2014 WNBA Draft Preview: Sizing up the needs in the Eastern Conference

April 13, 2014 - 11:20pm
Some teams need immediate contributors but might someone -- say, the Mystics, for example -- be willing to take a risk on a player like Chelsea Gray, who is recovering from a senior season injury and may be unable to play until 2015, but has huge long-term potential? (Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography)

Some teams need immediate contributors but might someone -- say, the Mystics, for example -- be willing to take a risk on a player like Chelsea Gray, who is recovering from a senior season injury and may be unable to play until 2015, but has huge long-term potential? (Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography)

There's not a team in the Eastern Conference without significant needs to be addressed as the 2014 draft approaches. Chicago vaulted from “worst to first” in terms of its regular-season record, but that progress was quickly negated in the playoffs. Indiana, the team who swept Chicago, returns all of its healthy players from last season, but may require immediate-impact players to compensate for two key losses. Atlanta is still searching for a way to relieve some of the pressure on Angel McCoughtry, players who can take the Dream from a WNBA finalist to league champions. The lottery teams of Connecticut and New York are undergoing some significant refits. Washington is perhaps the best situated, with no glaring fissures on its roster, but that may be simply because they could use upgrades at nearly every position if they hope to rise beyond last year's 50-50 mark.

Fortunately for all of them, this year’s draft features talent that figures to transcend the first round, and the increase in roster space to 12 players may give more prospects a reasonable chance of sticking around past training camp.

“When you have so many different types of players that you could use to elevate your organization, it’s probably the deepest draft that we’ve had in the last couple years,” said Christy Winters-Scott, whose duties include broadcasting for the Washington Mystics. “Whether teams take players for their system or ... they take the best player available, that will change the entire dynamic of the first round.”

Connecticut Sun

Overall Picks: 1st, 11th, 25th

Key Gains: Katie Douglas, Alex Bentley

Key Losses: Kara Lawson, Mistie Bass

Analysis: Dismissing Mike Thibault from head coaching duties turned out to be a huge mistake for Connecticut based on the fruits of that decision in the 2013 season, when the Sun fell from its former status as a consistent playoff contender to a 10-24 record, the lowest mark among the league's 12 teams last year.

After Thibault's firing, Asjha Jones opted to sit out last season. Without Jones available to help the post, Connecticut cornerstone Tina Charles bottomed out in her fourth season of play, hitting career lows in field-goal shooting (40 percent) and rebounding (10.1 per game). Expected to return this year, Jones suffered an Achilles injury in overseas play and is now considered unlikely to compete in 2014, leaving the Sun with a big hole at power forward.

“Looking at the roster, they might need another post,” said Richard Cohen, writer for WNBAlien.com. “(Chiney) Ogwumike is enough of a clear thing and she fits what Connecticut needs.”

Ogwumike is the popular choice to go first overall, with a gaudy 26 points per game and 60 percent field goal accuracy in her senior season at Stanford.

However, the departure of Kara Lawson leaves a dearth in leadership. Renee Montgomery could step in at the point, but has in the past done better coming off the bench. With two first-round picks, the Sun would still have options if they address the backcourt first.

“Donovan has stated that her needs are at the point guard and post,” Winters-Scott said. “They can go with Markeisha Gatling out of NC State at the 11th spot and pick Odyssey Sims at the first spot.”

Sims quickly eclipsed the shadow of Brittney Griner at Baylor, winning the Wade Trophy, the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Trophy and the Nancy Lieberman Award, while leading the country in scoring throughout much of the 2013-14 season.

“Sims is a competitor. She can flat out score the ball. That’s the kind of player that you need. To have Katie Douglas there as a mentor, that’s going to be fantastic for them,” Winters-Scott said.

Gatling played only two seasons at North Carolina State, but set a school record in field-goal shooting in her senior season, making an astounding 66.2 percent of her shots.

“She has great hands, she takes up space. She can score the ball inside at a high level of efficiency. She would complement Charles. She could just dominate on the blocks and get those offensive boards,” Winters-Scott said.

It would be hard for the Sun to go wrong with either decision.

New York Liberty

Picks: 4th, 14th, 26th

Key gains: None

Key losses: Katie Smith (Retired, and named assistant coach at New York)

Analysis: The Liberty have yet to play the transaction game this off-season, but the crafty "Trader Bill" Laimbeer could be playing his cards close to his vest until the draft.

New York continued to struggle despite Laimbeer's return to coaching, finishing with an 11-23 record in 2013. Their biggest need is on the wing.

“Last year, when Essence Carson was injured with her ACL, they really showed their lack of depth on the perimeter,” Winters-Scott said.

Carson’s absence left Cappie Pondexter with little support, dropping Pondexter's own production to career lows in scoring (16.9 points per game) and field-goal shooting (36.0 percent).

“They need outside shooting, which leaves you thinking (Kayla) McBride. She’s mostly a scorer, but she’s a good handler as well,” Cohen said.

McBride averaged 17.6 points per game and 3.8 assists per game in her senior season at Notre Dame.

New York should recover flagging fan support with the Liberty's return to Madison Square Garden after spending the last three seasons at the Prudential Center in New Jersey. They’ll return with considerable continuity, especially with Katie Smith morphing from player to coach, retaining her knowledge of Laimbeer’s system.

“She knows exactly what his philosophy is and how to relay that verbally,” Winters-Scott said.

If the Liberty use their No. 4 pick to help their perimeter game, their later picks may be used to address the post, as Plenette Pierson has endured multiple injuries in recent years and DeLisha Milton-Jones, who saw relatively little playing time last year after being acquired late in the season from San Antonio, is pushing 40.

Indiana Fever

Picks: 5th, 9th, 29th

Key Gains: Marissa Coleman, Lynetta Kizer

Key Losses:  Jessica Davenport, Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips

Analysis: Despite a roster ravaged by injury and a 16-18 record, the Fever managed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals last year, but their shallow depth was exposed by Atlanta in a series sweep.

If there is an upside to their losses, they involved players who missed many games with injuries: Davenport missed all of 2013 and has chosen to retire, while Douglas played two games before bowing out with a bulging disc.

Indiana is said to have been anxious to re-sign Douglas, but after enduring two seasons of protracted absences, particularly at critical points in the season, conditioned her salary on her ability to play. Evidently, the Sun were willing to match the salary, but without those conditions, and Douglas, who is likely approaching the end of her playing career, opted in favor of the guaranteed pay check.

The Fever are likely to use their two first-round draft picks to fill those two vacancies, preferably with players who can hit the ground running as contributors.

“They have to find somebody who can help and play some minutes immediately inside. Otherwise, they’re hoping Catchings and Larkins can play 35 minutes a game throughout the season,” Cohen said.

The popular choice at the fifth slot is UConn center Stefanie Dolson, who averaged close to a double-double in her senior season.

“She played in a structured offensive set, and that’s what Indiana likes to do,” Winters-Scott said. “You don’t think of post players as being verbal and excitable, but with Dolson, she brings that.”

Akin to New York’s dual first-round picks last year, Indiana holds some sway with the ninth overall pick, which they acquired in a trade with Phoenix. With a hole at shooting guard,  like Maggie Lucas or Shoni Schimmel might be desirable, if still available. Otherwise, the Fever could make a run at Duke’s Chelsea Gray, who would not be needed immediately with Briann January as the primary point guard. Gray has tremendous upside, but is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered during her senior season and is unlikely to be able to play before the 2015 season..

“You go with a post player first, and if Gray is still there, you pick her up,” Winters-Scott said.

Washington Mystics

Picks: 6th, 30th, 32nd

Key Gains: Kara Lawson

Key Losses: Matee Ajavon

Analysis: Washington finished with a 17-17 record, which still represented an outstanding turnaround in Mike Thibault’s year at the helm. The goal this year will be to continue the improvement and restore the franchise to its former role as a contender for the Eastern Conference championship. To get there, Thibault will have to upgrade the talent at nearly every position on the roster.

“Thibault got them a lot more organized and got them to play hard, that gets you a long way. When the starters weren’t getting it done, there were people to turn to,” Cohen said.

Washington won’t have the services of Tayler Hill to start the season with the second-year guard on maternity leave, but the Mystics' talent was only bolstered when they picked up Kara Lawson in a three-team trade, giving the backcourt an intelligent point guard with a sniper’s shot from three-point range.

Elsewhere, the roster has few stars but does have at least a journeyman starter and a back-up at every position. That leaves Thibault with considerable flexibility to use his draft picks to take the best player available, rather than striving to fill a need at a specific position.

Washington enters the lottery with the No. 6 pick, by which point, the most highly sought after new troops are likely to be off the board. However, there should still be plenty of rotational talent available, especially if Thibault is willing to invest in the future by taking a player, such as the injured Gray or Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa, who won't be able to play immediately but have considerable potential for the long term.

“When you’re sitting just below the lottery, there is usually someone who slides. He might be willing to take a player he’d have to wait on,” Cohen said.

Dolson and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas could be promising selections if either is still available at that point. Otherwise, Connecticut guard Bria Hartley and Florida State forward Natasha Howard could be chosen.

What Washington does may be dependent on Michelle Snow, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to decide if she will continue her career in the nation’s capital. If not, Howard would be the likely choice. Thibault was among several WNBA scouts who attended this year’s ACC Tournament to evaluate Howard, who broke Florida State’s school record for career double-doubles.

“Howard would be a great complement to Crystal Langhorne inside,” Winters-Scott said.

If Snow returns, thereby shoring up the Mystics' frontcourt, Hartley could be a solid choice. As the field general of a UConn team who flattened the entire college field, Hartley registered more than 1,500 career points, 500 career rebounds and 500 career assists. Only two other UConn players can claim those milestones: Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.I f Hartley isn’t scooped up here, she likely won’t drop much farther.

Atlanta Dream

Picks: 8th, 18th, 20th

Key Gains: Matee Ajavon, Celine Dumerc

Key Losses: Armintie Herrington, Alex Bentley

Analysis: Atlanta has reached the WNBA Finals three times in the last four years, including last year, but failed to record a win in any of their championship series. Questions of chemistry lingered long after the 2012 Angel McCoughtry soap opera ran its course, but new head coach Michael Cooper and general manager Angela Taylor could boost the Dream’s camaraderie.

One notable offseason move was signing point guard Celine Dumerc, a native of France with strong international credentials.

“She’s a very good point guard who can run a team, who can hit some shots. It means they’ve got a lot more options to take whoever they think the best player is,” Cohen said.

Atlanta has no dire needs either, increasing their selection freedom. With Bentley being traded to Connecticut, Atlanta may look to procure another young talent in the backcourt.

“I’m liking Shoni Schimmel. That’s a big personality to match with McCoughtry, but the mentality is the same. They both want to win,” Winters-Scott said.

If such a pairing materializes, Winters-Scott believes the confidence Schimmel emanates will hasten her transition to the professional game

Schimmel’s status rose a year ago when her Louisville team upset heavy favorite Baylor in the regional semifinal round of the NCAA Tournament. The flashy guard with a penchant for netting clutch 3-pointers ended her career with over 2,000 points, one of just two Louisville players to reach that mark. The first was Angel McCoughtry.

“This kid was making bounce-pass entries from behind her back to the post players. Her basketball IQ is through the roof,” Winters-Scott said.

Another option: The Dream might choose to strengthen the interior after Sancho Lyttle’s foot injury last season exposed a shallow pool of post relievers to back up Lyttle and Erika de Souza.

“If there’s someone left worth taking who can play a four, that would be a nice way to go,” Cohen said.

Chicago Sky

Picks: 10th, 22nd, 34th

Key Gains: None

Key Losses: Shay Murphy, Carolyn Swords

Analysis: Chicago is no longer a stranger to the post-season, having qualified for the first time in franchise history last season after posting a 24-10 record. However, the Sky's lack of playoff experience showed in a first-round sweep by Indiana, and last year’s team had a major drop-off from the starters to the bench.

Their bench slimmed further in the off-season when Shay Murphy signed a free agent deal with Phoenix and back-up post Carolyn Swords was waived by the Sky this week. There is also an uncertainty regarding the status of Swin Cash, who was designated a core player by the Sky but has yet to sign a new contract with Chicago.

That said, however, conditions are far from dismal for the Sky. Elena Delle Donne, whose range catapulted her to Rookie of the Year honors, proved to be the perfect companion to Sylvia Fowles, finally extending opposing interior defenses. Now, the goal may be to divert attention away from Delle Donne.

“You’d like another player who can play a swing forward alongside Delle Donne. You need someone who can defend the player you’re trying to keep her away from,” Cohen said.

Cash fulfilled that role last year, but even if she is re-signed, the 34-year-old’s production is slowly declining. At a minimum, the Sky could use a back-up. Failing that, Chicago could use its pick to add another outside threat, which would still hold the advantage of drawing some of coverage off of Delle Donne,

“They need a dead-eye shooter and that would be Tricia Liston from Duke. She could be that missing piece,” Winters-Scott said.

Dead-eye is an understatement. Liston was one of two players in the country to shoot above 50 percent from the floor, 45 percent from 3-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line. She ended her college career as Duke's all-time leader in both 3-pointers made and 3-point field-goal shooting. If that translates to the professional game, the guard figures to have a bright career.

With their remaining picks, the Sky may seek a back-up to Courtney Vandersloot after an arrangement with Sharnee Zoll failed to pan out as hoped.