Last month, we checked in with the WNBA’s 2015 draft class. Teams had from February 1 through May 15 to sign members of that class on rookie scale contracts to contract extensions. 2017 All-Star Elizabeth Williams and several other players signed multi-year extensions with their teams. The other members of that class still on their rookie contracts will become restricted free agents.
Players from the 2016 draft class still on the rookie scale are now in their third WNBA season. Teams had until May 31 to pick up the fourth-year team option for the 2019 season. If that option is not picked up, the player will become an unrestricted free agent in February. (Teams do not announce option decisions and generally cite team policy in not disclosing contract/salary information in public releases.)
Considering how difficult it is to keep a roster spot in the WNBA, those still with a spot likely have done enough to prove their worth as a rotation player at minimum. It isn’t that simple, though, because teams have just 12 roster spots. Every transaction or injury, even at a different position, will have a ripple effect that could affect another player’s standing with their team.
13 members of the 2016 class have a roster spot as of Thursday morning. Rachel Hollivay, Ruth Hamblin, Jillian Alleyne, Bashaara Graves, and Ameryst Alston — all 2016 second round picks — were invited to WNBA training camps this year but did not make a roster. Temi Fagbenle is the lone 2016 third round selection currently in the league. (Note: Fagbenle missed the 2016 season, choosing to take a year off from basketball to complete her master’s program at USC.)
Being about a quarter of the way through the 2018 season, it’s time to take stock of where those players stand with their current teams and the league at large. First, some criteria:
- This is a reflection of where each player is at right now, not projecting forward.
- Opportunity matters, for better and for worse — there are cases to be made that several players would get more run elsewhere. It may not be entirely fair to judge their body of work, but it’s all we have to work with.
- Two members of this class haven’t logged a single minute in 2018. Rather than predicting what they’ll be upon return, their body of work to date will inform their ranking.
- Players within the same tier aren’t being ranked or stacked up against one another for this exercise.
Tier 1 — Superstar
Breanna Stewart, F/C, Seattle Storm, Round 1/Pick 1
What’s left to question about Stewart’s game? Her overall shooting percentage went up from 45.7 to 47.5 in year two, and she’s shooting 52.6 percent overall 10 games into the 2018 season despite a slow start from beyond the arc. Stewart and the Storm are off to a 7-3 start with several key new pieces around her, and they have posted the fifth-best defensive rating (99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) to date.
Tier 2 — All-Star
Jonquel Jones, F/C, Connecticut Sun, R1/P6
Jones bends defenses in ways we aren’t accustomed to seeing 6’6 players do. Last season’s league-leader in rebounding has plenty of room to grow, too — becoming an even better shot blocker and scoring threat would propel her into that next tier.
Tier 3 — Starter
Courtney Williams, G, Connecticut Sun, R1/P8
Moriah Jefferson, PG, Las Vegas Aces, R1/P2
This piece was filed fresh off a 34-point (15-29 FG) performance by Williams as the Sun nearly came all the way back to beat the Mystics after trailing by 30 at one point. She doesn’t get to the rim a ton, but she broke out as an efficient midrange scorer last season. Williams shot 45.2 percent on 221 attempts from 11-21 feet out, well above the league average of 38.3. This volume from that part of the floor is not something we see all the time from a guard, which makes it tough to both appreciate her successes and offer an honest critique of what needs to be improved.
Jefferson is coming off of knee surgery but could return as early as July 1. The 5’6 guard has been known to get into the teeth of the defense to finish around the basket and set up open teammates thanks to her tremendous burst. She has also canned 38.9 percent of her 108 three-point attempts in her 55 games played to date. Aces fans will eagerly await her return to the floor, where she’ll join 2018 No. 1 overall pick A’ja Wilson to form a dynamic pick and roll partnership for the WNBA’s newest franchise.
Tier 4 — Key reserve
Tiffany Mitchell, W, Indiana Fever, R1/P9
Aerial Powers, W, Dallas Wings, R1/P5
Mitchell, too, has great burst and doesn’t shy from contact in attacking the rim. She is a 90 percent free throw shooter through 71 games, but will need to become more of a threat from beyond the arc to do even more damage at the charity stripe. Kelsey Mitchell is too good in pick and roll already for the Fever to take it out of her hands too often. Surrounding her with outside shooting will likely become a top priority for Indiana moving forward.
Powers brings an entirely different skill set to the table. She relies much more on her change of pace and slight hesitations to knock people off balance. You’ll often see Powers take one dribble, back into her defender, then spin off them toward the basket or into a midranger based what they’re conceding. Minor injuries cost her some time each of the past two seasons. With Karima Christmas-Kelly (knee surgery) being ruled out for the remainder of the season, now is the time for Powers to capitalize on the opportunity to help the Wings work to secure a top-four seed.
Tier 5 — Rotation player
Bria Holmes, W, Connecticut Sun, R1/P11 (missing 2018 season — pregnancy)
Imani McGee-Stafford, C, Atlanta Dream, R1/P10
Kahleah Copper, W, Chicago Sky, R1/P7
Rachel Banham, G, Connecticut Sun, R1/P4
Morgan Tuck, F, Connecticut Sun, R1/P3
It’s clear that each of these players can do one or two things quite well at the pro level. We may learn down the road that some of them just needed a clearer path to playing time to truly flourish.
McGee-Stafford’s situation in Atlanta is a good example of this idea. She played well Tuesday night in the second half in Los Angeles with the team at the end of a three-in-five stretch, contesting shots with her length and general activity on the glass. Elizabeth Williams is the clear starter for the Dream, and the competition for backup frontcourt minutes there is stiff — starting power forward Jessica Breland has logged some minutes at center, plus Damiris Dantas and Monique Billings are also competing for the available minutes off the bench for head coach Nicki Collen.
Tier 6 — Fringe
Jazmon Gwathmey, W, Indiana Fever, R2/P2
Temi Fagbenle, F/C, Minnesota Lynx, R3/P11
Gwathmey, 6’2, has intriguing physical tools on the wing. Simply having those tools, though, does not equate to lockdown defender status, something she may need to at least approach to really make a name for herself. At some point, the ball is going to need to go in the basket more often, too. In 28 games last season, Gwathmey shot 36 percent from the field, and has connected on just 25 percent of 92 three-pointers in 59 games to date.
Fagbenle played sparingly off the bench last season for the Lynx, though it was quite understandable. Plenette Pierson and Natasha Howard had clear roles with Minnesota’s second unit. With Pierson now retired and Howard playing for the Storm, Fagbenle is in a more open competition for minutes with veteran Lynetta Kizer and the recently signed Endy Miyem. What Fagbenle is able to put on film in 2018 may well determine her future both with the Lynx and the league at large.
Links I like
Here’s Howard Megdal on Liz Cambage, happy to be back in the WNBA.
Here’s David Berri sharing a lesson learned from boxing and noting how it could enhance the ways we go about ranking players.
Here’s Mechelle Voepel on what has already been a whirlwind of a year for Liberty HC Katie Smith.
Here’s Doug Feinberg with a proposal to further enrich Hall of Fame weekend.
Yesterday’s Drop Off: notes, quotes, observations from LA’s home win over Atlanta.