Awak Kuier, Kiana Williams, Charli Collier and Aari McDonald are just four of the standout names in this year’s WNBA Draft (Thursday night, 12am BST); Dallas Wings have picks one and two: will they take Collier and Kuier off the board back to back or plump for the scoring terror McDonald?
By Huw Hopkins
After the WNBA unleashed three new jersey designs for each team last week, the only thing left to do is fill them with players.
The WNBA Draft is on Thursday night (starts 12am BST) and more than 50 people have opted in for a chance to make their dream come true, making it one of the biggest fields ever. But with just 12 teams in the league, it will be tough for three rounds of rookies to make a roster, as Chantel Jennings of The Athletic highlighted.
How hard is it to make a WNBA roster?
This year, there are 137 (ish) spots (61 players are on protected contracts). Lots of talented players are still on rookie scale contracts.
Realistically, there are probably fewer than nine spots. Some first-rounds picks won’t make rosters.
— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) April 9, 2021
So who are the prospects that come with greatest levels of excitement and intrigue in this year’s draft?
An international prospect who is the youngest player in the field without any college experience, you would expect Finland’s Awak Kuier – affectionately know as ‘K’ to her team-mates – to drop below the radar of teams with top selections in the WNBA Draft.
Coming off the heels of an exciting Women’s National Invitation Tournament, the top players that took their teams deep into March usually generate the greatest amount of buzz – but Kuier is still a hot topic.
She is coming to the end of her first year as a professional in EuroLeague, and has been averaging 24 minutes per game playing alongside Isabelle Harrison for Passalacqua Ragusa. At 6’5, Kuier can play three positions – small forward through to center – and is averaging 8.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in Serie A1 Italia while playing alongside Harrison, who is currently signed with the Dallas Wings in the WNBA.
Kuier plays big for her country, and as a more pivotal cog in Finland’s EuroBasket qualification bid, she is averaging 17 points with 7.8 rebounds.
She is not afraid to take three-point shots but her efficiency could improve. Some of this has to do with her over-complicating the shot – taking a jab step or a step-back rather than taking open shots or using her natural height and length to shoot over the top of rotating defenders.
Someone so young is difficult to assess, but she still has a chance to be one of the first names called by Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
Wings president Greg Bibb – who has five of the first 13 picks this year, and could use one of them to maintain the Harrison-Kuier combination – told Sky Sports: “Any draft is not an exact science. The younger the payer the larger that bet. Awak is 19 years old playing her first pro season. Anyone can look at her play and see her potential. The size is a given. Her ability to handle the basketball is great for her age, her ability to shoot is above average for her size and age. She has to get stronger. Her potential is off the charts.”
It might be that a WNBA team invests in Kuier for the future rather than to win a championship with her at the core this season, but Harrison thinks her team-mate can make an impact. She said: “I think K is the perfect package of what the league is growing into. She can shoot, dribble and defend. The way she plays the game is where I see the WNBA future becoming – just imagine Bol Bol in the NBA and you have K.”
The Stanford Cardinal guard is not the biggest stat stuffer but averaged a reliable 13.4 points per game throughout four years in college. Her three assists and two rebounds suggest she didn’t do a lot, but she is a heart-and-soul type of player that can will lead a team to victory, much in the same way she did this year when Stanford won the Women’s National Invitational Tournament outright.
She is a solid defender with good hands and can get in the passing lane, to the point where she was picking the pocket of opponents 1.3 times per game. But the real stat that highlights Williams’ underrated ability is 8.2 Win Shares (WS) – the number of wins she is responsible for on her team – which was fifth on the list of players opted into the draft.
“We’re probably going to look at the point guard position. The separation of @Sloot22 vs the rest in the past two years [is big].”@chicagosky coach @coachjameswade tells @hoopism about the team’s plans in the #WNBADraft #WNBA
— Huw Hopkins (@TheHoopsNerd) April 9, 2021
Williams also has a propensity to hit big shots. She is entirely comfortable from three and would occasionally pull up in transition to shoot from distance rather than battle at the rim, but her 38 per cent efficiency from beyond the arc last season suggests it’s a good option. And given the chance to probe around the court for space, she has a mean side-step/step-back that frustrates defenders at the college level, though she might find the taller, more physical pros in the WNBA are able to make those tougher.
A potential top overall draft pick, Charli Collier is not a true big that will match the height of Liz Cambage, Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles, but she will likely have to battle them. At 6’5, she will rely on a slight speed advantage, which she has rarely had in college, so her game will have to adapt from the long, dominant, rebounding, inside presence she was for the Texas Longhorns.
Thankfully, Collier does have more going for her than just being taller than others in their late teens. Her boxout-jump-rebound technique is flawless and helped her secure more than 11 rebounds per game in her third season in college – four of those being on the offensive glass.
She moves well without the ball – sealing her defender and cutting inside for timely passes inside and easy finishes. When there is a defender on her back, she has a great feel and footwork to spin or drop-step into an open layup.
While Collier isn’t a knock-down assassin from distance, her three-point shot will have to be respected by opposing bigs – 31 per cent from distance last season isn’t much to write home about, but she shot more of them and with greater efficiency in her second season with Texas.
Her length is useful on defense, but on the perimeter she looked shaky at times, so improved footspeed will be required if she intends to guard the Candace Parkers and Elena Delle Donnes of the world. Still, Collier’s potential means she should be a high selection in this year’s draft and depending on the team that picks her, she will likely get plenty of leash to learn on the job.
Arizona has seen a number of great names in basketball wear the Wildcats jersey in the college’s history: Steve Kerr, Andre Iguodala, Sean Elliott, Aaron Gordon and number one draft pick Deandre Ayton, as well as WNBA players Courtney Clements, Ify Ibekwe, Davellyn Whyte, and champion – and current coach – Adia Barnes.
But after Aari McDonald dragged the college to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament Final last week, and raised her stock to the point where she might get selected first overall in this year’s WNBA Draft, many are calling her the greatest player ever to represent the college.
She was a scoring terror, averaging 20 points per game, five rebounds and four assists this season. She also recorded an efficiency rating (which balances field goals, free throws, three-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative results, such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls) of 30.4, according to Her Hoop Stats – for context, 11 of the 17 WNBA players who have had a PER higher than 30 have been the Most Valuable Player.
Her size might put some teams off, at 5’6, but we have seen scoring guards with a similar build perform well recently – such as last season’s Rookie Of The Year Crystal Dangerfield.
The Dallas Wings have the top two picks in the draft, and team president Greg Bibb told Kim Doss at SB Nation in a pre-draft press conference: “Aari McDonald is an exceptional player who has got better each year and has a knack to be at her best in big games. The WNBA is hard to transition into regardless of your background in college… size is not necessarily a negative factor and Cheryl Reeve proved that with Crystal.”
McDonald relies on explosion and an ability to finish that makes her one of the most exciting players to watch, and throughout the tournament her three-point shooting took a leap up in efficiency, which should excite teams who have concerns about her height.
The WNBA Draft will take place on 15 April.