The consensus among women's basketball followers is that the senior class is supposed to be a weak one next year. There's no Brittney Griner or Skylar Diggins coming up in the 2012 WNBA Draft that can grab the attention of the casual viewer (or the national media). However, if you decided to focus only on underclassmen you'd pass up on a lot of great basketball being played next season. There are several players on the list below who will not only challenge for the usual shelf-full of trophies and honoraria but will also challenge each other over the year for the right to be called the #1 WNBA draft pick in 2012.
Cierra Bravard, P, Florida State
Unlike some players on the list below (Dixon, Ogwumike), Bravard does have the height of a WNBA player at 6-4 so she should go somewhere in the draft next year - the rule is that you can't teach height. She was named a member of the All-ACC First Team last year, with 15.0 ppg and 7.8 rpg over the 2010-11 season. Furthermore in a sport where you expect post players to score at the basket (and only there), Bravard shot 78.8 percent last season at the charity stripe. That's money in the bank for players who expect to get beaten up as part of the job description.
Bravard was primarily a backup the previous season. Florida State coach Sue Semrau described her as an athletic player, but one that gets her points and rebounds more through hard work than through dominating size and strength. How well would she do in the WNBA against players who really do have dominating size and strength? Bravard will have to establish her right to belong on this list next season.
Jasmine Dixon, F, UCLA
Big things were expected of Jasmin Dixon right away. After transferring out of Rutgers, Dixon's 15.3 ppg and 8.0 rpg led the Bruins in both scoring and rebounding as a sophomore. However, Dixon is not an outside threat - she didn't take a single 3-point attempt this year and is 2-for-6 over her college career. Even so, Dixon is the kind of player who can dominate a game if you allow her to.
Nate Parham has already written about Jasmine Dixon at length. He compares her to Allen Iverson, Dixon's favorite basketball player. "Dixon represents something that people rarely expect from female athletes: a combination of skillful creativity and the disciplined use of power, with any finesse or strict adherence to fundamentals seemingly an after-thought." At 6-0, Dixon is definitely undersized for a forward but Allen Iverson was only 6-0 as well.
Do you want to go by the yardstick or pass up on an explosive attacker? That will be the choice facing WNBA GMs next year.
Briana Gilbreath, G, USC
Gilbreath can play well on both sides of the ball. She was a Defensive Team Honorable Mention in the Pac-10 as a freshman, she was co-Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore and is a two-time member of the Pac-10' s All Defensive Team. She was also the leading scorer for the Trojans with 14.4 points per game and the leading rebounder with 7.3 rebounds per game.
She also had 91 steals and 50 blocked shots, making her a rare member of the 50-50 club. The only other members of this elite club in major conferences were Karisma Penn (Illinois), Toni Young (Oklahoma State) and Devereaux Peters (Notre Dame). This year, USC decided not to pass up a trip to the WNIT and Gilbreath's play took the Trojans all the way to the finals, where USC lost to Toledo, a game where Gilbreath had 14 points and nine rebounds and was named to the WNIT All-Tournament Team.
Gilbreath, however, only shot 40.6 percent from the field this year with an effective FG percentage of 43.6 percent. You don't have to be much of a scorer to lead a team characterized by defense, but she'll face even tougher defenders in the WNBA.
Tiffany Hayes, SG, Connecticut
If you're wearing #3 at Connecticut - a number last worn by Diana Taurasi - you know the expectations are high. Even so, sometimes it's hard to figure out Hayes.
1. She plays for Connecticut, a team that has lost a grand total of twice in Hayes's tenure.
2. On the other hand, her coach Geno Auriemma seems sometimes dismissive of Hayes's talent (but then again, it tends to be his default position on all of his players).
3. She averaged 13.6 points per game this year, right behind Maya Moore.
4. On the other hand, four players on the Huskies averaged in double-digits. Furthermore, you have to wonder how much Hayes's stats are inflated due to opposing defenses worried about, say, Maya Moore or Stefanie Dolson?
5. She's never really be a "wow" player, but
6. Throughout her career, she's been buried under other "wow" players like Tina Charles or Maya Moore.
7. She was Big East First Team this year.
8. So were ten other players.
Her Connecticut pedigree alone will get her a look. She has a tendency, however, to take flops. Not flops from charges, simply flops from losing her footing and ending up face down on the floor while the game moves on into the other half-court. In order for Hayes to land on her feet in the WNBA, she'll have to stay on her feet in Connecticut.
Glory Johnson, F, Tennessee
Glory Johnson fell slightly short of post-season glory this year. She lost the SEC Player of the Year award to her own teammate, Shekinna Stricklen. However, she made both the First Team All-SEC squad and the All-Defensive team - an honor shared only by Victoria Dunlap of Kentucky and Tierney Jenkins of Alabama. Johnson was a two-sport star in high school - winning state titles in track - so keeping up with the quick players on both sides of the court and in the WNBA will be no problem for her.
Her 12.0 ppg and 9.7 rpg are improvements over a sophomore season that saw her lose her starting spot on the Lady Volunteers roster - but only by around two points and two rebounds. Her 58.6 percent shooting from the free throw line isn't much to be frightened over either (she went to the line 227 times - 124 more times than Stricklen - suggesting that teams see Johnson as an easy foul). Johnson has worked hard on elevating her game - you have to on a Pat Summitt team - but can she elevate that game to a WNBA first-round level in one year?
Lykendra Johnson, P, Michigan State
Johnson was the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, and was part of a 27-win season in East Lansing, the second most wins by the Spartans ever. How do you quantify Johnson's defense? Simple. The Spartans were +187 with Johnson on the court, and -47 without her. Maybe it's a family legacy - her uncle is Russell Cross, who was drafted #6 in the 1983 NBA Draft by Golden State.
Or maybe it's just willpower. She was moved to center after an injury to freshman Madison Williams. Johnson is only 6-1, but she set a school season record for offensive rebounds. According to Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant, "She is playing at the position she has never played before, so to compete at a high level and be successful is really rewarding for her."
Johnson, however, is helped along the development curve by sitting out one year as an academic redshirt - she's one year further along in her physical development. However, her size is going to be held against her at draft time, even though she's faced and beaten taller teams - isn't there a formula that says force equals mass times acceleration? Johnson has the acceleration part down pat, but she won't need to be Bruce Lee in the post. Her defense will be what gets her through.
Shenise Johnson, G, Miami
Part of the reason that Katie Meier shared part of an Associated Press Coach of the Year award with Geno Auriemma and Tara VanDerveer is a player like Shenise Johnson, known as "Ice" because of her smooth collected play. Johnson was named on the State Farm All-America Team along with such luminaries as Maya Moore and Jantel Lavender. Johnson averaged 19.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game for the Hurricanes, and helped lead Miami to a share of the ACC regular season title in a "worst to first" year. For her effort, she picked up the ACC Player of the Year award, beating out senior Jasmine Thomas of Duke for the honor.
A McDonald's All-American, Johnson was also named to the Under-19 USA Team along with players like Skylar Diggins, Samantha Prahalis and Nnemkadi Ogwumike. No one's talking about Johnson as a top five WNBA draft pick - yet - but I suspect that if both she and Miami dominate the ACC in 2011-12 the talk will start to pick up.
Katie Meier had this to say about Johnson:
""That is a kid who has come in and handled the responsibility of changing a program," Meier said. "There are a lot of talented players in our conference and a lot of talented players in the country but none have had the responsibility that she has had. That is where she separates herself. She has had the responsibility of turning an entire program around. She has had some great help, no question. But she came here knowing that would be on her shoulders and that is why she chose Miami."
Nnemkadi Ogwumike, P, Stanford
Like Shenise Johnson above, Ogwumike was also a member of the U19 USA Team and was the co-captain of that squad. Basketball scouts have been keeping an eye on "Nneka" for some time. (As well as her teammate at Stanford, her sister Chiney.) Ogwumike, who averaged 17.5 ppg and 7.6 rpg, was the Pac-10 Player of the Year as a sophomore (but lost to Jeanette Pohlen this year).
Ogwumike at 6-2 might not have the height of the typical Sylvia Fowles-like WNBA post player, but she definitely has the quickness. She had 33 steals in her amazing sophomore season and 31 steals this year. Many women's basketball fans are projecting her as the de jure #1 draft pick next year and one writer is calling the 2011 WNBA season "The Nneka Bowl". If you don't see Ogwumike on a WNBA court in 2012, I suspect she won't be too depressed. The last I heard she was a pre-med major at Stanford, so a medical practice someday isn't out of the question.
Shekinna Stricklen, G/F, Tennessee
The 2009 Freshman of the Year of the US Basketball Writers Association goes into her fourth season starting at the end of this year. The Lady Volunteers (don't forget the "Lady") have been three years without a championship. It's not Tennessee's longest drought - they went titleless from 1987 to 1996 - but it does have Lady Vols fans concerned.
Stricklen is a three-time All-American and the winner of SEC Player of the Year honors this season. A lot has been asked of her in her career. She's been moved out of the point guard position. She was berated by her coach for not playing more like an All-American (and was not named a team captain for next year after wearing the sash this season). In spite of that, she shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range, was second to Meighan Simmons in points scored and right behind Glory Johnson in rebounds.
In spite of Stricklen's success, it doesn't seem like either she or Glory Johnson get much respect. A friend of mine once said that after years of success in Tennessee, Pat Summitt's Lady Vols finally found the one team they couldn't defeat. Not Connecticut...but themselves. If either Johnson or Stricklen can find the rudder and steer the team to the Final Four, it would probably mean more to them than being a first-round WNBA draft pick.
Riquna Williams, G Miami
Riquna Williams - the "Fire" to Shenise Johnson's "Ice" - averaged 21.7 points per game this season. How could you separate two players nicknamed "Fire" and "Ice"? The ACC didn't, and both of them were named to the first-team ACC this year as juniors. Not bad for a 5-8 guard. Among juniors she was the second best scorer in the country, only behind Courtney Hurt of VCU who had 23.2 points per game.
Or maybe you need a visual explanation. Look at what happens about 25 seconds in:
As one writer put it, her athleticism is "mind-boggling". This isn't the first time that Williams has jumped over an opposing player - she did it in high school. Will Williams be the smallest player ever to dunk in the NCAA/WNBA some day? It might happen.