By: Jeffrey Newholm
Well I did my best to write great women’s college hoops coverage for NBS, but in the end the season can be summarized in one sentence: it was supposed to be a cakewalk for the Huskies, and it was. But not to worry ladies’ hoops fans because within just a few days of the conclusion of the Final Four the WNBA draft ushered us into what’s sure to be a unique and exciting season between the Olympics, the new playoff format and all the new young talent entering the league. The season doesn’t start for another month, but I did just want to give my quick thoughts on how the league’s 12 teams fared in the draft, and how much they improved their outlook for 2016. I’ll start with Seattle, the team that drafted first, and work my way down.
Despite having two of the first three picks in last year’s draft, the Storm got off to a poor start. When Candace Parker returned for the Sparks, it was clear the playoffs were out of reach. But the silver lining is the team’s “slide for Stewie” campaign worked-the team earned best lottery odds and won the #1 pick, which was of course used on three time player of the year Breanna Stewart. Stewart not only is talented enough to be the first pick, but also is a good fit for the Storm. Seattle finished last in rebounding margin and seventh in points allowed per game. Furthermore, in the games I watched it was obvious the Storm needed a good post defender as many tall and talented players, such as Brittney Griner, tore the team apart in the paint. With Stewart’s seven foot wingspan and shot blocking prowess, the Storm should immediately improve in both areas. Between Stewart and last year’s picks Jewell Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Sue Bird still around as a mentor, the Storm have reason to be optimistic this year.
San Antonio Stars
The Stars were really something last year-they managed to have the worst record in the league but still didn’t have best lottery odds due to a change in the lottery rules and a questionable final win against Seattle. But I think San Antonio will still gladly take Moriah Jefferson, the winner of this year’s Nancy Lieberman award for best point guard, given their presumed starting point guard is now out for the season. The Stars then traded away their second leading scorer (and 11 year veteran) in Jia Perkins to Minnesota for a second round pick, which they used on Jazmon Gwathmey, who can contribute on both ends of the floor. The Stars clearly aren’t in win-now mode with Perkins traded, Sophia Young-Malcolm retired and leading scorer Kayla McBride entering just her third year. Sure the Stars could improve their tenth in the league assists figure, but it’s a big jump from 8-26 to playoff contention.
The Sun have been in a sorry state these last few years, not making the playoffs since 2012 despite the fact two thirds of the league qualify. But boy did they clean up in this year’s draft! With the third pick they took Uconn’s Morgan Tuck, who has been a well known post presence for years but was shaped into a well-balanced shooting threat by the end of her career. After swinging a trade for the fourth pick the Sun drafted Minnesota scoring phenom Rachel Banham, who averaged 28 points a game her senior year and is the NCAA’s sixth all time leading scorer. The Sun seemed to be set as far as scoring goes but for good measure made another trade for #6 pick Jonquel Jones, one of the nation’s leading rebounders. And the team still wasn’t done, finding a second round steal in Pac-12 player of the year Jamie Weisner. The team had to give up numerous future picks to get this haul, but with so much young talent the Sun should be rising literally and figuratively on Connecticut in the years to come.
The Shock finally showed some signs of life in their final year in Tulsa, but were a quick out in the playoffs after Skylar Diggins’ season ending surgery. The team should be better with Diggins healthy again, and the most notable draft pick joining her is Ariel Powers, an all-around solid player adapt at both scoring and rebounding. Putting the Shock in Tulsa was a big mistake as the team drew very poorly, but hopefully with a trio of young stars in Powers, Diggins and Odyssey Sims they can be a bigger hit in Dallas. The Wings should be a decent team, but there’s not enough here to expect a breakthrough to the Finals.
The Sparks picked Jones #6 but traded her to Connecticut for point guard Chelsea Gray and a hoard of draft picks. The 2015 Sparks may have seemed like pretenders with a 14-20 record, but that belied Candace Parker sitting out half the year for rest. In the later rounds the Sparks added three point sharpshooters Whitney Knight and Brianna Butler, who should improve last year’s Sparks horrible 30% three point shooting. The Sparks almost beat eventual champion Minnesota in the first round last year, but with the best two teams now getting a huge advantage with the new playoff structure L.A. will need Parker to contribute more this year to have a decent chance in the playoffs. Trading Jones may not help the 2016 team, but the return of potentially four impact players will be best in the long run.
The 2015 Mystics found themselves in the same unenviable spot the NBA’s Mavericks and Nets have found themselves in in recent years: at 18-16 they were good enough to make the playoffs, but they weren’t really a championship contender and don’t have a great draft slot to show for it. That #7 pick turned into Kahleah Copper, who was a solid contributor for Rutgers this year, scoring 18 points a game. The Mystics took a flier in the second round in Lia Galdeira, who averaged 24 points a game for her Bulgarian team, but it’s hard to tell how smooth the transition to the much more competitive WNBA will be. What Washington really needed was a proven big time scorer considering the team was third to last in scoring last year, but that really wasn’t possible picking seventh. To get that go-to player, the Mystics will either have to swing a big trade like the Sun or swallow their pride for one really bad year.
The Mercury were pretty good last year and could have been in position to play for a Finals berth were it not for a questionable foul call. With the returns of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, the Mercury should be overpowered this year, to the point of being prohibitive favorites for one of the now coveted top two seeds. As if that wasn’t enough to boost morale, I think they got a steal at #8 in USF’s Courtney Williams, the AAC’s leading scorer last year (keep in mind USF plays in the same conference as Uconn) and a fiercely competitive player in close games. The Mercury are so confident in their chances in 2016 that their second round pick, Jillian Alleyne, won’t play at all this year due to injury. The Mercury didn’t really need a big draft with Taurasi and Taylor returning, but I think Williams will make a great team even better.
Sadly for Fever fans, the window of opportunity to get all-time great Tamika Catchings another title will close after her retirement at the end of this season. It’s hard to get a gem at #9, but three time All-American Tiffany Mitchell helped the Fever out by having a bit of a down senior year, making her a nice find at the end of the first round. Mitchell is projected in a reserve role right now, so the Fever will probably have to make another Cinderella run this year to get back to the Finals. But with Catchings facing potentially her last game in early round single elimination playoff games, I still think Indiana is a team others would prefer not to play.
The Sky led the league last year in scoring behind MVP Elena Delle Donne, but their margin of victory was only four points a game due to an eleventh ranked defense. Thankfully for Chicago, many teams passed on 6′ 7” Imani Boyette due to her rough-around-the-edges offensive game. The Sky have plenty of scoring while Boyette develops that part of her game, while she can contribute on defense right away. For the Sky to be among the league’s elite, however, Boyette will eventually have to be an offensive power to as the Sky proved to be too one-dimensional in the playoffs last year and were quickly defeated by the more well-balanced Fever.
The Dream could have had many players with the fourth pick, but traded it to the Sun for the fourth pick in last year’s draft in Elizabeth Williams. It’s true that Williams didn’t score much in her injury-abbreviated rookie campaign, but the Dream greatly coveted her defensive skills (she was 2015 defender of the year at Duke) given the Dream was a nightmare defensively, ranking dead last in scoring defense. The Dream still managed to draft Rachel Hollivay, Rutgers’ all team leading shot blocker, and took a chance on Baylor’s point guard phenom Niya Johnson that everyone else shied away from. The Dream finished second in scoring, so they could be significantly improved if Williams and Hollivay pick up the slack defensively.
New York Liberty
The Liberty drafted last in the first round, but considering they had the best record in the league last year a high draft pick probably isn’t necessary. With the twelve pick New York took Florida State center Adut Bulgak, a multi-facted player adapt at scoring, shot blocking and rebounding. The Liberty certainly have the talent to be a top two seed, but they’ll have to maintain their composure in the playoffs after an epic meltdown ended their season in last year’s semifinals.
The defending champs-and winners of three of the last five titles-traded their only reasonably high pick for Perkins, a veteran who can contribute right away. The Lynx are so talented that their other two picks will have to battle to make the team at all. The Lynx didn’t really add anything in this year’s draft, as they think that they can challenge the Mercury for the title right now with their returning players and Perkins.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.