A deeper dive into the stats yields more arguments for Napheesa Collier
There is rarely cause for controversy when it comes to voting for the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year.
In a conventional WNBA season, an elite college prospect separates themselves from the entire nation of players, and is the easy choice at #1 overall in the April draft. When the WNBA season starts, the player again laps the other members of their draft class, cruising to an obvious Rookie of the Year win — a season that is usually the foundation of a Hall of Fame career.
In the last eleven years, the #1 overall pick has won the Rookie of the Year nine times, with the exceptions being Allisha Gray (#4 overall pick in 2017), and Elena Delle Donne — who was picked #2 in 2013 only because she shared the same draft class as Brittney Griner. The last nine players to hit the #1 pick/Rookie of the year combo are, at “worst,” perennial All-Stars, with several being first-ballot Hall of Fame locks: Candace Parker, Angel McCoughtry, Tina Charles, Maya Moore, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, and A’ja Wilson.
2019 has not played out like a conventional season in this way. Jackie Young‘s first months have been dramatically unlike most #1 overall picks. Young could very well end the season being crowned WNBA champion — which would make the Aces the first team since the 2011 Minnesota Lynx to pick #1 and then get to the mountaintop in the same year.
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But, unlike the 2011 Lynx and their premier prospect at the time, Maya Moore, Young has not been required to shoulder much offensive responsibility, with the lowest Usage Percentage in the Aces’ starting lineup. Young has been an effective facilitator: she is one of only seven qualified players to assist on more than 30% of her teammates’ baskets during her minutes, and is second-best among that group in turnover rate. While Young is playing a meaningfully positive role in the Aces’ starting lineup, her shortcomings as an individual shot creator are a major concern. Young’s field goal percentage sits at only 32.1%, which ranks 81st out of 83 qualified players.
Without the dominant #1 pick making this season’s Rookie of the Year selection easy, we’ll have to give a closer examination to Young and the rest of the rookie class. An examination of the field really emphasizes how difficult it is for rookies to break into any of the veteran-filled rotations around the league. Only six rookies have hit the relatively low benchmarks of at least 15 minutes per game across at least 10 games. This is our field: Young, Napheesa Collier, Arike Ogunbowale, Asia Durr, Teaira McCowan, and #23 pick (!) Maite Cazorla.
Voters may be tempted to cast a ballot for the Wings’ Ogunbowale. Before the season, Durr was perhaps the prospect expected to bring the most offensive firepower out of anyone in the rookie class, seeing as she was taken #2 by the Liberty, while Ogunbowale went #5 to the Wings. But Ogunbowale has created way more buckets than anyone in the rookie class. Not only does Ogunbowale lead second-place Collier in points per game, 15.0 to 11.8, but she also dominates in points per possession, leading second-place Collier 26.2 to 18.6, per 100 possessions.
It’s been an undeniably positive sign for the Wings that Ogunbowale has fearlessly stepped in, during the prolonged absence of Skylar Diggins-Smith, as the team’s leading offensive option. However, Ogunbowale’s offensive inefficiency and shortcomings on defense prevent her from being the premier candidate for Rookie of the Year. While Young ranks 81st out of 83 qualified players in field goal percentage, Ogunbowale ranks 70th on that same list. Young is also making up for her offensive shortcomings by contributing to the Aces’ league-best defense: Young’s individual Defensive Rating is 91.7, while Ogunbowale is at 97.3.
By looking at the total contributions of all six regularly-playing rookies, sorting them by the statistic Win Shares Per 40 minutes, we can see that a different pair of players are battling to produce the most productive rookie season:
In truth, the two rookies who are having the best rookie seasons are McCowan and Collier. McCowan does hold the slight lead over Collier in this category, and is also a reasonable selection for Rookie of the Year. However, Collier more than makes up for this slight efficiency gap by playing significantly more than McCowan — an additional 12 minutes per game — and contributing in more well-rounded ways.
It’s possible that McCowan will be the greatest rebounder in WNBA history. Among players who cleared the relatively low hurdle of 250 minutes played in a season, McCowan’s current rebound percentage of 23.8% is the very best of all-time. This alone could cement McCowan as one of the legends of the game as the years go on — consider the still-legendary impact of the NBA’s greatest-ever rebounder, the five-time champion Dennis Rodman. However, McCowan’s entire stat line is full of other extremes, such as one of the lowest assist rates in league history, having dealt out only two dimes in 463 minutes. McCowan also hasn’t used her intimidating interior presence to translate her touches at the rim into high-percentage baskets. Her 49.2% field goal accuracy is by no means bad, but the top centers in the league regularly clear 55%.
This brings us to Collier’s game: while all of the other rookies mentioned have areas of the game where they excel, Collier is notable precisely because of her all-round skill. When looking at how the different rookies compare in producing different stats per 100 possessions, Collier does not have a breakaway lead in any category. But what’s important is that she is competitive in every category — only slightly behind Ogunbowale in creating assists, and only slightly behind McCowan in creating defensive turnovers. In fact, Collier’s season is — aside from the sheer scoring output of Wilson — very competitive with the 2018 stat line of last year’s clear Rookie of the Year, A’ja Wilson:
Unlike McCowan and Ogunbowale, Collier is also playing for a team that currently projects as a playoff team. The assumption — and it’s a reasonable enough assumption, given the Lynx’s years of success — is that Minnesota’s veteran core is helping boost Collier’s extremely positive plus-minus numbers. How could a player like McCowan, mostly playing as a substitute for Indiana, hope to compete in this same category when Collier is regularly on the floor with All-Stars like Odyssey Sims and Sylvia Fowles?
A closer look at the numbers suggests that it is Collier is not just a lucky passenger in the sidecar alongside Minnesota’s starting lineup. Collier already plays a key role in creating whatever valuable margin the Lynx open up over their opponents. The Lynx hum along nicely whenever Collier is paired with either Sims or Fowles in the starting lineup, outscoring their opponents by about four points per 100 possessions. While the other sample sizes are small (about 100 minutes each), the lineup numbers from pbpstats.com show that the Lynx actually improve during the minutes that Collier is playing without either of the veterans. And, at the same time, the team starts to tank when either player is on the floor without Collier. This chart shows Minnesota’s scoring margins, per 100 possessions, with all of these lineup combinations:
None of the other players who are under consideration for Rookie of the Year are having bad seasons. Again, the limited number of rookies who even receive regular minutes should show that each of these players is already excelling within the WNBA’s highly competitive world. Even factors like Ogunbowale and Young’s low accuracy are absolutely overcome-able obstacles — just take a look at Jewell Loyd’s 2015 rookie year, which is nowhere near the same level that she played at as league champion a few years later in 2018. But the trophy is called Rookie of the Year, and there is no doubt it is Napheesa Collier.
Stats via wnba.com, basketball-reference.com, and pbpstats.com.
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