A quartet of WNBA decision-makers came together last week to answer questions from those of us in the media preparing for Thursday night’s 2021 WNBA draft.
And while none of them would answer questions like “Hey, who you picking?” their responses did offer a window into their overall thinking. So I asked the four — Dallas Wings team president Greg Bibb, Indiana Fever head coach Marianne Stanley, Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve and Chicago Sky head coach and general manager James Wade — to fill in the blank: When you come away from this draft, the one skill you’d most like to see basketball-wise on your roster is …
There are some purists who are going to claim that Wade just made up a word, that there’s no such thing as “un-turnover-able.” Not me, though: The man added Candace Parker to an already-contending team. It’s not wise to doubt him.
But we’re going to take this exercise a step further, providing simple goals and the method each of the 12 WNBA teams have for reaching them. For these four, we’ll follow their self-proclaimed plan. For the other eight teams, we’ll do some projecting.
Let’s start in Dallas, which has the easiest path to achieving the draft of Bibb’s dreams — the Wings control the board at 1, 2, 5 and 7. Also, Bibb is not wrong: His team needs to be better on the boards, after finishing 11th in rebounding percentage last season. Accordingly, the 40th-best overall rebounder in the college game1 — who was also in the top 100 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage — would make a swell top pick, and that’s what most expect Dallas to do by taking Charli Collier to begin Thursday night’s proceedings. If anything, those numbers understate Collier’s ability on the boards, since the versatile 6-foot-5 stretch five spent so much of her time on the perimeter. She would contribute immediately to Dallas in 2021, along with a crop that is likely to include Awak Kuier, a big who is more of a project, and potential guard depth later in the first round. But rebounding? Collier? Check and mate.
Next up is Stanley’s call for a player who is well-rounded. Considering Indiana finished last season eighth in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency, Stanley’s consistent call this offseason for players who can perform well at both ends is understandable. At the fourth overall pick, one possibility is Rutgers guard Arella Guirantes, an excellent volume scorer capable of hitting shots from anywhere on the floor who also blocks shots like a big (5.8 percent) and gobbles up steals as well.
Reeve has asked for versatility in Minnesota, and Michaela Onyenwere of UCLA may still be available at the ninth pick in the draft, currently the spot held by the Lynx. The 6-foot forward has next-level athleticism, the ability to guard anywhere from 2-4 on the court — with leaping ability that should allow her rebounding to translate — and a still-developing 3-point shot the Lynx staff can coach up.
As for Wade’s made-up word, it reflects a key deficiency in Chicago last season — the Sky finished 10th in turnover percentage. Notably, this came despite Courtney Vandersloot, the Sky’s all-world point guard, posting her lowest turnover percentage since 2016. The move from Cheyenne Parker (21.2 turnover percentage in 2020) to Candace Parker (18.8 turnover percentage in 2020, 15 for her career) should help. But currently, the backup point guard on the Sky depth chart is Brittany Boyd, who led the league in turnover percentage the last season she played, in 2019. Accordingly, a good fit at the eighth pick would be someone like Chelsea Dungee of Arkansas, who routinely kept her turnover percentage below 12 percent despite plenty of ball-handling for coach Mike Neighbors, or, if she drops, Aari McDonald and her 13.4 turnover percentage last season at point guard for Arizona. Or he could stay local at the 16th pick and go with Lindsey Pulliam of Northwestern, who posted single-digit turnover percentages in each of her four seasons.
What about the rest of the league? Here are their 2021 WNBA draft hopes and dreams, boiled down to one word or phrase, with one solution.
Las Vegas: Perimeter shooting. The Aces, once again, ranked last in the league in percentage of their points from beyond the arc last season. With Kayla McBride gone this offseason and Liz Cambage back, that isn’t likely to change this year. But some additional shooting is vital, and someone like Destiny Slocum at 12 or 14, a 39.7 percent shooter from deep for Arkansas last season and talented playmaker, would stand a good chance of making the Las Vegas roster.
Seattle: Dan Hughes is probably going to steal Bibb’s word, rebounding, with a seventh-place finish in rebounding percentage last season combined with the loss this offseason of Natasha Howard inside. So if 6-foot-4 Natasha Mack of Oklahoma State — a top-10 finisher in total rebounds each of the past two years with the Cowgirls — lasts until 11, she would fit in well as a potential extra big for the defending champs.
Connecticut: Shooting. This is a team that’s going to get dramatically better offensively with Jonquel Jones back on the court, but it will miss the freelance, high-percentage creativity of point-forward Alyssa Thomas, who tore her Achilles tendon. So finding reliable shotmakers to come to camp and compete for jobs at picks 20 and 21 (unless he trades up — Curt Miller never sleeps) will be a must. Might I suggest Micaela Kelly of Central Michigan, who hit 35.7 percent of her threes and took more than seven a game, or Blanca Millan of Maine, north of 35 percent on five threes attempted per game?
Los Angeles: Passing. Even before losing Chelsea Gray, Derek Fisher’s squad managed to finish eighth in the league in assist percentage last season. And let’s not forget that Parker, too, once led the WNBA in assist percentage. Erica Wheeler will make a difference after Gray’s and Parker’s departures, but another pure point guard would help. If not at 10, certainly if she’s there at 22, Tiana Mangakahia of Syracuse, who set records with her passing prowess in college, is someone the Sparks could really use.
Atlanta: Versatility. Nicki Collen, Chris Sienko and company are in the same boat as Minnesota, with plenty of options in the backcourt and overwhelming numbers up front, but who could use more wing options to fill varying roles at the back of a rotation. And Atlanta doesn’t even have Bridget Carleton, essentially the Platonic ideal of such a player, already with the Lynx. So for the Dream, if it doesn’t turn out to be Guirantes — who does, to be fair, play the same position as half the roster in Atlanta — Rennia Davis of Tennessee makes a great deal of sense at third overall. And for the 15th pick, someone like Ivana Raca of Wake Forest, whose versatile game I absolutely love, would work as well.
Phoenix: Rebounding. Look, 2020 was an oddball season in Phoenix, missing Brittney Griner for most of it, but the Mercury finished last in the league on the boards, so whoever they get once they finally pick at 32 probably should address that shortcoming. Ideally, Unique Thompson of Auburn, a 6-foot-3 big who has been top-50 in the country in rebounding percentage since her sophomore season, is still available.
New York: Shooting. Yes, I know they’ve added Sami Whitcomb, that newly acquired Betnijah Laney became a knockdown scorer for Atlanta last year, that Rebecca Allen is expected back and that Sabrina Ionescu is pretty good at the shooting thing, too. But New York’s overall offensive efficiency last season, and the system Walt Hopkins plays, demands that everyone can make shots from everywhere. And so at sixth overall, Dungee or, if she drops, Guirantes (don’t bet on the latter) would work quite nicely.
Washington: Tina Charles. Seriously, that’s the word. The Mystics don’t have any picks in this draft, and general manager Mike Thibault is just fine with that. Why? He traded picks to get Charles. That’s a good pick, Mike.