Throughout the entire 2014-15 NCAA season, everyone — self included — has lamented how weak the 2015 WNBA Draft is.
Of course, that changed with the entry of Jewell Loyd and Amanda Zahui B. into the draft, but it's still worth discussion since those prospects that everyone considered inadequate previously will still be drafted.
But one thing that will be interesting as the draft unfolds is how teams weigh what they're seeing now from a player versus what a player could become. Almost every single one of the prospects I chose to watch closely before the season not only has weaknesses, but significant weaknesses — moreso than previous drafts, the real challenge this year is going to be projecting which players are most likely to overcome or grow out of their weaknesses.
An example of that is Cal forward Reshanda Gray, who is a clear case where taking the context of her production into account is essential.
Cal has always had one glaring weakness that just about every opponent has tried to exploit for the last five years: they're not a particularly great shooting team. Granted they were significantly better this season (32%) than they have been in any season during her four-year career, but the impact on the offense was similar: teams packed the paint, daring Cal to shoot, instead of allowing Gray to dominate single coverage.
That means that there was more than one occasion where Gray was fighting through 2-3 defenders when she got the ball and kicking out wasn't exactly a solution that would keep the defense honest. That made it harder for Gray to get clean scoring opportunities, rebound, and avoid turnovers. And yet when all is said and done, Gray has done most of those things at an elite level.
She does have some serious flaws: she isn't an efficient face up scorer. She doesn't rack up many assists in part because if she's able to get the ball inside the paint, taking advantage of the opportunity to score is a good idea. The foul problems that have plagued her for most of her career are still there, albeit improving.
Yet the question you have to ask about Gray stems from this: she's not likely to draw multiple defenders in the WNBA; she could even be on a team with multiple perimeter threats; she won't necessarily even have to be a big minute contributor. So what would happen if you took away the triple teams, made her less of a focal point on both ends of the floor, and just let her play? That's where understanding a player's strengths in context matter: the fact that Gray put up the numbers she did in the circumstances she was up against is actually somewhat remarkable, despite all the talk about this being a weak draft.
Scoring efficiency (2-point percentage of 52% and above): For power forwards, having some sort of face up game is becoming increasingly important in the WNBA. But so is simply showing the ability to score efficiently in the paint and Gray did that and then some.
Gray managed a 2-point percentage of 56.8%, which is fairly outstanding when you consider the volume of shots she took. No, it's not Chiney Ogwumike efficient (she shot 60% from 2-point range on a usage of 33.6%) but Gray is good enough in the paint that she should be considered a lottery candidate when you compare her to her peers in this draft.
By way of comparison, the most similar player to Gray on the SPI playing styles scale is Tianna Hawkins (2013), who did have more of a face up game than Gray and was on a better 3-point shooting team that created more space in the paint. But Gray's 2-point percentage is still above what Hawkins' was at Maryland (56.1%) at about the same usage rate (29.21% vs. 28.6% for Gray) despite the number of defenders that Gray attracted.
Comparing Gray to Hawkins isn't necessarily a ringing endorsement — Hawkins struggled to play at all in her rookie season and improved in the same limited minutes in her second season — but this is where we are in this draft: looking for roster players. And Gray has numbers that match those of past roster players.
Prominent past examples: Danielle Adams, 2011; Nneka Ogwumike, 2012; Chiney Ogwumike, 2014
Potential 2015 examples: Reshanda Gray, Cal; Aleighsa Welch, South Carolina; Dearica Hamby, Wake Forest; Chelsea Gardner, Kansas
Offensive rebounding percentage: For power forwards moreso than centers, an offensive rebounding percentage of 11% or above is strong indicator of a successful transition from college to pros. There are posts who have made it without being dominant offensive rebounders, but barring any strongly waving red flags offensive rebounding is one of the best indicators of success we have - really, it applies to both the NBA and WNBA.
Sticking with the example of Gray, her offensive rebounding rate of 11.93% is squarely within range of a successful prospect and gives her at least one clear skill that you know she can probably bring to a WNBA roster if given the opportunity to play: she's an agile, physical forward who is absolutely relentless at fighting people for offensive rebounds when she doesn't have multiple bodies on her. Again, stick her on a team where the defense's attention isn't entirely on her and you could easily imagine her using her considerable physical gifts to extend possessions for a team in role player minutes.
Prominent recent examples: Danielle Adams, 2011; Kelsey Bone, 2013; Glory Johnson, 2012; Nneka Ogwumike, 2012; Gennifer Brandon, 2014; Chiney Ogwumike, 2014
Potential 2015 examples: Nneka Enemkpali, Texas; Isabelle Harrison, Tennessee; Reshanda Gray, Cal; Aleighsa Welch, South Carolina
Scoring efficiency: For centers, true shooting percentage is important and likely because many NCAA centers are around the basket, which makes the ability to not only make shots but also draw fouls important. As discussed the other day about Amanda Zahui B., a true shooting percentage of 60% pretty much guarantees a roster spot; drop down to 57% and you're still in good company, but on the edge of the elite scoring tier.
Prominent past examples: Sylvia Fowles, 2008; Brittney Griner, 2013; Tina Charles, 2010
Potential 2015 examples: Amanda Zahui B., Minnesota
Usage rates above 24%: Similar to point guards, having a usage rate abov
Pure interior players: Post players with interior orientations in the 92nd percentile or above relative to prospects from 2008-2014 according to the SPI styles framework have done extremely well. Those from that group of 30 that haven't made it (Talia Caldwell, 2013; Danielle Campbell, 2009; Sybil Dosty, 2009; Jasmine Lee, 2012; La Toya Micheaux, 2009; Sam Ostarello, 2013; Chelsea Poppens, 2013) all had red flags (notably, questionable scoring efficiency) that led to them going undrafted or being fringe prospects to begin with.
One explanation is that as with any basketball league, bigs are just coveted players and general managers are just more likely to give anyone who appears half-serviceable a shot. But in any event, if deciding between a post in that top 8 percentile and one outside with similar efficiency numbers, the former is probably the best bet.
Prominent recent examples: Sylvia Fowles, 2008; Glory Johnson, 2012; Kia Vaughn, 2009; Gennifer Brandon, 2014
Potential 2015 draft prospects: Kiah Stokes, UConn; Martha Alwal, Mississippi State; Elem Ibiam, South Carolina.