April 26, 2023 

Who typically wins WNBA Rookie of the Year — and what happens next?

Aliyah Boston is the favorite, but she'll have challengers

Chances are, at least one rookie will take the WNBA by storm this season. Last year, the trio of Atlanta’s Rhyne Howard, Indiana’s NaLyssa Smith and Washington’s Shakira Austin had people buzzing about who would win the Rookie of the Year award. And who could forget the race between Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier and Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale in 2019, or how Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson averaged over 20 points per game en route to the 2018 award?

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This season, No. 1 overall draft pick Aliyah Boston is the presumptive favorite for Rookie of the Year, but in a pre-draft call with reporters, ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson named a whopping seven players who could have an immediate impact on the league.

“There are a number of players across the board [who could contribute right away],” she said. “It just really is about fit and opportunity to come in and make a difference.”

To project who will navigate the transition from college to the WNBA best and make the biggest impact as a rookie, it’s useful to consider the historical patterns in who wins Rookie of the Year. In addition, let’s look at what the award portends for players’ longevity and success in the league. (Spoiler alert: They’re generally not one-hit wonders.)

Unless otherwise specified, all data are from Basketball-Reference and represent the regular season only. You can view a full list of Rookie of the Year winners here.

What kind of player wins Rookie of the Year?

Unlike the Defensive Player of the Year award, which overwhelmingly goes to frontcourt players, no position dominates the Rookie of the Year award. In the 25 seasons since the award was established in 1998, forwards have won 13 times, guards have won nine times, and guard-forward hybrids have won three times.

What the Rookies of the Year have in common is that they tend to be No. 1 overall draft picks (13 of them were) and have elite college resumes. Twenty-two Rookies of the Year were college All-Americans,* and 10 were national players of the year.

In addition, 21 of 25 winners, and 18 of the past 19, came to the WNBA from high-major programs, defined here as those from the Power 6 conferences plus UConn, even when the Huskies played in the American Athletic Conference. UConn (six) and Tennessee (three) have produced the most Rookies of the Year, with four other schools producing two apiece.

In their first WNBA season, most Rookies of the Year are full-time starters and average at least 30 minutes per game. (Notable exceptions include Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry, who started just 10 of 34 games in 2009 and averaged 21.6 minutes per game, and Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, who started 23 of 34 games in 2015 and averaged 25.9 minutes.) Overall, the winners average 14.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game as rookies, though the frontcourt players tend to score and rebound slightly more than the backcourt players.

A graph showing select per-game statistics for WNBA Rookies of the Year, broken down by position. Backcourt winners tend to average fewer points, rebounds and blocks but more assists than frontcourt winners.
Stats for WNBA Rookies of the Year in their winning season. Guard-forward hybrids are not shown due to the small number of winners (3). Source: Basketball-Reference

Rookies of the Year also tend to be fairly efficient: Their average player efficiency rating of 20.4 is well above the league average of 15.0, and their median effective field-goal percentage is 48.6%.

As a result, Rookies of the Year earn an average of 4.1 win shares as rookies, 2.7 of which come on offense. They often win other WNBA awards, too, with All-Star nods being strong early indicators of Rookie of the Year contention.

Other WNBA AwardsNumber of Rookies of the Year Who Won in Rookie Season
All-WNBA Team10
All-Defensive Team2
**Not including the WNBA All-Rookie team, which Rookies of the Year generally make. Source: Basketball-Reference

Rookies of the Year also generally help their teams improve on the court, from a median winning percentage of 31.3% in the season before their arrival to 47.1% in their first season. That is a difference of about 5.6 wins in a 36-game season.

A graph showing the change in win percentage for teams in the season that they have a WNBA Rookie of the Year compared to the previous season. Most teams (20 of 25) had better win percentages in the season that they had a Rookie of the Year
The change in win percentage for teams in the season that they have a WNBA Rookie of the Year compared to the previous season. Source: Basketball-Reference

Put another way, only four Rookies of the Year were drafted to teams that made the playoffs in the season before their arrival. But 13 went to the playoffs in their debut seasons, and two — Detroit’s Cheryl Ford in 2003 and Minnesota’s Maya Moore in 2011 — won WNBA titles.

In the end, Rookie of the Year voting is rarely close, with 13 winners garnering at least 90% of the vote and 19 getting at least 67%. The most recent race that was truly a toss-up was 2015, when Loyd won 53.5% of the votes, beating New York’s Kiah Stokes by just five votes. (Though the 2019 race between Ogunbowale and Collier garnered lots of attention, Collier ended up with 67.4% of the votes, and last season, Howard took home 94.6%.)

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What is the typical career arc for a Rookie of the Year?

Unsurprisingly, Rookies of the Year tend to have longer careers than the league average of 3.5 years. Including their rookie season, winners play a median of eight WNBA seasons, and that number rises to 10 when considering only winners who have retired. The sole retired winner to have played fewer than six WNBA seasons is Portland’s Jackie Stiles, whose career was cut short due to injuries.

Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi is the ironwoman, having played 18 WNBA seasons and under contract for another in 2023. Indiana’s Tamika Catchings, Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus and Los Angeles’ Candace Parker all played 15, and Parker will play another this season for Las Vegas.

Overall, Rookies of the Year accumulate a median of 23.6 win shares in their careers, 13.0 on offense. If those medians were for a single player, her total win shares would be tied for 67th all-time, according to Basketball-Reference’s Stathead tool. Catchings is the outlier, ranking first in WNBA history with 93.7 career win shares.

A dot plot showing every WNBA Rookie of the Year's total WNBA seasons played (x-axis) and career win shares (y-axis).
Total win shares for WNBA Rookies of the Year in their careers. Green dots indicate active players; orange dots indicate retired players. Source: Basketball-Reference

Even though most Rookies of the Year were drafted to teams that had losing records the previous year, 13 have won at least one championship in their careers. Augustus and Moore have the most titles with four apiece. Individually, Rookies of the Year earn a median of four All-Star nods and 2.5 All-WNBA selections, including any that came in their rookie seasons. Taurasi leads or co-leads both categories with 10 All-Star nods and 14 All-WNBA selections.

Rookies of the Year have also won 12 of the 25 MVP awards since the Rookie of the Year award was created. It is less common for them to win defensive awards, but Catchings is an extreme exception with five Defensive Player of the Year awards and 12 All-Defensive Team selections.

This year’s top candidates

Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever

2022-23 stats at South Carolina: 13.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.9 assists in 26.2 minutes per game

The 6’5 Boston fits the mold for Rookie of the Year almost to a T: She is a frontcourt player from a power conference, was named National Player of the Year and an All-American in college, and was drafted No. 1 overall. She had long been a lock for the top pick, and she’s expected to start right away and make Indiana better on both ends.

“There was no one, in my opinion, that was in her league as far as considering for the first pick,” Fever general manager Lin Dunn told reporters after the draft. “Just everything about her we liked: on-court, off court; defense, offense. She, I think, will thrive in the WNBA.”

Boston’s statistics as a senior even undersell her dominance, as she continually faced double and triple teams. She responded with 70 total assists against just 45 turnovers and still recorded double-doubles in 22 of 37 games.

Boston told reporters in March that, in the WNBA, “I’m going to try and just continue to be that dominant post presence, no matter who I’m playing against.”

Indiana went 5-31 last season but is now loaded with talent from the past two drafts, including lottery picks Boston, Smith (No. 2 in 2022) and Emily Engstler (No. 4 in 2022). If Indiana makes a leap this season and wins even five more games with Boston as its anchor, it’s hard to see how she doesn’t win Rookie of the Year.

Diamond Miller, Minnesota Lynx

2022-23 stats at Maryland: 19.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals in 28.8 minutes per game

Minnesota had an uncharacteristically down season in 2022, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. It ranked 10th in the league in defensive rating, forced the fewest turnovers, and rarely got easy buckets in transition. Enter 6’3 wing and No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller, who can be versatile defensively and dynamic in transition. She is also an efficient scorer in the halfcourt who can break down defenses and finish in the paint.

“We were looking for length [and] athleticism,” Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve told reporters after the draft. “I think her transition game was really appealing to us. She’s an active defender.”

The Lynx do have veteran depth at Miller’s position, with Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Collier all able to play on the wing. But Miller, McBride and Powers can all play other guard positions, too, and Collier can play either frontcourt spot. Chances are, Reeve will find minutes for Miller right away, and if Miller helps Minnesota return to a more typical level of success for the franchise, she’ll be a strong contender for Rookie of the Year.

Jordan Horston, Seattle Storm

2022-23 stats at Tennessee: 15.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals in 27.0 minutes per game

Though Tennessee’s Jordan Horston slid from a potential lottery pick to No. 9 overall, she has the talent and the opportunity to become the second-lowest draft pick ever to win Rookie of the Year. The do-it-all guard joins a Seattle team in flux: Superstar (and 2016 Rookie of the Year) Breanna Stewart signed with New York in the offseason, and all told, just three Storm players return from last season.

Accordingly, Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn was thrilled with the versatility Horston provides for a roster that is still figuring itself out and has minutes to go around.

“You can input her anywhere. She fills a lot of holes and a lot of gaps,” Quinn said after the draft. “We want to play fast and play with pace. To have athletes who can run the floor, she fits that. To have someone who can initiate the offense, she fits that. To have someone who can create her own shot, create for others, score at multiple levels[, she fits that]. That’s just offensively and then defensively … her length lends to having just all of these different lineups on the floor. And I’m excited about that.”

Unlike Indiana and Minnesota, Seattle might regress from last season’s 22-14 record and No. 4 playoff seed as it incorporates so many new faces. But Horston’s talent is a reason for hope in the Emerald City. With her, Loyd and centers Ezi Magbegor and Mercedes Russell, Seattle could still be a very tough out — and Horston could be tough to ignore for Rookie of the Year.

*Does not include All-American honorable mentions.

The Next’s Tony East, Terry Horstman and Em Adler contributed reporting for this story.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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