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WNBA teams reload on draft night according to plan

WNBA draftees stand together before the evening begins. Photo courtesy of WNBA.
WNBA draftees stand together before the evening begins. Photo courtesy of WNBA.
WNBA draftees stand together before the evening begins. Photo courtesy of WNBA.

New York – In drafting one of the most talent-laden classes in WNBA history, teams mostly stuck to the script Thursday, with few surprises.

With the first pick, the Las Vegas Aces chose South Carolina star forward A’ja Wilson, who is expected to help lay the foundation for the recently-relocated franchise. Wilson, who helped the Gamecocks win a national championship in 2017 and won every major player award this season, said it was an honor to be No. 1.

It’s such a great feeling,” she said. “It means a lot to me to just kind of cap off my collegiate career with this. This is a great class. Just to be at the top, [it] really makes my heart warm.”

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: A’ja Wilson poses for a portrait after being selected number one overall by the Las Vegas Aces during the WNBA Draft on April 12, 2018 in New York, New York at the Nike New York Headquarters. (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)

Wilson said she is anticipating that coach Bill Laimbeer will set the bar high for her.

“I haven’t really had the chance to really talk to him,” she said. “I’m pretty sure his expectations are kind of the same as (South Carolina coach Dawn) Staley’s. You have to come in and be effective as soon as possible. That’s something I have to be ready for.”

The Indiana Fever had two first-round picks for the first time in franchise history, and they took Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell at No. 2 and Mississippi State guard Victoria Vivians at eight. Mitchell finished her career as the second-leading scorer in Division I history. And with their 14th pick in the second round, the Fever selected Buckeye post Stephanie Mavunga, thus ending what the team characterized as a “draft drought.”

Head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman was thrilled at Indiana’s acquisitions.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: Kelsey Mitchell poses for a portrait during the WNBA Draft on April 12, 2018 in New York, New York at the Nike New York Headquarters. (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)

“We feel really, really good about our three players,” Chatman said. “I’ve always felt that you need good guards to win, and we got two really good ones. Obviously, they both can score, but there’s so much more to them than just scoring. Kelsey’s real dynamic. She shoots 40 percent from three-point range, but you have to remember how many of those shots she has had to create for herself.”

“And Victoria, she’s got such great length and does so many things. She’s a great defender and she’s a big-time player who has seen some really big moments. We really like Mavunga, too. You’ve got to have those bigs. She can rebound and she can play hungry and physical in the post. We knew we had the chance to land three really good players.”

Also improving their depth was the Chicago Sky, which took former Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields and Connecticut forward Gabby Williams with their third and fourth picks, respectively. DeShields played the last year in Turkey, and Williams led the Huskies to the Final Four. DeShields said she and coach Amber Stocks already have formed a relationship.

“Amber actually came out to Turkey to come see me. Obivously, that meant a lot, her being the only coach to take out the time and put the extra effort to come all the way out there,” DeShields said. “Amber is actually my trainer’s sister-in-law. I didn’t know her prior to this year. So, that connection kind of just happened on its own.”

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: Gabby Williams and Diamond DeShields pose for a portrait during the WNBA Draft on April 12, 2018 in New York, New York at the Nike New York Headquarters. (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)

DeShields said playing professionally this season has helped her get a jump start on her WNBA career.

I think I’ve been able to polish my game way more than I ever could have on the collegiate level,” she said. “So, moving into this WNBA season this summer, I think I’ll come in way more prepared than I ever could have had I not done it this way.”

In selecting UCLA’s dynamic point guard Jordin Canada, the Seattle Storm appeared to be strategizing for an heir apparent to veteran Sue Bird, who enters her 18th season with the franchise this year. Canada said she has always looked up to Bird.

“I love Sue Bird. She’s one of my role models. I enjoy watching her play,” Canada said. “(She) leads her team and is able to create for others. That’s something I really want to learn from her and just continue to grow my game through her. Just the fact that I get to play with her, it’s just a blessing.”

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: Jordin poses for a portrait during the WNBA Draft on April 12, 2018 in New York, New York at the Nike New York Headquarters. (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)

Other Connecticut players chosen in the first round were Azura Stevens, who went to the Dallas Wings with the sixth pick, and Kia Nurse, whom the New York Liberty took at the tenth spot. Nurse said New York is a good fit for her skills.

“The conversations that I’ve had with them, watching them over the last couple summers, I think it’s a place I fit in very well, and I’m very excited to get started,” Nurse said.

The Connecticut Sun used their first draft pick to scoop up Duke record-breaking guard Lexie Brown. Coach Curt Miller said she will help them pick up where they left off last year, creating long winning streaks and pounding into the playoffs.

“We’re excited with her versatility at the one and the two, her ability to really stretch the floor at the one and two,” Miller said. “I think you win with small guard play in this league. We targeted guard depth with this pick and it was a really, really tough and difficult decision down the stretch.”

UCLA forward Monique Billings was selected 15th by the Atlanta Dream, which first-year coach Nicki Collen said was a steal.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: Monique Billings poses for a portrait after being selected by the Atlanta Dream during the WNBA Draft on April 12, 2018 in New York, New York at the Nike New York Headquarters. (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)

“We feel so fortunate that Monique was still on the board at 15,” Collen said. “Monique is an elite athlete with a high motor.  Her ability to run the floor and rebound the basketball will fit in well with our current roster. She is an incredible competitor when she steps on the basketball court and we are so excited to welcome her to the Atlanta Dream.”

WNBA training camps open April 29, with the season tipping off May 18.

WNBA draft

Round 1

A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

Kelsey Mitchell, Indiana Fever

Diamond DeShields, Chicago Sky

Gabby Williams, Chicago Sky

Jordin Canada, Seattle Storm

Azura Stevens, Dallas Wings

Ariel Atkins, Washington Mystics

Victoria Vivians, Indiana Fever

Lexie Brown, Connecticut Sun

Kia Nurse, New York Liberty

Maria Alekseyevna, LA Sparks

Marie Gulich, Phoenix Mercury

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: Vitoria Vivians poses for a portrait during the WNBA Draft on April 12, 2018 in New York, New York at the Nike New York Headquarters. (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)

Round 2

Jaime Nared, Las Vegas Aces

Stephanie Mavunga, Indiana Fever

Monique Billings, Atlanta Dream

Kristy Wallace, Atlanta Dream

Ji-Su Park, Minnesota Lynx

Loryn Goodwin, Dallas Wings

Myisha Hines-Allen, Washington Mystics

Tyler Scaife, Phoenix Mercury

Raisa Musina, Phoenix Mercury

Mercedes Russell, New York Liberty

Shakayla Thomas, LA Sparks

Kahlia Lawrence, Minnesota Lynx

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: Azura’ Stevens poses for a portrait during the WNBA Draft on April 12, 2018 in New York, New York at the Nike New York Headquarters. (Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images)

Round 3

Raigyne Louis, Las Vegas Aces

Imani Wright, Phoenix Mercury

Mackenzie Engram, Atlanta Dream

Amarah Coleman, Chicago Sky

Teana Muldrow, Seattle Storm

Natalie Butler, Dallas Wings

Rebecca Greenwell, Washington Mystics

Jill Barta, Las Vegas Aces

Mikayla Cowling, Connecticut Sun

Leslie Robinson, New York Liberty

Julie Reisingerova, Los Angeles Sparks

Carlie Wagner, Minnesota Lynx

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