NEW YORK — It was sort of odd that with the WNBA draft taking place at Samsung 837 in Manhattan, just a little over a mile from Madison Square Garden, the Liberty were not a draft story.
New York didn’t have a first-round pick, and neither did Indiana, Phoenix or Seattle. Instead, three teams — San Antonio, Chicago and Dallas — had seven of the 12 picks and set the tone for the draft. There were rumors right up until the draft started that there would be a trade or two, but as of the evening’s end, none had happened.
The shadow of next year’s blockbuster draft loomed a little over this one; teams are wary of trading away a 2018 first-round pick because the field will be so good. That might have ultimately hindered trades, at least for now.
The WNBA season is a month away, and all those who were drafted in the league’s three rounds Thursday will start the difficult process of actually making a team. It won’t be easy, especially for anyone taken after the first round.
But there were some players chosen who should be able to help their teams, some immediately. Here are five things that stood out from Thursday’s draft.
1. Texas teams’ strategies, Part I
San Antonio and Dallas were the two worst teams in the league last year, and both were looking for immediate help from this draft. Did they get that?
In their first draft, Stars general manager Ruth Riley and new coach Vickie Johnson took Washington guard Kelsey Plum at No. 1 as expected, although they entertained trade offers. Then at No. 5, they picked Northwestern forward Nia Coffey.
The Stars had the league’s worst offense last year, so clearly they made it a priority to draft two players with proven track records as scorers. Plum — she of the NCAA-record 3,527 points at Washington — said she’s eager to play alongside fellow guards Moriah Jefferson, whom she was teammates with in USA Basketball, and Kayla McBride. UConn’s Jefferson and Notre Dame’s McBride are both former first-round choices by the Stars.
Coffey was a very consistent player for Northwestern, averaging 17.9 points and 9.2 rebounds for her career.
Can Plum and Coffey be the second coming of Becky Hammon and Sophia Young for the Stars? That’s asking a lot, to put it mildly. But it is a tempting comparison: a creative scoring guard and a wiry, athletic post who plays bigger than she is. If Plum and Coffey could even come close to that famed duo, the Stars knocked this draft out of the park.
2. Texas teams’ strategies, Part II
Dallas had three first-round picks, and the Wings went all-SEC. Since Chicago had taken South Carolina center Alaina Coates at No. 2, Dallas went with Kentucky forward Evelyn Akhator at No. 3.
Akhator wasn’t at the draft, but it wasn’t a surprise she was a first-rounder. She was on many teams’ lists. Former WNBA coach Lin Dunn, now an assistant at Kentucky, sees Akhator as a potential Rebekkah Brunson-like post. Akhator needs more time to develop, but she has a lot of talent to work with.
Then at Nos. 4 and No. 10, Dallas picked South Carolina teammates Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis. All of these choices made sense for the Wings and addressed their needs as best they could, based on the personnel available.
Gray and Davis head back to Dallas, where they helped the Gamecocks win the national championship on April 2. Davis had to laugh when asked about the improbability of it all: She and Gray started out at different colleges (Georgia Tech and North Carolina, respectively), but transferred to South Carolina in 2015. Now, they’ll be teammates again at the pro level.
“It gives us both something familiar in an unfamiliar situation,” Davis said. “I’m excited for Allisha and I, and also for South Carolina having three [picked] in the first round.
“We know Dallas is looking for scoring, and I hope to help in that role. It’s a great opportunity.”
Their college coach, Dawn Staley, was very busy Thursday talking about the three drafted Gamecocks; South Carolina also had a first-rounder last year in guard Tiffany Mitchell, who went to Indiana.
“We want to see our players realize their dreams,” Staley said. “These are three of the most solid citizens you want to meet. They went out as national champions, and we’re extremely happy for them.”
3. Big Ten boost
Four players from the Big Ten were drafted in the first round, which was a positive for a league that has taken its knocks lately about its level of play compared to the other power conferences.
The Mystics drafted Maryland guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough at No. 6, and Terps teammate Brionna Jones, a forward, was the No. 8 pick by Connecticut.
“We have tremendous pride, being here tonight for this,” said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, who has a trio of former players — Walker-Kimbrough, Kristi Toliver and Tianna Hawkins — in Washington. “They’re always an extension of our family.”
Coffey, mentioned above as the No. 5 pick, Walker-Kimbrough and Jones were all expected to be first-rounders. Michigan State guard Tori Jankoska, however, was a surprise as the No. 9 selection to Chicago. The Sky were expected to take a guard at that spot, but there were others still available then, such as Baylor’s Alexis Jones, South Carolina’s Davis, and Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese. Those three were in New York at the draft; Jankoska wasn’t, and she cried tears of joy at hearing her name called earlier than she expected.
Her offensive skills clearly won over the Sky; Jankoska made 320 3-pointers in her NCAA career. Chicago lost its scoring star Elena Delle Donne in a trade, so a player like Jankoska could help fill that void.
4. Second-round notables
Two post players who some thought had a chance to go in the first round instead went to Indiana in the second: Stanford’s Erica McCall (No. 17 pick overall) and Florida’s Ronni Williams (No. 22). Indiana sees both of them as having a lot of potential, and the Fever have a history of successfully developing players.
The Liberty’s first selection came at No. 14 overall, and they opted for Notre Dame point guard Lindsay Allen. It won’t be very easy to crack the Liberty’s roster, but Allen’s on-court savvy offensively and defensively could be really appealing for New York.
Washington forward Chantel Osahor, who went at No. 21 to Chicago, was the player who might have fallen the furthest from some projections. Osahor is one of those players who could surprise people, but she’ll have to make a team, which won’t be easy.
5. Doing the draft differently
So what is Samsung 837, the building where the draft was held? It’s described as a “technology playground and cultural destination.” The idea was to make the WNBA draft look like, essentially, a big party in a club-like atmosphere.
Did it work? There were some neat visuals because of the set-up of the structure. But there were things missing: Particularly not having the league president present the draftee with her new team’s jersey; Lisa Borders wasn’t even on the same floor of the building as the players when they were selected.
Also, there weren’t many actual WNBA fans present. There were a few, but most of the folks milling about were media, family members, and NBA personnel. And there wasn’t a lot of room for that, either, as everyone was in a fairly small area.
The league tried something different, but elements of it might not be that popular with fans.