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WNBA Draft: Undersized Forwards Like Thompson Make Great NCAA Stories...But What About the WNBA?

Oklahoma University's Amanda Thompson (AP photo)
Oklahoma University's Amanda Thompson (AP photo)

In previewing Oklahoma University's matchup against Stanford University at 4 pm PST today, Sooner forward Amanda Thompson made a statement that acknowledged one of her biggest limitations.

"They have really tall posts down there, and they just execute very well," said Thompson at the Final Four media day. "So we definitely have to take away their cadence and disrupt what they do and outwork them and just play hard."

Of course, for most people, this is hardly "news" - Stanford's trio of 6'4" Jayne Appel, 6'2" Nnemkadi Ogwumike, and 6'4" Kayla Pedersen comprise one of the most intimidating frontlines in the nation. In contrast, Thompson is listed at 6'1" and by her own admission is not the fastest player out there - she thrives on effort and what coach Sherri Coale has called an "indomitable will".

Amanda Thompson is Sooners' 'go-getter' |
"It’s all anticipation and reading where the ball’s going to come off. You can see where the ball is going once it’s shot," Thompson explained. "But sometimes, you just outhustle the person that’s going for it. A lot of times, that’s what I do."

Thompson’s hustle helped carry OU to the Final Four. And could help propel the Sooners beyond that.

"It’s just about how much you want it," Thompson said. "You can be slow or quick — I’m one of the slowest — but I’m going to go get that ball. "It’s about having the will to go get it."

Look around the web this morning and you'll find no shortage of press about Thompson and the beautiful story of her will. However as easy as it is to root for Thompson and the Sooners, with the WNBA draft looming the narrative of will trumping size and athleticism becomes more of an issue than a nice storyline.

The consensus is that this draft is "weak", but I might argue that it's not for lack of talent, per se - it just so happens that there are a number of players who, like Thompson, have been effective in the NCAA but figure to meet a bit of a challenge in finding a position in the WNBA due to their size and/or skillset.

Nevertheless, some of the most impressive college players just so happen to fit into this "tweener" category of being too small for their natural position, but perhaps not possessing the skill to play more athletic players at another position.

Middle Tennesse State forward Alysha Clark led the nation in scoring as a 5'10" post player and 6'2" University of Nebraska forward Kelsey Griffin is another hard-working, heady and versatile player with great instincts who led the nation in Boxscores. Yet despite clearly displaying a high basketball IQ and excellent skill, both will have a difficult time finding a place in the WNBA where players are just bigger and more athletic.

This might partially explain why so many observers consider the 2010 draft "weak" -- when you look at the most talented college seniors available, a large part of that is because a number of the most talented college players seem to fit into the tweener category at both guard an forward positions. So in evaluating these undersized forwards, the question is not so much about what they've accomplished in college but more what they might be able to contribute to a professional team. The challenge is that nobody can possibly predict how well a player might transform their game before knowing the personnel and philosophy of the team that drafts them. However, the following is a breakdown of each player with some potential strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Kelsey Griffin, 6'2", University of Nebraska

Chasing the Title summary: "She is in the top five for every category I track, leading BoxScores, Rebound/40 and Individual Rating."

I've already written about Griffin a bit in the last mock draft, but what makes a Griffin a strong prospect despite being undersized is her understanding of the game and versatility. She can contribute in multiple ways and does an outstanding job of picking her spots in the flow of the game. She's a good enough rebounder that she should be able to contribute on the boards and in the right system, she could certainly get minutes. The question is what system that is, how patient a team is with helping her to adjust, and her ability to possibly defend small forwards. Overall, she might not be the star that she was in college, but she should be a solid role player in the WNBA at the very least.

  1. Alysha Clark, 5'10", Middle Tennessee State University

Chasing the Title statistical summary: She is my top rated player for Floor Percentage, True Shooting Percentage, Offensive Rebounding and Adjusted WINSCORE.  She is second overall in Effective Field Goal Percentage and BoxScores rating.  The only areas she does not make my top five are defensive rebounding and rebounds per 40 minutes.

Again, I've written about Clark at length in the latest mock draft, but just to reiterate: watch her play. She is a small forward playing the post in college, not a post player needing to learn how to play the perimeter. She is not confined by plodding strides or lacking ball skills. She's clearly capable of playing the wing and, with some time and experience, she could certainly become a solid contributor in the WNBA. She was obviously playing on the blocks in college because, well, look at her numbers - how can you begrudge her that? IT was best for the team for her to continue dominating there and so she did.

What makes it hard to project her draft stock is that it will depend entirely on which team feels they can wait for her to make get comfortable playing the perimeter at the professional level. In that regard, she's something of a risk because she probably will not be an immediate contributor.

  1. Vivian Frieson, 6'0", Gonzaga University

I recognize that most people won't have Frieson this high on their boards even among the other players in this category. But here's what makes her particularly attractive to WNBA teams - compared to the players below and the some of the more highly touted prospects, Frieson already has the ability to play on the perimeter. She will enter the WNBA with experience handling the ball and she's a capable passer. Add to that the athleticism, rebounding, shot blocking and scoring and Frieson could very easily become a well-rounded role player that provides a team with energy.

The bottom line is that by all accounts - coaches, media members, and teammates - Frieson has steadily improved over the course of her career and showed during the tournament that she's still growing as a player. Even with Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves' comment that she was arguably the most important player for the Bulldogs, Frieson might be one of those players that actually improves once she makes the transition to the pro level. Like many of the other players on this list, she's something of an unknown commodity, but is well worth a second round pick given this year's talent pool.

For more on Frieson: Why Frieson, Gonzaga are "a terrific advertisement for women's college basketball".

  1. Shanavia Dowdell, 6'2", Louisiana Tech University

A few years back, while discussing NBA draft picks with someone who has been watching basketball since the Golden State Warriors were last a championship contender, a very simple standard to evaluate prospects was mentioned: he looks for players who just have a habit of being in the middle positive plays for their team.

It's not just the plays that show up in boxscores, but making the extra pass, boxing out a key player to allow a teammate to make a rebound, or helping to secure loose balls for their team. Even when the casual fans thinks they've "disappeared", they still have an impact on the game. When that habit is reinforced by numbers, you have something potentially special. For players like that, it's not just that they're dominant but it's that they seem to understand the game better than anyone else making them almost unstoppable in college because they immediately adapt to the circumstances.

Dowdell is one of those players.

She absolutely dominated Florida State University and first-round center prospect Jacinta Monroe - she had 22 points on 10-11 shooting and 6 rebounds in the first half -- and would have almost singlehandedly won that game had it not been for a couple of bad foul calls in the first half. As mentioned above, it wasn't just scoring - it was that she seemed to get to the ball faster than anyone else, she made the right passing decisions, and consistently kept Monroe off the boards when she was in the game. And although a lot of her points looked like easy "bunnies", she made them happen simply by finding the gaps in the defense to get open.

Statistically, Dowdell is one of the best rebounders in the draft, with an average offensive rebounding rate and an outstanding defensive rebounding rate of just over 23%. She's also a very efficient scorer across the board. If there is anything that stands out statistically, it's that her turnover rate is nearly twice that of her assist rate.

Like the other players in this group, what will hurt Dowdell's draft position is her height and questions about whether the power game that she has used to overwhelm college competition will work against professionals. Secondly, she didn't exactly face the toughest competition this season. However, what makes Dowdell impressive compared to some of the more highly touted prospects who will be drafted ahead of her is that she just seems to have a better understanding of the game than most college players.

  1. Amanda Thompson, 6'1", Oklahoma University

It's difficult to ever count out the type of "indomitable will" that Thompson has, especially when it translates into a defensive rebounding percentage of about 20%. In addition, Thompson might be an underrated passer with an assist rate of nearly 14%, though it's offset by a turnover rate of just over 14%. Thompson put up a solid Boxscore, but it was mostly on the strength of her rebounding -- most of her shooting numbers were well below average this season despite improving her shot over the course of her career.

What cannot be accounted for in any way is the will that Thompson shows on the court. Her performance against Stanford today will go a long way toward showing scouts what she can do.

  1. Gabriela Marginean, 6'1", Drexel University

Deserves a look for her level of production at Drexel and she's a player that could get into training camp and be a light surprise.

Marginean is one of those players that moves without the ball and uses space and angles very well, whether that be coming off screens, on the wing, or in the post. She's decisive player who certainly isn't going to hurt a team a team trying to do too much, often getting to where she wants to go in 2 to 3 dribbles. She's clearly a player that pays attention to detail making very precise cuts and making textbook moves, almost to the point of seeming too deliberate. In the right system, she could develop into a role player who adds something off the bench.

Compared to some of the other players listed, Marginean is clearly the one whose style most resembles that of a perimeter player. She has much stronger scoring tendencies and is the most confident ballhandler of this group. However, there might be two questions for her: first, will her crafty moves work against bigger, faster, and stronger WNBA players? Second, who will she defend?

  1. Shanara Hollinquest, 6'0", Tennessee at Chattanooga

Hollinquest put up some great numbers that earned her some great accolades in college, but her 6'0" stature has to be a concern. She has a bit less of a perimeter game than Thompson and relies heavily on strong first moves to score. The big question for her is whether she can adapt her game to work on the pro level.

  1. Heather Bowman, 6'2", Gonzaga University

Bowman had an outstanding career at Gonzaga and similar to Marginean does an excellent job working in space, whether it be in the half court or on the break, though she doesn't possess quite the ballhandling ability of Marginean. However, she has one statistical oddity working against her - college post players with above average scoring tendencies and below average interior tendencies almost uniformly struggle to make the transition to the WNBA.