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Swish Appeal WNBA Mock Draft v 1.1: Balancing Impact & Upside

It may seem obvious, but it might as well be said again because inevitably some people either ignore it or refuse to accept it: drafting is not a science.

Nevertheless, fans will either cheer or complain when their team makes a pick assuming to know more than the general managers that have watched 100s of hours more of one prospect than the average fan sees of the entire field of prospects, not to mention actually talking to the players and getting to know them beyond the recycled words of the media. And even then, the "experts" will be proven wrong.

Nobody can really claim to know how these draft things will actually turn out 3-5 years down the road.

For the WNBA, the situation may be even more difficult this season -- with rosters being cut to 11 drafting becomes even more difficult, especially in what analysts consider a "weak" draft. Whereas NBA teams will often draft players on potential and keep them as projects -- perhaps even fetishizing potential at times -- there is simply less room for that in the WNBA this season, which will be held on April 8th at 3pm EST in Secaucus, New Jersey.

"There is less room, but I don't think it's a bad thing," said Chicago Sky coach and general manager Steven Key in an interview with Swish Appeal yesterday. "Although we lost a team in Sacramento I think what its done is cause even greater parity. We went down from 13 players down to 11. The cap room came down and everything else. I just think it evens out because it will make the product a lot better...It's just hard that some people aren't going to get in in this situation -- not being about to have that 12th or 13th person that you see how in a couple if they get and they grow possibly turning into a regular or starter on your team. So on one side it's good that you're going to get more talent overall when you only get 11, but on the other side you know that you definitely won't get an opportunity that much or that often, unless you have a team where 5 or 6 people are eating up the majority of your cap and you need some of the younger players in order to fit under the cap. 

"There could be a situation -- and I'm sure some teams will look at it that way -- where that's going to be how they carry that extra person in order to see if a couple of years from now whether or not they pan out."

This dilemma of balancing impact and "upside" could affect this draft as early as when Key has to make a selection at #4. After the top 3 or 4 players, there are a number of players with promising strengths and successful college careers that also have noticeable flaws. From talking to general managers this off-season, the 2010 WNBA draft will involve a delicate balancing act of talent, need, and potential - there are very few clear cut picks.

So after conversations with coaches, the WNBA pre-draft media conference, statistical analysis, and watching far too much basketball, here is my first attempt at a mock draft. Although the draft itself and the ensuing player development is quite unpredictable, we can take stock of player strengths and weaknesses to get a sense of what a player might offer a WNBA team. The following is my current assessment of the draft, with explanations for each pick below.

2010 WNBA Draft First Round Mock Draft as of March 31, 2010

1. Connecticut Sun: Tina Charles, center, University of Connecticut

2. Minnesota Lynx: Jayne Appel, center, Stanford University

3. Minnesota Lynx: Monica Wright, guard, University of Virginia

4. Chicago Sky: Epiphanny Prince, guard, Botas-Spor/Rutgers

5. San Antonio Silver Stars: Alysha Clark, forward, Middle Tennessee State University

6. Washington Mystics: Kelsey Griffin, forward, University of Nebraska

7. Tulsa Shock: Andrea Riley, guard, Oklahoma State University

8. Los Angeles Sparks: Allison Hightower, guard, Louisiana State University

9. Atlanta Dream: Jenna Smith, power forward/center, University of Illinois

10. Seattle Storm: Alison Lacey, point guard, Iowa State

11. Indiana Fever: Kalana Greene, guard, University of Connecticut

12. Los Angeles Sparks: Jacinta Monroe, center, Florida State University

1. Connecticut Sun: Tina Charles, center, University of Connecticut

Mike Thibault confirmed with Swish Appeal back in February that he would be drafting UConn center Tina Charles barring "something crazy that I can't even fathom right now that would make us change our mind". To our knowledge - and that of other coaches we've spoken to - nothing that crazy has occurred to this point.

2. Minnesota Lynx: Jayne Appel, center, Stanford University

We posted an extended analysis of Appel last week and she is clearly the second best WNBA prospect this season in terms of immediate impact.

The only explanation for the critiques of her game or the notion that she's "slipping" for playing injured, being too slow or simply not being very good (insert synonym for absurd) is over-exposure -- people have been watching her so long that in not finding anything new to say, they start finding flaws. See our analysis above for more about what she might offer the WNBA, but at this point I will defer to the insight of Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve from yesterday's WNBA pre-draft media conference:

"That's a player who clearly, if you look at from a senior year standpoint, probably has not had the type of year that neither she hoped for, Stanford hoped for, maybe coaches and GMs that are interested in drafting her had hoped for. It's one of those things if you do your homework and you know Jayne Appel, it's the compilation of her career -- it's not just a senior year evaluation. You're looking at a player -- Nolan Richardson mentioned the idea of understanding the game -- that's a player who really understands how to involve her teammates on offense, is a good team player on both sides of the ball, and is a player who quite frankly is clearly suffering from injuries but the secondary aspect of that is her conditioning level is not where she's used to being. So her mobility is really the one thing that's in question right now and the last game that she played certainly underscored that. So there are certainly question marks that have been created, but I think Jayne Appel, 6-foot-4 is skilled in the post and that's a player that's going to go as high as number two and -- I don't know how many scenarios could be created -- but could be as low as 5 or 6."

When you look at the roster the Lynx currently has, an unselfish player in the post who knows how to pass the ball seems to be the perfect complement to facilitate the scoring of their already talented scorers.

3. Minnesota Lynx: Monica Wright, guard, University of Virginia

As talented as the Lynx already are on paper, it almost seems unfair for them to add a talent on the level of Wright. Wright is considered by many to be the best perimeter player in this draft, so in terms of value the pick makes a lot of sense.

"The best all around player I feel possibly could be Monica Wright from Virginia," said ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck during the WNBA pre-draft press conference. "I think that being able to play around other talented players on her team she's only going to evolve and become a tremendous player."

As a corollary to what Reeve said about Appel, what Peck describes is a player who might play even better than we imagine in a system where she blends in more to a group of talented players rather than being the constant center of a attention -- Wright's usage percentage is the second highest among draft prospects and second only to Oklahoma State University's Andrea Riley. On a team expected to do less, she should become more efficient.

Although some might suggest that the Lynx need a point guard, Wright will not necessarily be expected to run point: Reeve already told Swish Appeal back in February that she believes in Wiggins' ability to run the point and Wright herself said in yesterday's conference call that she is not as comfortable running the point.

"I definitely feel most comfortable on the perimeter as a guard," said Wright during the pre-draft conference call. "Shooting guard, not as much of a point guard, but mostly shooting guard."

On a talented team with a coach focused on defense, what Wright will likely be expected to do is provide additional scoring punch from the perimeter and defend the position.

4. Chicago Sky: Epiphanny Prince, guard, Botas-Spor/Rutgers

In the conference call, Reeve said Prince could go as high as 3 and as low as 4.

Although Key identified both help in the frontcourt and ballhandling help as needs, at this point in the draft, it seems more reasonable to pick a guard at this point. Prince is universally considered as the best guard available here.

"The fact that Amber Harris is not going to be in the draft means there's one less big player so we definitely are leaning toward a guard in a guard heavy draft," said Key in an interview with Swish Appeal. "There's always a possibility -- there's Andrea Riley out there. Epiphanny Prince played well overseas -- she played with Courtney Paris since the beginning of the year over the last three months. There's Kelsey Griffin who had a very spectacular year at Nebraska. Kalana Greene also. I think it's gonna be almost like after the third pick goes -- what dropped, what they picked, what they didn't take, and then we're going to make our choice."

Most importantly, Prince was able to learn the point guard position overseas, learning how to pick her spots and keep her teammates involved in addition to being a potent scorer. With a strong ball handler to complement their scorers, Chicago could be a much more effective team.

5. San Antonio Silver Stars: Alysha Clark, forward, Middle Tennessee State University

This is a tough pick to call -- the Silver Stars most need post players to bolster their rebounding, even after their trade for Michelle Snow. Swish Appeal re-confirmed last week from a Silver Stars representative that the team is still uncertain about center Ann Wauters' status although she has been designated as a core player.

The problem is that there really isn't a post player at this point in the draft who will fill that need. So the answer could be to look at the small forward position, another place where the Silver Stars are rather thin. After suggesting Monique Currie would be a fit previously, Alysha Clark might be the next best thing available in this draft.

In college, Clark has been nothing short of remarkable -- playing in the post at 5'!0" she averaged 28.7 points per game as well as 11.53 rebounds per game. However, in the WNBA, she'll probably have to make at least demonstrate the ability to play the perimeter at the small forward position, as described by Peck during the media teleconference yesterday. 2010 WNBA Pre-Draft Conference Call: ESPN Analysts
"When you lead the nation in scoring, you have a tendency to attract some attention. What’s remarkable about what Alysha Clark has been able to do at 5’10" and score the amount of points that she does, and she does it in the paint. Talking to Coach Rick Insill, she has a face-up game but played underneath the basket and on the block because that’s what her team needed her to do. She does have three-point range. We have seen her be able to rebound and handle the ball, bring it in transition, and the level of toughness she has is attractive to a few WNBA teams."

In addition to the tangible skills Clark brings to the court, what's most impressive is her instincts -- whether she's playing against Sun Belt Conference competition or Mississippi State University in the first round, Clark manages to make plays on both ends of the floor. On the basketball court, being in the "right place at the right time" is more than mere serendipity -- she knows how to play this game and that will help her adapt.

Most of all though is that Clark is not the typical "tweener" one might imagine -- she's more of a WNBA small forward playing on the block in college than a college post player who will be playing the perimeter in the WNBA. She's not limited to post moves or guarding post players -- in watching her play, you can tell she has the court awareness of a perimeter player. There might be a number of reasons she doesn't make it, but lacking small forward basketball IQ won't be one of them. On a team that is prides itself on playing high-synergy basketball, Clark could be an ideal fit.

6. Washington Mystics: Kelsey Griffin, forward, University of Nebraska

Another undersized post player is not necessarily ideal for the Mystics at this pick, but Griffin might just be the best value and the best fit left on the board.

In her interview with Swish Appeal in late February, Mystics GM Angela Taylor mentioned both post players and depth on the perimeter as options for them to acquire in this draft. However, given that she was also clear that the team's primary need was post play, Griffin makes the most sense here. She has the highest rate of rebounds per 40 minutes of anybody in this draft, has that same court sense that Clark has and most impressively, she absolutely carried Nebraska this season in every way imaginable.

Statistically, she made a significantly larger contribution to the team than her teammates, which was one of the team's glaring vulnerabilities heading into the tournament and what led to an upset loss to a pressing University of Kentucky team. And yet even in that game, she showed what makes her great -- not only did she continue fighting until fighting no longer made sense, but she was always around the ball in position to make plays both for herself and others.

7. Tulsa Shock: Andrea Riley, guard, Oklahoma State University **Trade?**

Riley makes sense here in many ways -- the Shock want to play uptempo basketball, they need a point guard who can run that kind of system, and Griffin would be an in-state alum that would presumably be a box office draw in a fast-paced style.

All that aside, Riley is also 5'5" and next to second year guard Shavonte Zellous -- who is actually an outstanding defender despite her slight stature -- might leave the Shock a little vulnerable. Moreover, an up-tempo offense is oftentimes better led by a savvy veteran point guard, which might lead Richardson to trade the pick.

"There's not a lot picks that I'm going to be able to get that can do the kinds of things that we're trying to get accomplished," said Tulsa Shock coach Nolan Richardson in the pre-draft conference call yesterday. "So I think right now for the Shock, we've got to get players that have got some experience. Again, there may be a possibility that I may have to move my pick. We've got a lot of gaps and things to do and it's not the same Shock team that played last year in tact.

"So my job then, looking at what I've got and how I want to play, is gonna really involve some experienced type players. "

One rumor floating around is a trade involving the Shock and the New York Liberty, who don't currently have a first round pick, but did just acquire another second round pick from their trade with the Chicago Sky. Given that every coach and general manager I've talked to has noted that this is a weak draft, I wouldn't expect a trade involving picks alone...but perhaps a player? A point guard since the Liberty have been disappointed with Loree Moore's performance?

8. Los Angeles Sparks: Allison Hightower, guard, Louisiana State University

This is yet another case where the obvious need -- a post player to replace the irreplaceable Lisa Leslie -- is set aside for a talent that fits a lesser need.

"In the guard area we weren't a great three point shooting team last year," said Los Angeles coach Jennifer Gillom in the pre-draft media conference. "We weren't that great at three point shooting last year and hopefully that can help open up the inside."

While the Sparks could certainly settle for a lesser talent in the post, Hightower makes a lot of sense here. Although people note Hightower's versatility, she was a pure scorer in college, getting many of her baskets on spot ups or quick jumpers. However, what makes her such a remarkable scorer is that similar to players like Clark and Griffin, Hightower has a remarkable scorer's awareness -- she finds her spot and is two to three motions ahead of her defender when she gets the ball, possessing excellent shooter's footwork, and very decisively getting herself in position to score. In addition, she's a more than capable defender, noting that she comes from a program focused on defense.

9. Atlanta Dream: Jenna Smith, power forward/center, University of Illinois

This is the place in the draft where the talent drops a little and teams will have to choose between need, talent, and potential with a heavy emphasis on need and potential.

Put simply, the dream need another body in the frontcourt and Smith is the best option available here given that need. In addition to being a very efficient scorer, she's a capable passer out of the post and she is among one of the best at establishing position for defensive rebounds, with one of the defensive rebounding rates of any prospect. Defensively, she might struggle in with the quickness of WNBA as she did against Jantel Lavender in the Big Ten tournament, often falling victim to changes of direction and second moves. Yet the footwork and mechanics are all there, which is a big plus.

Kalana Greene might be the best pick available here, but ultimately, the Dream already have a number of resources devoted to the perimeter and Smith is worth a try.

10. Seattle Storm: Alison Lacey, point guard, Iowa State

Again, Lacey is probably not the best talent on the board, but she will be able to contribute to the Storm filling in some minutes as the reserve point guard.

She has the best court sense of any point guard in this draft, is an efficient scorer, and does not play beyond her limits. Most of all, her point guard statistics bode very well for professional success.

"One of the bad things for her is that she was sick and injured for the last three years before the regular season," said Key. "But she's a very capable player. She did have almost a 8 or 9 to 1 assist to turnover ratio before she got injured, which is outstanding."

11. Indiana Fever: Kalana Greene, guard, University of Connecticut

If Greene were to fall this far, the Fever could consider themselves perpetrators of grand larceny -- Greene is the best all-around player left on the board, more than capable of playing aggressive defense in a team concept and by far the most efficient scorer remaining in the draft, although she did not shoot very many threes.

"There is no question to me that Kalana is a first rounder," said Richardson. "A tremendous athlete -- maybe the best athlete on Connecticut's team. Sometimes some of the players that play like Kalana are overshadowed by some great players especially Maya Moore and then you got Tina. Sometimes you get swallowed up by the fact that there's another young lady on the team that's pretty good. Greene is that other person."

12. Los Angeles Sparks: Jacinta Monroe, center, Florida State University

Having gone for the best talent available with their first pick, the Sparks can afford to take on a player that projects to be a bit of a project in Jacinta Monroe. If fellow WNBA prospect Chanel Mokango was able to body her out of position on the block for rebounds on more than one occasion, players actually on WNBA rosters will certainly be as effective against her, if not more. However, in the right system, she could work out well.

"I think that getting as far as they did in the tournament definitely helps her a lot," said Gillom. "I think she's another player it just depends on team needs in terms of how high she goes in the draft."

What makes her potentially attractive to the Sparks as a replacement for the irreplaceable is her passing and shooting ability in the high post. At 6'5" she could very easily play the high post for the Sparks and work the high-low post game while providing some weak side shot blocking. With time and added muscle, she could become a solid post defender. Right now though, she could be the first of a long line of projects drafted.

Update 1.1: In a quote from Sky coach Steve Key above, I originally wrote, "...there's Alysha Clark out there...". That quote has been corrected to say, "...there's Andrea Riley out there...".