With the first pick: 2021 WNBA draft musings and takes

Photo Credit: Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images

Thursday is the big day, WNBA family, as 36 names from the collegiate and/or international ranks will hear their names called by one of the 12 W teams and they will take that next step in their professional careers.

The draft, as was last season’s, will be conducted in a virtual format and ESPN will air the full two hours on ESPN. No moving of the later rounds to one of the other ESPN channels – all two hours on the mothership.

A pre-draft conference call was held for members of the media with ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson as well as with Dallas Wings president and CEO Greg Bibb, Indiana Fever coach Marianne Stanley, Chicago Sky coach and general manager James Wade and Minnesota Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve.

The consensus, as Lobo remarked once during the call, appears to be that this year’s draft is not as strong and star-studded as last year’s that included Sabrina Ionescu (New York Liberty), Satou Sabally (Wings), Chennedy Carter (Atlanta Dream), Ty Harris (Wings) and Crystal Dangerfield (Minnesota Lynx) – last year’s Rookie of the Year. Still, there are a number of noteworthy names in this draft and many of said names had their profiles raised by their performances in the NCAA tournament.

The draft is one of the most exciting events on the annual WNBA calendar and this year’s rendition is sure to be no different. Here are five things to think about as we get geared up for the draft on Thursday.

All those Dallas Wings picks (again)

Last year, the first round of the draft served as a co-invitational of the Wings and Liberty. This year, Dallas via some creative wheeling and dealing done by Greg Bibb over last few years, the Wings stand atop the draft with four of the first 12 picks.

And this is a Wings team that has made a habit of striking gold with its picks. Say what one wants about Bibb’s running of the team, Dallas drafts well as evidenced by landing Arike Ogunbowale, landing Satou Sabally and landing Ty Harris. Lines.com’s latest mack has Charli Collier (Texas), Aari McDonald (Arizona) and Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas) being drafted by the Wings. Awak Kuier of Finland is also projected to go second.

Lou York Liberty?

A favorite place for Cardinals to fly in recent years has been New York City. In recent years, there has been an almost guaranteed pipeline from Louisville to Brooklyn as the Liberty have been enamored with Cards head coach Jeff Walz’s players in recent seasons.

Asia Durr was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft and, unfortunately, her career has been heartbreakingly put on hold as she battles COVID-19 complications. Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook were selected by New York in last year’s draft and had showed out in the bubble last year. Dana Evans is the notable Cardinal in this year’s draft. Will the Lib continue that Derby City to Gotham City pipeline this year? Or will Jonathan Kolb go with Natasha Mack out of Oklahoma State (as Lines’ latest mock has it?)

Evans is forecasted to go eighth to the Sky via Lines.

Mindset of GMs?

One has to wonder if the Liberty and Storm general managers (Kolb and Alisha Valavanis) are regretting trading the No. 1 overall pick that eventually wound up in the Wings’ lap.

Even though the consensus among experts and general managers is that this year’s draft is not as strong as last year’s, is it that weak where New York’s and Seattle’s general managers were willing to play hot potato with the top pick in the draft?

Some of it may have had to do with the uncertainty regarding players and how they would go about eligibility procedures, but the number one pick is the number one pick. And certain players, most notably McDonald via getting Arizona to within a few points of a national championship, raised their stock in the tournament.

But this could also be something that may be looked at more from a fan’s perspective. Top prospects gained more exposure recently through the tournament, but the Bibb’s, Kolb’s and Valavanis’ of the world have been scouting these players long before the tournament. With so much scouting having already been done, our guess is every general manager has an idea of who they want to select when they are on the clock.

Mindset of Later Round Picks?

Everyone knows how hard it is to make a WNBA roster. There are only 144 roster spots available and it is a key reason why around March Madness and the draft, conversation among fans shifts to why the W should expand so more talents can actually get onto roster.

Lots of those roster spots were made available for those young players last year because a number of veterans did not travel to the bubble. This season goes back to the more traditional format WNBA fans are used to.

Given how those veterans that were not in the bubble last year will be back on rosters this season plus the overall perception of this year’s draft class being weaker than last year’s, one has to wonder the mindset of anyone drafted in the second or third rounds. Stanford’s Kiana Williams, Baylor’s DiJonai Carrington, Auburn’s Unique Thompson, Texas A&M’s N’dea Jones, Aaliyah Williams and Ciera Johnson, Central Michigan’s Micaela Kelly, Arkansas’ Destiny Slocum and Syracuse’s Tiana Mangakahia are among the second and third round selections per Lines’ latest mock draft.

This had to create an added dilemma for would-be draftees on if to enter the draft or not. Either (if they could) exercise another year of eligibility when they could increase their draft stock or enter the draft with a better chance of getting on a roster because of the perceived “weakness” of this year’s draft class.

It may light an even hotter fire under later-round draftees to prove that they belong on a WNBA roster – and some may even get on those rosters depending on which teams they go to.

One-and-done?

A common theme of this past college basketball season was the meteoric rise of UConn’s Paige Bueckers to sports stardom. Only one problem – Bueckers, being a freshman, is ineligible to enter the draft even though plenty of hoops luminaries believe she would be the No. 1 overall pick if she could enter.

The story of the first two rounds of the tournament was Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and the astronomical numbers she put to lead the Hawkeyes to the Sweet 16. She too is a freshman and ineligible, but Clark – who was already a much ballyhooed-name within women’s basketball circles, gained mainstream attention with how she performed during March Madness.

The NCAA tournament and previous season led to much conversation as to if the WNBA should change its eligibility to rules to make freshmen such as Bueckers and Clark draft-eligible. Rebecca Lobo was part of that pre-draft conference call and gave her perspective of one who covers both the college and pro games. She said she would like to see star college players remain in the collegiate ranks to get a bird’s eye view of their development in the NCAA ranks.

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