WNBA Draft Grades: New York Liberty win big with Sabrina Ionescu

The WNBA Draft was a surreal digital version of itself but it still saw a massive influx of talent to the league. Which teams made out the best?

It feels a little odd — more than a little odd — for me to be giving out 2020 WNBA Draft grades. Specifically, the grades part.

I was not what you’d call a good student, and if you tracked down virtually any of my teachers willing to discuss me, they would confirm it. I spent much of my schooling not doing homework and watching a lot of basketball. The extent to which this prepared me for my profession in a way pre-calc never would have, well, I’ll leave it to you to evaluate my choices.

All of which is prologue to remind you, WNBA teams, that if you have any objection to how my grades reflect on your team, I have no standing whatsoever, according to every report card I ever received.

With that caveat out of the way, a few other notes on how evaluations work. I’m giving grades based on how successfully a team converted its opportunities. The Las Vegas Aces had pick 33. The Dallas Wings had 2, 5 and 7. I am not grading their player hauls on the same curve.

At the risk of grade inflation, I didn’t really ding anyone for a poor draft. There’s been a significant increase in the depth of understanding and integration of analytics, the ability to see vastly more film on players along with live looks has helped as well, and I know the early end to the NCAA Tournament plus the shelter-in-place reality we live in now allowed league talent evaluators to spend even more time watching and breaking down prospect film.

A draft with few reaches was the result. A draft with errors like the Atlanta Dream had in 2012, selecting an ineligible player, did not happen. (But that really happened in 2012! Boy oh boy, would I have given them a poor 2012 draft grade, and that’s the year they stole Tiffany Hayes in the second round!)

I’m also dedicating this set of draft grades to Matt Ellentuck, a great WNBA writer who was furloughed on the literal day of the WNBA Draft, even as his pieces, like free agency grades, have helped drive the conversation. Matt gets an A+ now and wherever he writes next.

And now, without further ado:

New York Liberty: A

There’s no arguing with numerous facets of the Liberty draft, starting with Sabrina Ionescu, who was a perfect fit in every way imaginable. It’s not just that she can be the face of the franchise and drive coverage in New York, though this is no small thing. But Ionescu addresses a team-wide problem with both getting good looks from the point guard that dates back to, well, Becky Hammon‘s departure, and an acute issue with turnovers at point guard as well. She shoots the 3 well, and that was a theme with everyone added on draft night: Megan Walker at No. 9 and Jocelyn Willoughby at No. 10, the latter acquired from Phoenix in a trade, were both north of 40 percent from beyond the arc their senior years, while No. 12 pick Jazmine Jones and No. 13 pick Kylee Shook were both above 35 percent. It’s not clear yet how everyone fits into a roster with plenty of shooting already, but New York has assets, options, and more time than usual, given, you know, the global pandemic.

Dallas Wings: A

Some WNBA folks believe Satou Sabally has a higher ceiling than Sabrina Ionescu. I am not one of these people, since Ionescu comes in ready to be another Sue Bird in both skill and killer instinct, but it does reflect the boundless potential that Sabally has, as a 6-foot-4 forward capable of banging at the rim, shooting 3s or finding her teammates as secondary facilitator, a stronger young Candace Parker-type. That Bella Alarie does many of these same things, with elite wingspan giving her better shot-blocking skills, is not a problem — witness the Washington Mystics winning with Emma Meesseman and Elena Delle Donne, then adding Tina Charles to that mix. I mean, it’s a problem, but for other teams.

Ty Harris is, to the extent any rookie point guard can be, ready for the pros on day one, and will serve as Moriah Jefferson insurance. Even Luisa Geiselsöder is a highly regarded international big, though she might not come to the states for a while. Greg Bibb stockpiled and executed. It’s easier to see the next great Dallas team now than it was just a few days ago.

Atlanta Dream: A

The Dream were in an odd place. 2018 was a huge success, with a trip to the WNBA semifinals, but 2019 was the disaster that landed them the fourth overall pick. But their decision to blow a lot of it up looks awfully good after this draft. They managed to lure Courtney Williams south from Connecticut in trade, and they get to pair her in the backcourt with Chennedy Carter, who was ready to make the leap to the pros when I saw her as a high school senior playing in the Jordan Classic. They have a pair of shotmakers without fear or conscience at the two guard spots, who can play alongside their returning star, Tiffany Hayes, whose injuries helped make 2019 the disaster it was.

Imagine running those three next to three-point specialist Shekinna Stricklen and a 6-foot-7 enforcer center, Kalani Brown, plenty skilled herself, or an Atlanta lineup of death with Glory Johnson at the 5, or going big with either of those two next to Elizabeth Williams. Head coach Nicki Collen has options on offense this season well beyond even her 2018 team. And don’t sleep on third-round pick Mikayla Pivec, either, an absolute elite basketball mind who can pass and sink 3s, and a potential defender of 1s and 2s.

Indiana Fever: B

This is no reflection on what choices the Fever made, especially at number three overall. Lauren Cox is everything the league rewards, between the endless motor, the skills, the arc of development reflecting new advancements each season, a 6-foot-4 forward with strength who can block shots and shoot from anywhere. Think of her as a healthy combination of Alarie and Sabally, with those preferring either of those two over Cox coming from a place of thinking Cox won’t develop as fully.

But bankable skills at third overall that fit with franchise cornerstone Teaira McCowan, and spacing to help Kelsey Mitchell have more room to roam and penetrate — Tamika Catchings did well here, as she does in all things. Kathleen Doyle at No. 14 raised some eyebrows, with Crystal Dangerfield still available as a potential backup for Erica Wheeler and replacement next year should the 2021 free agent sign elsewhere.

Minnesota Lynx: B

Again, there’s an element here of “never doubt Cheryl Reeve.” She clearly viewed this draft, beyond the lottery and Bella Alarie, as a place to hit singles, not home runs. And she did that twice. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan is a 6-foot-2 forward who can shoot it from 3 and has a dangerous midrange game — in some ways, odd as this is, she can replace what Seimone Augustus was for the Lynx last year (with the caveat that this is NOT the same thing as replacing peak Augustus) with mid-range looks. But it’s an absolute steal to add Crystal Dangerfield at No. 16 to the point-guard-by-committee that will include Lexie Brown and even some Rachel Banham. All three can shoot, all three have elevated basketball IQs. Dangerfield might start.

Chicago Sky: B+

This is value at the spot. James Wade added Ruthy Hebard, a really impressive 5 who does everything a traditional big should do — defends, rebounds, blocks shots, finishes at the rim at a high level, strong basketball IQ. She’ll slide into Chicago’s big rotation, though getting minutes with Stef Dolson, Cheyenne Parker and Azura Stevens already on board won’t be easy.

Seattle Storm: A-

I love what Alisha Valvanis did here. Kitija Laksa at No. 11 is an absolutely legit first-round talent. But the Storm, with 11 players under contract and Ezi Magbegor, last year’s top pick, scheduled to come over, didn’t have any room. They could have traded the pick, but instead used it on Laksa, and got her to delay coming over until 2021. Thus, she’s a year further removed from a knee injury that cost her her senior year in college, a year older and more ready to contribute immediately when she does arrive, and the Storm aren’t losing anything in the meantime. That’s a nice little piece of business here, Seattle.

Phoenix Mercury: A

Again, evaluating the Mercury’s position matters when giving out grades. They entered the night with No. 10, No. 18 and No. 29. They left it with Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, whose limited minutes in DC had nothing to do with her talent (she’s a strong defender at the 2, elite shooter from 3) and everything to do with the roster talent crunch for the defending champions, acquired from New York for the No. 10 pick. I do not see a better win-now player in this draft available at 10 than SWK, and that’s no slight of Willoughby, but reflects Phoenix’s need to maximize the remaining years of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, now joined by Skylar Diggins-Smith. It’s not project time in Phoenix. And the same is true of Te’a Cooper at No. 18, who will give them minutes at point guard if she makes the team (and very well might), along with Stella Johnson at 29. Know this: Stella Johnson is a WNBA-caliber player. Johnson has the quickness and defensive chops that Sandy Brondello might want.

Connecticut Sun: B-

A fine enough draft for Curt Miller, who checked in at picks No. 23 and No. 35. I love Kaila Charles’ makeup and ability to get to the rim, but I have questions about where she fits in the WNBA without a reliable 3-point shot, and if she didn’t develop it with Brenda Frese at Maryland, who certainly knows how to prep players for the next level, it’s fair to wonder if it’ll happen. (Then again, Sun assistants Brandi Poole and Chris Koclanes are no slouches.) Juicy Landrum can shoot it from anywhere, and offers a Rachel Banham replacement should Miller want to mess with the 12 he has under contract. (Fearless prediction: he will not.)

Washington Mystics: B-

Well, Mike Thibault couldn’t have been clearer, telling media on a conference call after acquiring Tina Charles that he was pleased to know what his team will look like. So, good luck to you, Jaylyn Agnew and Sug Sutton. I really like them both, actually, Agnew as a shooter (best free-throw shooter in the nation last year!) who makes the smart play always, and Sug Sutton as a typical Karen Aston tough point guard. Expect Thibault to play them a lot in any preseason we may have to show them off. Reminds me of Mercedes Russell with the 2018 Liberty, no roster spot, but ample chances to show teams what she could do. She won a title that year in Seattle, so chin up, Kaylyn Agnew!

Los Angeles Sparks: B+

The Sparks were another team without many roster spots available, so they handled it well. Go get an international-stash in forward Leonie Fiebich at No. 22, and the two domestic players at No. 20 and No. 35, Beatrice Mompremier and Tynice Martin, looked like potential first-rounders at different points in the last calendar year. Mompremier has a pro-ready body at 6-foot-4, a great array of post moves, but just never converted enough of her tools into skills at Miami. Tynice Martin took a step back statistically her senior year, but remains a capable ball-dominant guard who doesn’t turn it over and gets to the rim. Maybe one of them flashes enough in a training camp to stick. Maybe they supplant Marie Gulich and Sydney Wiese, respectively, and Oregon State fans march en masse on the Staples Center to protest.

Las Vegas Aces: B

Say this for Dan Padover and Bill Laimbeer: they need more shooting, and in Lauren Manis of Holy Cross, they got more shooting. Manis shot 46.3 percent from 3 her senior season. Nor was she merely a shooter, finishing 20th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage as well. You’ll find few who love Patriot League basketball more than I do, and she’ll be a fun story to root for come training camp, whenever that is.

Next: Diana Taurasi is still chasing perfection
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