Decade in review: Complete analysis of the WNBA Draft, and what it says about the 2020 class

Determining the expected value of each WNBA draft pick, plus an analysis of the decade’s top trends and stars

This past decade, the WNBA ushered in a new era of talent. Out with Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Diana Taurasi, in with Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne, and well… Diana Taurasi (look, not everything changes).

What did all of this top talent have in common? It came into the league via the first-round of the WNBA draft. While there are exceptions to the rule, almost all significant players are drafted at the top of the board, and as such, that will be the focus of today’s article.

This piece will catch you up on the last decade of the WNBA draft, where we look at successful front-offices, collegiate programs, top picks, and draft classes. We also discern the expected value of each first-round draft pick and determine what that tells us about the upcoming season. The data treats Win Shares as the most accurate catch-all statistic for player value.

Value by Draft Pick

The table above shows the expected value by rookie pick, using a power series line of best fit to account for the dropoff in talent after the top pick. y=4.22x^-0.887

The most glaring takeaway from the data? If you want a transcendent talent, you better have the first overall pick.

We also know that the back-half of the draft is a sucker’s game. Everything in the back half looks to be low-risk, low-reward… except for the 11th pick. With valuable finds like Kiah Stokes, Bria Holmes, and Chelsea Gray, the 11-spot has been a blessing for some of the league’s top teams.

The data will likely correct itself heading into the next decade, but if it doesn’t, watch out for 2020 11th overall pick Kitija Laksa. She may not report to the Storm until 2021, but once she does, it’ll be a wrap for the rest of the league

The sixth pick has also been historically valuable, with Napheesa Collier, Jonquel Jones, and Stefanie Dolson outperforming expectations.

When looking at the decade’s best rookie seasons, it becomes even clearer how often the top players manifest from the top spot. A championship team requires a staunch foundation, and possessing the top pick is the closest thing we have to a blueprint. In fact, of the decade’s top ten rookie performers, 60% have had their name called first on draft night.

We would bet good money that Sabrina Ionescu appears on the 2020’s rendition of this list, even with a shortened season ahead.

As for the most valuable rookie season at each pick?

Pick 1: Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks
Pick 2: Elena Delle Donne, Chicago Sky
Pick 3: Teaira McCowan, Indiana Fever
Pick 4: Glory Johnson, Tulsa Shock
Pick 5: Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings
Pick 6: Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx
Pick 7: Brittney Sykes, Atlanta Dream
Pick 8: Victoria Vivians, Indiana Fever
Pick 9: Brittany Boyd, New York Liberty
Pick 10: Imani McGee-Stafford, Chicago Sky
Pick 11: Kiah Stokes, New York Liberty
Pick 12: Damiris Dantas, Minnesota Lynx

Round 2: Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta Dream
Round 3: Stephanie Talbot, Phoenix Mercury

College Success

There isn’t a whole lot we can conclude from the sample size of collegiate players in the WNBA. At nearly every school there are hits and misses.

The UConn squad, however, stands out with far-and-away the strongest quality and quantity of WNBA stars. Not only are the Huskies the only squad that could field a full roster, but if they decided to team up they would do so with a combined 3 MVP’s, 3 Rookie of the Year’s, 3 Finals MVPs, and 18 All-Star appearances.

Having a couple of big-name talents will put you in the conversation for the secondary school of the decade, though. The Ogwumike’s are responsible for Stanford’s ascension this decade, while Britney Griner and Odyssey Sims have produced most of the WNBA success that Baylor has season this decade.

Also, keep an eye on international talent as we move into the 2020s. While just a handful of players have come to the league from overseas (Liz Cambage and Damiris Dantas stand out), more young stars should migrate from international waters. General managers must not overcorrect for past mistakes, though: believe it or not, big risks don’t always pay off.

Team Success

The table above shows the expected value by pick, using team Win Shares data and a linear equation to better account for the information. y=.179x+2.49

Production is a little easier to predict at the team-level, but we can still see a respectable gap between big-names and the basement-dwellers.

The Lynx, for example, found success at the top of the draft in 2011 with Maya Moore. This helped turn the squad into a perennial contender, but it was a number of picks at the back half of the draft that gave the Lynx incomparable depth in the 2010s.

Minnesota made a number of savvy picks throughout the decade, with uber-productive finds in 2010 (Kelsey Griffin), 2012 (Devereaux Peters), and of course this past season with Naphessa Collier.

An observation of the 2010s shows how difficult it can be to succeed without a top pick. The Atlanta Dream, for example, have struggled compared to their peers without a single top-six pick in the 2010s. Even worse, they didn’t do much of anything with their late-round picks. Out of their seven first-round picks this decade, only Brittney Sykes has become a consistent starter.

Even with a tepid slate of draft picks, though, the Dream hope Chennedy Carter and a slew of offseason signings to usher in a new-era Atlanta squad.

Homegrown talent isn’t the only route to contention, as can be seen toward the bottom of the table.

The Mystics, for example, constructed a championship roster through several alternative methods. Their primary success, of course, was nabbing Delle Donne and Latoya Sanders via trade and signing Kristi Toliver in free agency before their 2019 title run.

But nothing encapsulates Washington’s front-office chutzpah like its unparalleled success at the back of the draft, with Emma Messemen and Natasha Cloud blossoming into big-name players on the championship team.

Draft Class

Tanking doesn’t always work in the WNBA. Why? Not every draft class is created equal.

If you tanked in 2014, you could’ve ended up with the likes of Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla McBride, and Natasha Howard if you had an early pick in the draft. In fact, each of the class’s top six-picks is now a full-time starter.

If you tanked in 2013, you are in even more luck… if you did it well enough. While the class had its fair share of misses, the one-two punch of Brittney Griner and Delle Donne at the top of the draft is yet to be replicated.

2017, however, tells a very different tale. While the class produced a few decent role players (Allisha Gray, Brittney Sykes, and Kelsey Plum), it is the only year this decade that has yet to generate an all-star. The story of the 2017 class is directly tied to Plum, its top pick, who had a rocky start to her career and is still finding her footing on the offensive side of the floor.

2010 and 2015 were also tough years for WNBA rookies, although at the very least 2010 produced Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince. 2015’s top player is Jewell Loyd, who is more of a secondary or tertiary option on a championship team.

Biggest Turnarounds

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While a player’s rookie year closely correlates to the rest of their career, not every player starts so hot. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Courtney Vandersloot, for example, both started at net-negative values for their teams upon entering the league. Now, both look to be key pieces on teams that have a real shot at a championship.

On the other end of the spectrum, players like Imani-McGee Stafford and Kiah Stokes have shown real potential in their rookie years, but have yet to reach an all-star team. Some, like Tina Charles, have had their stats taper off as they age, while others such as former Sparks guard Odyssey Sims, must adapt to smaller roles on more competitive teams.

What it Means for 2020

Using rookie year productivity, we can expect the likes of Ionescu, Satou Sabally, and Lauren Cox to provide an immediate spark their respective rosters. Their stats will likely be deflated due to the upcoming season but could bring their teams over the top with a hot start. Ionescu will likely be one of the rare rookie’s to lead their team in wins shares once the season wraps up.

Rookies are not immune to the unpredictability of the 2020 WNBA bubble, and while Ionescu will be the favorite to bring home the ROY hardware, it really is anyone’s for the taking.

That is, if you were picked in the first round.

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