September 5, 2020 

The Next WNBA Rookie of the Year roundtable: Let’s get dangerous

Crystal Dangerfield may be the favorite, but the discussion doesn't end there

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Crystal Dangerfield #2 of the Minnesota Lynx handles the ball against the Indiana Fever on August 7, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

The best thing about writing this column is that I don’t have to have a clear-cut opinion if I don’t want to.

That perk of my job here was none more clear than this week, where no fewer than five rookies (and one team) were named as potential Rookie of the Year picks by our panel of 10 participants here at The Next. And as many confident decisions as there were, there was even more internal turmoil. A lot of respondents named more than one player in their response, even if they had their heart set on one player in particular. Friendships disintegrated. Threatening emojis were lobbed. Chaos reigned.

And still, a clear frontrunner emerged. Let’s talk about Crystal Dangerfield.

“Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t think this race is particularly close,” Minnesota Lynx beat writer Katie Davidson told me of Dangerfield, citing her stats, team impact and ability to close out games. “Good things happen when you put the ball in Crystal Dangerfield’s hand,” Davidson added.

The Lynx rookie received four solid “yes, I’m going with her” votes from our roundtable, though she was mentioned in one way or another in nearly every response.

“[Despite being 5’5”,] her vertical game is just as lethal as watching Courtney Williams leap on a jumper,” New York Liberty beat writer Jackie Powell said. “What makes Dangerfield even more dangerous than Williams is how grounded and poised she is. Her footwork fools veterans. The Sparks fell asleep against her and she made them pay on Aug. 9.

“Also, so many of Crystal’s shots are beautiful rainbows. I’m sure in every Lynx fan’s head they are all colorful, but actually watch her film and you’ll see the shape they form.”

This shape, roughly. (Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash)

Powell wasn’t the only member of the panel to point out Dangerfield’s inherent name-related advantage. Chicago Sky beat writer Nick Niendorf added, “Dangerfield is an unbeatable last name for a basketball player.”

Dangerfield, the No. 16 overall pick, was also unbeatable at UConn, where she and the Huskies went 64-0 in American Athletic Conference play during her four seasons. And despite what now looks like a major slight on draft night, she’s since shown up for the Lynx, averaging 15.8 points and 3.4 assists per game (both identical to team leader and 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier) and being named August’s Rookie of the Month.

“Dangerfield isn’t playing like a rookie, something indicative of someone who deserves Rookie of the Year,” Connecticut Sun beat writer Natalie Heavren said.

While Dangerfield’s impact might be clear on the court — and on paper — WNBA history hasn’t been kind to second-round picks like her. It hasn’t even been kind to late first-round picks; only Tracy Reid, drafted seventh in 1998 (then of 10 first-rounders), has been named Rookie of the Year after being selected in the second half of the first round.

In case you need to experience this injustice visually, here’s a graph:

But let’s put on our thinking caps for a second. What if, in less than a month, the graph looks like this?

Or even — perish the thought — like this?

Un choix de troisième ronde? Le rookie de l’année? C’est ridicule! Ou…s’agit-il?

Julie Allemand, the 33rd overall pick in the 2016 draft, only came over to join the Indiana Fever this season after developing her pro skills with Belgium’s Castors Braine and France’s Lyon, gaining some top-tier experience along the way. Now, the Belgian point guard isn’t just leading all rookies in assists per game, she’s No. 3 in the league behind Jordin Canada and 2020 MVP* Courtney Vandersloot. (*2020 MVP not awarded yet, but we’ve made our stance clear)

In the absence of 2019 All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler, Allemand has started every game for the Fever and racked up big minutes as the team’s go-to true point guard.

“She’s making more 3s and getting more assists than Crystal Dangerfield and blowing away Satou Sabally in her shooting percentages, despite playing the [third]-most minutes per game in the league,” Washington Mystics beat writer Jenn Hatfield said of Allemand. “She also plays arguably the most important position on the court, point guard, which gives her an extra boost in my eyes.”

Powell added, “I was thinking about [Allemand] when others weren’t. I knew she was going to be something to talk about. European imports tend to have a good track record in this league. I just imagine what Marine Johannès could have accomplished if Katie Smith let her play more minutes in 2019…”

We paused the interview for a moment as Powell looked wistfully into the sunset, thinking about what could have been.

This sunset. (Photo by Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash)

Soon enough, Niendorf popped back in to break the tension.

“Allemand being a third-round pick from -checks notes- 2016 is also very funny,” he said. “You should absolutely get extra votes for dunking on a draft class in the future.”

Here’s what that graph would look like: 

Graphic by Domenic Allegra (based on unpublished concept art by the author)

Seattle Storm beat writer Derek James raised an interesting parallel between this season’s Dangerfield-Allemand battle and last season’s Napheesa Collier-Arike Ogunbowale battle — when it comes down to the official vote, does playing a big role on a playoff team mean more than playing a big role on a non-playoff team?

“By design of the draft, rookies go to the worst team, so it’s not fair to hold a young player’s team against them,” James told me. “However, is it unfair to award bonus points to a player who has a featured role on a playoff team? I think that’s a good debate, and one the voters leaned in Collier’s favor. Whether they do the same this season with Allemand and Dangerfield is interesting because both players are deserving.”

Both players? More like every player, said The Next editor-in-chief Howard Megdal.

“Truly, I expect my vote for Rookie of the Year to come down to the final day of games. There are too many options to choose from,” he said. “Julie Allemand’s game-managing has kept Indiana afloat. Chennedy Carter’s got the best per-game stats, but missed time with an injury. Satou Sabally is dominant at times, but her efficiency from the field is lagging. Ezi Magbegor has been as impressive as anyone, but she lacks the minutes played other candidates have. Crystal Dangerfield is my pick as of now — she’s been vital to Minnesota’s rise, she’s performed well at both ends. But truly, this is still wide-open for me.”

As Megdal alluded to, not overlooked in this discussion was how injuries to star rookies have changed the season. No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu went down with a severe ankle sprain in her third career game and has yet to return, and a good handful of other first-round picks, including Nos. 2-4 (Sabally, Lauren Cox and Carter), have missed significant time in this short season for one reason or another.

Carter, though, remains an attractive pick for Atlanta Dream beat writer Bailey Johnson.

“[G]iven that she’s scored in double figures in every healthy game she’s had (she was scoreless in the game where she got hurt and only had three points in her first game back, but I wouldn’t say she was fully healthy at that point) and also given how incredibly important she is to Atlanta’s success, I wouldn’t bet against her,” Johnson said. “Dangerfield has been great and so has Allemand, but I think Carter’s combination of success and also importance to her team is hard to overlook.”

But to others, what matters most for these awards is who’s consistently been on the court — and that’s where Dangerfield has carved her place.

“It absolutely sucks how much injuries altered what we’ve seen from this rookie class, but with availability in mind, Dangerfield is a top-five rookie in points, assists and steals per game,” Davidson said. “The only other rookie up there with her is Chennedy Carter, who unfortunately missed five games due to a left ankle injury.”

“With all the hype surrounding Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter, she really was even more overlooked than before,” Big 12 writer Lauren Rosenberg said of the Lynx rookie. “Dangerfield became the first rookie to start at point guard for the Lynx since 2009; that’s kind of a big deal.”

And still, it’s not just Dangerfield and Allemand who have emerged as worthy candidates from lower down the draft board — but not too far, if a first-round Rookie of the Year is what you’re after! Rosenberg and Powell offered two No. 12 overall picks For Your Consideration™, Academy Awards voters.

“Ezi Magbegor deserves to be Rookie of the Year. Like, is it not obvious?” Rosenberg said. “She was picked 12th, and frankly should’ve been higher. I get that these teams wanted to pick players who could play instantly, but come on y’all! She has the talent that embodies a lottery pick.”

Magbegor, a 21-year-old Australian center, was selected in the 2019 draft by the Seattle Storm, but opted to sit out until 2020. So far, her WNBA numbers don’t quite match her output in the Australian WNBL, but the potential for growth is very much there.

And Powell’s No. 12? Well, let’s all take this journey together.

“When I looked up GIFs of Jazmine Jones on GIPHY, I saw Indiana Jones, Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse’s version of course), Bridget Jones and Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. But … there was a GIF of the New York Liberty rook. And what was she doing, she was clapping it up. If there was an award for rookie energy of the year (REOY), then Jaz would be a shoo-in.”

Jones has been all over the stat sheet for the Liberty, averaging 10.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game. She’s well-known for the energy she brings to the floor, and currently leads all New York rookies in scoring. And not only is Jones one of three active players on the roster averaging more than 10 points per game, but her steals average leads the team.

But after all this discussion about which players deserve to be named Rookie of the Year, is there really a rule saying that only one rookie can win the award? After all, apparently, a 16-year veteran is eligible to win! Why not push the boundaries of this award further and give it to multiple players?

That is, why not give it to an entire team?

“My ROY pick would have to be the New York Liberty,” Heavren told me. “The team started the season with seven rookies on the roster. SEVEN. Combined, their stats are significantly better than any other individual rookie.”

(Look, I’m not going to do the math on that, but something tells me it checks out.)

Even if we can’t have multiple Rookies of the Year in the same season (but…can we, though?), the Liberty still deserve something for all they’ve gone through with the roster they have. Some special accolade that underlines the season they’ve had, warts and all.

“[W]hile Jaz Jones maybe isn’t Rookie of the Year, maybe she’s best-suited as Liberty rookie of the year,” Powell said.

And you know what? Maybe taking home Liberty Rookie of the Year in this, the unpredictable, unwieldy, chaotic 2020 season is more of an honor than it’s ever been.

But I’d still take seven Liberty rookies standing on each other’s shoulders any day.

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