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Stanford All-American Nneka Ogwumike, who is fresh off of an appearance in the Final Four, is predicted to be the first pick in the 2012 WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks.(Photo by Kelly Kline)
Stanford All-American Nneka Ogwumike, who is fresh off of an appearance in the Final Four, is predicted to be the first pick in the 2012 WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks.(Photo by Kelly Kline)

WNBA Draft 2012: First, there's Nneka Ogwumike, then a lot of ifs and maybes

Staff Writer
April 12, 2012 - 8:32am

How are the WNBA and major-conference Division One women’s basketball like most galaxies in the universe?  Answer: They appear to be moving away from each other. 

With fewer teams in the WNBA and shorter rosters all around, it has gotten harder in recent years for even the top collegians to make a WNBA roster.  In addition, the top tier of women's college basketball in the last few years has arguably been weaker than in its counterparts in the early years of this decade.  (Of course, the top of next year’s draft is expected to be very special but that discussion is for another time.)

Do not be surprised to see a few teams abandoning this year's draft, attempting to trade their first-round draft picks for an established WNBA player or precious 2013 picks -- although that may be easier said than done.  Who is giving up 2013 picks now? 

Given the perceived weakness of this year's collegiate draft class, look for a number of foreign players to be drafted in the upper second round and maybe a bit higher. 

A Change for the League to Consider

The WNBA should consider shortening the draft to two rounds maximum.  This year one round might be sufficient given the limited pool of likely WNBA-level talent.  The problem with the current draft format is that it hurts the marginal prospect if she gets picked by a team with a lot of depth at her position.  As a free agent, such a player would have the opportunity of targeting a team that might have less depth at her position rather than being forced to wait around to be cut by a team she had little chance of making in the first place. And since many teams wait until they must before cutting loose their best prospects, by the time a good rookie gets her release from a talent rich team, other franchises, that might once have been more likely matches, are apt to be already far along in their own roster finalization processes.

For example, this year, who would want to be any of the three players who will ultimately be drafted by the already talent-loaded Lynx in round two?  “Please, trade me now!” should be their collective outcry on draft day afternoon.

When is the draft?

Monday, April 16, 2012, starting at 2:00 p.m. EST. The first round will be broadcast on ESPN2 with the second and third rounds airing at 3:00 p.m. on ESPNU and NBA TV.

What happened last year? 

Ten rookies averaged 15 minutes per game and nine averaged more than five points per game with three of those averaging over 10 points per game.  The award for surprise of the 2011 WNBA draft goes to Texas A&M's Danielle Adams, the MVP of the 2011 Final Four, who sat alone in the studio waiting in almost embarrassing silence to be called late in the second round at No. 20 overall.

Dan Hughes liked the basketball IQ he says he saw in this rookie, who performed well enough under Hughes' tutelage to be selected to the All-Star game. Until she was injured, missing 11 games after the break, Adams actually led the 2011 rookie class in many performance measures. Despite the injury, Adams still made the league's All-Rookie, making her the steal of the 2011 WNBA draft.

Let’s dive in and take a look at this year’s prospective WNBA rookie class. 

Nneka Ogwumike Shoots
1. Los Angeles (15-19) - Nnemkadi "Nneka" Ogwumike, 6-2, F, Stanford.
Collegiate Stats of Note: 22.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 54.7% FG, 4/17 3FG
(Photo by Eric Taylor for FullCourt.com)

Nneka Ogwumike is the consensus top pick in this year's draft.  Obviously the Sparks brass were hoping to land Brittany Griner in Los Angeles but she chose to stay at Baylor for her senior year.

There is much to be said in Ogwumike's favor. The three-time All-American plays hard, has incredible pure athleticism, and is very quick off her feet. She brings impressive energy to the game on both sides of the ball. She also has near textbook form in pursuit of a rebound, and a steady hand at the free-throw line. Ogwumike has steadily worked on extending her shooting range over the past year, ultimately nailing her first three-pointers in the final game of this year's PAC-12 Tournament. Those, by the way, were also her first three three-point attempts of the season; since then, she seems to have fallen in love with the shot, which is still not her long suit, attempting 14 more over the course of the NCAA Tournament -- including five, all misses, in the national semifinal against Baylor-- but making making just one of them. Clearly, given her "tweener" height, her range needs continued improvement if Ogwumike is to come close to equaling her college success on the WNBA level. 

The Sparks will likely take Ogwumike not because they need another power forward -- despite having cleared some space by failing to re-sign Tina Thompson, allowing her move to the rival Storm, the Sparks' roster remains loaded at that position -- but because she is the most talented athlete on this year's draft board. If Sparks GM Penny Toler can find a trade involving a quality guard or very high quality center, Ogwumike could quickly find herself shipped elsewhere. But the LA Sparks suffer some of the same problems in the trade department as do the LA Lakers -- few teams are willing to enter into a trade -- even one beneficial to themselves -- if they perceive it as improving the prospects of either LA franchise, both of which are perennial playoff contenders (with last season as a notable exception for the Sparks). If no desirable trade is in the offing, Toler will reshuffle the roster, and Ogwumike should be a solid contributor, though not likely a star, for the Sparks during the coming year.

That wouldn't be the end of the world for the Sparks because of one more thing Ogwumike possesses that the Sparks have been supremely short on since the retirement of Lisa Leslie -- the will to win. Obviously, all players at the WNBA level are presumed to be consummate competitors and that, in turn, implies, at least on some level, a desire to win. But over time, some -- perhaps many -- take on a jaded, even cynical, attitude toward the game as they grow accustomed to life as pros. "You win some, you lose some," their demeanor seems to suggest.

For Leslie, that was never the case. One of the things about Leslie that made her so beloved by her fans and hated by her foes was a simple refusal to accept the prospect of loss -- especially on her own home court.  There were times, when a game was going poorly for the Sparks, that you could almost watch her decide that -- even if she had to do it all herself -- Los Angeles was going to win. On would come the afterburners. (Out, critics would say, would come the infamous elbows.) She didn't always succeed in her mission to pull victory out of a game that appeared destined for the "L" column -- though the record books will tell you that more often than not she did -- but when she failed it was never for want of effort.

At times, especially this season when Stanford found itself challenged by PAC-12 competitors, one could see glimpses of Leslie in Ogwumike -- the leadership, the tenacity, the sheer will to win. The Cardinal would not go down at Maples -- not on her watch. They would not lose a PAC-12 game -- not if she had anything to say about it.

Whether a mere rookie can convey the spark of that sentiment to a team of seasoned pros is a very real question. But this is an attitude that incoming coach Carol Ross will love in Ogwumike, and it is an intangible quality that Los Angeles fans have missed too long as well. It could just be the reason Ogwumike sticks in LA.

Stricklen Shoots Long
2. Seattle (21-13) - Shekinna Stricklen, 6-2, G/F, Tennessee
Collegiate Stats of Note: 15.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 43.4% FG, 35.2% 3FG
(Photo by Lee MIchaelson/FullCourt.com)

On paper, Stricklen appears to be a replacement for Swin Cash who was traded to Chicago (14-20), along with Le'coe Willingham and the No. 23 pick in the 2013 draft (and even 2013, won't be that deep!) for this pick. Still, it's highly unlikely that the Storm made that trade in pursuit of Shekinna Stricklen. In early January, when that trade was made, speculation was swirling that not only Griner but also Delaware's Elena Delle Donne would be coming out in this year's draft. According to her dad, who was singing Delle Donne's praises at the Nike Tournament of Champions only two weeks earlier, Sue Bird is also a fan of the Delaware prodigy, and how could Storm Coach/GM pass up at least a chance at a player who combines the body of a Lauren Jackson, the ball-handling skills of Bird and the talents of both. Alas, that rumor, too, came to naught.

Stricklen is no Delle Donne, but the Tennessee product still has an enviable body and skill package. More than once this season, which in many ways was the best of her career, Stricklen carried the Lady Vols through periods when the rest of the team just couldn't seem to click, as she did this year with a 27-point outing that helped carry the Vols over DePaul in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But, far too often, she emerged with late-game heroics to salvage wins after unproductive first halves, earning her the dreaded motivational stare from coach Pat Summitt and leading some to question whether the special fire one might seek has too often been missing during her collegiate career. 

If he could, Agler would probably be willing to trade for an established player but will there be any takers?  Look for Stricklen to stick here or elsewhere but have a "bench-to-rotation" role. 

Prahalis Shoots
3. Minnesota (27-7) - Samantha Prahalis, 5-7, G, Ohio State
Collegiate Stats of Note: 19.8 ppg, 6.3 apg, 43.6% FG, 34.6% 3FG
(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Ohio State Athletics)

Why No. 3? Especially when both the foregoing franchises could use, at the very least, back-up point guards? There's little question that Prahalis has the talent, but the question remains whether this Buckeye can avoid the on-court blow-ups that too often tainted her tenure in Columbus. And then there's the locker room dynamic. This year's edition of the Buckeyes were said to have been highly simpatico -- "We have great team chemistry," Prahalis's backcourt running mate Tayler Hill declared more than once this season. Not so last year, when Ohio State's chemistry -- and particularly that between Prahalis and then-senior center Jantel Lavender was said to be so intensely acidic the team suffered a midseason meltdown. That's not to say where the fault lay, but it's one reason Los Angeles, where Lavender has earned a spot on the roster, is apt to take a pass regardless how badly they may need help at the point.

As for the Lynx, who received the No. 3 pick courtesy of the 6-28 Washington Mystics (who gave it up last year in return for Nicky Anosike, whom they traded to L.A. this season), it's hard to say they really need help anywhere, which can't be good news for Prahalis either. The Lynx really only need a repeat of last season’s good health to be a strong favorite to go back-to-back as WNBA champions. Beyond that, Minnesota has stockpiled draft picks (two first and three second-round selections) only to find slim pickings in upgrades for their loaded roster. 

Prahalis could fill a "need" as a back-up point with Lindsey Whalen is the only true fit currently on the roster at that position. Alternatively, in a fantasy world, the Lynx could use a quality post as Taj McWilliams-Franklin is now 41, and Prahalis could find herself serving as trade bait if a high-quality center becomes available. Of all the high picks, this one is the best bet to have the player selected auditioning for another franchise this spring.  

Johnson Shoots
4. Tulsa (3-31) - Shenise Johnson, 5-11, G/F, Miami
Collegiate Stats of Note: 17.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.4 apg, 45.2% FG, 29.8% 3FG
(Photo by JC Ridley/Miami Hurricanes)

The Shock added Temeka Johnson to bring greater stability to the point, so Tulsa's most pressing need currently appears to be at the wing.  The Miami product has enough size to play some three but could also hold down the two-guard position.  One area that could be troubling is her three-point shooting percentage, which fell to 29.8 percent this season; however, the midseason loss of Morgan Stroman led to a need for the versatile Johnson to shift more of her focus to the post, which could account for at least part of the fall off from Johnson's three-point shooting average of 34.9 percent as a junior, when she won ACC Player of the Year honors.

Otherwise, there is little to criticize. Johnson is a player who may not dominate in any single category, but she does so much so well it is unlikely she will fall much below fourth.  Her stats demonstrate her versatility. She is just the third player in NCAA women's basketball history to put together more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 500 assists, and 400 steals in her college career.

Williams Spots Up for 3
5. San Antonio (18-16) - Riquna Williams, 5-7, G, Miami
Collegiate Stats of Note: 16.6 ppg, 39.7% FG, 36.8% 3FG
(Photo by JC Ridley/Miami Hurricanes)

Would you believe Becky Hammon is now 35?  Given what is left on the board, Johnson's Miami teammate good well go next. Williams is a definite two-guard, so is no substitute for Hammon's ability to play both the field general and the sharpshooting roles, but Williams does bring along a sweet combination of speed, athleticism and stamina and she could be an instant offense player off the bench similar to Connecticut’s Tan White.

Williams is a high volume shooter (she took 632 shots from the field this season, nearly 150 more than her next closest teammate), but her shooting percentages, both from the field and from the arc, are respectable, and between Silver Stars Coach/GM Dan Hughes and a veteran roster, any tendency to become a black hole for the basketball should be quickly correctly. Likewise, while discipline problems resulted in a year-end suspension that may well have cost the top-10-ranked 'Canes a trip to the Elite Eight, if not beyond, this year, the slate will likely be wiped clean when it comes to Williams' WNBA draft position. 

Hayes Shoots
6. Phoenix (19-15) – Tiffany Hayes, 5-10, G, Connecticut 
Collegiate Stats of Note:  14.7 ppg, 50.3% FG, 40.7% 3FG, 5.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.3 spg
(Photo by Steve Slade/Courtesy UConn Athletics)

After trading Temeka Johnson to Tulsa, Phoenix has questions at the point. Then again, after the recent season-ending ACL injury to Penny Taylor, Phoenix has questions at a lot of points.

Johnson shared the starting point guard role for the Mercury with Ketia Swanier, a free agent whom Phoenix failed to re-sign and who ultimately signed with Atlanta in early March. And it's not at all clear what Phoenix hoped to gain in swapping the 5-3 Johnson, straight up, with Tulsa for the 5-5 Andrea Riley other than two inches in stature. Johnson was a starter, who despite occasional explosions for 14-16 points in a game, averaged between six and seven, but dished up five assists per game. 

Riley started in only 10 out of her 33 games in Tulsa last season, and that's despite her popularity in the state as a former OSU Cowgirl. (She didn't start at all in her first year in L.A.) Riley, too, had some big games -- of 18-20 points, but, as in college, when she had them, she got there with the kind of volume shooting that is unlikely to make her very popular with coach Corey Gaines or new teammate Diana Taurasi if she ends up wasting possessions that could have been put to better use by the latter. Moreover, on the season, she did no better than the more steady and reliable Johnson, averaging six points per game, but handing out only 1.8 assists (to 2.03 turnovers, presenting yet another question mark concerning this trade).

Hayes may not be a true point guard but she has helped out there, as well as on the wing. With her skills and considerable athleticism, she should be able to fit easily into the Phoenix up-tempo style. She led the Huskies in scoring this season, earning first-team All-Big East honors in the process, and with her ability to knock down shots from virtually anywhere on the court, she would provide a nice complement to Taurasi, one the Merc have lacked since Cappie Pondexter headed off to the bright lights of Broadway.

If Phoenix and the intervening teams don't snap her up first, expect Hayes to go no lower than No. 9, as the Sun would almost certainly snap her up as an addition to their collector's set of UConn veterans.

Note: Prahalis, if still on the board, should not drop below this slot, nor would any of the other guards mentioned thus far. 

Glory Johnson Shoots
7. New York (19-15) – Glory Johnson, 6-3, F, Tennessee
Collegiate Stats of Note: 14.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 53.8% FG
(Photo by Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE)

Though said to have played all five positions en route to SEC Player of the Year honors in her junior season, there is no question that his Tennessee product's true position is primary strength was her rebounding. Despite her tall, but somewhat slender frame (170 lbs), she was not afraid to mix it up inside and finished her time in Knoxville with 1,218 boards, second only to Chamique Holdsclaw (1,295) in school history in all-time career-rebounding. She is also well-respected as a dogged defender.

Johnson has a consistent shooting range; her biggest drawback is that it appears to be within 12 feet of the hoop. Given that some believe her listed height to be an inch or two inflated, an expansion of that range would serve her well at the pro level.  Her body type says “face-up more, Glory” but can she? 

As for her fit with the Liberty, New York might like another true lead guard, but it is doubtful there will be sufficient help remaining on the board at that position by the time the pick is announced at No. 7. As a result, the Liberty are likely to go with the best athlete still on the board, and Johnson fills that bill.

Novosel looks to pass
8. Washington (6-28) – Natalie Novosel, 5-11, G/F, Notre Dame
Collegiate Stats of Note: 15.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, 42.0% FG, 41.1% 3FG
(Photo by Maria Massa/Courtesy Notre Dame Athletics Media Relations)

The Mystics, who after handing away what turned out to be the No. 3 pick, will instead pick No. 8, courtesy of last season's Harding-Miller-Phillips trade with Atlanta. Despite trading Nicky Anosike to Los Angeles, Washington has five post players on the roster, as well as two point guards so, with Alana Beard and Marissa Coleman also westward-bound, "going wing" should be a must for the Mystics. None of the above-mentioned wings should fall past this point, but assuming our predictions hold, Notre Dame's Natalie Novosel would be the next-best choice at this position.

Novosel is a consistent performer, who plays hard and physically.  A proven scorer (Novosel battled Skylar Diggins all year as the top scorer for the Irish), who can punish opponents off the dribble, from mid-range and from beyond the arc, Novosel also owns a strong basketball IQ, good timing and with rare exception, excellent shot selection. Given that Novosel arrived in South Bend scoring primarily as a driver, those qualities also evidence the Novosel's strong work ethic and commitment to constantly improving both her range and her game as a whole. She led the Big East Conference in both three-point field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage (.847) this season, and ranked sixth in the power-league in scoring. After taking her team's "most improved" honors a year ago, Novosel earned joint MVP accolades (with Devereaux Peters) from her teammates this season.

Though nominally a guard, Novosel played more small forward than shooting guard for the Irish. With Diggins and Brittany Mallory to handle the ball, Notre Dame didn't need Novosel to do that as much as they needed her scoring. To the degree Washington needs her to fill the two-guard role, Novosel's ball-handling, and in particular, her upside-down assist-to-turnover ratio (.84:1) could give cause for concern. Still, even if Washington should pass her by, we don't see Novosel -- or any of the other wings discussed thus far -- falling much below No. 10.

Note: From here down, things get even more if-fy. The picks listed below could easily be supplanted by some of the second-round picks we will look at in tomorrow's 2012 WNBA Draft: Part II. But with the mattress duly laid, here goes:

Barrett Shoots
9. Connecticut (21-13) – LaSondra Barrett, 6-2, F, LSU
Collegiate Stats of Note: 12.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 40.8% FG, 39.7% 3FG
(Photo courtesy LSU Athletics Media Relations)

There may be more potent offensive prospects on the draft board, but few if any who are as versatile as LSU's LaSondra Barrett in their respective positions. Few of the posts up for grabs this year can offer their prospective employers 40-percent three-point shooting. Nor are there many who can bring Barrett's ball-handling to the table.  After LSU’s starting point guard was lost for the season, it was Barrett who often brought the ball up the court. The assignment did increase Barrett's turnovers -- and with a .86:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, no one is likely to draft her as a point guard -- but she handled the role sufficiently well to carry her team to a second-round finish in the NCAA Tournament. Barrett is also an above-average passer as posts go, with nearly three assists per game. And at the same time, Barrett held down her core responsibilities, leading a low-scoring squad with 12.9 points and, even more significantly, more than seven rebounds per game.  Bottom line: In Barrett, Connecticut would not get a star, but it would get a very appealing and exceptionally versatile utility player who is quite good at a number of skill sets. And given the problems the Sun have historically had with late-season injuries, that is a very attractive player to have on your bench.

The Sun already has a lot of size on its roster and, should it decide to bypass Barrett, adding some quality on the wing appears to make the most sense. Assuming none of the wings described above remains available, Mike Thibault could reach down into our second-round list to find a player to fill the slot.

Rushdan drives
10. Washington (6-28) – Khadijah Rushdan, 5-9, G, Rutgers
Collegiate Stats of Note: 13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.4 apg, 50% FG, 3/10 3FG
(Photo by Thomas Ciszek/Rutgers Athletic Communications)

Washington picks again at No. 10, a draft pick they garnered last April from Seattle in the complex three-way trade that sent Katie Smith (along with Jacinta Monroe) to the Pacific Northwest in return for Jasmine Thomas, and Erin Phillips from Seattle to Indiana in return for a grab-bag of draft picks headed in all directions. This is likely the only one of those picks that has much chance of making a difference. 

Though the Mystics already have two point guards on the roster, they don’t have anyone quite like Rushdan.  What WNBA scouts like about her is her strongly built body, one likely to survive the physical pounding at the pro level, while at the same time providing respectable speed and mobility. Rushdan, an All-Big East first-team selection, is tall enough and agile enough to guard positions one to four while most lead guards are lucky to defend another point or a shooting guard. 

If the Rutgers product could only shoot at distance, she might really be special.  Most of Rushdan’s scoring comes close to the basket with only three three-pointers made, out of 10 attempts, her senior year. Still, given the Rutgers defense-first mentality, quite a few of their WNBA alumna have exceeded expectation in the more open pro game.   

Peters Hook
11. Indiana (21-13) - Devereaux Peters, 6-2, F, Notre Dame
Collegiate Stats of Note: 11.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 2.0 spg, 54.4% FG
(Photo by Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE/courtesy Notre Dame Athletics Media Relations)

The Fever roster appears to have room for a quick post, and in a draft class exceptionally shallow in that category, Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters is as good as it comes this year. In the plus column, Peters is an outstanding rebounder and a tireless, if sometimes foul-prone, defender; indeed, she took home the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year honors this season. Her 77-inch wingspan (6-5) adds three inches to her effective height, whether she is rebounding, blocking a shot, or reaching in to steal.  Moreover, despite a collegiate career plagued by injuries, Peters' athleticism enabled her to function well within Notre Dame's fast-paced offense and intensive defensive schemes.

Peters is a reliable scorer from the high-post and in. She plays hard but could use more range. And though she has improved in this area over the past two years, she is at times a foul magnet, too often reaching in to defend, especially as she tires, rather than moving her feet. She experienced difficulties at the college level in defending elite posts of her own size and greater, although Notre Dame's four-guard starting rotation may have contributed to this deficiency, leaving Peters with inadequate post-height support against opponents with size. It will be interesting to see how her game develops when playing alongside another true post in a more traditional line-up; we're betting her stock will go up in the right situation.

Hampton Fast Break
12.  Minnesota (27-7) - Keisha Hampton, 6-2, F, DePaul
Collegiate Stats of Note:  16.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 41.4% FG, 34.7% 3FG

(Photo Courtesy DePaul Athletics Media Relations)

The Lynx roster is pretty full, especially if they keep the No. 3 pick. And what are they supposed to do with three second-round picks from here down?

Minnesota could easily trade this pick or, as is suggested here, take a player who might help them next year but likely will be out of commission this season. Thus, one less player to cut!  DePaul's Keisha Hampton suitably fills the bill. A fairly slender, face-up power forward, Hampton, a preseason Wooden Award watch-lister as well as a preseason selection to the All-Big East first team, was regarded as possible first-round material before suffering a season-ending injury to her right knee. Hampton, a speedy, versatile scorer, who along with Ogwumike, Novosel, Peters, Johnson and Stricklen, brought home gold from the World University Games last summer, averaged 16 points, 4.9 boards and more than two assists per game as a junior and was on course to do as well or better this year when the results of exploratory surgery after a second injury to her knee in a matter of weeks put a premature end to her collegiate career.

Outcome for first round…

Look for over half to stick as low-priced rookies. Several may lose their roster spots to American players who have used European ball to improve their skills as pros and now want to try the WNBA again having fallen short before. 

Look for four from this year’s class to make it to 2015 (their fourth seasons). Likely survivors include Nneka Ogwumike, Samantha Prahalis, Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams. In the next report, we'll take a look at likely second and third-round picks.


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