Rookie Class Showing its Depth

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Kevin Pelton, | June 16, 2008
Between them, the Detroit Shock and Phoenix Mercury feature some of the WNBA's brightest stars - five All-Stars and three Olympians in total. Yet at the end of Saturday's rematch between last year's WNBA finalists, it was a rookie drafted late in the first round who had stolen the show. Detroit center Tasha Humphrey, making her second straight start, scored a career-high 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting, canning four three-pointers and adding eight boards in 27 minutes of play. That earned Humphrey the walk-off interview with Heather Cox on ABC's national broadcast of the game.

Humphrey's performance was yet another reminder of the surprising depth of this year's rookie class. There was little doubt that top-three picks Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles and Candice Wiggins would be instant contributors, and indeed other than Fowles' untimely knee injury they have done nothing to change that assessment. However, the performance by the rest of the rookie class has exceeded even what were positive assessments of its depth.

The most obvious example of this trend is in Minnesota, where three rookies have been finishing games - not only Wiggins but also second-round pick Nicky Anosike, the team's starting center, and third-round pick Charde Houston. Along with All-Star Seimone Augustus, those three rank amongst the Lynx's top four scorers and Anosike and Houston are Minnesota's leading rebounders. Behind the play of the rookies, the Lynx started the season 5-0 and remain in the middle of the Western Conference Playoff picture.

Number of rookies drafted in the first round and overall to average at least 15 minutes per game. Does not include undrafted players or those who missed their draft season due to injury.
Minnesota has three of the 16 rookies around the league averaging at least 15 minutes per game. While that's not a perfect measure of contributions - Humphrey, for example, still doesn't come close to qualifying, averaging 6.7 minutes per game even after her breakout performance - it's a pretty good approximation of players who are a regular part of their team's rotation. As the chart at left shows, so far this year far more rookies are averaging at least 15 minutes per game than in the past six years.

It's clear from the chart that depth is what sets this year's draft class apart. While the 10 first-round picks is the highest number to be in rotations in recent memory, the real difference is the six second- and third-round picks that are averaging at least 15 minutes. In none of the last six years have more than two late-round picks seen so much action. In addition to Anosike and Houston, Connecticut's Jolene Anderson, Houston's Erica White, L.A.'s Shannon Bobbitt and New York's Leilani Mitchell have all played big roles in the early going.

Merely playing regularly is one thing; playing well is the greater challenge for rookies. Again, that is where this year's crop shines, both in terms of depth and star talent. Of the 14 first-round picks, 11 have posted a Player Efficiency Rating of league average or better. So too have late-round picks Anosike, Houston and Sacramento's Crystal Kelly (who did not make the playing-time cut at 11.4 minutes per game). The big three of Parker, Fowles and Wiggins all rank in the league's top 10 in PER, with Wiggins currently second in the WNBA.

Is this year's group of rookies illustrative of a league-wide trend? It seems unlikely. Though two of the last three drafts have been strong, last year's class was extraordinarily weak, with only three of the 13 first-round picks playing rotation minutes. Meanwhile, 2006 was much more top-heavy as a draft. It produced four players who have already twice been All-Stars (Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter, Sophia Young and Candice Dupree) and Monique Currie figures to join them at some point, but Barbara Turner is the only other player in that class who figures to be much more than a role player.

Tasha Humphrey has scored prodigiously in limited playing time thus far.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
If this is a fluke, it's an enjoyable one that has provided a great deal of new blood to shake up the WNBA. Here's a look at five rookies drafted outside the top 10 who have already made an impact.

Tasha Humphrey, Detroit (pick 11)
In the wake of Saturday's big game, Humphrey is literally a point-a-minute scorer - she's got 47 points in 47 minutes this season, shooting 69.2 percent from the field and 5-of-8 from three-point range. The talented Georgia product, once considered a sure top-five pick, looks like another steal for Bill Laimbeer.

LaToya Pringle, Phoenix (pick 13)
Pringle's WNBA career got off to a late start because of April knee surgery, but in the three games she has played thus far, Pringle has showed that she is already one of the league's premier shot-blockers. In 52 minutes of action, Pringle has blocked 13 shots. Like Humphrey's scoring, that pace won't continue, but a healthy Pringle will make a big difference for the Mercury defense.

Nicky Anosike, Minnesota (pick 16)
Anosike has continued the momentum of a strong NCAA Tournament run with eventual champions Tennessee and parlayed it into a great start to her WNBA career. Giving the Lynx the post presence they need alongside Nicole Ohlde, Anosike has averaged 8.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a night. The surprise is that she's second in the league in steals at 2.3 per game, trailing only her fellow Tennessee product Alexis Hornbuckle.

Leilani Mitchell, New York (pick 25)
Drafted by the Mercury but dealt to the Liberty during training camp, Mitchell claimed the backup point job and stepped into the starting lineup for four games when starter Loree Moore was sidelined by back spasms. In her first start, the 5-5 Mitchell made all six of her shot attempts (three of them from downtown) to score 18 points. She's found the going a little more difficult since then, including a two-assist, five-turnover outing Saturday against Minnesota, but New York is 3-1 with Mitchell as the starter.

Charde Houston, Minnesota (pick 30)
During four years at UConn, Houston's talent was always evident, but it did not always translate into production - especially during an uneven senior season. Yet Houston has been a spark off t he bench for the Lynx, frequently finishing games at power forward. Per 40 minutes, Houston has averaged 18.6 points and 10.3 rebounds - impressive for a third-round pick.