Commentary

Who are the nation's top 15 players?

Originally Published: February 26, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The request was relatively simple. Pick the "top 15 players of the 2008-09 season" for one of the national player of the year awards (mind you, this wasn't even the actual voting, just ballot nominations; for all I know, they'll receive all the scrutiny of a hotel comment card).

But 15 turned out to be a brutally tough number to settle on. Here's what I finally arrived at after toiling nearly three hours on a 10-minute task.

The locks

Maybe someone will want to play the contrarian and make a case against one of these eight, but good luck. In alphabetical order:

Jayne Appel, Stanford
DeWanna Bonner, Auburn
Angel McCoughtry, Louisville
Maya Moore, Connecticut
Renee Montgomery, Connecticut
Kristi Toliver, Maryland
Ashley Walker, California
Shavonte Zellous, Pittsburgh

Now on to the tougher choices.

The name recognition factor

Marissa Coleman, Maryland: A month ago, Coleman might have needed to count on her name recognition to contend for a spot among the top 15, but she has been putting on a finishing kick worthy of an Olympic sprinter. Maybe the ACC isn't quite as top heavy as it was a few seasons ago, but with Florida State, Virginia and Georgia Tech all rising, it's plenty impressive to see Coleman averaging 19.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists in conference play.

Courtney Paris, Oklahoma: It boils down to whether you're comparing Paris against the rest of the country this season or against Courtney Paris from the last three seasons. Remove the name from the mix, and including a player averaging 15.9 points and 13.8 rebounds for a Big 12 team ranked in the top five for much of the season is a no-brainer.

The point guards

Kristi Cirone, Illinois State: What do Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier and Todd Fuller have in common? All were taken ahead of Santa Clara's Steve Nash in the 1996 NBA draft. That's just a friendly reminder to WNBA front offices ready to overlook Cirone. Some quick notes: Here's the complete list of guards who shoot better than Cirone's 50.5 percent from the field and also lead their team in scoring: Portland State's Kelsey Kahle.

Done.

As of Feb. 22, Cirone was tied for the nation's lead in assist-to-turnover ratio. But more than that, she has either scored or assisted on 326 of her team's 725 field goals. That's 5.2 field goals she has been directly involved in for each turnover she commits.

Of the 11 players who shoot better than Cirone's 43.2 percent from the 3-point line, none also ranks among the top 12 in assists per game (Cirone is No. 12 in both categories). In fact, only one player in that original 11 even ranks in the top 50 in assists per game: Toliver.

Shalee Lehning, Kansas State: I don't care what system a team runs, how many minutes a player spends on the court or if she has a Taser tucked in the waistband of her shorts; there is no way a 5-foot-9 point guard playing in the Big 12 should average 7.5 rebounds per game. That Lehning does just that and still averages more assists per game (8.0) than rebounds is enough for me.

Jennifer Warkenthien
AP PhotoSurprisingly, South Dakota State's Jennifer Warkenthien wasn't among the Naismith's 30 midseason candidates. But the senior forward is one of the nation's top players.

The scorers

Alysha Clark, Middle Tennessee: Clearly, Middle Tennessee has a system that works well for scorers, but this isn't Orlando Woolridge leading the NBA in scoring for Paul Westhead's Nuggets. Clark has put up some legit numbers against quality competition. And if you're inclined to at least partially discount her numbers in big-margin losses against the likes of Oklahoma and Tennessee, it's more difficult to ignore 37 points in a win at LSU. Rebuilding mode or not, Baton Rouge isn't an easy place to play.

Andrea Riley, Oklahoma State: Riley probably caused the most angst and the most minutes spent staring off into space. On one hand, she's hitting fewer than 40 percent of her shots from the field and fewer than 30 percent of her shots from the 3-point line. Her team also appears headed for the WNIT instead of back to the NCAA tournament. Not good.

On the other hand, she's scoring 24 points a game, and of the four other players with at least 100 field goal attempts for the Cowgirls, two are hitting fewer than 40 percent of their shots. It's not like Riley is shooting at the expense of better options. She's also dramatically improved her assist-to-turnover ratio, going from a negative number last season to one of the best in the Big 12 this season. That makes up for a lot of misses.

The wild card

Jennifer Warkenthien, South Dakota State: I was, if not stunned, then significantly surprised when Warkenthien didn't show up on the midseason top 30 list for the Naismith Trophy that made the rounds Wednesday. She's the best player on one of the best stories of the season, a Jackrabbits team that knocked off potential NCAA tournament teams Utah, Minnesota, Gonzaga and Montana early in the season and gave Maryland a tough fight in Cancun. She's also only playing 26.2 minutes per game for a team beating opponents by an average of more than 18 points a game. Project her numbers over 40 minutes and you get averages of: 23.3 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists, with 39 percent shooting behind the arc.

Just for comparison, Maya Moore's averages per 40 minutes are: 25.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

Lest anyone seek to have me committed, Warkenthien isn't Moore. But I'd suggest she's one of the top 30 players. In fact, as this suggests, I'd say she's one of the top 15.

The toughest omissions

Whitney Boddie, Auburn
Tina Charles, Connecticut
Danielle Gant, Texas A&M
Laura Kurz, Villanova
Jantel Lavender, Ohio State
Epiphanny Prince, Rutgers
Helena Sverrisdottir, TCU
Morgan Warbuton, Utah
Danielle Wilson, Baylor
Monica Wright, Virginia

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.