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As WNBA Draft nears, Liberty has ‘renewed sense of excitement,’ while Aces may go for a trade

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WNBA coaches for the Aces, Liberty, Lynx and Sparks discussed their strategies heading into the 2019 WNBA Draft. The event takes place Wednesday, April 10, and will be broadcast live on ESPN and ESPNU.

New York Liberty head coach Katie Smith is excited to rebuild the team under new owner Joseph Tsai.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2019 WNBA Draft takes place on Wednesday, April 10, at Nike’s New York Headquarters. The first round will be televised on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET, with the second and third rounds televised on ESPNU.

Last Tuesday, April 2, four WNBA head coaches — Derek Fisher (Sparks), Cheryl Reeve (Lynx), Katie Smith (Liberty) and Bill Laimbeer (Aces) — discussed their teams’ needs and current situations via conference call with the media.

The Sparks aren’t committed to any position, but they are looking forward to Maria Vadeeva’s return this summer.

  • 2018 Record: 19-15
  • Draft Picks: 7th, 19th, 31st

The Sparks are looking to improve on their 2018 season, during which they took a step back in the regular season and missed the Finals for the first time since 2015. In the offseason, the Sparks made many moves at the guard position by re-signing Alana Beard, Odyssey Sims, Karlie Samuelson; Los Angeles also added Tierra Ruffin-Pratt from unrestricted free agency.

The frontcourt remains intact with All-Stars Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike as well as longtime veteran Jantel Lavender. Russian star Maria Vadeeva, a 2018 first-round draft pick, couldn’t report to the Sparks until midseason due to visa delays, and she didn’t get much playing time, averaging just 8.1 minutes per game in the 2018 season.

Could Vadeeva’s international commitments influence the Sparks to draft another low post player? New Sparks head coach Derek Fisher looks forward to seeing what Vadeeva will bring to the team in her second season.

Asked by Swish Appeal about Vadeeva’s potential this season, Fisher said:

Defensively, she’s always in the right spots. She really a does a good job of rotating and contesting shots at the rim. She’s taken a big jump this WNBA offseason, playing in Russia on a great team and she’s playing great basketball as well. And so I’m excited for what Maria’s going to bring in terms of our depth and our frontcourt.

Vadeeva is averaging 11.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game for UMMC Ekaterinburg in EuroLeague Women this season.

Because Fisher is not the Sparks’ general manager, he said he could not comment about trades, including the rumors on Dallas Wings center Liz Cambage requesting a trade to the Sparks. But considering their depth and Vadeeva’s improvement, it would be surprising to see them select a center with the seventh pick this summer.

The Minnesota Lynx aren’t happy about last season, but they’re glad to pick earlier in this year’s draft.

  • 2018 Record: 18-16
  • Draft Picks: 6th, 16th, 18th, 20th, 30th

Like the Sparks, the Lynx took a step back in 2018, losing in the first round of the WNBA Playoffs. Minnesota will also be without Maya Moore, who will sit out this summer. (Moore, however, re-signed with Minnesota and will return in 2020.)

The team will return Seimone Augustus, but she will be 35 later this year, while Rebekkah Brunson is 37. Sylvia Fowles will be 34 later this year. Getting Karima Christmas-Kelly was a nice pickup, but the Lynx need more youth given that most of the team’s core players, including now-retired point guard Lindsay Whalen, were past their prime last season.

There are some efforts to bring in younger players. Minnesota brought back Damiris Dantas in restricted free agency after she played for the Atlanta Dream last year. And this year, the Lynx have four of the top-20 picks in the draft. Their first-round pick is also sixth, higher than in past years when they often picked 11th or 12th.

On picking earlier in the draft than in prior years, Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve said:

I would say now picking in the middle of the draft that we were not happy in October, but we’re much happier in April now that we’re going to get a good player.

Reeve was also asked about Australian post Ezi Magbegor who played for the Opals in the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. The 19-year-old player averaged 8.7 points and 4.29 rebounds per game for the Melbourne Boomers in the WNBL this past winter. She is also one of the top international prospects in the draft.

Reeve doesn’t see the Lynx taking Magbegor in the first round:

If she was not injured over in the Australian league that probably would have helped her a little bit more in terms of raising her stock. I think she’d be a value pick, uh, outside of the first round.

Reeve also mentioned that Magbegor played on the Australian National Team behind Stanford center Alanna Smith, who could be a first-round draft pick, because her accurate perimeter shooting can stretch defenses. Smith shot nearly 40 percent from the three-point line and made 81 threes in the 2018-19 college basketball season.

The Lynx can use youth in the frontcourt. And they will likely have a chance to draft Magbegor or Smith on Wednesday.

The New York Liberty believes new ownership makes team-building much easier.

  • 2018 Record: 7-27
  • Draft Picks: 2nd, 14th, 26th

The Liberty had a rough 2018 season which ended with a 13-game losing streak. They started free agency with a large amount of cap space but have only brought back Rebecca Allen and Amanda Zahui B. Their most notable free agent signing was French guard Marine Johannès who averaged 15.1 points per game for Bourges Basket in EuroLeague Women play this season.

Tina Charles still hasn’t been re-signed despite being cored for the season. But head coach Katie Smith mentioned that she was excited about what she, Bria Hartley and Kia Nurse will bring to the table.

Smith also mentioned that new ownership, headed by Joe Tsai, has boosted morale around the entire organization, which will help make New York a more welcome environment for returning players and rookies:

We have a renewed sense of excitement being past the window of being up for sale. They are shifts giving us a little bit of a jolt, a little direction, up on the upswing. But we’re anxious to build. Last year was a tough year.

New York is rebuilding and needs to bolster every position, but a tall guard like Notre Dame’s Jackie Young could be a good fit. If they go with a post, Teaira McCowan of Mississippi State is another viable option.

The Las Vegas Aces aren’t open to saying who they’d pick at No. 1, but they’re open to a trade!

  • 2018 Record: 14-20
  • Draft Picks: 1st. Last year, the Aces traded their second- and third-round 2019 WNBA Draft picks.

The Aces narrowly missed the 2018 WNBA Playoffs. But their 2018 WNBA season was still a success. A’ja Wilson was the top pick in last year’s draft and became the unanimous Rookie of the Year and named an All-Star, while Kayla McBride was also named an All-Star and competed in the three-point contest. Las Vegas has their highest win total since 2014, back when they were the San Antonio Stars.

Las Vegas won the first pick in this year’s Draft Lottery, but don’t expect head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer to tip his hand on whom he’d like to pick.

Asked if Teaira McCowan was on his radar, Laimbeer said:

I need a center. I also need a guard. If she doesn’t get taken to a certain team at the right time, she could fall further down the draft. It’s just one of those things that are unpredictable at the moment and nobody could really get their fingers on things.

Since the Aces already have A’ja Wilson coming off a strong rookie season, it seems unlikely he would draft McCowan just a year later.

Laimbeer also hinted that he wouldn’t rule out making a trade ahead of, or on, draft day: “We’ve also been talking to many teams about moving the top pick,“ he said.

If there is a team that covets a specific player, the Aces may be that team’s only option to deal with. Ultimately, the Aces are likely keeping their first round pick, where Louisville guard Asia Durr appears to be the frontrunner to be this year’s top pick.