Face of the Franchise: How Number One Picks Have Defined WNBA History

It started 19 years ago with Tina Thompson, who won a championship four months and two days after being drafted first overall by the Houston Comets – and three more in the three years that followed.

Next there were Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, selected No. 1 in April 2001 and ’02, respectively, and hoisting the trophy as Seattle Storm teammates by October 2004.

Today’s WNBA landscape demonstrates the trend more than ever: The No. 1 pick is more than just a lottery ticket in this league; it’s a tried and true path to franchise success.

Maya Moore (No. 1 pick, 2011) and Seimone Augustus (No. 1 pick, 2006) are leading a dynasty in Minnesota. Diana Taurasi (No. 1 pick, 2004), Brittney Griner (No. 1 pick, 2013) and the Mercury – three-time champs themselves – stand in their way.

And the Storm — who have won the WNBA Draft lottery three times since it was instituted in before the 2002 Draft — are once against poised to cash in on the bounce of the ping-pong balls.

When UConn superstar Breanna Stewart’s name is called with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft, she will enter the league as its next potential franchise-changing force.

The next and perhaps, as the 13-year veteran Bird told WNBA.com recently, the best. “Oh god,” Bird said when asked where Stewart fits into the history of top picks. “Stewie has a serious chance to be one of the best ever. Her style of play, her versatility, her ability to do everything on the court – she brings soo much to the table. As far as No. 1 picks go, historically speaking, they are really important. I’m glad we got that pick this year because we’re gonna get a good one.”

The Storm selected Jackson (left) and Bird No. 1 overall in 2001 and ’02 and won their first title in 2004.

The No. 1 Path to Success

Just how important has the No. 1 pick been during the WNBA’s first 19 seasons? The numbers speak for themselves:

That last figure is what gives WNBA general managers reason to bite their nails even harder than their NBA counterparts on lottery night. In the 30 years since the advent of the NBA’s draft lottery, just two top picks (David Robinson and Tim Duncan) have led their original team to a title – 6.7 percent compared to 37 percent in the WNBA.

It’s been said many times that basketball is a game where superstars reign. But their value is multiplied in the WNBA, where 1) there are only 12 teams; and 2) a can’t-miss college star has seemingly come around every few years.

Those superstars, of course, are sometimes available beyond that first slot. The Indiana Fever nabbed Tamika Catchings at No. 3, two picks after Jackson, and are still reaping the benefits 15 years later. The Sacramento Monarchs’ second overall selection in 1999, Yolanda Griffith, helped them earn a ring six years later. Reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne followed Griner in the 2013 Draft.

When it comes down to it, landing that tide-turning player really can come down to luck – not only luck in the lottery, but also the good fortune of being in the lottery during the right year.

That road leads back to Seattle, which fell in the standings heading into last year’s draft. Eight days before the Storm were on the clock, Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd announced that she was forgoing her senior season and turning pro, making Seattle’s choice easy.

The choice was even easier this year thanks to the luck of the lottery draw.

“Every team has these highs and lows,” Bird said. “For us in Seattle, obviously the franchise started with two highs – back-to-back No. 1 picks – and we’ve ridden that as long as we can. Then the injury bug hit, and with that hopefully this is turning the page into the next chapter of these No. 1 picks and what legacy they can leave.”

Center of Attention

The best Connecticut Husky ever? The next WNBA star? Potentially the best female player ever?

The hype machine has been rebooted as Stewart makes the leap to the pros. All she has to do it is live up to it.

“The hypes were similar, but for different reasons,” said Bird, a fellow UConn grad who was in Stewart’s shoes 14 years ago as a two-time national champ. “Our class, we were just getting back on the map … whereas they’re just sustaining it.”

Ask those who have seen Stewart play and gotten to know her personally, and there are few players who have the talent and makeup better suited to handle that hype than the 21-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y.

WNBA.com took that question to USA Basketball training camp on her home court in Storrs – a gathering of 16 of the best players in the world, eight of whom were former No. 1 WNBA Draft picks. Their resounding response: Stewie’s ready.

“She fits right in,” Taurasi said.

“It doesn’t really feel like she’s in college,” said Delle Donne.

“It’s amazing,” said Angel McCoughtry, the Dream’s No. 1 pick in 2009. “I remember when I was in college, I wasn’t ready yet to be on an Olympic type team and compete for this kind of thing. The fact that she’s a senior and already playing and looking good with these type of players – she’s ready.”

ESPN analyst and former Huskies great Rebecca Lobo said heading into the Draft that she expects Stewart to be “great right away,” an opinion shared by many. If that seems unfair, well, that’s the precedent past phenoms have set.

Team Win Totals Before & After No. 1 Pick
Year Team No. 1 Pick Previous Year’s Record Next Year’s Record Change in Win Total Postseason
2008 Los Angeles Sparks Candace Parker 10-24 20-14 +10 Conference Finals
2009 Atlanta Dream Angel McCoughtry 4-30 18-16 +14 Conference Semiinals
2010 Connecticut Sun Tina Charles 16-18 17-17 +1 Did not qualify
2011 Minnesota Lynx Maya Moore 13-21 27-7 +8 Won Finals
2012 Los Angeles Sparks Nneka Ogwumike 15-19 24-10 +9 Conference Finals
2013 Phoenix Mercury Brittney Griner 7-27 19-15 +12 Conference Finals
2014 Connecticut Sun Chiney Ogwumike 10-24 13-21 +3 Did not qualify
2015 Seattle Storm Jewell Loyd 12-22 10-24 -2 Did not qualify

 

Top picks haven’t just changed the long-term trajectory of WNBA franchises; they’ve made an immediate impact, especially in recent years. The team that selected No. 1 has improved its record by an average of 7.6 wins over the last eight seasons and reached the playoffs in five of those years.

Moore raised the bar in 2011 when she won both Rookie of the Year and the WNBA championship. (Cheryl Ford, the Detroit Shock’s No. 3 overall pick in 2003, is the only other player to do that.) In Moore’s view, no place prepares a player to handle pressure quite like UConn.

“It just takes a lot of focus. You’ve got to block out all the noise of the future and just focus on the present,” Moore said at USAB camp in February. “One of the things I appreciated so much about the coaching staff while I was [at UConn] is they do a great job of helping us practically know how to do that, whether that’s on social media or preparing our minds to think about how we’re going to react in certain situations.”

How will Stewart react to being the face of a franchise before she turns 22? That answer will play out beginning one month after she hears her name called, when the landmark 20th WNBA season opens on May 14.

What we do know already: History is on her side.