With the college basketball season now behind us, Monday's WNBA Draft marks the arrival of a new group of players who might lend help to some of the league's faltering franchises, while helping to boost interest in the WNBA in general. Still, it's a lot to ask of a rookie to turn a team around.
Take last year's draft, one of the richest in recent memory, for example. Chicago hit the jackpot with second pick Elena Delle Donne, the WNBA Rookie of the Year. Phoenix had the No. 1 pick in Brittney Griner, who provided a shot in the arm for a team that had been addled with post injuries, but who despite her size and talent -- and obvious long-term potential -- made much less of an immediate impact than had been expected, given her collegiate domination. In Griner's defense, she arrived and remained somewhat banged up last year. After that, other rookies were at best just role players and relatively minor contributors, not stars, with Atlanta's Alex Bentley (now with Connecticut) and New York's Kelsey Bone arguably producing the third and fourth-best rookie campaigns.
This year, there is no player likely to have the near-term impact of a Delle Donne or Griner. Though the 2014 class appears to have more "rotational" quality than 2013's, there is a distinct drop-off in pro-level readiness once you get into the bottom half of the first round. The second-round candidates includes the usual assortment of players who had fine college games but are probably not ready to impact the WNBA in their rookie campaigns. On the plus side, one or two usually do surprise!
Still, with the option for teams to keep 12 players, more rookies will likely stick to rosters this year. As always, general managers will be forced to decide between using their picks in an effort to address areas of immediate need versus taking the best all-around athlete remaining on the board and hoping she will fit in somewhere or become trade bait down the line. As always, a few foreign players are likely to be selected, although this article confines itself to looking at the draft prospects of collegians with whom we are already familiar.
Looking at Round One
Top Five -- Immediate Help
Though all of the players considered likely to go among the top five should be able to contribute this season, none is likely to equal the impact of the top two picks of 2013.
1. Connecticut: Chiney Ogwumike, 6-3 F, Stanford
The Sun lost post players Mistie Bass and Asjha Jones from last year's roster. This year's Wooden Award winner, Ogwumike is a fine athlete with very strong finishing skills around the basket. Her passing has also improved. She plays smart and hard. Her one drawback is lack of shooting range, which is something she told Full Court she has been working on this year. She took 15 3-pointers this season -- three of them in last week's national semifinal against Connecticut -- netting exactly one-quarter of them. Without that range, one could ask whether her game would translate to the pros -- at least at a level worthy of being the top draft pick -- as WNBA posts tended to be taller, more physical and more highly skilled. Still, we think Chiney will do fine, find a way to adjust, just as older sister Nneka did for Los Angeles, where she went on to become Rookie of the Year.
2. Tulsa: Odyssey Sims, 5-8 G, Baylor
Tulsa needs a lot, particularly if Liz Cambage does not play this season, staying home to prepare with the Opals for the FIBA World Championship. Comparatively speaking, the Shock is already deep in the backcourt, with both Riquna Williams and Skylar Diggins on hand from last year. But Diggins did not go over to Europe to compete, so there has to be question as to how much she will improve on her mediocre rookie season. Sims, the 2014 Wade Trophy and Nancy Lieberman Award winner, has shown she can pass, shoot defend and above all score at a high level in college (and can play both guard slots) and outplayed Diggins in this reporter's view when they last met in college. Thus, why not upgrade the all-important point guard position. Is there any other player on the board of better value? Worst case, taking Sims would put the Shock in a position to trade one or the other of its young floor generals to improve on the wing or elsewhere.
3. San Antonio: Alyssa Thomas, 6-2 F, Maryland
The Stars (no longer Silver) have no one quite like Thomas on the roster. She is a well-built, fierce competitor who will attack the basket and hit the boards. Often described as a "point-forward," her passing is quite good and she handles the ball well for a player of her size and position. The downside? Her lack of an outside shot and 3-ball, in particular. Still, with 6-2 size, Thomas could be an asset if played out of the high post, rather than the wing.
4. New York: Kayla McBride, 5-11 G, Notre Dame
There is a fair chance McBride will be off the board by No. 4 -- San Antonio, for example, could take her as an understudy for Becky Hammon --but if not, it's likely the Big Apple for her. Her biggest asset is that she can score the ball via the dribble-drive, the midrange pull-up and the spot up three. She has also has size for a shooting guard and plays smart. Her singleminded focus and fierce determination were very much on display during Notre Dame's march to the NCAA title game. Just average athleticism is her greatest drawback.
5. Indiana: Stefanie Dolson, 6-5 C, Connecticut
The Fever may not need Dolson but who is better on the board at this point? As centers with size go, Dolson has great range, is a fine passer and can score the ball with either hand near the rim. She might not have that "special" athleticism many might want, but her high skill package should more than make up for that. From the Fever's perspective, McBride might be a better fit, not only because of her connections to the local area as a Notre Dame product but also because the Fever recently lost their premiere two-guard, Katie Douglas, in free agency. But McBride is projected here to be off the board at No. 4, and stocking up on competent posts is never bad!
Six and Seven -- A cut above the rest, these players both have significant questions to answer.
6. Washington: Natasha Howard, 6-3 C, Florida State
The Mystics could use upgrades at most positions but from here down the certainty of achieving that with any draftee becomes increasingly less likely. Beyond that, Thibault has in the past often looked overseas for talent, and if he does so with the Mystics' No. 6 pick, our draft projections would obviously be thrown off. With that caveat in mind, however, let's put Howard in this slot. The Seminole star had a fine senior campaign. A quality athlete, Howard became a more consistent scorer, improving over the course of the season in her ability to finish in the lower paint while staying out of foul trouble. Three weaknesses do still exist. Her range is primarily from mid-key inward; her passing is average at best; and her ability to think the game could still stand improvement. Taking Howard is counting on her upside potential to continue to grow her game.
7. Seattle: Bria Hartley, 5-8 G, Connecticut
With Lauren Jackson out this season to recover from surgery on her knee and Achilles tendon, Seattle badly needs post help now. If Dolson or Howard is available at No. 7, they could provide that help, but we predict they will be off the board by No. 7. There are some talented college "bigs" below this but are any close to WNBA starter/rotation ready?
Saying no, we look for the Storm to go with the best available player, and our board has Hartley in this slot. As her final game showed, Hartley can sometimes force up shots and make less than the best decisions with the ball, but overall, she he had a fine senior year for the Huskies, and the Storm could use an understudy to Sue Bird.
Eight through 12: A roll of the dice
From here down, in addition to typical need-versus-best available athlete analysis, a general manager is also likely to have to grapple with the question whether to tap a player who might be able to help for years to come but can't play until next year, versus a player who is available immediately, but who might not be as good long term.
8. Atlanta: Chelsea Gray, 5-11 G, Duke
On paper, the Dream does not need a point guard having signed French star Celine Dumerc. Dumerc has flair and tends to be a home-run hitter (great plays or turnover), but she is likely to struggle to be able to check the best guards in this league. Beyond that, she has indicated in the past that her primary loyalty is to the French national team, which could present availability problems in the future. Gray would not threaten Dumerc's job this year, but has great long-term potential. She is still nursing her latest knee injury from which she is expected to make a full recovery, and probably won't be ready for the WNBA until 2015, a very down draft class.
When healthy, Gray is a big guard with high basketball IQ, fine court vision and terrific penetrating ability. Her outside shot is streaky. Given that foreigners come and go sometimes unexpectedly, why not take out an insurance policy for the future when rotational prospects (including another injured one) are the best of what remains on the board. Beyond all that, Atlanta does not pick again until No. 18, when Gray will amost certain gone and only athletes of less potential will still be on the board.
9. Indiana: Shoni Schimmel, 5-8 G, Louisville
A lot of what happens at No. 9 depends on whom the Fever lands at No. 5. Looking at the Indiana roster, it appears a wing with size or a power forward are the biggest needs. Thus, especially if they fail to address the post need with Dolson, the Fever might well dip down and take someone projected below as a second-round selection where the Fever have no pick. But if the Fever do land Dolson, Schimmel, a flashy combo guard with a great ability to knock down 3-pointers in clutch situations, might be viewed as a potential upgrade at the wing. Schimmel is more point than shooting guard, but could play either position as she spots up well.
10. Chicago: Markeisha Gatling, 6-5 C, North Carolina State
Pokey Chatman's first wish might be to get a forward to serve as understudy to the aging Swin Cash. If Shimmel is still on the board, she might be the Sky pick, and if Seattle is driven by the desire to fill its position need in the post, Gatling might already be gone at No. 7. But such exigencies aside, most forwards still on the board at this point -- or someone of equivalent quality -- will likely still be around at No. 22 when the Sky pick next. Gatling is similar in style and stature to Courtney Paris. She has better conditioning than Paris, but no left hand around the basket where she finishes almost exclusively, but very successfully, on the right.
11. Connecticut: Meighan Simmons, 5-9 G, Tennessee
The Sun is another team needing a small forward and may gamble on a lesser athlete to fill that need rather than going for a guard. If not, despite concerns about her of questionable shot selection, Simmons might fill the bill with a lWNBA career as an "instant offense" player off the bench.
12. Minnesota: Natalie Achonwa, 6-3 F, Notre Dame
Achonwa would probably go higher had she not suffered an ACL injury during the NCAA Tournament. It is unlikely she will be ready to play again much before the 2015 WNBA season. A finesse post, she has a bag full of tricks to score in the paint usually from the mid key in. She is a good passer, has a high basketball IQ and is more than willing to hit the boards. Other than being injured, the biggest knocks on her would be a range generally limited to the paint and a lack of elite-level athleticism.
It will be interesting to see if clubs use first-round picks on either Achonwa or Gray (mentioned above). Minnesota likes cerebral players but will they take an injured one? As the rule was explained in Thursday's WNBA pre-draft teleconference, players who can't play this season don't have to sign on with the team that selected them. Assuming the player does not go to Europe this winter, the player would then have the option of re-entering the 2015 draft or signing with the club that drafted her in 2014 before the 2015 draft occurs. If the team wanted the player badly enough in 2014, the club could always offer to pay the injured player and sit her on the bench during the season. That would count against the salary cap and roster total of 12 max. A difficult decision for all concerned!
At this point, without knowing who was actually picked in the opening round and by which team, any attempt to match up teams and prospective players becomes a bit like throwing darts. -- Instead, we discuss twelve possible second-round selections in alphabetical order.
Tiffany Bias, 5-6 G, Oklahoma State
Bias is one of the better small lead guards available this year. She might remind you of Tulsa's Angel Goodrich with a bit more size and athleticism.
Gennifer Brandon, 6-2 F, California
A fine athlete, Brandon can jump out of the gym while hitting the glass. She missed some time this year with personal issues but when it comes to talent, the "W" coaches are usually more than willing to forgive and forget.
Asya Bussie, 6-4 C, West Virginia
Bussie is a finesse post with a game from the middle of the key and in. Here is another player that provokes a wide range of opinion, some questioning her toughness while others praise skills
Ariel Edwards, 6-3 F, Penn State
Though not yet polished at the WNBA level, Edwards improved dramatically at Penn State and now is a functional small forward (having come into college as more of a post). She might be worth the investment in her develop over the next few years.
Aaryn Ellenberg, 5-7 G, Oklahoma
Ellenberg can be an explosive scorer. The knocks are being a high-volume shooter and being of point guard size but with shooting guard game.
Christina Foggie, 5-9 G, Vanderbilt
Foggie was a player with good shooting stats (45.6% FG, 39% 3FG) on a team with mediocre success this season at least by Vanderbilt standards. Foggie shot the ball well, both inside and from beyond the arc. Some question her athleticism as a shooting guard and her ability to defend at the WNBA level.
Jennifer Hamson, 6-7 C, BYU
A lot of teams in the league, particularly the Western Conference, could use Hamson's size and disruptive defensive presence. She is not only tall but well-proportioned in build and runs adequately. Yes, she needs to get better offensively but she has great upside as a basketball player.
Hamson had been reported to have shown interest in the WNBA by attending a pre-draft evaluation camp which might have gotten WNBA scouts excited about her. As a basketball player, she could easily be a prospect worthy of drafting in the late first round. However, Hamson has said that she will return to BYU to finish her last season of eligibility in volleyball, though she could bturn pro in basketball and still do that. A more recent report from a journalist in Utah indicates that Hamson will be trying out for the USA Volleyball team this summer, while putting basketball, at best, on the back burner. Maybe that could change just before the draft but most if not all teams will probably be reluctant to burn a first-round pick on her when she is signaling her future is in another sport. With all this in mind, we'll slot Hamson in the second round, though but she might fall even to the third.
Jordan Hooper, 6-2 F, Nebraska
Hooper intrigues some as she is tall and can shoot the three and sometimes will go inside to post. She is not much of a ball handler and she may have turned off some GMs by saying she wasn't sure she wanted to play in the WNBA.
Maggie Lucas, 5-8 G, Penn State
Lucas loves to shoot and to her credit has added versatility to her offensive game. She is known as a very hard worker but has also been a high-volume shooter. There may be a GM who will take her low in the first round but others would not touch her until late in the second.
Ty Marshall, 5-9 G, Georgia Tech
Marshall is well regarded for her superior athleticism and willingness to defend. The biggest knock appears to be lack of shooting range as she rarely Hoists a 3-pointer and does a lot of her scoring fairly close to the basket. Will that offense translate to the next level at her height?
Inga Orekhova, 6-2, W, South Florida
This Ukrainian import loves to shoot the three and did it pretty well (36.7%) this season. Some in the league think she will be better as a pro than she was at South Florida as less will be expected of her. Like so many European players, defense is not her specialty and she could play harder.
DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3 F, Kentucky
Stallworth's senior campaign was struck by the injury bug and she did not have a special season. However, as power forwards go, she showed good versatility, productive from the foul line and lower. For a strongly built player, she is decently athletic. As a senior, she shot 52.4% from the field but averaged only 12.5 ppg.