Inside The W with Michelle Smith: 2018 Rookies

They have come in a wave, washing over the WNBA with energy and talent and opportunism.

The 2018 WNBA Draft class was highly anticipated, and now we know it was for good reason.

They are prospects no more. Now they are professional basketball players. And some of these extraordinary rookies have come up with some of the most electrifying individual performances of the season:

  • New York’s Kia Nurse dropping 34 on Indiana, the most points in a game ever for a Liberty rookie.
  • Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson, who ranks among the top 10 players in the league in scoring and rebounding.
  • Indiana’s Kelsey Mitchell, who has scored at least 20 points in three of her first six games and leads the league in three-pointers made per game.
  • Chicago’s Diamond DeShields, meanwhile, had her biggest game of the young season with a 25-point performance against Las Vegas on Sunday.

And that doesn’t even take into account the immediate impact of players such as Washington’s Ariel Atkins, who had 21 points and five assists against Phoenix on May 30, her teammate Myisha Hines-Allen, who has two double-doubles already for the Mystics, and Seattle’s Jordin Canada, who has become a defensive stopper and emerging floor leader for the Storm.

“From my vantage point, in regards to numbers, the rookies have been very impactful,” said Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler, one of the few coaches in the league who doesn’t have a rookie currently playing a prominent role for his team. “This is one of the better seasons I can remember in terms of their influence in the league.”

Indiana Fever coach Pokey Chatman finds herself on the other end of that spectrum. She is coaching the youngest team in the league and two of the best rookies to come into the league out of the draft in Mitchell and Mississippi State product Victoria Vivians, who are both are logging major minutes for her team in the early days of their careers.

As well as they are playing, Chatman confirmed the adjustment is huge.

In a shortened WNBA season (thanks to the FIBA World Cup), the turnaround time between games is quick, the travel is taxing, and the time to practice and improve your game while trying to adjust to the next level is minimal. That doesn’t even include the challenges of being on your own as a young adult for the first time.

“No time to sulk after getting your butt kicked,” Chatman said.

Not to mention the very bright spotlight.

“They are very talented, but they are learning under the lights,” Chatman said. “They don’t have the luxury of three or four all-stars welcoming them into the league. They are just being overloaded right now, but they are still finding a way to have an impact.”

Indiana’s rookies are in a different situation than some others, who have more veterans to lean on. Chatman complemented Nurse on her 34-point game, and said Nurse is learning a lot from perennial all-star and Olympian Tina Charles: “It helps to have established players when you come in and credit to her that she’s taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Charles, the league’s leading scorer so far this season, has been in the WNBA for eight seasons, but she remembers well her rookie season and the value of mentorship she received from her more experienced teammates. She’s trying to do the same for Nurse.

“I feel like she’s a step ahead of all of the rookies because of her experience with the Canadian national team. She’s played on a high level, plus coming from a program like UConn, which really prepares you,” Charles said. “I see that in Kia.”

Charles said Nurse is helping the team defensively, bringing their game to “another level,” and that the rookies have to understand that there are more ways to impact the game than scoring.

“It’s not all about offense,” Charles said. “Your presence, you defense, your body language, your words — that can all impact your team. Your ability to listen and carry it over to the next game. People are going to have good games and bad games and you need your teammates around you to keep you level-headed.”

Every one of these stellar rookies finds themselves in a different situation.

Wilson and Mitchell, for example, find themselves among the league’s top 10 scorers, Wilson averaging 21.0 points a game, and Mitchell, the No. 2 scorer in NCAA Division I history, averaging 18.3. Wilson ranks among the league leaders in rebounds at 7.7 per game, as she assumes a leading role for the relocated Aces.

“We haven’t seen A’ja in person yet, but I don’t need to,” Chatman joked. “We will see her soon enough. She’s special. She is as advertised. She is still learning so much, but they all are. They are learning how to neutralize their deficiencies. They are learning how to scheme defensively in ways they never knew existed.”

Chatman said that, like Wilson, she views Mitchell as a special player.

“The first four practices, our veterans were coming up to me and asking, ‘Why is she not shooting the ball?,’” Chatman said. “She wanted to do right and learn and she was hesitant. But this kid is for real.”

In a league where roster spots are precious commodities, these young players have proven they belong, even as teams have made difficult cuts to established veteran to make room for them.

“There were some tough decisions out there,” Agler said. “It’s tough to make a WNBA team. I think everybody felt this draft was going to be a good one and it’s playing out to be even better than we thought. This is a group of players that could have long careers. There is a depth of all-star potential in this group.

“I think it’s a signal for everybody: If you want to keep your job, you better work in the offseason.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.