By: Jeffrey Newholm
“In the blinking of an eye, Ah, that moment’s gone, And when it’s done, Win or lose, You always did your best”. These words are familiar to any college basketball fan. However, this lyric seems quite corny. No one who’s outgrown Barney will be comforted, after a big loss, by being told “you always did your best”. However the truth is there is much more for top players after the NCAA playoffs. While none of the 12 players picked in the first round of Thursday’s WNBA draft won the college title this year, the large smiles and hugs between coaches, players, and parents proved that college is a training ground for the real world, not an end in itself. Did the 10 teams picking in the first round pick wisely, or did they fall further behind in the race to beat the Minnesota Lynx?
1. A’ja Wilson, South Carolina: Las Vegas Aces
If you haven’t heard from the WNBA in a while, you’re probably wondering: who are the Aces? After years of bad play by the San Antonio Stars (and complete indifference by Spurs management), the team was cleverly sold and relocated to Las Vegas. After stealing New York’s esteemed coach Bill Laimbeer and some slick marketing, the Aces made the obvious choice in Wilson. Wilson is a steady post presence who brings a stoicism that may set the proper tone as the franchise starts in a new direction.
2. Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State: Indiana Fever
After making the playoffs 12 straight years the Fever was a complete mess last year after Tamika Catching’s retirement. Mitchell scored 3,402 points for the Buckeyes (second in NCAA history) and hit 497 threes (no one else hit more than 400). The previous three record holder, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, ended up as a bit bench player for Seattle. Indiana will need a lot more than that out of Mitchell if they’re to return to the finals. Mitchell, who won the Dawn Staley award for best guard this year, meant a lot more to OSU than Lewis did for UConn and promises to be at least a reliable starter.
3. Diamond DeShields, Turkey: Chicago Sky
DeShields is the most interesting young woman picked in this draft. After transferring from North Carolina to Tennessee, DeShields was the Vols’ best player. Upon graduating, she boldly renounced her collegiate availability to play professionally in Turkey (and flew right back to Asia for a playoff game after the draft). While fans were in the dark about her endeavors overseas, Sky coach Amber Stocks certainly wasn’t. She established a strong rapport with DeShields and adds a colorful character who adds even more pizazz to an already electric team. The Sky continue to build their identity as they transition downtown and away from the Elena Delle Donne era.
4. Gabby Williams, UConn: Chicago Sky
Williams matured tremendously during her four college years to become UConn’s most reliable player and best defender. But analysts couldn’t agree where she would be picked. In my opinion the Sky were in a great position to take a player with a high ceiling, but who may need to develop more as a rookie. With star Stefanie Dolson signed to a multiyear contract, the pressure is finally off the Sky to prevent big names from demanding trades. Making the playoffs won’t be a breeze in the windy city, but the franchise is clearly competently managed and is moving up.
5. Jordin Canada, UCLA: Seattle Storm
Canada is at present a solid point guard, but not anything extraordinary. She has some time to be mentored by the game’s best point guard, Sue Bird, as Bird concludes her career. The Storm beat the horn in firing the head coach before last year was over, but the result was the same: a quick playoff out. The team has lots of young talent, but may need a skilled veteran to lead the team after Bird’s out. With free agency practically not a thing in the WNBA, Canada, Breanna Stewart, and Jewel Lloyd may have to learn quickly while Bird still plays.
6. Azura Stevens, UConn: Dallas Wings
This is a great pick by a team that’s just starting to contend and isn’t pressured to win immediately. Stevens was an All-American at Duke before being poached to play one season at UConn. She has an incredible wingspan and ability to finish in the restricted arc. However, her play could be much more refined and she has no outside shot to speak of. She has the potential to become one of the best post players in the league if she adjusts well. Unfortunately, there is a possibility of her becoming a bust if she can’t match up against defenses that will be much, much better than those in the American Conference.
7. Ariel Atkins, Texas: Washington Mystics
The Mystics are led by Delle Donne with the rest of the team consisting by complementary players. By Atkins’ own admission it seemed a bit of a reach for Washington to pick her at seven. Coach Mike Thibault calls Atkins potentially the fastest player in the draft and will challenge her to improve the Mystics’ poor three point shooting. Without Delle Donne Atkins would be another good player in a Potpourri of them. With her, she’s another solid supporting member of a band with a lead singer everyone else envies.
8. Victoria Vivians, Mississippi State: Indiana Fever
In addition to Mitchell the Fever get another big scorer in the first round. Vivians won the Ann Myers Drysdale award as the nation’s best shooting guard and was the best player for the nation’s second strongest program the last two years. Despite the influx of talent, the Fever’s roster seems to be mishmash of young names. Vivians will have to shoulder a large amount of work if the Fever are to return to levels of past glory.
9. Lexie Brown, Maryland: Connecticut Sun
The Sun did really well to not automatically pick the UConn player, something they got burned on by picking Morgan Tuck third in 2016. Connecticut rocketed up the league standings with no notice last year and were fortunate to land Brown. Brown’s an All-American steal at nine who will be a great contributor for one of the league’s most intriguing teams this year.
10. Kia Nurse, UConn: New York Liberty
The Liberty have dominated the league the last three seasons, only to keep tripping in the playoffs. Nurse is a safe pick for a team that’s already very talented. She is a sure contributor, great three point shooter, and astute defender. However, I think she’s close to peaking and doesn’t have the upside of the players picked ahead. The Liberty were going to be contenders regardless of what they did in the draft, and no one can fault them with this pick.
11. Maria Alekseyevna Vadeeva, Russia: Los Angeles Sparks
The loaded Sparks made the smartest pick in the draft in taking a flyer on 20 year old Vadeeva (US players aren’t eligible until 22). Vadeeva played for the same team as Sparks MVP Nneka Ogwumike and comes from a country that’s surprisingly a hotbed of women’s basketball talent. The two time defending finalist Sparks have nothing to lose if things don’t work out with Vadeeva and could be set for years if she does become a star.
12. Marie Gulich, Oregon State: Phoenix Mercury
The Mercury already have the game’s best post defender in Brittney Griner and add another defensive specialist in Gulich. Gulich was a late bloomer, only reaching stardom in her senior year. She couldn’t have landed in a city with better veteran leadership than in Phoenix, who also have legend Diana Tarausi. Tarausi and Griner have been so good the last two years the Mercury have hardly needed other contributors. Therefore they can afford to take a risk with Gulich as experienced coach Sandy Brondello continues to juggle pieces to make a whole that’s good enough to return to the finals.
Aces coach Laimbeer was very candid recently in calling this just an OK draft. I agree in terms of amount of talent. However, I think the futures of players such as Wilson, DeShields, and Williams are unusually intriguing. The Liberty and Mercury also are unusually skilled and promise to carry a talented young player deep into the summer. And for anyone who watches basketball at the pro level, men’s or women’s, there’s no such thing as a usual game. Every game is an opportunity to see great basketball, and the WNBA just got that much greater.