UConn Artists in the WNBA?

Sunday night’s triple overtime game between the Washington Mystics and the L.A. Sparks was apparently a crowd pleaser (judging from random twitter posts). Fans tend to enjoy watching athletes compete at a high level especially when the outcome of the game is uncertain.  Games like these highlight the intrinsic art and science of athletic performance. Although fans can appreciate the extra excitement triple overtime games create, in the end the win is still going to be a function of certain predictable performance measures.

For example, in the case of the Mystics win over the Sparks, the triple overtime might have been avoided completely had the Mystics suffered fewer turnovers (31 in total). That’s why rookie U Conn alum Dolson’s statement that Mystics Coach Thibault played them because “…we (referring to fellow U-Conn team mate Hartley) know how to win” invites comment. While not taking away from the performance of both players in this game (Dolson had 14 points, 11 defensive rebounds and 1 assist while Hartley scored 20 points had 10 rebounds 4 assists and 1 steal) Dolson also committed 6 of the 31 turnovers. So, is it true that knowing how to win…. really helps winning?

If prior research in the NBA — and some new research Dave and I will present at the Western Economic Association meetings later this month is any indication — the answer is “no”. One of the (many) interesting things we found in our WNBA sample (that replicated much of what Berri, Stacey Brook, and Aju Fenn found here) is that recruiters make a big deal of conference affiliation and Final Four experience when making their draft picks. The WNBA might be modestly more justified in doing so as about twice as many female players enter the draft with this experience versus the male players. Still, when predicting pro performance this experience (“knowing how to win”) does not impact pro performance as captured by Wins Produced [and WP48] in the NBA or Wins Produced [and WP40] in the WNBA.

True, these two rookie players have just a handful of games behind them and their performance this rookie season may end up defying the odds (although premature, a quick WP calculation returns 1.4 for Harltey so far and 3.0 for Dolson). But, overall any Final Four or even championship experience is unlikely to have anything to do with their ability to produce wins for the Mystics or any other team. What is more likely to explain any future wins by the Mystics? The reliable performance measures captured by Wins Produced: shooting efficiency, possession factors (like turnovers), and of course minutes played.

A basketball game is– on the one hand– a thing of beauty.  On the other hand a basketball game is an economic laboratory where inputs combine to produce wins. In that laboratory we have not found that “knowing how to win” produces winning. Instead, repeated experiments suggest key performance variables produce wins. The UConn “artists” on the Mystics team will have to consistently translate their knowledge into performance to consistently replicate their college experience. And we will be the first to acknowledge it when they do.

- Jill Harris

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