No matter what happens in the 2014 WNBA Draft, it is safe to say that, unlike 2013, no one draft pick will result in a team being tabbed as the presumptive league champion before a single regular-season game is played. Last year when Phoenix picked up Brittney Griner with the first overall pick, many were skeptical that any team in the league would be able to beat the Mercury with its new combo package of Diana Taurasi and the 6-8 Griner anchoring the paint. As the centerpiece of the much ballyhooed "Three to See” campaign, Griner arrived amid an inordinate amount of hype after what was a legitimately outstanding career at Baylor.
“They were pushing the big three, and then who else was out there,” said Christy Winters-Scott.
Though Griner's impact will no doubt be felt in the league over time, the moral of the story proved to be that a rookie, however skilled or physically gifted, is still a rookie, as the rest of the league issued its collective response, especially Minnesota, who routed Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals en route to their perfect postseason. Minnesota’s second championship was a giant reminder that well-balanced talent plus teamwork can be far greater assets than a single superstar draft pick.
The Lynx enter this year’s draft as the favorites to repeat as Western Conference champions, with the Lynx, the Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks seen as the principal contenders for the conference berth in the WNBA Finals. All three teams drip with athletic prowess, making the draft less of an imperative for any of them.
Crashing that party will be high on the minds of San Antonio, Seattle and Tulsa. Of course, as all three of these teams learned too well last year, health can be the key to getting out of this conference, meaning that at the very least, nailing down quality back-up talent will be a priority for every team.
Picks: 2nd, 13th, 27th
Key Gains: none
Key Losses: Candice Wiggins
Analysis: Tulsa escaped the league's cellar after the short-lived tenure of Nolan Richardson, but despite that accomplishment the front office felt Gary Kloppenburg wasn’t creating enough progress and replaced him with Fred Williams as head coach. Williams will likely begin his career with the Shock with at least one, and probably two, impact players from this year's draft, thanks to the No. 2 lottery pick, plus the first of the second-round selections.
No matter which player Connecticut takes first, Tulsa will have a host of talented options available with the No. 2 pick. The departure of Wiggins has fans guessing that the Shock are considering Odyssey Sims, a view that was reinforced when, in a recent pre-draft conference call, Williams indicated that whether Connecticut uses its No. 1 pick to take Ogwumike or Sims, he is likely to tap the other.
Ogwumike is generally considered the likely choice for the No. 1 pick by Connecticut, but should the Sun pass on her, the Shock could do a lot worse than to grap the Pac-12's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. True, the Shock are already deep down front with the tandem of Liz Cambage and Glory Johnson. But predicting whether and when Cambage will return has become something of an annual guessing game in Tulsa, with this season's question marks raised as to whether the talented post will decide to stay home to prepare for the upcoming World Championships with the Australian Opals. If she elects not to play, the Shock will face a gargantuan crater at center. And then there is always the spectre of injury, as Kloppenburg learned to his dismay just as the Shock was gaining some momentum in its bid for the West's fourth playoff spot late last season.
Sims seems the more likely choice, and who couldn't use a top-notch point guard who can score at the rate of this Baylor product? But even with Wiggins now out of the picture, the Shock still boast a respectable crop of guards in Skylar Diggins, Angel Goodrich and Riquna Williams.
“If you’re trying to get Diggins off the ground, I don’t know if Sims would want to run the two,” Winters-Scott said.
“The most obvious hole they’ve got is at small forward, where Alyssa Thomas would fit in nicely,” Cohen said.
Thomas would a better choice at the three if she had a reliable 3-ball: The three-time All-American at Maryland hoisted only 25 long balls last season and made only six of them (24 percent). Thomas can certainly score the ball, but does so primarily off the bounce and from mid-range in. Still, her versatility makes her an attractive prospect for any team. Under-rated before leading her team to a Final Four appearance this year, knocking off Tennessee and Louisville along the way, the left-handed forward averaged a double-double in her last two college seasons, and passes and handles the ball well, having even filled in for her injury-addled team at the point (not her preferred position) a year ago.
“You could put her in anywhere and she could run that spot for you. She could be a three, four or five. She could run any kind of offensive set. She can handle the ball. She can rebound. She’s not going to give you any personality issues,” Winters-Scott said.
Perhaps Tulsa's biggest need of all does not involve a position, but finding closers. Tulsa lost all five of its overtime games in 2013, and its record in games decided by 10 points or less was 6-13.
San Antonio Stars
Picks: 3rd, 16th, 28th
Key Gains: None new; Becky Hammon and Sophia Young-Malcolm return from injuries.
Key Losses: The word “Silver” from their name.
Analysis: San Antonio’s most notable activity in the off-season was a re-branding, shortening its name to “San Antonio Stars” while picking up a sponsorship deal with local grocery chain H-E-B. But the even better news for San Antonio fans is that the team's most vital elements, Becky Hammon and Sophia Young-Malcolm, have healed from the injuries that sidelined them last season, and everyone else is set to return at this point.
Dilemmas still remain despite the abundance of veteran talent. Hammon has not given any signal of imminent retirement, but at age 37, her career is winding down nonetheless. Young-Malcolm was caught in a dust-up last year after tweeting her opposition to same-sex marriage and could face scrutiny from a progressive fan base when she revisits the court.
On the floor, the biggest need for improvement is rebounding. A consistent deficiency for San Antonio, the Stars had the worst rebounding margin in the league last season at -4.4. Their posts are effective scorers, but lack size in their board presence.
“If they had their choice, they’d like someone who can help inside. If they end up with Thomas, it could be a nice balance with Young,” Cohen said.
Of course, with Young standing just 6-1, the Stars already have one tweener anchoring the post. The 6-2 Thomas would not offer much of an improvement in terms of size. Still, Thomas, who became during the Terrapins' NCAA Tournament run, both Maryland's all-time leading scorer and it's all-time leading rebounder -- of either gender -- has not let size stand in the way of getting to the boards.
Thomas would almost certainly be selected by the Stars if the Shock pass her up. If Ogwumike slides through the first two positions, she would be a greatly appreciated stimulant to alleviate San Antonio’s struggles on the glass; Ogwumike, the Pac-12's all-time leading women's scorer and rebounder, recorded 12 rebounds per game in her senior season at Stanford.
“Their team needs a post presence, and that’s what she would bring,” Winters-Scott said.
Should Ogwumike and Thomas both be taken before the Stars go on the clock, they could be the first team to throw a wrench at mock boards. Stefanie Dolson of Connecticut may be viable if San Antonio needs post help that badly. Florida State’s Natasha Howard, Nebraska’s Jordan Hooper and Kentucky’s DeNesha Stallworth could sneak up as well.
Picks: 7th, 19th, 31st
Key Gains: Charde Houston, Jenna O’Hea
Key Losses: Tina Thompson; Lauren Jackson (out for season)
Analysis: Seattle pulled off a minor surprise last year when they qualified for the playoffs despite season-long absences from Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who were recovering from injuries. Bird is back for 2014, but Jackson will miss another year as she recuperate from her most recent surgeries, this time to repair a torn meniscus and an Achilles tendon injury. Jackson will be out entirely for 16 weeks, after which she has committed to spending July and August helping the Opals prepare for the Women's World Championship in the fall.
Couple Jackson’s absence with Tina Thompson’s retirement, and the Storm may have the most obvious crevice in the league entering the draft. In fact, Seattle may influence who goes where even before the Storm get to choose their acquisition at the seventh slot.
“The situation Seattle is in is part of the reason Indiana would have to take Dolson at five,” Cohen said.
Caveats that may complicate Seattle’s draft choices include Brian Agler’s preference to utilize his veterans for regular-season games. The Storm are a defensively-oriented group, making the pick-up of Charde Houston somewhat bizarre. Remaining competitive in the tough Western Conference could require Seattle to eschew historical trends of the last few years.
“They need to have that depth and bring some more youth into the frontcourt, and get a player like Natasha Howard if she’s available,” Winters-Scott said.
If Howard is taken beforehand, Stallworth could also wind up here with the seventh pick. Markeisha Gatling, the sharp-shooting center from North Carolina State, would also fit nicely. Otherwise, the Storm would have a potential line-up with Camille Little at center and Houston at power forward, exposing an under-sized unit. Seattle also has second-year forward Tianna Hawkins, who could compensate for those deficiencies if she develops.
Picks: 12th, 15th, 24th, 36th
Key Gains: None
Key Losses: None
Analysis: In the last few years, Minnesota has frequently deferred its draft picks, taking players not expected to sign up immediately and thereby alleviating a crowded roster. Even with the cap increased to 12 for 2014, the Lynx find themselves in a similarly positive predicament this year -- i.e., absolutely loaded with existing talent.
Janel McCarville and Monica Wright were both locked in to multi-year deals in the off-season, keeping Minnesota’s entire primary rotation intact. In other words, whoever is drafted must prepare for the transition from active participant to “understudy,” similar to the experience of Lindsey Moore and Sugar Rodgers last year.
Cheryl Reeve’s rotation is tight, but it's hard to argue with a line-up that has brought home two championships in the last three years. Player movement has barely inched in the North Star state, but Minnesota is not completely bereft of opportunities.
“They’d like to find a fourth actual post. If Brunson and McCarville are out for an extended period, you’re looking pretty thin. Your fourth player in the post became Maya Moore sliding down,” Cohen said.
The Lynx did sign prior picks Damiris Dantas and Walteia Rolle, who may address that shortcoming and give the interior a little more height. If Reeve and crew are satisfied with that pair, do not be surprised if they continue looking to the future with their selections, unless someone with obvious talent slides to them.
Under those circumstances, tapping an injured prospect, such as Natalie Achonwa of Notre Dame and Chelsea Gray of Duke, would make sense. The team and the player would have the next year in which to sign a deal, allowing Minnesota to retain a full complement of 12 players for the upcoming season. Under new rules, however, unless the athlete plays overseas in the interim, she would have the right to redeclare in the 2015 WNBA Draft if not signed before then.
“If you have depth for next season with a player like Achonwa, that would be a great move for her and Minnesota. She would be right at home with that winning mentality,” Winters-Scott said.
For the same reason, Spanish prodigy Astou Ndour is another player the Lynx could lock in for future seasons. At 19 years old, Ndour was named MVP of the Spanish league she plays for, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game this past season.
Health could influence the Lynx to move in a different direction, however. Rodgers and Rachel Jarry both suffered knee injuries in overseas play, and their availability for Minnesota this summer is uncertain. The severity of those injuries could determine how quickly the Lynx attempt to beef up the bench.
Picks: 17th, 21st, 33rd
Key Gains: Mistie Bass, Erin Phillips
Key Losses: Charde Houston, Lynetta Kizer
Analysis: Phoenix gave up its first-round pick in a trade to obtain Erin Phillips, sacrificing youth for a player who fills an opening at point guard that will allow Diana Taurasi to return to her traditional position of shooting guard. With last season's draft lottery controversy now a closed matter, the Mercury can invest their resources in establishing a new system under Sandy Brondello, who is taking a second swing at a head coaching assignment.
Cohesion was lacking last year as Corey Gaines was unable to integrate Brittney Griner into his system, ultimately leading to his firing and replacement by interim head coach Russ Pennell.
Brondello is likely to pay far more attention to the defensive side of the game than did Gaines with his "run-and-gun" tactics; if she can shore up Phoenix’s porous defense, which gave up the most points in the league in 2013, the Mercury should easily be a Western Conference frontrunner.
Phoenix still holds two second-round picks, and this year’s draft class is considered deeper than usual, so the potential to make at least a modest improvement through the draft still exists.
“When they finally get to pick at 17, I would suspect they’re looking for a back-up to Philips to play the point. Phoenix would be delighted if Maggie Lucas is still available. She can dribble the ball and shoot,” Cohen said.
Other prospects who could fulfill that role include Tiffany Bias of Oklahoma State, who was second in the Big 12 in assists and steals this season, and Jasmine Lister of Vanderbilt, who finished third highest in career assists at the school.
One item to monitor is the status of Penny Taylor, who has not played much in the last two seasons. Although Phoenix has effectively adapted its roster to compete without her, they would prefer to incorporate her clutch playmaking abilities. If they suspect she will not play, DeWanna Bonner can continue running the wing, but nabbing players like Ariel Edwards of Penn State, Bri Kulas of Missouri or Meighan Simmons of Tennessee, if they remain on the board at the 17th slot, could become a priority.
Los Angeles Sparks
Picks: 23rd, 35th
Key Gains: Candice Wiggins, Armintie Herrington, Sandrine Gruda
Key Losses: Marissa Coleman, Jenna O’Hea
Analysis: The truly key gain for the Sparks this season was its new ownership group, under the leadership of Magic Johnson, who are committed to keeping the team in L.A. Since then, GM Penny Toler has been engaged in a furious flurry of transactions, bringing in players with experience and talent. Armintie Herrington and Candice Wiggins should make fine complements to Lindsey Harding and Kristi Toliver on the perimeter.
Down low, Sandrine Gruda will mix things up alongside Jantel Lavender, Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker. The Sparks gave up their first-round draft pick (No. 11 overall) to Connecticut to acquire the rights to the 6-4 French post who has not played in the WNBA since 2010. Gruda did help France to an historic silver medal at the London Olympics and has played alongside Parker for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, however, where she logged 14.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game en route to the Euroleague Women's Championship.
With these off-season acquisitions, Los Angeles is already loaded enough to make another attempt at Minnesota’s reign on the Western Conference throne.
“The major problem is finding enough minutes for all these people,” Cohen said.
One of the Sparks' most pronounced needs coming out of last season was at small forward. Alana Beard started in that spot last year, but that presented some match-up issues against taller competitors like Maya Moore, and the departures of Marissa Coleman and Jenna O’Hea leave an opening for a newcomer to start her career in an attractive market. To some degree, the acquisition of Gruda might address that issue -- if head coach Carol Ross uses either Gruda or Lavender as a true center, while keeping Ogwumike at power forward, it enables her to play Parker at small forward, where it will be the versatile 6-5 Parker who creates the match-up problems for other teams.
One thing that Toler and Ross will demand of any draftee will be a commitment to defense, which is where Ross looks to initiate L.A.'s transition game.
The pickings will be few when the Sparks finally get to submit a selection at the 23rd spot, but a player who could supplement Beard at small forward is Georgia Tech’s Tyaunna Marshall.
“She flew under the radar. She has a definite work ethic that starts with the defensive end. She can get to the rim and finish. Her mid-range game is polished. She could be a perfect back-up,” Winters-Scott said.
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