It’s the strangest women’s college basketball season anyone can remember. Teams simply don’t know who they’ll be playing. Don’t believe me? Here’s Jeff Walz, Louisville head coach, on Twitter on Monday, looking for someone to play … on Wednesday.
But if that seems scary enough — and it does — spare a thought for the WNBA talent evaluators, who need to prepare for next spring’s draft without many of the tools customarily used to formulate and update their priorities. Though the league has in most quarters embraced analytics, the larger picture includes live looks and interactions. This is particularly important when a collegiate season is only, at maximum, something like 40 games long, making the data noisy.
Still, consider that in 2020-21, we aren’t likely to get anything close to 40 games from anyone. As of now, teams will need to play 13 games to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament — and even that number could be daunting as COVID-19 continues to spread. And then there’s yet another wild card: The NCAA ruled this a free year for college basketball players, eligibility-wise, allowing even seniors to return for another season. So no one can be sure which players will come out for the draft.
What WNBA front offices will be looking for, then, is a legitimate, quantifiable leap or further development of a skill already flashed, while they cast a net wider than the top prospects for 2021 and think in multi-year terms. We’ll do the same.
So let’s get a sense from a few of these notable prospects and their coaches, looking both at the numbers and at how they see their own games.
For Tennessee senior Rennia Davis, a versatile 6-foot-2 wing near the top of many WNBA wishlists, last year saw some encouraging advances — a near-doubling of her assist percentage, for instance — but some regression in other areas, including her efficiency from beyond the arc.
Her head coach, Kellie Harper, views the improvement around the rim for Davis — she shot 52.9 percent from two in 2019-20, good for 286th in the nation — as a place to add to her game, simply by doing more of it.
“I think Rennia has a very complete game,” Harper said. “I think she can do everything. However, we want to see her improve on getting to the basket — getting into the paint more, and maybe playing a little bit more physical there. She makes free throws, she can knock down shots and she is super in transition. So we talked to her a lot about that this summer. She has worked very hard on that, and it is giving her even an added dimension to her game.”
For 6-foot-1 senior Chloe Bibby, the track record of Maryland itself was a primary reason that she transferred to College Park after three years at Mississippi State. (Bibby is immediately eligible to play for the Terps after receiving an NCAA waiver.)
Her shot beyond the arc is not in question, though her percentage dipped last year, to 31.7 percent, after she hit 45 percent of her threes in 2018-19. But now, nearly two years after an ACL tear that cost her the final half of the 2018-19 season, few worry about her resuming her previous level of proficiency from deep, and she has a green light from Maryland head coach Brenda Frese.
Instead, for Bibby, enhancing her all-around game is a critical part of how she intends to grow this season, while she is delaying the decision to return or move on until we know more about what the future looks like. “What I need to continue to improve on is just my ball handling,” Bibby said in an interview earlier this month. “I think you can always get better at that. And that’s something that I need to continue to improve on, be able to come off the on-ball screens, as a guard.”
Bibby excelled in that role last season with Mississippi State — allowing just .556 points per possession off screens — but in only 18 possessions total, per Synergy. That’s not how she’ll be used at Maryland, where a team chock full of bigger guards and wings switch on everything and cause havoc against smaller opponents. So next-level talent evaluators will be able to see Bibby in more of a positionless context, a vital prerequisite for projecting her into the league.
Bibby sees Diana Taurasi as the ultimate example of where she wants her game to get to, but she understands that a lot of her value comes from versatility as a wing — strength that Taurasi didn’t have entering the league.
“I think that’s where I have an advantage is that I am able to play that two, three and the four if need be,” Bibby said. “And that’s what I’m learning a lot with Brenda here, too. She’s like, you already know you can shoot it, so, you know, let’s work on being more of a power forward, getting those easy bunnies.”
Bibby’s fellow Australian, Syracuse point guard Tiana Mangakahia, has already demonstrated an otherworldly ability to pass the ball. So in this, a season Mangakahia says is almost certainly her last with the Orange, the senior wants to prove that she is an elite scorer, too.
“I think one thing when I look at players that get drafted high, top five picks, they score a lot of points,” Mangakahia said in a Zoom interview. “My average scoring is, like, 17. When I look at players that are getting picked top 10, top five, they score over 20. And I think, I’m not that type of point guard. I am not a score-first — I tend to pass first. But I think, sometimes I do just need to score myself.”
The numbers bear her out. In 2018-19, she scored 16.9 points per game, 101st in the nation. But her usage rate of 27.6 percent? Just 225th.
A willingness to be more selfish is a goal for another elite point guard prospect, Indiana senior Ali Patberg. Her split was even more pronounced than Mangakahia’s: 150th in points per game in 2019-20 at 15.6, but with a usage rate of 22 percent, 951st in the country. Head coach Teri Moren cited Patberg’s “tireless, relentless passion” as one of many reasons she should excel in the WNBA. But key to Indiana’s season — and, in Moren’s eyes, to making that jump to the pros — is Patberg looking for her own shot more often.
“Ali has to score,” Moren said earlier this month in an interview. “So she has to be more selfish, if that makes sense. And I think sometimes Ali — she wants to facilitate, she wants to get everybody involved in the offense, and that’s great. But Ali, we believe as a staff, can go get a bucket anytime she wants. It’s just her mindset has to shift.”
For the talent scouts watching these WNBA prospects, so much of their evaluation will come down to a combination of seeing it in the numbers, watching it on film and — if the season is limited — extrapolating it as best as everyone can.
But what happens this season will have an effect not just on this year, but on the futures of the game’s brightest stars for years to come.