WNBA Draft gets interesting following top three picks
Mike Thibault sees opportunity where others see misery. The new coach and general manager of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, a franchise with 11 wins over the past two seasons, is confident that the No. 4 pick in this year's WNBA Draft will produce a quality player.
What it is unlikely to produce is a shot at one of the following players: Brittney Griner, the game-changing 6-foot-8 center from Baylor; Elena Delle Donne, the 6-foot-5 forward from Delaware whom many consider a cross between Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi, or Skylar Diggins, the heady and popular Notre Dame point guard who will be a box-office draw for the team that drafts her. That trio of college All-Americas are near-locks for the first three picks for the April 15 WNBA Draft.
The star quality at the top is such that ESPN will air the WNBA Draft this year for the first time in prime time. The first round will begin at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2, followed by the second and third rounds on ESPNU from 9-10:30. The entire draft -- three rounds of 12 picks each -- can also be seen on WatchESPN.
"Everybody kind of thought, 'OK, there are three players, and if you don't get one of those three players, it is a disaster," Thibault said. "But it's not a disaster. Everyone talks about Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins, but I think the draft is deep enough through seven or eight picks."
History is on Thibault's side. Since 1998 the No. 4 pick has produced five WNBA All-Stars (Asjha Jones, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Ephiphanny Prince, Sophia Young and Lindsay Whalen). Thibault himself drafted Whalen in 2004 while he was coach of the Connecticut Sun.
"I am embracing the idea that we will get a good player," Thibault said.
Griner gives the league a unique athletic player with incomparable size, and she'll team with Taurasi in Phoenix to form an entertaining 1-2 punch.
"She'll be a game-changer because defensively she is just an incredible presence," Thibault said. "Guards coming in the lane have to change their shots. I am glad we're going to NBA defensive rule so she just can stand there. Offensively, she has gotten better every year. A good offensive player but maybe not at her potential when she comes in."
Delle Donne can play inside or outside and can put the ball on the deck. Her skill set is beloved by scouts and coaches.
"Delle Donne is as skilled offensive player coming into our league as we've seen in a while," Thibault said. "She has a little bit of Lauren Jackson's skills and a little bit of Taurasi's skills. She has an incredible shooting touch. Defensively, she has not been asked to do much in college but that's not a negative. A lot of times you don't want that player in foul trouble. That will be an adjustment for her."
As for Diggins, Thibault sees her as more of a combo guard.
"She's very skilled, and it is a testament to her that their program [Notre Dame] has been immensely successful she went there," he said. "In our league, you are looking for people who know how to win. Her role will be determined by teams who draft her."
Who are the best candidates for the No. 4 pick? We asked ESPN basketball analyst Kara Lawson, who also plays for the Sun, and Renee Brown, the WNBA's Chief of Basketball Operations, for guidance on the bounty after the Big Three:
Tianna Hawkins, 6-3 forward, Maryland -- With size and athleticism at the post and a nose for rebounding, Lawson thinks Hawkins projects as the best pro among this group. "She's added an off-the-dribble component to her game, and it's made her a totally different player," Lawson said. "I'm very high on Hawkins as a prospect."
Kelsey Bone, 6-4, center, Texas A&M -- A traditional back-to-the-basket player with a ton of potential, Bone averaged 16.6 points and 9.3 rebounds this season and led the SEC in field-goal percentage. She left school with one year of college eligibility remaining. "She's been a player who had a lot of question marks about her game, as to how hard she worked, but clearly this year she's grown up quite a bit," Thibault told WNBA.com. "She's in better shape. She's been more consistent. She runs harder. She's been willing to take her team on her back a little bit, but she's an unfinished product right now. But she has low-post, back-to-the-basket skills. She's big, she's strong, but she has a lot of question marks."
Tayler Hill, 5-10, guard, Ohio State -- Brown loves her "pure scoring ability," and she's got great court speed as well as a pro body. "She reminds me of [Minnesota Lynx guard-forward] Monica Wright coming out of college, but her three-point shot is better than Wright's was at this stage," Lawson said. "If she finds a fit, she could be really good in a couple of years."
Markel Walker, 6-1, guard-forward, UCLA -- A talented point-forward but a classic tweener: Her game projects as a power forward, but her size says the three position. "She's not a great outside shooter, and if you can't do that in our league as a wing player, it limits your team offensively," Lawson said. "But she's very comfortable with her back to the basket and posting smaller players." Lawson thinks she could be extremely versatile as a bench player.
Sugar Rodgers, 5'11, guard, Georgetown -- Rodgers is a super-athletic guard with very deep range from three-point land. But she's also a volume shooter who too often makes poor decisions on shot selection [she shot 36 percent from the field this season]. "You could make the argument she's the most valuable player to her team in the country," Lawson said. "That's not necessarily a validation of her talents, but the lack of talent surrounding her this season. The challenge for her at the next level is to be impactful while playing less minutes and not being the primary option."