The WNBA’s new Las Vegas franchise had the odds in its favor for the draft lottery, and things indeed worked out that way. The Stars — we’ll still call them that until it’s announced otherwise — have the No. 1 pick for 2018. Indiana has the No. 2 pick, and Chicago the third and fourth selections.
So whom will Bill Laimbeer, who is both the coach and president of basketball operations for Las Vegas, choose? South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson is the front-runner. The senior forward led the fourth-ranked Gamecocks over No. 15 Maryland 94-86 on Monday, totaling a career-high 32 points, plus 12 rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists.
The Stars took Washington guard Kelsey Plum with the top pick in 2017, but then-San Antonio general manager Ruth Riley and head coach Vickie Johnson didn’t seem to be on the same page about the selection. Since Laimbeer holds both positions for Las Vegas, there won’t be any conflict. He’ll make the choice, and then coach that player.
Laimbeer officially took over his job on Nov. 1, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. In an interview with espnW last month, Laimbeer said he entered the role without many preconceived notions about the existing Stars players because he hasn’t coached the group yet.
The Stars have had the worst record in the WNBA each of the past three seasons, a combined 23-79. Their core in 2017 included their past five top draft picks: center Kayla Alexander (No. 8 in 2013), guard Kayla McBride (No. 3 in 2014), forward Dearica Hamby (No. 6 in 2015), guard Moriah Jefferson (No. 2 in 2016) and Plum (No. 1 in 2017).
McBride (15.4 PPG) led the Stars in scoring this past season. Jefferson was the assists leader (4.4 APG) but missed 13 games before having knee surgery on Sept. 27. Center Isabelle Harrison (11.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG) and guard/forward Alex Montgomery (6.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG) also got a lot of minutes.
The Stars have needed a more dynamic presence at forward for a while, and Wilson would fit that bill well. There also has been a lot of chatter about Russian post player Maria Vadeeva, a 19-year-old who has been playing professionally in her home country since she was 16. She’s currently in her third season with Russian team Dynamo Kursk, with which her teammates include the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike, the Atlanta Dream’s Angel McCoughtry and the New York Liberty’s Epiphanny Prince.
The Stars will have a chance to pick No. 1 in back-to-back years, just as the Seattle Storm did in 2015-16, taking Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart. That was a guard-forward combo, and the Stars might make a similar move.
The No. 1 pick went to a team in the west for the seventh time in the past eight years. (Even though the WNBA standings/playoffs are no longer divided by conference, there’s still a geographical east/west divide.) The only east team to get a top pick since 2011 was Connecticut in 2014, with Chiney Ogwumike.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that only one Eastern team has won the WNBA title since 2008: Indiana in 2012. The Fever made the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons from 2005 to 2016, but then franchise star Tamika Catchings retired. This past season, Indiana finished next-to-last at 9-25, and now the franchise has its highest draft pick since No. 2 (Tan White) in 2005.
It’s a credit to Catchings and the organization that the Fever stayed competitive without a lottery pick for so long. What do the Fever need? Scoring, for one thing. Indiana had the second-lowest scoring average in the league in 2017 at 75.1 PPG; only last-place San Antonio (74.4) was worse. Candice Dupree (15.0 PPG), who is 33, led the Fever.
So might Indiana lean toward a big-time scorer such as Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell? Maybe, although guard is less of a need for the Fever than getting a young post who has big offensive potential.
Perhaps the Fever go with Russia’s Vadeeva, if she’s not picked by the Stars. Indiana coach Pokey Chatman coached professionally for several years in Russia and knows the pluses and minuses of players from overseas.
UCLA’s 6-foot-4 Monique Billings had a terrific junior season last year (16.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG) and looks to consolidate that improvement in her final season with the Bruins.
There’s also guard Diamond DeShields, who averaged 17.4 PPG last season with Tennessee and 16.5 for her three years in college overall, between North Carolina and Tennessee. She bypassed her final year of eligibility and is now playing professionally for Cukurova in Turkey, where one of her teammates is Fever forward Erlana Larkins. The 6-1 DeShields has good size at guard and would seem to have a lot of growth potential for her game.
Chicago has the third pick, which it got in a trade from Atlanta, and the fourth selection. The Sky finished tied with the Dream at 12-22, both missing the playoffs.
Chicago took South Carolina center Alaina Coates with the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft, but she didn’t play this past season because of a foot injury that also cut short her senior year with the Gamecocks.
Chicago coach/GM Amber Stocks said Coates is doing well, has been back on the court and might be headed overseas sometime this winter to get some pro experience.
With the luxury of two picks, Chicago has a lot of options. The biggest need is small forward. UConn’s Gabby Williams has terrific athleticism and an ability to impact the game in so many ways. Those attributes and her Huskies pedigree will all work in her favor toward being a lottery pick. UConn players have had a very high success rate in the WNBA, and there’s every indication Williams will join that group.
Of course, what the Stars and the Fever do ahead of them might impact the Sky, but having back-to-back selections in a draft that projects to be strong should be very helpful to Chicago.
“I’m excited about our opportunity to add assets to our franchise,” Stocks said. “I’m pleased with our depth at the guard positions. I’m eager to see how much depth that we can add at the small forward position.”