2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year race: A deep dive into the epic battle between Napheesa Collier and Arike Ogunbowale

Last season, the Rookie of the Year race was over pretty much the day A'ja Wilson declared for the draft. There was never a doubt that she would be the best player in the class of 2018, and she proved as much with an All-Star campaign for the Las Vegas Aces. 

Things were much different this time around. There really wasn't a consensus No. 1 pick, but there was arguably a deeper pool of talent. As a result, the Rookie of the Year race has been much more intriguing.

Minnesota Lynx forward Napheesa Collier looked comfortable at the WNBA level from the minute she stepped on the floor, and has kept up her strong production all season long; Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale was forced to learn how to be a No. 1 scoring option on the fly, and proved she can get plenty of buckets; the No. 1 overall pick, Jackie Young, was a solid all-around contributor for an Aces team trying to make the leap to title contention; Indiana Fever center Teaira McCowan struggled early on, but made a late push by becoming a dominant inside presence since the All-Star break. 

When the ballots are due, however, voters will be choosing between two players: Collier and Ogunbowale. Young had a nice season, but did not delivered enough production to put her ahead of either of those two, while McCowan's late-season surge was a classic case of too little, too late. 

With the regular season now in the books, here's a closer look at one of the fiercest Rookie of the Year battles in years. 

Scoring 

Edge: Ogunbowale

Collier and Ogunbowale were the two highest-scoring rookies in the league, but their approaches on the offensive end of the floor were polar opposite. Collier was more of a secondary option for the Lynx, and most of her buckets were assisted and came in the paint. The perimeter-oriented Ogunbowale, on the other hand, had one of the highest usage rates in the league, and created most of her shots by herself. 

Collier broke into the league with a 27-point effort against the Sky in her first WNBA game, and was a consistent double-figure scorer the rest of the way. With Maya Moore sitting out the season and Seimone Augustus injured for much of it, the Lynx didn't have a true No. 1 option, but Collier was one of their main offensive threats, and handled the role well. 

Perhaps her greatest skill was simply her awareness and knowledge of space and positioning. Whether it's on the cut or in the post, she often put herself in a position to succeed, and made things much easier for herself and her teammates. 

That isn't to say she isn't talented, however. Though it wasn't the main aspect of her game, she could put the ball on the deck to create her own shot, and showed off some nifty moves in the post. 

She could step out behind the arc, too, and even though her slow-developing shot looks like she's loading up a trebuchet, she knocked down a solid 36.1 percent of her 3-point attempts. Almost all of them came off of open catch-and-shoot opportunities. 

Collier's ability and role on offense made her one of the most efficient scorers in the league, let alone among rookies. She boasted a slash line of 49.0/36.1/79.2 and a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent -- 14th in the league among qualified players. 

Her play was a key reason the Lynx had the second-highest shooting percentage in the league, behind only the Mystics, and when she left the court their offense fell apart. With Collier on the court, their offensive rating was an even 100, but with her off it plummeted to 88.3. 

Ogunbowale, on the other hand, did not get off to a great start in her WNBA career. With Skylar Diggins-Smith sitting out after giving birth, and Liz Cambage traded to the Aces, Ogunbowale was forced to be the No. 1 option for the Wings almost by default. As the point guard, and one of the few players who could get her own shot, she was often forced to make something happen.

Making the leap to the WNBA while also being handed that responsibility is tough, and Ogunbowale struggled early on as she tried to adjust to facing bigger, stronger and more physical defenders. She couldn't get the separation she was used to, and had a really tough time finishing at the rim. After the first half of the season, she was shooting just 33.6 percent from the field, and had turned in a WNBA record for the worst shooting performance of all time when she went 2-of-23 against the Liberty in June. 

But as the season went along Ogunbowale began to get more comfortable, and turned things around after the All-Star break. Her field goal percentage in the restricted area and from 3 both jumped over 15 percent in the second half of the season. More than that, however, she turned in a number of electrifying performances, including a four-game 30-point streak. 

Extremely quick and shifty, she was nearly impossible for opponents to stay in front of on the perimeter, and was often able to work her way inside for easy buckets. Her size is always going to make things more difficult for her in the paint, but she's proven she can find ways to work around that. 

Plus, things will only get easier for Ogunbowale if her 3-point shooting from the second half of the season, when she hit 44.3 percent of her attempts, is real. That will force defenders to stick closer to her on the perimeter, giving her a better chance of blowing past them with the dribble.  

When the regular season was all said and done, Ogunbowale had established herself as one of the best rookie scorers in league history. She set the rookie record for consecutive 20-point games (11) and 30-point games (4), is the only rookie ever to record multiple 35 point games and finished third on the all-time rookie scoring list behind only Seimone Augustus and A'ja Wilson.

Bottom line: Ogunbowale. Collier had an impressive offensive season herself, and was more consistent, but few rookies have ever matched Ogunbowale's output. 

Defense

Edge: Collier

Collier entered the WNBA with a strong defensive pedigree, having been named AAC Defensive Player of the Year last season at UConn, and it didn't take her long to show it off. 

Much like on the offensive end, a large part of her success was her basketball IQ and awareness. She was alert off the ball and almost always in the right position, which made her an excellent help defender. 

In addition, Collier had impressive positional versatility, and was one of the few players in the league who could legitimately guard all five positions. Throughout the season she was tasked with guarding everyone from Chelsea Gray and Allie Quigley to DeWanna Bonner and Chiney Ogwumike. 

That ability made life a lot easier for the Lynx, as Collier could not only take on various defensive matchups herself, but was almost always able to hold her own on switches. 

For the season, Collier averaged 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, falling just a few blocks shy of joining Jonquel Jones, Natasha Howard, Amanda Zahui B. and Jessica Breland as the only players to average a steal and a block per game. In any case, Collier was still elite on the defensive end, finishing with 2.4 defensive win shares, which was tied for second in the league. 

Just like on the offensive side of the ball, the Lynx were much better on defense when Collier was on the court. With her, they sported a 93.6 defensive rating, and when she sat it jumped to 98.6. 

As for Ogunbowale, defense was not her strong suit. On some level, that's to be expected of a 5-foot-8 rookie guard who's carrying a heavy burden on the offensive end; still, she had a tough go of it on that end of the floor. 

At times she could be opportunistic, using her quickness to sneak into passing lanes for steals, and she finished with over one per game. Unfortunately, it's hard to find much else positive to say about her play on that side of the ball. 

Off the ball she could lose focus and get caught ball watching, leading to easy opportunities for the other team. 

On the ball, she at times had trouble keeping her woman in front of her, and often died on screens, putting herself and her teammates in bad situations.  

The Wings were not a good defensive team throughout the season, finishing 10th in the league with a defensive rating of 101.5, but when Ogunbowale sat -- which was rare -- they were locking teams down. With Ogunbowale on the floor, their defensive rating was 102.6, but with her on the bench it was an even 92. There's a lot that goes into on/off numbers, but that is staggering. 

Bottom line: This aspect of the game isn't even close. Ogunbowale wasn't good at all on defense, while Collier was one of the better defenders in the entire league. 

Secondary aspects

Edge: Collier

Playmaking

Playmaking isn't a key aspect of Collier's game, but she kept the ball moving and made good decisions most of the time. When she did put the ball on the floor she showed off a solid drive-and-kick game. 

Ogunbowale, meanwhile, is the definition of a shoot-first point guard, so most of the time when she attacked it was to get her own look. But when she did get her teammates involved, she showed she's a pretty talented passer. 

Rebounding

Aside from Fever center Teira McCowan, Collier was by far the best rebounder in the rookie class. She pulled down 6.6 per game, including nearly two offensive boards a night. That was tied for 15th in the league, and created easy buckets for herself and extra possessions for the Lynx. 

Ogunbowale grabbed a few rebounds per game, but crashing the glass was not a key aspect of her game, which is understandable considering she's a 5-8 point guard. 

Taking care of the ball

Collier wasn't a turnover machine by any stretch, but it's definitely an area where she can improve. For as smart of a player as she is, she got sloppy with the ball at times, and turned it over just under two times per game. 

Considering how much she had the ball, Ogunbowale did a solid job limiting turnovers. She had the third-highest usage rate in the league, but averaged just 2.1 turnovers. Among the 14 players with a usage rate over 25, only Elena Delle Donne and DeWanna Bonner had lower turnover ratios. 

Bottom line: There wasn't much room to separate the two either way in terms of playmaking and taking care of the ball, but Collier's rebounding stood out. 

Rookie of the Year pick: Collier

As impressive as Ogunbowale was this season, the Lynx forward deserves this award. 

Right from her first game, Collier was the most consistent performer in this rookie class, and joined Tamika Catchings as one of two rookies in WNBA history to record 400 points, 200 rebounds and 60 steals. Ogunbowale's highs may have been higher, but her lows were also much lower; she was downright bad in the first half of the season, and that has to be taken into account.

Furthermore, Collier's performance on the defensive end this season was one of the best we've ever seen from a rookie. She was one of the best defenders in the league regardless of experience, and one of the main reasons the Lynx had the second-best defense in the league. 

Finally, Collier was doing all of this for a playoff team playing meaningful games right up until the final day of the season. It's not Ogunbowale's fault that the Wings weren't good this season, but Collier was getting better as the games got more intense, and that only makes her performance more impressive.  

NBA Writer

Jack Maloney lives and writes in Milwaukee, where, like the Bucks, he is trying to own the future. Full Bio

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