The other day in the Winsidr Slack, there was a challenge to come up with a title that referenced Casablanca. Dani came up with this one, which I’ve now taken to use in this week’s edition of The Follow Through.
If you don’t already know, this is my weekly look around the WNBA. And this week, as we start the Olympic break, that look is going to focus on the league’s rookie crop. Specifically, we’ll be looking at how five rookies have performed in what’s been a…fairly disappointing group.
These aren’t necessarily the best five rookies, but they’re the five that I find the most intriguing right now.
Michaela Onyenwere, New York Liberty
Onyenwere, the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft, has been the league’s best rookie by a pretty wide margin.
One reason for that: she’s the only rookie that’s consistently been in her team’s rotation since the start of the year.
A knock on Onyenwere coming into the season was that she was a tweener who wasn’t big enough to play the four but didn’t shoot well enough to play the three.
But, well, maybe there’s some truth to that old saying that a player will shoot better when they aren’t the focal point of the defense. Because Onyenwere started the season out hot, shooting 44.1 percent from three in May.
That number is dropping as defenses wise up to her, though. She’s down to 31.1 percent from three on the season. Still, we’re seeing that Onyenwere is a great fit for this Liberty team that likes to play smallish at the four.
Awak Kuier, Dallas Wings
The 19-year-old Finnish big was taken second in the draft, but she hasn’t gotten the kind of run that you’d expect from a No. 2 pick.
Why, though? Especially when Wings fans on Twitter are virtually always clamoring for more minutes for Kuier?
Probably because she’s 19!
The thing about the WNBA is that not only is it a league where it’s extremely difficult to even make a team, but it’s a league whose American players have to play at least three (but usually four) years of college before they’re drafted. That puts young players with less experience at a disadvantage. Han Xu struggled in New York in 2019 and hasn’t been back in the W since. Shyla Heal was a first-round pick this year by the Sky and has already been cut. The WNBA doesn’t have much room for developmental players. A 19-year-old in a league full of experienced players is almost always going to be a developmental project.
We should also factor in that the Wings have been competitive all year. This is a team that’s fighting for a playoff berth. There’s barely room for them to play No. 1 pick Charli Collier—more on her in a second—and the team has to find minutes for Isabelle Harrison and Bella Alarie up front. There’s just not room or the motivation to play Kuier.
And when they have played her, she hasn’t been…very good. She’s shooting 25 percent. She’s 0-for-6 from three. She just hasn’t looked super comfortable.
It looked on Sunday that Kuier was finally getting her chance to be in the rotation, playing five first-half minutes. You can see her versatility at times and why Dallas drafted her:
There keep being these small flashes of what Awak Kuier is going to be one day. pic.twitter.com/lmxhyTi4kL
— Justin Carter (@juscarts) July 13, 2021
But that’s not the norm so far with Kuier. And hey, it’s fine—she’s a work in progress. Hopefully Dallas is patient with her and is able to benefit when she’s ready to be the player she can be.
Charli Collier, Dallas Wings
Collier, the No. 1 overall pick out of Texas, was regarded by many as someone who wouldn’t have normally been the No. 1 pick and who benefited from a weak draft. And maybe that’s true—I wouldn’t have taken her over someone like Rhyne Howard next year—but it also discounts the fact that Collier is a really, really good basketball player.
Despite falling out of the rotation at times, Collier has played the second-most minutes of any rookie and has started 18 games. She’s shooting 50 percent from the field, the best mark of any qualifying rookie, and leads all rookies in rebounds.
Collier also ended the first half with her best game so far.
In 22 minutes of play, Collier scored 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. She did a lot of the little things that you like to see, like setting screens to try opening lanes for the team’s guards and providing a strong defensive presence in the post, even if A’ja Wilson was able to be A’ja Wilson and score over her.
Figuring out this team’s rotation is a hassle right now, but Collier is showing that she’s a lot more pro-ready than Kuier and that she needs to get minutes. She consistently takes high-percentage shots. She hits the glass. She’s not a dominant force or anything, but she’s also a rookie who left school a year early. We shouldn’t expect Collier to be an elite big yet. She’s clearly improving right now, and while there’s still the same concern there was in college—her ability to succeed against top bigs—there’s also still a lot of time ahead of Collier to try to fix that.
Betti Határ, Indiana Fever
Unlike the other rookies in this piece, Határ wasn’t drafted in 2021. In fact, she wasn’t drafted ever, as she was eligible for the 2016 draft but went unselected.
Határ is currently out with an ankle injury and has returned to Europe, so I don’t know if we see her again this season. But her rookie campaign sure was fascinating.
Not many rookies are 26 years old. And not many WNBA players at all are 6’10’’. Határ is both and it’s part of what makes her so intriguing.
Her rookie season has only been seven games so far, but Határ is playing 15.2 minutes per night, with averages of 4.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 0.4 blocks per night.
She can do some things on the court that just amaze me:
Betti Hatar shuts down Jonquel Jones on one end, gets the transition bucket on the other. She's having a hell of a game: pic.twitter.com/cxt07lNhS5
— Tony East (@TEastNBA) July 3, 2021
On this play, Határ uses her size to neutralize Jonquel Jones which, like…it’s JONQUEL JONES, and Hatar just bumps her and forces the turnover. But maybe you expect that from a player with Határ’s size. What you don’t expect is for her to outrun every other player on the floor going the other direction to get the easy transition basket. Like…what?
Can’t wait to see Határ back in the WNBA. Hopefully it happens in the second half of the season.
Arella Guirantes, Los Angeles Sparks
Expected by basically all of WNBA Draft Twitter to be a top 10 pick (and by many, including me, to be a lottery pick), Guirantes dropped on draft night, falling all the way to the Sparks at pick 22. It was…an unbelievable drop.
You’d have to think a lot of teams are feeling like they made a mistake right now considering Guirantes is getting rotation minutes for the Sparks while multiple first-rounders aren’t even playing.
Per Across The Timeline, Guirantes is sixth among rookies in total minutes and fourth in total points. She’s not setting the world on fire, but Guirantes is playing. That’s something for a rookie, even if she’s shooting just 27.4 percent. She’s struggled in the paint and from outside, but is shooting 39.1 percent in the midrange, the place where she notably excelled in college. She has to get better at finishing in the paint though, as she’s 2-for-6 at the rim and a scarily-bad 1-for-16 on paint shots outside of the restricted area.
But sometimes, when she’s got the ball in her hands, you can see some flashes of her talent and can see that at some point, she’s going to figure out how to drive in the W:
Not great to see the Sparks struggling, but it is nice to get to see some flashes of Arella Guirantes' talent. pic.twitter.com/xB3QExULOk
— Justin Carter (@juscarts) May 24, 2021
We aren’t there yet. But Guirantes should have been drafted higher than 22nd. That’s at least clear right now.