Who is the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year? Will the nod go to Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier? Or will Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale take home the honors?
All the conversation and chatter sparked by the race between the two has been truly exciting to witness. If you really strip the debate down to its core, it centers on this: Collier has been a well-rounded two-way contributor for a playoff team from game 1 to game 34. Ogunbowale found a groove in the second half of the season to finish as one of the league’s top scorers for the banged-up, lottery-bound Wings.
The goal here is to run through what each player did this season. What were they good at? What hats were they asked to wear? How much can (or should) we tie their contributions to overall team successes or shortcomings? Some straw men will be harmed along the way.
This is not a 2019 redraft. Both will be extremely valuable WNBA players for a long time. While there’s value in the fact that we each see the game a little differently, you’re kidding yourself if we can’t agree on that much.
Ogunbowale has been a high-volume initiator, finishing second in usage rate (28.8) behind Tina Charles and finished 217 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler per Synergy Sports—most in the league by a narrow margin.
Collier has been a rock-solid third scoring option and a versatile, reliable defender from either forward spot for a top-two defense while leading the entire league in minutes played.
Collier, drafted sixth overall, joined a Lynx team in flux. The franchise that has dominated most of the decade was missing three starters, including six-time All-WNBAer Maya Moore (personal). A fourth, Seimone Augustus, has had her role scaled back for several years running now and announced that she’ll be retiring after the 2020 season.
Minnesota opened the season with nine new players around perennial All-Star center Sylvia Fowles, Augustus and point guard Danielle Robinson. Presumed starting small forward Karima Christmas-Kelly (knee) was limited to six games. Enter Collier.
Starting power forward Damiris Dantas (calf) missed eight games, and backup 4 Jessica Shepard went down in early June with a torn ACL. Collier had to perform as a starter on the wing, entirely new to her after being featured as a 4/5 at UConn, from day one. The Dantas and Shepard injuries accentuated the need for her to seamlessly swing between the two forward positions.
Ogunbowale, drafted one slot earlier, was also asked to play a new position. She was the team’s primary creator and ball-handler as All-WNBA point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (maternity leave) and promising reserve Moriah Jefferson missed the entire season.
Making the playoffs was going to be more of an uphill climb for the Wings than the Lynx. The latter didn’t have Moore but still had their other top-10 player. Had the Wings banked a few wins and got Diggins-Smith back for about half the season, they may have had an outside shot at the postseason.
Promising young forward Azura Stevens (foot) logged just 144 minutes. Tayler Hill (knee) appeared in just four games. Dallas essentially got nothing from its three other lead ball-handlers. 2017 draftees Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis had some nice moments but are overextended as No. 2 options.
It was all on Ogunbowale to create after being featured primarily as an off-ball scorer at Notre Dame. Stevens, their most dynamic pick-and-roll partner, was missed. Stretch 5 Theresa Plaisance was shipped out at the deadline.
In her own way, Collier’s scoring has also been impressive. She gave opposing guards and wings fits all season quickly ducking into the post. At 6’1” with long arms, she has an advantage even on most 3s.
Working with some considerable constraints, Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve put all three members of the starting frontcourt in positions to get the most out of their offensive skill sets. They regularly inverted their offense, leaving both blocks open so Collier could duck in and establish deep position. She has racked up points all season long out of this same sideline out of bounds look.
Reeve made a big bet on Dantas on restricted free agency. She came through with a career-year from deep, shooting 39 percent on 4.1 attempts per game. Shooting from that position was essential in unlocking Collier’s low-block scoring seen at scale at UConn.
The biggest critique of Minnesota’s offense would have to be their struggles to get Fowles and Collier more touches inside. Nothing we’ve seen suggests she can’t take on an even bigger scoring load, bumping her usage up from 17.4 to, say, the 20-to-22 range.
Collier’s scoring ability shouldn’t be downplayed. She’s much more than a glue player living on scraps. She also has a money turnaround jumper with a mean counter. The jumper will be an even bigger weapon at this level moving forward, especially if she’s going to play a majority of her minutes at the 3.
Making sense of the volume
This race doesn’t have to be reduced down to a philosophical debate about efficiency—easily the most tired talking point hammered along the way. (Nobody is arguing Ogunbowale doesn’t need to shoot it better than she did in the first half of the season.) High-volume initiators play by different rules. This isn’t a new concept.
According to Synergy Sports, nearly half of Ogunbowale’s field goal attempts (204, most in the league) were jumpers off the dribble. She netted 0.779 points per possession.
That number will rise if she turns some more of those shots into pull-up treys. Related: Leilani Mitchell was among the league’s most efficient off-the-dribble shooters (116 possessions, 1.034 PPP). For reference, the 2019 median halfcourt offense managed 0.847 PPP (0.891 PPP last year).
Cue the hysteria. We got her! She isn’t efficient; those shots don’t matter!
Know who else fared similarly this season on off-the-bounce jumpers? Chelsea Gray (174 possessions, 0.776 PPP).
Gray will likely earn another All-WNBA nod this season. The biggest feather in her cap will be her performance as one of the league’s top clutch scorers per WNBA.com.
Gray finished fourth in clutch points (48), third in makes (17), fourth in attempts (33), tied for first in made triples (6) and fifth in assists (10).
Ogunbowale finished second in clutch points (55), tied for fourth in makes (16), first in attempts (49) and tied for first in made triples (6).
Is Gray constantly getting knocked for efficiency, or do people simply see and appreciate the value in having somebody that can get you a bucket in late-clock, late-game situations against a set defense?
Nobody is giving Ogunbowale (or Gray) a free pass. You have to work to squeeze as much as possible out of every offensive possession. If you don’t, the Mystics (or Storm, when healthy) will beat you by 30.
Dismissing Ogunbowale’s case by shouting, ‘Efficiency!’ reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of where the league is at offensively. These players are extremely hard to find. Gray, Ogunbowale, Diamond DeShields and Tiffany Hayes are probably the only perimeter-oriented players this season you’d want to bet on getting by their defender to go get you a bucket with the clock winding down.
Ogunbowale has been even tougher to contain in the WNBA. She isn’t seeing as many as five or six bodies camped out in and around the lane at all times. You can’t stay in front of her one-on-one with her handle and burst. She’ll slip through the cracks if you aren’t air-tight in trying to force her to give it up.
She improved getting the ball out early when a second defender entered the picture. Yes, the Wings didn’t have even a second option that struck fear in defenses. Consistently drawing two is still an ultimate compliment. You can’t put a price tag on those created opportunities to play 4-on-3 from there.
And this is where the knocks against Dallas’ record start to break down. The 11 other teams are trying to beat them! Ask L.A., who finished one game behind the No. 2 Sun, how they feel about their four combined losses to Dallas and New York.
By the numbers
Team success has been tied into this conversation a considerable amount. Without a doubt, Collier has been one of the three biggest drivers of Minnesota’s success.
But turning that into a knock against Ogunbowale doesn’t make any sense. Swap Collier for Ogunbowale and the 2019 Wings still aren’t making the playoffs.
On/off data is often presented in tandem. The Lynx have outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions with Collier on the floor and were outscored by 10.2 per 100 with her off (Ogunbowale: minus-9.7 on, minus-0.1 off). Collier’s 16.7 net difference was a team-high.
Look, the Wings were better without Ogunbowale!
Not so fast. What do those numbers really tell us? The Wings were a lottery team that lost 10 games by 14 points or more. Ogunbowale was a starter that played a half-ton of minutes. The numbers were going to bear that out.
Now, did the Wings squeeze as much as possible out of the second half of the season to put Ogunbowale in positions to create? Of course. With so many players already sidelined, what else was Brian Agler supposed to do? The Fever have had Kelsey Mitchell in more of a timeshare. If you know you’re lottery-bound, wouldn’t you rather see one of your key young pieces get as many reps as possible?
The Lynx played very well with Collier on the floor this season and got blitzed with her on the bench. But that includes the 66 minutes in which they were outscored by 36 points in the missed games by Dantas per Positive Residual. Meanwhile, the Lynx were just minus-12 in the other 164 minutes that Collier sat this season.
Here’s a thought: Ogunbowale’s on/off splits would look considerably better with Fowles on her team, or even with Diggins-Smith and Stevens playing a full season. The Lynx had a reasonable outline of a playoff team, maybe even an outside shot at the No. 4 seed with health and a key player elsewhere missing time. The Wings didn’t have two of their three best players.
Collier ranks 10th in overall regular-season PIPM, which aims to estimate how much value a player adds to their team, at 3.04 and third in wins added (5.27). Ogunbowale finished 15th in Offensive PIPM (1.2) and 35th in wins added (2.0).
Ogunbowale’s post All-Star splits have been fantastic, making this a much closer race as the regular season came to a close. Collier’s numbers have been trending upwards, too. Neither player hit the dreaded rookie wall.
Overall, Ogunbowale had the fourth-most midrange attempts with the worst percentage (32.9) among the top eight. She also finished eighth in non-restricted area paint attempts and made 39.8 percent of them—1.6 points above the 2019 league average.
To bring back the word of the day, it will always be tough to be extremely efficient taking more than half of your shots from those zones. Ogunbowale might get there, though, with the help of a few co-stars. The Wings may already have all they need in that area in Diggins-Smith and Stevens and have another lottery pick on the way.
Collier was one of the best finishers around the basket this season, shooting nearly 70 percent from the restricted area. She finished 14th and 10th, respectively, in restricted area attempts and makes. You have to go all the way down to Tianna Hawkins, who finished 41st in RA attempts, to find somebody that converted at a higher rate.
The 3-point line can unlock a pandora’s box for each player in years to come. Ogunbowale (35.2 percent on 162 attempts this season) is much further along as a versatile 3-point threat than Gray or Hayes were early in their careers.
Ogunbowale’s usage will naturally take a small step back when more help arrives, and she could stand to pull more triples off the bounce (not to mention the spot-ups another star can create for her). All three factors will go a long way in paving a very natural path to greater efficiency.
Collier shot 36 percent on 83 attempts this season. Her ability to make enough of them was a common question in the pre-draft process. This has been an encouraging start. If this is who she is on spot-ups, she’ll make even more plays off the bounce because defenders will have to run to her with urgency.
Taking all that into account, I voted for Collier.
Three big factors set her apart: the start-to-finish contributions, A-plus finishing and her defensive versatility. We’ve addressed the first two; let’s wrap up with the latter.
The WNBA is not an isolation league. You won’t get a bunch of chances to lock somebody down one-on-one. Everything else—communication, staying in plays, rebounding, team defense, switch-ability—matters even more as a result.
Reeve’s use of Collier (third in Defensive PIPM) in Minnesota’s matchups with Connecticut this season was a good example illustrating the value she was adding already as a rookie.
The Sun entered the season with one of the biggest continuity advantages. Their four-headed pick-and-roll machine features the pull-up shooting of Courtney Williams and Jasmine Thomas turning the corner to get all the way to the rim. Jonquel Jones can roll or pop for an open triple, and Alyssa Thomas thrives rolling to the rim to attack in 4-on-3 situations.
Collier lining up on Jasmine Thomas gives the Lynx the option to switch two of those combinations, sealing off driving lanes and limiting catches for Jones or Alyssa Thomas in advantage situations.
Collier and Dantas aren’t big enough to contain Jones one-on-one, but sliding Fowles over to Alyssa Thomas puts the all-world center in a better position to help and alter shots around the basket. Forcing a lob over the top gives Fowles plenty of time to crash the party as the pass arrives.
Not every team has that kind of flexibility. Fowles and Collier have given the Lynx two go-to options inside and the rare combination of tools defensively that can be used to drag high-powered offenses down into the mud.
Back to the isos. Interestingly enough, Ogunbowale led the league in isos (69 possessions) per Synergy Sports. Only eight players would have averaged one iso per game across a 34-game sample. Ogunbowale, Gray and others surrounded by enough shooting might be ready to push the league forward—without overdoing it—in that area.
That’s just one of many reasons to make you think this was just chapter one at this level for these two.
Remember that game-winner at the 2018 Final Four?
It won’t be long, possibly as soon as next season, before we see them standing across from one another in the playoffs with the game on the line.
All stats current as of September 9 and were obtained via WNBA.com unless otherwise noted.