Welcome back, everybody! As always, it’s been a long offseason for the WNBA, and WNBAlien took a similarly lengthy hiatus to recharge the batteries. But Monday night sees one of the most highly anticipated drafts in the league’s history, so it’s time to take a look at what might happen. Below is a reminder of the important moves each team has made in the offseason, a look at the remaining holes in each roster, and a guess or two at where the GMs might be leaning with their picks. Not so much a mock draft as a reintroduction to the world of the WNBA.
So here we go, in draft order from the top on down.
Gains: Very little so far, but an awful lot after Monday night. And they’re likely to be less ‘injured’ this year.
Losses: Also nothing much.
Picks: #1 and #26
This has been rehashed countless times in every outlet that pays any attention to the WNBA at all. They tanked, we all know they tanked, but it’s over and it worked. There’s no debate about the pick, with 6-8 Baylor behemoth Brittney Griner the first choice of absolutely everybody. Even Mercury head coach Corey Gaines should be able to improve his defense simply by sticking Griner in the middle of it and letting her play. She won’t hurt on offense, either.
The #26 pick could be anything and is unlikely to stick on the roster through training camp (as is the case with most players taken after the first round in WNBA drafts).
The Mercury have also re-signed DeWanna Bonner and have Penny Taylor returning from a serious knee injury. Plus this season they might actually give a crap about winning basketball games.
Gains: As with Phoenix, the major addition is coming on Monday. They have added guards Sharnee Zoll and Allie Quigley, for what that’s worth.
Losses: Le’coe Willingham went to Atlanta. It was tough to find a Sky fan who cared.
Picks: #2 and #28
As ESPN have reminded us ad nauseam throughout the college season, there were ‘Three to See’ in the NCAA this year, and hence a clear ‘Big Three’ for the WNBA draft. The most likely pick, the one that seems to make the most sense and has become the consensus choice among most fans and pundits, is Elena Delle Donne of Delaware. A 6-5 wing forward who can shoot the lights out from any range, it seems like she’d fit nicely in the Sky frontcourt. She’d stretch the floor with her outside shooting, giving Sylvia Fowles room to work inside, and between Fowles, Delle Donne and Epiphanny Prince the scoring threats around the floor could be scary. Chicago also have Swin Cash, whose flexibility between the forward spots should help ease Delle Donne’s transition. Despite her size, Delle Donne’s more comfortable handling the ball on the perimeter, but she may end up guarding power forwards at the other end if she doesn’t have the speed to stick with small forwards. Cash can flip between those forward spots to help her out.
However, it’s not a 100% foregone conclusion that Delle Donne will be Pokey Chatman’s pick for the Sky. A former point guard herself, Chatman’s had her issues with the guards leading her offense, and she’s also shown a propensity to be swayed by NCAA Tournament performance in the past. That makes it at least vaguely plausible that she would take Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins instead of Delle Donne. A lead guard with the physical tools necessary to make a smooth transition into the pros and the basketball brain to lead a team, you can see why Chatman would be tempted by Diggins. But Delle Donne’s remarkable and unusual skillset are likely too much to pass up.
Gains: Candice Wiggins, Nicole Powell, and Tiffany Jackson-Jones returning from pregnancy.
Losses: Temeka Johnson, Ivory Latta, the rights to Deanna Nolan, and the theoretical spectre of Elizabeth Cambage
Picks: #3 and #29
In a lot of ways, Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg has the easiest job of anyone in the league on Monday night. He’ll take whoever’s left from Delle Donne and Diggins, and be more than happy with his night’s work.
The more natural fit would be Diggins, and the way the Shock’s roster has worked out in the offseason suggests they’re expecting that she’ll be the one left for them to pick. Last year’s leading scorers and primary ballhandlers Temeka Johnson and Ivory Latta both left for nothing in free agency. Candice Wiggins arrived from Minnesota in a sign-and-trade move, but there’s still a glaring hole at the point. Wiggins and Riquna Williams could just about cover it if they had to, maybe with some help from a future trade or free agent pickup, but the spot is ready and waiting for Skylar. They’re already friends, and the ‘Diggy & Wiggy’ marketing campaign for the backcourt is probably already in place and ready to roll.
That said, if Kloppenburg has to ‘make do’ with an incredible talent like Delle Donne and rework his rotation to fit her in, he won’t be complaining. Aussie center Liz Cambage confirmed in recent days that she once again won’t be showing up to play for the Shock, which has opened up more frontcourt minutes than they were hoping to have available. There isn’t the obvious fit with the current personnel that you can see in Chicago, but Tulsa could make it work. You always want as much talent as possible – the rest is just details.
Gains: New head coach/general manager Mike Thibault, Ivory Latta and Kia Vaughn.
Losses: Jasmine Thomas.
Picks: #4, #17, #19 and #25
There’s finally a teeny, tiny glimmer of optimism around the Mystics, after two desperate years under Trudi Lacy and the painful disappointment of dropping to 4th in the lottery for this three-star draft. In former Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault they hired a guy with a winning pedigree in the WNBA, who at least gives the remaining Mystics fans some belief that the person in charge knows what they’re doing.
Thibault added Ivory Latta to upgrade the point guard spot and traded for Kia Vaughn to deepen their options in the post, but Washington’s roster is still pretty universally thin across the board. Which makes predicting the #4 pick even trickier. This is where mock drafts from pundits and fans start to disagree, and you’ll find at least three or four different names thrown out as predictions.
Kelsey Bone of Texas A&M renounced her final year of NCAA eligibility to make herself available for this draft, and her combination of size, mobility and potential at center could be tempting. Ohio State guard Tayler Hill was long thought to be the ‘best of the rest’ in this draft class, but without much help her college team had a poor year and missed the NCAA Tournament entirely. That dropped her off the radar somewhat but she’s still in the mix at #4, especially if Thibault’s concentrating on his backcourt (although this high you should still be taking ‘best player available’ virtually regardless of position). Tianna Hawkins of Maryland is another option, with the added benefit of going to a nearby school. The Mystics have gotten themselves in trouble leaning towards local products in the past (Marissa Coleman, anyone?) but with a new man in charge there shouldn’t be too much pressure to take the local girl. One negative against Hawkins – unless Thibault thinks she’s simply too good to pass up – is that she plays the same position as the one true star already on Washington’s roster. If he’s going to take her at #4 in the draft, Thibault better be confident that Hawkins can play at the same time as Crystal Langhorne, not just with one subbing in for the other.
Washington briefly held the #7 pick in this draft as well, after trading Jasmine Thomas to Atlanta, before flipping it to New York for Kia Vaughn. So you could argue that they’ve already selected their post from this draft in essentially using that pick on Vaughn – which might suggest they’ll go guard at #4. But that trade was made before Bone declared, so we’ll see.
Washington also have a couple of picks in the middle of the second round, and they might pick up someone who unexpectedly slides at #17 or #19. Also, given the history of both the Mystics franchise and Thibault himself, don’t be surprised if they go international with one of their later picks. This could be where the rights to Belgian post Emma Meesseman, the only eligible European of any real note this year, ultimately end up.
New York Liberty
Gains: New head coach/general manager Bill Laimbeer, Cheryl Ford, Katie Smith, and the rights to Deanna Nolan.
Losses: Nicole Powell, Kia Vaughn, and the rights to Janel McCarville
Picks: #5, #7, #15 and #27
Even more than in Washington, there’s renewed hope around the Liberty following offseason changes. Bill Laimbeer returned to the WNBA to replace John Whisenant, and quickly proceeded to put the band back together. Kara Braxton was re-signed, Katie Smith picked up as a free agent and Cheryl Ford brought back in from the WNBA wilderness after three years out of the league. With Plenette Pierson already on the roster that’s four former Detroit Shock players even if Laimbeer can’t talk Deanna Nolan into a return this year (he acquired her rights from Tulsa, but at this point she’s not expected to play in the WNBA in 2013).
And for those Liberty fans who aren’t excited by the prospect of reuniting major pieces of a squad that was at its best half a decade ago, there’s also the fact that Laimbeer controls the middle of the draft’s first round. The Kia Vaughn trade with Washington added the #7 pick to the #5, giving Laimbeer the chance to add two young pieces to a group that suddenly looks a little old. After stating that he’ll use Cappie Pondexter at the point (or at least as a ‘lead guard’), presumably alongside Essence Carson, the roster looks reasonably balanced. They still need depth, and an injection of talent is always welcome, but there’s no particular position they absolutely have to focus on.
If there’s anyone Laimbeer’s in love with, he obviously has to take her at #5 just in case Seattle feel the same way. He’s always liked athletes with the physical attributes necessary to excel in the pros. To me, the most obvious example looks like Bone, should Thibault pass on her at #4. She isn’t the finished article, but she has the size and skillset to potentially develop into something like Braxton, minus the weight and head issues. If Bone’s gone, the same alternatives mentioned for Washington are on the table, along with the likes of Syracuse center Kayla Alexander and Oklahoma State’s athletic forward Toni Young.
When you’ve got two picks at the heart of the first round and a largely balanced roster, you’d probably like to come away with one perimeter player and one post. So the first choice may give an indication of the direction Laimbeer will go with the second. However, he’s already talked about using Pierson more at the 3 this year, so a pair of posts isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
And don’t forget that one of Laimbeer’s many nicknames was Trader Bill. With two picks to work with, if anyone’s going to be involved in some kind of deal on draft day, it could well be New York.
Gains: Temeka Johnson, Noelle Quinn, and Nakia Sanford
Losses: Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, Katie Smith, and Ann Wauters
Picks: #6, #18 and #30
It’s been a painful offseason for Storm fans. Their star tandem of Bird and Jackson, the pair this franchise has been built on for over a decade, have both been ruled out for the 2013 season due to injury. The Ann Wauters experiment was ended after just one season (understandably, neither side seemed to want it to continue) and Katie Smith left for the Detroit reunion. The additions of Temeka Johnson and Noelle Quinn will help paper over the cracks, but that’s about it. Optimism for the 2013 campaign isn’t exactly high in Seattle.
Which leaves head coach/general manager Brian Agler in position to do practically anything he wants with this pick. The roster’s thin virtually everywhere, and the player won’t really matter until 2014 when they’ll be hoping to be a true contender again. The pick will probably be someone already mentioned above – whoever happens to slide past Washington and New York. If they both go post, then Hill would still be there. She’d add some youthful speed and energy to a backcourt that could use it. Alternatively, a post like Hawkins could still be available and would have just as much potential to help the Storm in the future (and get plenty of minutes this year). It’s wide open for Agler to take whoever he thinks is the best player left.
This might also be the first spot we see Connecticut’s Kelly Faris come into the conversation (although one or two people have her even higher than this). For a player with so little flash to her game, it’s amazing how much debate Faris has provoked amongst the women’s basketball community heading into this draft. UConn fans adore her beyond all measure, and point to the across-the-board stat-stuffing she’s accomplished throughout her college career, along with her reputation as a defensive stopper at multiple perimeter positions. She’s probably one of the ‘safer’ picks available in this draft – a player who can slide smoothly into your perimeter rotation, provide reliable minutes immediately, and will quietly do her job. But she also appears to have a limited ceiling – it’s hard to see her ever being a star. Towards the end of the NCAA Tournament I compared taking her high in this draft to taking Alexis Hornbuckle over Crystal Langhorne (which is exactly what happened in 2008). You’d be taking someone you know can contribute over someone who might be a bust but has the theoretical potential to excel. At a guess, while he’d love to have Faris on his roster, Agler will take a shot with someone slightly riskier at #6.
Part 2, covering the remaining six teams, will be published tomorrow.