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Honoring the 2015 WNBA Rookies

Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

The 2015 WNBA Draft was advertised by many as a down year. For a league that’s seen a huge influx of unique talent over the past five seasons or so, 2015 was supposed to be the lull before the big-name prospects started graduating again the following season.

As it turned out, though, the 2015 rookie class held many pleasant surprises for fans and GMs alike. It wasn’t all just through the draft, either; international players getting their first taste of the WNBA and players who had to first recover from injury before playing in the league also made significant contributions. A few lucky teams even got players who they could build around for the future. Let’s take a look at the best rookies the WNBA had to offer in 2015.

Guard: Brittany Boyd, New York Liberty

Drafted at #8, this former Cal Bear quickly became one of the league’s most exciting players to watch. Strong, explosive and extremely quick with the basketball, Boyd was aggressive right out of the gate, acting as the spark off the Liberty’s bench who could push the pace and get to the rim at will.

And get to the rim she did. Boyd posted a ridiculous free throw rate of .669 in her rookie campaign. To put that into perspective, only two other WNBA players who played at least 400 minutes this season (Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas and Tulsa’s Karima Christmas) had a FTr of .500 or greater. Combine this with her team-leading AST% of 29.2 (good for seventh in the entire WNBA), and you have a player who’s downright dangerous with the basketball in her hands.

Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

Defensively, Boyd is no slouch either. She has remarkably good awareness on defense (especially for a rookie), and her lightning-quick hands made Boyd quite a nuisance; she led the league in STL% (4.3 percent) and recorded 11 games with two or more thefts.

Unfortunately, a fractured wrist suffered in early September meant that Boyd would miss the remainder of the regular season, and likely the entire postseason as well. In the 30 games she did play, though, Boyd was very valuable to her team on both ends of the court, and rate-wise was one of the more productive players in the WNBA. A spot on the All-Rookie Team is well-deserved for her.

Guard: Jewell Loyd, Seattle Storm

The #1 overall draft pick of 2015 left Notre Dame a year early to play in the WNBA, and as the season draws to a close, it’s looking like she belongs. A once-in-a-generation athlete, Loyd immediately had the physical upper hand against anyone she matched up against, and although she struggled with her shot early in the season, Loyd has made noticeable progress on a month-by-month basis. Her shooting and scoring have both improved significantly each month in 2015, giving her a comfortable first among all rookies in scoring (10.7 points per game) and free throw percentage (90.4 percent).

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

What’s also notable about Loyd’s progression is how it correlates with her team’s. Seattle was in rebuild mode from the get-go, but head coach Jenny Boucek eased her young players into things as the season went on. The midseason trade of Renee Montgomery and the reduction of minutes for other veteran players meant that Loyd would gradually bear more responsibility.

This is what makes her fast improvement most impressive: she’s been able to adjust her game (even sliding over to point guard, which she had not done much of in college) on the fly, upping her efficiency while being asked to do a lot more than she was early on. There’s no doubt that Loyd has a nearly unlimited ceiling, but what she’s been able to accomplish her rookie year suggests that whatever her potential may be, she’ll reach it sooner rather than later.  

Guard: Chelsea Gray, Connecticut Sun

Alright, so I’m going with a 3-guard lineup here. Fortunately, at 5’11,” Gray has more than enough size, especially at her natural point guard position. The Duke product boasts a unique blend of height and court vision to find her teammates in ways most players can’t; many a Sun player has been the beneficiary of a flashy no-look or behind-the-back Gray pass this year. She led both her team and the entire 2015 rookie class with a 31.5% AST%, so like Boyd, she’s been a very important piece of her team’s offense.

JUL 14 Lynx at Sun

Unlike her counterpart in New York, however, Gray relies on skill, deception, and intangibles to get her work done. She’s one of the best around at changing gears off the dribble (“sneaky explosive” might be a good term for it), and her strong upper body gives her great range on her 3-point shot. Among rookies with at least 30 attempts from long distance, Gray placed a comfortable 1st with a 34.8% 3P%. She would not hesitate to pull the trigger if opponents decided to go under the screen in pick and roll situations (something that few WNBA players are willing to do), adding an extra wrinkle in the Sun offense whenever she was on the floor.

As a threat to score and dish both inside and out, Gray was certainly one of the more productive rookies in her time on the court. Expect big things from this PG in 2016.

Forward: Clarissa dos Santos, Chicago Sky

To say the Sky’s frontcourt situation was a mess early in the season would be an understatement. Yes, Sylvia Fowles demanding a trade put the team in a tough spot, and head coach/GM Pokey Chatman even kept four centers on the roster for a stretch in hopes that one of them would step up to the challenge.

Dos Santos was the clear winner. At 6’1”, she’s undersized for a center, but she’s pound-for-pound one of the strongest players in the WNBA, able to keep players taller than her out of the paint with her powerful base. She’s also had ample experience in her home country of Brazil to work on her game before coming to the WNBA, and because of this she was able to meet the high demands Chatman expects of her post players.

AUG 23 Sky at Mystics

 

Most of all, though, dos Santos has been a beast on the boards, ranking fourth in the league in OReb%. That doesn’t include all the loose basketballs she was at least able to fight for (a “hustle play” category, if it existed, would also certainly rank dos Santos near the top), which, for a team like Chicago, is extremely important: when on the floor, dos Santos played a crucial role in the Sky’s battle to control the pace of the game.

While her volume statistics weren’t as impressive as other rookies, dos Santos impacted the game in plenty of other ways, and it should earn her a spot on the All-Rookie Team.

Center: Kiah Stokes, New York Liberty

Selected with the 11th pick, Stokes was undoubtedly the steal of the 2015 draft, and her rookie campaign further justifies the general WNBA commandment “Thou shall not bet against a UConn product.” Stokes was billed as a defensive maestro who had very raw offensive skills, but she developed faster than anyone predicted, quickly becoming an integral part of New York’s league-best defense while finishing second to Loyd in rookie minutes per game (25.4). Her scoring was better than expected, too, as Stokes showed the ability to finish at the basket with both hands (shooting 65.4 percent at the rim) and draw fouls (.320 FTr) on a consistent basis.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Of course, defense remained Stokes’s calling card, as she put in one of the best defensive performances by a rookie in league history. She ended the season near the top in every defensive category, finishing third in block percentage (6.6), second in total blocks (67), third in defensive rating (90.3) and tying for the league lead in defensive win shares (2.4).

Whichever way you slice it, Stokes is a tremendous defensive player. Generally, WNBA coaches need to be patient with rookie post players on the defensive end, but because of her physical tools and intelligence, Stokes was able to absorb whatever Bill Laimbeer threw at her almost instantaneously. A shoo-in for the All-Rookie Team.

And the winner is…

2015 WNBA Rookie of the Year: Kiah Stokes

While it’s true that individual defensive performance is hard to quantify, Stokes passes the eye test as a major reason why the Liberty’s team defense has been so spectacular. Yes, she blocks a lot of shots, but when one takes a closer look at it, Stokes did just about everything Bill Laimbeer asked her to at a high level. She guarded both the low post and the perimeter effectively, able to switch out on guards and forwards and give them a hard time. Her length and lateral movement made teams think twice about attacking her in pick-and-roll. Simply put, she made the biggest positive impact of any rookie this season, which is why Kiah Stokes deserves to be the WNBA’s 2015 Rookie of the Year.

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