When the Dallas Wings drafted centers Charli Collier and Awak Kuier with the first two picks of the 2021 WNBA Draft, they were, in theory, drafting their frontcourt of the future. While 2020 No. 2 overall pick Satou Sabally was rightfully seen as a pillar of the Wings franchise and would not be usurped as the team’s star forward, Dallas’ commitment to a pair of bigs alongside Sabally would ideally establish a tall, talented and athletic frontcourt trio for years to come, allowing the franchise to focus on other areas of need as the group developed.
More than a year later, the Wings are still waiting for Collier and Kuier to prove that they can handle rotation player minutes on a consistent basis. There have been signs of progress here and there, but every glimpse of brilliance has been offset by lengthy periods of frustration and uncertainty — not an uncommon phenomenon for young players, to be sure, but magnified in this case due to the size of the Wings’ investment.
Those looking for the positives were likely elated on Friday when Kuier jumped a passing lane against the Seattle Storm and galloped down the floor for a breakaway dunk. In just a few seconds, Kuier flashed the physical tools that made her one of the most sought-after international prospects in recent years, chief among them a massive stride rarely seen from 6’4 players and an effortless elevation that makes pregame dunks a bit of a Wings ritual.
Such moments (during actual game action, anyway) are still few and far between for Kuier, who, at 20 years old, is both adapting to the WNBA game and growing into her body as a professional athlete. Her in-game decision-making still needs plenty of work, and her slender frame makes her prone to struggle against stronger, more physical players.
Some perspective is needed, however. Kuier was largely seen as a “project” when the Wings first drafted her: a player who, while undeniably talented, had a long way to go before fulfilling her potential as a WNBA contributor. One way of looking at Dallas’ 2021 draft strategy is that they could afford to gamble on Kuier, and even if she didn’t pan out, they’d still have Collier: a hometown product who had competed at the highest levels of college basketball and left the University of Texas a season early to fulfill her dream of going pro.
Now 36 games played into her WNBA career, Collier’s trajectory has been anything but that of a sure-thing prospect. One could argue that she’s actually been even less consistent than Kuier, having started and recorded a double-double in her first-ever WNBA game but quickly losing the trust of Wings head coach Vickie Johnson after that. Collier has come off the bench in as many games (18) as she’s started, and though her playing time as a rookie was inconsistent, she’s fallen out of the Wings rotation completely in 2022, appearing in eight of the team’s 12 games and averaging just 3.7 minutes.
Kuier, on the other hand, has seen her minutes rise from 8.9 in 2021 to 10.3 this season, and even if her spot in the Wings’ rotation is by no means consistent, she appears to have leapfrogged her fellow 2021 draftee, at least for now.
Again, some perspective: The Wings frontcourt as currently constructed is stacked, and to her credit, Johnson has taken a stingier approach to minutes that has, simply put, put Dallas’ better players on the court more often. Veterans Isabelle Harrison and Kayla Thornton both play key roles for the Wings, with Harrison in particular setting herself up for a nice contract when she enters free agency in 2023. At some point, a coach must decide how many minutes of winning basketball they’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of player development, and with the playoffs now an expectation rather than a goal for Dallas, Johnson has been noticeably less patient with players who may — or may not — be the future, instead rolling with those who she knows are the present.
Granted, Harrison’s impending free agency (she’s the only Wing not under contract for 2023, per Her Hoop Stats) will be a major factor in determining how Dallas moves forward with both Collier and Kuier, and that’s a bridge the Wings will cross when they get there. For now, though, it’s fair to wonder just how many roster spots Dallas is willing to use on players who aren’t currently helping the team win games — and if it comes down to it, which 2021 draftee is preferable.