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Swish Appeal Roundtable: Ranking the rookies

The Swish Appeal contributors weigh in on the race to Rookie of the Year and identify players who have exceeded expectations (as well as those who haven’t quite lived up to the hype).

Seattle Storm v Las Vegas Aces
A’ja Wilson shoots over Breanna Stewart.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces had been anointed the inevitable 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year before she had even played her first game. Some of this may have stemmed from former South Carolina teammate Allisha Gray (of the Dallas Wings) winning rookie honors in in 2017 and both players being the fruit of the Dawn Staley coaching tree. But Wilson has since lived up to the hype, including an impressive 25-point 15-rebound double-double in last night’s Aces’ win over the third-ranked Seattle Storm and a historic performance last week. But other rookies have been holding their own and holding things down for their teams as well, and here’s what the Swish Appeal team had to say about it.

The 2018 WNBA Rookie Class

Rookie of the Year

If voting were to happen today, 71.43% of Swish Appeal contributors would tip the honors to No. 1 draft pick A’ja Wilson, with 28.57% sliding the nod to No. 2 draft pick Kelsey Mitchell of the Indiana Fever.

Cara Wright: I love when a tall woman like A’ja Wilson has a shooter’s touch and can bang in the paint. I am excited to see her continue to grow in her talent.

Antonio Losada: I’d love to go with Kelsey Mitchell, because she has been on fire (who hasn’t, actually?), but A’ja dominating as a veteran this early in her career would give her the award was it to be handed today.

Christine M. Hopkins: The Aces are starting to find themselves and pick up wins, but there’s been one constant for them all season, and it’s A’ja Wilson. She’s been expected to produce at a very high level from day one and she’s delivered, even compared to the other super-talented rookies on better teams. Already, this says so much about how great a fit the league is for her.

Albert Lee: Kelsey Mitchell is second in overall scoring, and is shooting over 40 percent from the field, and nearly just as well from three. Most volume shooting guards don’t shoot over 40 percent, especially in their first year. Beyond the scoring, Mitchell has been the catalyst for Indy’s offense in a rebuilding season. Without her, there may not be much to root for.

Charles LaRocca: No disrespect at all towards Kelsey Mitchell; she has done a great job handling the scoring load in a tough situation. With that being said, A’ja Wilson is the clear winner and I don’t think it’s close. Wilson is simply a special player that already seems poised to be mentioned with the WNBA’s elite. The Las Vegas Aces’ success relies on her ability to do everything. She’s the number-one option on offense and is the anchor on defense. That’s a tall task on any player, let alone a rookie. But A’ja is not only handling the role, she’s thriving in it.

Tamryn Spruill: Kelsey Mitchell has toiled in the shadow of A’ja Wilson all season long despite also doing everything for her team. She has had only one low-scoring game this season (against the Dream, in Atlanta) and, although the Fever have only won one game, the losses have been by single digits — thanks, in large part, to Mitchell’s do-all scoring abilities. Sure, Wilson has flat out dominated this season — and not just for a rookie, either. But Mitchell has thrived in much less pleasant circumstances that would cause many players to give up. With endless support for the underdog, always, I tip it to Mitchell.

Most Pleasant Surprise

When asked which players were exceeding expectations of those ranked fourth or lower in the 2018 WNBA Draft, New York Liberty’s Kia Nurse was named Most Pleasant Surprise by 66.67% of Swish Appeal contributors. The Fever’s Victoria Vivians and the Washington Mystics’ Ariel Atkins each received one vote apiece.

Cara: Kia Nurse has been a pleasant surprise in being able to capitalize on her minutes in the game and show her skill level.

Antonio: I’m going with Kia Nurse even more, knowing she’s not been as active or used as often as other rookies, which makes her value even higher. Coming from the bench, part of New York’s second unit, Nurse has proved she could be key for the future of the Liberty and she’s already had an out-of-mind 34-point game in a Liberty win.

Christine: Kia Nurse has been dynamite off the bench for the Liberty this season. The initial surprise for me was that she was taken so late in the draft (well, so late in the first round), after her other two UConn teammates. But it’s exciting seeing her get so much playing time— and thriving — regardless of how that worked out. And that 34-point game was a sight to behold.

Albert: Atkins has emerged quickly from reserve wing to starting small forward for the Mystics. She is scoring efficiently (43 percent from the field) and is a reliable three-point shooter. The Mystics need a player who’s able to play that 3-and-D role. They found that with Atkins much sooner than I expected.

Tamryn: Victoria Vivians. Unlike her teammate, Mitchell, Vivians has been a bit slow to hit her stride. But now we’re finally seeing what she’s capable of. She has scored in double digits in back-to-back contests against the Dream on June 14 and 16, and her production has been timely, when the Fever needed a spark of offense the most. Strong defensive presence also.

Charles: Kia Nurse is the answer for me hands down. She’s just an injection of energy and every time you hear about the Liberty her name seems to pop up. Her scoring off the bench gives the Liberty a different look offensively. Basically, what I’m saying is New York got a steal at the end of the first round.

Who hasn’t lived up to the hype?

Half of the Swish Appeal staff believes the Dallas Wings’ Azura Stevens has not lived up to the hype, with Lexie Brown (Connecticut Sun), Jordin Canada (Seattle Storm) and Gabby Williams (Chicago Sky) also being mentioned — at one vote apiece — for this unpleasant distinction.

Cara: Azura Stevens. I expected her to bring more intensity to the pros like she had in college. It hasn’t translated yet.

Antonio: It must be Azura Stevens. She’s drafted by Dallas, which has been playing nicely, yet she has not performed as I would have expected her to do so. She’s seen the floor quite a lot, but has not been able to put up big numbers neither in points nor rebounds when normalized to 40 mpg, which makes me think she will need to step up her game to live up to the expectations.

Albert: Stevens could have been a draft lottery pick, but she hasn’t yet wowed in Dallas and her playing time has declined in the last two games because of it.

Charles: Jordin Canada came into the league with a lot of hype. Coming from UCLA she was known for her flashy dribbling and natural play-making. Well, the creativity shown in college just hasn’t translated and it’s clear that her confidence has taken a hit. Canada just looks like a player that is trying way too hard to fit in rather than just playing.

Tamryn: Gabby Williams looks like a ghost of her college basketball self. The Sky have struggled mightily in all facets of the game but, according to Williams’ most recent rookie diary entry, it seems the issues are more psychological than anything else. Being unable to let go of poor play and losses has weighed her down mentally and perpetuated more poor play and further losses.

Which players would do better with a change of scenery?

Cara: Lexie Brown. I think she would be able to better showcase her talents on a team like the Fever or the Aces where it’s not such a vet-dominant, star-studded roster.

Antonio: I like what I’ve seen from Mercedes Russell. The problem is, Seattle is already stacked and she’s only averaging 10 mpg. Had she stayed in New York she could have turned into a valuable piece and probably ended seeing the floor more. Another interesting team, Indiana. The Fever needs bigs and Mercedes could fit the bill there while having a more prominent role. Will the Storm look to move her for a second time if they feel the need to add a veteran — or anything, for that matter — to make a final playoff push?

Christine: I can’t say where she might fit better as we haven’t seen much of her yet, but I still have to go with Maria Vadeeva. Considering the season the Sparks are having, and in spite of the well-deserved hype surrounding her, it just doesn’t seem like they need her right now.

Albert: Maria Vadeeva. I like that the Sparks drafted her and think she will ultimately be a great addition for LA’s post rotation in the long run. But LA’s post rotation may be too deep. Vadeeva could actually struggle to get time. But if she played on another team, she could be, at the very least, a regular rotation player.

Tamryn: Jordin Canada to the Dream ... because she isn’t getting all the touches she needs in Seattle to develop and thrive. Atlanta is the first-ranked defensive team in the league but needs a crafty player who can help to generate offense.

Charles: Jordin Canada. I still believe in her talent. But the Storm are a veteran team and don’t have the time to wait for Canada to adjust to the next level.

The 2017 WNBA Rookie Class

We took this a step further by examining last year’s rookies, who are a good study in player development (or lack thereof) based on the opportunities they are given with their respective teams. With concerns for the longevity of players in an ultra-competitive league, we also circled back to discuss the 2017 WNBA Draft class is holding up so far in the 2018 WNBA season.

Second-year surprises

Swish Appeal contributors named the following players from the 2017 WNBA Draft as performing well so far in their sophomore seasons.

  • Kelsey Plum
  • Allisha Gray
  • Nia Coffey
  • Brittney Sykes
  • Brionna Jones
  • Kaela Davis
  • Alexis Jones

Arguably, Coffey and Sykes have been the biggest breakout performers for their teams this season.

Slumping sophomores

Unfortunately, the following players from the 2017 WNBA Draft haven’t done much in their second season:

  • Alaina Coates
  • Evelyn Akhator
  • Shatori Walker-Kimbrough
  • Tori Jankoska
  • Sydney Wiese

Some of these players, like Wiese, have had little to no playing time due to injury. In a league where the good players are waived in favor of the very best, it is easy to see how quickly these athletes can slide out of the league entirely — failing to last even three years. With such a vast pool of talent, is a league expansion the only way to prolong the careers of first-round draft picks selected fifth or lower?

Which players would do better with a change of scenery?

A change of environment could help some players from the 2017 draft to realize their potential. Here are the players the Swish Appeal team believes might thrive elsewhere.

Cara: Brittney Sykes is very athletic and shows high levels of skill in different areas. Yet, I think her talent may be better served on a younger team.

Antonio: It’s not that she would do better in other team, because I like the fit of Sykes in Atlanta. But I’d love to watch her running the point from the get-go, in any of the W’s starting fives. She would be killer. Another option: Kelsey Plum. Give her a coach that completely frees her game — which is to say, let her shoot her shoot every time she wants and forget about point guard duties — and I think she would flourish.

Albert: Kelsey Plum was drafted by the then-San Antonio Stars who already had multiple point guards on the roster. Though Moriah Jefferson has still yet to play this season, she appeared to be a better option than Plum in 2017.

Charles: Kelsey Plum! Kelsey Plum! Kelsey Plum! Bill Laimbeer’s offense has neutralized everything that made Kelsey Plum an exciting player. She needs to be a focal point and be allowed to play through mistakes. Laimbeer has given Plum a short leash and it shows in her lack of aggressiveness on the court.

Tamryn: I’d like to see Kelsey Plum run point for the Sky and Alaina Coates clog the paint for the Fever. Plum could elevate an underperforming team while unleashing her offensive potential. Coates’ game would improve if put on a team with more consistent outside shooters (to free her up inside).

Who’s your pick for Rookie of the Year and Best Sophomore Performance? Who hasn’t lived up to the hype? Tell us in the comments.