Tournament stars look for draft boost

April 13, 2013 - 5:32pm
Connecticut's Kelly Faris was one of several players whose NCAA Tournament performances caught the eyes of WNBA coaches and general managers evaluating talent for next week's draft. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

Connecticut's Kelly Faris was one of several players whose NCAA Tournament performances caught the eyes of WNBA coaches and general managers evaluating talent for next week's draft. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

NEW ORLEANS -- Lindsey Moore (Nebraska), Layshia Clarendon (California) and Kelly Faris (Connecticut) all helped their WNBA prospects with their NCAA Tournament runs. At least that was the opinion of Indiana head coach Lin Dunn as she and three of her peers – Tulsa’s head coach and general manager Gary Kloppenburg, New York’s head coach and GM Bill Laimbeer and Washington’s head coach and GM Mike Thibault – as they spoke to the media Thursday in the runup to Monday’s 2013 WNBA Draft.

With so much of the media focus concentrating on this year's Big Three draft prospects – Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins – Thibault, whose Washington Mystics wound up with the fourth overall pick via last fall’s draft lottery despite having had the league’s worst record (5-29), said, “The joke has been that I have the first pick in the other draft. There’s two drafts [this year].”

Dunn interjected, “That’s not a joke. That’s the truth!”

Thibault also opined that the characterization of players as “having raised their stock” in the NCAA Tournament was something of a media myth. “I think you have to go on the overall body of work of a player. I don’t think you can cross a player off or raise a player” based on her tournament play.

Instead, he said, a player’s tournament performance is useful in validating the impression coaches and GMs had reached previously based on the overall body of work. Beyond that, he said, “You look to see, how do they play under the stress of the tournament? Do they show up?”

But Dunn took a different perspective. Obviously, no coach or GM is likely to base a draft pick – especially one of the coveted early first-round selections – on tournament performance alone. But she pointed to Moore, Clarendon and Faris as all having “helped their stock” with their tournament play. Laimbeer agreed with Dunn, particularly with respect to the Nebraska point guard.

Lindsey Moore (Nebraska)

The 5-9 Moore, from Covington, Wash., was the Huskers’ second-leading scorer this season, averaging 15.1 points per game and was the most accurate, though not the most prolific, sharpshooter on a team that lived by the three. Moore netted 46.8 percent of her shots from the field this year, including 39.2 percent (52-136) of her attempts from long range. She also handed out an impressive 195 assists this year, and boasts an even more impressive 2.14:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

With stats like that, Moore was likely to go anywhere between the middle of the first round to the top of the second in next week’s WNBA Draft. But her postseason performance obviously captured the eye of at least two coaches and may have moved her up at least a few spots in the draft order. She had a solid all-around game in the Huskers’ 73-59 first-round defeat of Chattanooga, posting 13 points, pulling down five rebounds, and handing out a game-high seven assists, while shooting an efficient four of eight (50 percent) from the field and five of six (83.3 percent) from the line.

But Moore stood out all the more in sixth-seeded Nebraska’s 74-63 second-round upset of second-seeded Texas A&M on the Aggies’ own home floor, virtually willing her team into the Sweet 16. Moore put up a double-double (the fifth of her career) with 20 points and 10 assists, knocking down six of her 12 shots from the field, including two of her four attempts from beyond the arc, and knocking down a near perfect six-of-seven from the charity stripe to help seal the win down the stripe. She iced the cake with six boards and a steal.

Not even Moore could carry Nebraska past Duke in the Sweet 16, where the Huskers fell, 53-45, but even in defeat, she led her team with 11 points, six assists, five boards and a steal. But the Duke defense got the better of Moore, who shot just five of 18 (27.8 percent) from the field and one-of-eight (12.5 percent) from long range. Still, Moore, who started in all 132 games of her college career, finished 11th in Nebraska program history in scoring (1,673 points) and ninth all-time in steals (208).

Layshia Clarendon (California)

Cal's Layshia Clarendon (No. 23) improved her stock in next week's WNBA draft while leading the Golden Bears to their first appearance in the NCAA Final Four, said the Indiana Fever's Lin Dunn. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

Cal’s Clarendon is another 5-9 guard, but unlike Moore, she thrives on the wing, rather than at the point. Similar to Moore, however, Clarendon has been solid, not just in the tournament, but all season long, leading the Golden Bears in scoring at 16.4 points per game. Clarendon is highly efficient both off the dribble and spotting up from midrange, connecting on 45.2 percent of her attempts from the field this season. She has been more streaky from beyond the arc, but still managed to knock down 41 of her 126 attempts (32.5 percent) from downtown this year. She is also an unselfish player, who passed out 101 assists this season while maintaining a 1.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

But Clarendon, too, had an exceptional NCAA Tournament performance, helping carry her team to the first Final Four appearance in program history. She put up 19 points on six-of-14 (42.9 percent) field-goal shooting, while pulling down five boards, handing out three assists and grabbing two steals in Cal’s opening-round 90-76 defeat of Fresno State. But it was Clarendon’s play in two much closer games -- Cal’s second-round 82-78 overtime win over South Florida and the Bears’ 65-62 Elite Eight win over Georgia, again in overtime, that truly set her apart. Clarendon led all scorers in the South Florida game, with 27 points on 10-19 field-goal shooting and three-of-five from three-point range. Then after another strong outing (game-high 19 points, six steals, four assists, three boards) in the Sweet 16 against LSU, Clarendon put up nearly twice the points (25) against Georgia as the next closest scorer on either side (14), while shooting an efficient nine-of-18 (50 percent) from the field and four-of-seven (57.1 percent) from beyond the arc. And it was Clarendon who dropped in five of the last six Cal points in overtime to ice the victory over Georgia.

Clarendon continued to impress even as the Golden Bears’ journey came to an end in the Final Four against Louisville, who won 64-57 to advance to the title game. Clarendon once again led Cal in scoring (17 points on eight-of-18, or 44 percent, from the field, though just one-of-three from the arc), battling for the entire 40 minutes and pulling down five boards to go with an assist, a block and a steal.

Kelly Faris (Connecticut)

Unlike Moore and Clarendon, Kelly Faris, a 5-11 guard out of Plainfield, Ind., has been more of a moral, than a scoring, leader for Connecticut this season. Starting in all 39 of the Huskies’ games this season and averaging a team fourth-best 10.2 points per game, Faris is both consistent and efficient, however, averaging 53 percent from the field and 41.5 percent (49-118) from beyond the arc. And though Faris plays the off-guard position, with Bria Hartley or Moriah Jefferson generally holding down the point, Faris, who finished her career eighth in the UConn record book in single-season assists (165), led the team in assists (156) this season, while boasting a 2.1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Faris has also been good for 5.7 rebounds and nearly two steals per game this season.

UConn didn’t really have a close game in this year’s NCAA championship run, and for most of the way, Faris was Faris – dependable, efficient but by no means the star of the team. In Connecticut’s Final Four revenge match against Notre Dame which the Huskies won, 93-65, for example, Faris notched 10 points, on three-of-seven from the field. She didn’t make or attempt a trey, but she did pull down six rebounds, handed out six assists, with just one turnover, batted down two blocked shots and seized three steals.

But much of what Faris does is not reflected in the stat sheet. Faris, whose list of accolades includes 2012-13 Big East Defensive Player of the Year, is better known for her defense than for her scoring, typically drawing the assignment on the opponents’ biggest backcourt scoring threat. In the national semifinal, she helped to defend Kayla McBride, who had punished the Huskies in their three previous meetings this season. McBride managed 16 points, but on just five of 20 (25 percent) shooting from the field.

In the Huskies’ championship-game victory over Louisville, Faris held Shoni Schimmel, who had blistered top-seeded Baylor with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting and five-of-eight from three-point range, to just nine points on the night on disastrous three-of-15 (20 percent) shooting from the field and an even worse one-for-eight (12.5 percent) from beyond the arc.

And while Faris might not be the team’s three-point specialist, a role that has fallen to sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, she can be deadly when she hoists one from beyond the arc, as Louisville learned to its dismay. Faris went four-for-seven from downtown in the championship game, and Cardinals’ head coach Jeff Walz credited Faris’ back-to-back treys with derailing his team’s momentum early in the second half. Faris finished with 16 points in that game, again not a team high but more than anyone wearing Cardinals red, and she got there on highly efficient six-of-11 (54.5 percent) field-goal shooting, while contributing nine rebounds, six assists (to just three turnovers), two steals and a block to the Connecticut cause.

While Dunn would love the chance to claim Irish star and Indiana home-girl Skylar Diggins, she knows that’s not going to happen with the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft. But she said she’s holding out hope that Faris might still be available, and compared her to Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen, whose foot-speed, like Faris’s was questioned when they first came into the league, but have “flourished” since then.

Some other names that drew mention from the coaches as strong prospects in that “other draft”:

Tayler Hill (Ohio State) – The 5-10 guard from Minneapolis has shown steady improvement over the course of her career with the Buckeyes, averaging 21.1 points per game in her senior season for the Buckeyes. Hill shoots 40.5 percent from the field, and though her three-point percentage was a less-efficient .317 (down from last season’s 41.8 percent), she actually netted more long-balls 64 (out of 202 attempts) than any of the prospects mentioned above. Hill also gets props for her efforts on the defensive side of the ball, having been named to both the All-Big Ten first team and the conference’s All-Defensive Team for the past three years in a row. Thibault described Hill as a “really talented player … speedwise – one of the best speeds,” and as unafraid in her attack on the basket and ability to get to the free-throw line. Laimbeer placed Hill in “our list of four or five players” New York is looking at closely for its two first-round draft picks (No. 5 and No. 7).

Alex Bentley (Penn State) – A 5-7 guard from Indianapolis, Bentley helped the Lady Lions to the regular-season Big Ten championship, averaging a team second-best 14.1 points per game. Most of Bentley’s scoring comes off the dribble or from mid-range, where she shoots an efficient 40.9 percent from the floor. She is much less of a three-point threat, having knocked down just 25 of her 89 (28.1 percent) attempts from beyond the arc this season – but then she hasn’t needed to be with Maggie Lucas more than amply filling that role for the Lions. Bentley led her team in assists (112) and boasts nearly a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio; she was also good for better than three steals per game this season. Bentley was one of the players Dunn said she was hoping might still be around when the Fever make their first pick at No. 9 overall.

Toni Young (Oklahoma State) – The 6-2 forward from Del City, Okla., averaged 16 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Cowgirls this season, leading the team in both categories.  She shoots 51.4 percent from the field, and though she doesn’t have a distance game, the former high-school high jumper (who competed in last summer’s Olympic track-and-field trials) can dunk. She used to do so often in practice until she broke her arm, and OSU coach Jim Littell called a halt to the practice. Tulsa Coach Gary Kloppenburg described Young as “outstanding,” a player whose “raw talent reminds me of [former Detroit Shock star] Plenette Pierson coming out of college.” He made clear that despite the loss of Liz Cambage for the season, his No. 3 first-round pick will go to one of the “Big Three” prospects (most believe it will be Diggins), “just because those three players in their level of play have separated themselves.” But he’d be delighted if Young were still around when he makes his next pick, which unless there’s a trade in the next few days, won’t be until No. 5 in the third round (No. 29 overall).

Sugar Rodgers (Georgetown) – A 5-11 guard from King’s Fork, Va., Rodgers fell out of the spotlight as the Hoyas struggled their way to a 15-16 record this season. Rodgers certainly did her part: Her 22.9 points per game (nearly as much as the rest of the Georgetown starting five combined) made her the No. 4-ranked scorer in Division I women’s basketball this season, behind Griner, Delle Donne and top-ranked FIU sharpshooter Jessica Coley. But Rodgers got there as a volume shooter with questionable shot selection, taking more than one-third of Georgetown’s shots from the field, and netting just 36.4 percent (236-649) of them. Similarly, while Rodgers knocked down 89 long-range missiles this season, she connected on just 31.9 percent of her 279 three-point attempts. She led the Hoyas in both assists (127) and turnovers (145), for a less-than-desirable 0.88:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. In the plus column, Rodgers averaged a team-high 6.9 rebounds per game, and nearly 3.4 steals per outing.

Thibault, whose Mystics currently hold the fourth pick in the first round, the fifth and seventh selections in the second round, and the first pick of the third round,  seemed willing to give Rodgers the benefit of the doubt. She was “hampered by her team a little bit,” he stated, noting that Rodgers’ performance had been better in earlier years, “when she was playing with a more experienced group.” As for the volume shooting and iffy shot selection, Thibault observed that Rodgers “tried to carry her team, but you get into bad habits sometimes. ... And when you’re asked to do that much stuff for your team – a player who doesn’t want to shoot it throws it to her with five seconds left on the shot clock and says, ‘Go make a play,’” leaving a player like Rodgers with little choice but to put one up and hope for the best.

Brooklyn Pope/Destiny Williams (Baylor) – Operating in the shadows of the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, Brittney Griner, both Pope and Williams are somewhat undersized posts (both are 6-1) at the professional level but each brings a lot to the table. Williams, who hails from Benton Harbor, Mich., averaged a near double-double last year, with 10.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Her rebounding was second only to Griner’s 9.5 boards per game, which says a lot about Williams’ work ethic, given the seven-inch height differential. This season, Williams’ numbers fell off a bit, to 8.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, as Kim Mulkey moved the Illinois transfer to the bench in an effort to give Pope more playing time. Williams made the best of the new role, winning Big 12 Sixth Woman of the Year honors and providing the Bears with a valuable spark off the bench.

Conversely, Pope, a forward out of Fort Worth, Tex., who also arrived at Baylor as a transfer, from Rutgers, saw her numbers go up this season, though perhaps not as much as the increase in playing time would have warranted. Her scoring rose from 7.3 points per game coming mostly off the bench in 2011-12 to a team third-best 10.3 points per game, starting in 27 of her 36 appearances, this season. Her rebounding also rose modestly from 5.3 rebounds per game last season to 5.7 boards per game this year. Dunn said both Baylor workhorses are “in our pool at 21” (i.e., at the ninth pick in the second round). “We’re evaluating them,” Dunn stated. “It will have a lot to do with what we get at [No.] 9.”

As for the Big Three, all four coaches agreed that these are players who are likely to make a significant long-term impact on the league. But several also noted that the league is likely to make a significant impact on the players. The biggest adjustment – getting used to the physicality of the professional game.

Alluding to Griner, Laimbeer observed that “her coach just whined and cried about how physical they [Louisville] were with her. But that’s everyday business in the WNBA. These are grown women.”

“She’s going to have to get stronger or they’ll push her off the block,” continued Laimbeer.  “This isn’t women’s basketball; it’s professional basketball. She will be tested; that’s the nature of the beast.”

Laimbeer also opined that Griner would not be able to play in the NBA – as a post, “they would have 100 pounds of pure muscle on her; it would not work.” If a woman were to make it in the men’s game, said Laimbeer, “It would have to be a guard who could match up against a point guard.”

Dunn added that “all of us are going to put [Griner] in the two-man game and make her come out of the paint.” But no one disagreed with Thibault’s assessment that Griner would “enhance the way [Phoenix] play[s]. There’s no better outlet passer. She might not make it across half court before they shoot it, but …”

Diggins, too, “is going to have to adjust to the physicalness” of the WNBA game, as well as “adjust to the three-point line moved back to the international level.” But no one questioned that with time, the adjustment would come for all three of this year’s standouts.