The 2020 WNBA Start-a-Franchise Draft

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Hello, and welcome to my thought exercise. The parameters are simple. I am the GM of an upstart organization staring at an entirely blank slate. The entire current WNBA player pool is mine to select from. Who do I want to build around? Who is putting bodies in seats for years to come? It’s time to become basketball’s Bob Ross and paint a landscape to perfection. 

A few things to consider:

  • Age matters. Sure, Diana Taurasi still has plenty of games left, but no one is tethering the hopes and dreams of their new ballclub to a 38 year old. Sorry. 
  • Contracts do not apply here. No bonus points for those still on rookie deals clearly outperforming the dollar figure they currently pocket. We’re starting from scratch. 
  • Injuries matter. This article would lack suspense had I written it two years ago. Breanna Stewart – top dog. Boom. Easy. Is Stewart still the number one pick in a dynasty draft after rupturing her right Achilles tendon in April of 2019? 
  • We’re going 12 deep. That means a captain for each team in the W. Anything more and we’d be here all day. 

THE MAYA MOORE CAVEAT 

“Current WNBA player pool” unfortunately means no Maya Moore. She is busy tackling far more important matters. Media: give Moore her due

HONORABLE MENTIONS 

Ariel Atkins, Kalani Brown, Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter, Natasha Cloud, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Asia Durr, Dearica Hamby, Natasha Howard, Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride, Kelsey Mitchell, Kia Nurse, Nneka Ogwumike, Aerial Powers, Satou Sabally, Alyssa Thomas, Courtney Vandersloot, Courtney Williams, many others. 

Nneka Ogwumike was the hardest cut. Elena Delle Donne is the only 30-something who made the top 12. Ogwumike will turn 30 before the 2020 WNBA season tips. Unless we’re dealing with the current league MVP, it’s hard to start a franchise with someone already well into their prime. 

If Cambage saw this, I’d assuredly be dunked on. Or perhaps side-eyed into oblivion. I’d deserve it. It’s not that I don’t respect her game. She’s a force. But I’ve always felt Cambage doesn’t need the W as much as the W needs her. Who knows how long until she decides to take her career in a different direction

Howard’s 2019 numbers are sparkling. She does nearly everything on the court. Perhaps it’s a mistake to relegate her. I gave the nod to younger players with higher potential. Though no fault of her own, Howard as option number one isn’t a title recipe. That’s what we’re looking for here. 

Okay, onto the selections: 

12. Chelsea Gray

We can talk about efficiency all you want. We can discuss helpside defense, screen-setting, boxing out and the like. I do, plenty. But when the going gets tough, when time wanes in a tightly contested elimination game, teams need a walking bucket. Chelsea Gray is that walking bucket. She is invaluable in crunch time. 

Gray’s field goal percentage has been on the decline since 2017, but she ranks in the top 15 in three-point percentage. You could drape a comforter over Gray and she’d still get her shot off. Focus only on her shooting and she’ll whip a no-look dime that trims earlobe hair off opponents before finding her target. Do-it-all guards are the name of the modern game. Gray doesn’t just do it all – she makes doing it all look easy.

11. Arike Ogunbowale

I can’t wait to watch Ogunbowale’s career play out. Few players enter the WNBA having already etched a legacy in stone. Few are as intoxicating with the ball in their hands. Few rank third in the WNBA for points per game as a rookie. 

And yet, if you exclude Maria Vadeeva (who appeared in just 15 contests at 12 minutes per), Ogunbowale notched the second highest usage percentage in the league in 2019. Dallas was a mess. With Sabally, Bella Alarie, and Tyasha Harris now in tow, that number should decrease. The key then becomes identifying the right type of shots to take, and the right time to take them. 

Of course, Ogunbowale’s current teammates don’t mean squat in this theoretical debate. But they will play a part in her development. It’s conceivable that Ogunbowale can lead the league in scoring while only using a quarter or less of her team’s possessions. It’s also conceivable that Ogunbowale plays with a similar tenacity on the defensive end. She’ll never be a dynamite two-way player. Still, years from now she should be heading lists like this one.

10. Diamond DeShields

DeShields is electrifying. She creates more space with one between-the-legs dribble than many do with a series of moves. She captivates audiences with wily finishes, using both hands to great effect around the rim. Her fakes are devastating. Her strides seem to eclipse everyone else’s as she separates in transition, canning layup after uncontested layup. “Fearless” is an overused adjective. It’s apt here. How else would you describe the way this 25-year old plays? 

Entering her third season, DeShields still has plenty of room to improve. Courtney Vandersloot gobbles up most of Chicago’s assists, but DeShields will be far more devastating if she sharpens her pick-and-roll reads. Like Ogunbowale, DeShields ranks near the top of the usage leaderboard without commensurate efficiency. A slightly more precise three-point shot would do wonders for DeShields’s MVP hopes and dreams. 

9. Emma Meesseman

Speaking of MVPs … here’s the top luminary of the 2019 WNBA Finals. Meesseman sports the type of game that elevates alongside the level of her competition. She’s a matchup nightmare. Traditional, post laden bigs can’t contend with her range. Wings struggle stopping her sneaky finishing abilities. At 6-foot-4, she doesn’t rack up eye-popping block numbers, but knows where to be and how best to utilize her frame on defense. 

Some may bristle at Meesseman’s inclusion on this list. She’s unlike many of the others picked because she is not a one-person show. But Meesseman impacts the game (cliche incoming, duck!) beyond the boxscore. She doesn’t miss very many shots. I’d argue every great team needs an Emma Meesseman. I’d also argue her best basketball is ahead of her. Scary. 

8. Brittney Griner

Griner turns 30 this October. That’s why she’s not higher. Her impact is still immense. There’s no bare surface on Griner’s mantle. She is a gold medalist and a WNBA champion. Griner has also won back-to-back defensive player of the year awards in 2014 and 2015 and has been selected to six All-Star games. 

Try this on for size: she has led or tied for the lead in blocks per game every season of her career. She once blocked 11 shots in a single game. She was the only player to average over 20 points per game in 2019. Enough said. Even at 29 years old, I could have gone higher here. 

7. Teaira McCowan

I was a little miffed that there was no Rookie of the Year buzz surrounding McCowan in 2019. Napheesa Collier deserved it (more, later). Ogunbowale dazzled. But why was this framed as a two-person race? Yes, McCowan took a while to peak, but when she did the results were magnificent. Her rebounding was historic, and not just among rookies. Her efficiency is sterling for a 23-year old. Her shot-blocking shakes Bankers Life Fieldhouse to its core. 

What excites me most is the potential. McCowan is a quick study. She displayed notable growth in her passing abilities over the course of 2019. The more she grasps how much gravitational pull she wields with the ball in her hands, the more damage she will cause. What about developing a mid-range game? Sky’s the limit here. 

6. Sabrina Ionescu

I’m sorry for ranking Ionescu too low. I’m sorry for ranking Ionescu too high. I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said. Ionescu may be the only women’s basketball player to receive anywhere near the amount of coverage she deserves. We must wait to see if the career matches the billing. Until then, highlights suffice. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvwsI0FKOPU

5. Napheesa Collier

Someday I hope to write an oral history of the 2019 WNBA Draft. I remain flabbergasted that Collier wasn’t selected first overall. Or second. Or third. Or fourth. Or fifth. Blasphemy. Here stands a complete player who fits in the modern WNBA like a glove. She can play either forward position. She can guard just about anyone. She operates with a purpose down-low, in the mid-range, and from behind the arc. She started a book club. 

As a rookie Collier finished top five in steals. Look at the company she shares! Elite defending from rookies is very, very rare. Collier not only excels at the obvious, but also with the minutiae of team defense. She’s crafty, always anticipating how she can impact a possession before her services are actually needed. 

Then there’s the efficiency: top 15 in true shooting percentage, a list headed by Delle Donne and sharpshooter Allie Quigley. It’s hard to imagine what more Collier can do on a basketball court. I’ll be watching with bated breath to find out. 

4. A’ja Wilson

Forget the actual basketball for a second. Wilson brings a refreshing joyfulness to the arena. Those rooting against Wilson all go by Ebenezer Scrooge. Who doesn’t enjoy playfully trolling the man in charge?

Here’s where this exercise gets fun. In reality, Wilson is stifled by the lack of shooting on the Las Vegas roster. She plays better alongside Hamby than Cambage, but Cambage is always on the floor in crunch time. With the addition of Angel McCoughtry in free agency and the loss of Kelsey Plum to a torn Achilles, one wonders if Wilson’s growth will be significantly slowed by such archaic roster construction. 

That doesn’t matter here! Wilson finds her groove often, and in such a state, she’s unguardable. Last year against Indiana, she dropped 39 points and snatched 11 rebounds while missing just six shots. She’s money from the elbows and loves pivoting opponents to death. 

One day a team will play Wilson at the 5 and surround her with shooting. I will erupt in joy when this happens. 

3. Elena Delle Donne

Delle Donne was the toughest player on this list to rank (with Griner and Ionescu close behind). Here’s where I landed: you grab the league MVP and first ever member of the 50-40-90 club without thinking twice. Sure, she’ll turn 31 in early September. Who cares? Delle Donne on your side means title contention. That’s the entire point of this racket. 

A fun thing to do is to imagine Delle Donne perusing her stats page. Does she bristle at the wretched 88.7% mark she shot from the free throw line in 2018? Does she feel like 50 percent from downtown is attainable? Does she wish basketball were more challenging? 

2. Jonquel Jones

1. Breanna Stewart

I really wanted to rank Jones first. Then I bucked. Stewart’s resume is just too shiny. She may not be the full version of her 2018 self in 2020, but one assumes she’ll reach similar peaks in the next seven-or-so years. Free throws were the only thing keeping Stewart from christening the WNBA’s 50-40-90 club two years ago. She’s a prodigious talent.

I still don’t think folks truly appreciate how dominant Jones is. She’s a big who hits treys and handles the ball like a guard. She owns the greatest rebounding season in the history of the league. She was named to the WNBA All-Defensive First Team in 2019, a true paint deterrent. Oh, and she went for 32 and 18 in a Finals game against Washington. 

With players this good, you’re left splitting hairs. Their primes are presumably still ahead of them. They do just about everything well, including things that make basketball feel trivial.

What more can you ask for from the leaders of our league?

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