Q&A: ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo, LaChina Robinson Preview Upcoming WNBA Draft

The following is a transcript from Friday’s media conference call.

Q. I covered Oregon-based players and Marie Gülich is one of the most interesting. I felt she wasn’t on the national radar a whole lot the last two seasons until her big senior season. For either of you, what do you feel like this last season did for her potential and prospects as a professional?

REBECCA LOBO: I’ll talk about Marie. It’s interesting, just talking to coaches it seems like she’s the prospect whose stock rose more than anyone’s at least through the latter part of the NCAA Tournament. I think plenty of coaches were aware of her but she played so well in the tournament, especially in the later matchups, in particular in the Tennessee game against Mercedes Russell.

And I think before the NCAA Tournament run, the conversation I was hearing that she was somewhere mid to late second round, but her play may have moved her up to late first round or early second round. People are really interested and intrigued by her, how hard she works, great size, her ability to face the basket, the fadeaway on her shot, her ability to score on like-sized players. But for sure she’s one of the players who I think really caught a lot of fans’ attention, but also really improved herself throughout the latter part of the season in terms of her season.

Q. LaChina, I was wondering what you think of Azurá Stevens entering the draft? And is she the kind of player Dallas can get at the No. 6 spot?

LACHINA ROBINSON: Obviously the conversation around the first round of the draft has changed dramatically with Azurá Stevens declaring for the WNBA.

She’s just a very unique player. It starts really with her physical dimensions more than anything, her length. She has skill not only around the basket but has shown the potential to make plays facing the basket with her face-up game.

I believe that she could fall to sixth and be available for Dallas. And if she did, that would be a tremendous get for [Wings head coach] Fred Williams, when you think about their style of play — the way they like to get up and down the floor. They like to play off their defense and get in transition.

Azurá is very good at running the floor. She can catch the ball. I think her hands have gotten better over the latter part of her career. So that would be a huge get obviously for Fred Williams’ group, and I think she would be a tremendous fit as well.

Q. With Minnesota not having a first-round pick, what do you see them looking at in the second round? And also the draft being talked about or not being talked about, when would that be improved where it would be much more on a conversational basis?

LACHINA ROBINSON: With the draft question, I think the draft has definitely been talked about more over the years, at least it seems like that on my end. Even this call right now, we have a lot of media, a lot more than I remember having when I first started participating in these calls. I think the synergy and energy coming off the NCAA Tournament is great.

We just had arguably the greatest Final Four in the history of women’s college basketball. There was a lot of media attention, a lot of national media catching fire to what’s happening on the women’s side. So I think that’s all very helpful.

And I just think the overall popularity of the game is growing, whether it’s in viewership or attendance. So I think the more the game grows, the more the WNBA Draft will continue to grow.

I’ll let Rebecca hop in on Minnesota.

REBECCA LOBO: When you look at the offseason moves, Plenette Pierson had become their first post off the bench. She retired and then Natasha Howard going off to Seattle, you would think that the number one need Minnesota wants to fill is to find another mobile post that they can bring in off the bench to give Rebekkah Brunson some time to rest.

They always, because of Maya Moore, have the option to go with a smaller lineup and put her at the 4 spot. But because of losing those two players in particular, you would think that they would look to find a mobile post.

Q. Diamond DeShields skipped her senior year to play professionally in Europe this year. We saw this before with someone like Epiphanny Prince. What are the positives and negatives for her to make a jump like that?

REBECCA LOBO: Diamond is really interesting, because she’s so talented. Everybody knows the potential she brought when she was at North Carolina and then at Tennessee. I think the positives are she has a year of playing professionally under her belt. She’s playing in a good league, having a chance to play with good teammates, going against good competition that can only help her.

I think a negative could be just an uncertainty with Diamond, I think, because she started at one school, transferred to another. It seemed like she was coming back, and I think most people were surprised she decided not to play.

There’s an uncertainty about her. And not as easy probably to watch her play this year in person, although some coaches have gone overseas to do that in terms of their scouting. I think there’s a little bit of what exactly are we getting with Diamond DeShields. But the positive is she’s got that year of getting acclimated to the pro game.

Q. Rebecca, I was wondering when you look at A’Ja Wilson what does she need to add to her game to be ready for the pros?

REBECCA LOBO: I think she’s ready for the pros right now. A’Ja is such a unique talent in terms of her size and skill set. She’ll continue to grow and she’ll continue to get better. She’ll expand her game. She’ll become even more comfortable going right. I know she developed that part of her game over the course of her college career, but she will become even better playing with physical contact.

But she’s ready right now. I think she’s one of the players that you look at and say this is someone who could eventually be an Olympian, who could be a WNBA All-Star and is only going to continue to get better. But she has the pieces necessary right now to immediately help a team.

Q. Looking at the Sky, they have the third and fourth picks in the draft. With this draft, is it possible for them to not just get back into the playoffs in 2018 but become more of a real contender in the league?

LACHINA ROBINSON: Chicago is sitting pretty right now. When you look at their roster, they already have [Courtney] Vandersloot and a very talented group who looked very strong through most of last year. But to have the third and fourth pick is major. You’re looking at a program changer, franchise changer.

Kahleah Copper continues to grow. They have Stefanie Dolson. Expect them to get Jamierra Faulkner back too, who gives them some speed, and they can get up and down the floor. I really like the addition of Alex Montgomery. I feel she’s been more underrated the last few years. She’s tough, strong. She can play multiple positions.

They really need to add a perimeter player that can go get shots. When you think about what Cappie Pondexter brought and now her departure, she could go get baskets. They need scoring on the perimeter but also could probably use a 4 player that gives them an advantage both on the glass as well as defensively.

When you lose someone like a Jessica Breland you have to replace what she brought in terms of her length, her ability to be disruptive. I see them picking up a perimeter player that can score but also a power forward that can do a variety of things.

Q. I’d like to see if either of you know much about Maria Vadeeva, and can you comment on her role in the draft? And also your thoughts on Kristy Wallace from Baylor?

REBECCA LOBO: You take Vadeeva. I’ve not seen her play. I’ve just heard people talking about her.

LACHINA ROBINSON: I’ve seen very little of her, but from what I’ve seen and also heard she’s 6-3, lefty, very physical. She can rebound out of her area, nice passer, good touch. But more than anything, going back to the physical aspects of her game, a lot of times when it comes to a post player it takes them time to develop the strength and physicality inside. I think that’s an advantage for her.

And then the passing ability, for a big as the game evolves, the ability for a post player to pass and find their teammates I think is a premium. She’s kind of one of the unknowns in this.

I know Rebecca was talking about Diamond earlier. But because we haven’t seen a ton of footage on her and haven’t seen her live, I’m interested to see. I know that I talked to some WNBA GMs and they feel like if she were a college player, then she could be a lottery pick. That just speaks to the level of skill and versatility that she has and hopefully she can bring it to the WNBA.

REBECCA LOBO: Kristy was having a terrific senior season. I think in particular when you focused on the games that they played against Texas, she was the difference in helping Baylor win both of those games before she was injured in the regular season. And she’s intriguing because she’s got good size for a point guard. She’s got a real toughness that she’s shown about her. She has an ability to score not only from the perimeter but drive into the paint and finish. Getting her teammates open.

The WNBA Draft is always interesting as it relates to injured players and international players who aren’t expected to play right away. Sometimes teams have more picks in the draft than they have positions in training camp. So, injured players or internationals who aren’t going to come play this year can be really appealing for some teams because they may not have the roster room or they simply may not have the space in their training camp for all of those players.

So, sometimes a player like Kristy Wallace could be really appealing because a team wants her in the future but doesn’t necessarily have that need this season.

Q. I’m wondering about Shakayla Thomas from Florida State, what do you think about how her game translates to the next level, and what range do you see her being drafted?

LACHINA ROBINSON: Shakayla had a great career. Amazing athlete. I think that’s what sets her apart: her jumping ability, her strength. She’s money in the midrange.

Tries to extend her shot a little bit. I think that’s the next level for her if she wants to play at the 3. She’s more of a tweener right now who can play 3 or 4. But if she can start to hit the three consistently, that would help.

She’s just scratching the surface to me in terms of her offensive skill set, much like I know we mentioned Azurá Stevens earlier. I think Shakayla has a great upside. She has to commit a little bit more to developing the three-point shot.

And also some of her ball handling. She runs the floor very well in transition. She can shoot the gap defensively. Not worried about her guarding at the next level. But again, just finding those skills that will allow her to seamlessly transition between the 3 and 4 spot would be of a benefit to her.

REBECCA LOBO: In terms of the range, from the conversations I’ve had, late first round to mid-second round.

Q. Do you expect the Indiana Fever to try to go big with that second pick, or have they may be addressed some of that with the acquisition of Kayla Alexander and they’ll pick somebody like Kelsey Mitchell?

REBECCA LOBO: My expectation, until Azurá Stevens entered the draft, they would for sure go with Kelsey Mitchell. But now with Stevens in the draft, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went with Stevens.

Both players bring so much. Both players fill a need for Indiana. Especially when you look at the injuries to Mitchell and Shanice Johnson and how ready will they be at the beginning or even midpoint of the season. But at least in my mind it was going to be Kelsey Mitchell, but I think Azurá Stevens has affected even the thinking at the second pick.

LACHINA ROBINSON: I would agree with Rebecca that Azurá Stevens is very tempting at No. 2. I feel Indiana will go with Mitchell.

Remember, they don’t have Briann January anymore. From what I understand, Shanice Johnson will not be ready to start this season. So in my opinion they need a player who can kind of play that 1-2 combo.

I think Pokey [Chatman] is excited about seeing what Kelsey Mitchell can be as a passer. Yeah, she took a lot of shots. She scored a lot of baskets, but that was her role. That was what she was expected to do. But we may see some other dimensions of her game as she’s asked to move to that 1 spot in some situations.

That’s just a guess of mine and just from things I’m hearing, but I know Azurá is definitely tempting as well in overall talent at that No. 2 position.

Q. The first question deals with Victoria Vivians from Mississippi State. In regard to Victoria’s maturation in terms of taking better shots and her increased shooting percentage, how does that help her stock in the draft and the WNBA game? And LaChina, the prospects for the other seniors from Mississippi State — Roshunda Johnson, Morgan William and even possibly Blair Schaefer. What do you think about those three?

REBECCA LOBO: I’ll start with Victoria. A lot of people really like Victoria, I think, because of her size. Big guards are at a premium in the WNBA. And her ability to score.

And not only her efficiency increased this year, but the dramatic increase especially when it comes to her three-point shot, from shooting 20 something percent to up to close to 40.

She’s shown that she’s a player who can continue to improve, who can adjust her role, even if that means fewer field goal attempts. I think people really liked her a year ago, and I think adjusting to that role and becoming much more efficient has only helped her. And she’s definitely a very appealing big guard in this Draft.

LACHINA ROBINSON: As it pertains to the other seniors, look, they’re winners. So you can never count out any of them. I think one of the challenges for all three is just size. There’s really only one spot for you in that type of point guard, based on the size of the league. As you heard Rebecca talk about with Victoria, how it’s such a plus, big thing, the physical dimensions.

But they’re not lacking in heart. And obviously Blair can shoot it and Johnson can shoot it. And Morgan William can find players, very good at getting in the gap. So I think the thing that helps all three of them is they come from a decent pedigree. I don’t know a coach that doesn’t love a player that’s committed to the defensive end of the floor.

It’s a stretch, but I don’t count any of those three out from making a splash no matter where they end up next. But it’s going to be very tough to make a WNBA roster.

Q. I know Chennedy Carter from A&M is only a freshman this year. How good do you think she can be when she gets to the WNBA someday?

REBECCA LOBO: She’s obviously a really, really talented player and a very talented scorer. We saw in the NCAA Tournament in particular that she can really turn it on in big moments and help her team win.

I think for her it’s going to be about her maturation at that spot and understanding the balance of looking for her own shot and getting teammates involved, the balance of how to put the team and her teammates in positions always to be successful.

And that’s going to come with her game. But she’s definitely somebody who in three years, when we’re having this conversation, is going to be talked about quite a bit.

Q. LaChina, Texas is going to probably have two players drafted. One is Ariel Atkins. I’d still like to get your take on Ariel. Brooke McCarty is an interesting player. She’s very short but yet she’s pretty dynamite at the same time. I’d like to know what part of their games do you think translate to the WNBA style and what challenges will they have as rookies?

LACHINA ROBINSON: Well, I’ll start with Ariel. I’ll echo everything that Rebecca said. I think she loves to play defense. That’s the one thing that stands out to me and she actually takes a lot of pride in it. She likes to get in the passing lane. I love the way she plays in transition.

The one thing about Brooke and Ariel that I think is going to benefit them at the next level is that they
played in the system where they played fast. Karen [Aston] loves her team to play fast. They get up and down the floor. That’s usually one thing that usually sets players apart: their ability early on in their WNBA
careers to grasp the speed of the game, because it’s happening so quickly.

As far as Brooke McCarty, yeah, she’s undersized. But she actually reminds me of Leilani Mitchell, who has had a great career in the WNBA. Brooke, you know what you’re going to get. All-out effort. She’s a tremendous leader. She can get up and down the floor. Has a dependable three-point shot. She’s very coachable. A mature player. And I just like her disposition.

She’s always in a positive space and she can run a team with no problem. And can also defend. So I think both of those young ladies, again because of the type of system they played in, have an advantage in their transition into the WNBA.

Q. Wonder if you had a chance to see the University of Minnesota play at all this year and if you thought that Carlie Wagner has enough of what it would take to find a spot in this league as a player off the bench?

LACHINA ROBINSON: I did. I had an opportunity to watch Minnesota. I had them in the NCAA Tournament. And I was very impressed with Wagner. I think the biggest thing is how she’s able to find shots.

She’s a great three-point shooter, but it takes so much more than that. I would compare her to Rebecca Greenwell, three-point shooter that worked extremely hard to get open. Her work ethic is incredible. I think one thing that doesn’t always translate on watching her on television or watching her on film is how physically fit she is.

She can play an entire game and never take a possession off. One of the challenges for her is definitely on the defensive end. But her ability to come in the game and knock down shots, not concerned about that at all.

So can you do that at an 11th or 12th spot on someone’s roster? Depends on that team and their need. But that’s always a premium when a player can hit from long range the way Carlie can.

Q. I was going to ask about one of our local players, Mikayla Cowling at Cal. You mentioned the need for big guards and a player who can fit in without needing the ball. What are her chances at the next level? I’m not sure if it will be in the third round or as a training camp invitee, but what do you think about her future?

LACHINA ROBINSON: Yeah, I think she has a good shot to make a roster and definitely to be in a WNBA camp. Look, her size is great. And she’s got a big, strong body. She’s been an outstanding defender during her time at Cal.

From what I understand, she had a very good showing during the Pro Hoops Draft Camp in Columbus. That’s to her advantage. And she’s been moved around the floor a lot since coming to Cal. Shows her versatility and her ability to adapt and play different positions. High IQ. So I think because of those combinations of things, she gives herself a very good shot at making the WNBA.

Q. For the Storm, they’re picking at five. Do you think that this might be the year that they try to find the heir apparent for Sue Bird, or because she’s so durable is that something that’s kicked down the road for another time?

LACHINA ROBINSON: No, I think it’s definitely something that even though we don’t want to face it, Sue Bird will have to retire at some point. So I definitely think Seattle will be looking at a point guard option with their pick.

Obviously, the names that come to mind right away are Jordin Canada and Lexie Brown, both outstanding players.

I’ll start with Lexie Brown. The thing that sets her apart a little bit is her size. She’s got a couple inches on most of the point guard group. Her three-point range is something that is intriguing to me because you stretch the line a little bit in the WNBA more than it is in college. She’s a great leader.

She’s the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. That’s a part of her game that really impressed me, her strength on the ball.

She has a high basketball IQ. Really sees the floor well and comes from a basketball pedigree. And I think the other thing that kind of is different about Lexie is that she can play the 1 and 2. She’s got enough size that she can move to the 2 and become a shooter as well.

And obviously Jordin Canada. I mean, is there a player that’s more fun to watch than her? She can lose a defender off the bounce, no problem. Very classy. She can penetrate the defense, find the seams. She’s got the next-level quickness. Not a pure shooter, meaning I don’t think she’s thinking about shooting the three every time she touches it, which is a little bit different between her and Lexie.

But you have to respect the fact that she’s worked on that three. She has an extremely high motor and the only question mark is really her durability, because she’s kind of small and you can move her around the court. But that’s fixable.

I really think Seattle would be looking at one or two of those point guards to back up Sue.

Q. Could you talk about Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell, the pros and cons, and where do you think they might go in the Draft?

LACHINA ROBINSON: I was actually just having a conversation about both of them not too long ago. This is just from what I’ve heard and some different conversations — both of them likely to be either first, late first round or early second.

I’ll start with Jaime Nared, at 6-2. She has versatility. Obviously, she can play multiple positions. I think that’s what really makes her attractive, when you look at some of the 3-4 combos. High IQ. She’s a really good
passer. I think she sees plays ahead of time. She’s always a play ahead, which again speaks at IQ. She can rebound.

Her work ethic, I thought there were moments she showed great leadership when she could have folded or showed frustration with a younger team.

She can shoot it and she’s tough. I see her going before Mercedes, but that’s just my take on it.

Rebecca spoke a little bit about the improvement of Marie Gülich, which I think has moved Mercedes Russell maybe down a little bit at that center position. But she’s got great attributes as well. Nice touch. Her size. She also can pass it. Understands the game. She started to learn more how to fight for position inside. I think she’s got to continue that.

I think we’ve got to just see a different level of toughness and even desire for Mercedes. I think there’s another level that she has not reached yet with her motor, with her just overall consistency and effort.

And obviously I think something that’s always in the back of people’s minds is her health. How are her feet? And sometimes she doesn’t look as mobile getting up and down the floor, and the WNBA is a faster game.

So that could be a little bit of a concern. But if she can be stronger, play lower to the ground, she’s got tremendous upside, as does Nared. But it’s just all about tweaking some of those little things to make them the best possible pros they can be.