Getting the WNBA draft‘s No. 1 pick right, as the New York Liberty did Friday with Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, generally has been easy for the league’s teams. But the rest of the draft over the years has sometimes been challenging, and even has produced some truly head-scratching picks.
That wasn’t the case this year, despite the obstacles that everyone faced because of the coronavirus pandemic. There was no NCAA tournament or any draft combines for evaluation purposes. Teams’ decision-makers weren’t all together in war rooms discussing their choices; like everything else with this draft, most of the communication done was through video calls and technology.
Yet most of the teams did a very good job targeting and selecting players who both addressed their needs and have a chance to make the roster. The latter is very hard to do; with only 144 jobs available in the 12-team league, it’s a tough road for most rookies.
But, perhaps reflecting a greater sophistication in evaluating talent, most of the teams positioned themselves to take advantage of the draft as best they could, which is why there are a lot of high grades.
Dallas Wings: A-plus
Picks: 2. Satou Sabally, Oregon, SF; 5. Bella Alarie, Princeton, PF; 7. Tyasha Harris, South Carolina, PG; 21. Luisa Geiselsoder, Germany, C
Team president Greg Bibb and coach Brian Agler said this draft would be pivotal in setting the course for the franchise’s future. And it went as well as they could have imagined. They got players they wanted, and who will fit what they need.
“We’re painfully young,” Bibb said of the Wings. “We’re going to have some ups and downs, but we have a very talented team now that can grow together.”
Sabally and Alarie are both mobile 6-foot-4 post players who can shoot the 3 and score from all over the court. They added 6-5 Astou Ndour in the offseason, and already had 6-4 Kristine Anigwe, 6-3 Isabelle Harrison and 6-3 Megan Gustafson. It’s a young post crew, but one with a lot of promise.
The Wings also really wanted a point guard and were happy that Harris dropped to the No. 7 spot so they could get her.
“She’s an unbelievable floor general and leader,” Bibb said.
Harris reunites with former South Carolina teammates Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis, who were first-round picks in 2017. All three were on the Gamecocks’ 2017 national championship team that won its title in Dallas.
In Geiselsoder, the Wings get a center for the future. She is just 20 and is not as likely to play in the WNBA this season, but the Wings have her rights and might unite her with fellow German Sabally at some point.
Minnesota Lynx: A-plus
Picks: 6. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, South Carolina, F; 16. Crystal Dangerfield, UConn, G; 26. Erika Ogwumike, Rice, G
The Lynx got exactly what they were looking for, starting with an energetic young forward in Herbert Harrigan. She steadily moved up the draft board this season, and her MVP performance in the SEC tournament was just more fuel for her rise.
The Lynx also wanted to get a point guard, and considered Herbert Harrigan’s teammate Tyasha Harris. But they felt they could wait for the next-best point guard on their board to come up, and Dangerfield was still there for them to take in the second round. She’ll join former UConn teammate Napheesa Collier, who was the WNBA Rookie of the Year last season. Both Herbert Harrigan and Dangerfield bring strong defensive credentials with them, too.
The Lynx made one more move involving the draft, as they traded forward Stephanie Talbot to New York for Ogwumike, the Liberty’s third-round pick. It can be a challenge for third-rounders to make WNBA rosters. But heading into the draft, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve spoke highly of Ogwumike’s scoring ability and, of course, her family history in the league with older sisters Nneka and Chiney both being No. 1 picks, in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Both are with the Sparks now.
Satou Sabally, drafted No. 2 by the Dallas Wings, said she is excited for the opportunity to play in Dallas just like her NBA idol and fellow German Dirk Nowitzki.
Picks: 23. Kaila Charles, Maryland, SG; 35. Juicy Landrum, Baylor, SG
With two low picks, you couldn’t have expected a lot from the Sun, who were the WNBA runners-up last year. Yet both their selections are wise choices who could have a chance at making the team.
Charles was the top scorer this season for the Terrapins, who projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. She doesn’t shoot the 3-pointer and that’s a knock against her, but coach Curt Miller still really likes her game. And he has had success integrating players who might not be conventional fits at positions. The opposite of Charles, Landrum’s signature is the 3-pointer; she made an NCAA single-game women’s record 16 this past season. Her skill from behind the arc should give her at least some chance of making the roster.
Picks: 24. Jaylyn Agnew, Creighton, SF; 36. Sug Sutton, Texas, SG
The defending champs didn’t need anything, and traded their first-round pick earlier this week to New York for Tina Charles. So this was a low-key draft for them — and they still picked up two good players.
Whether they make the roster, Agnew and Sutton are both solid picks. Agnew was the Big East Player of the Year and is a premier scorer. Sutton was a teammate at Texas with Ariel Atkins, who has been a starter the past two years for the Mystics, and brings some similar skills.
Picks: 20. Beatrice Mompremier, Miami, PF; 22. Leonie Fiebich, Germany, SG; 34. Tynice Martin, West Virginia, SG
The Sparks were happy with their roster before the draft, yet they have to be pleased with the players they were able to select despite no first-round pick. Some thought Mompremier would go in the first round, but she seemed to fall because of concerns about the injury that limited her 17 games as a senior. But she averaged close to a double-double when healthy, and at 6-4 she is an athletic presence. The Sparks don’t have a need at power forward, but she was the best player available at No. 20.
Fiebich is just 20, so she might not play in the WNBA this season. But at 6-4, she brings a lot of size to the guard position. Martin is a more traditional shooting guard and fell lower than some expected. She comes from a Mountaineers program that emphasizes defense, which is to her advantage.
After being selected No. 9 by the New York Liberty, Megan Walker is surprised by Kevin Durant with a video message.
New York Liberty: B-plus
Picks: 1. Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon, PG; 9. Megan Walker, UConn, SF; 10. Jocelyn Willoughby, Virginia, SF; 12. Jazmine Jones, Louisville, SG; 13. Kylee Shook, Louisville; PF; 15. Leaonna Odom, Duke, PF
Liberty fans’ heads have to spinning after this night. New York had six draft picks, then traded for another (Willoughby) and dealt one (Erica Ogwumike). To say the least, it’s going to be a new-look Liberty under first-year coach Walt Hopkins. The Liberty picked up some good individual pieces, but it’s a little hard to envision right now how it’s all going to fit together. It’s unlikely there will be six rookies on a 12-player team.
Ionescu was the expected top pick, and she will have to become the Liberty’s leader quickly. This is what she has been preparing for, and she wants to be in the spotlight in a big market. There’s none bigger than New York, which is still looking for its first WNBA title.
The Liberty traded center Tina Charles this week, the only New York post player to average in double-figure scoring last year. They didn’t seem to draft an obvious replacement for her. Walker and Willoughby are definitely scorers, but they’re more wing players. Shook has size similar to Charles, but is thought of more as a defensive player.
Jones has good size (6-0) as a guard and averaged 14.1 points for Louisville this season, but made just 17 3-pointers. She and Shook join former Louisville teammate Asia Durr, who was the No. 2 pick by the Liberty last year but played just 18 games because of injuries.
This could all come together at some point for New York, although it might be hard for the Liberty to jell enough to be a playoff team this season (if the league plays this year). But Hopkins is definitely getting to put together the team he wants from the start.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert provides an update on the league’s plans going forward with regard to the coronavirus pandemic.
Indiana Fever: B-plus
Picks: 3. Lauren Cox, Baylor; C; 14. Kathleen Doyle, Iowa, PG; 28. Kamiah Smalls, James Madison, SG
The Fever got the main player they wanted. Cox fills a need at power forward and could form a solid young tandem with 6-7 center Teaira McCowan, who was the Fever’s No. 3 pick last season. Cox has strong passing skills — she excels at the high-low game and finding 3-point shooters — and is a very good defender. She’ll fit in great with new coach Marianne Stanley and general manger Tamika Catchings.
How well Doyle fits in remains to be seen. Iowa hasn’t had a lot of success putting players in the WNBA; Megan Gustafson made the Wings’ roster last year after initially being cut from the team as a second-round pick. Doyle, like Gustafson before her, was the Big Ten Player of the Year, and averaged 18.1 points and 6.2 assists as a senior.
Smalls is a 5-10 guard who had her best season a senior for JMU, averaging 18.6 PPG.
Chicago Sky: B
Picks: 8. Ruthy Hebard, Oregon, PF; 30. Japreece Dean, UCLA, PG; 32. Kiah Gillespie, Florida State, PF
The Sky whiffed with their first pick in 2019; Katie Lou Samuelson at No. 4 didn’t fit well in Chicago, and she was traded to Dallas earlier this year. We’ll see if Hebard, who shot better than 65% from the field for her Ducks career, works out better. She probably will. Hebard is no longer playing alongside Ionescu, but in Courtney Vandersloot she has another point guard who was coached by Oregon’s Kelly Graves (when he and Vandersloot were at Gonzaga).
The Sky made the playoffs last year and lost a tough single-elimination second-round game to Las Vegas, but they showed they were a pretty good team. Dean could add some depth at point guard. And Gillespie just might turn out to be a steal from the third round. There is a wide variety of opinions about how she might play at the next level, but she was a very good player for the Seminoles.
Princeton’s Bella Alarie is selected No. 5 by the Dallas Wings, following in her father’s footsteps. Mark Alarie was the No. 18 pick out of Duke by the Nuggets in 1986.
Atlanta Dream: B-plus
Picks: 4. Chennedy Carter, Texas A&M, SG; 17. Brittany Brewer, Texas Tech, C; 25. Mikayla Pivec, Oregon State, SG; 27. Kobi Thornton, Clemson, PF
Carter could become a superstar at the next level; that’s really up to her and how well she accepts coaching, how she matures and if she listens to advice from veteran teammates. There were times at Texas A&M when she almost single-handedly won games, and times she looked like she was playing only for herself. But make no mistake: She is a terrific talent, and the sky is the limit.
The Dream had the worst record in the league last year, but this is fresh start of sorts with the moves the team made in the offseason and this draft. Brewer is an intriguing pick because she was one of rare true centers in this draft; she averaged 16.6 points and 10.3 rebounds this season for Texas Tech.
Pivec is a fan favorite with a ton of heart who did everything for Oregon State, but the question is whether she has that one skill that is enough to earn her a pro roster spot. Thornton averaged 13.1 PPG this season for Clemson but was a surprise pick who wasn’t on many draft boards. The Dream must see potential in her.
Picks: 11. Kitija Laksa, Latvia, SG; 19. Joyner Holmes, Texas; PF; 31. Haley Gorecki, Duke, SG
Laksa played at South Florida for three seasons before an ACL injury early in her senior year essentially ended her college career. She is an outstanding 3-point shooter as a 6-footer; she made 308 for the Bulls despite playing just three games her senior season. The 2018 WNBA champions didn’t have much in the way of needs in this draft, and Laksa might not play this season. But she could be part of the team’s future.
Holmes was one of the top recruits in the country entering Texas, but injuries and a semester-long suspension her sophomore year kept her from fully developing. Maybe she’ll have a chance to do that at the pro level.
Gorecki was also plagued by injuries in her career, but she had a stellar senior season at Duke. It will be tough for her to make a roster as a rookie, though.
Phoenix Mercury: C-minus
Picks: 18. Te’a Cooper, Baylor, PG; 29. Stella Johnson, Rider, SG
What’s odd is it seemed as if the Mercury got one of the things they needed — a wing who could score — when they selected Virginia’s Jocelyn Willoughby with the No. 10 pick. But then they traded her to New York for the contract of shooting guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who has averaged 5.2 points as a reserve in three seasons with Washington.
With Skylar Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley now on the Mercury roster, along with Diana Taurasi, there might not be much need for Cooper at point guard. Johnson was the leading scorer in Division I this season at 24.8 PPG, but will her game translate from a small conference to the WNBA? It has happened for other players, but it’s not easy.
Las Vegas Aces: No grade
Pick: No. 33 Lauren Manis, Holy Cross, SF
With just one pick, in the third round, there’s not enough to evaluate to give the Aces a grade. The organization had the No. 1 pick the past three years and took guard Kelsey Plum, power forward A’ja Wilson and guard Jackie Young. All were very well-known names to women’s college basketball fans. That’s not the case with Manis, but she averaged a double-double the past two seasons, including 18.6 PPG and 11.5 RPG as a senior in the Patriot League. She finished her career with 2,020 points and 1,188 rebounds.