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The Connecticut Sun drew the top pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft in a pre-draft lottery held today in Seacaucus, N.J., to determine the order of selection among the four teams with the league's worst 2013 records.
Though, once again, the lottery did not proceed completely to script, it came closer this year than most, and certainly the results were far closer to the probabilities than last year's when the Washington Mystics, who had suffered through two dreadful seasons and entered the lottery with the worst 2102 record and thus the best chance of securing the top pick instead wound up picking fourth.
This year, the Sun, who finished the 2013 season with a league-worst 10-24 record, held the best chance (44.2 percent) entering the lottery. When the balls comprising their pre-assigned numerical combination were drawn at random from the lottery machine, awarding the Sun the top pick of the 2014 Draft, it marked just the second time in the 13-year history of the WNBA Draft Lottery that the team with the best odds in fact came out with the No. 1 draft pick.
The Tulsa Shock, who finished 2013 in the Western Conference basement with an 11-23 record and tied with the New York Liberty for the second-best chance of the top selection ( 22.7 percent), in fact came up with the No. 2 pick. But the West's other bottom-finisher, the San Antonio Silver Stars, who came into the lottery with the worst chances -- just 10.4 percent based on their 12-22 2013 regular-season finish -- threw the proverbial monkey wrench into the works by beating out the Liberty for the No. 3 draft pick. The Liberty (11-23) will select fourth, and from their, the 2014 WNBA Draft will proceed in inverse order of 2013 team finish.
The No. 1 Draft pick has historically been the best single predictor of future WNBA Championships, and before today, the Connecticut Sun had never won the top pick and have never won a championship. Whether the team can parlay today's top pick into Last season's draft featured some clear favorites with 6-8 dunking sensation and National Player of the Year Brittney Griner topping the list and potential game-changers Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne also on the block.
How the teams are likely to exercise their highly sought-after prize picks this year is far more ambiguous, though Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims and Stanford forward-center Chiney Ogwumike among the most frequently mentioned candidates. Sun head coach Anne Donovan is looking at a number of options but specifically mentioned small forwards, in addition to point guards, which might mean the top pick in the 2014 Draft could go to one of this year's dark-horse prospects.
“The beautiful thing about this is that we can go in a number of different directions,” Anne Donovan said. “We’re still in the process of looking at last year’s roster, and looking at the health issues that we’ve had, and just trying to determine what direction we’ll go in. That’s the beauty. We are in the driver’s seat to pick who we need. We could possibly go with a small forward to compliment Tina (Charles). There are great point guards in the draft as well, so there’s evaluation still to be done to see what direction we go.”
Connecticut already boasts 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles at center. On paper, at least, they are also a guard-rich team. But last season, the loss of starting point guard Kara Lawson cost the Sun dearly. Lawson began the season, who started the season besting her career averages with 13.8 points, 4.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game and a 1.75:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, was sidelined by injury after just nine games. 2012 WNBA Sixth-Player Renee Montgomery rose to the occasion, moving into the starting lineup and averaging 10.1 points and 3.1 assists per game. But with Lawson entering her 11th year in the league, it would be unsurprising were the Sun to look to the future by tapping a point guard with the firepower of Sims, who lit up the scoreboard with a career-high 47 points in the quardruple-overtime lollapalooza on Friday against then-No. 5 Kentucky, which ended as the highest scoring game (133-130 4OT) in NCAA Division I history.
But Connecticut has also shown a penchant for sweeping up alums of nearby college powerhouse UConn, whether through the draft or in trades, and 6-5 Husky center Stefanie Dolson, an All-American who is averaging a double-double of 14.5 points and 10 boards, plus better than two blocks per game, is very much part of the mix when it comes to 2014's top draft prospects. It's not so much that the Sun need another center, but Dolson, who has extended her range considerably over the summer, could be shifted to power forward, a position at which the Sun were visibly thin last year, giving Connecticut one of the most formidable post combinations in the game. And, at the same time, adding to the Sun's already extensive collection of "Husky Greatest Hits."
This is the second No. 2 pick for Tulsa since the franchise relocated from Detroit; the franchise used its first No. 2 pick in 2011 to tap 6-8 Australian center Elizabeth Cambage. Though he would have preferred to come out No. 1, team president Steve Swehota, who shares GM duties with the team's head coach, told Full Court he is very happy to have come up with another No. 2 selection.
"For teams like us, in the market that we're in, we have to build through the draft. We can work really hard, and be creative and figure out a way to get some really good, key veterans here and there," said Swehota. "If you look back over the drafts in the year since we moved here, [in 2010] we picked Amanda Thompson out of Oklahoma [in the second round at No. 19 overall], and I know I've been told that we traded that pick just to get her. The next draft we picked [Liz Cambage] and Kayla [Pedersen of Stanford in the first round at No. 7]. In the  draft we picked Glory [Johnson of Tennessee in the first round at No. 4] and Riquna [Williams of Miami, whom Swehota described as the steal of that season's draft class, in the second round at No. 17 overall]. And last year, it was Skylar [Diggins of Notre Dame, at No. 3] and [Angel] Goodrich [of Kansas, another steal according to Swehota, in the third round at No. 29 overall].
"We pride ourselves in working really hard; we do our homework on the draft prospects. The only way we're going to get better is by building through the draft. No question."
Swehota said any in-depth analysis of how Tulsa will use this year's No. 2 pick will have to await the arrival of the team's new head coach. Gary Kloppenberg was let go at the end of last season, and though Swehota says the process is well on its way, a new hire has yet to be annouced. Indeed, with the players Tulsa already has providing a strong foundation, Swehota characterized the coaching decision as the team's most important acquisition heading into next season, perhaps even more important than the No. 2 pick itself.
Having just drafted two point guards so recently, another yet another point seems an unlikely pick, though really good floor generals are few and far between and some would argue for grabbing them while they're available. Diggins proved somewhat slower in making the adjustment to the professional level than many expected, but those expectations might have been unrealistic. By season's end, playing alongside Goodrich and Williams, the Irish guard was averaging 8.5 points, 3.8 assists and nearly 1.3 steals per game with a 1.75:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, a solid rookie campaign by any measure. Williams seems firmly in place in the starting back court; she is hot on Cambage's heels as the team's second-leading scorer at 15.6 points per game and is the team's best long-range sharpshooter (38.1 percent from beyond the arc and nearly 40 percent from the field). Goodrich is much less of a scoring threat having averaged just 4.4 points in a little less than 22 minutes per game, but she also dealt out 2.9 assists and swiped 1.2 assists on average and her quick hands, foot speed and commitment to defense will likely guarantee her at the very least a seat on the bench for the foreseeable future. Still, the allure of a point guard with Sims's firepower and a fan base not all that far away in Waco, Tex., might prove too much to resist.
Tulsa is also reasonably well set in the post, anchored by the 6-8 Cambage and 6-3 Johnson, one of the league's most improved players last season in her second year as a pro (15 ppg, 8.9 rbg). However, the uncertainty surrounding the commitment of Cambage could lead the Shock to go after greater depth at the position. After failing to return to the team following the 2012 London Olympics, then suffering an injury while playing in China in the off-season, Cambage first told Tulsa she would not be coming back last season, then reconsidered and came after all. But the young superstar sat out nearly all of June due to injury, then reinjured herself in August and missed the final stretch. She played just 20 games the entire season, coming off the bench for limited minutes in four of them. Swehota said he feels confident in Cambage's intentions to return for next season after her exit interview at the end of this year's run, but no one can guarantee she'll stay healthy and her absences seriously hurt the Shock.
The area of greatest need for the Shock (assuming Williams and Diggins start at the one and two guard spots) is at small forward, but as noted above, there's a dearth of top prospects at that position this season. That, plus the awareness that the players already acquired over the past several years provide the team with a solid foundation of young talent, could leave Tulsa to choose the best all-around athlete still on the board, and either slot her in wherever she fits or use her as trade bait for some of that veteran leadership for which Swehota longs. LA, for example, might find the prospect of a front court pairing the Ogwumike sisters enticing; they are awash in three-point shooters and could easily move Candace Parker to the three-spot where she would pose a match-up nightmare for many teams.
"As an organization, we are looking to get better at every position," said Swehota. "We drafted two point guards last year -- Skylar plays the one or the two, Angel plays the one. ... At the end of the day, you draft on needs. At that point, we're not sure who's going to be there at No. 2. ... It's our goal as an organization and as a team to get [the best player] out there. Once we hire a coach, we're going to have a lot of work to do. ... It's going to be an important decision for our entire organization. And there's some really good players -- I won't give you the players' names -- but there's some really good players in the one through five."
|(L-R)Dan Hughes, head coach of the San Antonio Silver Stars, Sam Combs, owner and managing partner of the Tulsa Shock, Bill Laimbeer, head coach of the New York Liberty and Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, owners of the Connecticut Sun, look on during the lottery for the 2014 WNBA Draft. Their teams drew the No. 3, No. 2, No. 4 and No. 1 picks in the upcoming draft, respectively. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)|
The San Antonio Silver Stars and the New York Liberty could not be reached for comment in the immediate wake of the draft lottery. As an oustider looking in, the Silver Stars may well have the most flexibility in that they badly need depth at nearly every position. Most conspicuously, they could use a true center, and there are plenty of those near the top of this year's draft class. Six-four Stanford product Jayne Appel currently holds down the starting spot in the post, but she has underachieved at the offensive end, averaging just 5.9 points per game last season, though she is a force to be reckoned with on the backboards (8.9 rbg). San Antonio also looks to undersized (6-1) forward/center Danielle Adams, the team's top scorer at 14.4 points per game, but not much of a rebounder at just 4.7 boards per outing. Nailing down Ogwumike or Dolson could allow the Silver Stars to keep Adams in her true power forward position, where her range gives opponents fits. But then again, the Silver Stars already own one of the world's best power forwards in Sophia Young, who boasts a career average 15.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Sadly, however, Young missed the entire 2013 season due to a torn ACL, which returns us to the issue of depth.
The Silver Stars might also look to the future, tapping a guard with the potential of filling the shoes of Becky Hammon, the team's marquee player. The 5-6 fireplug will be entering her 15th year in the league next season, and in 2013 played just one game -- and only 12 minutes of that one -- due to a series of injuries. True, Danielle Robinson, another's of the WNBA's most improved players last year, her second in the league; arguably second only to Lindsay Whalen as the league's best point guard last season, and certainly San Antonio's most valuable player last season, is doing a fine job of running the point, averaging 11.2 points and 6.7 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2.6:1. But Robinson will need a backcourt running mate if Hammon is injured or retired.
New York, too, needs a lifeline at virtually every position but Cappie Pondexter's. But Pondexter, who averaged a team-high 16.9 points to go with 4.5 boards and 4.0 assists last year, is versatile, capable of being slotted in at any position in the backcourt or on the wing. A top-notch point or combo guard could fill the void left by the retirement of Katie Smith, and leave Pondexter free to do what she does best, which is score.
On the other hand, Liberty head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer does love his big girls, and that's another area where his team could use a lot of help. Last season he relied on two veteran forward-centers who played for him in the glory days of the Detroit Shock -- the undersized (at center) 6-2 Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton, who at 6-6 has plenty of height but not nearly as much firepower. Pierson averaged a respectable 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season, Braxton just 8.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. The Liberty have Kelsey Bone waiting in the wings and she showed potential in her rookie campaign, averaging nearly as many points (6.9) as Braxton in considerably less time (just under 20 minutes per game); in her limited playing time, she also proved to be a committed rebounder, averaging 5.4 boards per outing. What Bone does not yet appear to have, however, is the confidence of her coach, who gave her only two starts in 32 games last season. That would seem to leave Laimbeer either still on his quest to return Cheryl Ford to the WNBA or embarking on a new journey to discover her post successor.
Of course, all this is nothing more than tea-leaf reading at this point with all teams playing their cards close to the vest until draft day. That doesn't come until next spring, so stay tuned for further developments.