This year’s WNBA draft class makes a strong case for humility. Without a season-long media campaign centered on a small group of prospects, women’s basketball fans got a broader look at the growing number of influential players during college season.
Color commentator LaChina Robinson, who watched many of these athletes in person this year through her broadcast work on ESPN and FOX Sports, admired the diverse range of this year’s crop of athletes.
“It’s inspirational watching the journey of these women up close and personal," Robinson said. "You have a very mature group of players who had significant accomplishments. At the same time, they have their own personality. It was a fun group to be around."
Now, fun must equate to productivity in order for picks to pan out. Los Angeles, Minnesota and Phoenix had the largest room for error, making only minor adjustments to their teams. San Antonio, Seattle and Tulsa were bigger movers - a necessary strategy if they wish to dismantle popular opinion.
Los Angeles Sparks
Los Angeles effectively communicated their content with the players they currently hold. This is a reasonable stance since their off-season was spent renovating the bench - a project that required giving up their first-round pick to Connecticut for French Olympian Sandrine Gruda.
“They had an outstanding team, but not a lot of depth last year," Robinson said. "If you get Gruda to come and play, this is a game-changer."
The Sparks selected Jennifer Hamson from BYU in the second round, even though Hamson will complete her volleyball eligibility at the school this fall, rendering her unable to play until 2015 at the earliest. The 6-foot-7 center left a notable impression in this year’s NCAA tournament, leading BYU to upsets over North Carolina State and Nebraska.
Hamson also benefits Los Angeles as a low-risk proposition. If she concentrates on volleyball, the Sparks still have enough depth in the post to be a fierce competitor. If she signs a contract and makes the roster, she could alleviate a possible financial squeeze.
“When you have this many big-name players, it gets expensive because these players want max salaries when they’re off their rookie contracts. If (Jantel) Lavender has had enough of being behind (Candace) Parker and Gruda, maybe Hamson becomes the replacement,” said Richard Cohen, writer for WNBAlien.com.
One exception exists in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that could cripple the Sparks’ intent, and that is the option to re-declare for the draft. Since Hamson would not be able to play with an overseas team until her amateur status is complete, she could choose to throw her name back in the draft pool next year.
“Whoever gets her, if she comes to the WNBA, is going to be a very lucky team,” Robinson said.
In any event, the Sparks would love to back up the plethora of weekly and monthly player awards they have received over the last two years and silence critics who take delight in their post-season woes.
Entering this year’s draft, Minnesota thought there was a decent chance to land Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa, who was one of two selections that would have continued their preference for deferring picks until adequate space opened up on the roster.
Indiana foiled that plan, and Chelsea Gray was taken two spots later by Connecticut, forcing Minnesota to abandon its strategy of the last two years. Lynx fans were somewhat deflated about the outcome, but first-round pick Tricia Liston offers more than enough to dissipate a disgruntled mood.
“The thing that jumps out you is 3-point shooting. With the amount of talent around her, she should be open,” Cohen said.
Liston was not shy in acknowledging her skill set.
"My effectiveness and efficiency is something that isn't that common. I really make the defender work because if they make one mistake I'm going to make them pay for it," she said.
In her senior season at Duke, 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. With Australian Rachel Jarry not expected to compete for the Lynx this year, Liston will likely back up Maya Moore, last year’s league leader in 3-point shooting at 45.3 percent. The wing could be flying furiously for the Lynx this season.
Liston’s ball-handling at Duke was less than stellar, but Minnesota has enough guards to keep her in a comfortable space, and her playing time will likely be capped with Minnesota’s primary rotation completely intact. Throw in a post-up ability, and Liston could take Minnesota’s offensive efficiency above its already magnificent status.
“We like that she has a lot of versatility, and could look at time at both the three and the four for us,” said Roger Griffith, Minnesota’s executive vice president.
The Lynx conceivably will upgrade their interior as well. Amber Harris, who posted the lowest plus/minus rating of any player last season, will not suit up in 2014. Candidates to take her place are Damiris Dantas, the Brazilian who was drafted by Minnesota two years ago; Walteia Rolle, a North Carolina product taken last year, and Asya Bussie, the West Virginia center taken in the
second round this year.
“When you don't know who's going to win that contest, it's nice to have a lot of people pushing each other and letting them decide who's the best amongst them," Griffith said.
Two days later, Minnesota tinkered with its guards, trading Sugar Rodgers to New York to make room for Tan White. The Lynx have garnered a reputation for cultivating expansions of talent on their roster, and White is pointed to as the latest example.
“The way that Minnesota is able to get the most out of players, if they can do that with Tan White, they’ve really got a great sign,” Robinson said.
This year’s draft class was deep enough for Phoenix to find a fit with two second-round picks, following the trade of their first-round pick to Indiana for point guard Erin Phillips.
Oklahoma State floor general Tiffany Bias will seek to remove the bitterness over the short tenure of Samantha Prahalis at the point for the Mercury, and Penn State’s Maggie Lucas, a consistent front-runner in the Big Ten scoring race, seems like a perfect support option for Diana Taurasi’s offensive technique.
Stephanie Talbot was claimed in the third round, presenting a piece that can fit in for the future.
“They’ll be happy. They got a point guard that some people like, they got a gunner in Lucas, and an Aussie to stash on,” Cohen said.
Bias was a menace on defense and distribution. She finished third in career assists for the entire Big 12 Conference and was recognized on the All-Big 12 and All-Defensive team in her senior
season. Her shot could use a boost in reliability, but she offers a respectable safeguard at the point.
Playing in what was widely perceived as a weak Big Ten Conference may have compromised Lucas’ platform, but her consistent work ethic and empathetic approach to the professional game is an attitude that will feed positive vibes.
“You have to bolster up your perimeter game. Maggie Lucas is going to bring that and more,” said Christy Winters-Scott, who broadcasts both college and WNBA games.
The Mercury’s draft picks effectively end last year’s experiment with Diana Taurasi playing the point. Although she posted a career-high 6.2 assists per game, good for second in the league, she hit the same rank in turnovers, finishing with a career-high of 3.6 per game.
The Mercury's offense-first identity may shift with Sandy Brondello as head coach, but the Mercury need greater efficiency to seriously challenge Minnesota in the West. Beefing up the bench with Mistie Bass and Shay Murphy and making moves for a more effective rotation are great steps.
San Antonio Stars
San Antonio began the domino effect that tosses most of the mock draft boards. Virtually everyone suspected they would take Alyssa Thomas in the first round. Instead, they went with Notre Dame prodigy Kayla McBride.
Robinson observed McBride compete in the ACC tournament and noticed the array of assignments the 5-11 guard was handling with increasing ease.
“She started to play more power forward. She also showed her ability to play point. She defended Alyssa Thomas. She defended Haley Peters. She showed her ability to play big,” Robinson said.
McBride will not likely be slotted at power forward in the pro circuit, but her pickup was seen as an acknowledgment that Becky Hammon’s playing career will conclude soon.
Rebounding could remain a problem for the Stars. Second-round pick Astou Ndour is reportedly not participating this season, and third-round selection Bri Kulas does not offer much in height.
San Antonio’s perimeter attack should be more proficient though, offering an effective compensation for their rebounding disparity in years where they qualify for the playoffs.
Favoring the outside adds susceptibility to streaky shooting, but against teams who prefer to close off the paint, the Stars can cause teams to extend their defensive assignments.
“Dan Hughes has worked around the fact they can’t rebound for years. This team likes to fire away,” Cohen said.
The biggest determinant for the Stars will be the usefulness of Becky Hammon and Sophia Young-Malcom. Both suffered ACL tears that sidelined their 2013 campaigns, and how they manage their duties on the court will sway the performance of San Antonio.
When veteran center Lauren Jackson declared last winter that she wouldn't be in Seattle this summer due to injury, replacing her became the Storm's top priority. Top prospects in the draft were already picked before the Storm went on the clock for the seventh spot, so coach Brian Agler took the trading route to get Crystal Langhorne.
“She gives them an interior scorer, someone who can rebound. She’s a veteran Agler will be willing to play heavy minutes,” Cohen said.
The move is a two-fold benefit for the Storm. Not only do they get a traditional center that keeps veteran Camille Little in her natural spot at power forward, but with multiple long-distance shooters at Seattle’s helm, any sign of a threat from outside the arc could open space for Langhorne inside if opponents are forced to stretch the defense.
Interior depth is still a problem for Seattle, so if Langhorne is forced to sit for an extended time, a recurrence of last year’s challenges could return. Langhorne is also an undersized post, and the team’s tallest player as of now, Angel Robinson, has not played in a WNBA regular-season game. The Storm did add two forwards in the draft in Michelle Plouffe and Mikaela Ruef, but Agler’s tendency to rely on veterans likely mitigates any contributions from those two in 2014.
Sue Bird’s return is not so simple either. Last year, Temeka Johnson was called up to handle point guard duties while Bird recovered from surgery. Both will suit up this year, and with Tanisha Wright and Noelle Quinn covering shooting guard responsibilities, balancing minutes between Bird and Johnson is a tricky proposition.
“The identity of this team is still my question. They’ve been a sound defensive team over the years, but what will it be on offense? Will they find an inside presence that can truly make up for Lauren Jackson?” Robinson said.
Fred Williams, beginning his first season as Tulsa head coach, approached the draft in the same manner he used with Atlanta. The only difference was getting to pick earlier as a result of the Shock drawing the second overall draft pick for 2014.
Tulsa used that pick on Odyssey Sims, the prolific Baylor guard who traded a supporting role to become a headline figure in her final college season.
Questions remain on how she can settle in with a guard rotation that already features Skylar Diggins, Angel Goodrich and Riquna Williams. Fitting with Diggins will be a priority, but Fred Williams sees Sims as a viable option for the shooting guard slot, allowing the two high-caliber players to feed off each other.
“Sims really exploited that with Baylor this year. Either player can bring the ball up the floor and get in the flow of the offense. If you have both players on the floor at once, it’s hard to dig off of them and help in the post because they can hit the outside jumper,” he said.
Diggins struggled with her shooting touch in her rookie season, finishing with a pedestrian 32.8 percent field-goal shooting average. Sims gives the Shock another confident shooter, which may help Diggins pursue more desirable shots. Conversely, Sims will return to an environment that doesn’t require shooting the ball at an accelerated rate; Sims accounted for 32 percent of Baylor’s total field-goal attempts in the 2013-14 season.
“They’ll be small, which Fred may embrace because they can switch at all five positions and play a faster game,” Robinson said.
While the bulk of the Tulsa draft day coverage has converged on Sims, Jordan Hooper and Theresa Plaisance should not be overlooked. Hooper is the only Nebraska player in school history to reach 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. She also carries a respectable outside shot, with Williams calling her a pick-and-pop player.
“She can play a big three for us and a small four. We can utilize her with the speed and quickness we have around the perimeter,” he said.
Plaisance, who blossomed in her final two seasons at LSU, could see time down low with Liz Cambage optimg not to play in the WNBA this season.
Williams is preaching a “family atmosphere” with or without Cambage, and his playoff acumen could change the fortune of a team that has never reached the post-season since moving to Tulsa.
“I can’t wait to get on the floor to see Skylar, Odyssey and Glory doing what we need to do. You can’t reach your highest potential by yourself,” he said.
Western Conference Prediction: After the statement Minnesota issued with its return to the championship in 2013, the pre-season consensus continues to point in their direction. There is the adage of staying champions until someone else beats you, but understanding why the Lynx are favorites to win the Western Conference again goes beyond the “defending champion” moniker.
“You have to give the nod to teams that did not have to make a ton of changes in their core unit,” Robinson said.
Minnesota did not have to make any changes to its core group, signing both Janel McCarville and Monica Wright to new contract deals in the off-season. Their chemistry is further highlighted when the biggest addition to the team, Tan White, will back up the likes of Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Monica Wright.
Renewing the interior unit is another plus, as whoever makes the roster figures to be more active in team development than Amber Harris and will join a ferocious pack of McCarville, Rebekkah Brunson and Devereaux Peters.
There is a chance that Cheryl Reeve’s tight rotation could wear down the top Lynx players, a scenario that materialized in 2012, but their overall awareness means any player on the floor is
poised to inflict carnage.
Phoenix and Los Angeles are better and deeper than last year, but their rosters fall below Minnesota’s level of continuity. The Lynx have defeated the Mercury 13 straight times, a streak that began at the end of the 2011 season. The Sparks have traded blows with the Lynx in that span, with both teams winning their home games, but deference to Candace Parker in the playoffs often nullifies her equally capable comrades.
“Until Phoenix or LA proves they can get past them, I’ll keep picking them,” Cohen said.