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Veronica Burton’s WNBA rookie season marked by constant improvement

From Evanston to Dallas, the Backcourt Burglar is everywhere.

On August 24, former Northwestern superstar Veronica Burton wrapped up her rookie season with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, who lost in three games to the Connecticut Sun in the first round of The W’s playoffs.

Although the team result wasn’t ideal for Burton, she enjoyed an encouraging year individually as a role player for the Wings. Her numbers aren’t eye-popping at a glance — she averaged 2.6 points and about two assists per game while shooting 32.9% from the field. But, as per usual, surface-level offensive stats don’t do a great job of quantifying the Backcourt Burglar’s two-way impact and improvement throughout the season.

Rookie point guards — even first-round picks — typically find themselves scraping for playing time in the veteran-heavy WNBA. Burton’s case was no different, as she had to play behind Allisha Gray, Marina Mabrey and All-Star Arike Ogunbowale. That didn’t stop the former Wildcat from wreaking havoc off the bench, as she racked up three steals and a block in her Dallas debut.

Burton’s minutes fluctuated throughout the season’s first half as the Wings’ backup floor general, but her role became steadier after the All-Star break as she clogged passing lanes and continued to develop as a playmaker. From there, Burton earned the starting point guard spot after Ogunbowale suffered an abdominal injury.

Her first start proved to be a huge turning point. In the NU alum’s homecoming against the top-seeded Chicago Sky on August 2, she dropped eight points, three steals and a career-high nine assists in a Dallas win. The Wings went on to win four of their last six games with Burton as the starter to earn their first playoff appearance since moving to Dallas in 2015.

Burton turned her game up a notch in the first-round series loss against the Sun, putting up four steals in Dallas’s Game Two victory. In the following game, she was the Wings’ second-leading scorer with 10 points, two of which came on a dazzling layup off a behind-the-back move.

All in all, Burton came as advertised: already a very good decision maker (her 1.94 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked in the WNBA’s top quarter, per Her Hoop Stats) and a versatile defender. She also emerged from the regular season with a 100% free-throw rate — the second player to do so in WNBA history. The first? Becky Hammon in 2014. Even with her mediocre shooting from the field, Burton still emerged as one of the most impactful two-way rookie guards in recent memory. That’s not just among her draft class, it’s among the last decade’s worth of top guard prospects.

Using Her Hoops Stats, I looked into every first-round guard since 2010 (as classified by Basketball Reference) who met the WNBA’s statistical requirements and evaluated how impactful each was to team success on each side of the ball.

To do this, I compared each player’s offensive win shares per 40 minutes (OWS per 40) during their rookie season with their defensive mark. It’s clear that Burton is one of the more balanced players here:

Note that team performance factors into individual win shares to some extent: Burton posted a solid .04 DWS/40 even though the Wings were a below-average team defensively. In contrast, Brittany Boyd-Jones, who had a solid rookie year in 2015 but is probably a worse defender than Burton, is an outlier here because she played on a New York Liberty team that featured three All-Defensive players and posted The W’s best defensive rating since 2008.

There are some big names around Burton, too. Brittany Sykes (directly above) and Ariel Atkins have a combined eight All-Defensive selections between them. With lots of room to grow, the former Northwestern captain is well on her way to reaching those heights.