The value of centers in the WNBA

Only one center was drafted in the first round in the 2020 WNBA draft, Ruthy Hebard to the Chicago Sky at 8. Tina Charles was traded for less than one would think given her resume. These raise a question of what is the value of a center in the WNBA?

Inspiration for this post came from Kevin Pelton from ESPN who wrote about centers in the context of the NBA ahead of the 2018 draft. I was curious if this held up in the WNBA, and it looks like it does.

One can look at how productive centers were using win shares, a stat from Basketball Reference meant to sum up how many wins a player contributed to their team’s total. To get a sense for the value of different positions, I averaged the win shares of the 12 starters at the five positions in the WNBA for the 2019 season. This is an imperfect method, but works as a quick check.

PG: average win share: 2.1

SG: average win share: 2.2

SF: average win share: 2.0

PF: average win share: 2.5

C: average win share: 3.7

Centers are over represented in the most win shares in the league, and this is true up and down the league. What this shows is that production is easier to find at the center position, and thus is more replaceable.

The gap between Jonquel Jones, who led the league in win shares for center with 5.6 and Mercedes Russell, 8th in WS for centers at 3.1 WS, is not large. Compare that with Napheesa Collier at 5.2 and the 8th best small forward, Jackie Young at 1.3 WS. 1.4 is the lowest WS for a center in the WNBA, from Amanda Zahui B, whereas other positions the lowest point ranged from -.1 to .5.

Centers producing high WS across the league extends to backups as well, with Chiney Ogwumike posting a 3 WS, Natalie Achonwa posting a 2.7 WS and Tiana Hawkins a 2.7 WS.

Single stat summations of basketball players do have their limitations. Good defenders who don’t rack up steals and blocks tend to rank lower than their actual value on the court. For instance, I would value Latoya Sanders higher than Mercedes Russell, though their win shares are pretty similar. But for broad purposes, I thought this was illustrative of how teams should be, and in quite a few cases are, looking to build.

This also shows that if anything just looking at a stat like win shares understates Elene Delle Donne’s dominance last year. While her 7.7 WS was the highest by a decent margin in the WNBA regardless of position, when you consider that she was able to play at both small and power forward, both positions that it is hard to find productive players at, her importance really stands out compared to her competition, 3 centers who all performed similarly.

While it matters to have a center, over investing in the position is a mistake, given productive centers can be found outside of the top of the draft and in free agency, where many of the best players at other positions are taken.

Two main changes in the WNBA have caused this. The rise of the 3 point shot has placed a premium on shooting and spacing the floor, while also opening up the floor for a wide variety of centers to post good numbers. Also, changes in rules and strategy for defense has made it much harder for post players to be efficient enough to justify running post ups.

An exception to not paying the max to a center is the very best who can have an offense run through them, like Liz Cambage and Brittney Griner. Even then, it’s no accident both lost to Breanna Stewart and Elene Delle Donne in back to back years in the playoffs.

The replaceability of centers can be seen in the past 3 drafts, in both how teams are drafting and the outcomes of the centers that were drafted in the first round. 

For 2020 only 1 center was picked in the first round, Ruthy Hebard at 8. And Ruthy may end up playing the 4 some of the time for the Sky, at least defensively, next to Stefanie Dolson. Otherwise, teams went elsewhere, drafting wing players in particular that surprised draft observers. 

The 2019 draft featured 3 true centers in the first round, but only Teaira McCown is guaranteed a spot in the 2020 season. Kalani Brown will probably make the Atlanta Dream roster, but Kristin Anigwe is going to have competition in Dallas. Both are also already on their second teams. Players who bounce around can later on thrive, but often it is not a great sign when a player is traded within a year of being drafted.  

The 2018 draft had Azura Stevens drafted 6th. She is also on her second team. She is also not a true center, as she can play power forward, given she is fairly mobile for a 6’6″ player and can shoot the 3. The final two picks of the first round were both centers, Maria Vedeeva and Marie Gulich. Vedeeva in particular was a good pick. Even there one can see that center is replaceable as she was often stuck behind both Ogwumike sisters, or awkwardly playing with one of them in a front court that could not stretch the floor.

Kalani Brown was also on the Sparks, but then traded for Gulich, cause apparently the Sparks can not have enough centers. Chiney does play a lot of power forward, but how effective I think that is will have to wait for my Sparks preview. Put me down as skeptical for now.

In contrast to the Sparks, the New York Liberty appear to be taking this logic and running with it. They invested first round picks in guards and wings, and are only carrying two centers, one a second round pick from the 2020 draft. The Liberty are the most interesting team for the next few seasons for me for this reason, even beyond Sabrina Ionescue, who of course I am dying to actually see play WNBA basketball. Look for my preview of them coming this Tuesday. 

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