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How The WNBA First-Round Picks Could Help Their New Teams

When evaluating the WNBA draft, held virtually on April 17, it’s worth keeping in mind some critical roster context. The draft is three rounds long, or 36 players. That’s fully 25 percent of what the league can hold at maximum capacity, with rosters capped at 12 players each for 12 teams. Team turnover, retirement rate and other changes won’t yield anything close to 36 roster spots.

And the overall number of players in the league won’t actually be 144. The Washington Mystics, with their trade for Tina Charles, need to play at 11 strong to stay under the salary cap, Mike Thibault told me. More super teams — built with top-heavy rosters that are now filled with players earning significantly more in annual salary thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement — are likely to follow. That will reduce total roster spots even further. And unlike the NBA, the WNBA has no G League in which these players can ply their trade and wait for a call-up. The funnel is so much smaller for the ever-increasing talent coming into the women’s game.

So when we think of how teams did on draft night, it’s important to pinpoint which skill sets they added.

Accordingly, let’s take a look at one key stat for each of the WNBA teams that ended up with a first-rounder by the end of draft night. Some of these teams had more than one first-rounder, obviously — hello, Dallas Wings, I’m looking at your trio of Satou Sabally, Bella Alarie and Tyasha Harris — and several teams without first-rounders still managed to address areas of weakness. But because of the difficulty squeezing new people onto the roster, matching up the needs and outcome of teams that had more to gain provides a window into what the league’s general managers and coaches will be looking for once training camp starts and the difficult roster decisions must be made.

New York Liberty: 3-point shooting

It’s easy to focus on the Liberty’s acquisition of No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu purely in terms of dramatically upgrading the team’s ability to pass and distribute. This wouldn’t be wrong. But what the Liberty made clear last week, between the trade of Charles and the collection of a slew of draft choices on Friday, is that they value 3-point shooting over everything else.

Ionescu shot 39.2 percent from three last year. Megan Walker, selected ninth overall, shot 45.1 percent from three. No. 10 pick Jocelyn Willoughby, who was taken by Phoenix and then dealt to New York for Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, shot 41.6 percent from three. Jazmine Jones, selected 12th, shot 37.8 percent from three. Her teammate from the Cardinals, the 6-foot-4 Kylee Shook, checked in at 36.8 percent. And 26th overall pick Erica Ogwumike from Rice shot just 29.8 percent from three … and the Liberty traded her to Minnesota for forward Stephanie Talbot, a career 35.4 percent shooter from deep.

At his introductory press conference back in January, Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said his team would take a lot more threes. After Friday night, it seems as if they’ll make a lot more of them, too.

Dallas Wings: rim protection

There’s a lot of broad-based talent coming to Dallas, with three potential starters in the top-seven selections of Sabally, Alarie and Harris. But a particular skill set of Alarie’s may make the biggest difference for the club.

The Wings were near the bottom of the league in blocks last season, and their top three in block percentage — Azura Stevens, Imani McGee-Stafford and Theresa Plaisance — are no longer in Dallas. Enter Alarie, whose senior-season block percentage of 8.8 percent was top 50 in the nation. She finished each season since she was a sophomore at 8.5 percent or above in the stat. Lots of things about Alarie’s game translate to the next level. For Dallas, right away, this may be the most important part.

Indiana Fever: passing

Though the Fever didn’t make the playoffs last year, it made sense for general manager Tamika Catchings to avoid blowing things up. The Fever looked great late in the season, and they were a top-five team in both offensive and defensive ratings over the last five games of 2019.

But as a whole, the team finished 11th in assist percentage last season, even with the breakout campaign from point guard Erica Wheeler. So it matters that both Lauren Cox, the third overall pick, and Kathleen Doyle can really pass the ball. As a power forward facilitator, Cox posted assist percentages around 20 in each of her last two years at Baylor while avoiding turnovers in the process. Doyle, a surprise to many as the 14th pick overall, put up a 36.1 assist percentage her senior season at Iowa, managing to improve that mark even over her junior campaign, when she was feeding Megan Gustafson.

That’s how you keep your core and get better at the margins.

Atlanta Dream: taking the big shot

This one is just not that complicated. The Dream lost a lot of late, close games in 2019, and they return one player, Tiffany Hayes, with a usage rate north of 20 last season. Adding Courtney Williams in a trade surely helps. But Chennedy Carter’s usage rate at Texas A&M was above 37 percent for each of her past two seasons — it was even 34.8 percent when she was a freshman. Her confidence and eagerness to take over games is something the Dream sorely need.

Minnesota Lynx: avoiding turnovers

No pregame or postgame was complete without Cheryl Reeve’s expressing frustration over turnovers, and no wonder, with Minnesota finishing last in the league in turnover percentage.

The two additions Friday night, forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan at No. 6 and point guard Crystal Dangerfield at No. 16, can both stretch the floor and shoot it well from three, another area of concern for Minnesota. But the ability to avoid mistakes with the ball — each player carried a turnover percentage below 12 last year — is critical to changing the offensive makeup of the Lynx. Even Ogwumike, the primary ball handler at Rice, finished with a strong 13.7 turnover percentage. It was a clear point of emphasis for Minnesota.

Chicago Sky: opponent points in the paint

Much of this was addressed by adding Stevens and her 6.1 block percentage in a deal that sent Katie Lou Samuelson to Dallas. But the Sky finished last in the WNBA in opposing points in the paint, and adding a defensive and rebounding presence like Ruthy Hebard — taken eighth overall — absolutely helps them address this deficit. Hebard blocks shots, with a block percentage of 4 percent as a senior, and more importantly, she ends possessions, grabbing 23.2 percent of available defensive rebounds, a top-100 mark in the NCAA. James Wade’s frontcourt is crowded — Stevens, Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker will all get plenty of time — but expect Hebard to contribute, too.

Seattle Storm: time

Yes, this may seem abstract, but consider this: The acquisition of Kitija Laksa with the 11th overall pick can absolutely help the Storm. She’s an elite 3-point shooter in both accuracy and volume, with a 6-foot pro-ready frame.

But the Storm already have 11 players under contract for 2020, and Ezi Magbegor, their top pick in last year’s draft, is scheduled to join them. That means no room at the inn as Dan Hughes and company finally get a chance to defend their 2018 championship after they lost both Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird to injury in 2019.

So Laksa agreed to delay joining the team until 2021. She can keep working on her midrange and finishing games in Latvia, Laksa said on draft night — and the Storm have a legit talent ready to help them. Eventually.

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Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.