We’re now a week into women’s college basketball season, and there are many ways to consume the virtually infinite number of Division I games. You can do it as a fan, as a neutral observer, as a player stan or even as a skeptic, if your idea of fun is to look side-eyed at endless drama.
But for WNBA front offices, there’s only one way to look at the NCAA season: player evaluation time for the 2020 WNBA Draft.
The WNBA differs from the NBA in some key respects when it comes to player evaluation. For one thing, players cannot be one-and-done; a player must have played four years or turn 22 years old in the calendar year the draft is held. So players have a more significant body of work to go on when teams decide, typically at least three seasons.1
There’s also the relatively static nature of the draft order itself. The WNBA already has a draft order set, and free agency comes before the draft. Thus, teams can zero in on their preferred targets with relative certainty about the likelihood that they can draft a given player.
With that said, there’s much teams don’t know about individual players entering the college season. Even in a deep draft, the very best players have some lingering question marks. So what do the top prospects need to prove?
Sabrina Ionescu: Finishing at the rim
It’s hard to find a more pro-ready player than Ionescu. She has an elite ability to find teammates, best exhibited by her assist rate of 38.5 percent during her junior campaign. And unlike some great point guard prospects, she isn’t compiling assists at the cost of too many turnovers: She posted a 16.9 percent turnover rate her freshman year and, by last season, had cut that to 12.4 percent. Nor does she need to develop proficiency from deep, as she’s posted three straight seasons north of 40 percent from three.
But it may give WNBA talent evaluators pause when, even though defenders know they have to go get a hand up and close out on Ionescu’s 3-point attempts, she still shot just 44.7 percent from inside the arc, down from her sophomore year mark of 49 percent and decidedly mediocre for a player who will be expected to penetrate to rev the engine of the team that drafts her (like, say, the New York Liberty, who will pick first overall).
The concern with the 5-foot-11 Ionescu is whether she has that first-step quickness. Her proficiency at the rim, and from 2-point range more generally, will be the statistical answer to that question.
Lauren Cox: Usage rate
No one has much doubt that Cox, a 6-foot-4 standard-bearer for the positionless direction the WNBA is headed and an already-decorated NCAA champion for Baylor, has what it takes to be a contributor in the league. The question is one of degree, not ability. She showcased a versatile offensive skillset last season, shooting 55.5 percent from two and 30.6 percent from three — which, combined with getting to the free throw line and converting, improves the likelihood of her long-distance shooting translating to the next level. She rebounds and she blocks shots — the latter often in rarely used zone coverages, but her length and basketball IQ mean that is another skill likely to translate.
Even so, if Cox is to become a franchise centerpiece, she’ll need to score efficiently and often. Namely, her usage rate needs to go increase from 20.1 percent, 1329th in the country last season, for WNBA teams to choose her with the idea of building around her. To put it in context: A comparable player, Alanna Smith of Stanford and now the Phoenix Mercury, put up a usage rate of 30.4 percent as a senior. That wouldn’t be a bad benchmark for Cox to hit, and with former teammate Kalani Brown now in Los Angeles, Cox will be asked to do something approaching that as Baylor defends its NCAA title.
Beatrice Mompremier: Free-throw shooting
When Mompremier, Miami’s offensive fulcrum, said she wanted to return to school last season rather than enter the WNBA draft a year early, she said this: “While my dream is to play in the WNBA, I think I have a lot of improvements I can make before moving to that level, including expanding my range.”
That interesting bit of self-scouting reflects the state of the WNBA: Mompremier is 6-foot-4, but she understands that to be an elite power forward at the next level, she needs to be a threat from beyond the arc, where she made a total of one 3-pointer in her first three seasons in college.
But there’s this, too: Mompremier simply isn’t a good free-throw shooter. She gets to the line plenty, as she was 44th in Division I in attempts last year. But she made her free throws at just a 57.9 percent clip after hitting 57.8 percent of her free throws as a sophomore for Baylor in 2016-17.2 The WNBA values consistency, but not that kind of consistency.
And while there are some WNBA players who struggle a bit at the line, of the 100 players who qualified for the minutes per game leaderboard last season, no player shot below 67.2 percent from the line. In 2018, the top 100 all shot 70.6 percent or better. In a league where she can expect to spend a fair amount of time in the post, Mompremier simply has to improve her proficiency from the charity stripe.
Chennedy Carter: Assist percentage
Carter’s 34-point performance against USA Basketball on Thursday night hardly came as a surprise to those familiar with her game; her vast universe of drives, pull-ups and long-distance shots that she showed have made her an obvious next-level player since she was in high school. Her game pops off the screen and is somehow even more impressive in person.
It’s not certain that Carter will be part of the 2020 WNBA Draft – she would be entering a year early. But WNBA talent evaluators aren’t looking for whether Carter’s game or skills will translate. It is a bigger question: Can they hand Carter the keys to a team?
Texas A&M has been good, but not great, in her time in College Station, and after former teammate Anriel Howard left for Mississippi State, Carter’s assist rate dropped from 33.3 percent as a freshman to 24.6 percent as a sophomore. So just what is she at the next level?
Kelsey Mitchell at Ohio State and Jewell Loyd at Notre Dame offer a potential roadmap for Carter. Both were ball-dominant guards who got to the next level, only to see their roles remain vague for several years in the pros. In both cases, the idea was that they would get grow into running a team, but their uber-athleticism and ability to create would immediately benefit them as point guards in the league. Ultimately, though, Loyd has been best as a shooting guard, winning a title next to Sue Bird. In Indiana, Mitchell hasn’t spent a lot of time running the point, and Erica Wheeler’s emergence this season has arguably helped Mitchell find a comfort zone off the ball as well.
None of this means Carter is doomed as a WNBA player if she merely becomes Loyd or Mitchell — that’s an awfully high floor. But if she’s going to be, say, a Skylar Diggins-Smith or Chelsea Gray, she must show the WNBA that she’s ready to run a team.