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Freelance Friday: In My Lifetime…

Sep 22, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Chicago Sky forward Elena Delle Donne (11) is introduced during player introductions before the game against the Indiana Fever at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Freelance Friday is a project that lets us share our platform with the multitude of talented writers and basketball analysts who aren’t part of our regular staff of contributors. As part of that series we’re proud to present this guest post from Will Garcia. Will is just a dude who wishes he could dunk. Instead, he can kinda work an Excel spreadsheet. Follow him @WillTheHoopsGuy or shoot him an e-mail at willthehoopsguy (at)gmail.com to talk shop!

I think that a woman will play in the NBA in my lifetime.

I know that it’s about as common of an opinion as ‘Josh Smith should shoot more three pointers.’ or ‘Scott Brooks is a skilled tactician.’ or ‘Petting live, rabid grizzly bears is family fun for everyone.’

I’m crazy. I’m “out [my] damn mind.” I get it.

When you go against as overwhelming of an opinion as the ‘women-NBA-never-ever’ thing, you should come with strong evidence. Unfortunately, women’s basketball lacks just that.

Evidence.

I can find the vertical leap, 3/4 court sprint, and standing reach of Curtis Borchardt or Khalid El-Amin, but if I want to know how high a women’s player not named Brittney Griner or Candace Parker can jump, I’m probably out of luck. The NBA has mySynergySports, SportVU, Vorped, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other websites and technologies created by people passionate about combining data and NBA basketball.

A few months ago, the WNBA got its own section on Basketball-Reference, a website that has existed since 2000. I can’t even find shot charts for WNBA players. Fan-driven statistical analysis of the WNBA is often going to be spotty at best, simply because the apathy that exists toward the women’s game is reflected in its analytical tools. Because of this, I can’t adequately support my opinion, and people who disagree can’t adequately criticize it.

Many fans of the women’s game don’t even like it when the NBA question comes up, and understandably so. This kind of talk can often disrespect the accomplishments, skills, and abilities of some of the best athletes in the world. It is important to remember that we are talking about elite players who deserve respect because they’re awesome at what they do.

Having said that, NBA teams have a duty to assemble the best teams that they can, and this comes from finding players who fill a wide variety of roles. To assume that a woman could never fill any of those roles without the evidence necessary to do so is unfair to female basketball players.

Because the WNBA is much smaller than the NBA, female players get paid pennies on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. A WNBA team’s million-dollar salary cap for 5 years is still less than the mid-level exception, or what an NBA team can spend on players if it’s already over its $63 million dollar spending limit. There are obvious economic benefits for a hypothetical female player to join the NBA, and because of this, female players, if proven capable, should be encouraged to join the league if they see fit.

Additionally, a woman who earns the right to play in the NBA through her skills and abilities would not only bring much-needed exposure to women’s sports, but could also provide an athletic role model for girls and young women worldwide through the most well-known and far-reaching league in all of basketball.

Unfortunately, we lack the information we need about these players to be able to fully understand them in a statistical sense. It’s a shame, but as it currently stands, when it comes to the current crop of WNBA players being NBA prospects, we don’t know.

What we do know is that women, on the whole, are not nearly as athletic as men. In the 100m dash during the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, men, as to be expected, were significantly faster than women.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 2.22.22 PM

 

In the long jump, it wasn’t even close.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 2.22.59 PM

This shows that a female prospect might be able to keep up with NBA players for short distances, but she will struggle with explosiveness and endurance. She probably won’t be able to be Thibsed and play extended minutes each night (sorry Jimmy Butler!), and she’ll probably never do one of those “FREE-SISTY DONKS!”

And she would, without a doubt, perform miserably at the NBA Draft Combine. Fortunately for her, there are…

Combine

(Note: I get that any definition of ‘productive NBA player’ that includes Loren Woods is suspect at best and a pathetic lie in actuality. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.)

I took drill performance measurements for the NBA Draft Combine and Pre-Draft Camp and looked for players who were in the bottom 10% for their position in max vertical leap and the bottom 40% in both the ¾ court sprint and agility drill, to narrow the shortlist down to players who are near the fence of the athleticism differences between men and women.

From that list, I narrowed it down to players who played in at least 150 games, averaged at least 10 minutes, and had positive win shares to make sure they were actually playing basketball instead of picking their nose or being Adam Morrison or something.

Unsurprisingly, there are a few roles for non-athletic players who can contribute in the NBA, which are tiered in the infographic above based on how possible it is that we see a woman who could fulfill this role.

The obvious one is ‘seven feet tall and huge’.

I get that “seven feet tall and huge’ sounds redundant, and maybe it is, but there are two types of ‘big’ in the NBA, and it’s an important distinction that needs to be made for these players.

Marcus Camby is a very big man.

He also has little tiny toothpick legs and the thickness of a Macbook Air. If you could find one that was 6’11”, you could fit him in a manila envelope.

Woods, Collins, Haywood, and Diop are huge. Giant. 250-300 pounders. The kind of guys whose moms spent $300 a week on groceries without shopping at Whole Foods.

Keep in mind, Brendan Haywood is 7’0”, 263 lb, and he still has 9” on the average NCAA women’s player in the vertical leap department.

Women don’t come around at that size. The late Margo Dydek comes to mind, but even then, she was nowhere near as strong as these male counterparts. Factor in elite-level mobility, and the odds of a female rim protector are near-zero.

The second tier, ‘Positionally Big, High-IQ Guys’ was totally thought out and doesn’t exist because I was running out of room on the infographic.

Totally.

In terms of how they would relate to the women’s game, however, Jeffries and Vasquez are kind of similar. Both use their size, skill, and knowledge of the game to overcome their athletic deficiencies. Many female players are highly skilled and knowledgeable about the game, but a 6’11”, 230 lb female wing player isn’t happening and a 6’6”, 211 lb women’s player is a center, not a point guard.

The most realistic scenario for a female NBA player would be as a perimeter shooting specialist.

OFFENSE:

Out of the 11 players who made the shortlist, 3 of them were wings who spotted up or shot off screens for at least half of their shots last year, per mySynergySports.

You also had Ersan Ilyasova, who spotted up or shot off screens for approximately 42% of his shots, but also operated out of the post (7%) and as the roll-man in pick and rolls (17%).

Lastly, there was Antoine Wright, who spotted up about a third of the time 2009-2010 (the last year he played more than 5 minutes per game). He’s a career 30% three point shooter, so it’s not like many of those shots went in, but he thought he was Mike Dunleavy when he was on the court, and I guess that counts for something.

(Funnily enough, the aforementioned ‘Stache (Adam Morrison) would have qualified in this group, but he had negative win-shares. Steve Novak was also close, but his vertical leap was a half-inch too high to make the 10% cutoff. Stevie had HOPS back in the day, man!)

Anyway, based on the averages of these 5 players per mySynergySports, the scoring role of a perimeter shooting specialist is as follows:

Possessions

Shooting specialists score primarily out of three categories: spot-ups, transition, and shooting off of screens. This bodes well for a female player, as spot-ups and shots off of screens are based mostly on team offense and/or good court positioning instead of having the quickness and explosiveness to get past a set defense (like in isolation or pick-and-roll man) or having elite strength to get a good look (like post-ups or put-backs from offensive rebounds).

Players who lack elite athleticism may struggle to finish in the paint in transition, but can often find success by trailing the play and spotting up for a jump shot before the defense gets set.

In addition to being able to convert one of the most efficient shots in basketball, having players who are threats to shoot from distance removes defenders from the paint, making it easier for the offense to cut to the basket and score inside.

This is where a female player could create value for an NBA team.

DEFENSE:

Defensively, these players were a mixed bag.

Defense

Antoine Wright and Mike Dunleavy ranked very highly defensively, whereas Martell Webster and Ersan Ilyasova were pretty much terrible on that end of the floor. Austin Daye didn’t even defend enough possessions to count for a majority of the categories. Mike Dunleavy’s numbers are likely a bit inflated due to a combination of Coach Thibs being a defensive genius and the Bulls having other, stronger wing defenders.

Of course, the Bulls’ defense consistently ranks at the top of the league each year because it’s based on a fantastic, well-oiled system. The other part of this equation is personnel. Dunleavy played with excellent wing defenders last year like Tony Snell, Luol Deng, and (most of all) Jimmy Butler. This means that Dunleavy almost never had to guard the opposing team’s best player, and it’s pretty safe to say that your defensive numbers are going to be helped a lot if you don’t have to deal with players like LeBron, KD, and Carmelo Anthony.

This isn’t to totally discredit Dunleavy, however. He’s a smart defender who plays well within the team’s defensive scheme. He and Antoine Wright show that it’s possible for non-athletic wing players to create a positive impact on the defensive side of the floor in the right circumstances and defensive systems.

This fact is paramount to the hope of the NBA seeing a female player.

To recap, to compete in the NBA, the most established role for a female player would be as a shooting specialist. To do well in this role, she would need to be a knockdown shooter (obviously), have good court-awareness and basketball IQ, and be an elite athlete by female standards.

If this is true, then Elena Delle Donne is a prospect who has a chance at succeeding in the NBA and is worth looking into. Delle Donne shot 44% from beyond the arc her rookie year on over three attempts per game, following her college career which saw her shoot 41% from three on over 500 attempts. Elena Delle Donne has range.

Even though she’s struggling this year from deep, her history shows that she can obviously shoot the long-ball. There are a few potential caveats to these numbers. For one, she has only performed this well against female defenders. We don’t know how they would translate against faster, stronger, and more explosive defenses. Additionally, Delle Donne’s WNBA numbers are from the FIBA 3-point line, which is about a foot and a half shorter than the NBA line from in front of the basket and four inches shorter in the corners. The women’s ball is also an inch smaller in circumference than a men’s ball.

However, you also have to consider that Delle Donne put up these impressive shooting numbers as the number one option and has received much more defensive attention than she would in the NBA. Assuming the worst, we know that she can at least hit the open shot from distance and space the floor at an NBA level. Because the bulk of her role as a scorer would likely be based on spot-ups and shots off of screens, she would be getting plenty of open looks. She’s also a skilled passer and has a decent handle, underrated skills that come in handy, especially for players who are physically overmatched.

Athletically, as mentioned, there is almost no concrete information out there about her. We know that, despite being not having 2004-era Steve Novak mad hops, she can dunk.

Based on the average standing reach of players who are 6’4.75” to 6’2.5” (Delle Donne is 6’5”)[1.standing reach numbers based on 1 standard deviation above/below the mean of 6'4.75" to 6'5.25" tall NBA draft combine prospects], Delle Donne would likely need at least a 22.5” to 26.5” vertical leap to be able to get her hand 6 inches above the rim and dunk.

Any number in that range would be the lowest for a wing player in NBA combine history as far as max vertical leap goes, but she also did this jump with a basketball, which weighs a player down and can make it difficult to fully extend. Of course, it would also help if we knew the actual number, but alas, it’s unGooglable.

We also don’t know Delle Donne’s 3/4 court sprint time, so I came up with the Garcia Drill for Slow Three Point Specialists with No Hops (patent pending).

The drill goes as follows:

– Start out at the “elbow” of the opposing team’s three point line.

– Sprint to the “elbow” of your own three point line.

– Get your feet set and catch the ball for a shot.

Shooting specialists wind up doing this occasionally in transition, so it’s important to be quick at getting to a good spot on the court to launch a jumper. I was able to find footage of Dunleavy, Martell Webster, Austin Daye, Steve Novak, and Delle Donne doing this in a game. For Novak and Delle Donne, I was able to download the footage and find the exact amount of time that it took each of them to run, get set, and catch. For the other players, it was mySynergySports footage, 10 runs of a trusty online stopwatch, removing the highest and lowest numbers, and taking an average.

Here are the results:

Running

Obviously, this isn’t an ideal way to measure a player’s quickness. Fatigue would create a major difference a player’s performance, for example. Any one-sample determination of a player’s athleticism is going to be far from perfect at representing their actual ability, especially after you account the errors that almost certainly occurred from the way most of the player’s times were measured.

I wish we had something more concrete to go on, but we don’t, and until we do, it’d be a bit foolish of me to be fully convinced. As-is, however, it shows something that I find encouraging. Elena Delle Donne, a female basketball player, doesn’t look out of her league next to these guys. It kinda just looks like Elena Delle Donne: basketball player.

The eye test backs it, too, I think. They’re all a bunch of awkward, slow-footed athletes who can barely dunk a basketball. They try hard on defense, know where the hell they’re supposed to be on both ends of the floor, and happen to be shooting savants who are good enough at the other stuff on offense to be worth putting in the game. They’re not going to drop 20 tonight; they might do it once or twice all season. They probably won’t get more than 15 minutes of run, but it will be fifteen minutes of beautifully awkward basketball getting played the right way.

It probably won’t be Elena Delle Donne, the powers that be in NBA front offices probably aren’t ready for it yet, but barring any ugly truths in the information we are lacking in the women’s game, I think it’s going to happen soon enough. And if it does, don’t forget that the crazy guy who’s ‘out his damn mind’ told you so.


 

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.

  • http://www.StatHunting.com/ Steve Fenn

    I really appreciate the argument you lay out here, Will. Lots of great points, and I agree that if a woman player ever makes it to the NBA, she will very likely be a three point specialist.

    However, I think you are vastly understating the defensive difficulties that would face a female player trying to make an NBA roster. Alongside the gender differences in speed that you mention, the defensive side of the ball is where NBA players would try to take advantage of a female player’s relative lack of physical strength. So, alongside being a “knockdown shooter (obviously), have good court-awareness and basketball IQ, and be an elite athlete by female standards,” she would also have to be strong enough to avoid being a massive liability when opposing offenses are doing everything they can to set picks on here or post her up. Even if she does these things well, her presence on the floor would still probably dictate that her team can’t make much use of zone schemes or aggressive switching, either. And that’s before considering whether she would want to endure the media storm that her presence in even an NBA training camp would stir up.

    I also hope there will be a woman in my lifetime that can tick all those boxes and get the chance she deserves, but that is an awful lot to ask, and I just don’t think it’s realistic.

  • http://HonkasaloAnalytics.com Mika Honkasalo

    Found this an interesting read and have a couple of comments.

    First of all basketball is a pretty weird compared to other sports that have so many people getting paid millions of dollars to do so, since it’s a game played by tall people. Meaning that the average seven foot NBA player isn’t as good a professional athlete as someone in, say, tennis, simply because there are so few tall people to choose from.

    I used to play ice hockey and when I was I played for a club named Espoo Blues and one day the women’s finnish national team coach came to watch our practice thinking they could play a practice game against that but decided immediately that it made no sense and they couldn’t play against us. Now that was a select team of some of the top young prospects in finnish hockey and the level of women’s hockey isn’t that great probably, but already at 15 the difference in physical ability was too much.

    Tennis is probably the sport that has the highest level of women’s competition of any sport. Tons of young girls play and practice like professionals and go through tough training regimens from when they are five year old, but even then a friend of mine who was a top prospect in Finland could play evenly against women in the some hundreds in WTA rankings at age 16. According to him there is some debate on this but generally people believe that just national level adult players can play pretty evenly against the top women in the world.

    The idea of just a three point specialst who doesn’t do much else but hit corner three’s and plays like a steve novak sounds good. It seems like there’s not much contact where strength differences show themselves, and that it’s a physical burden that can be handled. To this I would say that people underestimate how good professional athletes are, the guys who get paid millions of dollars are insanely good at their craft, even if it doesn’t seem like it when they are forced to play LeBron James.
    Like if a normal person ran with them up and down the court and had them bumping into us we would probably break something and die. It doesn’t seem like some guys in the NBA are crazy athletes like that but seriously these guys are pros. They are insanely athletic and good at doing stuff and moving compared to us.

    So in summary I guess the only way I see a female NBA player is if they are 6’10” and were athletes like Serena Williams, who’s probably the best female pure athlete ever. The sample size from which shorter players are filtered is too big and they’re just way too good.

    There are actually some exceptions to this in sports. I think I read something about female ski jumpers being able to challenge male jumpers because that’s a sport where weight is such an important factor.

    Really loved the article overall though! Fascinating read.

  • Eltneg

    I really liked this article, and thanks for at least taking the time to look at this with an open mind. Think it’s important to mention that height is super important in the spot up shooter category as well; everyone in that group’s above 6’7″ and with standing reaches above 8’9″ (according to DraftExpress). If that’s the benchmark that a woman player would have to hit, and since Griner and Liz Cambage are the only players even at the height right now, it’s hard to see anyone making the cut in the near future.

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