Last week, we looked at a few WNBA prospects who had the most to gain from a deep NCAA Tournament run. Two of them — Sophie Cunningham and Cierra Dillard — have already had their teams eliminated as the tournament rolls on to the Sweet 16.
Of course, tournament performance isn’t usually a make-or-break scenario for a player’s WNBA hopes. Through the course of a typical WNBA prospect’s collegiate (or, in some cases, international) career, coaches are consistently evaluating and reevaluating. The players’ bodies of work are quite large, and thus, there’s more than enough room to track improvement.
Now, with women’s March Madness on intermission until the weekend, here are a few future WNBA draftees who have raised their draft stock over the course of the 2018-19 season. We’ll look at their strengths, how they’ve improved, and what might make them appealing to teams at the pro level.
Kristine Anigwe (California)
At first glance, it might be difficult to sell Anigwe as a player who has leaped up the draft boards. She certainly didn’t come out of nowhere; she averaged better than 20 points and 9 rebounds per game in her first two seasons at Cal, highlighted by a Freshman of the Year honor in 2016 and a 50-point performance just a few months later.
Even so, Anigwe’s junior season was a step down by her standards. In a 2019 draft class featuring massive centers Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown, Anigwe entered her senior campaign projected by many to be a late first-round (or even second-round) pick.
That’s no longer the case. Anigwe has played herself into lottery pick consideration with a dominant senior season, leading the country in rebounding (as measured by both total rebounds per game and total rebounding rate, per Her Hoop Stats) while recording a double-double in every game she’s played. She also put forth the nation’s first 30-point, 30-rebound game in over 15 years, running roughshod over Washington State in Cal’s final regular-season game.
You can only ignore performances like these for so long. Anigwe’s high level of play has been reflected in her draft stock; she’s now projected by espnW’s Mechelle Voepel to be drafted at No. 4 overall. Cal was beaten soundly by Baylor in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 — with Anigwe getting outplayed by Brown — so it’s now up to WNBA coaches and GMs to weigh a single game against elite competition against a season-long body of work.
Alanna Smith (Stanford)
Unlike her Pac-12 rival Anigwe, Smith has had a more traditional career arc. The native Australian has developed slowly but steadily, playing behind Cardinal standouts like Erica McCall, Brittney McPhee and Karlie Samuelson before getting her big opportunity.
It’s an opportunity Smith has seized. Not only is she putting up the best volume statistic of her career (19.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game), she’s doing it on strong efficiency. Smith is shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from distance. Her Hoop Stats calculates that to be a 59.5 percent effective field goal percentage.
That’s good news for Stanford, obviously, but also for WNBA teams looking for a big who can shoot the ball. While there’s no shortage of post players in this draft class, there aren’t many who project to be “stretch fours,” or at least not immediately. Smith’s proficiency from beyond the arc makes her stand out in this regard. She’s proven that she can both carry a team and play within a system; this has to be appealing to WNBA GMs. Smith and the Cardinal will continue dancing this Saturday when they take on No. 11 seed Missouri State.
Kiara Leslie (NC State)
When you look at a team that started the season 21-0, you’re probably going to see some good story lines. One such story line is the play of their graduate transfer, Leslie, who has led the Wolfpack to one of their most successful seasons in program history.
What makes Leslie’s final collegiate season special is the journey she took to get there. Once a highly-ranked recruit at the University of Maryland, she struggled to get consistent playing time with the Terrapins during her underclassmen seasons. Leslie then suffered an injury, sat out the 2016-17 season, and transferred to NC State to finish her collegiate playing career as a graduate student.
That transfer might just have catapulted Leslie into the WNBA Draft conversation. She’s embraced the challenge of becoming NC State’s No. 1 option (even more so after lead guard Grace Hunter’s season-ending knee injury) and, in the process, has gotten the chance to show what made her such a sought-after player in the first place: a tall, strong guard with a sweet three-point stroke (she’s shooting 38.4 percent on 177 attempts from deep) and a tenacious defensive mindset.
Looked at from this perspective, it’s easier to see how Leslie has impressed WNBA scouts: not only has she overcome significant adversity, she’s continued to improve her game in the process. She doesn’t always put up huge individual stats but, for a scrappy team like the Wolfpack, that isn’t always necessary. She’s an ideal second-round draft candidate for teams looking for guard depth and shooting. And if NC State advances even further into the NCAA Tournament (they’ll be playing No. 2 seed Iowa on Saturday), she could be picked even higher.