal in the WNBA was really beginning to fall apart with Robinson's entry into the league. And if you continued to believe in purity, 2013 sort of blew that idea apart and then Odyssey Sims just came along in 2014 and trampled through its ashes.

Creating for teammates vs. creating for self

So what did all those players with negative PPRs have in common? They were high volume scorers, often the top option on their team in terms of the number of the team's possessions they used up.

This is where a player's usage rate comes in. We've already discussed that quite a bit with centers when looking at Minnesota's Amanda Zahui B. and UConn's Kiah Stokes, but it's an even more valuable statistic for point guards, especially given recent trends.

I wrote about this at some length during the 2014 season, so I'll just reiterate the point here:

...as of opening day (in 2014), 7 of the league's 12 starting point guards had college usage rates of 24% or above. That number increases when you include Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, Chicago's Jamierra Faulkner, and L.A.'s Kristi Toliver who all eventually took over for their teams as full-time starting point guards. That's a very high average college usage rate for WNBA point guards - this is not just a matter of pass-first college point guards adapting, but a league-wide shift toward putting scorers in the point guard position.

Interestingly enough, 24% is right where men's college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy marked the threshold for being a "significant contributor" to a player's  team offense — WNBA teams simply aren't looking for the players who initiate the offense and get out of the way anymore. As the league features more guards who are damn near unguardable off the dribble in a pick and roll — sticking with Tulsa, think of that Diggins-Sims combination — they're going to look for players who create (hopefully efficient) offense, both for themselves and others.

And as teams continue to look for that balance, the key might not be to throw out passing but to look in a different direction.

From passing efficiency to passing significance

If playmaking efficiency isn't all that important to point guard success anymore, maybe we can look at playmaking in terms of a player's centrality to a team's offense: in other words, perhaps the players who are making it in the league despite poor efficiency numbers are still the engines that make their teams go and are less efficient as they take more chances.

Without getting too mathy on folks, if we're valuing usage in some way then we're inherently embracing the risk of turnovers within that — turnovers are part of the usage equation. Furthermore, high usage players — players who have the ball in their hands against defenses who know they're going to have the ball in their hands — are bound to turn the ball over more often simply because they'll have more opportunities to do so. So if that's the case, it might be unfair to penalize them by looking at passing efficiency — if you can think back to Sims' senior season, turnovers against triple teams aren't exactly a damning statement about her ability or lack thereof.

So as I looked through other numbers, one that seemed to stand out among successful WNBA point guards was assist percentage. Assist percentage is actually less complicated than most of the above stuff: it's simply the estimated percentage of teammates' field goals that a player assists on while on the floor. And prior to last year's NBA Draft, Ryan Feldman of ESPN observed that, "Among guards and wings in the last 5 NBA Drafts, eight of the top 10 in assist percentage in their final college season have started in the NBA." So I decided to see if there was something similar among WNBA prospects.

Throwing wings in there made for a bit of a mixed bag, but if you just limited it to major conference point guards, you do see a very similar trend in terms of players' ability to make rosters (which is a more adequate standard for a league with 12 teams that has had 11-player rosters in recent years).

So as it turns out, if you exclude UCLA's Markel Walker (?!?) 11 of the top 13 players with the top assist percentages since 2009 have made a roster.

Year

Player

Team

G

Min

Usage%

Asst Rt

2009

Lehning, Shalee

Kst

30

1017

20.61

47.77

2010

Lacey, Alison

ISU

30

1003

25.7

46.11

2010

Riley, Andrea

Okla. State

26

936

41.17

43.92

2011


Colson, Sydney


TAM


28


667


19.12

43.12

2014

Gray, Chelsea

20

42.11

2009

Boddie, Whitney

Auburn

19.59

41.17

2013


McKenith, Nadirah


STJ


30


1018


24.37

37.9

2013


Goodrich, Angel


KU


34


1255


24.46

37.69

2014


McFarland, Valencia


MISS


32


1175


25.12

36.5

2013


Moore, Lindsey


NEB


34


1170


22.11

36.36

2013


Whyte, Davellyn


ARIZ


30


1064


27.79

35.78

2014


Harper, CeCe


KU


32


1024


22.94

35.25

2013


Diggins, Skylar


ND


37


1184


27.84

34.98

The top 13 NCAA assist percentages among point guards since 2009 (via WBB State).

As for the exceptions there: Mississippi's Valencia McFarland was fighting an uphill battle as a 5'4" point guard on a losing team who didn't shoot all that well. Kansas' Cece Harper was one of those guards who shot 68.5% of her shots from beyond the 3-point line, which has doomed guards and wings trying to make the league for years (I'm going to keep hinting at this strongly...maybe people will eventually accept that it matters when you rank prospects for this year's draft). If you accept those exceptions — and the fact that WNBA general managers weren't very interested in using a draft pick on either — being in that group has been a pretty good indicator for whether someone will make a roster.

Choosing the path less traveled by

The last thing that really seems to separate elite point guards from the pack is the ability to drive left or right. That sounds so basic that it seems like it should be obvious, but so few point guards accomplish that that it really stands out.

According to NCAA women's basketball data from Synergy Sports, just five point guards drafted since 2011 have been anywhere within a 5% margin of a 50/50 right-left split: Sydney Colson (2011), Samantha Prahalis (2012), Danielle Robinson (2011), Odyssey Sims (2014), and Davellyn Whyte (2013). Unfortunately, Synergy doesn't provide complete women's basketball data beyond 2011 (and 2012 is spotty) but it should come as absolutely no surprise that both Robinson (33.12% assist percentage) and Sims (31.57%) are WNBA players who were high-usage and 30%+ assist percentage players who were extremely adept at driving to the basket with either hand in college: these are dynamic playmakers whose ability to create was enhanced by an elite ability to go either way.

So how does that apply to the 2015 WNBA Draft?

Physical tools

As it turns out, there are three 2015 seniors from major conferences that have been on my draft radar this season that have assist percentages within the top 15 over the last six years: Brittany Boyd (Cal), Samantha Logic (Iowa), and Nikki Moody (Iowa State) who actually led the nation in assist percentage at 47.35% with a usage rate of 27.5%, a PPR of 4.04 and a junior season right-left ratio of 50.5% to 49.5%. You might note that her 47.35% mark is the second-highest in the last six years (yes, I'm saying people should at least consider Nikki Moody if they haven't already been).

But even with a sterling statistical profile, we've seen quite a few players over the years who didn't make it for one reason or another: Alison Lacey (2010) and Lindsey Moore (2013) both looked amazing statistically, but struggled to contend with the speed of the pro game. Samantha Prahalis' (2012) struggles have been discussed ad nauseam here. Even Skylar Diggins really struggled to deal with the physicality in her first year, to the point of looking like a bust.

What we can't predict, no matter what the past says, is how these players will respond to adjust to the physical demands of the game. Skylar Diggins did, despite tons of criticism, and ended up making one of the biggest rookie to sophomore leaps in U.S. pro basketball history depending on what numbers you use. Others haven't, obviously. But this year's point guard class might have more to watch than we're giving credit for.