It’s almost NCAA Tournament time, and just as teams are making their final cases to be invited to the Big Dance, WNBA prospects are gearing up for their most important evaluation period.
The tournament, which will begin on March 21, is the last chance for draft-eligible players to impress WNBA coaches and GMs. The final 64-team field has yet to be determined — ESPN’s Charlie Creme last updated his hypothetical bracket on Feb. 23 — but among teams that are likely to make the tournament, there are plenty of WNBA prospects whose draft stocks could use one final boost.
Stephanie Watts (North Carolina)
Watts, who began her collegiate career at North Carolina before transferring to USC, returned to Chapel Hill this season to play for the Tar Heels as a graduate student.
The results have been mixed. Watts has the potential to get hot in a hurry from the outside, makes some flashy passes and can beat just about anyone down the court, but she’s gone through some lengthy shooting slumps this season that have reflected poorly on her cumulative numbers. Watts shot a combined 4-for-34 (11.8 percent) from the field in a five-game stretch this past December and January, and head coach Courtney Banghart wasn’t afraid to bench her when she was struggling.
Those numbers, however, don’t reflect Watts’ talent level, and she’s of the same archetype (a well-built wing with a quick release who can make plays in transition) as many players who have had successful pro careers. We don’t yet know if North Carolina will make the NCAA Tournament, but if it does and Watts gets hot on the big stage, it could warrant her a second or third look as a draftee.
Chelsey Perry (UT Martin)
Perry is the classic example of a player who dominates a mid-major conference but isn’t given as much attention or credit as those playing for bigger programs.
Her numbers as a senior have been ridiculous: 23.8 points per game on 51.6 percent shooting (42.1 percent on 3-pointers). Her Hoop Stats ranks Perry’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 39.9 fifth among all Division I players and her 5.7 win shares in its top 30. Synergy Sports puts her in the 90th percentile or better in four offensive play types: post-up, spot up, transition and basket cut.
With level of competition almost always a question for mid-major draft prospects, what better way to raise one’s draft stock than putting up those same numbers in the NCAA Tournament? Perry and the Skyhawks got two shots at the Louisville Cardinals earlier this season, and while UT Martin lost both games, Perry dropped 26 points in each. An extended display of her talents will do wonders for the multi-faceted forward’s draft stock.
Aari McDonald (Arizona)
McDonald was commonly considered to be a lottery pick candidate prior to the 2020-21 NCAA season, but her potential draft position now seems to be in question.
It’s not because McDonald has played poorly as a senior. Sure, her shooting numbers (38.7 field goal percentage) are down from her previous two seasons, but she has gradually improved her assist/turnover ratio and her on-ball defense remains as stout as ever. WNBA coaches and GMs have likely had a good idea of what kind of player McDonald is for a while.
Rather, the rise of other players, such at Louisville’s Dana Evans, Alabama’s Jasmine Walker, Rutgers’ Arella Guirantes and Texas’ Charli Collier has made things at the top of the draft a lot muddier. Additionally, the Dallas Wings (who already have plenty of guards) now owning four of the draft’s first seven picks gives McDonald fewer potential destinations in that range. If a WNBA team wants a lead guard in the early first round, its decision may very well be between Evans and McDonald; a strong tournament showing for Arizona could help sway matters in McDonald’s favor.
DiDi Richards (Baylor)
Richards’ move from the wing to the point guard position has been well-documented — she was named to the Lieberman Award watch list before even making the switch — and she’s performed admirably there with her 6.8 assists per game ranking seventh in the nation.
Will Richards be able to handle the point as a WNBA player, though?
It’s a fair question to ask, particularly when pertaining to Baylor products. Head coach Kim Mulkey has never been shy about taking players out of their individual comfort zones for the betterment of the team, and while Richards’ numbers as the Lady Bears’ de facto point guard look impressive, Mulkey’s emphasis on pace and ball movement (Baylor ranks first in the country in assists per game with 22.1 and ninth in assist rate at 68 percent) means that such individual metrics can be a bit of a mirage. Richards’ on- and off-ball defense, however, put her firmly in the “must-watch prospect” category, regardless of what position she’s playing, so she’s going to at least get a look on draft day.
There are some parallels between Richards’ situation and that of her former teammate, Chloe Jackson. Jackson, too, was not seen as a “true” point guard prior to transferring from LSU, but she played it for Baylor, leading the team to a national championship and getting drafted in 2019 by the Chicago Sky. A similar run for the Lady Bears could yield similar results for Richards.
Chasity Patterson (Kentucky)
Most of the hype surrounding the Kentucky Wildcats is due to Rhyne Howard (who everyone should be keeping their eyes on for the 2022 WNBA Draft), but her backcourt mate Patterson has played some pretty good basketball herself. Patterson is averaging a career-high 12.9 points per game to go along with 3.2 steals (tenth in the country), and her aptitude as both a pick and roll player and as a transition threat makes the Wildcats a dangerous team in several areas. According to Synergy Sports, Patterson ranks in the 94th percentile in pick and roll ball handler scoring, and she ranks even better (96th percentile) in transition.
The main question about Patterson as a WNBA player is, of course, her height. Standing at just 5-foot-5, it’s impressive that Patterson has played as well as she has in a conference like the SEC, but guards of her stature aren’t typically chosen very high in the WNBA Draft. A strong run in the NCAA Tournament — particularly against bigger teams — would definitely do Patterson’s draft stock some good.
All statistics for the 2020-21 NCAA season are current as of Feb. 24, 2021.