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WNBA Rookie of the Year: Who Wins & Why?

ByQueen Ballers Club|@queenballers| October 17, 2020
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The WNBA’s Rookie of the Year Award started back in 1998, and is awarded to the “top” rookie of the regular season. Though specifically how a player best positions themselves to win it remains a mystery, besides being a first year player.

As FiveThirtyEight postulates, “Is it about current performance or promise of future play? Is how the rookie’s team performs relevant, or is it purely based on individual numbers? Does a rookie get extra credit for outperforming her draft position, thus providing her team with added value?”

So today, we’ll explore who votes for the winner, and what factors may contribute to their decisions. We’ll reveal the five most recent award winners, as well as the stats that earned them the honor. Plus, we’ll take a look at how they stack up against each other. And reveal the total list of winners — all time. Let’s get after it!

Discover the Rookie of the Year Award

Rather uniquely, the winner of the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year Award is determined by a panel of sports writers throughout the United States. That’s pretty bizarre when you think about it. It’d be like having your local newspaper writers who cover the high school beat, decide your high school’s superlatives.

Nonetheless, the voting system is pretty simple: Each writer casts a vote for first, second, and third place selections. Each first-place vote is worth five points; each second-place vote is worth three points; and each third-place vote is worth one point. The player with the highest amount of points, regardless of the number of first-place votes, wins the award.

Basically, the popular vote winner gets the win. And that win earns them prestige, as well as a $5,150 bonus, and typically a specially designed trophy by Tiffany & Co.

But what makes a Rookie of the Year?

So much of what makes a Rookie of the Year award winner is relative. As the award itself is about comparing her to her newcomer peers. So there are no set guidelines.

By analyzing all of the previous 23 winners, we can tell the award tends to go to a player selected in the top 3 picks from the draft. As the average draft position of prior Rookie of the Year winners is 3.13. Though, the rookie is most often the very first overall draft pick. Because the median of Rookie of the Year winners is 1.

The honor goes equally to guards and forwards, according to history (11 of each). But very rarely to centers (just Tina Charles, and sort of Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart). And the Minnesota Lynx have had the most ROYs, with five. With a handful of other teams contributing two winners each.

What seems to impact the voting panel first and foremost is offense. Things like points per game, and points totals are areas where ROYs rank well (relative to both their peers and the overall WNBA that year). Second, is defense. Specifically rebounds, and then steals and blocks. The final component seems to be whether the rookie’s team did better than the previous year, and by how much. Including was the rookie a team player – perhaps judged by assists.

We looked at just the most recent winners – a quarter of the total – because the game evolves so much each year, to draw some further conclusions.

A chart comparing the five most recent WNBA Rookie of the Year winners to each other along key statistics

When you stack the recent ROY winners, over the last five years, you can see that while the average points per game expectations oscillates from a low of 11.8 to a high of 20.7, players making around 16 points will put themselves in a strong position as a contender. And players should look to get upwards of 2.66 assists on average.

On the defensive end of the court, a record of more than 6 rebounds can set a player up well. Plus, recording about a steal per game. Combine all those things together, and she should lead a more winning team, which can be the cherry on top. Essentially, she should make her whole team’s players better.

Last but not least, is a certain “je ne sais quoi”. Something to the effect of: Does the player have a winning mindset and positive attitude? Basically, do they lift up those around them and the league.

The final caveat is that she basically can’t get injured. Missing a string of games seems to make the judges more likely to deem her impact lower, despite stats per game. No pressure!

What does the Rookie of the Year Award mean?

But winning the award doesn’t mean your team is a sure thing for that year’s championship. Maya Moore (2011) and Cheryl Ford (2003) are the only ROYs to also win a WNBA championship in the same season.

It also doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the most valuable. As Candace Parker (2008) is the only ROY to win the award after garnering all possible votes and to win the WNBA Most Valuable Player Award in the same season. This is a feat only achieved by Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld in the NBA.

Though it does make you slightly more likely to go on to win a championship. As of 2019, eight Rookie of the Year recipients have gone on to become a member of a WNBA championship team. It seems to predict exactly what its name tells you: these women are going to be part of creating something special for their teams in the long-run.

So now that you know what makes for a Rookie of the Year, and what it can lead to, get acquainted with some of the most recent award winners. And see what makes each story unique!

Meet the WNBA Rookie of the Year 2020

This one was a landslide, and even better it was pretty unexpected if you go back to the start of the season. Minnesota Lynx guard Crystal Dangerfield was named the 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year. She got 44 votes from a national panel of 47 sportswriters and broadcasters. Making her the fifth player in Lynx franchise history to be named Rookie of the Year.

Crystal’s is a bit of sleeper Cinderella story, because she is the first player not selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft to win the award. The Lynx actually selected Dangerfield with the idea that she would play a reserve role. But teammates’ injuries quickly led to her being inserted into the starting lineup, and becoming the team’s leading scorer!

Meanwhile Atlanta Dream’s Chennedy Carter finished second with two votes. And honestly, she would have been our pick. She lit the league on fire early in the year, with a dazzling display of drives and assists. Carter finished the year leading all rookies with 17.4 points per game, ranking eighth overall (and 14th all-time for a rookie in average points per game). Plus, against the stacked Seattle Storm she became the youngest player in WNBA history to score at least 30 in a game. But she missed six games because of an ankle sprain, and that really put a cramp in her ROY style.

Then, Dallas Wings’ Satou Sabally was third with one vote. She was the fourth rookie in WNBA history to average 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists: quite an impressive feat. And, you might recall, the number one draft pick of the year, Sabrina Ionescu‘s season ended early due to an ankle injury, sidelining her from the contest.

Crystal vs. everyone:

  • Crystal finished in the top-15 in the entire league in both scoring and assists, a shocking accomplishment for a 5-5 point guard. 
  • And she led her team in both points (averaging 16.2 points) and assists per game (3.6).
  • Plus, she scored in double figures in 19 of 21 games, including a season-high 29 points against the Los Angeles Sparks on Aug. 9. She finished the season with eight 20-point games and had four or more assists in 12 contests.
  • She ranked 11th in the WNBA in scoring and 3rd in free throw percentage (92.2).

Crystal vs. rookies:

  • Among WNBA rookies, Crystal was the second leading scorer, after Chennedy Carter.
  • And she was also second in average minutes played (30.0) and assists per game (3.6) to Indiana rookie Julie Allemand.
  • Of the top five rookies in scoring, Dangerfield was the only one whose team made the playoffs. Plus, she was the WNBA Rookie of the Month for August and September.
  • She as first in three throw percentage. Second in scoring, minutes and assists (3.6 apg). She tied for fourth in steals (0.86 spg). And was fifth in field goal percentage (47.1).
  • The only ways that Dangerfield didn’t really produce are a relatively low 21.3 assist percentage, and less per-minute production, 17.2, than some other newcomers.

Playing time:

Dangerfield played every game until the regular-season finale, when coach Cheryl Reeve opted to rest her in preparation for the playoffs with Minnesota’s No. 4 seed already secured. She started 19 of her 21 regular-season games.

Crystal’s adaptability and ability to bring home the game in the fourth quarter, sealed the deal. “The most impressive part of Crystal’s season is not having practice time to work on things and improve in practice,” Reeve said of the compacted schedule in the bubble.

“She had to go through growing pains in games while we’re trying to win. Maybe something happened in the first quarter and we would give her some information, and she would be able to quickly apply that information to find success later in the game. Really impressive fourth-quarter player, not just of rookies but the entire league.”

Team impact:

Crystal’s play became even more important for the Lynx after star center Sylvia Fowles’ calf injury limited her to just seven games. She stepped up in a major way, helping her team to a 9-6 run, to finish 14-8: the fourth best record in the league. Including holding off the Phoenix Mercury to claim the No. 4 seed. The result was their best finish since winning the title in 2017.

2020 WNBA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR VOTING RESULTS

44Crystal DangerfieldMinnesota Lynx
2Chennedy CarterAtlanta Dream
1Satou SaballyDallas Wings

See the WNBA Rookie of the Year 2019

This one was hotly contested, and a nail biter til the end. Then, Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier was named the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year, earning 29 out of 43 votes from the media panel. She was the first Lynx player to earn the honor since Maya Moore in 2011. While Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale received the other 14 votes

Interestingly, 2019 appears to have been the year the WNBA Rookie of the Year garnered the most interest over the last five years (see the big spike below showing relative search volume for the term). Perhaps the heated competition caused more people to search for Rookie of the Year to see the final result.

Google Trends for WNBA Rookie of the Year Award searches over the last five years
Google Trends for WNBA Rookie of the Year Award searches over the last five years

What set Napheesa apart from her fellow rookies was her consistency throughout the season. As well as her impressive performance on defense, including her steals.

Collier began the season by scoring the second-highest total by any player in her WNBA debut: 27 points against the Chicago Sky on May 25.  But she didn’t stop there. She scored in double figures in 25 of 34 regular-season games(74%!), including 10 or more points in each of her final 15 games. Plus, she had five point-rebound double-doubles in the regular season.

Napheesa vs. everyone

  • Collier became the fourth player in WNBA history to record at least 400 points, 200 rebounds, 75 assists, 50 steals, 25 blocks and 25 three-pointers made in a single season.  The other three players to reach those totals in a season are Maya Moore, Tamika Catchings and Sheryl Swoopes.
  • From the field she shot 49.0 percent; from the three-point 36.1 percent; and from the free-throw 79.2 percent.
  • She finished the season averaging 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks while leading the league in minutes played.
  • And her defense stood out, too. She ranked fourth in steals among all WNBA players. And finished just two blocks short of averaging a steal and a block per game – something only four players accomplished that season. 

Napheesa vs. rookies

  • When compared to the other WNBA rookies, Collier ranked second in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and field goal percentage.
  • She also finished third in assists and three-point field goal percentage among rookies. 
  • Plus, she led rookies in steals.

Playing time

She started all 34 regular-season games and logged a WNBA-high of 33.3 minutes per game. And Napheesa became the first Minnesota rookie selected to the WNBA All-Star Game since Moore in 2011. Also, she was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for July, and the WNBA Western Conference Player of the Week for Aug. 19-25.

Team impact

Her team, the Lynx, finished with an 18-16 record and earned the seventh seed in the WNBA Playoffs, while she played a leading role. In an 84-74 first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Storm, Napheesa had a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds, as well as three assists and two steals. As a result, she joined Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings as the only rookies to have at least 18 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game.

2019 WNBA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR VOTING RESULTS

29Napheesa CollierMinnesota Lynx
13Arike OgunbowaleDallas Wings

Meet the WNBA Rookie of the Year 2018

Spoiler alert: This one was a landslide year. Las Vegas Aces forward/center A’ja Wilson was unanimously selected the 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year.  She received all 39 votes from a national panel of sportswriters and broadcasters.

She followed former college teammate Allisha Gray of the Dallas Wings as the second consecutive South Carolina alum to win WNBA Rookie of the Year. A’ja had the kind of rookie season that puts teams on notice: statistically one of the best WNBA rookie seasons in history. And the league quickly realized, her explosive first step and accurate midrange jumper made her very difficult to guard. Not surprisingly, just this year, two years later, she led her team into the WNBA Championships.

A’ja vs. everyone

  • Wilson scored in double figures in every appearance. She hit 30 or more points three times, highlighted by a career-high 35 points against the Indiana Fever on June 12. 
  • She also had 10 point-rebound double-doubles, including 25 points and a career-high 16 rebounds to go with six assists against the Seattle Storm on June 19.
  • Wilson paced many veterans with 20.7 points per game — tied with Diana Taurasi at third, after Breanna Stewart (#2) and Liz Cambage (#1).
  • Wilson was fifth in the league for rebounding, with 8.0 rebounds per game, and sixth in blocks, with 1.7 denials per game.

A’ja vs. rookies

  • She swept the Rookie of the Month awards for the 2018 WNBA season.
  • Plus, she was the only rookie to be named an All-Star, and she earned the Player of the Week award for games played July 2-8.
  • She became the second rookie in WNBA history to average at least 20.0 points per game, joining Seimone Augustus (21.9 ppg in 2006).
  • A’ja shot a rookie-best 46.2 percent from the field and made 77.4 percent from the free throw line. 
  • Also she set WNBA rookie records for free throws made (192) and attempted (248) in a season.

Playing time

A’ja Wilson started every game that the Aces played in their inaugural season in Las Vegas. “Everyone in America knows she was rookie of the year,” Wilson’s former coach Dawn Staley said.

Team impact

With A’ja leading the way the Aces (14-20) improved their record by six games from the 2017 season. “Like a referee told me, the league’s never seen anybody like her,” Las Vegas Coach Bill Laimbeer said. “She is the best driver in the league. I think she is the best driver in professional basketball for someone her size, relatively speaking, for a big player.”

2018 WNBA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR VOTING RESULTS

39A’ja WilsonLas Vegas Aces

See the WNBA Rookie of the Year 2017

This year the competition was fierce! The 2017 WNBA Rookie of the Year was Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray. Making her the second player in franchise history to earn the honor: she joined Cheryl Ford, who won the award in 2003 with the Detroit Shock. Allisha got 30 votes from a national panel of 40 sportswriters and broadcasters. While Atlanta Dream guard Brittney Sykes got the other 10 votes.

Just this year in 2020, Allisha set single-game career highs in 3-pointers made (five) and points (22) while starting, and is now the team’s second-leading scorer with 12.1 points per game. Let’s check out how she got there.

Allisha vs. everyone

  • Allisha lit it up right from the get go as a scoring threat. She scored in double figures in five of her first six games.
  • She had two games with at least 20 points, including a career-high 21-point performance against the Connecticut Sun on August 12. 
  • Two days earlier, she scored 19 points, got six rebounds and four steals against the Phoenix Mercury.
  • She also had a season-high of nine rebounds twice in her first 12 games.
  • She ended the season ranked seventh in the WNBA for steals per game.

Allisha vs. rookies

  • Allisha and Brittney Sykes’s regular season statistics were very similar.  There was less than a point-per-game difference between them in major statistics categories for guards including points, assists, steals, and turnovers. 
  • Allisha finished second among rookies in scoring (13.0 ppg) and rebounding (3.9 rpg).  She also led first-year players in steals with 1.53 per game. 
  • And she won WNBA Rookie of the Month honors in May and June. 

Though Brittney was right on her tail, and even leading the way in some key stats according to High Post Hoops:

Allisha Gray vs. Brittney Sykes statistics stacked against each other
Via High Post Hoops

Playing time

Allisha started all 34 games for Dallas and averaged a rookie-high 27.2 minutes per game.

Team impact

With the numbers so close, some voters probably looked to how each woman’s team performed when deciding how to cast their votes. The Wings won four more games than the Dream, and made the playoffs. Meanwhile the Dream ended 10 games under 500, and missed the playoffs.

Basically, Allisha helped the Wings (16-18) improve by five games over last season and advance to the WNBA Playoffs 2017 as the seventh seed.  But in the postseason, Dallas lost its first-round game to the Washington Mystics.

“Super proud of Allisha for an incredible WNBA rookie season,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “It’s a much-deserved award for a Gamecock who exemplifies great character, competes and wins at the highest level. From national champion to WNBA Rookie of the Year – it is so great to be a Gamecock!”

2017 WNBA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR VOTING RESULTS

30Allisha GrayDallas Wings
10Brittney SykesAtlanta Dream

Discover the WNBA Rookie of the Year 2016

Breanna Stewart was the WNBA 2016 Rookie of the Year. She got 38 of 39 votes from the deciding panel of sports writers and broadcasters. San Antonio Stars guard Moriah Jefferson, Stewart’s former teammate at the University of Connecticut, was the only other player to receive a vote.

Breanna, a 6-4 forward, and Seattle guard Jewell Loyd – the 2015 winner – make the Storm the first team in WNBA history to have the Rookie of the Year in consecutive seasons. Breanna was the fourth UConn alum to earn this recognition, joining Olympic gold medal teammates Diana Taurasi (2004), Tina Charles (2010), and Maya Moore (2011).

And it comes as no surprise that just this year she led her team to win the 2020 WNBA Championship. In addition to earning herself the WNBA Finals MVP title.

Breanna vs. everyone

  • Breanna scored in double figures 31 times and logged 12 double-doubles. 
  • She scored at least 20 points in 14 games and hit the 30-point mark twice, registering a season-high 38 points in an 84-81 win against the Atlanta Dream on June 28, and 32 points in a 93-82 loss to the Indiana Fever on July 10. 
  • Stewart also had 10 or more rebounds 13 times, including 17 boards at home against the New York Liberty on June 5 and 16 at New York on July 6.
  • She averaged 18.3 points (sixth in the WNBA), 9.3 rebounds (second) and 1.9 blocks (third).
  • And she became the sixth player in WNBA history to reach all three of those averages in the same season, joining Sylvia Fowles, Yolanda Griffith, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker.
  • Plus, she was named Western Conference Player of the Week once.

Breanna vs. rookies

  • Breanna claimed all four WNBA Rookie of the Month accolades.
  • Stewart topped all rookies in points.
  • Was second in rebounds, assists (3.4 apg), and steals (1.2 spg).
  • And third in blocks, field goal percentage (45.7), and free throw percentage (83.3).

Playing time

Breanna appeared in all 34 regular-season games. And she tied for the league lead in minutes (34.7 mpg).

Team impact

With Breanna leading the way, the Storm finished 16-18 and advanced to the WNBA Playoffs for the first time since 2013. 

2016 WNBA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR VOTING RESULTS

38Breanna StewartSeattle Storm
1Moriah JeffersonSan Antonio Stars

Still curious about the best rookies? Here’s the complete run down of award winners.

See all WNBA Rookie of the Year winners

2020: Crystal Dangerfield (Minnesota Lynx)
2019: Napheesa Collier (Minnesota Lynx)
2018: A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces)
2017: Allisha Gray (Dallas Wings)
2016: Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm)
2015: Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm)
2014: Chiney Ogwumike (Connecticut Sun)
2013: Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky)
2012: Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks)
2011: Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx)
2010: Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun)
2009: Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream)
2008: Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks)
2007: Armintie Price (Chicago Sky)
2006: Seimone Augustus (Minnesota Lynx)
2005: Temeka Johnson (Washington Mystics)
2004: Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury)
2003: Cheryl Ford (Detroit Shock)
2002: Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever)
2001: Jackie Stiles (Portland Fire)
2000: Betty Lennox (Minnesota Lynx)
1999: Chamique Holdsclaw (Washington Mystics)
1998: Tracy Reid (Charlotte Sting)

Now you know all about the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award

All of these women have delivered extraordinary results at one of the most challenging times in their career – a time when they’re just learning how to be a professional and all that entails both on and off the court. One thing is clear: when a rookie wins, teams better watch out for her team over the next few years.

Up next, learn all about the WNBA logo rebrand.

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