What did they say? Liberty, Wings, Dream, Fever react to draft lottery results

(Photo Credit: WNBA.com)

With a 44.2% chance at landing the first overall pick, the New York Liberty were sitting in the pole position in the days leading up to the WNBA’s draft lottery.

Lo and behold when the results were announced during halftime of ESPN’s telecast of DePaul vs. Louisville.

New York is officially on the clock once again … followed by the Dallas Wings, Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever. The order in terms of lottery picks almost mirror’s the 2020 draft except the Fever were third and the Dream were fourth.

Everyone remembers the Lib selecting Sabrina Ionescu out of Oregon with the first overall pick of the virtual 2020 draft. That selection was followed by the Wings picking Ionescu’s Ducks teammate Satou Sabally second. The Fever drafted Lauren Cox third and the Dream chose Chennedy “Hollywood” Carter fourth.

This year’s draft, on paper, does not appear to be as star-studded as the 2020 rendition was, but there are still going to be plenty of WNBA-ready talent on the board and teams debating whether or not to draft the best available, go for need or make trades.

Indiana Fever

Ever since the retirement of Tamika Catchings, the rebuilding Fever has been a team that has almost entire lived in the lottery The number of young talents Indiana has drafted in recent seasons to compliment veterans such as Candice Dupree, Natalie Achonwa and Erica Wheeler has been staggering. Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Victoria Vivians, Teaira McCowan and Cox have been among Indiana’s selections in recent drafts.

Of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is lingering over the lead up to the draft – including how coaches and scouts’ ability to analyze players has been altered by said players. Fever coach Marianne Stanley believes that analytics may play a greater role with prospect scouting having been altered by the virus.

I think we’re trending in the direction of analytics, obviously. But, nothing replaces good old eyeballs on players. And so, there’s value in both certainly. We may rely a little bit more heavily on analytics going into this one in particular especially if the pool broadens significantly, which, again, I’m not sure that it’s going to, but I think we will see more activity, let’s put it that way.

–Marianne Stanley, Indiana Fever coach

Stanley also was asked a question on if the WNBA was considering another situation similar to the Florida wubble at IMG Academy. She remarked that even though it was a success with “very few positive tests,” that the plan for 2021 is for teams to play in their primary facilities.

Dallas Wings

Even though one can criticize the Wings front office for its questionable personnel decisions over the past few seasons (Skylar Diggins-Smith, Liz Cambage and Fred Williams come to mind), one cannot deny in the last few years that the Wings have hit on their draft picks. Dallas drafted Arike Ogunbowale in the 2019 draft and in the wubble, put herself firmly in the MVP conversation.

In addition, the Wings hit paydirt in last year’s draft with selecting Satou Sabally, Ty Harris and Bella Alarie – all in the first round.

Wings general manager Greg Bibb spoke to the media shortly after the results were announced. He believes that there is better overall structure within the franchise than there was before adding Ogunbowale and Sabally.

I think we’re more defined. I think we’re more established in terms of what we are and where we are. So I think our needs (are) probably a little bit more specific than they perhaps were last year. Obviously we got lucky last year that we were able to move up a spot which afforded us the opportunity to draft Satou Sabally which was a huge opportunity for our organization.

–Greg Bibb, Dallas Wings general manager

Bibb hinted that a weakness of the Wings last year was interior defense and that Dallas has improved in terms of being a team that can score points in large part because of Sabally and Ogwumike.

The Wings will pick second, fifth and seventh in the 2021 draft. With so many draft picks, it cinches that Dallas will once again be one of the younger teams in the WNBA again – or does it? Bibb did hint that the Wings will look at adding veterans to the team, something Dallas whiffed on when trying to convince Cambage and Diggins-Smith to remain.

Unfortunately, they don’t give an award for being the youngest team because we’ve either been the youngest or one of the youngest, I think, for the last four or five years. And obviously I think it’s proven that to really win in a meaningful way in the WNBA, the best league in the world, you have to have some veteran leadership and some experience to win those close games and we’ve been void of that and certainly that will be something we’ll be looking to address … this offseason.

–Greg Bibb, Dallas Wings general manager

Bibb also believes that being in the enclosed environment that was the wubble may have helped the growth process for his young team. He did not have any comment on the Wings’ coaching search even though a source told The Athletic that Las Vegas Aces assistant Vickie Johnson will assume the role of Wings head coach.

Atlanta Dream

If not for Ionescu, Carter may have been the most ballyhooed prospect to surface prior to the 2020 draft. The drafting of Carter in many ways capped off what was an unusually busy offseason for Atlanta that spanned from the Dream’s front office to the halls of Congress.

One of the elements that made up the Dream’s busier-than-usual offseason prior to the wubble was general manager Chris Sienko and coach Nicki Collen reloading the team after Angel McCoughtry went west to Vegas. Among the Dream’s addition before last season were Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen (formerly of Connecticut where Sienko and Collen know lots about), Glory Johnson (formerly of Dallas) and Kalani Brown (formerly of Los Angeles Sparks). Another one of the Dream’s surprises was Betnijah Laney who was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player of 2020.

Collen admitted that there was disappointment that the Dream ended up at three instead of at least No. 1 or No. 2, but also found the silver lining for Atlanta’s prospects of having a successful draft.

Certainly we wanted to get the number one pick. I think It’s like that feeling of Christmas morning. In some ways…it’s another competition. And even though it’s something that is balls and we have nothing to do with, it still feels like we lost by not at least getting (number) two because that was where the odds were for us.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

But on the flip side of that, I talked to Chris (Sienko), our GM this morning about it and said it’s just really hard this year to know with the uncertainty of the NCAA, the uncertainty of COVID in general, yes there are juniors that are eligible, will they come out? How does COVID affect them? And on top of that, not having a A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, one of those type players that you really feel like you’ve lost if you don’t get the number one pick because you know those are franchise, championship type players.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

Collen, similar to Bibb earlier, hinted that what the Dream do in the draft could hinge upon if Atlanta lands who it wants to land in free agency. If this year’s free agency period is as wild and wooly and last year’s was, the Dream may just do so.

If free agency goes the way we want it to go, then we fill in with the draft that way …

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

If free agency goes the way the Dream want it to go, Atlanta will find itself with someone that can provide post depth, says Collen.

Collen was then asked an intriguing question about how the pandemic will affect her ability to scout players. She says it may not be as different as typical but that there are certain elements to seeing a prospect in person that possibly will be, at least, changed if not taken away completely. One particular aspect of the process of evaluating players she later said she would like to have done, somehow, is scouting international players.

There is a component to watching a player in person and seeing their mannerisms, sometimes even seeing how they warm up. I’ll always make it a point to get to a gym early to see what kind of workout they go through or are they someone that just kind of sits and watches and there’s no wrong thing. You just want to be able to evaluate each part of their game. And I think as much as anything, we really want to see them on the practice court because practice habits often times will carry over and show you how committed a player is to getting better.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

Collen believes that Tiffany Hayes will return and that Elizabeth Williams wants to return as well, but that her decision will likely be set by what happens with the pandemic.

On the issue of the draft, Collen understands that this too is not shaping up to be as star-driven as draft as previous ones where there was franchise talents waiting to be picked. She described the 2021 draft as likely being about “best available” and that it is not always an easy balance between drafting for need vs. that best available.

I think this is a good draft, I think it’s potentially a deep draft, but I don’t know right now. We don’t have that hierarchy of players in terms of who fits where right now, and certainly certain teams may at this point based on need or maybe they just love one player or another or anticipate a player’s going to come out that fits a need. And so, I think for us, we have to look at free agency as our first priority.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

Collen also made mention of picks that were taken in the top five, such as Carter, that became stars overnight as opposed to those such as Morgan Tuck or Rachel Banham that provided depth and became role players.

An interesting question came up near the tail end of Collen’s media availability – the Dream’s stances on social stances. Of course, Loeffler is one of the team’s owners and has been critical – even dismissive – of the Black Lives Matter movement while her opponent for the Georgia senate seat, Raphael Warnock, has been endorsed by many WNBA players – including those of the Dream.

Even with the runoff going on, Georgia’s become the spotlight of the nation in terms of who controls the Senate…I think our players are still staying engaged. We’re still supporting initiatives that they have. But I think we’ve always had to toe the line to the best of our ability understanding that we had an owner that was running for Senate and continues to do so.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

I think when it comes to the broader picture of Black Lives Matter … I think we’re still supporting the initiatives that are out there. But as much as anything, we have so many of those players overseas right now. So, they’re trying to figure out how to balance those things as well.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

Even with the continued speculation about which draft picks will go where, one overarching theme that could be hanging over the entire draft is if there will be a conventional training camp. Because of the pandemic, there was no conventional training camp and that could have an impact on how players are evaluated.

I think we have, in some ways at least, the luxury of understanding kind of what that looked like this past year and as much as we didn’t have a traditional training camp, we still at least had a couple weeks of practice with some scrimmages. And, unfortunately we only had nine players which made it a little more difficult but got my assistant coach in shape a little bit in June.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream coach

I don’t know that we approach it any differently other than who fills the gaps that we have…You’re always going to care about your culture, you’re always going to want the right pieces, the right personalities, but also the right skillsets. And so I still think it comes down to all those pieces together … A year ago, we really did our homework on Chennedy and there are going to be ups and downs probably with every player, but I don’t think we were surprised because of the work that we did going into it.

–Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream

Collen did believe that the effect of not having a training camp was a boost for offenses with more points being put on the board this past season.

New York Liberty

We sometimes forget that the Liberty’s draft – and the WNBA draft in particular – did not begin and end with Ionescu going to Gotham.

Half of New York’s roster last season were rookies – including Megan Walker, Jocelyn Willoughby, Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook, Joyner Holmes and Leaonna Odom.

And while the Liberty did have a veteran anchor in Layshia Clarendon, others such as Marine Johannes, Han Xu, Rebecca Allen and second-year out of Louisville Asia Durr did not play for various reasons.

The combination of the Olympics and the pandemic may affect the prevalence of international players on team rosters and where international players get drafted. New York has a number of international players currently within its ranks – including Johannes, Allen, Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B.

We’ve got the European championships, which I believe are in June and then we have the Olympics and that’s part of the difficulty when you have really good foreign players on your team. Every four years, you’ve got to deal with this … We have good relationships with different federations and different teams that are in there and so it’s going to be trying to align our schedule in such a way that those players aren’t gone for too long.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

Plenty of onlookers are already creating mock drafts that see the Liberty selecting Charli Collier with the first overall pick. Collier may not have had the hype around her that Ionescu did, but a thirst to compete and to win will be high on the Liberty’s radar. After all – New York left the wubble with only two wins.

We draft for fit when it comes to character. That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for like-minded individuals that are going to come in and have an insatiable taste for winning and they have a certain level of competitiveness that matches their teammates and they push each other every day and that’s what we’re looking for. And then when you bring the basketball talent into it when you’re talking about a position, I think, probably geared more towards the posts, but as you know, we play a 5-out system.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

It was the worst-kept secret in WNBA circles that the nanosecond the Liberty won the 2020 lottery that Ionescu may wanted to get used to her (new) New York digs. This year, there is no clear-cut number one. It feels more like the 2019 draft when the Aces took Jackie Young with the first overall pick after Ionescu opted out.

Kolb says that this element of the process is exciting because it creates intrigue as to which players’ draft stock will rise and fall as the season progresses.

To say the least, being a Lib Loyal these past few seasons has not been easy. From the on-court struggles to the tumultuous MSG sale to being shoved into Westchester for two seasons to letting go of New York’s very own Tina Charles – the team’s all-time leading scorer. Lib Loyals these past few years have had their “WTF” moments, which for Kolb makes occasions like this where the Liberty are winners makes it even more gratifying.

The fans that have been ride-or-die with this team since ’97 deserve this. They deserved it last year and I think if you really look at the trajectory of this franchise, where it’s going from an ownership standpoint, front office standpoint, coaching standpoint, now a player acquisition standpoint, this is exciting. It’s an exciting time to be a fan. So, I’m mostly excited for them. It’s about time some good stuff happened.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

Kolb clearly has seen how championship contenders such as the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces built their teams into what they are today by drafting superstars with its draft picks. On the subject of character, Kolb believes Liberty players have displayed this through always playing for and being there for one another despite only winning two games in Florida last season.

When you’re in the trenches and it gets tough, you want to be next to somebody that’s going to back you up and we have those type of players. And that speaks to their character.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

The Libs GM also dropped a strong hint New York will go all in on pursuing free agents. While the Liberty have Clarendon, much of its roster is still young and as history has shown, it is teams with veterans that win in the WNBA.

We’re going to be really aggressive, and we’ll see how it shakes out. But I don’t think tonight is the only that we’ll be in the news, hopefully, over the next couple of months.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

Kolb described what the Liberty hopes to do as a “hybrid rebuild” where the team could selectively pursue free agents while also securing top draft picks (ala Kia Nurse who fell in New York’s lap with the 10th pick of the 2018 draft). On the subject of how players would be evaluated because of the limitations placed on scouting by the coronavirus, he believes there is little replacement for actually seeing how a player is with the naked eye.

Seeing players play in person is just different than film. Film can tell you a lot of things, it can almost get you, in my opinion, to the finish line in an evaluation. But seeing a player in person is just different. It takes you over that finish line.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

A challenge Kolb – and the other people heading the draft processes for the particular teams – understand is with eligibility being affected by the coronavirus, it will have an impact on if a particular player can or cannot stay on a team’s board or not. With all of the uncertainty, Kolb says the Liberty will widen its pool of players to be on its Atlantic and Flatbush radar.

We’ll widen the pool. We’ll scout more. We’ll watch more hours of film. We’ll have more phone conversations and Zoom calls with these players. But that’s how we’ll get ready for it and we’re excited to get going.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

Kolb says he and coach Walt Hopkins keep in close contact with their players overseas on a regular basis. The Liberty, Kolb says, are likely to get a boost from the Brooklyn Nets’ side of things given how players such as Kyrie Irving are huge WNBA fans and given how Ionescu and other New York players have built relationships and connections to those on the NBA side.

In workouts alone, Sabrina will go up to a player and just say, ‘Hey, what about this? What if you tried it this way.’ And I have no doubt that some of that knowledge has been imparted from other people.

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

“Sabrina’s in no way shy about sharing knowledge for the greater good which is to get us all to be better. So, I only think it helps.”

–Jonathan Kolb, New York Liberty general manager

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