Cal's Layshia Clarendon, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, and UConn's Kelly Faris are not the guaranteed, immediate WNBA superstars that Baylor's Brittney Griner and Delaware's Elena Delle Donne project to be, but there is a reason all three played in the Final Four, and each should be a 1st Round pick in the up-coming WNBA Draft.
Layshia Clarendon, G, 5'9", California Golden Bears
Clarendon is the least known of the three as she plays on the West Coast in a conference that has been dominated by Stanford University. Clarendon would have been the MVP of the Pac-12, except for the presence of Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, the early front-runner to be the #1 pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft.
At 5'9, Clarendon lacks the ideal size for a shooting guard, but she is not short. She is quick and athletic, but not impressively so. She is a good, but not great shooter, shooting 32.5% from the three-point line and 67% from the free-throw line. She shot 4.5 free throws per game while averaging 16.4 points per game, and averaged under 3 assists per game. Yet the numbers fail to convey her importance to the Bears or her potential as a WNBA player.
"When people ask me what's the difference between us this year and last year, Layshia has played like an All-American all year, which is what you need in order to go from being really good to being the elite," Cal coach Lyndsay Gottlieb said when asked about Clarendon.
She was the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and she uses that intelligence on the court. She is a great teammate who picks up her teammates. She took the big shots. She wanted the ball. She possesses all the intangibles and qualities of a leader and a winner, and someone who a coach wants on his or her team.
Clarendon has one elite skill: She is one of the best pull-up jump shooters in college basketball since Sue Bird. In transition, she is deadly if she has any space. In tournament games against LSU and Georgia, the Cal offense spurted until Clarendon was able to get free for a couple pull-up jump shots in transition. That skill also translates to ball screens as she comes off the screen looking to be a shooter.
Clarendon also uses shot fakes to create a lane to get into her pull-up jump shot. She shoots well off the catch and understands how to use screens to get herself space for her shot. She does not have the quickest release, but that along with her comfort and percentage at the three-point line can be improved.
She should be a better free-throw shooter percentage-wise, and there are one to two easy changes that she could make to improve her percentages. If she shot closer to 35% from the 3-point line and 80% from the free-throw line, which are realistic numbers given her shooting technique, she would be closer to a 20 ppg scorer and a lock for the first Round. With a couple tweaks, she should be able to post 35% and 80% numbers in the WNBA.
Clarendon's biggest weakness is that she is not a point guard. During her first two seasons, she played more point guard and did not excel. In her final two seasons, with Brittany Boyd playing point guard, Clarendon was freed to do what she does best: score.
Whereas her assist numbers were relatively low, so too were her turnovers, as she had a 1.5:1 assist to turnover ratio. The relatively low numbers could be a sign of Cal's system or her primary role as the finisher, not the creator. Based on the numbers, she may have been conservative with her passing, and if put in the position to be more aggressive and more of a playmaker, especially off ball screens where her ability to shoot off the dribble would put pressure on the defense, she may improve those numbers.
Clarendon is a good defensive player, especially when working off the ball. Cal's Eliza Pierre was the disrupting on-ball defender, but Clarendon is a smart defender. Against Louisville, she chased Shoni Schimmel around multiple screens and fought over top of ball screens in limiting Schimmel to 1-8 shooting from behind the arc. She may not have the physical quickness of a player like Pierre, but she anticipates and reads the game well, which makes her quicker on the court than she looks.
Clarendon would fit best with a transition-oriented team or in a situation where she could run on-ball screens where she can use her pull-up jump shot. For those who have not seen her play, she resembles former Detroit Shock guard Deanna Nolan, though Nolan is a better athlete. She has a similar type of game and would make for a good guard option to come off the bench and get a couple quick buckets.
Kelly Faris, G, 5'11", Connecticut Huskies
When I asked a couple college coaches about the WNBA future of Kelly Faris, several were surprised that that was even a consideration or a possibility. Playing with more heralded teammates, Faris often is forgotten or overlooked.
"Yeah, she looks like an Indiana kid," Geno Auriemma said about Faris. "She looks like a kid from a basketball crazy state who just loves to play basketball, who plays just for the love of the game."
Faris is rarely described as athletic, yet she is known as a great defender and averaged 2.5 steals per game. She is not considered a great shooter - not playing alongside Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis - but she shot 40% from the 3-point line. She is not really a point guard, but she led UConn in assists with over a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.
Sure, Faris plays with great teammates, but she is the leader, the winner, the one who just gets it - whatever it needs to be at that moment in time - done.
"You know, normally when you talk about players that have had great, great careers at Connecticut, you can identify them by something that was great, a great skill that they had," Auriemma said. "And I think Kelly is one of the few players that have come through our program that when she leaves, they're never going to introduce her as, that was Kelly Faris: she was a great passer, or she was a great shooter, or she was a great ball handler.
"When she leaves Connecticut and people ask me, you know, 'Who's one of the best players you've ever had at Connecticut?', and I say, 'Kelly Faris', they'll say, 'Why?' She was great at making sure we were in position to win every night."
At the end of the day, is there a more important skill?
Faris moves without the ball and finishes lay-ups off backdoor cuts. She grabs offensive rebounds. She knocks down catch-and-shoot three-pointers. She settles down the team after a turnover or bad shot.
I don't know what position Faris will play, but she'll play for someone in the WNBA this season. She is just a player. She wins games. If her team needs her to be a court-spacer and 3-point shooter, she will make threes. If her team needs a defensive stopper, she will shut down the opponent's best player. Against Notre Dame on Sunday, it seemed like she switched back and forth between Diggins and Kayla McBride based on who was scoring. McBride gets a basket - switch Faris on to her. Diggins gets a basket - switch Faris on to her. It may not have been exactly that way, but it seemed like whenever Notre Dame went back to the player who appeared like she might finally be getting hot, Faris was there.
For whatever reason, UConn players tend to stick in the WNBA, even ones who many doubted when they completed their collegiate eligibility. People doubted players like Kalana Greene, Jessica Moore, Tiffany Hayes, and Ketia Swanier. These were other players who did not have a true position or were too small or did not shoot well enough, yet they have carved out professional careers. Regardless of what some think, Faris will do the same. She may look like "just" an Indiana kid, but she plays like a professional.
Faris wins, and some WNBA team will value that skill.
Skyler Diggins, G, 5'9", Notre Dame
Diggins has all the qualities that a coach wants: She is competitive, aggressive, charismatic, a leader, and someone who teammates gravitate toward. Her unwillingness to give up on the play against UConn with the 3 blocks on Bria Hartley break away lay-ups in the semifinals epitomizes her play. Like Faris, Diggins is a winner. Beyond all the statistics, which are impressive enough in their own right, Diggins has the intangibles. She has the "it" factor on the court, as well as in her marketing.
Diggins made 36% of her 3-point attempts, but shot only 42% from the field overall. Some of that can be attributed to her forcing some shots due to necessity, but one question for Diggins will be her ability to finish in the paint against bigger players. She has, over the years, shown creativity in the key with her up-and-unders and floaters, and she has an effective mid-range game, so she should be able to score off penetration, even if she cannot get all the way to the rim.
In the game against UConn, the skill that stood out the most to me was her ability to keep her dribble alive. There were 2-3 times where most players would have picked up their dribble and been in trouble or forced a tough shot, but she took an extra dribble and found an open teammate. She was like Steve Nash when he used to make his forays into the key and come out the other side with the dribble, still probing until he found an opening for a teammate. That kind of composure with the ball will make her a tough cover for any opposing guard.
Diggins averaged 6.1 assists and 3.6 turnovers per game. Again, the turnovers are probably high because of her need to force things to help her team win, and her desire to make plays. As a rookie, I would expect her to have a relatively high number of turnovers as she acclimates to the speed of the professional game, but those will lessen as she continues her career. Some playmakers make fewer mistakes because they take fewer risks; Diggins takes more risks, which means she makes more mistakes, but she also makes many more positive plays. The risk takers are generally your better players.
Diggins swiped 3 steals per game and nearly averaged a block per game. She can pressure the ball and she has a strong body and good size for a point guard.
As a prospect, the only real question is whether Diggins becomes a WNBA starter, an all-star, or a superstar. Can she enter the upper echelon of point guards like Lindsay Whalen or Sue Bird - and if so, how soon? - or is she more similar to other former high draft picks like Lindsey Harding or Renee Montgomery?
Diggins has the intangibles, the desire, and the skills to blossom into an All-Star, and the potential to be the one who replaces Whalen and Bird as the next generation point guard for USA Basketball. Of course, she will have plenty of competition from those already in the league, and those on her heels, like Baylor's Odyssey Sims.
Diggins will be a good WNBA player and a starting point guard in the league, but those who expect her to dominate the position or to immediately appear in the all-star game underestimate the transition from college to the WNBA.
Brian McCormick is an experienced coach and player development expert whose basketball insights about everything from youth development to point guard play are valuable for any thoughtful basketball fan. He has previously contributed to Swish Appeal during the 2012 Final Four and with his thoughts on why developing coaching expertise at mid-majors is good for women's college basketball.
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