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2014 WNBA All-Rookie team candidates: Examining the case for Odyssey Sims as Rookie of the Year

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Pat Friday has been doing the Rookie Rankings for most of this season, but today we're going to take a more statistical look at the top rookies in the 2014 WNBA rookie class beginning with a question: what's the argument for Odyssey Sims to win the 2014 WNBA Rookie of the Year award?

Photo by Getty Images.

Although Chiney Ogwumike has to be considered the favorite for 2014 WNBA Rookie of the Year, Mike Brown of the Tulsa World made the case for Tulsa Shock rookie Odyssey Sims to win the award.

Sims leads first-year players in points (16.1 per game), assists (4.3) and steals (1.4), and she’s finishing the season on a roll...But Sims probably has meant more to her team. "She’s been real steady with her scoring and assists, but she’s also helped win games defensively," coach Fred Williams said. "She’s had to guard some real all-star and veteran players and done a good job with that. She probably should be the leading candidate."

However, while it's certainly true that Sims deserves consideration for the award, I probably wouldn't make the case for her in quite that way - that's what inspired that long piece about WNBA point guards on Tuesday.

As with many rookies, Sims has not exactly been consistent this season and yet when you look over the current field of WNBA point guards it's really easy to make a case for her as the league's best point guard once the veteran cream of the crop retires.

Even if Sims is never the league's best distributor or scorer at the position, there are just so few guards in recent memory that have shown the ability to do both efficiently so quickly that it's hard not to see unlimited upside for her. Beyond the numbers, there isn't a player in the league who can stay in front of her right now - she gets to the rim off the dribble with an ease that most mainstream sports fans would (wrongly) assume is antithetical to WNBA basketball. She could stand to finish better within five feet, but the point is that we just don't normally see this combination of athleticism, skill and strength in WNBA point guards, which makes Sims not only unique but also a problem that won't be easily solved.

Ironically, while that ability to get almost anywhere on the court has been a clear and immediate strength for Sims in the WNBA, that ability to create scoring for herself became one of the most scrutinized aspects of her game during her senior year at Baylor. Sims' shot selection in her senior year as she challenged for the title of nation's leading scorer was spotty, at best. There were definitely times where she forced shots and it visibly took her awhile to trust her teammates, something that both she and her coach Kim Mulkey alluded to throughout the season in interviews.

Yet the concerns about "whether" she could be a point guard were shortsighted on the surface, to put it generously - she played with 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner and won a national championship as a starting point guard. It would be bizarre for her to suddenly forget how to play the position, especially in light of the efficiency with which she did so.

Beyond that somewhat fringe concern though is context: Sims' shot selection in her senior wasn't perfect, but she was working against double and triple teams almost every game. UConn - by far the best defense in the nation this past season - essentially had three to four players dedicating attention to Sims on every possession when they faced her. And despite all that - with opponents having the benefit of film to scout best practices by the end of the season - Sims still finished second in the nation in scoring with an efficient 28.5 points per game and led her team to the Elite Eight after winning the Big XII title against a solid West Virginia team.

Obviously, it would be unrealistic to expect that level of production to just transfer to the pros, but what has is her ability to make plays. At Baylor, there were games where her teammates were ineffective enough that Sims calling her own number even against double teams actually made sense. In the pros, you're seeing a player with single coverage and an imposing screening partner in Courtney Paris able to score and distribute more efficiently than a number of veteran point guards.

So the reason for that point guard rankings post: Sims is arguably the best rookie point guard to enter the league since Lindsay Whalen in 2004, a title previously held by Danielle Robinson since 2011. Players with this kind of ability to create just don't come along very often. Nevertheless, when you look at the point guards currently in the league, Sims is more the epitome of a trend in WNBA point guard play than a pioneer.

Where did the "pure point guard" go?

As described at length the other day, players like Becky Hammon are probably the leaders in this trend toward lead ball handlers who can both score and distribute the ball efficiently. However, while Hammon and Sims can be put in the same category of scoring point guards, the other thing that really stands out about the current set of WNBA point guards in terms of development from college to pro is that the traditional pass-first point guard is nearly extinct even as people desperately cling to antiquated notions of what it means to fill the position.

Of the league's current starting point guards right now, just two (Celine Dumerc and Ivory Latta) had usage rates under 20% on the day Brown's article was published (when I compiled those numbers) - Ivory Latta has since moved back above 20% after taking 33 shots in her last three games. That's a major, yet gradual, statistical shift from even just 3-4 years ago when players like Tully Bevilaqua, Shalee Lehning, Kelly Miller, Leilani Mitchell and Ticha Penicheiro were efficient pass-first, low-usage starters and even players like Sue Bird, Lindsey Harding, Temeka Johnson, and Lindsay Whalen were at or below a usage of 20% (which is average).

Although there very well might be practical or strategic reasons for that, perhaps more interesting (and relevant) as we think about rookies is the relationship between their pro usage rates and college usage rates - as of opening day, 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.

For years as I've looked at point guards and draft prospects, I've repeated something along the lines of high-usage college point guards being the exception to a rather consistent pattern of efficiency making or breaking a prospect's transition to the pros. The last few years have essentially proven the opposite: high-usage college point guards have become the norm, with Sims now being the poster child if not entirely a representative case. While Sims is the future of the position, she's also very much the epitome of its present as well.

Rising to the top of your position as a rookie should definitely be sufficient for earning a Rookie of the Year award. The counter-argument to the case for Sims: Chiney Ogwumike.

Rookie

Team

MPG

VCR

USG

Chiney Ogwumike

Connecticut Sun

29.9

1.69

22.95

Alyssa Thomas

Connecticut Sun

27.2

1.03

18.85

Anna Cruz

New York Liberty

27.7

1.03

15.97

Odyssey Sims

Tulsa Shock

34.4

1.01

23.19

Kayla McBride

San Antonio Stars

25.9

1.01

25

Stefanie Dolson

Washington Mystics

18.4

0.98

18.96

Markeisha Gatling

Chicago Sky

10.7

0.97

14.67

Natasha Howard

Indiana Fever

17.3

0.93

24.34

Damiris Dantas

Minnesota Lynx

22

0.85

13.02

Jamierra Faulkner

Chicago Sky

20.8

0.81

25.31

Celine Dumerc

Atlanta Dream

18.6

0.73

13.18

Shoni Schimmel

Atlanta Dream

21

0.67

21.82

Bria Hartley

Washington Mystics

27.2

0.64

21.82

Maggie Lucas

Indiana Fever

10.1

0.61

18.82

Jordan Hooper

Tulsa Shock

18.8

0.56

15.98

Top 15 2014 WNBA rookies with more than 10 minutes per game (ordered by VCR) as of 8/11/14.
Click here
for explanations.

2014 WNBA All-Rookie front-runners

Chiney Ogwumike, Connecticut Sun

By virtue of having an extremely short time between the end of their college career and the beginning of their pro careers - and when you compare it to the NBA, this is something that probably isn't granted enough significance in considering rookie development - WNBA rookies are supposed to start their careers slow. Most of them have a veteran mentor to sort of take them through the ropes. Most rookies experience some kind of adjustment period where they can follow someone else's lead as the team aspires to be the best they can be.

Ogwumike has been by far the most efficient rookie in the league this season in spite of the absence of any sort of real adjustment period.

The season began with Ogwumike starting (completely) out of position at center next to Kelsey Griffin before Kelsey Bone bumped her to the starting power forward spot. Ebony Hoffman, who was acquired mid-season and hasn't been a full-time starter since leaving the Indiana Fever in 2010, is the team's most experienced frontcourt player.

As a result, Ogwumike was relied upon heavily for this team's success from the start: she leads the team in scoring efficiency while maintaining the second-highest usage rate on the team. She not only leads the team in offensive rebounding percentage and block percentage, but ranks top 10 in the league in each. To put her second-place rank in offensive rebounding in perspective, according to Basketball-Reference, no rookie has finished in the top two in the league in offensive rebounding percentage since 1998 when Alessandra Santos de Oliveira did it despite playing just 16 games for the Washington Mystics before missing the rest of the season straining a MCL.


So yes, Ogwumike is special. And with all of that, it should come as no surprise that Ogwumike is quite easily the Sun's MVP as a rookie.

Ogwumike is a rookie responsible for 23.05% of the production of her team who led her team to within three games of the playoffs, albeit last in their conference. That's an amazing accomplishment for a rookie, even if nobody looks upon the Sun's 2014 season as a high point for the franchise.

For all of the talk above about Sims being at the forefront of a league-wide shift - the future of a league that can always use a jolt of energy - Ogwumike is a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year for being about as traditional a force as they come. She's not the dynamic stretch four that is all the rage in the NBA, she's not exactly a forward who's going to be lauded for versatility, and she has made just 32 shots from beyond five feet all season. All Ogwumike does is get the job done while making a case that she could eventually challenge to become the best power forward in the league if she continues her growth as a basketball player.

It's not a basketball or cultural revolution, but if the award is granted based on rookie year accomplishments it's hard not to choose Ogwumike.

Odyssey Sims, Tulsa Shock

Although the numbers don't quite support Brown's claim that Sims is more important to her team than Ogwumike, you can't entirely exclude Sims from this conversation. And points, assists, and steals probably aren't the best argument for Sims in light of what Ogwumike has done.

The first thing to tackle is relative role on their respective teams. While Ogwumike was given the opportunity to take the reigns right away, Sims joined a team with a bit of a logjam at guard and opened the season coming off the bench for before assuming a starting spot. Even on the floor, she's playing alongside another ball-dominant guard who was an All-Star starter in Skylar Diggins.

But in theory, we shouldn't hold the situation she was drafted into against her - if you go on potential alone, you could argue that Sims has the most upside of anyone in this rookie class.

While things seemed to come together extremely quickly for Ogwumike, Sims never really had a single stretch where she was playing at peak efficiency as a distributor and scorer - when things truly come together for her, the results could be frightening (for opponents). And that's particularly scary given how strong she's finishing the season.

If you believe the award is about rewarding the best rookie season, Ogwumike is probably the right choice. But if you were to vote on talent or potential, it's not unreasonable to claim that Sims is the best talent in the class.

All-Rookie contenders

Kayla McBride, San Antonio Stars

McBride is an interesting rookie because her value not only comes down almost entirely to her scoring ability alone but her 3-point shooting specifically.

McBride is currently eighth in the league in 3-point shooting at 39.4%, an excellent mark for a rookie who is also sixth in the league in attempts. Yet as impressive as that is, her performance inside the arc is a bit of a concern in terms of projecting her potential: McBride currently has a 2-point percentage of just 41.9%, which is especially alarming since she shot just 30.84% between 10 feet and the 3-point arc (via Lynx.com). As someone who has always been justifiably lauded for her mid-range game, it hasn't at all been working for her so far. And as a pure scorer, that lacking diversity could be construed as a problem going forward.

Nevertheless, McBride is looking like an elite specialist who can handle the ball without turning it over, despite struggling to use that to score efficiently in the mid-range. In this particular rookie class, having that elite skill sets her apart because it gives her a clear niche going forward.

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun

After McBride, things get a bit tough because there's really only one remaining player with a demonstrated elite skill: Alyssa Thomas. In fact, Thomas is almost the anti-McBride (and vice versa).

Thomas has always been criticized for her lack of perimeter shooting ability and that's carried right over into the pros. Thomas has taken exactly as many threes all season (6) as McBride averages per 36 minutes. But I said "almost" above because neither is good in the mid-range, though Thomas is worse: she's shooting just 25.37% from 10 feet to the 3-point arc. And that figures to seriously limit her potential as a pro, especially in a situation like Connecticut's: neither she, Ogwumike, center Kelsey Bone, nor forward Kelsey Griffin is much of a serious scoring threat outside of five feet - any combination of that frontcourt rotation gives the team nothing in terms of spacing while their biggest scoring threat (Ogwumike) could really use spacing. And where would be the most obvious place for a team to expect spacing? The small forward position.

Nevertheless, to the point of being the anti-McBride, Thomas does have one elite skill for her position: her offensive rebounding percentage of 8% is outstanding for a small forward. That and her 39.3% free throw rate help make her a contributor even if her perimeter game is rather ineffective. And another underrated strength: she doesn't shoot shots she can't make and has cut down on the number of mistakes she makes throughout the season.

For all the whining and gnashing of teeth about her shooting, there are a few rotation-level wings on playoff contenders in the league who aren't prolific shooters (e.g. Armintie Herrington, Alysha Clark, and Tamera Young) - all of them are also somewhere between good and elite defenders. If Thomas can become a she can become an above average defender, improve her ball handling a bit - another concern from college - and extend her range even a few feet, there's no reason she can't become a productive contributor for a long time.

Stefanie Dolson, Washington Mystics

There isn't much to be said about Dolson that we haven't already discussed. But, again, this comes down to identifying elite skills: Dolson is already among the league's best shot blockers (5th by percentage) and her 21.1% defensive rebounding percentage is outstanding. If nothing else, she has proven that she has the potential to become a major contributor defensively in the league.

Offensively, she's actually a better mid-range shooter than any of the aforementioned perimeter players: Dolson shoots 49% in more attempts than Thomas or Sims (20.6% on 34 attempts) and in less attempts than McBride, but still significantly better. Again, if you're look for elite tools to work with in becoming a productive player, Dolson has something on both sides of the ball.

But she too has some work to do: her 20.70% turnover ratio is extremely high and she's actually not a particularly efficient scorer as a center because she gets to the free throw line so infrequently - like Tina Charles, another jump shooting center, shooting jumpers lowers her efficiency relative to other centers and limits the number of free throw opportunities she gets.

If Dolson can address those weaknesses on offense and improve as an all-around defender, she has a real shot to become a productive career starter.

Bria Hartley, Washington Mystics

Dolson's former UConn Huskies and current Mystics teammate Bria Hartley is a bit harder to figure out as an All-Rookie candidate.

We discussed this briefly the other day, but Hartley's problem isn't that she lacks ability but that she has weaknesses that really mute her strengths. She has a number of highlight reel ball handling moves, but is a mediocre finisher at the rim for a starting guard and doesn't shoot much better from the mid-range - that fits with her college situational statistics that suggested scoring off the dribble just isn't a strong point for her. She's not a bad passer, but turns the ball over at a rate so high that she's not an efficient distributor. That leaves her in an awkward middle ground of neither being a pure scorer nor an efficient distributor - the sort of downside of the "combo guard" label.

Despite her flaws, Hartley deserves All-Rookie consideration for one major reason: Hartley was a moderate usage player with the fifth-most minutes of any rookie. And to the point above about Ogwumike, if part of these rookie awards is rewarding those who had the most impressive seasons, starting on a team that challenged for the conference title has to be taken account - Hartley has the tools to become a special player, it's just a matter of developing an elite strength that she leverage to make her a more consistent contributor. Based on her 41% three point shooting in August, that's probably the quickest path to elite.