The 2021 WNBA Draft was full of surprises!
For some Western Conference teams, such surprises proved advantageous. Other teams chose not to take advantage of other organizations’ surprising decisions.
So, which Western Conference squads earned an A for their draft night efforts?
First round: Charli Collier (No. 1), Awak Kuier (No. 2), Chelsea Dungee (No. 5)
Second round: Dana Evans (No. 13)
The Dallas Wings and their fans should be soaring! With the first two picks in the 2021 draft, the Wings selected two potentially-generational bigs in Charli Collier and Awak Kuier.
Compared to the last big who went No. 1 in the draft — A’ja Wilson (2018) — Collier is not a surefire superstar. She notably struggled against higher-level competition in college. Yet, the potential is certainly there. Such potential might be there even more for Kuier, a 19-year-old who plays with enviable fluidity and poise. Sacrificing Katie Lou Samuelson in order to be able to acquire both Collier and Kueir, rather than having to settle for one of the two, was an absolute win.
And Dallas added two more enticing talents! Chelsea Dungee is a cutthroat scorer who can elevate the offensive potential of Dallas’ second unit by replicating much of what Arike Ogunbowale does with the starters. Getting Dana Evans at No. 13, when she was projected as top-10 talent, was a gift. Like Dungee, Evans will inject the Wings offense with extra excitement and flair.
In addition to adding four professional-caliber players, Dallas flipped the No. 7 pick to the Los Angeles Sparks for LA’s 2022 first round pick. The Wings did well to maximize the value of this asset. Not only would drafting a fifth player have caused an unwanted roster crunch, but the Sparks’ 2022 first rounder also could be a higher selection, and maybe even a lottery pick. (More on that in LA’s section below.)
Las Vegas Aces
First round: Iliana Rupert (No. 12)
Second round: Destiny Slocum (No. 14)
Third round: Kionna Jeter (No. 36)
The Las Vegas Aces had a very solid draft. But could it have been superb?
As the Aces already have best big rotation in the league — with A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage and Dearica Hamby — it may seem a bit curious that they selected another big with their first-round selection. However, as Swish Appeal’s Eric Nemchock discussed in his mock draft, Rupert is smart future-focused addition for the Aces.
Furthermore, the 2020 WNBA Finals showed that Vegas could use a reliable fourth big. With Cambage absent and Hamby injured, the Aces struggled to survive in the rare minutes that Wilson rested. If she comes over to the WNBA this season, Rupert offers high-quality frontcourt insurance.
In the second round, Las Vegas opted for a Kayla McBride replacement. Destiny Slocum can serve as a McBride-lite with her 3-point shooting and self-creation abilities. Yet, by favoring his bully-ball system over a space-and-pace style, head coach Bill Laimbeer never maximized McBride. Will Slocum be similarly underutilized, especially since Vegas already added more shooters via free agency with the signings of Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams?
Knowing Laimbeer’s fealty to his philosophy, should the Aces have instead doubled down on their strengths by drafting a player who exudes that physical, grinding ethos? Nemchock’s suggestion of DiJonai Carrington would seem to have been a perfect fit. While her defense is already pro-ready, the prospect of Carrington refining her offensive game under the tutelage of Angel McCoughtry would have been super intriguing.
With the final pick in the draft, the Aces took a flyer on Kionna Jeter. The first Towson Tiger to be drafted, the high-scoring Jeter should provide valuable guard play for the Aces during training camp.
Los Angeles Sparks
First round: Jasmine Walker (No. 7), Stephanie Watts (No. 10)
Second round: Arella Guirantes (No. 22)
Third round: Ivana Raca (No. 28), Aina Ayuso (No. 34)
In his first draft as general manager, Derek Fisher has undertaken an underrated gamble.
Based on his post-draft comments, Fisher clearly identified Jasmine Walker as his must-have player. To ensure Walker would wear purple and gold, Fisher swung a deal with the Dallas Wings, receiving the No. 7 pick in this year’s draft in exchange for the Sparks’ 2022 first round pick. The Sparks and Wings also swapped 2022 second-round selections.
While Fisher got Walker, will the Sparks be sending a lottery pick to Wings in 2022? At first, this proposition seems absurd. Of course the Sparks will make the playoffs! However, a quick perusal of the reshuffled rosters reminds one of how many stacked teams will be competing for the eight playoff spots. LA appears poised to battle for one of the lower four playoff seeds. With a key injury or two, their playoff hopes could be in jeopardy, and, in turn, Dallas might have a lottery ball in the Rhyne Howard sweepstakes.
“Early on, we identified Jasmine Walker as a seamless fit for our roster, both as a player and a person … She’s also one of the best defensive players and rebounders in this draft class. We’re ecstatic to add Jasmine Walker to the Sparks.” @derekfisher @LASparks #WNBADraft pic.twitter.com/9FimIsgiE8— Alabama Women’s Basketball (@AlabamaWBB) April 16, 2021
A modern 4 with a 3-point stroke, Walker should fit with Fisher’s “roster that emphasizes versatility, athleticism, and players who can make plays for others and defend multiple positions.”
However, the Sparks had the opportunity to select a player with a higher upside, as the likes of Rennia Davis, Dana Evans and Natasha Mack, all of whom Eric Nemchock rated higher than Walker, somewhat surprisingly slid. Despite Fisher’s infatuation with Walker, would he have been better off calling an audible and selecting the dynamic Davis at No. 7? The Sparks again passed on Evans and Mack at No. 10, when they selected Stephanie Watts, who Nemchock had identified as a late second rounder.
After these questionable first round moves, the Sparks experienced some significant fortune with their first second-round selection as Arella Guirantes, a widely-considered top-five talent, remained available at No. 22. It nevertheless is curious that the Sparks did not prioritize Guirantes with one of their first round picks, as she seems to fill a clear need for LA. She should be able to slot in as a dynamic scoring guard behind Kristi Toliver and Erica Wheeler.
The Sparks’ draft would have made a lot more sense if they had selected Guirantes at No. 7, Walker at No. 10 and Watts at No. 22. While the process was puzzling, and risky due to losing their 2022 first round pick, the Sparks did exit the second round with three players who can contribute to their 2021 team.
Because the Sparks had 14 players on their training camp roster before the draft, it is unlikely that their two third rounders will make the final roster. Nonetheless, Ivana Raca, with her ability to play in the post and on the perimeter, is an interesting roll of the dice, despite her slender stature.
First round: Rennia Davis (No. 9)
Did Cheryl Reeve do it again? Or, maybe more accurately, did the basketball gods again bless Reeve and the Minnesota Lynx?
For the third-straight draft, the Lynx seems to have snagged an absolute steal! It would have been interesting to see Reeve and company’s reaction when Rennia Davis, a consensus top-five talent, remained on the board at No. 9. Were they even more hyped than Davis and her family?
If other organizations are frustrated with the seamless evolution of the Lynx dynasty, they can only blame themselves for passing on Naphessa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield and, now, Davis.
Davis profiles as a modern WNBA superstar — a long, athletic wing who can score from all over the floor and disrupt things on the defensive end. Of course, it is far from guaranteed that she will reach her ultimate upside. But to get a player at No. 9 with that kind of potential is excellent value! Furthermore, the Lynx do not need Davis to be an instant superstar. Instead, her versatility should allow her to contribute to the 2021 Lynx in multiple lineup constructions.
Third round: Ciera Johnson (No. 32)
A grade of C is not meant as a demerit for the Phoenix Mercury or Ciera Johnson. Yet, with only a single third-round selection, it’s hard to award the Mercury a more generous grade. It’s also reflective of the harsh, unfortunate reality of today’s WNBA.
As Charlotte Carroll determined in her draft pick value assessment for The Athletic, no No. 32 selection has carved out a steady career in the WNBA. Roster size and salary cap constraints, more than a lack of talent, will make it difficult for Johnson to defy that trend. Nevertheless, the Mercury did need another big to round out their training camp roster. The professional, mature Johnson should perfectly fill this role.
Phoenix also did well to sign the undrafted Tiana Mangakahia. That head coach Sandy Brondello also is the head coach of the Australian Opals likely helped the Mercury quickly ink Mangakahia, an Australian national, to a training camp contract. Although unlikely to make this year’s team, she could find herself on a future Mercury team, especially after some additional seasoning with the Opals and, in all likelihood, in the NBL.
First round: Aaliyah Wilson (No. 11; traded to Indiana Fever for Kennedy Burke)
Second round: Kiana Williams (No. 18), N’dea Jones (No. 23)
Third round: Natalie Kucowski (No. 35)
At first glance, it seems like the Seattle Storm really do not value draft picks.
During the free agency period, they sent the No. 1 pick, which they acquired by trading Natasha Howard to the New York Liberty, to the Dallas Wings for Katie Lou Samuelson. Considering Samuelson has struggled to be a consistent contributor in two WNBA seasons, that exchange appeared wildly out of balance.
On draft night, they somewhat puzzlingly selected Aaliyah Wilson, who was graded as a third-round talent by our Eric Nemchock, with the No. 11 selection before sending her to the Indiana Fever for the rights to Kennedy Burke. While Burke is more likely to contribute to a Storm team chasing another championship than Wilson, swapping a first round pick for Burke, the No. 22 pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, seemed a bit rich.
Considering the Fever already had 14 players on their training camp roster before making six selections on draft night, there also was a not insignificant chance that the Fever would part ways with Burke before the start of the regular season, potentially allowing the Storm to benefit from a released former Fever player as the Atlanta Dream did with Betnijah Laney last season. Even if Burke did not shake loose from Indy, the competition for roster spots across the league suggests another player of similar quality would become available. In short, did Seattle need to sacrifice a first-round draft pick to acquire a player like Burke?
However, the trade for Burke did bring some sneaky value for the Storm. According to Her Hoops Stats, a 2021 late first round draft pick will make $64,375. Burke’s 2021 contract is for $58,710.
Furthermore, while it is highly unlikely that Seattle knew Kiana Williams would still be on the board at No. 18, drafting Williams with the No. 18 pick, instead of selecting her with the No. 11 pick, as many would have predicted pre-draft, also benefits the Storm financially. As a second round pick, Williams will make $61,543, rather than $64,375, if she makes the team.
As Williams meets Seattle’s current and future needs, she should make the squad, and thus be considered quite the steal at the No. 18 pick. Evaluated as a first-round talent by Nemchock, Williams gives the Storm an alternative reserve point guard option. With Sue Bird likely to miss games due to load management and Jordin Canada hampered by her smaller size and lack of shooting in certain matchups, Williams can serve as bigger, surer-shooting backup for Bird, or even play alongside Canada in some situations.
That the Storm parlayed a first and second round pick into a proven WNBA rotation player and a national championship-winning prospect, all while saving $8,487, is some pretty impressive machinations by newly-elevated general manager Talisa Rhea.
With the No. 23 pick, Seattle snagged N’dea Jones, who could re-inject the Storm with some of the defensive punch they lost with the offseason departures of Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark. Her length, athleticism and rebounding prowess suggest she can contribute at the WNBA level, although it will be difficult for her to sneak onto a Storm roster that included 13 players before draft night. Because of these circumstances, Natalie Kucowski’s stay in Seattle is unlikely to last beyond training camp.