September 11, 2009 -- With the regular season set to conclude Sunday, this edition of the Rookie Rankings marks the last of the 2009 season, which means it's about time we made our pick for the Rookie of Year.
And it could not be a closer race. There probably has never been a tougher call for the award in the league's history, seeing that you could make a case for three first-year players: Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry, Phoenix's DeWanna Bonner and Detroit's Shavonte Zellous. In fact, we actually delayed the Rookie Rankings a day so Bonner and Zellous could each get in another game and hopefully make things a little clearer.
For most of the season, it seemed like the honor would go to Bonner, as she held the top spot in our rankings in every week but two. She had married individual greatness with team success as sixth woman extraordinaire for the Phoenix Mercury.
But all year McCoughtry showed flashes of just why she was made the No. 1 overall selection in April's draft, and late in the season, when an opportunity for more playing time presented itself, the Lousiville product took full advantage, earning Rookie of the Month honors for both July and August (and possibly September?).
Then there's Zellous, who ever since she was moved to the bench by coach Rick Mahorn has been an invaluable spark for a Shock team on the verge of making the playoffs after their chances seemed remote just a month ago. Like McCoughtry, Zellous has brought her game to another level in the latter months of the season to put the heat on Bonner.
And Zellous, McCoughtry and Bonner have done it all for teams either already in the postseason, or likely headed there. While it didn't make things any easier for us, the impact they've been able to have speaks volumes to their promising careers and the future of the WNBA.
Of course, we're tempted to call it a three-way tie -- 1A, 1B and 1C -- but where's the fun in that? So without further ado, our final Rookie Rankings of the 2009 season.
Skinny: We see McCoughtry becoming the fifth No. 1 overall selection to capture Rookie of the Year honors and the second in a row, with Candace Parker claiming the award last season. McCoughtry's season actually got off to an inauspicious start, as she struggled to garner playing time on the Dream with veterans Chamique Holdsclaw and Iziane Castro-Marques playing ahead of her. Still, McCoughtry made the most of the limited opportunities she was given and as odd as it might seem, made Atlanta, a second-year franchise, one of the deepest squads in the league. But McCoughtry didn't solidify the lead in the Rookie of the Year race until Holdsclaw went down with an injury and opened up a spot in the starting lineup. That has made all the difference as in the last two months of the season, when games take on added importance, McCoughtry has been able to showcase her all-around skills and in the process make Atlanta a serious title contender. Previous ranking: 1
Skinny: Through June and July Bonner was no doubt the best rookie in the WNBA. In becoming that third scorer after Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter that the Mercury lacked in 2008, she made Phoenix one of, if not the most, dangerous teams in the league in 2009. But Bonner has hardly been just a scorer. She distinguished herself as a versatile threat from jump street, capable of playing down low and on the perimeter, and also as the top rebounder among rookies, something she has carried through to the final games of the season without much competition. Over the last two months though Bonner has become a victim of circumstance. With the return of Penny Taylor in the middle of the season, Bonner no longer is relied upon to score as much as before. Meanwhile, the uber-talented McCoughtry has seen her role increase and her game flourish, and thus, Bonner has been overtaken as the top rookie. Previous ranking: 2
Skinny: Zellous always seems to be the forgotten one in the Rookie of the Year talk. For one thing, she was the 11th overall selection in the draft and didn't come into the league with as much fanfare as those picked ahead of her. And she hasn't been able to capture a Rookie of the Month honor like Bonner and McCoughtry. But might we remind you that while Detroit was fighting for its playoff life Zellous scored in double figures in 13 straight games from August 9 through September 6. Thirteen straight games! And in the process she proved she can rebound, distribute and defend on a nightly basis. What's working against Zellous? Well, even though she's a reserve, she has still played a ton of minutes, by far the most of any rookie, which has given her ample opportunity to pad her point totals. She has also shot a poor percentage for much of the year and committed a bunch of turnovers (although so have a lot of the top rookies). Previous ranking: 3
Skinny: With All-Star forward Asjha Jones going down with an unfortunate injury late in the season, Jekabsone-Zogota, who as we've noted before is not really a rookie, has become a go-to player for the Sun down the stretch. And most of the time she has come through. In fact, as of this posting, the Latvia native has scored at least 20 points in three of her past four games. But Jekabsone-Zogota is working with a smaller sample size than other rookies, as she joined Connecticut in early July. Her WNBA career also got off to a slow start, as she failed to score in double figures in her first eight games. And while she has developed into more of an offensive threat as the season has transpired, consistency has been elusive over the final couple of months. Previous ranking: 5
Skinny: It's been quite a peculiar rookie season for Renee Montgomery. After leading UConn to a national title in early April, Montgomery joined the Lynx and quickly earned a spot in the rotation as Minnesota thrived in the early part of 2009. Drawing from the big-game experience she fostered while playing for the Huskies, Montgomery became an asset for Minnesota late in tight contests. But it was her scoring prowess rather than her ability to create for others that gained her attention. Then after earning the starting point guard job ahead of Kelly Miller, Montgomery struggled and so did the Lynx. Soon she was once again backing up Miller and playing the role as point producer off the pine. Still, Montgomery seems to have found her niche with Minnesota and might be more effective as a shooting guard, or at least a combo guard, at the pro level. Previous ranking: 4
Last week, Lauren Hill of Mount St. Joseph University courageously took the floor for her first college game, refusing to let an inoperable brain tumor keep her from achieving her dream – and WNBA stars Elena Delle Donne and Tamika Catchings were on hand to lend their support.