This is not an article in which I argue why someone should win Rookie of the Year and why other players should not win Rookie of the Year. Plenty of people will be writing that article as the season comes to a close.
No, this is an article in which I get philosophical about Rookie of the Year. There are three players who are in the conversation for the award this year, and I think where you land on who should win really says a lot about what you value in basketball.
The three players under consideration today: Minnesota’s Crystal Dangerfield, Dallas’ Satou Sabally, and Atlanta’s Chennedy Carter. Apologies to some rookies who’ve played well but aren’t part of this conversation. They’ll get a brief mention below.
So, let’s get started.
You value winning and season-long production.
No one saw Crystal Dangerfield even being in the Rookie of the Year race this year, much less taking the lead in that conversation. And why would we have expected it? She was a second-round pick. In the entire history of this league, Rookie of the Year was picked lower than sixth just once, when seventh overall pick Tracy Reid won the league’s first Rookie of the Year award.
That was in 1998. It’s 2020. Even if you had high hopes for Crystal Dangerfield, all the odds were working against her.
But as the top picks in this year’s draft dealt with injuries — the top four picks have missed time — and other players picked ahead of Dangerfield struggled to find their footing, a weird thing happened, which was the 16th overall pick suddenly becoming the frontrunner for the award. A vote for Dangerfield is a vote for an underdog.
Availability is a skill, and Dangerfield’s availability has been especially important since Minnesota was without All-Star guard Odyssey Sims for much of the season.
The Lynx are also soundly ahead of the other teams with rookies in the ROY conversation. If you’re someone who believes the MVP should be the best player on the best team, then that might also extend to you thinking that if things are basically equal between a few rookies, the winner should be the one who contributed the most to her team winning the most games. And hey, Dangerfield is the starting point guard on a top-four team in the WNBA.
Her numbers are good too. This wouldn’t just be a “she’s winning so she wins” pick. She has the highest PIPM of the three players under consideration and is averaging 15.6 points and 3.4 assists on the season.
Honorable Mention: If you value these things, you might also have Julie Allemand on your hypothetical All-Rookie team.
You value per game production and versatility.
Crystal Dangerfield averages more points per game than Satou Sabally, but Sabally has the more eye-popping numbers on a per game basis. In 15 games, Sabally is averaging 13.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game. She’s been a two-way factor for the Wings and if it hadn’t been for some uncharacteristically bad three-point shooting for much of the year, her numbers would look even better. (Yeah, yeah, we can’t play the “what if” game, I know. If we played “what if,” we could extrapolate Sabally’s production across a full schedule and remove the games she missed, in which case things would be a lot closer.)
Sabally is the pick for people who like when the stat sheet is stuffed.
She’s also the pick for people who value a player’s versatility.
Sabally’s ability to play multiple positions has helped the Wings position themselves for a return to the postseason. Drafted to play the three or small-ball four, Sabally has found herself as the team’s starting center now with Isabelle Harrison sidelined. (Note: I recently wrote about Dallas’ new-look frontcourt.)
Sabally’s ability to play the three through five and to move with the ball in her hands puts her at the forefront of the innovation that’s coming to this league as the game of basketball evolves. A vote for Sabally is a vote for positionless basketball.
A Sabally voter might also value overachieving when it comes to team performance. The Lynx are the better team out of Minnesota and Dallas, but the Wings are (very likely) on their way to the eight seed. This was a team that was picked to finish 11th or 12th by a lot of media people, and Sabally’s strong play has been a huge part of getting them where they are. She hasn’t been the best player on this team — that’s Arike Ogunbowale — but she’s been one of the key contributors beside Arike.
Honorable Mention: A Sabally voter who values per game numbers and versatility might have New York’s Jazmine Jones on their hypothetical All-Rookie Team ballot. Jones had to step in at point guard for awhile and has shouldered the scoring load for the Liberty on more than a few occasions, though consistency has hurt her overall case.
You value “The Moment.”
Another way of saying this is “if you look back at this season in five years, which rookie will you remember the most.” And while injuries robbed her of being able to make a case under one of the other two categories I mentioned, Chennedy Carter is the player who captured The Moment.
Maybe this category should be better articulated by saying that this is the player who generated the most buzz on Twitter, the player who captured the imagination of the fan. This is the player that elicits all-caps Tweets and video highlights.
We don’t need to bring stats in here. If Carter had played a full season, we might be able to talk about her scoring numbers in relation to the rest of the contenders, but she missed just enough time that her case becomes about something other than numbers. It’s about something other than winning too, as the Dream have been one of the league’s worst teams.
No, Carter’s case is all about the fact that when Chennedy Carter was playing, Chennedy Carter owned the 2020 season. A vote for Chennedy is a vote for excitement. It’s a vote for turning on a basketball game and keeping your eyes locked on one player the entire time because you don’t want to miss a single moment of what that player might do.
Honorable Mention: This is where we talk about Sabrina Ionescu. She played just three games before an ankle sprain ended her rookie year, but the No. 1 overall pick was set to win the “whose season was it” category with ease. I think it’s fair to question why that might be the case and the reasoning why Ionescu was more hyped coming into 2020 than players like Sabally and Carter. But after her second WNBA game saw her score 33 points on 11-for-20 shooting and go 6-for-10 from three while adding seven rebounds and seven assists, I think 2020 was shaping up to be Ionescu’s year, with the “The Moment” narrative going her way. You shouldn’t put Ionescu on your hypothetical All-Rookie Team because she played two-and-a-half games, but she was on her way to being the ROY choice for people who value highlights and hype.