The WNBA draft will be held on Wednesday, just three days after the women’s NCAA Tournament wrapped up. It’s an incredibly tight turnaround for the players and their prospective teams, particularly for anyone who made it to the Final Four. The tournament therefore serves as both a fitting capstone on collegiate careers and a real-time combine for a league that doesn’t have one for its tops prospects.
Take Notre Dame, which fell 1 point short of a second-straight national title on Sunday. It has four elite seniors and one junior expected to hear their names called; they will have had less than 72 hours after finishing their work in Tampa to prepare for the moment their professional dreams come true.
“They don’t have time to search for agents, and they don’t have time to make decisions,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday. “Every game they go into, they’re thinking about their future. Because if they play poorly, they’re wondering is their stock going to drop? If they play well, is their stock going to rise?”
McGraw is right about this reality: WNBA coaches and GMs are scrutinizing every last possession to make sure their draft preferences reflect the most current reality. So at FiveThirtyEight, we decided to let the players and coaches make their best cases for themselves or their soon-to-be-former players while measuring their claims against the statistical record. Here’s what we found on the best pro prospects at the 2019 Final Four.1
We’ll start with Notre Dame. Arike Ogunbowale is best known for her dual buzzer-beater shots last season, and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, whose team was victimized by one of them, called her “virtually unguardable one-on-one” this past weekend.
Ogunbowale will transition well into the WNBA “because she can play the same type of position she’s playing now,” McGraw said of her senior guard. “I think she’s ready. I think her body is ready. … I think she’s ready right now for the next level.”
The numbers back McGraw and Auriemma up. Just four players have logged 800 offensive possessions this year, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Ogunbowale is not only one of them, a tribute to Notre Dame’s reliance on her, but she also easily leads that group. She does so in a variety of ways, shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 35.9 percent on threes, with a turnover rate below 10 percent for the third straight season despite all her ball dominance.
At 5-foot-8, Ogunbowale will also be asked to play some point guard by most potential teams at the next level, so her elevated assist rate — 19.0 percent, an improvement from 13.6 percent in 2017-18 — only bolsters her WNBA case further.
Interestingly, the same is true of her backcourt mate, Marina Mabrey, who was forced into primary point guard duties because of other injuries last year and has proved herself to be a combo guard candidate for the WNBA, with most league evaluators expecting her to be chosen in the second round.
“I feel like it’s helped me because if there’s somebody at my position at the two that’s playing, I can still play at the one,” Mabrey said Saturday. “It will give me a better chance at getting on the floor quicker.”
The numbers support this. Mabrey’s assist rate this season jumped to 23.9 percent, but it hasn’t come at the expense of her shooting efficiency (54.4 percent from two, 40.8 percent from three). So a WNBA team drafting Mabrey can add the fourth-best spot-up shooter, according to Synergy, of the 1,212 shooters with at least 75 such possessions in Division I this season.
Forward Brianna Turner, meanwhile, has been a primary driver of Notre Dame’s improved defense.
“If anybody is looking for someone who can defend any position on the floor, I think she would be a tremendous fit for any team,” McGraw said of Turner on Saturday. Turner is slated to go early in the second round.
Her fellow big, Jessica Shepard, brings an unusual skill to the table: her passing.
“I think my passing is what will separate me from other things,” Shepard, also pegged to go early in the second round (or even late in the first), said Saturday. “And also my versatility to shoot the ball on the outside.”
McGraw, too, praised Shepard’s ability to share the ball while lamenting that the Irish system didn’t allow her to shoot the three as she did in her previous college stop, at Nebraska, where she shot 31.5 percent from deep her sophomore year.
“She can shoot threes and play on the perimeter probably more than I let her,” McGraw said.
Again, though, Shepard’s passing skills are on the record. Her assist rate was up to 18.3 percent this past season, extremely high for a 6-foot-4 big. And it’s been north of 14 percent in all four of her college seasons, even during the two years at Nebraska, when she served as the team’s primary scoring option. Moreover, she is particularly adept at the outlet pass, which doesn’t lead to assists most of the time but sets up her team in transition offense. The result: Notre Dame was sixth in Division I in points per possession in transition, at 1.107, according to Synergy, and the Irish got more of those opportunities than any other team in the country, with transition plays accounting for 25.3 percent of their total possessions.
And that brings us to Notre Dame’s final top prospect: Once those chances came along, almost no one was deadlier on those fast breaks than junior Jackie Young, who renounced her final year of eligibility. Among players with 150 transition possessions, according to Synergy, Young’s 1.236 points per possession ranked third in the country. Like seemingly everyone else in McGraw’s offense, Young is also an excellent distributor: She posted a 23.4 percent assist rate despite sharing point guard duties with Mabrey and Ogunbowale.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has one crystal clear WNBA prospect in 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown. Mulkey has repeatedly made the argument that Brown is quick enough to dominate at the next level, addressing the primary weakness brought up by WNBA talent evaluators. But as Mulkey noted on Saturday, that conversation obscures what are the astonishing strengths Brown brings to the table as well.
Brown has always been fundamentally sound, Mulkey said — she’s always been able to shoot, defend and rebound. But, Mulkey said, she has matured, working on her defensive mobility at the high post and her endurance.
So let’s take these each in turn. Brown shot 61.4 percent from the field this season, with more shots taken further from the basket. She shot 75.2 percent at the free-throw line, which traditionally suggests that she will be able to expand beyond the 3-point line at the next level. Her block rate also jumped to 7.1 percent this year, from 4.9 percent a season ago. Her rebound and assist rates remained static, but they were already pretty good. And Brown did start to play for longer stretches; her minutes per game, at 26.8, were almost double what she managed her freshman season. And most encouragingly, Brown logged 35 minutes in both the Elite Eight win over Iowa and the Final Four semifinal victory over Oregon; she reached 37 minutes in the final over Notre Dame — a tribute to both her conditioning and ability to stay out of foul trouble. Brown hasn’t fouled out of a game all season and has only reached four fouls in a game three times all season, remarkable for a big.
Despite its so-called down year, Connecticut still lost only three games this season — and reached a record 20th Final Four — thanks largely to a pair of Huskies who will get their names called very early on Wednesday night: wings Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson.
For Collier, the key is less that she can do one thing amazingly and more that she does everything well, according to Auriemma.
“The competition’s going to be tougher, and she’s pretty good at putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim,” Auriemma said. She also has something to fall back on if they won’t let her catch the ball in the lane, he said. “She makes just enough jump shots from the perimeter that you have to go out and guard her. She’s got a little bit of everything for whatever the occasion calls for.”
The results have been 1.152 points per possession this season, according to Synergy, second in Division I among players with at least 600 possessions. Notably, too, Auriemma is right about her varied strengths. While she trailed Iowa’s Megan Gustafson in this category, 411 of Gustafson’s possessions came in the post-up this season (55.5 percent of her total). Collier accumulated points in post-up, cut and transition on more than 100 possessions this past season.
As for Samuelson, the numbers speak to what she can be at the next level — an assist rate of 20 percent means that she will be the wing facilitator needed in the modern WNBA offensive sets, while her turnover rate finished below 10 percent for the second year in a row. She shot the ball extremely well from the field, 53.6 percent from two, 37.6 percent from three, a season after those numbers checked in at 59.6 and 47.5, respectively. Her free throw rate of 87.6 percent reflects the truth of her shot. Indeed, there’s no WNBA coach who won’t give her the green light, especially with her 6-foot-3 length that allows her to shoot over most defenders.
But what stuck out to Auriemma was her toughness, playing through a back injury to score 29 against Louisville in the Elite Eight and a team-high 20 against Notre Dame in the national semifinals.
“She doesn’t look it, but she’s a tough kid,” Auriemma said after last week’s 80-73 UConn win over Louisville to lift the Huskies into the Final Four. “There’s a certain toughness about her.”
You can be sure all that registered with WNBA front offices, busy finalizing their lists and checking them twice.
From ABC News: