There's A New Era Rising In Phoenix
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BRISTOL, Conn -- By the time Phoenix coach Corey Gaines left the ESPN studio – where he had just found out that his team was awarded the No. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft – and made it back to the Green Room for all the team representatives, he already had over 40 text messages.
One of them was from franchise player and former No. 1 overall pick herself Diana Taurasi. All she had to say was, “WOW”.
The Mercury came into the lottery with the second highest chance of earning the top overall pick (27.6 percent) and in a draft full of wow factor, as this class features three game-changing prospects in Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, the Mercury emerged as the big winners.
Chicago, which had the best record of the four teams in the lottery and only a 10.4 chance of getting the top pick, jumped up to the No. 2 spot. Tulsa received the No. 3 pick while Washington, the team with the most ping pong balls to start the day and a 44.6 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick, fell to the No. 4 selection.
For the first time ever – in large part due to the unprecedented hype surrounding the three budding superstars in this class – the draft lottery could be seen live. And, since he was seen by millions on SportsCenter, that is one reason so many were quick to text Gaines.
The other: that he now has the chance to draft Griner.
Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and a national title last year, is the crowned jewel of this star-studded class. Simply put, ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo says there is no other player like Griner in the world.
The 6-foot-8 center will instantly become one of the top defenders in the league – she averaged over five blocks a game her junior year and is just 64 rejections away from setting the NCAA record for career blocks– and her size makes her hard to stop on the offensive end. Griner averaged 23.2 points her junior year, to go along with 9.5 rebounds, and, confirming that she is like no other women’s player walking the planet, can dunk with ease.
As a result, despite the fact that she doesn’t fit Phoenix’s traditional mold for a post player, Griner, if selected No. 1, could have an immense and immediate impact on both the Mercury and the league.
“I think this year, with the picks that are coming out, you can’t go wrong,” Gaines said before the draft. “I think it’s a little easier this year. In the past you may have had to draft to what fits your team, but this year I think there are some players out there that are game-changers and league-changers.”
The most influential of those players is Griner and Lobo agrees that she can succeed in Phoenix, especially when you factor in that her stellar defense could trigger Phoenix’s lethal transition game via rebounds and blocks.
“Even if you look at a team like Phoenix that has traditionally liked really mobile post players that can shoot the three, (Griner’s) not that, but it doesn’t matter because they can just put her in the middle and do whatever they want in terms of what they want to run defensively,” Lobo said. “So she would still fit in perfectly there even though she’s not a prototypical player for their system.”
The teams in this year’s lottery – especially those that finished in the top three – will look at this year’s draft as the first step to a future championship. Nowhere is that more evident than in Phoenix. Much like how Minnesota winning the lottery in 2011 and landing Maya Moore helped them win a championship last year, the Mercury have by and large parlayed their past two No. 1 selections into trophies.
In 2004, Phoenix selected Diana Taurasi and in 2007 the Mercury had the No. 1 overall pick and traded it to Minnesota for Tangela Smith. Both of those players were major contributors to the franchise’s championships in 2007 and 2009.
When you factor in that the team already has what Gaines calls a “solid four” in Taurasi, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, as well as a promising rookie in Samantha Prahalis, the future is looking blindingly bright in Phoenix.
“Obviously we’re really excited,” Phoenix President and COO Amber Cox said. “It means a lot to our fans, it means a lot to our organization. We’re just really excited and kind of speechless at the moment. We came into the Draft Lottery today, Corey and I, with no expectations and, again, like he said, we knew that anyone we would be able to add to the pieces we already have would be good. This is obviously icing on the cake.”
Phoenix isn’t the only team feeling lucky after Wednesday’s lottery. The Sky, who were fighting for a playoff spot just a week ago, defied the odds and earned the second overall selection. Forward Swin Cash, Chicago’s representative, may have created some of her own good fortune by bringing a good luck charm to the lottery – two American flag patches given to her by U.S. soldiers while she was in London for the Olympics. The patches, she says, worked as she helped the U.S. to a gold medal and they seemed to work in the lottery.
“After I heard Tulsa at three I was just sitting there and I think my eyes got big, I was like “Oh man, it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.’” Cash said. “But at the end of the day, I’m just happy to have the second pick. There’s just so many different ways that our coach can go with this.”
Chicago already has a strong core with Cash, fellow Olympian Sylvia Fowles and rising star Epiphanny Prince, so another bonafide star would make the Sky a top contender in the East.
Another team on the rise is the Tulsa Shock, who won nine games in 2012 after only winning three in 2011. They have a sold group of young players and played the entire season without 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage, the No.2 pick in the 2011 draft. Tulsa Owner Bill Cameron says he thinks Tulsa is a “team on the upswing” and this draft’s lottery, where they earned the No. 3 pick, is just another step in that direction.
“We know we’re going to get a really, really solid player at three and there’s still a lot of things to shake out,” Tulsa President Steve Swetoha said. “We have a few months to go but they say they have three really good players in this draft and we have one of those slots so I don’t think we can ask for anything more at this point. Obviously we’re disappointed that we didn’t get the No. 1 pick -- if I said we aren’t disappointed I’d be lying to you -- so it is what it is, and we feel good about where we fell.”
Unfortunately for Washington, a team that won just five games in 2012 and is looking for a new coach and GM, the outcome of the lottery cannot by what it had hoped for.
“I hadn’t even really thought about this class – I don’t even know who the fourth pick might be – but it’s safe to say fourth will be a little more disappointed than the others,” Lobo said.
As a whole, however, there should be no disappointment around the league. The WNBA is likely to have three collegiate icons – among others – enter the league in this April’s draft and the excitement is already apparent.
“It’s great for the league because the players that are coming in to the league in this year’s draft have visibility at the collegiate level,” Cash said. “They’ve also been very engaging in social media and I think mainstream media is talking about them, so I think it’s going to be great for the league and great for the teams that get them.”
The importance of the draft is at an all-time high this year and WNBA President Laurel J. Richie may have summed it up best before the draft.
“The fact that the draft lottery, for the first time ever, is going to be live on SportsCenter, I mean it doesn’t get any better than that.”