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The extremes of Shoni Schimmel's spectacularly volatile rookie season

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Even the high point of winning the 2014 WNBA All-Star MVP award managed to represent Shoni Schimmel's roller coaster rookie season and spectacularly volatile style of play truly unlike any other. Figuring out how good she can become made me remember a similarly spectacular rookie season in the NBA over a decade ago.

Christian Petersen

Almost immediately after the Atlanta Dream's dramatic loss to the Chicago Sky in the first round of the 2014 WNBA Playoffs, I got a call from a friend who was in complete disbelief that Jasmine Thomas managed to earn the majority of the minutes as point guard instead of Shoni Schimmel in that pivotal fourth quarter.

With Thomas playing seven minutes -- and missing a pair of free throws in the final minute of the game that left open the possibility of Elena Delle Donne's game-winning runner -- the Dream were outscored 30-13 in one of the most memorable finishes to a WNBA playoff game in recent memory. Neither Thomas (4-for-12) nor Schimmel (1-for-5) shot particularly well that night, but for a Dream team in desperate need of scoring in the final quarter of their season that lineup decision (was one of many things that) loomed large over the outcome.

That scenario sums up both Schimmel's rookie season and draft prospect profile in a nutshell: a flashy playmaker who could be seen as a liability if she's not hitting shots. And shortly after that initial conversation lamenting the Dream's first round loss, a series of conversations have followed with others who watch the game closely from a range of perspectives.

During a conversation with a statistically-inclined person, we agreed that Schimmel's statistics don't at all support the hype she has gotten, which doesn't exactly take a mathematics degree to figure out: she's a scorer who shot under 40% from the field this season. On the other hand, a player development expert astutely noted that the way Schimmel plays the game doesn't at all support the dominant belief that she's unathletic: neither speed nor vertical leap (nor lateral quickness on defense) are strong points of hers, but she's "very coordinated", balanced, and has the core and lower body strength to shoot off the dribble with amazing proficiency. A more recent conversation with a long-time women's basketball observer probably summarized and brought together those perspectives best: she just gives the Dream a perimeter shooting threat and a jolt of energy that they don't otherwise have, but was probably most effective in exactly the reserve role she found herself in this season.

Ultimately, it's hard to deny what D'Joumbarey A. Moreau of FanSided recently wrote about Schimmel bringing an almost novel excitement to the WNBA because, "Not only does she play the game with passion, she plays the game with a lot of flair and excitement." But it's equally hard to deny the flip-side, or underbelly, of that assessment that James Bowman has written about Schimmel here at Swish Appeal"When she's on the court things happen...not always GOOD things, but things happen."

It's that volatility that makes Schimmel both unpredictably explosive and predictably inefficient, sometimes all within the confines of one stint of play -- it's an extreme style of play that almost begs for extreme reactions without really making her a polarizing figure. As evidenced by their final period of play, the Dream seemed to struggle to figure out what to do with a player who was something of a high-risk necessity: she immediately appeared to be the perfect fit for a franchise that has been searching for a perimeter scoring threat for most of its existence, which only adds flavor to the narrative.

There's little question that the league could use more of the showmanship that Schimmel needs from an entertainment or marketing standpoint as much as, if not more than the Dream need her for very functional reasons. As tempting as it is to cram Schimmel into a style over substance frame, it might be more that her actual value to the Dream moving forward is overshadowed by the extremes while a middle ground is probably where she's ultimately headed.

She's a rare breed and although her wizardry with the ball isn't unprecedented in a universe in which Ticha Penicheiro exists, the fearlessness with which she pushes the limits of her abilities as a passer and scorer certainly does border on novel in the WNBA. As hard as it is for me to remember a WNBA rookie who has generated a range of reactions quite as diverse as Schimmel, for whatever reason, her efficiency-inhibiting creativity is strangely familiar.

Way back in the late-1990s, a friend of mine and I had a running joke about how young NBA phenom Jason Williams would be the subject of a "Where Are They Now" feature sooner than later.

We didn't see eye to eye on everything in basketball -- I was a huge Reggie Miller fan, he was a front-running Chicago Bulls fan (just playin, B) -- but there was definitely some underlying agreement that we shouldn't believe the hype about the Jason Williams Project.

I really cant even remember how much I agreed with him about the WATN feature at the time, but I was so annoyed by the immediate embrace of "White Chocolate" that I laughed hysterically the first time he brought it up. And with every errant attempt at a highlight reel pass, every ill-advised pull up three in transition, every fourth quarter benching and every time we watched the Sacramento Kings come up short in a big game, we'd joke about adding another clip to that WATN feature about a player who disappeared as quickly as he took Sacramento by storm.

Of course, we weren't alone in our skepticism. It was just an assessment that this form of high-risk basketball simply wasn't sustainable, albeit highly entertaining if you could suspend your interest in the traditional -- as Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times wrote back then, "...he plays extreme basketball as opposed to the NBA game, which is more efficient, less imaginative and a lot less spectacular." In being such an extreme player, Williams didn't leave a whole lot of room for ambivalence or neutrality -- his extreme game begged for extreme reactions.

Jason has had so much publicity, I don't know whether it has helped him or hurt him.-Former Sacramento Kings coach Rick Adelman in 1999 (via Philadelphia Daily News).

Notably, this was also the end of the decade of Utah Jazz legend John Stockton, the personification of point guard efficiency and "purity', but not long after the end of the handcheck, which might have even enabled the lightweight Williams' ostentatious style of play to even achieve as much as it did while standing in stark contrast to the preceding era. Although it's not hard to find people who believed Williams would revolutionize the game, Heisler's article was entitled "Flash In the Pan" consistent with our "White Chocolate WATN" thesis.

The truth, from the very beginning, was probably somewhere in between the hype and (my) derision.

It's absolutely impossible to deny Williams' impact on the King's ascent to legit NBA contention at the turn of the century. And almost any discussion of the best ball handlers in league history has to make mention of him even if only to dismiss him as a possibility -- former Kings coach Rick Adelman once compared Williams to "Pistol" Pete Maravich, which is about the loftiest praise a ball handler can get. Yet he never really escaped his Sportscenter-enhanced reputation by justifying his high-risk style with efficient outcomes.

"Jason has had so much publicity, I don't know whether it has helped him or hurt him," Adelman said in 1999.

And instead of waiting for his game to mature the Kings decided they needed to make a change to mature as a unit after three seasons living on the edge (of contention).

Sactown Royalty's section214 probably summarized Williams' career in and departure from Sacramento best just a couple of weeks ago in a historical ranking of the franchise's point guards by writing, "...he helped to usher in the Kings golden era, and his value netted the Kings Mike Bibby...Statistically, Williams could be placed on the lower half of this list. But for who he was and what he did and when he did it, I'm giving him the #3 spot." And beyond that lasting legacy of being the trade asset that garnered the Kings the point guard who took them to the next level, former Kings teammate Chris Webber once said on NBA TV's Open Court, "There would have been no Mike Bibby without a Jason Williams", the player who gave the Kings their swagger and awareness of their limits.

In a career retrospective of Williams, Eric Freeman of Yahoo's Ball Don't Lie wrote that the Kings actually got better with Bibby once Williams left and for that -- despite eventually winning a title with the Miami Heat after a successful run with the Memphis Grizzlies -- "...no one will ever associate Williams with winning or veteran dependability...he'll always be that flashy young point guard..."

A dispassionate look at Williams' career reveals an above average point guard who probably got too much credit from some for his highlight reel strengths and shouldered too much blame from others for his associated shortcomings as a result. And, in some ways, the extremes inherent to who he was as a basketball player leave us without a real appreciation for what he really was.

The high points of Schimmel's first season were probably more spectacular than most rookies can imagine. But even the highest of high points for Schimmel somehow managed to reinforce how her game oscillates between extremes.

We can debate whether she deserved a starting spot in the 2014 WNBA All-Star game or dismiss the entire exhibition as defenseless fluff, but nobody gave Schimmel that MVP award -- she took it by scoring those record 29 points herself. You have to do some digging to find rookies in any U.S. professional sport who have won an All-Star MVP award (NBA legend Oscar Robertson comes to mind). And yet even that moment epitomized a roller coaster season as her minutes fluctuated wildly: she played 28 minutes in that All-Star Game; she played 27 minutes in the three previous Dream games combined. Inconsistent minutes are often just part of being a rookie, but Schimmel's season included somewhat wild swings in minutes, matching historic highs with entirely forgettable stretches.

Part of the reason for Schimmel's inconsistent minutes might have been turnovers -- she had a 22% turnover percentage, according to Basketball-Reference -- but coach Michael Cooper insisted throughout the season that they could live with that. The turnovers combined with some mediocre shooting numbers for the first ¾ of the season -- to her credit, she shot 43.47% from the field in August -- put her in that category of a high-risk player whose style wasn't justified by efficient outcomes. But the big issue was her defense. Despite proving her worth to the Dream as a spark plug who could push the pace and offer a perimeter shooting threat against the Chicago Sky, the presence of Jasmine Thomas often gave Cooper another option to use.

Yet the question of whether Schimmel is worth the hype she has gotten comes down to our assessment of what she can become rather than what she is currently is.

How good can Schimmel become?

One way to do that is to not only find similar rookie seasons (as we did with Bria Hartley yesterday), but to find similar rookie seasons by players who were relatively similar to Schimmel statistically in their senior year of college.

As discussed before the 2014 WNBA Draft, Schimmel was sort of in a league of her own as a prospect. Prospects who shoot over 45% of their shots from beyond the 3-point arc often struggle in the WNBA and Schimmel's 54.7% 3-point rate was extremely high for a player making a roster on a playoff team. More importantly, of the group of college perimeter scorers most similar to Schimmel, nobody had anywhere near as many three point attempts as she did - shooting 37.6% on 314 attempts is a rare feat of elite shooting, especially when considering how many of those shots Schimmel shoots off the dribble as the focal point of opposing defenses.

Taking all that into account, the closest comparison to Schimmel as a draft prospect was probably Maryland's Kristi Toliver (2009). And that probably still held as a WNBA rookie:

Player

Year

Tm

G

MP

TS%

FTr

3PAr

ORB%

DRB%

TRB%

AST%

STL%

TOV%

USG%

Kristi Toliver

2009

CHI

27

386

0.61

0.15

0.57

1.9

9.7

5.8

26.7

1.4

20.6

25.4

Shoni Schimmel

2014

ATL

34

726

0.49

0.09

0.56

2.8

9.2

6

28.4

1.8

22.3

22.1

Comparison of rookie year statistics for Shoni Schimmel and Kristi Toliver (via Basketball-Reference).

Although the differences here are clear, the tendencies remain about as similar as these two were as college prospects - ignoring efficiency for a moment, they're remarkably similar players across the board. They're both scoring, 3-point shooting guards with a knack for both scoring off the dribble and creating for others, which makes them productive as combo guards.

Taking efficiency into account is more of a discussion of quality: as with the college comparison, Toliver was clearly the more efficient scorer as a rookie, albeit in even less consistent minutes. Yet the fact that she was that efficient at that high a usage was extremely impressive. On the other hand, these numbers don't clearly represent how much better Schimmel is as a distributor: Schimmel's 0.19 pure point rating is better than Toliver's -1.03, which shows up in Schimmel averaging about two more assists per 36 minutes than Toliver. And of course, the numbers can't really measure boom or bust creativity as a distributor.

Overall, the story for Schimmel remains about the same as it was as a prospect: she projects as a less efficient scoring guard than Toliver with better skill as a distributor. The big question for Schimmel is whether she'll ever become so efficient that the value of her scoring outweighs the harm of her shortcomings in terms of turnovers and defense - either she needs to become a more efficient passer or scorer to establish herself as a starting guard in the league, which is pretty much what Toliver did.

A less spectacular path forward

Similarly, although Jason Williams never really escaped the reputation he created for himself early in Sacramento, it was his ability to eventually find a much less spectacular middle ground as a low-usage distributor that made his game sustainable and eventually made him a dependable veteran presence on a championship team. It wouldn't be surprising if Schimmel eventually follows that path of letting her skill and considerable basketball IQ do the talking moving forward instead of her volatile, crowd-pleasing style.

Shoni Schimmel and Jason Williams are by no means the same player -- Schimmel is far more of a natural shooter while Williams was far more of a natural point guard, though people who claim he was a poor shooter probably ignore his excessive number of 3-point attempts and his aversion to taking set shots. But the running analysis they force about whether the benefit of having them on the floor outweighs the cost is remarkably similar in terms of how much their style of play can overshadow what they concretely offer a team.

But wherever Schimmel goes from here, there's little question that she could help usher in a new era for her team and the league just as Williams did for the Kings.

In a league that has struggled to gain a foothold in the mainstream, Schimmel immediately became one of its biggest celebrities as described by Brent Cahwee of NDNSports.com in his summary of her rookie year. Part of that is what she represents culturally, part of it is that flair she brings. And, fair or not, there's a chance that what Schimmel has done as a young, flashy, celebrity ballplayer ends up overshadowing whatever else she accomplishes later. But for who she is and what she has the potential to do, Schimmel could end up being a women's basketball figure whose actual impact on the floor both exceeds and yields to the reputation she created for herself in her rookie year.