Of all the WNBA awards, Rookie of the Year may have the most amorphous definition.
Most Valuable Player tends to favor how well a player does at lifting her team, a nexus of individual accomplishment and team record. Most Improved Player is about measuring the distance from last year to this year. Sixth Woman is like MVP, but for the players who don’t start. (Also, it’s Dearica Hamby in a walk, but I digress.)
But how you measure Rookie of the Year leads to dramatically different outcomes in who gets your vote, especially in 2020. Is it about current performance or promise of future play? Is how her team performs relevant, or is it purely based on individual numbers? Does a rookie get extra credit for outperforming her draft position, thus providing her team with added value?
The truth is, even I don’t know for sure how I’m going to vote when I turn in my ballot Monday morning. The battle is absolutely in flux. Last year, it was possible to make credible cases for three rookies: Napheesa Collier, Teaira McCowan and Arike Ogunbowale. This year? You can reasonably make cases for seven rookies, and the arguments for each differ pretty dramatically.
Let’s break down the case for each of the seven, in the order of win shares.
Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx
Dangerfield has been the primary point guard for her playoff-bound Lynx, who could still finish among the top four teams. Despite falling to 16th overall in the 2020 draft, Dangerfield has seamlessly translated her game from the University of Connecticut, hitting 33.3 percent of her threes, getting to the rim regularly despite her 5-foot-5 size and bringing stability to the position that longtime Lynx Lindsay Whalen left when she retired after the 2018 season. The only knocks against Dangerfield are a relatively low 21.3 assist percentage and less per-minute production, 17.2, than some of the other newcomers.
Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm
The case for Magbegor is a combination of impact and team success. The 12th overall pick in the 2019 draft didn’t join the Storm until this year, but her size and skill at both ends of the floor have been terrorizing opposing second teams. She leads all rookies1 in block percentage, she’s third in effective field-goal percentage, and she’s playing meaningful minutes for a Seattle team that leads the WNBA. Magbegor is second in the league in win shares among rookies yet has played the fewest minutes of anyone in the top 10. That’s either a positive or a negative, depending on how you weigh the evidence. But in win shares per 40 minutes, Magbegor laps the field.
Satou Sabally, Dallas Wings
If versatility is your most vital criteria, Sabally is your pick. She’s second only to former Oregon teammate Ruthy Hebard in rebound percentage among rookies, and is north of 15 percent in assist percentage as well. Wings coach Brian Agler played her a good amount at the wing position, but thanks to a combination of her skill set and Dallas’s needs, she’s been a primary center of late as well and is thriving in that role, scoring 25 points against the Storm on Wednesday night. Her efficiency has been her limitation so far this year: she is shooting just 36.8 percent from the field and 19.7 percent from three. But she’s excelled in as many different areas as any rookie.
Ruthy Hebard, Chicago Sky
If what you value is a player capable of performing within herself, well, you probably already enjoyed Hebard with the Oregon Ducks — and even more now in her time as a classic five with the playoff-bound Sky. Among all players (not just rookies),2 Hebard is second in offensive points per possession among 101 qualifiers, per Synergy. She’s the leading rookie in total rebounding percentage and the league leader in true shooting percentage, using her vintage around-the-rim moves and strength, a Bri Jones-type player with a few extra inches of height. But she is only averaging 13.7 minutes per game.
Julie Allemand, Indiana Fever
Allemand’s case is a combination of volume and efficiency. The volume refers to how much Indiana has used her — she’s third in the league in minutes played among all players, ahead of workhorses like Courtney Vandersloot and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The Fever have turned to Allemand as the primary point guard this season after Erica Wheeler tested positive for COVID-19 and wasn’t able to join the team in the bubble. While in the lineup, all Allemand has done is hit 47.1 percent of her threes, sit second in the league among rookies in assist percentage and run a WNBA offense full time in her first exposure to the league. If you value team record or defensive numbers, though, Allemand’s probably not your pick.
Kaila Charles, Connecticut Sun
Charles did not play much early on after the Sun selected her 23rd in the 2020 draft. But once the Sun started 0-5, Charles worked her way into the lineup, deploying a previously unseen 3-point shot (39.3 percent for the season) with an athleticism that allows her to get to the rim regularly at a strong 6-foot-1. Charles is fourth in win shares on the Sun, a team that has more than recovered from its slow start to reach the playoffs. Her total numbers probably don’t support winning the award, but other than Dangerfield, it’s hard to point to a rookie who has had a greater impact on a playoff-bound team.
Chennedy Carter, Atlanta Dream
The raw numbers are just astonishing. She put up 35 points in a game early on, she’s led the late charge by the Atlanta Dream in pursuit of a playoff berth, and she’s been everything head coach Nicki Collen could have hoped when the team drafted Carter fourth and handed her the offense. She’s averaging 16.5 points per game, she’s hitting 37.9 percent of her threes and 46.4 percent from inside the arc, she’s unguardable, and she changes the tilt of the floor when she’s on it. She also missed six games — nearly 30 percent of the season — and purely evaluating her campaign means figuring out whether 70 percent of Carter’s production is better than 100 percent of any other rookie. It might well be.