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Three things we learned at the 2018 WNBA Draft

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We learned how analytical one coach is when he approaches the draft, how teams debate prospects, and something promising about non-American players.

wnba draft 2018 invitees with lisa borders NBA/Getty Images

The WNBA Draft was on Thursday night. The picks are all made, one trade happened, and now, it’s time to start digesting how this event went as a whole. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, here are three quick takeaways from Thursday night:

Mike Thibault is a straight shooter and can still surprise you at the same time

Washington Mystics General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault indicated that he wanted a wing player in the 2018 Draft. He did just that by selecting Texas guard Ariel Atkins with the seventh pick in the draft. She was the first non-invitee to get drafted.

At first glance, it may seem that the Mystics reached to get her at number seven. But Thibault indicated that she was in the mix all along.

“[Atkins] is a really efficient player,” Thibault said to media at Capital One Arena. “Her shooting percentage: true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, all of that is like top five percent in the draft class.”

Thibault also added that Texas assistant coaches Tina Thompson and Jamie Carey played a significant part in his decision. Both Thompson and Carey played for Thibault on USA Basketball in 2008 and the Connecticut Sun from 2005-2009, respectively.

Deciding on Atkins over other guards wasn’t easy of course. The Mystics’ coaches debated last week whether to pick Atkins or bigger name guards — perhaps players like Victoria Vivians or Kia Nurse. But in the end, Washington went with Atkins.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot that goes into the draft selection than simple statistics and how far a player leads her team in the NCAA tournament. Recommendations from contacts and advanced statistics also matter, especially when a team is picking in the middle of the first round.

Local, regional, or family ties didn’t “win out” when it was time for team to pick

In 2012, I wrote about “Our Girls Syndrome” where WNBA teams often draft or sign players who grew up in the area or went to local colleges in the area. Or maybe a player is picked because she has family ties, directly or indirectly with a team. In the WNBA, there sometimes is an implied expectation that these things should happen. I’ll pick a couple examples of opportunities in the first round when teams had a chance to “go local” or “stay with the family,” but went in a different direction.

First, let’s get back to the Mystics for a second. Many mock drafts projected Mississippi State guard Victoria Vivians as their pick. Vivians doesn’t appear to be connected to the D.C. area. But Thibault’s daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis is an assistant coach for the Mississippi State program. I wouldn’t be surprised if some think that that connection could sway her father.

That didn’t happen. Basketball is about winning games. Thibault doesn’t care whether someone played for his daughter or is his next door neighbor. If another prospect “checks more boxes” for what the Mystics need, then he is going that route.

Second, the Connecticut Sun drafted Duke guard Lexie Brown ninth overall in the draft. The Connecticut Sun have often drafted or signed players from the nearby University of Connecticut over the years. Part of it may just be because UConn has been a dominant program in the last 20 years. Kia Nurse was projected to go last among the three Husky attendees, and she was often pegged as the Sun’s next draft pick.

The Sun ended up picking Brown. In the Sun’s press release, General Manager and Head Coach Curt Miller noted that she can play both the point and shooting guard positions, and that there was a debate between her and Nurse — but they went with the Blue Devil instead, presumably because she can play point guard.

In some past drafts, I’ve seen a few too many draft prospects go to the city closest to their college or hometown — and I’m not sure if they were good fits. But in this year’s draft, I am happy to see that teams are approaching this with a business-first mindset. Local ties should just be a bonus, not the main reason for getting someone.

International draft prospects are still worth drafting in the first round

Nurse, a Hamilton, Ontario native and Maria Vadeeva, a Russian, were drafted 10th and 11th, respectively. The Liberty and Sparks will both face significant risks by bringing them on their rosters. It’s not because of a lack of talent. It’s because they aren’t Americans.

Virtually every other national team besides the United States participates in continental qualifiers which lead to continental tournaments and world tournaments that occur in the summer. As a result, many non-American players have decided that it’s just not worth their time to play in the WNBA.

If players aren’t going to be available, then that will lower their stock. This in particular applies to European players who never had American experience in college basketball like Vadeeva. Ultimately, the Sparks took a chance on her with their first round pick. Drafting Vadeeva is certainly a risk to General Manager Penny Toler and Head Coach Brian Agler in L.A. However, the Sparks’ insurance policy against a Vadeeva absence is the status quo frontcourt of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike.

If Vadeeva has a reasonably successful WNBA career in addition to her already blossoming career with Dynamo Kursk in the Russian PBL, then this could help open the way for more Europeans without NCAA experience to be a viable first round draft pick options. I certainly would like to see more non-Americans in the WNBA. But it’s going to be hard given that continental tournaments are during the summer and the WNBA will never pause the season for them unless the United States has to be involved.

Nurse and Vadeeva aren’t the only non-Americans drafted in the first round. Oregon State center Marie Gulich, a native of Cologne, Germany, was the 12th pick to the Phoenix Mercury.

Unlike Nurse and Vadeeva, who play for basketball powers Canada and Russia, respectively, Gulich’s native Germany isn’t a women’s basketball power. In EuroBasket Women 2019 qualifiers, they are in a group that includes the Czech Republic, a perennial powerhouse and Belgium, who is in this year’s World Cup so it’s unlikely that Germany will be in EuroBasket Women 2019. That said, if Gulich makes a good impact for Phoenix while Germany improves over the long term in women’s basketball, the same concerns about international play will apply to her too.

All in all, three non-Americans were drafted in the first round, so it is a good thing to see that there is more international representation in a league that has gradually lost that in the last few years.