After Kelsey Plum at No. 1, the rest of the WNBA draft is tough to predict

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Thursday, April 13, 2017

The toughest news conference is the one that comes after a loss that ends a senior's college career. Washington guard Kelsey Plum was in that position after the Huskies fell to Mississippi State in the Sweet 16 last month. Even the gentlest of questions stung, of course, for the fierce competitor whose goal was to at least match her team's 2016 Women's Final Four trip.

When asked to put her career into perspective -- which is usually the ultimate tearjerker in such situations -- Plum showed part of why she's been such a special player.

She took a breath and steadied herself, wanting to give an in-depth, thoughtful, complete answer despite her tears. Which she did, complimenting her teammates, coaching staff and the university.

Plum displayed maturity, ability to think big picture, and drive throughout her career. So when San Antonio picks first in Thursday's WNBA draft (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET), Plum is likely to hear her name. Her scoring talent alone could justify the pick, even if a guard isn't the Stars' most obvious need.

But Plum didn't just pile up the points (3,527) in record-setting fashion with the Huskies. She also was a presence, and the Stars -- who have had the worst record in the WNBA both of the last two seasons -- could use that.

As her college coach, Mike Neighbors, said, "She has a singular focus to strive for excellence."

That said, the 5-foot-8 Plum still would be a rarity among No. 1 picks in the WNBA draft: just the fourth to be shorter than 6 feet. The others: 5-9 Sue Bird (2002 by Seattle), 5-8 Lindsey Harding (2007 by Phoenix) and 5-10 Jewell Loyd (2015 by Seattle). Bird is a sure future Hall of Famer and now plays alongside Loyd, who won rookie of the year in 2015 and then had an even better second season. Harding was traded to Minnesota on draft day and has played for six different WNBA teams, her best years coming from 2009-13.

Plum knows Bird well from her time in school in Seattle. Although they are different types of players, Plum couldn't find a better role model; Bird has continued to evolve, stay fit, and be a strong presence in the WNBA and USA Basketball.

Yet after Plum, it's truly anybody's guess how the rest of this draft will go. There are new coaching/general manager regimes in San Antonio and Chicago, the teams that have the first two picks, and that adds to the uncertainty. Some observers even think Plum could be taken and traded by the Stars if the return is good enough.

Ultimately, these draftees might come into the league with a little chip on their shoulders. Because this is being evaluated as a relatively low-impact draft, especially in comparison to what's expected in 2018.

"It's tough for everybody to make a team," Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said. "This is a draft where some first-round picks could get cut just because it is difficult."

Agler's Sparks, who won the WNBA title last year, have the No. 11 pick. Minnesota, the team the Sparks edged in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, has No. 12, the last pick of the first round. Neither the Sparks nor Lynx have glaring needs, plus their choices come late enough that they really have to keep many options open.

But the same could be said for a team in the top half of the draft: Washington, with the No. 6 pick. Thanks to offseason moves that brought in Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver, the Mystics aren't looking to the draft to fill any big absence. Yet Washington coach Mike Thibault said he's so uncertain of what will happen with the picks ahead of him, he can't confidently predict anything.

Sometimes that's just the way it is in drafts. If draft-eligible juniors such as Tennessee's Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell, and Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell had declared for 2017, then this field would be deeper. As it is, South Carolina's redshirt juniors Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis opting to bypass their senior year after winning the national championship helped this draft.

The 6-foot Gray's versatility allows her to play the off guard and small forward/wing, and she showed offensive fearlessness, defensive range and an overall winner's mentality this season for the Gamecocks.

Gray could go as high as No. 2 to Chicago, and it would be a surprise to see her fall below the top five. Davis is harder to predict because the assessments are wide-ranging.

At 6-2, she also could be 2-3 combo who creates some matchup problems and can use her length to advantage defending on the perimeter. But WNBA evaluators are less sure of whether Davis' results will match her potential. She had some very good games this season for South Carolina, but also some poor shooting performances of the kind that a WNBA team won't just let her play through. Davis' summit could still be as high as the No. 2 spot -- or she could fall to near the end of the first round.

How to assess the other potential first-round picks? We'll start with the other guards besides Plum, Gray and Davis. Maryland's Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Baylor's Alexis Jones, Syracuse's Alexis Peterson and Brittney Sykes and Oregon State's Sydney Wiese are in the mix.

Walker-Kimbrough really came into her own as a 3-point shooter her junior and senior seasons (145 of 294, 49.3 percent). And while some think she needs to bulk up a bit for pro play, her ability to make shots is valued.

Jones' versatility at the 1-2 guard positions and her scoring potential are big pluses, but her health is a concern. Jones had multiple knee problems in her college career at Duke/Baylor.

Peterson (23.4 points per game) and Sykes (19.2) were the offensive firepower for Syracuse, and both could go in the first round. The 5-7 Peterson led the Orange in assists, too, at 7.0 per game, and some coaches really like her ability to raise the level of everyone around her. Sykes, though, is a little bigger at 5-9 and averaged 7.8 rebounds.

The 6-1 Wiese had a difficult time from behind the arc in the NCAA tournament this year, but in general that has been her strength, as she made 371 3-pointers for Oregon State. Defense might be an issue, but a veteran-laden team could help Wiese develop there while getting some offensive production from her off the bench.

As for post players, many evaluators consider this draft mediocre -- in large part because the projected first-round considerations all have one or more question marks.

For South Carolina's 6-4 Alaina Coates, it's health: Recovery from surgery for the ankle injury that kept her out of the NCAA tournament might also cause her to miss the first part of the WNBA season, at least. But she has the rebounding and defensive skills that should be worth waiting for. Will a team like Dallas, which needs both of those things but also is looking for immediate help, take Coates with one of its two early picks (Nos. 3 and 4)?

Or might they opt for 6-3 Brionna Jones of Maryland? Jones shot 66.5 percent from the field as a junior and 69 percent as a senior, and averaged around 10 rebounds both seasons. But there's a concern about experienced posts' ability to pull Jones away from her comfort zone very close to the basket.

Stanford's Erica McCall and Kentucky's Evelyn Akhator are both 6-3 forwards who could go in the first round, perhaps even higher than some are expecting. McCall's biggest question mark is consistency on offense. Akhator still has some diamond-in-the-rough to her, but she's a good rebounder and defender who potentially can expand her offensive range.

Northwestern's 6-1 Nia Coffey is a different post player than the others in that she might ultimately be better suited at the small-forward position. But she's a proven scorer and rebounder with great athleticism and knowledge of the game. And she's yet another player who could go as high as No. 2; Chicago might like both her skill set and the fact that she has ties to the city, having played collegiately there.

Perhaps the most difficult post player to assess is Washington's Chantel Osahor, a rebounding machine and the rare post with a very good -- if odd-looking -- 3-point shot. Osahor also is an exceptional passer with uncanny natural instincts. Her overall health/fitness, though, is a concern. She might fit best with a veteran team that can use her in the right spots and depend on her ability to pick up schemes and game plans very quickly.

So Thursday, the selection of Plum is probably going to get everything started. Then so much of what happens the rest of the first round will be determined by the direction Chicago goes at No. 2, where the Sky are likely choosing between Gray, Coffey and Davis. Followed by how Dallas uses its back-to-back selections. If nothing else, it should make for some pretty good suspense.