You’re at the movie theater. (Pre-pandemic, of course.) A group of friends dragged you here and you were happy to oblige. What’s more fun than a weekday matinee? The trailers are ho-hum, nothing to raise an eyebrow at. The movie starts. There’s a brief little action sequence and then your run-of-the-mill opening credits package, set to overhead footage of a sprightly, bending river. All variations of something you’ve seen before. Par for the course.
Then, it happens. What exactly it is, I can’t say for certain, but it wakes you up. Maybe a nun lets one rip. Maybe squids come plummeting from the sky. Maybe Ben Affleck takes a large gulp of Starbucks Frappuccino while adjusting his New York Yankees fitted. It alerts you that familiar territory has been supplanted by unchartered waters. “What did I just sign up for?” you ask yourself, but beneath a perplexed exterior you are riveted, eyes fixated on the screen.
I have no idea how else to describe Thursday night’s berserk WNBA Draft. This draft ran a marathon in the afternoon and then hit the group chat to ask friends what they were doing that evening. This draft did not consult its doctor before chugging a bottle of 5-hour Energy. This draft read everyone’s mocks and diabolically cackled until its ribs were sore.
Drafts are often rather uneventful. What is expected to happen usually happens, at least for the first round or so. The format itself is rigid and dull: envelopes opened, names read, euphoric and weepy reactions cut short by cringey interviews. Virtual drafts further ramp up the awkwardness levels. If mocks are accurate, the telecast severely lacks punch and pizzaz.
The 2021 WNBA Draft had no such issues. Picks one through three went according to plan. Then the Indiana Fever provided our “it” moment, selecting West Virginia’s Kysre Gondrezick at No. 4 overall, and we were off, a night filled with ALL CAPS TWEETING and mouths fixed agape. This draft went off the rails so quickly we didn’t even have time to give Indiana the proper “Fever gonna Fever!” treatment.
My initial reactions weren’t coherent enough for a readable piece. It was basically the letters W, T, and F bouncing around my brain like ping pong balls in a bingo machine. A good night’s sleep has me feeling slightly more confident, though still rather shook by the chaos of it all.
Here’s my best effort at 10 rapid-fire reactions to one of the wildest and wackiest drafts you will ever see:
1. It’s past time for expansion
This has to be the top takeaway from a draft that left most in a state of shock. Initially considered a “weak” and “shallow” class, this event produced more second-round talent than perhaps ever before. Bonafide college stars dropped outside the top 12 and into territory which far from guarantees them one of the highly coveted 144 (at most) WNBA roster spots.
The “wait-and-see” approach that WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has vocalized when asked about impending expansion—offering quotes like this one—strikes me as a filibuster. I completely understand and respect the difficulties implicit in running a professional sports league during a global pandemic. But acting as if the WNBA hasn’t already proved successful enough to warrant expansion is bogus in my book.
Players like Te’a Cooper, Stella Johnson, and others may not have had a chance to prove themselves in game action had others not opted out of the 2020 season. It’s overwhelmingly clear to every fan of women’s basketball I have encountered that the talent far outweighs the number of roster spots available in a 12-team league. Now you have players like Arella Guirantes falling to No. 22 overall, with corresponding questions surrounding who will be left out of the 2021 WNBA action.
This league is growing at an undeniable rate. Interest is at all-time highs. It’s time to jump at the prospect of expansion, not hedge and stall in indecisiveness. Take advantage of the momentum!
2. Arella Guirantes fell HOW far???
Nothing surprised me more than Guirantes plummeting to the bottom of the second round. After Indiana passed on the former Rutgers star at No. 4, I was sure the Wings were about to make out like bandits by taking her at No. 5. Dallas passed, too. Okay, fine. Your loss, Wings! Surely New York would select the Long Island native at No. 6. Nope. And on it went.
By the conclusion of the first round, I was thoroughly perplexed. By the early stages of the second round, I became angry. Once we got to pick number 20 and Guirantes was still available, I started wondering if league executives were privy to information about an injury the masses were unaware of. How else to explain this turn of events?
Almost every college basketball expert agreed Guirantes was a top five pick. Pro-ready, they said. A defensive menace, they said (per Her Hoop Stats, Guirantes ranked in the 97th percentile in steals and the 98th percentile in blocks in 2020-2021). Someone who knocked down around 38 percent of her threes as a junior and senior on considerable volume despite long-range shooting not being her bread and butter.
Sure, Rutgers got bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Who cares?!? Basketball is a team game. Upsets happen. Guirantes was fantastic all season long. By the time she was taken Thursday night, ESPN had forgone announcing each pick, instead alerting viewers with a bulletin on the bottom of the screen. No interview. No discussion. Zilch.
Whoever is in Arella Guirantes’s path during training camp this season better watch out and draw an ice bath ahead of time.
3. Give Dana Evans her respect!
Speaking of players who will be operating with #chips on their #shoulders entering the league, Dana Evans did not look thrilled after Dallas selected her with the first pick of the second round. Was it because she was headed to Dallas, fell way farther than she was projected to, or both? One almost felt relieved for Evans when her video feed cut out seconds into her interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe. Maybe her family turned off the Wi-Fi in disgust. Who could blame them?
Like Guirantes, Evans was another player on the fringes of the lottery during mock draft season. She slumped considerably with her shot in February and early March before once again hitting her stride midway through the tournament. Again, this feels like a case of recency bias gone too far. Evans contended for National Player of the Year. She has parking lot range and the demeanor of a champion. She pours it all into chasing a win.
It just felt like teams were time and again outsmarting themselves on Thursday night. Evans should’ve been a first round pick, and teams—I’m looking at you, Chicago!—will rue the day they passed on her.
4. Dallas is loaded, but will its talent click?
Vickie Johnson sure has her work cut out for her, I’ll tell you that much! The new Wings head coach has a plethora of mouths to feed and only one ball with which to supply the necessary nutrients. To my eyes, it’s abundantly clear that Awak Kuier is the best player in this draft. Where she slots positionally into Dallas’s plans remains to be seen, but adding Kuier and Charli Collier to a frontcourt already boasting Satou Sabally and Bella Alarie is mighty intriguing.
Chelsea Dungee at No. 5 overall was a head-scratcher, not because I don’t like her game (I do, quite a bit in fact!) but because she seems to be a player that wants the ball on offense. Take a ticket and wait in line, because the Dallas roster is brimming with capable scorers, to the point where you wonder if players like Tyasha Harris (No. 7 overall in 2020) are even going to get a chance at consistent run. That would be a shame. Harris is awesome. So is Dana Evans. Allisha Gray is a fixture. Kayla Thornton is an essential defensive element. Marina Mabrey showed promise in the bubble. Something has to give, and it may come in the form of a trade.
Again, expansion please, Cathy, and soon!
We need HBO to rebrand “Hard Knocks” and set up the reality TV cameras at Wings training camp, because these roster battles are about to be heated.
Speaking of teams who should ink a “Hard Knocks” type contract …
5. Aari McDonald to Atlanta is a DREAM for all involved
So sorry. Couldn’t resist. It’s a pun, but also the truth. The 2021 Atlanta Dream may be the most fun group of “vibrant and wonderful people who also happen to be basketball players” ever assembled. A backcourt featuring McDonald, Chennedy Carter, and Courtney Williams will be delightful to watch whether they are successful or not. Cheyenne Parker is the perfect vet to pair with such a dynamic and effervescent group of youngsters. (Williams is technically a vet but feels eternally young in the most complimentary way possible.) “Boring” is not in this team’s vocabulary.
“Just Vibing with the Atlanta Dream” should be premiering on a Roku Box near you any second.
6. Cheryl Reeve has rigged the league in her favor
Wake up, people. I’ve seen it with my own three eyes. Reeve has the WNBA in the palm of her hand and is pulling all the strings. It’s the only explanation.
Rennia Davis, another potential lottery pick, fell to Reeve at No. 9 overall and figures to fit perfectly into the Lynx’s rotation. I don’t see Davis as a number one option on a title team. She’s great, however, as a secondary offensive force, capable of hitting shots and slithering to the rim. Defensively, this is a match made in heaven. Davis’s length and peskiness on the perimeter will be deadly coming off a stacked Minnesota bench. You can envision her playing some 4 when Napheesa Collier sits, and some 3 alongside Collier and either Damiris Dantas or Sylvia Fowles.
If Davis wins Rookie of the Year, Engelbert needs to make a change and call it, “The WNBA Draft with Cheryl Reeve, presented by State Farm.”
7. The Sparks quietly had a very nice night
Derek Fisher will be the butt of jokes until he succeeds without Candace Parker, but give credit where credit is due. Nabbing Guirantes at No. 22 was the unquestioned steal of the draft. Los Angeles took Jasmine Walker at No. 7 overall, and she’s exactly the type of player the Sparks should be targeting in the post-Parker era. Walker is a ferocious rebounder who hit nearly 40 percent of her threes for Alabama this past season. With Nneka Ogwumike holding down the center position, Walker and Guirantes will have space to find their rhythm as wings at the professional level. Fisher has to be pleased.
My only issue: LA could’ve nabbed Evans, too! Instead, Fisher took UNC guard Stephanie Watts with the tenth overall selection, yet another pick no one saw coming. I don’t know the college game like I know the pro game, and perhaps Watts is the real deal, but this seemed like a prime example of overthinking what’s in front of you. Here’s to hoping Watts proves me wrong.
8. Natasha Mack is going to be a problem in Chicago
Natasha Mack (Oklahoma State forward) falling to No. 16 overall (aka the Crystal Dangerfield slot) seemed to get lost in the weeds of an unpredictable and scattered evening. It was hard to focus on Mack to Chicago when Evans had just been taken, and with Guirantes still on the board.
Let’s not overlook the significance of this selection.
Here’s a spicy prediction: Natasha Mack will have the biggest impact of any rookie on the 2021 WNBA Playoffs. Her interior defense is already super promising, and only figures to blossom under the tutelage of CP3. Sprinkle Azurá Stevens into the mix and you have a truly fearsome group of defensive bigs, exactly what Chicago needs to vault them towards the middle of the pack defensively in the WNBA.
9. Connecticut swiped one of the draft’s biggest steals
Fresh off a great (and controversial) performance against UConn in the Elite 8, DiJonai Carrington now finds herself with a chance to play professionally in Connecticut for Curt Miller’s Sun. A bigger guard who can create for herself with the ball, Carrington is a valuable find for the Sun this late in the draft. Connecticut desperately needs bench players who won’t crater the offense when starters are receiving a break. Carrington is that type of player.
Still, I thought SURELY Miller would take Guirantes with either No. 20 or No. 21 (Connecticut added Micaela Kelly, a guard from Central Michigan). At this point I’m making a broken record sound fresh and original, but Connecticut is yet another team I feel Guirantes would’ve bolstered significantly. Maybe this is what gets the Sun vs. Sparks “rivalry” to flip on its head.
10. Kennedy Burke is a nice fit in Seattle
This one seemed to fly under the radar, and it’s not hard to understand why. Still, Kennedy Burke was one of my favorite players to watch last season, a promising mix of lockdown defense on the wings and raw but versatile scoring ability. Seattle sent Indiana the rights to Aaliyah Wilson at No. 11 overall in exchange for Burke.
I love it for the Storm. Players like Burke and Kiki Herbert Harrigan won’t fill the defensive void left by the departures of Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard, but they will help patch it up somewhat. Wilson likely wouldn’t have contributed much on a top-tier contender in her rookie season.
Also, Burke roasted the Storm in 2020, erupting for 23 points in the most shocking upset of the season. The 24-year-old clearly left a mark on Seattle’s brass and I couldn’t be happier for her.