New York – Power teams and up-and-coming teams all got shots in the arm in Thursday’s WNBA Draft, which also featured some reunions and a few surprises along the way.
The San Antonio Stars and Dallas Wings each bolstered their rosters, as did both of last year’s Championship finalists, the LA Sparks and Minnesota Lynx. The newly-loaded Washington Mystics made significant gains, as well. A few teams also chose players that have been teammates in college, creating more familiarity to begin the 2017 season.
The Wings selected Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis, who just led South Carolina to a National Championship in the same city 11 days before, in the first round. Brionna Jones, whom the Connecticut Sun took at No. 8, will be reunited with former Terp Alyssa Thomas. The Atlanta Dream drafted Tennessee’s Jordan Reynolds in the second round, who will play again with Meighan Simmons.
“I’m looking forward to change my luck in Connecticut, (I’m) just excited to play with them, to play with Alyssa Thomas again,” Jones said. “I met Chiney [Ogwumike] when I was here. I’m really excited to play and run with her.”
As is the case each year, there were surprises in the draft, and three taken in the first round – Evelyn Akhator, Brittney Sykes and Tori Jankoska weren’t invited to attend. Northwestern forward Nia Coffey, picked fifth by San Antonio, said she never envisioned being drafted when she was young.
“It actually became my dream after my Freshman year in college,” Coffey said. “I started to see my ability and what I was capable of doing. I wanted to do that on a professional level. So, it kind of just happened this way. I couldn’t even dream of this moment because I didn’t even know what it would be like.”
One move that was a surprise to no one was Washington guard Kelsey Plum’s No. 1 selection. The San Antonio Stars wasted no time taking the NCAA Division I all-time scoring leader to add to a team that has a solid roster, a new general manager and a new coach to start a fresh era. Plum said she is looking forward to contributing.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “Coach Vickie [Johnson] has a great plan from what I hear. I’ve played with Moriah [Jefferson] before. She’s a phenomenal player. I’m a big fan of Kayla McBride. I’ve watched throughout her entire collegiate career and in the pros. I’m just grateful for the opportunity. I’m going to make the most of it.
Another Pac-12 great, guard Sydney Wiese, was chosen by the LA Sparks with their first-round eleventh pick. Wiese said she knows what’s ahead of her coming to the defending Champion team with a loaded roster.
“It’s competitive,” Wiese said. “This is the best women’s basketball league in the world, so there is no free lunch here. You’re going to have to earn a spot, and it’s a business now. It’s going to be super competitive, very talented players all across the board. I’m so excited to improve as an individual and see what I can bring to a new team in the LA Sparks.”
Here’s how the WNBA’s teams to watch fared in the Draft:
Chicago reloads with size
Going into the Draft, the Chicago Sky faced a problem that most professional sport organizations don’t solve the right away, which was replacing their marquee player. But they took two big steps to get there Thursday night with their two first-round picks.
Center Alaina Coates, which Chicago took with their second pick, and guard Tori Jankoska, whom they acquired ninth, might begin to fill the gap left in the departure of former league MVP Elena Delle Donne, who demanded and received a trade to the Washington Mystics in February.
The Coates pick came as a bit of a surprise because the Sky have a lot of size and several post players on the current roster, and the 6-4 South Carolina graduate had ankle surgery last week and is out for at least four weeks. Trade speculation immediately began, for good reason, as Chicago has an immediate need for perimeter scoring.
Jankoska, who broke a Michigan State record for three-pointers in both a season and a career, will likely be able to help fill the Sky’s scoring need. She is tough-minded and can easily take over a game.
As if a roster with Imanni Boyette, Jessica Breland, Alaina Coates, Stefanie Dolson, and Cheyenne Parker did not feature enough size; Chicago elected to add even more size in the draft’s second round. They selected Washington center Chantel Osahor at 21 – a high-game IQ player who became the Huskies’ all-time leader rebounder in her senior season.
With this load up of post players on draft night, look for the trade rumors to continue into training camp. Were these draft picks the answer to Delle Donne conundrum? Only time will tell.
- Darren Clora
Dallas has the personnel to take the next step
The Dallas Wings selected Evelyn Akhator, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis with their first round picks, respectively. No. 3 Akathor became the highest draft pick in Kentucky history, and for Gray and Davis, who led South Carolina to an NCAA title in Dallas 11 days ago, it is a homecoming to a place they hold in high regard.
Coach Fred Williams believes they can bring the same championship work ethic to the Wings.
“To get young players like that with some great dynamic skills around the perimeter is going to help us a great deal,’ Williams said. “It was very surprising they were there for us.”
Akhator averaged a double-double during her senior season. Gray and Davis get to embark on their WNBA journey together after both transferring to become Gamecocks and declaring on the same day last week that they would enter the Draft. Davis said she is excited to continue to play with Gray.
“We created some great memories in Dallas, hopefully we can bring some of that back,” she said.
The Wings made two more selections in Brenna Lewis from Kansas State at pick 11 of the second round and Saniya Chong from Connecticut with their second pick of the third round. Training camp opens April 23 and the the team will get to see which players will be a good fit to the core of Skylar Diggins, Glory Johnson and Aerial Powers. Diggins and Johnson missed time last season due to injury, but are healthy coming into this year. Powers is recovering from hip surgery and may not be 100 percent by opening day.
The Wings were 11-23 last year in the face of those injuries, and were sixth in the league i scoring. Over the winter they traded guard Odyssey Sims to the LA Sparks for the fourth pick. Gray said being chosen No. 4 is an unbelievable feeling, and she believes she can make an immediate impact.
“My ball handling is not where I want it to be,” Gray said. “I am an all-around player that can post up and rebound.”
With these selections the Wings hope to find themselves in the playoffs this season, and for the second time in franchise history since the team moved from Detroit. Williams said he expects training camp to be very competitive, and he is excited about the upcoming season.
“We are going to have a different style of defense,” Williams said. “ We now have the foot speed to rotate faster, and to cut down on transition baskets.”
Dallas now has the chance to take the franchise to the next step after coming so close the last few years. After an 11-win season, the Wings can only improve by adding a walking double-double and a pair of national champions who have already etched their names in women’s basketball history in Dallas.
- Arie Graham
Sparks fill all of their gaps
The defending champion Los Angeles Sparks didn’t have many needs heading into the 2017 WNBA Draft, but still found a way to get stronger with their selection of Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese with their 11th pick in the first round.
Nearly the entire 2016 Championship team is set to return except for sharp-shooter Kristi Toliver, who signed with the Mystics over the winter. In Wiese, who broke the Pac-12 three-point record this past season, LA might have its Toliver replacement. Despite joining a team already rich in scoring, she will no doubt benefit from the veteran leadership the Sparks’ possess, which includes both the regular season MVP, Nneka Ogwumike and Finals MVP, Candace Parker.
LA was also able to get bigger in the draft with their selection of Saicha Grant-Allen from Dayton. Grant-Allen averaged 10 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this past season, and will look to bolster the Sparks’ performance on the glass. Wiese and Grant-Allen join recently-acquired guard Odyssey Sims and guard Riquna Williams, who sat out last year with injury.
- Brian Love
Washington making more moves
The Mystics were a hot topic of discussion during the WNBA’s offseason, after adding the likes of Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver to their mix. Now, after Thursday’s WNBA Draft, they’ll also be joined by Maryland’s all-around threat Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Old Dominion’s high-scoring Jennie Simms, and Wisconsin Green-Bay forward Mehryn Kraker, who was named the espnW mid-major player of the year just last month.
Washington took Walker-Kimbrough with their sixth pick, Simms with their sixth choice in the second round, and Kraker at No. 3 in the third round.
The Mystics are coming off an exciting season, and although it was not capped by a playoff berth, it was full of promise for what the 2017 season could bring. With the new influx of players, finding niches will be key to finding success in a tough Eastern Conference. Walker-Kimbrough is excited to contribute.
“I just see myself going in and learning from the vets,” she said when asked how she thought she would fit in on a growing roster.
It is hard not to notice the way things seem to be shaping up in the nation’s capital. Ivory Latta will be going into her fifth year with the franchise, and is a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. A Tarheel stand out, Latta will now be working alongside a former ACC foe in Maryland alum Toliver, as well as Tianna Hawkins. Toliver was a key cog in the system for the WNBA Champion LA Sparks last season, averaging 13.2 points per game and routinely performing in the clutch. All three vets will likely be great sources of information for the draftees, while the opportunity for the new kids to come in and make an impact largely depends on how these vets fair during training camp.
Considering all the offensive proficiency the Mystics are adding this season, it will be interesting to see who carries the load. Tayler Hill and Emma Meeseman were the team’s top scorers last season, both averaging more than 15 points per game and starting every game. However, on any given night, crucial contributions were made by Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Latta, Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, who Washington traded to the Sky earlier this year. Add in former MVP Delle Donne’s 21.5 points per game and Washington is a nightmare for any team to scout.
Walker-Kimbrough was a serious weapon for Brenda Frese and the Terps this past year. She is fifth overall on the program’s scoring list, led the Big Ten in field goal percentage and helped Maryland advance to the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Simms was the star of the show in her time with the Monarchs, averaging 26 points per game and breaking a program record for most 40-point games. Kraker was a true leader for the Phoenix, helping the team earn even more respect for itself and for mid-majors across the country while achieving a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The talent that the Mystics have gathered with the three draft picks they had available could make a team poised to have a good year even better.
- Misha Jones
Minnesota adds arsenal to veteran core
The Minnesota Lynx fell just a few seconds short of not only winning their fourth title in 2016, but repeating as champions. While they finished the regular season 28-6, their veteran starters are now also another year older. The only question facing the Lynx this season is the same one they faced last year: how will they attempt to get younger as most of their core enters their second decade in the league?
Help has arrived in the form of the No. 12 overall pick, Baylor guard Alexis Jones. She averaged 13.2 points and 4.7 rebounds as a senior, all coming nearly three years after tearing her ACL playing for Duke during the 2013-2014 season. Jones will join a Minnesota team that returns all of their starters.
“It’ll probably be very hard to find playing time, but I’m going to fill my role,” Jones said. “Whatever they need me to do.”
With the next two selections the Lynx went international, taking Lisa Berkani from France at No. 24 and Tahlia Tupaea from Australia at No. 36. Berkani, a 5-9 guard, spent this past season playing for USO Mondeville in the Ligue Féminine de Basketball, while Tupaea spent the year playing for the Sydney Uni Flames in the Women’s National Basketball League.
- Brian Love