Senior Watch: Championship Week

It’s March. It’s almost NCAA Tournament time. Which all means the 2018 WNBA Draft is fast approaching.

Below are 12 of the top senior prospects to watch as they make one last run at an NCAA title and make their final impressions before Draft Day.


Jordin Canada, G, UCLA

Monique Billings, F, UCLA

We tip things off on the West Coast with UCLA teammates Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, who defeated Cal in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament on Friday before falling to No. 6 Oregon the next day. Canada finished with 27 points, five assists and five steals, while Billings added 18 points and eight boards in the 77-74 win over Cal. Canada had 19 points, four steals and one assist in the loss to Oregon, while Billings had 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in their final Pac-12 game.

We’ve discussed both of these players in previous editions of the Senior Watch, but here’s a quick review:

Canada is an outstanding two-way point guard, who is among the NCAA leaders in both assists (6.9 per game, 9th) and steals (3.16, 12th). She also averages 16.8 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 43.6% from the field and 38.8% from beyond the arc. Plus, she has moves like this that will freeze defenders in college and in the pros.

Billings nearly averages a double-double with 15.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game for the Bruins; her 16 double-doubles on the season has her tied for 19th in the NCAA. The athletic power forward can work in the post (82nd percentile on post-ups per Synergy), on cuts to the basket (93rd percentile) and in transition (72nd percentile).


Gabby Williams, F, Connecticut

Kia Nurse, G, Connecticut

We go from the Pacific to the Atlantic to a pair of UConn seniors ready to make the leap to the WNBA, but only after trying to get one more NCAA title on their resumes first.

Connecticut opened play in the Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament on Sunday with an 82-56 win over Tulane in the quarterfinal round. Williams played just 16 minutes (two points, five rebounds, four assists) before leaving the game before halftime after aggravating a hip injury. Nurse had 11 points, four rebounds and two steals in 34 minutes but shot just 4-for-13 from the field and 1-for-5 from three.

On the surface, Nurse’s per game numbers don’t leap off the page – 14.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals entering Sunday. But it’s difficult to rack up huge numbers when you’re surrounded by fellow blue-chip players at UConn, who share the wealth so well.

But if we look at her efficiency numbers, Nurse is absolutely off the charts. Not only is she shooting 54.4% from the field and 47.4% from beyond the arc (tied for 4th in the NCAA, but second on her own team), but her play type numbers on Synergy are ridiculous. Nearly 80 percent of Nurse’s offense comes in transition (43.6%), Spot Ups (27.6%) or Off Screens (7.3%). In those three categories, she ranks in the 97th, 99th and 96th percentile in terms of efficiency.

While Nurse is a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which honors the top point guard in the country, Williams is a finalist for the new Cheryl Miller Award, which honors the top small forward in D-I women’s basketball.

It’s interesting to see Williams labeled as a small forward because she is truly a positionless player that does a bit of everything for the Huskies. She can defend multiple positions, make plays on the perimeter (although she’s not a 3-point shooter), grab boards like a post player and run the break like a guard. While her 10.7 points per game ranks fifth on the squad, she leads the Huskies in rebounding (7.7), assists (5.2) and steals (2.6) and shoots an incredible 58.6% from the field.


Jaime Nared, G/F, Tennessee

Mercedes Russell, C, Tennessee

After having to leave Tennessee’s second-round win over Auburn with a hip injury following a scary fall, Nared was back on the court for the Lady Vols as they took on defending NCAA champion South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday.

Nared finished with a double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds, three steals) as she played all 40 minutes, but shot just 5-19 from the floor. She entered Friday carrying season averages of 17.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.2 steals – leading the Lady Vols in scoring and steals and ranking second in rebounding.

Fellow senior and Draft prospect Mercedes Russell added 12 points and four rebounds, but struggled from the field (5-for-15) like the rest of her squad (Tennessee shot a season-low 26.7%) in the 73-62 loss. Russell entered the contest shooting an efficient 60.0% from the field (15th in the NCAA), but was unable to match her season averages of 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds. Russell has racked up 15 double-doubles this season and 45 for her career, which is tied with Candace Parker for the second-most in Tennessee history, trailing only the great Chamique Holdsclaw.


A’ja Wilson, F/C, South Carolina

We stay locked in on the SEC Tournament with two more players to watch, beginning with one that led in South Carolina to a conference record fourth-straight SEC Championship.

Wilson’s status for Friday’s game against Tennessee was unknown until just before tipoff as she had been battling vertigo for the past week, which forced her to miss the Gamecocks’ regular-season finale. Once she got the go-ahead from the medical staff, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley elected to limit Wilson’s minutes and bring her off the bench. Wilson needed just 19 minutes to rack up 24 points and 12 rebounds and prove why she is the favorite for multiple national player of the year awards and is at the top of nearly all WNBA Draft boards.

On Saturday, the three-time SEC Player of the Year posted another double-double with a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds en route to a 71-49 triumph over No. 18 Georgia. Wilson would go on to win her fourth SEC championship on Sunday as she scored a game-high 16 points to help end No. 2 Mississippi State’s perfect season.

She entered the SEC Tournament averaging 22.9 points (7th in NCAA), 12.0 rebounds (10th) and 3.3 blocks (5th), while shooting 54.8% (32nd) from the field.


Victoria Vivians, F, Mississippi State

Vivians and her Mississippi State Bulldogs fell to Wilson’s Gamecocks in last year’s NCAA title game. Since then, No. 2 Mississippi State racked off 32 straight wins before South Carolina spoiled the Bulldogs’ perfect season with a victory in the SEC Championship game on Sunday. Vivians led the Bulldogs with 17 points, six rebounds and two steals in the 62-51 loss.

Vivians is having an outstanding senior campaign – posting career highs in points (19.7, 33rd in NCAA), rebounds (6.0) and assists (1.97) while doing everything much more efficiently. This season she is shooting 49.1% from the field, 40.1% from the beyond the arc and 82.5% from the free throw line. Compare those numbers to her career marks entering her senior season: 37.4 FG%, 30.5 3P% and 74.9 FT%.


Kelsey Mitchell, G, Ohio State

We move from the SEC to the Big Ten Tournament for our next two prospects, who faced off on Friday with one advancing (Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell) and one exiting (Rutgers’ Tyler Scaife).

Mitchell finished with a game-high 22 points along with four assists and three steals in Ohio State’s 82-57 win over Rutgers on Friday. She followed that up with a 30-point performance in Ohio State’s semifinal win over Minnesota and a 25-point night in the Big Ten championship game as the Buckeyes ended Maryland’s three-year reign at the top of the conference.

Mitchell was named Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament after winning her Big Ten Player of the Year award (coaches selection) earlier this week. She entered Sunday’s championship game with averages of 24.5 points, 4.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 45.6% from the field and 40.3% from outside the arc.

She recently passed Brittney Griner to move into third place on the NCAA Division I all-time scoring list. After Sunday’s contest, she has 3,363 career points and needs just 31 more points to pass Jackie Stiles for second all-time. If she maintains her scoring average, she would need just two in the NCAA Tournament to pass Stiles.

Player School Last Yr Games Points PPG
Kelsey Plum Washington 2017 139 3,527 25.4
Jackie Stiles SW Miss State 2001 129 3,393 26.3
Kelsey Mitchell Ohio State 2018 138 3,363 24.4

 

It’s unlikely that Mitchell will be able to challenge Kelsey Plum – the No. 1 pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft – for the all-time lead. Mitchell would need 165 points to pass Plum, which would require her to average 27.5 points with Ohio State playing the maximum six games in the NCAA Tournament.


Tyler Scaife, G, Rutgers

Scaife finished with a team-high 13 points in Rutgers’ loss to top-seeded Ohio State in the Big Ten quarterfinals. She and the rest of the Scarlet Knights must now wait to find out their postseason fate on Selection Monday (March 12). ESPN’s Bracketology lists Rutgers as a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament.

She entered Friday’s contest averaging 19.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.1 steals for the Scarlett Knights and was recently named First Team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media.

Scaife scored 19 points in Rutgers’ 62-60 win over Purdue in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament to pass Cappie Pondexter as the second all-time leading scorer in Rutgers history. Following Friday’s contest, Scaife now has 2,232 career points.


Lexie Brown, G, Duke

We wrap up this edition of the Senior Watch at the ACC Tournament, where one player reached the semifinals (FSU’s Shakayla Thomas) and another was eliminated right away (Brown).

Brown scored a team-high 16 points in 18th-ranked Duke’s quarterfinal loss to 25th-ranked NC State on Friday, but shot just 4-15 from the field – as the Blue Devils were held to season-lows of 45 points and 27.5% shooting.

Brown is more accustomed to forcing low shooting percentages rather than putting them up herself. She was recently named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and is one of five finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award honoring the top point guard in Division I.

In addition to her lockdown defense – which will be a quick way for her to get minutes as a rookie in the WNBA – Brown can also stuff the rest of the stat sheet. She averaged 20.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 3.6 steals and 2.2 3-pointers made per game this season, while shooting 47.7% from the field and 38.6% from beyond the arc.

Brown is one of just eight players in Division I to record at least 100 steals this season and one of just three to also record at least 125 assists. Brown is the only one to do so while competing in a Power 5 conference.


Shakayla Thomas, F, Florida State

Thomas and the No. 3 seed Seminoles opened their ACC Tournament play with a quarterfinal game against No. 6 seed Miami on Friday night. Thomas had 10 points and seven rebounds as Florida State picked up the 73-69 win to advance to the semifinals, where they lost 90-80 to No. 2 seed Notre Dame on Saturday. Thomas finished with team highs of 24 points and seven rebounds in the loss.

Thomas is averaging 17.3 points and 6.8 rebounds on the season while shooting 50.5% from the field. She was recently named one of the five finalists for the inaugural Cheryl Miller Award, which honors the top small forward in Division I. She also earned her third straight All-ACC First Team honor – becoming the first player in the program’s history with three First Team selections.

Thomas plays well above her 5-11 listed height. According to Synergy, Thomas ranks in the 90th percentile in post up efficiency and in the 88th percentile on putbacks. She also uses her speed and athleticism to get out in transition, where she’s scored 130 of her 535 points on the season.