Inside The W with Michelle Smith: 2021 WNBA Draft Preview

For the 25th time in league history, the WNBA will get a new infusion of young talent and energy into the league with the WNBA Draft.

Over 50 former NCAA players have put their names in for consideration for the 36 players that will be chosen over three rounds on Thursday night (7PM ET, ESPN).

After the interest and intrigue of free agency, the Draft takes its place as the WNBA’s second season, in which teams will look to find an impact player, add needed depth, or stock their roster for the future.

Here are six of the biggest questions to be answered on Thursday night.

Who is the No. 1 pick?

Many of the players in the NCAA Tournament who received the most attention are underclassmen and members of a future WNBA Draft Class, (we see you Paige Bueckers, Aliyah Boston, Haley Jones and Caitlin Clark), and this senior class may not be as deep in WNBA-level talent as the last few drafts that have proceeded it. Still, the team that drafts No. 1 is going to get a player with impact potential. The most likely candidate for No. 1 remains Texas’ center Charli Collier, who, at 6-foot-5, is a rim protector that has the potential to contribute quickly to a Dallas Wings team that could use some more depth inside. Collier, who declared for the draft in March, didn’t play as well as she would have liked in the NCAA Tournament, but her size, wingspan, rebounding and scoring ability from the perimeter still addresses a need for Dallas.

A player like Arizona’s Aari McDonald, who led her team down the final shot in the national championship game, is someone to keep an eye on as a surprise top pick. She is only 5-6, but there is no denying her speed from end to end, her ability to score, push in transition, and defend. She has a passion and winning attitude that could be appealing to her new home city.

Which players have the best chance of being impact players out of the gate?

A player like Louisville product Dana Evans fits that bill. Evans, the two-time ACC Player of the Year, put up a combined 53 points in her final two collegiate games, an exclamation point for WNBA scouts. She is a versatile player, able to play at both guards spots, which also increases her appeal.

Then there’s a player like UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere, who brings great athleticism and versatility to the floor. At 6-feet, she is regarded as undersized to play inside in the WNBA, but with the right team, she might be a very pleasant surprise.

And then there is someone like Baylor grad transfer DiJonai Carrington, who is a big guard that plays with a fearlessness and physicality that might just make her a perfect fit someplace.

What will Dallas do with all of those picks?

Dallas has the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 7th picks in the first round. The Wings don’t, on paper, have the roster space to keep four first-round draft picks with 10 players under contract. As general manager Greg Bibb admitted last week, it is “good to have options”. And with the top two picks, there is ample opportunity to make a deal and perhaps trade or package picks for a more experienced player on a team full of young stars, which always makes draft night more interesting.

How many of these young players will be able to stick on rosters?

Given the number of players with guaranteed contracts, as well as a large group of players still under their rookie-scale contracts, there are, in reality, probably less than a dozen spots open for rookies across the league. Cracking a WNBA roster is going to be difficult for many of these young players, but the training camp invitation remains an incredibly valuable experience.

Which international players will we see drafted in the first round?

The most likely prospect is 6-foot-4 Awak Kuier who is just 19 years old but has already played professionally in Italy. According to Wings general manager Greg Bibb, she is a player that can handle the ball and shoot, which are both “exceptional” for a player her age with potential that is “off the charts”. The Wings are projected to take her at No. 2, adding additional depth inside. There’s also Australia guard Shyla Heal, who has been playing professionally in Australia since she was 14 years old. International players with professional experience are well-prepared to come into the WNBA and contribute quickly. Iliana Rupert from France, another 19-year-old, is also an intriguing international prospect at 6-foot-4, but may be committed to the French National team this season.

What teams are in a position to use this draft to improve their team?

It’s not a surprise that three of the four teams that finished at the bottom of the WNBA standings last season – Indiana, Dallas, Atlanta – are in the best position to use this draft to make their teams deeper or to leverage a pick (or a few) to get themselves a more experienced WNBA talent on their roster.

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.