What we learned on draft night

The 2020 WNBA Draft is in the books. All things considered, this virtual draft was a success as ESPN looped in the studio crew, Cathy Engelbert and Holly Rowe from their homes and prospect interviews throughout the evening. 

We did not see any trades at the top of the first round. Let’s run through what we learned on draft night with an eye on the decisions facing teams as they (eventually, hopefully?) finalize their rosters for the 2020 season. The New York Liberty will be the center of attention in this piece after adding seven new players on draft night after acquiring several picks in the big Tina Charles trade earlier in the week. 

Our 2020 WNBA Draft Central page with a top-36 big board and mock draft can be viewed here. Salary and contract information obtained from the High Post Hoops salary database. Graphic by Akshay Ram.

All eyes on Brooklyn 

No surprises at No. 1. The Liberty selected Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu. General manager Jonathan Kolb joked on the Winsidr post-draft show that he was glad he could stop pretending that this hadn’t been a formality all along. Kolb and new head coach Walt Hopkins now have their franchise lead guard. 

We weren’t necessarily expecting New York to be this busy on draft night a week ago. Take Ionescu at No. 1 then hunt for fliers with the two picks in the later rounds. Scratch that. The Charles trade and Kolb’s corresponding moves made it clear that they really liked multiple players in the 6-to-16 range. 

Retracing their steps post-Charles trade

The terms of the original deal, which was announced as a three-team trade: Tina Charles to the Mystics for the No. 12 pick, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and all three of Washington’s picks in the 2021 draft. New York rerouted the Washington 2021 first-rounder, along with their own 2021 second, to Dallas for Tayler Hill, No. 9 and No. 15. 

What the Liberty ended up with, as of Saturday morning: out with Charles, in with Megan Walker (No. 9), Jocelyn Willoughby (No. 10), Jazmine Jones (No. 12), Leaonna Odom (No. 15), Washington’s 2021 second and Washington’s 2021 third. 

Hill is on an expiring guaranteed contract. She has yet to come all the way back after going down with a torn ACL in 2017. Both teams seem capable of eating that money if they were to waive her prior to the season. New York has fewer guaranteed contracts. Dallas, stocked with plenty of young talent, may feel more pressure to proactively free up an additional guaranteed slot. It’s never too early to start thinking that way. Remember that Dallas holds three 2021 first-rounders as potential trade chips. 

Setting Hill’s deal aside, it’s worth wondering whether No. 9 and No. 15 are more valuable than a future first. Megan Walker, an early entrant in this 2020 class, is a first-rounder either way. That’s one way to sell it in New York’s favor. The logic checks out for Dallas assuming they weren’t in love with the names expected to be available. Take the semi-comparable future asset as a trade chip moving forward. Every team won’t have an equal amount of interest in any given first once it’s used. 

Remaining questions 

Post-draft questions for New York fall into three buckets. Is a bigger move on the horizon to consolidate some of this perimeter depth and add a big piece in the frontcourt? Do Kolb and Hopkins plan to play a few of these wing-types at the 4 to clear a path for most—or all—of their recent additions to make the roster? Will they flip some of their veterans for future picks to further clear the way? 

Kolb and Hopkins really putting a premium on shooting at all five positions was another takeaway from the appearance on the Winsidr show. Hopkins inherits Han Xu and Amanda Zahui B, two stretch 5s, and Kiah Stokes, more of a ‘traditional’ shot-blocking, rebounding 5. The latter two will be free agents in 2021. Kolb added Louisville’s Kylee Shook at No. 13—likely the best flier on a two-way stretch big in the later rounds. 

A Shook-Zahui pairing looks like the most viable 4-5 duo drawing only from those four names. Even if that pans out, somebody else will need to slide up a spot. The Liberty have flirted on and off with Rebecca Allen getting some run at the 4 in recent seasons. Will Walker get a chance there, too? How about Leaonna Odom? 

So much energy went into questioning or even criticizing the teams that struck out in 2020 free agency without an eye toward the future. The top players are just like the rest of us: only eligible to sign with one team at a time. Dallas, Minnesota and New York will be serious players for whoever hits the open market next. 

What they got from Dallas 

The Liberty will be really tough to guard. They have different players to mix and match as they decide what kind of guard they need long-term next to Ionescu and All-Star Kia Nurse. This group is absolutely loaded with shooting. Ionescu and Layshia Clarendon will be able to replicate Washington’s thunder and lightning pick and roll dynamic to a degree. One is a tremendous pull-up threat while the other will consistently dart to the rim with four teammates stationed around the arc. 

Walker is a big-time spot-up threat. Teams really need to worry about the threat of her finding too many catch-and-shoot looks from day one. She’ll be eager to prove she’s much more than a shooter at the next level but as is, New York is in a position to optimize her strengths right away. 

The Odom pick reminds us of some important big-picture drafting points. We throw out college accolades and cliches that just don’t matter very much. What can these players do on a court that will help a team in the best league in the world? Like Jones, there’s actual stuff to like about Odom’s game. The ‘Will she make enough 3-pointers?’ talk becomes too reductive when you see real areas in which a prospect can additionally impact a game. 

Odom is really long. She can handle a little bit. We saw glimpses of her ability to make plays as Duke’s sometimes point forward. That heralded vertical leap will help her score amidst the trees when the clear path to the rim isn’t there. Whether Odom makes the roster or not, the Dallas portion of the Charles trade still should probably be more about what happens with Walker. 

The New York Cardinals 

Kolb also told the Winsidr crew that he loves Jones’ defensive ability and thinks she’ll really liven up practices with her fire and energy. Nobody in this class really got serious wing stopper billing. Guarding positions 1 through 3 and forcing teams to respect her 3-pointer paints a clear picture of an archetype many teams will covet. That’s one style of player they may want next to Ionescu and Nurse five years from now. 

South Carolina’s Mikiah Herbert Harrigan felt like a natural target at No. 9, 12 or 13 for New York all along to compete at that 4 spot, but Minnesota took her off the board at No. 6. Florida State’s Kiah Gillespie falling all the way to No. 32, even beyond New York’s third-round slot, is the other ‘surprise’ you may point to with the stretch 4s in this class. Shook ended up right between them but before Brittany Brewer and Beatrice Mompremier. 

Dealing on draft night 

Willoughby was one of the most interesting players on draft night. Many mock drafts had her in the second round. I did not love this trade for Phoenix. While the Mercury got younger on paper this offseason, they haven’t done much to dispel the notion that they’ll take a veteran over a younger player almost by default. 

Walker-Kimbrough is a good player that played real minutes for a team that just won the Finals. She’s also a pending restricted free agent likely expecting a raise. Phoenix already maxed out Bria Hartley, in part to be their Diana Taurasi insurance. Why not keep Willoughby for the opposite scenario? Paying Taurasi then re-signing Walker-Kimbrough and starting power forward Jessica Breland would make it extremely difficult to fill out a 2021 roster. 

Are we sure Willoughby couldn’t help them right away? She shot 40.6 percent on a combined 212 3-point attempts in her junior and senior campaigns. Her craft, length and know-how to finish and go get fouled around the basket is really appealing. Is she a big upgrade as a wing defender over the wiry Walker-Kimbrough? Look no further than a November meeting with Rhyne Howard and Kentucky. You couldn’t script a steeper test. 

Willoughby had some nice moments. You can see the quickness, length and anticipation. Maybe Phoenix just really wants Walker-Kimbrough for the long haul. Moving Taurasi to the 3 works fine in some matchups (Seattle, L.A., ‘small’ Mystics) but won’t make life any easier in others (Atlanta, Chicago, big Mystics). And once again, New York probably can’t keep all of these players long-term. Their offseason can be better evaluated as a whole once they have to cut down to 12.

Coming out of this 2020 WNBA Draft, we’re now talking about the Liberty as we expected to discuss the Wings—knowing they have a bunch of interesting players but wondering how they extract maximum value out of that position. 

New York and Dallas quick hitters 

  • New York also acquired Stephanie Talbot, yet another wing, from the Lynx in exchange for the rights to No. 26 overall pick Erica Ogwumike.
  • Asia Durr, another Louisville alum, and Marine Johannes will be WNBA players for a long time. There are only so many backcourt minutes to go around. Again, is a consolidation trade on the horizon?
  • Dallas’ evening was very straightforward. They selected Satou Sabally as expected at No. 2 then added Bella Alarie (No. 5) and Ty Harris (No. 7). Second-round pick Luisa Geiselsoder is a stash candidate. As the roster sits right now, I’d expect to see Marina Mabrey, Kaela Davis, Kristine Anigwe and Megan Gustafson competing for the final two roster spots. 
  • Dallas is now on more of a trajectory to follow the ‘point guard + Arike Ogunbowale + wing’ formula than ‘Ogunbowale + wing + wing’. Keeping No. 9 and selecting Willoughby, Walker, Jones or Kitija Laksa would match up more with the latter. But straddling both paths is still possible with what they have now. Harris somewhat bridges them if she holds up guarding the best players at either guard spot. 

Minnesota surprises? 

  • Circling back to the big-picture point made when Odom came up, I like the Herbert Harrigan pick for Minnesota even though I was very bullish on Mompremier. Herbert Harrigan’s shot looked really good this season. She’s mobile and can alter a lot of shots with her length. Those are tools that can help a WNBA team.
  • The irony of Crystal Dangerfield falling to Minnesota at No. 16 wasn’t lost on anyone that listened to Reeve’s pre-draft remarks rightfully downplaying this narrative that me and my 90-year-old grandmother are their only options at point guard in 2020. Like with Mompremier, it isn’t as jarring to think about how Dangerfield fell when you stack up the decisions made by various teams in that range. Phoenix traded No. 10 and ended up with Te’a Cooper two spots later. Indiana took Kathleen Doyle but doesn’t exactly have a spot to offer another point guard anyway. Then there’s New York, who got their lead guard at No. 1 and pursued options elsewhere with their other four picks prior to No. 16. 

Falling into the third 

  • Mikayla Pivec and Gillespie both received those kits from the league with hats for all 12 teams and other goodies. They were clearly expected to go higher. But Pivec ended up in a good spot. Nicki Collen has pointed to a potential opening on the wing if somebody impresses them in camp. Gillespie doesn’t appear to have that same puncher’s chance. Chicago is boxed in financially to start the season with 11, a number they’ve already reached once you slot in Hebard. 
  • Tynice Martin fell even further to 34. How real were last year’s first-round projections? This could become a case that early entrants begin pointing to as they weigh their options. I’m not sold on her game and role in the WNBA after watching how this past college season played out.
  • Martin did shoot in the mid-30s from deep in her two prior seasons. But she isn’t Courtney Williams in terms of her speed or rise. Teams don’t have room for the jab step game we saw at West Virginia; they have more efficient options to play through. Perhaps Martin will push Sydney Wiese for a roster spot. Mompremier will need to push Marie Gulich for a spot in the frontcourt.

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