WNBA Draft 2018 is just a day away as the league gets set to welcome its newest members to an exclusive club in the premier women’s basketball league in the world. Here are five of the top storylines to watch play out on Thursday night, with insights from ESPN analysts Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson and a trio of coaches that hold the top four picks – Las Vegas’ Bill Laimbeer, Chicago’s Amber Stocks and Indiana’s Pokey Chatman.
1. All Eyes On A’ja
One of the best things about draft night is the unpredictability of the event. Who is going where? Which team made a surprise pick? Are any trades going to take place? Which team got a steal as a talented player unexpectedly fell to them?
While this draft should have plenty of that intrigue, it will all play out after the No. 1 pick as South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson is a virtual lock to hear her name called first. Laimbeer wouldn’t go so far as to guarantee it, but he left a pretty good hint that he knows exactly what he’s doing with the pick he’s held since the draft lottery.
“We haven’t told anybody that, yes, you are the pick,” said the Las Vegas Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations. “Do we have it in our mind who we’re going to pick? Probably so.”
Taking Wilson with the No. 1 pick is the easiest decision of the night for good reason – she swept the national player of the year honors thanks to a dominant senior season in South Carolina and has the body and skillset that will translate very well to the pro level.
“I think she’s ready for the pros right now,” said Lobo. “A’ja is such a unique talent in terms of her size and skill set. She’ll continue to grow and she’ll continue to get better. She’ll expand her game.
“But she’s ready right now. I think she’s one of the players that you look at and say this is someone who could eventually be an Olympian, who could be a WNBA All-Star and is only going to continue to get better. But she has the pieces necessary right now to immediately help a team.”
"A'ja Wilson is gonna be a beast."
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“You don’t get many players that can drive like she can,” added Laimbeer. “She can attack the basket with one dribble and cover a tremendous amount of ground. It says something that when you have a player of her size take the ball out of bounds all the time where the trust factor is there for her to make the right pass. She’s also the player who comes back to get the ball and is the outlet pass to start, whether it’s a press break or get the ball in, because she’s going to make the right decisions. Those are the intangibles you look for in a player. And also, her shot, she shoots from an elevated position above her head so you don’t have to worry about shot blocking.
“I think overall those intangibles may set her apart from a lot of the other big players out there. I think in our league, her biggest thing, she’s going to scare a lot of the people guarding her because she’s able to take the ball to the basket off the drive.”
2. Stevens Shakes Up First Round
Connecticut junior Azurá Stevens made headlines last week when she announced her decision to forgo her final year of college eligibility and enter the WNBA Draft. Stevens played just one season at UConn after spending her first two seasons at Duke. The 6-foot-6 forward with guard-like skills may have the biggest upside of any player in the draft. With that said, her decision to enter the draft has shaken up many team draft boards near the top of the first round.
“Obviously the conversation around the first round of the draft has changed dramatically with Azurá Stevens declaring for the WNBA,” said Robinson. “She’s just a very unique player. It starts really with her physical dimensions more than anything, her length. She has skill not only around the basket but has shown the potential to make plays facing the basket with her face-up game.”
Lobo said her expectations at the No. 2 pick changed as soon as the word of Stevens’ decision came down.
“My expectation, until Azurá Stevens entered the draft, [the Indiana Fever] would for sure go with Kelsey Mitchell,” she said. “But now with Stevens in the draft, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went with Stevens.
“Both players bring so much. Both players fill a need for Indiana. Especially when you look at the injuries to [Tiffany] Mitchell and Shenise Johnson and how ready will they be at the beginning or even midpoint of the season. But at least in my mind it was going to be Kelsey Mitchell, but I think Azurá Stevens has affected even the thinking at the second pick.”
“Obviously Azurá’s presence provokes movement on all of our draft boards, but especially us up top,” added Stocks, who holds the Nos. 3 and 4 picks on Thursday. “For us specifically at Chicago, yes, she is a player that is going to garner attention, and we’re going to spend some time evaluating her and seeing if she’s the right decision.”
Of course Stocks’ decision depends on what Chatman and the Fever choose to do at No. 2.
“We won nine games last year; we have a lot of needs to address,” she said. “Anytime someone that has quality like Azurá is in the draft, you sit back and rethink things because it’s a compliment to her ability. So we’ll muddle through that and see where it leads us.”
3. Quality Talent at All Positions
One advantage of the 2018 draft class is the diversity of talent. From playmaking point guards, to elite perimeter scorers, to 3-and-D wings, to versatile forwards and centers with size and skill, there are impact players at every position available to fill the needs of all teams.
“I think its quality at multiple positions, quality bigs, quality small forwards, some quality shooting guards and some pretty good point guards and combo guards,” said Stocks. “Quality in that first round.”
“It’s split amongst all the positions; so it’s about what each person wants,” added Laimbeer. “They’re going to be able to find something in the draft.”
The 10 players that will be in attendance on Thursday illustrate that diversity well. There are strong point guards in Jordin Canada and Lexie Brown, great perimeter scorers like Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians, versatile wings like Diamond DeShields, Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse, athletic bigs like Monique Billings, and the aforementioned Stevens and Wilson.
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Here are a few thoughts from the analysts and coaches on just a few of the players that will be New York City on Thursday.
Victoria Vivians: “A lot of people really like Victoria, I think, because of her size. Big guards are at a premium in the WNBA. And her ability to score,” said Lobo. “And not only her efficiency increased this year, but the dramatic increase especially when it comes to her three-point shot, from shooting 20 something percent to up to close to 40.
“She’s shown that she’s a player who can continue to improve, who can adjust her role, even if that means fewer field goal attempts. I think people really liked her a year ago, and I think adjusting to that role and becoming much more efficient has only helped her. And she’s definitely a very appealing big guard in this Draft.”
Lexie Brown: “The thing that sets her apart a little bit is her size. She’s got a couple inches on most of the point guard group. Her three-point range is something that is intriguing to me because you stretch the line a little bit in the WNBA more than it is in college. She’s a great leader,” said Robinson. “She’s the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. That’s a part of her game that really impressed me, her strength on the ball. She has a high basketball IQ. Really sees the floor well and comes from a basketball pedigree. And I think the other thing that kind of is different about Lexie is that she can play the 1 and 2. She’s got enough size that she can move to the 2 and become a shooter as well.”
Jordin Canada: “Is there a player that’s more fun to watch than her?,” asked Robinson of UCLA’s point guard. “She can lose a defender off the bounce, no problem. Very classy. She can penetrate the defense, find the seams. She’s got the next-level quickness. Not a pure shooter, meaning I don’t think she’s thinking about shooting the three every time she touches it, which is a little bit different between her and Lexie.
“But you have to respect the fact that she’s worked on that three. She has an extremely high motor and the only question mark is really her durability, because she’s kind of small and you can move her around the court. But that’s fixable.”
Kelsey Mitchell: “That’s a great accomplishment,” Chatman said of Mitchell’s 3,402 points in college – the second most in NCAA Division I history behind last year’s No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum. “So many players come into our league with that, and it really is great for the publicity and the pat on the back. Certain things that we’re looking toward is an ability to make other people around you better, speed and quickness, separation. IQ items.
“And don’t misunderstand me: The skill set is obviously there to stretch the floor in that regard. But I don’t think anyone on the phone or any coaches expect that type of production from any rookie.”
“I would agree,” added Stocks. “It’s a completely different game. Kelsey is a talented player. She’s going to do a lot of things very well. She’s going to create some baskets. Now, she’s going to have some showtime moments. There’s no doubt about that. But will that be consecutive possessions, consecutive games, consecutive crunch-time plays? Not likely. But she’s a talented player.
Gabby Williams: “I think all you’ve got to do is look at Alyssa Thomas from Connecticut, how she’s improved her game over the years and the success with a breakout season last year,” said Laimbeer about Williams’ transition to the WNBA. “I think Gabby Williams is the same mold. She’ll teach herself some better perimeter shooting. You watched her in the playoffs, pretty big foul line jump shots. She’ll get better, especially if get a coach working with her. I think she’ll be a solid player for a long time in the WNBA.”
“Alyssa Thomas is a fabulous comparison,” added Stocks. “And what Pokey previously mentioned, the heart. Really taking into account how important heart is on the court. And as Bill said, half the game’s played on the defensive end. So those are two valuable assets that she brings regardless of her ability to hit a three or nail a free-throw-line jumper.”
4. Transition to the WNBA
Every player that is selected on Thursday night will begin her transition to the WNBA. Most players are coming directly from college and will have to add the life transition that happens from being a student to a working professional as well.
Of course, there are exceptions like DeShields, who played professionally in Turkey last year in lieu of returning for her final season of eligibility at Tennessee. Plus, there are international prospects like Russia’s Maria Vadeeva, who has played professionally overseas for years already.
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“Size, strength and speed are where the WNBA is head-and-shoulders above college basketball. These players are grown women. They’re physical. They know how to play basketball,” said Laimbeer.
Teams have less practice time in the WNBA compared to college, especially this upcoming season, where the schedule has been condensed in order to complete the season ahead of the FIBA World Cup.
“It’s also the pace of learning and implementing. Some of us have perhaps eight practices and will then participate in the preseason games,” said Chatman. “So it’s that IQ and that rate of retention and can they be effective. Think about those players that are transitioning between positions, that’s where they sort of get stuck or lost a little bit. But the best in the world and it’s a fast-paced game as we implement it and as we play it.”
“The off-the-court life management is a transition for some of them as well,” added Stocks. “They’re eating on their own. They’re managing their time a lot differently. So they have a lot of independence and they have to be very focused on living a life as a pro. And for some of them they make that transition quickly and for others it takes a while to make the right decisions as far as their nutrition, sleeping habits, just their overall mentality and physicality.”
5. Drafting for the Present and Future
There will be 36 players selected on Thursday night, but there simply aren’t 36 jobs available for those players to fill. With 12 teams each with 12 roster spots, that’s 144 jobs in the most competitive women’s basketball league in the world. Only the game’s elite even make a roster, let alone get on the court and make an impact as a rookie.
“They are the cream of the crop of the world,” said Laimbeer. “For a college player to step into that world and be able to compete shows good character on their part. But this is a very tough league to get a job in.”
Most teams holding first round picks will look to fill a need or add a player that they feel can add depth to their roster this season. But something that will be key to watch is what happens in the latter rounds of the draft. This is where teams can take a chance and try to land a steal that may not come to fruition for a few years.
The draft is not only about taking the very best college players in the country; it’s also about finding the diamond in the rough. Maybe it’s an international player that not everyone has scouted extensively yet. Maybe it’s an injured player that would go much higher in the draft were she healthy on draft night.
Take Russia’s Vadeeva as an example, who Robinson says is “kind of one of the unknowns in this [draft].”
“Because we haven’t seen a ton of footage on her and haven’t seen her live, I’m interested to see,” she said. “I know that I talked to some WNBA GMs and they feel like if she were a college player, then she could be a lottery pick. That just speaks to the level of skill and versatility that she has and hopefully she can bring it to the WNBA.”
Will a team be able to get a lottery-level talent late in the first round? That would be a steal.
Then there is a player like Baylor’s Kristy Wallace, who tore her ACL in February and will be out for the year. How high would she have been selected had she been healthy? Which team can afford to use a pick on her in the latter rounds of the draft and wait for her to recover and join the team?
“Kristy was having a terrific senior season. I think in particular when you focused on the games that they played against Texas, she was the difference in helping Baylor win both of those games before she was injured in the regular season,” said Lobo. “And she’s intriguing because she’s got good size for a point guard. She’s got a real toughness that she’s shown about her. She has an ability to score not only from the perimeter but drive into the paint and finish. Getting her teammates open.
“The WNBA Draft is always interesting as it relates to injured players and international players who aren’t expected to play right away. Sometimes teams have more picks in the draft than they have positions in training camp. So, injured players or internationals who aren’t going to come play this year can be really appealing for some teams because they may not have the roster room or they simply may not have the space in their training camp for all of those players. So, sometimes a player like Kristy Wallace could be really appealing because a team wants her in the future but doesn’t necessarily have that need this season.”
Think back to Tamika Catchings, who was taken with the third pick in the 2001 draft but didn’t make her WNBA debut until 2002. Even last year’s draft saw Alaina Coates selected at No. 2 overall after suffering an injury late in her senior year. She will debut for the Sky this year, giving them another young talent to go with their two lottery picks.