Over the past two seasons of the WNBA, second-round picks have left a meaningful mark on the league. While one was voted Rookie of the Year, five became champions. Each had a strong impact on their team, and their accomplishments were key to the success of their respective franchises. With such accomplished resumes in so short a time, these second-round phenoms could easily have been drafted in the first round—why weren’t they?
Let’s start at the top: who are these young superstars?
In 2020, Crystal Dangerfield, point guard for the Minnesota Lynx, made history by becoming the first ever second-round pick to earn the Rookie of the Year award. Chosen 16th overall (2R4P), the University of Connecticut graduate led her team in scoring and assist averages (16.2 and 3.6 respectively), and finished 11th in the league in total points (341)—the only freshman among the top 15.
That same year, the Seattle Storm made the headlines, winning the championship led by three first-round picks (Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, and Breanna Stewart). However, another player contributed immensely toward the title: Alysha Clark. Drafted fifth in the second round in 2010 by the San Antonio Silver Stars (now the Las Vegas Aces), Clark did not play her first game in the WNBA until 2012, after impressive seasons in the Israeli League.
Looking back to 2019, when the Washington Mystics secured its first championship ring, three second-round picks helped make the team a success: Emma Meesseman (2013, 2R7P), Natasha Cloud (2017, 2R3P), and Myisha Hines-Allen (2018, 2R7P). Meesseman earned Finals MVP honors after scoring 88 points in the series against the Connecticut Sun. Cloud was not far behind and had her best season yet, finishing fourth on the team in points. Hines-Allen, who until then had not had a chance to showcase her talent, broke through in 2020, when she finished the year with near-double-double averages (17 points and 8.9 rebounds per game).
The list of successful late-round draft picks goes on and on: Allie Quigley, Tiffany Hayes, Erica McCall, Te’a Cooper, Betnijah Laney, Sugar Rodgers— you would never guess these stars weren’t first-round picks. There is even a long list of fantastic undrafted players, such as Becky Hammon, Erica Wheeler, Tully Bevilaqua and Érika de Souza, showing just how deep the talent runs in the WNBA.
Why are so many future stars drafted in later rounds?
The WNBA draft has only three rounds, each with twelve picks (the amount of teams in the league). Other US-based leagues, such as the NBA and the NFL, have 30 picks (or more) each round. As a result, not all top eligible NCAAW and international draftees can go in the first round. While there are hundreds of extremely talented players in the country and around the world, only 36 players can be drafted each year.
With so few players drafted each year, the pressure and expectations affect NCAAW players and international players alike. Those young women who do not play for top-ranked colleges and universities often struggle to get drafted early or at all into the WNBA.
Truth is, general managers and head coaches often miss out on spectacular players, simply because there are so few opportunities to draft them.. If one looks at a list of the latest, most impactful second and third round picks, it’s not hard to see this in action.
It’s not easy for coaches and GMs because, although there are clear first-round draft candidates, there are also hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Some, however, excel, such as Cheryl Reeve, Mike Thibault, Dan Hughes, and Pokey Chatman, all who have proven to be some of the best in the league at finding deep, unique talent.
It should be no surprise that three of these coaches have won championships in recent seasons, and one—Mike Thibault—is the winningest coach in the league’s history. Although individual stars make a big name (and the big money) for their franchises, basketball is a team sport. These late-round picks often become the support that makes for successful campaigns:
- Seattle Storm, 2020 (Dan Hughes): Not one, but FIVE first-round picks (Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, Natasha Howard, and Jordin Canada), with consistent support from Alysha Clark
- Washington Mystics, 2019 (Mike Thibault): Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver, and Ariel Atkins (first-round picks), buttressed by Emma Meesseman and Natasha Cloud
- Seattle Storm, 2018 (Dan Hughes): the same five players mentioned above, plus Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis
- Minnesota Lynx, 2017 (Cheryl Reeve): FIVE first-round picks — Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Rebekka Brunson, and Lindsay Whalen
The struggle (and, at times, unfairness) of the women’s basketball market, with only 36 athletes making the cut in the WNBA draft, leaves the league with a harsh reality—only 144 players get to play in the WNBA each year. One of the most “in your face” solutions for this unfair reality would be expanding the league. Cathy Engelbert, the league’s commissioner, has said that establishing a market in the US is a priority. However, that takes a step that, for many folks in the business world, may sound blasphemous: injecting big money into women’s basketball.
To advance this idea, Engelbert has put a lot of time and energy into marketing the league as a profit-yielding investment. This year, the rise in spectatorship during the playoffs, as well as the incredible number of jersey sales and the viral popularity of the WNBA’s “Orange Hoodie” supported the commissioner’s efforts and opened the door to possible expansions, which would increase the professional options for players both in the U.S. and around the world.
There is hope that WNBA fans will have a better chance to watch even more of the best in the world in the near future, and that as the sport continues to grow and flourish, the WNBA draft will deepen and expand, allowing for more of these brilliant and talented women to hear their names called on draft night.