Most people predicted that yesterday's WNBA draft would be unpredictable.
Everyone knew that the draft was "guard-heavy" and the selection order was more likely to be determined by team needs and preferences than the talent of the prospects.
Yet even with the expectation of unpredictability, there were a number of players who most people assumed would be selected in the first round who took a bit of a fall.
The first mild surprise was that the Minnesota Lynx not only passed on Jayne Appel but also traded their pick to the Connecticut Sun. Although Appel's minor slip to the San Antonio Silver Stars at number five might have been predictable due to a sub-par senior season marred by injury, Minnesota's decision likely set off a chain reaction.
"I really liked San Antonio just because it was kind of close to home - I'm from Texas, I'm a Texas girl - and kind of close to my college too," said LSU's Allison Hightower, who some people believed would go to San Antonio with the 5th pick. "So I was really liking San Antonio, but to be able to come up here to Connecticut is going to be a great experience."
Hightower wasn't the only one who fell a bit lower than expected.
Fresh off a national championship and 78-0 winning streak, UConn guard Kalana Greene was also forced to wait a little longer than expected to hear her name called.
"I was just talking to my mom - I was like, ‘I don't know where I'm going'," said Greene shortly after being selected by the New York Liberty. "Some people throw some little hints at you in the first round, but after the first round was over I didn't know where I was going. Like I said, I'm just happy to have a job."
However, the player who took arguably the biggest and most costly fall was California's Alexis Gray-Lawson.
Gray-Lawson was not considered quite the prospect as Greene or Hightower, but nonetheless fell from an expected early- to mid-second round prospect to the mid-third round. If nothing else, it was certainly a surprise to the Washington Mystics, who selected her with the 30th pick.
"We had Alexis projected as a mid-second round pick on our overall draft board and pretty high by position when we looked at combo guards," said Mystics GM Angela Taylor in an email to Swish Appeal. "As we entered the third round, our priority was to take the best combo guard available, but we certainly didn't think we would ever have the chance for that to be Alexis Gray-Lawson at #30. We were ecstatic when we realized that she would fall into our lap in the third round because she was someone who offered many of the dimensions we were looking for in a 2/1. There were a few teams selecting immediately ahead of us who looked like they would be considering taking the best perimeter player on the board or someone who could play both guard positions, so we were very surprised to see that Alexis was there for us."
Unfortunately, the process of fighting for a roster spot might not exactly soften the blow for Gray-Lawson -- as ESPN's Mechelle Voepel described in a blog post today, "After the draft, the hard part comes".
With the Sacramento Monarchs folding and rosters being limited to 11 players, simply being drafted is not enough: plenty of players drafted - especially in the late rounds -- are not going to make the final cut. Compounding the problem for the Mystics in particular is that they drafted four rookies, including Illinois forward Jenna Smith who also might have slipped a little depending on who you talk to.
So the question for Alexis Gray-Lawson: what does she have to do to actually make the team?
"We plan to put together the best team that we possibly can, so regardless of whether you were a 1st round draft pick, a 3rd round pick, or a free agent invite...you will have the opportunity to earn a spot," said Taylor in response to what Gray-Lawson might have to demonstrate in training camp in order to make the roster. "That's what we expect Alexis, Jacinta [Monroe, #6 overall], Jenna, and Shanavia [Dowdell, #18 overall] (as well as our returning veterans) to do starting now!
"For someone like Alexis, who has had a fantastic collegiate career and who has guided her team to a championship, I think she will be motivated by the fact that so many teams passed her up. I am a believer in everything happens for a reason & there is no need to worry about something you can't control. She can however control the condition she comes to camp in, the continued development of her skill-set, a blue-collar work ethic, a positive attitude, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to help the Mystics win a championship. Those things and an ability to beat someone out at her position will help her to make a roster."
Looking over the Mystics roster, beating someone out at her position would probably mean beating out Matee Ajavon - whom the Taylor has previously mentioned as an effective scorer off the bench - or Kristin Haynie, who was signed to play spot minutes in place of point guard Lindsey Harding who led the league with 34.71 minutes/game last season. Although it will be difficult to challenge players who already possess WNBA experience, it's not out of the question.
"In an ideal scenario for Alexis, she will be able to do what she does best. Demonstrate her versatility and ability to play the shooting guard position and the point guard position," said Taylor about what she might expect Gray-Lawson to contribute to the team. "In our system, we expect everyone to get after it defensively, which is something that she was recognized for in the Pac-10. She'll need to be able to guard bigger shooting guards and quicker point guards as well as to execute our defensive system.
"Offensively, we all know what Alexis is capable of doing (unfortunately for those of us Cardinal fans, we saw her explosive offensive displays quite often). We'll need her to do that on a consistent basis. Stretching the defense with her 3-ball, attacking the rim and finishing with contact, distributing the ball & making her teammates better, and helping us to get out in transition."
To say that Gray-Lawson is in any worse position to make a roster than anyone else is probably an exaggeration - as Voepel says, a number of draftees with the confidence to be a professional will simply get the short end of the stick in this climate. And of course, the transition from college to the pros can be difficult for almost any rookie in any sport.
"We understand that the leap from the college game to the pros is an adjustment for all rookies, so we expect to see daily improvement from all of our rookies and the willingness to get better while trying to be as consistent as possible," said Taylor.
On the bright side, as Taylor alluded to, Gray-Lawson's versatility as a scorer who can play the 2/1 is actually an advantage she might have over some other rookies -- or even players like Haynie, who was statistically only a minor contributor to Sacramento last season -- to make a roster. Nevertheless, the fight to make the roster likely won't soften the draft day fall much.
- Taylor tweeted yesterday that there had indeed been a little rivalrous Cal-Stanford trash talk between the two of them.
- Looking at the Mystics roster, Dowdell, Monroe, and Smith might have tougher battles for a roster spot than Gray-Lawson.
- Another player who might have had lower expectations, but still got snubbed -- in terms of statistical potential -- was Smith's Illinois teammate Lacey Simpson.
Simpson gets WNBA opportunity - Illinois Fighting Illini Sports Women's Basketball News - IlliniHQ.com
"I was in shock when I got the call yesterday," Simpson said. "Of course I was hoping to hear my name called during the draft, but I wasn't expecting anything. Getting this tryout is basically the same opportunity as getting drafted late, so I was thrilled when I got word I'd be heading to San Antonio. I'll still get the chance to show I belong on a roster, which is a chance I feel blessed to have. I know that making the team might be a long shot, but I've overcome many obstacles throughout my career, so I think I'm ready for one more."
- In a chat with Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve the other day, she mentioned part of the complexity of being drafted to a team with a crowded roster: with the number of slots available, just getting to training camp helps because it functions as something of a tryout. Even if a player doesn't latch on to the team that drafts/signs them for training camp, another team might take notice of what they've done and sign her later.